Once in a while someone decides to burden a writer, musician
or other contemporary artist by labeling them the 'voice of
a generation'. In the early '90s the kids of baby boomers
were especially desperate for a voice to express their feelings.
Or at least marketing people were eager to find a way to make
the echo generation fit into an easily described target group.
Bret Easton Ellis was all geared up to be the voice of his
generation by writing essays claiming to know what his generation
thinks. But then, in 1991, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
appeared prompting millions around the world to buy Nirvana's
"Nevermind". Kurt Cobain was named the 'voice of
a generation'. The same happened to Douglas Coupland, whose
first novel Generation X was published that same year.
The best thing about Cobain and Coupland was their unwillingness
to take on the 'voice of a generation' role.
"I only speak for myself," both said reflecting
the solitary attitude, typical for their generation. It made
them perfect for the role in the eyes of media and marketing
It also helped that Coupland's book, with a title borrowed
from a '70s punk tune, offered an easy term to use for the
Naturally, the label 'voice of a generation' isn't a curse
or a burden. Due to the accompanying hype the artists in question
became known and famous for wanting to be infamous.
Does any generation really need a 'voice' to represent them?
By definition, is a generation nothing but a marginal group
within an age group? What our generation needs is writers,
musicians and artists who express the world we know in a way
we understand. That, certainly, is what Douglas Coupland has
offered us ever since Generation X. It is a world where
people suffering from information overload, after continuous
bombardment of popular culture, know so much but have such
a difficult time using that knowledge to organize their life.
For me, it took a while to discover his work. Because of
his generation-spokesman reputation, one strengthened by a
book that supposedly defines a large disparate group of people,
I kept away from Coupland. Until one icy evening in Chicago
as my girlfriend and I were trying to keep warm in a bookshop
she suggested I read Shampoo Planet. I had my prejudices,
but I did buy it after I stopped whining and complaining.
Now a new voice of a generation has been nominated. Naomi
Klein recently visited Finland to promote No Logo: Taking
Aim at the Brand Bullies. A Finnish journalist, probably
in her early twenties, said she had found a voice for her
At least she's Canadian like Coupland. Maybe that grants
a perspective that isn't exactly American, but is still in
tune with popular culture and the consuming culture overdrive
prominent in both authors' books.
Klein too speaks of a world I recognize and her text provides
new discoveries. She sheds light on the current world order
in an easily understandable voice. And she refuses to represent
anyone but herself.
But I'm still puzzled by this new nominee
isn't even fiction. Can a non-fiction work, like No Logo,
give a voice to a generation? At least in novels various characters
have the voices; it's not just the writer's. Does the Finnish
journalist's generation really want a voice who speaks facts,
albeit interesting facts, in an orderly fashion?
I should be able to answer that because, at 25, I'm part
of her generation, but all I know is I don't crave for a voice
to represent me however touching and insightful their work.
Nonetheless maybe it would be nice to get acquainted with
'my generation'. I wonderwould I identify with it? Does
it have a phone number?
Copyright © 2001 Jonathan Mander.
All Rights Reserved.
Jonathan Mander, born in 1976, lives in
Helsinki, where he hasn't noticed any Finnish authors getting
close to earning the title 'voice of a generation'. While
reading Douglas Coupland's latest book All Families Are Psychotic
he listened to Four Tet's Pause, which is not Finnish although
Finns make very interesting music.