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Everyone knows that the “alternative” music of the early and mid-’90s was full of laments about boredom, apathy and self-hatred. But the full force of that zeitgeist doesn’t really hit you until you listen to about 15 such songs and realize that most of them were recorded by enormously popular bands, with many going on to become full-scale hit singles. Now, I’m not making fun of the ’90s here. This music takes a lot of heat for its “slacker” mentality, but to me, the earnest complaints are a sign of life missing from today’s popular (counter-)culture. Though things may suck even more for our generation of 20-somethings than they did for our Gen X counterparts, we tend to cover the boredom, apathy and self-hatred we also suffer from with a heavy dose of irony, thus disguising any real feelings we may need to contend with.

So take this list (part one of two) as a celebration of the ’90s. And maybe we could use a dose of the same harsh self-criticism the musicians of 15 years ago provided.

Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)

Key lyric: “She’s over-bored and self-assured. Oh no, I know a dirty word”; “Here we are now, entertain us.”

Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel the Pain” (1994)

Key lyric: “I feel the pain of everyone, and then I feel nothing.”

Blind Melon – “No Rain” (1993)

Key lyric: “I don’t understand why I sleep all day.”

Hole – “Plump” (1994)

Key lyric: “They say I’m plump, but I throw up all the time.”

Radiohead – “Creep” (1992)

Key lyric: “You’re so fucking special. I wish I was special.”

The Smashing Pumpkins – “1979” (1995)

Key lyric: “We don’t even care just where our bones will rest. To dust, I guess.”

Nine Inch Nails – “Hurt” (1994)

Key lyric: “I hurt myself today. To see if I still feel.”

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I pick on the New York Times a lot, so it’s only fair to give the paper credit when it manages to get something right. In a piece called, “For Uninsured Young Adults, Do-It-Yourself Health Care,” the Times explores why so many 20-somethings are going without health insurance. The paper tells the story of 28-year-old Alanna Boyd, whose bout with diverticulitis landed her in the hospital. By the time all was said and done, she owed over $17k in medical bills.

This is where many publications would launch into a tirade about young people who think they’re invincible and would rather squander their cash on expensive rents and weekend-long drinkings binges than do the responsible thing and pony up for insurance, goddamn it! But, surprisingly enough, the Times eschews this conclusion. The paper quotes a young Bushwick resident who says, “It’s not like I think I’m invincible, I’m 29, the world can’t touch me. It’s the very opposite of that. I’ve got to make rent and eat.” (Well, and then the Times goes and ruins it a bit by ending the article with the story of an unemployed 24-year-old dumbass who decided to take a six-week snowboarding trip, rather than purchase insurance that he may very well need should he continue to indulge his interest in snowboarding.)

For many people I know, this is really what it’s all about. How can you commit to paying several hundred dollars a month to health insurance when you’re: A) not making enough money to cover that and your essentials and–don’t forget–tens of thousands of dollars in college loans or B) are scared we can’t count on the money we do earn, as the economy is so fucked that who knows whether our income sources will all dry up, all at once? We know we’re playing a dangerous game, but we have no choice but to play it.

Now, I’ve gone without health insurance for about six weeks now, since my graduate student policy expired. And actually, this article (along with my father’s constant refrain about how 90% of American bankruptcies are caused by unpaid medical bills) finally scared me into seriously looking into insurance. As the article notes, you have to earn under $706 a month to qualify for Medicaid. But there are other options. New Yorkers, if you earn under $2,257 a month, you’re eligible for Healthy New York, a program that allows you to buy insurance for as low as $200 a month. The nice thing about Healthy New York, which I’m in the process of signing up for, is that you only have to submit proof of income once a year, so if your earnings go up mid-year (as I seriously hope mine will), you can hang onto your policy until next year’s re-evaluation.

One last thing: The article mentions that Gov. Paterson wants to allow parents to claim offspring up to the age of 29 as dependents for insurance purposes, so that more young people will be covered. Apparently, about half of states already do this. As unhappy as it would make me to be a dependent, I would sign on in a second if it meant affordable insurance. But what’s troubling about the idea is that the solution is clearly intended for the middle classes. What about the young people whose parents don’t have insurance, either?

image via NYU Local

image via NYU Local

Looks like “my generation” was out in full force last night, when 70ish NYU students, random protest junkies from neighboring schools (including some dude who came all the way from Pennsylvania!) and an intrepid NY Times reporter “occupied” the third floor of the NYU student center. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am a recent alum NYU’s graduate journalism program. You’d think that would make me somewhat sympathetic to these kids, and yet…)

Watch them put up a “barricade” here:

You may have noticed that the barricade looked kind of far from the doors and didn’t seem to really be barricading anything. As the guards told a blogger from nyulocal.com–who is liveblogging the “occupation” and generating some of the best, and funniest, coverage of the event–“It’s not a barricade, we could tear that down anytime. Get something heavier.” Amazing.

Okay, so I make fun, but let’s examine the demands: They want NYU to be disclose its budget and endowment, to provide transparency regarding its investments, to allow student and faculty participation in the university’s financial decision-making, official recognition of and negotiation with NYU’s graduate student union, divestment from Israel, reinstating a ban on Coca-Cola products on campus, tuition stabilization for students, scholarships for 13 Palestinian students every year, donation of excess supplies to the University of Gaza, and for the school to open its main library to the public. (They also, of course, want amnesty for everyone involved in the demonstration. That’s demand #1.)

Wow. That’s a whole lot of demands. And many of their goals are laudable: The school should be fiscally responsible, as well as responsible to its students. Tuition hikes could be debilitating in this economy. And the graduate students should be able to form a union, just like any other group of working people. But then you get to the part about Coca-Cola on campus, and it’s like, “Really? Haven’t we got bigger fish to fry, here?” Also, while it would be lovely for the school to sponsor scholarships for Palestinian students and donate supplies to the University of Gaza, that isn’t their responsibility, and they shouldn’t be strong-armed into doing it. Finally, I understand that many of these students aren’t great believers in capitalism, property rights, etc., but no, the NYU library should not be open to the public. It is for paying students and faculty members, who need to have priority access to the computers, study space, and books. As the NYU Local blogger pointed out, New York City has the best public library system in the country. It’s not like New Yorkers are deprived of opportunities to appreciate literature.

But what does it say about “my generation”? I mean, I’m looking at the pictures, the pathetic barricading, the vitriolic statements, the fervent blogging, and this is what occurs to me: Politics, for us, is a game. We’re completely disconnected from what we’re doing. There are kids in these photos running around in bandannas–which people use at real demonstrations when they think they’re going to get tear-gassed. Those students may get expelled, but no one is going to touch them. They first resisted the university’s offers of vegan food, but then they accepted platters of chicken and mashed potatoes. Their demands range from reasonable to petty to downright ridiculous, and one item on the list has very little to do with the next. And the whole thing looks like an on-campus slumber party.

It also says something about us, I think, that only 70 students are there. NYU is an enormous school. In 1968, every white-guilt victim in the university would have been in that room. But, from what I’ve read, it looks like the majority of the community thinks this stunt is stupid. One student went to the protesters’ window with a sign that said, “YOU SUCK.” So we’re a little smarter than we look–not to mention, dare I say it, smarter than our ’60s forerunners, too. We realize that this is just a weird outlet for certain students’ (and here I lay no blame–I was one of those students in my stupider days, too) feelings of confinement and helplessness and confusion about growing up and selling out and blah blah blah. We realize that kids who want to run protest organizations will one day want to run corporations, because what they want is power, not justice. So maybe our cynicism is good for something, after all.

P.S. Someone give this NYU Local kid a job. Seriously. He’s got talent.

cartoon from Toothpaste for Dinner

cartoon from Toothpaste for dinner

As you may have noticed, I’ve become sort of bored with and neglectful of this blog. It didn’t really have an express purpose, so the posts just became random. I realized that if I weren’t me, I probably wouldn’t want to read it.

So, I’ve decided to devote Don’t Quit Your Day Job to a brand new topic: my generation. The deal is, I’m 24, I just finished a master’s degree in journalism (I know, great timing, right?), and I’m struggling to keep my head above water. As you may have noticed, the economy is a disaster, and it’s affecting urban 20-somethings in a number of very specific ways. While we may not have hundreds of thousands of dollars of life savings to lose, we’re being laid off by the hundreds of thousands. Only one of my roommates (there are six of us, in case you’re wondering, in a four-bedroom apartment) has made it through the past four months with his full-time job intact. Another was cut back to 3/5 time (“Is that like being 3/5 of a person?” we wondered), and another is conducting a grueling job search as he waits to find out whether the ailing institution that employs him will renew his contract for another year. The rest of us are scraping by as students and part-timers. I’m doing a lot of freelance work, and I can’t complain, because I have it better than a lot of other people I know. (And also because instead of saying I’m “unemployed” I can say I’m “freelancing”–which is less embarrassing!)

Anyway, the point here is not to bemoan our fate or embarrass ourselves as a bunch of young, middle-class people with BA’s or MA’s from respected institutions of higher learning by talking about how rough we have it. I get it, okay? Our lives are much easier than most people’s. I just want to promote some intelligent discussion on our generation. Baby Boomers (who, remember, got us into this mess) like to talk about how lazy and apathetic we are, because they don’t have the self-awareness to realize that we are the way we are because we saw them give up their lofty ideals for corporate jobs and, apparently, white-collar crime. There is also a lot of complaining–especially from those of us who would do well to look in the mirror while we’re talking–about hipsterism and the lack of any authentic youth counterculture. I want to look at the way we live our lives and talk about ourselves to get at the heart of what’s intrinsic to our generation, and why.

Obviously, this is a conversation that doesn’t work without your participation. So, uh, participate, OK? Tell me what you want to talk about.

No time now to post in-depth descriptions of each of the 33 (weird number, I know) albums I loved this year. But I’m linking to pieces or blurbs I wrote about many of them, throughout the year. I feel lucky to have gotten to cover so many great records in 2008, for so many fantastic publications.

33. caUSE co-MOTION! – It’s Time!
32. Ladytron – Velocifero
31. No Age – Nouns
30. Sic Alps – U.S. EZ
29. Atlas Sound – Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel
28. Jay Reatard – Singles ’06-’07
27. Department of Eagles – In Ear Park
26. Fuck Buttons – Street Horrrsing
25. Zazen Boys – Zazen Boys 4
24. High Places – 03/07-09/07
23. Thank You – Terrible Two
22. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band – 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons
21. Spiritualized – Songs in A&E
20. Why? – Alopecia
19. Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez – Why Is Bear Billowing?
18. Parts & Labor – Receivers
17. Abe Vigoda – Skeleton
16. Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Common Life
15. Beach House – Devotion
14. Xiu Xiu – Women as Lovers
13. The Magnetic Fields – Distortion
12. Gang Gang Dance – St. Dymphna
11. Mt. Eerie – Dawn
10. Blood on the Wall – Liferz
09. The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride
08. Matmos – Supreme Balloon
07. Deerhunter – Microcastle
06. Marnie Stern – This Is It…
05. of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping
04. The Mae Shi – HLLLYH
03. The Music Tapes – Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes
02. Times New Viking – Rip It Off
01. Ponytail – Ice Cream Spiritual

I posted this on the LimeWire music blog last week, but I’m re-posting here for the edification of anyone who missed it. 2008 was a great year for concerts! As far as I’m concerned, these were the 10 best:

10. Rufus Wainwright @ Radio City Music Hall (2/14)
What’s not to like about seeing Rufus, in a beautiful theater, on Valentine’s Day, with the one you love?

9. Deerhunter, Times New Viking, The Vivian Girls @ Bowery Ballroom (11/8)
Sometimes it all comes down to a perfect lineup. There’s nothing like going to see three bands — and three bands only — that you really love.

8. 88 BoaDrum @ Williamsburg waterfront (8/8)
I stick by what I said at the time about the Boredoms’ celebration of eights: “It occurred to me later that a few thousand young people had just sat through 88 minutes of instrumental music and, judging from the silence and transfixed stares of everyone around me, loved every minute of it. Now, I’m as guilty as anyone of complaining about image-obsessed hipsters in Williamsburg and the shallowness of my generation as a whole. But 88 BoaDrum gave me a semblance of hope. If we can appreciate an hour and a half of noise and music together, we can’t be all bad. Right?”

7. Baltimore Round Robin (both nights) @ (le) Poisson Rouge (10/17-18)
A who’s-who of the Charm City music scene (with the notable absence of Ponytail – see below): Beach House, Thank You, Double Dagger, Adventure, Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez, Jana Hunter, Future Islands, Nautical Almanac, and many more. The only unfortunate part of the Round Robin was the very end of Feet Night, when someone stole Dan Deacon’s iPod. Lame.

6. Marnie Stern, Double Dagger, Ponytail, Indian Jewelry, et al. @ The Yard (7/4)
If there’s a better way to celebrate our nation’s independence than with an all-star show at a venue that looks like summer camp, on the banks of the odiferous Gowanus, I don’t know what it is.

5. Xiu Xiu @ Music Hall of Williamsburg (3/23)
Last night, Xiu Xiu played in New York with Michael Gira. Instead of going to that show, I was in my last graduate school class ever. No fucking fair.

4. Jarvis Cocker @ Terminal 5 (7/23)
I think I already said everything I have to say about this in the link above. All that’s left is to plead for Jarvis to come back to the States more often.

3. Of Montreal @ Roseland Ballroom (10/10)
Yes, there was a horse onstage. Yes, Kevin Barnes had a noose around his neck. Yes, there was a large and bizarre cast of brightly-costumed, vaguely medieval-looking characters. Yes, the crowd was full of teenagers from New Jersey. But it was fun as hell anyway.

2. Elephant Six Holiday Surprise Tour @ The Knitting Factory (10/11)
It was a good weekend for show: Julian Koster’s Elephant Six Holiday Surprise Tour hit New York the night after their fellow collective members stopped by Roseland. The evening was a grab bag of fun acts, from the Music Tapes and the Olivia Tremor Control to the Circulatory System and the Gerbils. They even showed the Major Organ and the Adding Machine movie. Oh yeah, and Jeff Mangum took the stage for the first time in a few years.

1. All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival @ Kutsher’s Country Club (9/19-21)
It was the mother of all music-nerd outings, and it took place at the mother of all kitschy, Catskills summer resorts. While I found the My Bloody Valentine set somewhat disappointing, performances by Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, Harmonia, Low and a slew of others totally blew me away.

Did I miss anything?

I recently read Rob Sheffield’s “Love Is a Mix Tape” and then did some unrelated cassette culture research. And it made me horribly nostalgic for the mix tapes I used to make in high school, when I occasionally stayed up all night for no reason. So I reconnected with the medium today, making my first mix tape since maybe my freshman or sophomore year of college. It’s a bit country/folk/singer-songwriter-flavored, and I put it together for a barbecue in Prospect Park today.

Side A:
Neko Case – Star Witness
The Helio Sequence – Shed Your Love
Laura Marling – Failure
The Go-Betweens – Summer’s Melting My Mind
Kristin Hersh – Shake
Clem Snide – Messiah Complex Blues
Adrian Orange & Her Band – Give to Love What’s Love’s

Side B
Conor Oberst – Get-Well-Cards
Animal Collective & Vashti Bunyan – Prospect Hummer
The Vaselines – Dying for It
PJ Harvey – Long Snake Moan
Bob Dylan – Queen Jane Approximately
Low – Born by the Wires

(60 minutes)

A few days ago, as I was watching Claude Chabrol’s newest offering, the more-good-than-bad A Girl Cut in Two, something occurred to me. Its star, the gorgeous and talented Ludivine Sagnier (who you may know from Swimming Pool), looks strangely like… Gossip Girl‘s Blake Lively.

Here’s Sagnier:

Here’s Lively:

Any thought?

I was browsing Facebook the other day–something I do a bit too often–when I saw that a friend had posted a YouTube video of a teenage girl performing Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of the Carrot Flowers, Part 1” and “King of the Carrot Flowers, Parts 2 and 3.” A quite competent guitar player and a talented singer to boot, she gave a charismatic, heartfelt, and emotionally realistic performance. While I don’t like the idea of people covering Jeff Mangum’s songs (I’m protective of my reclusive geniuses), this girl was so earnest and seems to understand what she’s singing about so well that I’d like to think he would approve.

Here’s the video:

What I didn’t realize was how popular homemade YouTube covers of Neutral Milk Hotel have become. Most are bad–somewhere between pathetic and unfortunate–but I’d keep an eye on this girl.

Once I started clicking links, I couldn’t stop. Eventually, I was tempted to watch a video of the cabaret-goth duo Dresden Dolls doing a live cover of “Two-Headed Boy.” I don’t know why I do these things to myself, because the last thing I needed to see was the band’s drama-club front girl hamming it up in frilly boy shorts and pasty multi-instrumental dude putting his shirtless stink on the classic:

After that, I needed to redeem myself with some actual NMH live videos. I like this one because it’s a weird, intimate, profile close up, with absolutely no context:

And this one, because of Mangum’s chunky, moth-eaten Fair Isle sweater and the utter chaos that’s happening onstage:

Earlier this year, when Miuccia Prada showed a men’s line full of mini tutus and flyless pants, the fashion world flipped out a little bit. Though there is certainly no lack of gender renegades among the business’ elite, clothing that feminizes men may be fashion’s final taboo. But according to New York Magazine, we may see more men wearing traditionally female garments in the near future. Men’s skirts are all over spring 2009 collections including Etro, John Galliano, and Comme des Garçons. And because they’re always a few years ahead of us style-wise, a few European men are already wearing them.

New York’s Amy Odell is ambivalent about the phenomenon, writing, “We can’t get past the fact that they’re men wearing skirts, and something about that trend catching on just doesn’t look or feel right. Don’t get us wrong — we’re all for equality of the sexes, and if Yves Saint Laurent can put women in pantsuits, there’s no reason other designers can’t put men in skirts. We expect to see them on the men’s runways from time to time. And we find it delightful when we do, but in a non-serious way. But now that it may be getting serious, we’re a bit unsettled.” I understand what she’s saying, but it makes me a little bit sad that women dress like men to be taken more seriously while men wearing skirts is automatically funny.

This isn’t to say that I have no reservations about men in skirts. For one thing, the designs pictured in the New York piece leave a bit to be desired. John Galliano’s knee-length black skirt, topped with an explosion of purple feathers and what looks like someone’s grandmother’s ’70s Chanel suit jacket and layered over magenta leggings, would be equally ridiculous on either gender. And if Comme des Garçons’ long, gray skirt ever showed up on Project Runway, Michael Kors would likely have called it “farty.” Etro’s shiny, elaborately wrapped and sensibly belted skirt is the only look I find remotely attractive.

I also wonder how comfortable skirts are for men. Though I, and many women I know, find them more comfortable than pants, we don’t have several inches of skin swinging between our legs. I’d imagine chafing and support could be problems, though perhaps that could be solved by the right pair of underwear. But since my knowledge of the issue is purely theoretical, I’m hoping some men will weigh in on this one. What do you think, guys–love the skirts or hate ’em?

[Photo via Flickr]