Other Expressions

Designing the 21st Century: Mixing things up in the new millennium

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“I belong to the blank generation.”
Richard Hell and the Voidoids

Once there was the Lost Generation, then the Beat Generation, then the Turnkey Generation. I’ve concluded that we are now living in the Mixed Generation. Mixed media, mash ups, fusion cuisine, gender blending. It’s one big collision of disparate particles crashing into each other at ever-increasing rates.

On the positive side, things like archaic racial definitions are being rethought, and “mixed race” is one of the fastest growing demographics in the nation. (Just look at President Obama as proof.) On the negative side, we might ask ourselves whether many traditions are changing a little too fast. Now, any 12-year-old can cut, paste, sample, rip, click, drag, drop, post, and send. The result is a random juxtaposition of sights and sounds with no historic context, hence no story and no inherent soul.

So, the verdict on the Mixed Generation is, well, mixed. It’s the best of times and the worst of times.

One cultural corner where the Mixed Generation has built its stronghold is cable TV. One show that exemplifies this genre mixing is Weeds. Is it a sitcom, a soap opera, a TV drama, a melodrama, or all of the above? The premise of the show finds a suburban mom, recently widowed, trying to hold her extended family together. “Carol Brady! Shirley Partridge! Alice!” you might say. After all, everything’s been done already, yes? The only difference is that MILF Nancy Botwin, the main protagonist of Weeds, is a drug dealer. Okay, she slings a little pot. So, it’s all completely benign, at least at first. But, the old mold has definitely been molded over.

For eight seasons, Weeds made us giggle as uber-slackers played by SNL’s Kevin Nealon and Justin Kirk whoa-duded their ways through every stoner cliché covered in the Cheech and Chong playbook. Couple that with some very sexy situationals involving the serendipitous women who miraculously stray past the Botwin household, and you have a light, fun formula that puts a smile on our faces.

However, did I mention that the various B-stories in the series also involve gangland murders (one DEA agent is stuffed in a drain pipe and another has his face removed by an industrial sander), heroin trafficking, and tragic flashbacks to Nancy’s dead husband? One minute, we’re laughing at Kevin Nealon gobbling bowls of cereal in his underwear. The next minute we’re grimacing as a man is maimed by a drug cartel hit man. Is it comedy, tragedy, or an amorphous mixture of the two?

Other shows such as Hung and the hugely successful Breaking Bad are other examples where cable TV has borrowed from TV’s golden era of situational middle class bliss/angst while mixing in so many modern twists and turns that the audience doesn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry or do both at the same time.

Another way in which the Mixed Generation has touched us with its ambivalence is architecture. Have you driven by a newly constructed public school lately? Gone are the days of green, rectangular boxes horizontally stacked like row houses on a military base. Now, the architect has snuck in so many angles that a Picasso nude really would look both ways. I don’t know my Baroque from my Byzantine from my Pleistocene (wink), but I can smell a mixed metaphor when I see one.

So, why do I mention all of this? First, because the Boomer-shaped world around us is quickly giving way to a new one in which we (the Boomers) are going to start feeling increasingly obsolete. (You may have started feeling a little like this already.) And, second, because I’m teaching a class at SDSU chronicling our slide into obscurity and much, much more.

The class Designing the New Millenium: Aesthetics of the 21st Century runs April 18-May 23 and will examine the rapid changes that are taking place in not only in TV and architecture but consumerism, world and U.S. politics, philosophy, literature, film and music.

And, on that note, what does the future hold for musicians out there? Are we fated to the irony of heavy-metal polka parties, hip-hop country western, and Mormon orgies? You’ll just have to ask the “Millennials,” the kids who grew up with no memory of the 20th century, a generation that looks at the murky, past events of 9-11 and twitter for its moral compass and has no recollection of Vietnam or even Monica Lewinsky and O.J. Simpson for that matter.

But, as things begin to change at an ever-increasing rate, we can only hope that one last cliché will hold the Millennials, the Mixed Generation, in check: sometimes the acorn doesn’t swim far from the nest.

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