To label lovers everywhere


From The Times (August 17, 1992)

by Kate Muir

Douglas Coupland, the author who last year defined the "low pay, low status, low future" generation X, has now discovered the "global teen". He tells Kate Muir what this means

In shopping malls and cineplexes throughout the G7 world, the under-21s wander, addled by MTV, addicted to Nintendo computer games, and dressed by The Gap or Benetton. They are a lost generation in search of an identity.

They pass unnoticed among well-defined baby boomers, hippies, Sloane Rangers, preppies and yuppies ... at least they did until last week, when Douglas Coupland christened them "Benetton Youth" or "Global Teens" and wrote them a bible entitled Shampoo Planet.

From Bristol to Boston, from Nagasaki to Naples, he explained, these late teens have one defining common characteristic really great hair. As Mr Coupland's protagonist, 20-year-old Tyler, puts it, "Your hair is you your tribe it's your badge of clean. Hair is your document."

Trying to decide between PsycoPath sports shampoo with salon-grade microprotein or a splash of Monk-On-Fire, finally sculpted by First-Strike mousse from the pluTONium institute, Tyler adds, "What's on top of your head says what's inside your head."

No wonder the global teens are obsessed with cleanliness. Most are the children of the hippie generation. "They react by loving corporations, and they don't mind wearing ties. To them, Ronald Reagan is emperor. I'm actually quite in love with them. They're so much more optimistic," Mr Coupland says.

These "mall orphans" communicate in mallspeak; their language is international because it is almost entirely made up of brand names and consumer durables.

Mr Coupland, who was once a sculptor in Vancouver, Canada, broke into the generation-defining business last year, with Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a handbook-cum-novel about those in their twenties. Suffering from the recession, the X-Generation is cynical, alienated and forced into "McJobs" with "low pay, low status, and low future".

At a reading in Bretano's bookshop in New York last week, the X-ers were out in force, waiting for their guru to arrive. Almost all were in their early twenties. Their clothes were unisex and insignificant, washed but not ironed polka dots, baseball caps and white T-shirts but there was no question that their hair was clean.

In the shelves between Drama and Literary Criticism, three young women were talking. Two were wearing beepers in case that important social call came through. "So they do this fat-free, low-cholesterol chicken breast, marinated with bay-sel (basil), and tomato and arugula salad with the dressing on the side," advised one. Then they clomped off in their clogs to sit in the crowd below the podium and listen to the man who has written "a post-modernist masterpiece", according to Esquire magazine.

Mr Coupland snickers at that. "A few years ago, David Byrne was on the cover of Time magazine, and a few weeks later your grandmother was post- modernist. It's like oxygen, post-modernism, it's everywhere, it's just the way things are."

A former art student in the early 1980s, when "there was far too much self-indulgent performance art about", Mr Coupland himself prefers the old- fashioned comforts of the modernist school. He has a thought. "Why is it that then, the international style was such an optimistic thing, but the global village is such a boring one?"

Because, presumably, the global village will eventually be peopled with the types chronicled in Shampoo Planet. If this is the future, it is a depressing one. Mr Coupland claims his analysis is correct, for he has talked to the under-21s.

Tyler and his girlfriend speak in "Telethon-ese".

"You're beautiful, Tyler."

"No, YOU'RE beautiful, Anna-Louise."

"Tyler, you are fabulous, truly Fabulous. Stop being so fabulous. Just STOP it."

"Anna-Louise, the work you do for those kids. It's ... BEAUTIFUL."

"Come on, let's hear those phones start to ring."

So steeped are the global teens in television, so hardened is their ironic view of society, that when Tyler's mother visits his room (the "Modernarium") for a chat, he notes that they are sitting in typical talk-show host-to-guest formation.

When he is not reclassifying his CD collection with his new computer spreadsheet, or taking cocktails from his in-room grey Italian mini-fridge, or getting depressed because his girlfriend has made love to someone else in a satellite dish, he worries about getting a good job with a sizeable pension.

Even simple acts such as eating become label-intense. The global teens are always munching Cheezie Nuggies or Nacho Nodules, or drinking DesignatedDriver non-alcoholic beer. At their favourite restaurant, the Toxic Waste Dump, the girls announce they are going off to the Ladies, nicknamed Planet Purge, to swap bulimia tales, and no one bats an eyelid.

Mr Coupland's resentment of television and all things consumerist exploded into his two novels when he found them inescapable. "When I was 20 and left home, I decided I would never own a TV. I wanted a 19th-century brain. I thought if I kept all that out of my environment, my mind would eventually revert to something greater. Of course, ten years later, nothing has changed."

Mr Coupland's theory is that the pathways of your brain harden at age ten or 11. "Until then, you find it easy to learn another language, but after that, your brain turns to concrete. That's how you define a generation."

With advances in information technology, generations are getting smaller. Each new invention computers, television, videos, virtual reality gets to young people at a critical age, and separates them from the previous generation.

"My parents had print, radio and cinema," says Mr Coupland. "Then I had lots of print, lots of TV, but no computers and videos. Ten years later, kids have no print, way too much TV, interactive TV where they change channels constantly, and computers."

The prognosis is not all bad. Mr Coupland thinks it is wrong to assume that all new computer material is database junk. "It's a conceit on the part of older people to assume younger people have to know everything they know. Something's got to go. Unfortunately, young people seemed to have deemed history and geography irrelevant, and to me, they're extraordinarily important."

He runs his fingers wearily through his hair, looking his full 30 years now in his Gap shirt. The global teen generation cannot entirely be blamed for its shortcomings. They have only known Reagan-Bush or Thatcher-Major, and cannot imagine anything else. Emotionally, Mr Coupland continues: "I still remember Jimmy Carter. I still remember Pierre Trudeau. I still remember a time when society cared about other people. But there's nothing in these kids' databases to show that there are other options, that it wasn't always dog eat dog. Older people have to somehow convince young people that better things are possible."

By way of protest, he has his characters write slogans on every dollar bill that passes through their pockets. YOUR INABILITY TO ACHIEVE SOLITUDE MAKES YOU SETTLE FOR SUBSTANDARD RELATIONSHIPS, says one. YOU ARE PARALYSED BY THE FACT THAT CRUELTY IS OFTEN AMUSING, says another.

The slogans permeated Generation X's margins, too REINVENT THE MIDDLE CLASS etc and are similar in style to those used by Jenny Holzer, the artist who represented America in the Vienna Biennial. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either a case of sculpture meeting literature, or more database junk.

Perhaps Mr Coupland is wrong, and the materialistic mall-children are purely a North American phenomena. In fact, until Generation X spread like a teenage plague through the country, its author thought the only people who would understand were those on the northern West Coast: Vancouver, Seattle, and Oregon.

"The only people I thought would connect with it were a few people I grew up with. I never thought it would cross the Rockies." Instead, it has gone as far east as Manchester's Arndale Centre, one of Britain's greatest malls.

In Europe, Mr Coupland says, it is easier for books to get noticed. "People listen to writers like Vaclav Havel. Here, no one cares because we've got to compete with Kurt Cameron, star of TV's Growing Pains," he says, reaching out to trace the outline of his hand on the flysheet of a book, his way of signing the hundreds of new copies of Shampoo Planet being purchased all around him.