Young people, consider yourselves insulted. Elizabeth Wurtzel, the lady whose memoir Prozac Nation briefly inspired murmuring about whether or not she was the voice of your older sister’s (or perhaps even, by now, your parents’) generation back in 1994, has observed that “Lena Dunham with her inexcusable thighs seems to be the only twentysomething success story in the world of high art and entertainment.” As if millennials didn’t already have enough to contend with — from constant, comically unfounded accusations of narcissism and laziness to our new status as the butt of approximately 93% of idiotic jokes disguised as trend pieces — we now have to listen to a woman whose favorite subject is her own narcissism and laziness call us “the lamest generation.”
As with all click-bait stories of this variety, the accusations are based on nothing but the few random threads of youth culture its Gen X author has managed to grasp. And as with everything Wurtzel has written in recent memory, the piece doesn’t make an argument so much as dribble out odd tidbits (“P. Diddy made living in the Hamptons and having his Black & White Party more hip-hop than the penitentiary”), punctuating them every few paragraphs with a bombastic pseudo-epiphany (“That is what 21 year olds are here to do: They are here to rock the planet senseless”).
Listen: If you’re going to pronounce an entire generation culturally irrelevant based on the fact that ten million Americans spent last night watching in rapt silence as a 52-year-old chemistry teacher turned meth-cooking supervillain met his fate, at least do some very basic homework to cover up your lack of engagement with the culture as just about everyone under 40 is experiencing it.
Let’s take a quick look at the two art forms Wurtzel complains are bereft of earth-shaking “Generation Z-for-Zero” (good one!) influences: music and TV. Of the top five artists on the most recent Billboard 100, four are under 30. One of them, Lorde — a New Zealand-based singer/songwriter whose “Royals” is the first single by a woman to top Billboard’s Alternative charts since 1996, and who is already among 2013’s most talked-about musicians — is only 16. She and Miley Cyrus may not be responsible for this year’s equivalent of The White Album, but seeing as Diddy makes Wurtzel’s list of world changers, artistic merit doesn’t seem to be exactly what she’s talking about. (Meanwhile, 20-something acts like Azealia Banks, Le1f, Angel Haze, A$AP Rocky, and various members of Odd Future remind us that Wurtzel actually has no clue about the many exciting, paradigm-shifting developments happening among the millennial rappers who are slowly but surely breaking through to the mainstream.)
As for TV, well, there’s no way to argue that millennials are all over such a youth-obsessed medium without venturing into the obvious — so here we go. Twenty-somethings are the central characters of critical favorites like New Girl and inexplicably popular crap like 2 Broke Girls alike. They play important roles on ensemble shows, from comedic cult favorites Parks and Recreation and Community to addictive soaps Nashville and Scandal. Yes, the middle-aged male antihero is a current (though, by all indications, nearly passé) preoccupation of Quality Television, but it’s not like what we think of as the classic shows of past decades have focused largely on young adults, either. Seinfeld, All in the Family, I Love Lucy, The Sopranos — all featured protagonists in their 30s or older. Friends is a notable exception, although its creators were about a decade their characters’ senior. What makes Girls notable — Lena Dunham’s apparently comment-worthy thighs aside — isn’t that it’s the one show by and about young people that has made a dent on the cultural conversation in 2013; it’s that it is one of the few shows by and about young people that has ever dominated discourse by viewers of all ages.
We don’t even have to get into art forms Wurtzel didn’t touch on, like film (last year, then-29-year-old Benh Zeitlin earned Best Director and Best Picture Academy Award nominations for his debut film, Beasts of the Southern Wild) or literature (Téa Obreht was 25 when she published her Orange Prize-winning debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, in 2011) to see how spurious her argument is. What Wurtzel is mourning in this piece is the monoculture that existed before the Internet — a realm she characterizes, not coincidentally, as dominated by “people in their twenties wearing khaki pants and polo shirts,” where millennials are supposedly making their only real contribution to American culture. “I blame the Internet,” she writes, going on to complain (as many have complained before) that “because of the World Wide Web, there is too much content and not enough filter, and the value of talent has been decimated.”
It may be true that our cultural gatekeepers no longer hand-select a few global mega-stars to “rock the planet senseless,” but the ramifications of that development are hardly limited to a single generation. More importantly, it has little to do with whether people in their 20s are making the kind of bold, irreverent art their parents and grandparents made when they were young. The kids today are just as ferociously creative as their predecessors — and, as Elizabeth Wurtzel has inadvertently confirmed, the older generations remain just as in the dark about that as ever.