If I May Be Pompous For a Moment...

June 16, 2009 | Comments (0) | by Wolter

Note: In lieu of writing TWO non-Hitler-Punch-Related Blog Entries in the same month, I am dual posting this entry on TMS and my own personal (long neglected) blog, The Slog . You know...in case you give a rat’s ass.

Welcome to Wolter’s Music and Pop Culture Theory Corner, a feature deemed “Too Pseudointellectual Even For Pomp Culture” by a volunteer panel of U of C grad students.

Today’s discussion is based on aspects of the Generational Theory first espoused by William Strauss & Neil Howe in their seminal work, Generations (not to be confused with the incredibly bad Star Trek movie of the same name), and how they related to the lyrical content of the debut single two unrelated UK bands from roughly a quarter century apart (The Adverts and Art Brut).

Generational Theory is a more or less cyclical explanation of long-term historical trends based on each generation’s relation to and reaction at the previous generations throughout the phases of their life. It’s a very fascinating tool that, while not fully accurate as a predictive device, is very interesting as a means of analysis of events. You can get a decent quick-n-dirty overview in the wikipedia link above, which I strongly recommend reading as a background material (I'm going to be relatively brief in my reasoning, so if you find flaws with this theory, remember that Strauss & Howe wrote several books on the topic, and it's worth reading more about it).

At any rate, the short version is each generation has an overall character that is the result of its environment (though obviously there are always members of each generation that defy the prevailing norms). The two generations that matter for this discussion are Generation X (also known as 13th Gen) and the Millennial Generation (also known as Generation Y).

The Adverts formed in 1977 as part of the slew of punk bands that appeared in the wake of the Sex Pistols (and to a lesser extent, the Clash and the Damned) rise to notoriety in the UK. Their debut single, “One Chord Wonders” is a marvelously paranoid ode to the bravado and gallows-humor of musicians with low-self-esteem everywhere who know in their hearts they are doomed to failure. For the purposes of this discussion, please feel free to download a copy here.

And, for your perusal, here are a copy of the lyrics (hopefully correct, as god knows I don’t want to search too deeply for lyrics sites, and the requisite computer viruses they seem to contain):

I wonder what we'll play for you tonight.
Something heavy or something light?
Something to set your soul alight?
I wonder how we'll answer when you say,
"We don't like you - go away,
"Come back when you've learnt to play"

I wonder what we'll do when things go wrong,
When we're half-way through
Our favorite song,
We look up and the
audience has gone.
Will we feel a little bit obscure?
Think "we're not needed here,
"We must be new wave
- they'll like us next year"

The Wonders don't care
- we don't give a damn
(repeated to end of

Note the outright pessimism and cynicism of these lyrics. This is a band that fully expects to go nowhere, but plans to do so defiantly. This is very indicative of the Nomad Generation mentality, which describes both Generation X (born c. 1960-1982 – opinions differ on the exact dates) and preceding similar generations (such as the Lost Generation). Of course, Adverts lead vocalist TV Smith was born in 1956, a few years before the first Generation X cohort, but this song’s worldview is much more Gen X than Boomer (and most of the fans he was reaching for were first cohort Boomers). Indeed, most of the idealized notions of the Punk subculture are overwhelmingly suited to the first stirrings of Generation X – rebelliousness tempered with nihilism, a belief that there is no future and very little hope. Irony is the shield of the Nomad Generation, defending it against the dark pessimism ingrained in most members.

On the other hand, Art Brut (who formed in 2003 at the cusp of a Post-Punk revival in the British charts, are staunchly part of a Hero Generation (The Millennials who followed Generation X and are most closely analogous to the GI, or Greatest Generation born c. 1900-1924). Team oriented, optimistic, and usually hard-working, Millennials are often thought have no use for the cynical irony of the Gen X-ers (which irritates Gen X-ers almost as much as being called "Gen X-ers"). They have the sense that they are special and have been brought up for a purpose, which can be seen in the debut single "Formed a Band" which can be found here (well, the album version). Also, note (like T.V. Smith) that Art Brut's lead vocalist Eddie Argos was born just before the technical beginning of this Generation, but is singing to an audience of first cohort Millennials. I think some artists on Generational cusps are the canaries in coal mine who feel the shift as it's happening.

Now contrast the following lyrics with what goes before:

Formed a band
We formed a band
Look at us
We formed a band

Honey pie, I don't know when it started
Just stop buying your albums
from the supermarkets
They only sell things that have charted
And Art Brut?
Well we've only just started

And yes, this is my singing voice
It's not irony
And it's not rock and roll
I'm just talking
To the kids

Formed a band
We formed a band
Look at us
We formed a band

I want to be the boy
The man
Who writes the song
That makes Israel and Palestine
Get along

I'm gonna write a song
As universal as Happy Birthday
That's gonna make sure
That everybody knows
That everything's gonna be ok
I'm gonna take that song
And we're gonna play it
Eight weeks in a row on Top of the Pops

Formed a band
We formed a band
Look at us
We formed a band

Dye your hair black
Never look back
My past is my business
We have two songs about more-or-less the same subject by bands that aren't massively musically dissimilar. But what a difference a generation makes. A specific denouncement of irony (at least the humorless kind), and a bouncy statement that despite their admitted shortcomings, Art Brut (whose very name means, more or less, "Primitive Art") will take the world by storm and solve everyone's problems. The Adverts seems to be saying "You probably will hate us, but screw you, we don't care what you think...much...." Art Brut is saying "You don't know it yet, but we're your new favorite band. And we love that about you." There's a bit of a twist of the knife at the end, but no true darkness pervades this song.

Ultimately, of course, this is just an observation I made while listening to my iPod on shuffle. But it gave this late-cohort Gen X-er (God, I hate that term) some food for thought about two songs he happens to enjoy quite a bit for very different reasons.