Saturday, July 28, 2012

Between X and Y: Part I

A number of things led me to write this entry.  A few months ago Slate published an article entitled "The Catalano Generation" (a reference to the Claire Danes TV series My So Called Life) that looked specifically at the generation born during the Carter presidency (1977-1981), which includes myself.  Something about it hit home, since those of us born during that time seem to lack a distinct generational identity because we're sandwiched between angst-ridden Gen X and the super-confidant millennials (see Ben Stiller's rant in Greenberg). Recently, I've been staying with my sister's family and spending more time with my 18-month year old niece.  She is starting to become aware of television and responding to images coming across the screen.  Now I haven't watched children's cartoons in a long time, but it did get me thinking about the significant role media played in my formative years.

Let's start with Levar Burton.  Fans of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon will recall his hilarious psychedelic version of the Reading Rainbow theme song with him doing a pitch perfect imitation of Jim Morrison.  In the 80s and 90s, TV shows like Reading Rainbow championed reading for kids my age.  Levar made going to the library seem pretty cool!  The show's format usually began with Levar introducing a topic. Sometimes shows dealt with fascinating careers like working behind the scenes on on a movie or being a marine biologist. Others were about the fun of a museum visit or the simple amusement of staying home and making a pizza (just make sure it fits in the oven!).  Every episode featured a children's book narrated by a celebrity and book endorsements from kids.  Each show ended with Levar's joyful catchphrase, "We'll See You Next Time."

Today it's hard to comprehend all the media that's thrown upon children at such a young age.   Most households now have an excess of over 100 channels and that's not even going into the travails of the "information super-highway" (that's what people called the internet back in the day).  My niece enjoys cartoons on Nickelodeon and the old stand by Sesame Street on Public television, but now there is so much on at any given time of the day that is not suitable for kids. My parents didn't get cable until I was a teenager, so our household only had about 10 channels!  Good old network television.  I still remember being frightened by some of the programming like the mini-series V, about alien invaders disguised as reptiles that still gives me chills.  Even movies which I later loved like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi scared me when I first saw them.  But now, at almost anytime in the day, there are images on television that could really scare a child. 

But back to the in-between nature of my generation.  Star Wars is one example. I'm barely old enough to remember the release of Return of the Jedi, but later watched the films a countless number of times on VHS.  I could only imagine the day when more Star Wars films would come out.  When it finally happened in 1999 (I was out of High School at that point) the purists who saw the film in 1977 immediately trounced on George Lucas for allegedly destroying their beloved saga that carried them through their childhoods.  Meanwhile, the new generation that was unfamiliar with the original trilogy loved The Phantom Menace - even that insufferable Jar Jar Binks!   But for those in my age group, who discovered Star Wars on television and VHS, we were just damn glad to finally have some new Star Wars movies.  Ok, the prequels don't quite measure up to the originals, but that's a tired debate for another day and time.

Most of my childhood was spent in the 1980s and I admit to feeling some nostalgia for the decade.  Some icons from the time are longer with us and some are still around. Ronald Reagan was president and Johnny Carson still ruled late night television.  On some nights it was a treat to stay up really late and catch Late Night with David Letterman, who came on at 12:30. Dave always cracked me up with his silly shenanigans like dropping random things from buildings or impersonating a McDonald's employee.  Michael Jackson ruled music in a way no one has or perhaps ever will again.  MTV was the coolest thing going around and totally changed the music industry.  Every week the top ten video countdown featured Madonna, Prince, Cindy Lauper, Whitney Houston, Sting, Phil Collins, The Cars, Weird Al, to just name a few.  Yes, you had to actually wait to see your favorite video and not bring it up on youtube.

Video games from the era are primitive by today's standards like Atari and Intellivision.  Today if you ask anyone born before 1985 about Intellivision, they will likely give you a blank look, but it was a great system put out by Matell.  At the time, Intellivision was really popular with games like Burger Time and Pitfall to just name a few.Mattell also introduced the "voicer," which allowed certain games to talk back at you. Atari was pretty old school with its joysticks and some really cheesy games, for example one sponsored by the band Journey.  Even those games were great to pass the time with.

The nineties, however, were different.  Things got more complicated. The decade began with the Soviet Union vanishing and politicians talking about a "New World Order", whatever that meant. New music like "Grunge" was embraced by gen X and seemed to foreshadow darker times ahead.  By the mid 90s, the internet hit the scene and really changed everything.  I first discovered it in the latter part of High School.  I can't imagine what it's like for kids today with social networking and texting. The internet is another key dividing point because I tend to find it a little unsettling at how comfortable millenials feel with technology.  It has always been a part of their life, but not mine.  What does all this mean?  Further entries will continue with this question and continue to look backward and forward at the course of culture in the past 30 years.