Whatever Happened to the Generation Gap?

I was recently interviewed on the subject of the present "lack of a generation gap" in our society. It's an answerable question, I think, however, it is also problematic. To ask the question: "Why is there no generation gap in 2008?" is to presume that in our society, a massive and mutually alienating difference in culture exists between parent/child or teacher/student as the normal state of affairs. But this is a phenomenon that belonged to the 1950s, 60s and 70s and took a convergence of technological innovation and social circumstances to cause such a most unusual and uniquely 20th century phenomenon as this period's "generation gap"; and asking "why not now?" is actually - in its own (therefore other) language - nostalgia asking this of the present, not the present asking of itself or the future.

There are always personal, and sometimes locally collective tensions in any given society between youth, its virtues, vices, and energies and the adult element that is in control of the establishments and institutions of that particular culture. But this is not the "generation gap" that I was being asked about - and it is no coincidence , and of unquestioned significance - that the person who asked this question of me (as well as being of an entirely different generation) was, as well, an indepthly researched student and historian of local underground rock 'n' roll. Without this aspect, I doubt she would have asked this question. You see, I wonder, for example, if a 17 year old of today was asked about the "generation gap" as we are talking about it here, would they understand what was being said? I don't know. Averagely speaking, I would guess not. So really, you can't ask the question without first explaining that in the 1950s rapid advances and novelties in technology effected change to such an extent that it created an entirely new culture that was alienated completely from the previous culture of its parents and grandparents. This, of course, was concurrent with the revolutions of the television and electronic music, and the generation and a half who were the subject to its culture. Make no mistake, the primary thrust of this change was technological even though the illusion is often that the cultural changes were wholly social in nature. We can't forget: the electric bass guitar has to be invented first before Paul McCartney can play it.

The television set up all kinds of new psychological situations - enough so that the TV alone would have been enough to create a new culture that would have been equally alienated from the parent culture. There are many marked differences - that become even more noticeable over time as the first TV generation grows up - between post TV culture and pre-TV culture. These differences could only be charted by someone who knew the world before TV, because TV is an environment - and environments are pervasive, therefore unnoticeable to those who are subject to them. Like all new technologies, the TV did not find any real place as part of the education system. It was resigned - as I said , like all new technologies, to the function of a diversion... entertainment, illiterate, uninformative, and "just for fun". Education continued to force the issue of the book as being the true media of literacy, reliable information, seriousness and the academic. What this situation didn't take into account was that to get good readers from an entire generation who are literate in TV first, you should have to analyse and explain the difference between the two media. The trouble is - and why we have an increasingly illiterate (or perhaps post-literate) population - is that no one ever explained to them the difference of experiences between reading a book and watching a film or TV show. At least two generations of people grew up thinking that they were not good readers - or were somehow otherwise alienated from the reading experience - simply because they didn't know what a book really was. Rather, they didn't know how a book worked.

As long as you pay attention to what is going on, TV is highly literary. It contains the form and structure of books and the written word. TV contains a film, which itself contains either a novel or short story - as is the case with drama; or perhaps non-fiction - which would of course be the contents of a documentary. But the TV - as well as film - have the added element of having to visually scan the content for pure sensory information, that in a book must be described or imagined. People who were TV literate first, and learned to read when they went to school, had a problem of perception with the book. They imagined, quite unconciously, as well as mistakenly, that their parents and teachers somehow knew how to compensate and glean the missing sensory information that was required and integral in their literacy. This is probably the first point of massive and collective alienation that goes into creating the popular "generation gap" of the 60s. The TV and the book are the same, in that they serve no purpose unless you pay attention to what is going on; and they are both interior psychological experiences, and one is the actual critical component in content of the other - so not to have taught the TV generation the differences between books, film, and TV was the older generations first mistake. Many years later, of course, those in charge of the educational institutions would repeat the same mistake with the computer, and never having adequately fixed their original relationships to media in a multi-media society, and seem forever be doomed to unwittingly promote a world that becomes more illiterate by the moment.

I think it's worth it it, at this point - and since we have to some small degree stated the circumstance of the early history of the cultural alienation between the adults and young people of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s - that we talk about a video generation. "Video", in this case, used as an all encompassing descriptive of electronic audio-visual media: TV, film and digital audio-visual media viewed on a computer. It is more helpful, I think, than perhaps it was in Marshall Mcluhan's time, to view these experiences as a collective, mostly because of the transformation of each media in the last 50 years.

Mcluhan once stated that, "... unlike the fantasy world - the escape world of movies, TV creates enormously serious and realistic minded sort of person... he's becoming almost oriental in his inwardness."(video)

Indeed, in the case of digital video, it did not exist until after Marshall Mcluhan had died. As for TV and film in the cinema... they have become more similar than different than they were in Mcluhan's time; in that the TV has generally become more "high-definition", while the modern cinema has generally become smaller and more "low-definition" than it was previously. I think that this is probably helpful to our cause of the moment - without forgetting that the TV is absolutely the central focus, both technologically, as well as historically and socially. TV is the standard against which all other audio-visual media experience will come to be judged. And in every aspect TV has had more impact and effected more changes than any other media technology of its day.

Probably, by around 1955 the circumstances were all in place for the coming cultural revolution which would be based on the developing cultural rift between the teenagers and young adults of their day, and the older more conservative generation that had fought in two major wars. When you get a new culture, you get new fears. The personal fears of the 60s hippy, and those of the 70s punk were practically identical and had a great deal to do with image; more specifically "hip" image - its aquisition, maintenance and projection. In fact, the greatest fear of either of these two youth groups had something to do with becoming old... I imagine that in a practical sense, they especially feared ageing since their culture was based on the virtues, and more especially, the energies of youth. This is a primal fear, though, and to some extent its universality as a theme would have been shared at least, in some respect, by every generation that ever was. What they really feared was becoming "un-hip". That is, they were in mortal fear that they would grow out of touch with the youth scene and be left out of the group that could access essential information and changing trends... a horrifying prospect in a culture where information is currency, and the right information priceless. Being at a lack for that information is truly terrifying. To wake up one morning and discover that you've become a "square" - or more improperly "un-cool" - this was the greatest fear of an entire generation and a half.(video).

Not so for my father. His greatest fears were something else altogether, and probably much more Victorian and practical in their concern. As far as anything like "hip" goes, he would have only applied this measure of being well-informed in his business or current, important ideas - that would have been important - to stay current and knowledgeable and be forward-looking as part of a profession, and well informed on the latest important thinking. As for popular culture, he was from another era altogether... but then, is Puccini ever really out of date?

So I think it's pretty unquestioned that the TV is primary as catalyst in creating what came to be called the "generation gap". Although, this is a practical factor in the equation - and, as I have said, with electronic culture being environmental, therefore undetectable to those who live wholly inside it - it is the advent of electronic music that had the most impact, and demonstrated the point at which the alienation between the culture of the old and the culture of the new was most intensely exacerbated.

Electric instruments appeared more or less simultaneously, and were developed at the same time as the microphone. As the bands of the 30s and 40s developed what was literally the "big band" sound, there were certain instruments - most noticeably the lead voice, piano, guitar and bass - that needed electronic enhancement to be heard over what were becoming ever larger and more raucous horn sections and louder drumsets. The electric guitar was used by jazz guitarists of the 40s; but generally speaking, in jazz the guitar was largely superceded by the horns and piano, and became more prominent as a part of the small jazz combo, where it could find its voice as a soloing instrument, and not be lost while performing its supporting harmonic role. Resourceful bass players of the time started to put pick-ups in their instruments and play through guitar amplifiers. In some cases, the big band would reinforce the bass by adding the baritone saxophone to its line-up. Whatever the case, with the popularization of the electric bass guitar in 1950s came the final component necessary for the rock 'n' roll group. Music called rock 'n' roll, and using the traditional stand-up bass fiddle - and sometimes the saxophone as the soloing instrument - the true prototype of the rock 'n' roll group did not happen until the widespread use of the electric bass guitar, and a tendency to increasingly move exclusively to electric instruments, featuring the guitar as the main soloist. The horn section was retained (at least, occasionally in recordings) by black music groups of the day (especially james brown, stax, and then later on sly and the family stone) although, this was a hybrid with rock instrumentation as well, since it had adopted the electric bass over the acoustic bass-fiddle - and was called in its day "soul music" and "rythym and blues" before that.

This rock 'n' roll, soul and rhythm and blues, through the medium of the radio, became the music of millions of American teenagers almost overnight; and throughout the period of "generation gap", it was the music that remained forever as the centre-piece of the new youth culture movement. Since it was radio that was the initial media that gave white, American teenagers access to this new music, the immediate reaction was, in some cases, violent and vehement opposition. Not only was electric music anarchic, off-key, lewd, lascivious and highly double-entendred in the most obvious way, but its first medium was the radio, which, in the world of Marshall Mcluhan, was the "hottest" of media. In parts of the third world and the entire middle east there's still no really more efficient way to cultivate hostilities than a sustained campaign of radio propaganda to get things adequately "hotted" up. In its own way, this is the circumstance surrounding the mass broadcasting of rock 'n' roll music on the radio first. It was a "hot" medium to begin with and rock 'n' roll turned up the heat in a massive call to arms.

The transistor radio created the first piece of electronic culture that was portable, and as component, was extremely important in creating the first rock 'n' roll environment. In the beginning, and unlike today where the line between what is strictly and/or highly commercial and that which is underground or "alternative" is strictly de-marked; this would not have been so for the teenager encountering Alan Freed and his "Moondog" persona, blasting rhythm and blues records over broadcast radio. The phenomenon was much more aggravated in its encounters and was very much more upsetting to the establishment than I think we can imagine today. In fact, so great was the fear that for one, brief, shining moment every single teenager who listened to Alan Freed was engaged in a genuine underground movement on massive scale. there were moments throughout the 60s and 70s that were able to replicate this feat by facilitating the access of people directly to an underground environement; but with the fragmentation and diversification within the various forms that youth culture adopted over the next few years, it would never (with the possible exception of the short-lived "Woodstock" era) be able to do so on such unified and grand a scale again.