Teen-agers go global in Coupland's 'Shampoo'


From The Washington Times (September 17, 1992)

by Rod Dreher

"Do we have a global youth culture? Yes. And their tribal indicator is hair."

Thus speaks Douglas Coupland, 30, who knows much about such things. The Canadian novelist is one of pop culture's foremost authorities on generation-defining beliefs and behaviors. His 1991 debut novel, "Generation X," explored the angst and anomie of irony-besotted post-baby boomers. Now in its seventh printing, "Generation X" became the past year's must-have tome for hip twentysomethings.

In his new novel, "Shampoo Planet" (Simon & Schuster, $20), Mr. Coupland does a take on the generation after X, a group now in its teens and early 20s. He calls them Benetton Youth, or Global Teens.

"In 1992, teen-agers in Osaka, [Japan] Oslo and Washington, D.C., have an enormous amount in common with each other and take it for granted that they do," Mr. Coupland says. "If you go back 100 years, they have almost nothing in common. This is an extremely important cultural shift."

"Shampoo Planet" follows the adventures of Tyler Johnson, a Global Teen living in the Pacific Northwest with his flaky siblings and Jasmine, their hippie- dippy mother. He is unable to choose between his anorexic American girlfriend or a glamorous French amour who has come to the New World to continue their summer holiday fling. He collects shampoo.

"What's on your head says what's inside your head," Tyler believes. In the semiotics of hair care, a healthy head of follicles and a spiffy cut signify that the wearer has his life together and faces the future confidently, full of ambition.

Tyler's doted-on locks stand in contrast to the scraggly, wild growth on the heads and faces of his parents and their hippie friends, who are thought of as naive, irresponsible children by their own offspring. In one of the book's most telling passages, Tyler describes memories of growing up in a peace-and-love hippie commune.

It was a place, he says, "of adults lost in the woods for weeks at a time, stumbling back into the commune, their skin scabbed and broken, their hair tangled like bracken, their eyes blinded by the sun and their speech garbled with talk of Answers."

When Jasmine finally moved her kids away from the atmosphere of "collapse and disintegration" and into a house, Tyler was thrilled at the hardness of the new smooth floor and the reliability of "lights that would never fail." Around that time, Ronald Reagan became president. Now, Tyler wants to work for the same corporation his hippie mother tried to firebomb.

"The major conflict in being young these days is having liberal social values and conservative economic ones," Mr. Coupland says. "Liberal values come from having hippie parents; right-wing economic beliefs come from growing up in the Reagan '80s."

Tyler refrains from smoking, drinking or doing drugs not because it's immoral; he refrains because it might make him poor, ugly and unemployable.

Given Mr. Coupland's generational predisposition toward irony, you might wonder if he is presenting Tyler's optimism as a desperately naive act of faith. Not at all. The author thinks there's no time like the present.

"I'm thrilled to be alive now. I look around at everything and marvel at how lucky we are to have it," says Mr. Coupland, who recently acquired a home fax machine. "I'm like, 'Oh, is that polyester? Wow!' I can't imagine why anyone would complain."

Teen-agers in the First World may share MTV, hairstyles, CNN and a consumer culture, but the international sensibility fostered by that culture masks a profound regionalism, the writer says. It may be a shampoo planet, but people in different places have a persistent and deep-seated brand loyalty. True international understanding only occurs in Coca-Cola commercials.

Mr. Coupland is a happy camper in the New World, where, he says, life is more hopeful and open to change, flexibility and growth.

"In Europe, no one ever moves, either geographically or socially," the Vancouver resident says. "They hate you if you move up or down the smallest notch. Over here, it's like, 'You're rich now. Yay!' Or, 'Oh, you're poor. Don't worry - you'll be rich again.' "

Mr. Coupland may soon be rich indeed. He is close to inking a deal that will bring Andy, Dag and Claire of "Generation X" to life on the big screen. He has had "about 50 or 60 offers" of a movie deal but refuses to put "Generation X" in the hands of a director who doesn't understand the book.

"There are people who have come close, but suddenly they'll say something to reveal they don't get it at all," he says. "I usually ask them to write down in two paragraphs what they would like to do with the book. That cuts out 90 percent of them."

His ideal choice for director? Richard Linklater, the Texas auteur behind last year's independent hit, "Slacker," a low-budget slice-of-life feature about Generation Xers in Austin, Texas. The two are friends, and have collaborated before - Mr. Coupland wrote an appreciative introduction to the "Slacker" film book - but if anything new is in the works, Mr. Coupland definitely isn't talking.