Consider the fidget spinner: endlessly whirring between the fingertips of “Generation Alpha,” annoying teachers, baffling parents. Originally marketed as a therapeutic device to chill out children with anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism, these colorful daisy-shaped gizmos have suddenly found an unlikely off-label use as an explosively popular toy, perhaps this generation’s Rubik’s Cube.
But the Cube was fundamentally a cerebral, calm pursuit, perfect for the latchkey children of the 1980s to while away their lonely, Xbox-free hours. The fidget spinner is nothing but nervous energy rendered in plastic and steel, a perfect metaphor for the overscheduled, over-stimulated children of today as they search for a way to unplug between jujitsu lessons, clarinet practice and Advanced Placement tutoring.
According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, some 38 percent of girls ages 13 through 17, and 26 percent of boys, have an anxiety disorder. On college campuses, anxiety is running well ahead of depression as the most common mental health concern, according to a 2016 national study of more than 150,000 students by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University. Meanwhile, the number of web searches involving the term has nearly doubled over the last five years, according to Google Trends. (The trendline for “depression” was relatively flat.)
'Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery' poster, courtesy of New Line Cinema.
No movie channels pre-Millennium, “the end of history is kinda fun!” exuberance better than 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. The film, which turned 20 this week, feels incredibly out of step with our dystopian present, yet the cheap gags and sophomoric puns still work. (Did you remember Carrie Fisher played the Evils’ family therapist? I didn’t).
[Director Jay] Roach It opened internationally on the weekend Princess Diana died, and there was no one in the world in the mood for Americans mocking English people. There was some reference to Prince Charles that did end up getting cut for the U.K. release.
[Actor Seth] Green The movie came out and did fine. I think the total take after eight weeks was something like $50 million.
Roach But then DVDs kicked in — they were a new market channel, and Warner Bros. was a pioneer. Mike and I did the commentary and worked on bonus features. They asked us to do a sequel, and I figured the video numbers must have done really well. They hide the video numbers, so you never know. To this day, it’s in the red. I don’t think that movie is listed as in profit, which is hilarious to me.
[Writer and actor Mike] Myers I knew we had something when I was driving on Halloween in Los Angeles and I couldn’t get past Santa Monica Boulevard because of a parade, so I sat on the hood of the car and I saw like 15 Austin Powers go by and one of the Austin Powers spotted me and came over. I had a picture with all these Austin Powers, which was unbelievably cool.
The cover was striking: it showed a syringe. On the back cover one character leaned over a table, snorting cocaine. The calls from radio stations began, the advertising spots, the letters, above all the letters. Girls telling me about their first acid trip. Gay guys who’d been thrown out of their houses. Girls in love with gay guys. Girls in love with my characters. Some I answered, others I didn’t. I didn’t know what to say to them. The reviews were what today we would call “mixed,” using the English word. My publisher’s head of PR would tell me that I ought to make thank you calls even to reviewers who had torn the novel apart, and I’d tell him to fuck off. People would ask me about my next novel. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a writer. They’d say, “But you’re the spokeswoman of a generation,” and I’d want to cry. My mother drove me to some of the interviews. She was proud of me but didn’t comment on the contents of the book. I don’t know whether Bajar es lo peor is a good novel, but it is a sad novel: the boys shoot up with wine, have nightmares, prostitute themselves, talk to dead people, and love is no good for anything. There are no adults in the book.
The months of fame — there must have been six, maybe eight — were exhausting. I’d dress for television in a faux-leather miniskirt and an AC/DC T-shirt: I thought I looked like a rocker, daring, pretty. Seeing myself seated there in the talk show chair, I couldn’t help being horrified by my white, rather chubby legs and my obvious need for better makeup and hairstyling — not to mention my stammering in response to any question whatsoever. I was a terrible interviewee. With cultural journalists I was even worse. The humiliations piled up. They’d ask me about writers I had never heard of, and I’d pretend to know who they were talking about. My answers were muddled and left me looking like a fraud.
It’s not uncommon for artists to be associated with a particular cultural moment: think Hemingway and interwar Europe or vintage Lady Gaga and the onset of the age of virality. What is rare is for a cultural moment to be so strongly linked to a specific artist like the `90s — specifically the first, pre-internet half — are with Winona Ryder.
At Hazlitt, Soraya Roberts digs deep into Ryder’s career to find out why we (or at least a certain subset of “we,” mostly born between the mid-seventies and mid-eighties) struggle to decouple the artist from the period in which she got lodged in our collective psyche.
We cannot see Ryder without seeing the grunge era. In the New York Times Magazine in 2011, Carl Wilson riffed on the “20-year cycle of resuscitation” that had finally turned to Gen-X nostalgia. “In intimate terms, nostalgia is a glue that reinforces bonds of solidarity and shared experience,” he wrote. “And it’s a reminder that it matters not only that an idea or an image was created, but when — that things speak most fully in chorus and counterpoint to other events and concepts of the same era.” As Tavi Gevinson told Entertainment Weekly in 2014, “how I feel when I see pictures of teen Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp holding hands in leather jackets, like, nobody can match that.”
The only person that can come close is Winona Ryder now, because embedded in Winona Ryder now is Winona Ryder then. She carries her past with her. The teen actress who sought to make her own life nostalgic before it had even passed her by peeks out from within the woman Marc Jacobs now imbues with nostalgia — she is a Russian nesting doll of reminiscence. That Winona Ryder’s image makes more of an impression than her current performances — in The Ten, The Last Word, Stay Cool — confirms our culture’s chronic desire to preserve the past rather than accept the present.
In The Believer in February, 2014, Michael Schulman wrote about one of the most dramatic and memorable failures in American branding: Coca-Cola’s OK Soda. Marketed to Gen X’ers in 1994, the OK Soda brand died by 1995, though its artifacts live on in collector circles and advertising lore. As ’90s fashion and music cycle back through popular culture, this epic story of food, failure and the secret heart of youth culture highlights the arrogance of business people who think they know what you want and how to manipulate you into buying it.
When OK Soda was introduced, of course, Coke executives were certain they had it right. Drawing on a study from MIT, the company had pinpointed what Generation X was all about. “Economic prosperity is less available than it was for their parents,” Lanahan theorized. “Even traditional rites of passage, such as sex, are fraught with life-or-death consequences.” Tom Pirko, a Coke marketing consultant, told NPR, “People who are nineteen years old are very accustomed to having been manipulated and knowing that they’re manipulated.” He described the soda’s potential audience as “already truly wasted. I mean, their lethargy probably can’t be penetrated by any commercial message.”
How to sell soft drinks to such people? The answer was to embrace the angst. Coke turned to Wieden + Kennedy, the ultra-hip Portland, Oregon, ad firm that had devised Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign. The agency’s pitch has become the stuff of soda lore: research had shown that Coca-Cola was the second most recognized term in the world. The first was OK, which, the firm pointed out, was also the two middle letters of Coke. So why not combine the two? The drink was christened OK Soda, and its semi-reassuring motto was “Things are going to be OK.”
In the early 1990s, food delivery services on Manhattan’s Upper West Side sparked what New York Times writer Emily M. Bernstein called “the menu wars.” Everyone from dry cleaners to nail salons followed Chinese restaurants’ lucrative lead, placing paper take-out menus inside apartment buildings’ lobbies and mail rooms and under residents’ doors. Angry tenants demanded that businesses stop. Fistfights erupted. Local government got involved. In 1996, Jane H. Lii wrote in The New York Times about the hard-working delivery men at the center of the battle. Here’s an excerpt:
”At least with this job we can make enough to survive,” said Li W. Xiao. ”You can do twice the work and make half the money in a garment factory.”
Until a year ago, Mr. Li, who was smuggled into America just four years ago, thought he was on top of the world. Inspired by the American entrepreneurial spirit, he and his brother took a gamble and borrowed $20,000 from friends and relatives to open a garment factory in Brooklyn. But they did not realize how fierce the competition would be. After they opened, orders never came in enough volume for them to pay the bills. They shut down the factory six months ago. Now, in addition to his smuggling debt, Mr. Li owes $10,000 more.
Some of the best songs on The Secret History, Vol. 1 come from the summer of ’92, when the band went to London to appear on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show. Songs like the moody ballad “Secret Knowledge of Backroads” (which later appeared on a Silver Jews EP) and the Pixies-esque “Circa 1762” show a songwriter who was already restless to roam past Slanted. “My mind was like, ‘Let’s just mess around in here and make something new that’s not been done before,'” [singer Stephen] Malkmus says. “And that’s what we did.”
Nastanovich recalls the creative process in Pavement at the time: “To keep from getting bored, Stephen would always be making up songs in soundchecks. A lot of those ideas just came from him having a really active mind and loving to play guitar, so when we were put in those impromptu situations, he was ready to fire something out. Some of it is pretty good, and some of it’s eminently discardable.”