Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What Generation Do I Identify With?

Did you ever have the feeling that you were born in the wrong era? You see a picture of someone wearing a sweet bowler hat and twirling a gold-tipped cane and wish you could live back in the mid-19th century? Can't get enough of short skirts, bobbed hair, and jazz music? Then you probably would be happy hanging out in the roaring twenties. Or maybe legwarmers and obnoxiously chewing gum is your thing - then I'm sure you yearn for the good old '80s.

Generational gaps are funny things. There's no exact science for pinpointing a divide, but when two people from different generations interact with one another, they sure can tell the difference. Missed references, discrepancies in technological skills, and an all around different feel of life from growing up in two distinct cultural environments.

In terms of culture, one aspect that goes into defining a generation is contemporary music. For example, anyone who was a teenager in the early 1960s immediately has a shared cultural frame of reference thanks to music: Beatlemania. The Fab Four's influence was so far-reaching that defined the lives of a whole generation of people born in the mid-to-late-1940s. No other generation can experience the music of the Beatles quite the same way.

However, I have been experimenting with a way to determine which generations I identify with (musically, at least) by focusing on the age in which I first encountered a particular piece/group/style of music. With a little research, I believe others can find this experience just as gratifying as I did. Read on to see what I found.

I thought of this recently when writing about Muse. After I became obsessed with their album Absolution, I thought how my life might have been different if I had discovered the album when it hit the U.S. in 2004. At the time I was just months away from turning 18. As it happened in actual history, I was age 23 when I first heard the album.

Rather than wondering what my life would have been like had events turned out differently, I began to think about who else had an experience with Muse similar to mine. After a little math, I was able to deduce that other Americans who were 23 when Absolution was released had to have been born in 1981. While 29 is not a big difference from 24, the age difference does give me an insight into the types of people who were having the new Muse experience at the same age as I was.

Let's check out another formative album from my past: Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. I bought this album in the summer of 2001, at age 14. Seeing as the album was released in 1967, that would put the date of birth of my generational peers at 1953. Those people are 48 years old now. So even though they grew up with vinyl and I grew up with CDs and mp3s, they grew up with typewriters and I grew up with Apple IIs, we can always connect with that shared experience of having heard "Purple Haze" for the first time at 15 years old.

For another example, I began what would become a long and fruitful relationship with the band Rush when I first encountered the song "Fly By Night" in a Dungeons & Dragons parody video. That was in 2003, when I was a junior in high school at age 17. (You can see I was discovering a lot of cool new music at this time of my life.) Since the song was originally released in 1975, the math equals out to people who were born in 1957. A little younger than my Jimi Hendrix peers, but not much.

When the people of these generations were in my current age bracket, the year would have been somewhere between 1977 and 1981. Thus people who grew up with Hendrix would have been just about my age for Jimmy Carter's pardon of the Vietnam War evaders, The Clash's debut album, and the theatrical release of Star Wars. Likewise when those who found Rush the same time I did reached my current age, they would marvel at the Miracle on Ice, grieve for the death of Led Zeppelin's John Bonham... and stand on line for the release of Empire Strikes Back.

If I continued this exercise indefinitely - or, at least, as far as my memory will allow - I could average out the ages of my generational peers, and figure out with which eras I most strongly identify - again, at least musically. I could continue with movies and books as well, creating a complete picture of my virtual generation, as calculated by cultural discovery. And what's more, you can all do it too!

What such a picture would actually teach us about ourselves remains yet to be seen. And as I currently have no time or energy for such a venture, it's going to have to wait for quite some time.