It’s an impossible task, but what the hell: Let’s define a generation.
If I asked you to string together some adjectives to describe young American adults (call us Gen X, Gen Y or whatever you want), what would you say? Here are mine, complete with uncertainty and contradiction:
I think we’re anxious. I think we’re hopeful, but I think we’re lazy. I think there’s a lot we could fight for, but we’re not doing much fighting. I think we’re looking for an escape, but beginning to realize there’s no such thing. I think we’re self-involved, and stuck with the notion that we should be special. I think we’re smart and hilarious and principled and fucked. I think we’re beginning to understand that history has placed us in a toxic time, and that the worst is ahead. I think we’re complacent and disenchanted and unsympathetic. I think we’re losing our trust and, with it, our empathy. I think we’re nostalgic for the past and resigned to the future. I think we’ve learned that you can only fight for yourself. I think there’s a part of us that’s deeply heartbroken. I think we fear boredom. I think we’d all like to be famous, but we’d rather be fulfilled. I think we’d all like to be fulfilled, but we’d rather be famous. I think we’re getting past the conceit that love is magic, and that happiness is guaranteed. I think we’re scared that we won’t have all the things we used to scoff at. I think we desperately want money and wish it weren’t so. I think we’re beginning to work hard and pray that it’s not too late.
And like every generation before us, we have our anthems. If the ’50s were hopeful and the ’60s were angry and the ’70s were dirty and the ’80s were flaky, there’s something for us too. This is my list of modern anthems, flawed and incomplete. When you finish, you’ll think I left off something essential and made at least one awful inclusion. In fact, you might see that long paragraph above as pessimistic garbage. But a generation is a personal conceit, and this is mine.
10. “Sons and Daughters” – The Decemberists
Let’s begin with an escape fantasy. “Sons and Daughters,” the last track on The Crane Wife, is a beautiful ode to a utopia awaiting those young people with the courage to seek it out. It’s the liberal answer to Galt’s Gulch, the Randian paradise from Atlas Shrugged. As it begins, Colin Meloy tells us we’ll “arise from the bunkers” and “leave our tracks untraceable.” The end is a repeated refrain, a goodbye to the hurtful world: “Hear all the bombs fade away.” Wouldn’t that be nice.
9. “Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away” – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
It would have been easy to choose “Upon this Tidal Wave of Young Blood” by CYHSY, with its talk of ill-fated child stars and young blood and the wailing plea: “America please help them!” But “Cool Goddess” might be even more appropriate. It’s subtler, and more personal, describing the necessary collapse of a young woman’s detached image. It’s a little like an update of Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” in that way, and as a metaphor for our generation’s frantic getaway from the ironic, cynical sensibilities of the ’90s, it works perfectly. The move to sincerity, and away from that perpetual feigned indifference, is as necessary as it is painful. As Alec Ounsworth snarls, just before his bandmates pound their guitars into submission, “It’ll be long, hard road.”
8. “Tin Man” – Future Islands
Samuel Herring’s deep growl on this track communicates themes of corruption and cruelty. There’s a girl here, and she’s trying to save him. But she’s sadly innocent and a bit stupid (she’s the “scarecrow”—no brains), and the singer offers just the barest hint of regret that he’s treating her salvation attempts with such scorn. Not until the end of the song do we ascertain the reason, which Herring screams with a vicious and wounded pride: “I am the tin man!” The cynicism and hatred pervading our lives have plagued him as they’ve plagued us: We have no heart.
7. “Wake Up,” Arcade Fire
Of all the songs on this list, here’s the one that’s trying hardest to be an anthem. From the very beginning, with the epic wordless chorus, there’s a grandiose feel to the music. The lyrics, too, are overt. It’s not that they lack all poetry, but there’s nothing vague about lines like, “We’re just a million little gods causing rain storms, turning every good thing to rust” or “Children, wake up…before they turn the summer into dust.” This is as close as indie rock comes to protest songs, and it’s probably telling that the Arcade Fire are a Canadian band. They haven’t quite been infected by the same doubt and skepticism of the grim artists south of the border. “Wake Up” is a nebulous plea for youthful revolt against the equally nebulous establishment they’re doomed to become, its desperation only slightly tinged with anything like reality. The overarching grandeur may paint with broad strokes, but it’s still the most remarkable song I’ve ever seen performed live.
6. “Roscoe” – Midlake
This is the classic nostalgic ode to an imagined “simpler time,” and how we all might have fared without today’s complications. Midlake spend most of the song describing a group of mountaineers who toiled to create a society that would let their descendants live in comfort. It’s a romantic notion, these selfless pioneers, and Midlake believe that spirit lingers down the generations in us. “They’re a little like you, and they’re a little like me. We have all we need.” But the prevailing feeling is one of loss, with the singer lamenting the “hundreds and hundreds of chemicals” that surround us today and the overdue changes that never come. There’s also sympathy for the mountaineers themselves, who no longer have a place in the modern version of the society they created. In the midst of the last chorus, there’s a line that first struck me as a powerful non sequitur, but later clarified itself as a latent desire to leave the present.
Whenever I was a child
I wondered what if my name had changed
into something more productive like Roscoe
Born in 1891
5. “So Says I” – The Shins
If a thick tome on the philosophy of political systems and human societal structures was ever condensed into an extremely catchy pop song, this would be it. In the span of three frenetic minutes, James Mercer tinkers with the world in an attempt to repair its mistakes. First he tries something that sounds a lot like Marxian communism in its purest and most rigid form (“the red age,” per Mercer), but boredom and a static social order deprive the world of its lust for life. Then he takes the opposite tack and lets society run wild, but regrets it when “the big ones just eat all the little ones.” After his fruitless search, he is frustrated:
In our darkest hours
We have all asked for some
Angel to come
And sprinkle his dust all around
But all our crying voices
They can’t turn it around
His conclusion? “We are a brutal kind.”
4. “Can’t Stand It” – Wilco
Nobody expresses downhearted pessimism with upbeat music quite like Jeff Tweedy, and it’s in full evidence here. Every verse, and even the song itself, ends with a harrowing refrain: “Your prayers will never be answered again.” The song is directed at a specific person, but the lyrics have all the elements of a broader commentary. There’s more than just individual angst in lines like “It’s all beginning to feel like it’s ending,” and “No love’s as random as God’s love.” America and its people have been taught to feel chosen, but now the sunshine of fortune or God or talent has dimmed. Tweedy’s not the only who can’t stand it.
3. “When My Time Comes” – Dawes
A quick aside: One of my favorite parts of this song is that the line, “I shouted a few quotes I knew, as if something’s that written should be taken as true” is followed later by a Nietzsche quote. It reminds me of Morrissey pretending to decry plagiarism in “Cemetry Gates” after sneakily plagiarizing lines from the play “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”
Dawes are less tongue-in-cheek than Morrissey and not half as coy. After lamenting a life wasted chasing a noble moment and realizing that in some way he’d been enslaved, the singer reassures himself:
And now the only piece of advice that continues to help:
Is anyone that’s making anything new only breaks something else.
In other words, there’s no more revolution, just a cycle that produces newness without advancement. The sentiment is followed by the catchiest chorus this side of 2009, a line so basic and isolated that it would be blasé in lesser hands:
When my time comes.
That’s it, in all its full inconclusive glory. No follow-up, no explanation of the material rewards or spiritual fulfillment; just the tantalizing idea of some dream being momentarily realized. The plaintive “ohhhh” that follows illustrates the depths of our desire for fame and success, and the vague uncertainty about what it will mean if we ever get there.
2. “Fake Empire” – The National
If you had two weeks and a giant thesaurus, you couldn’t write a song title more appropriate for this list. But as with most National songs, Matt Berninger’s lyrics are understated. The simple narrative follows a group of young urbanites enjoying themselves in the bright lights. You have to look closely to see that their lives are not harmless; that there’s a distinct unease in the hollow behavior. Depictions of the “shiny city” and “gay ballet” and “diamond slippers” and “bluebirds on our shoulder” contribute to a sense of disturbing superficiality. It’s all highlighted by the chorus, sung in a perfect noncommittal baritone: “We’re half awake in our fake empire.” Taken as a whole, this is a depressing tale of undeveloped minds, starry-eyed complacency and wasted lives. And it sounds too familiar.
1. “Helplessness Blues” – Fleet Foxes
Here, as you might have guessed, is the song that inspired the list. I haven’t heard our generation’s plight put any better than Robin Pecknold’s opening lines:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see
The rest of the song explores that uncertainty and longing before veering into a common daydream—the unlikely rustic redemption. “If I had an orchard, I’d work ’til I’m sore,” sings Pecknold. You can hear how badly he covets that idealized past and the contentment it promises, but the final line contains a telling revelation: “Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen.” Even the most beautiful ideas of our generation, our tiny lifelines in the insanity, come from a product. Art is our crutch and our release.
Shane Ryan lives in North Carolina. He also writes for Grantland.com and Tobacco Road Blues, and you can follow him on twitter at @TobaccoRdBlues.