Voice of My Generation: Soul Asylum’s ‘Misery’ is the definitive GenX song

First of all, before we begin I’ve decided (arbitrarily) henceforth and forevermore that if you were born during or after 1980 you are not a part of Generation X. I’m sorry if this upsets you, I wouldn’t want to be a Millennial or GenY either. But I’ve met a lot of you 1980s babies. I’m related to some of you 1980s babies. You are not GenX. It doesn’t mean you aren’t lovely people, you just aren’t my generation. The 1990s you experienced were vastly different from the 1990s I experienced. It’s okay, we have different cultural touchstones.

So if you were born after 1979 and then try to make a case for how Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the GenXiest song of all GenX, I will condescendingly pat you on the top of your head and then suggest you go outside and play. I can do this. I am very tall, old, and cranky.

All the rest of you Xers, I expect passionate and vitriolic debate and many proclamations about how utterly wrong I am. In fact, I can’t wait to hear all your arguments and cries of “WTF? UR DUM.” Just kidding GenX, I know you can type in complete words. Anyway, there is nothing I love more about being a pop culturalist than the really pointless arguments. That’s not sarcasm at all, I really do love them.

So here it goes: “Misery” by Soul Asylum is the definitive Generation X song.

Now, I’m not saying it’s the iconic song. No, we will forever be stuck with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and I have accepted that fact, even though I don’t think the song pertains specifically to our generation and we get roped in with it just because it was so popular and grunge and blah, you remember.

And I am not saying that “Misery” is the best song. Hell, it’s not even the best Soul Asylum song (“Marionette”) or even my favorite Soul Asylum song (“Bittersweetheart”), but it is the most GenXy song of all the GenX songs. Here’s why: it deals with misery and slackery and factories.

The song is all about being in control of the sell out and sticking together in our shitty situation despite how frustrating it is. It’s SO GenX. And there’s a certain acceptance of our fate in it, the fact that we came of age knowing we would be the first generation to do shittier than our parents. We will always be busy making misery.

If you were born after 1980 you probably don’t remember that for a long time, during most of our 20s, GenX was referred to as slackers. We were the slacker generation. The no-good, do nothings, lay abouts, dubbed thusly by the Baby Boomers who, of course, hung the moon and lit the stars and generally made the Earth the pleasant place it has become (please detect the sarcasm there). And because we were a gaggle of unsure, low-self-esteems twentysomethings we’re all “Okay, whatever Boomers we’re slackers and we suck now would you kindly shut the fuck about Vietnam.”

See, they didn’t think we were paying attention but GenX is a lot smarter than they gave us credit for. We saw how their peace, love, and hippiness turned into Reaganomics. We lived through it. And it was frustrating and it put the fear of selling out into us. Did you satisfy your greed? Get what you need? Was it only envy? So empty.

GenX has always been about discovering something genuine. It’s why being called a sell out or a poser was the worst thing ever and why we don’t wholly understand the Millenials’ ironic hipster schtick.

Anyway. I’m getting a little long-winded here and I need to wrap this up. So to reiterate:
Soul Asylum’s “Misery” is the definitive GenX song because, as I see it, it pokes fun at the greedy Boomers while also accepting that we are going to be a generation forever busy, because we won’t be able to retire, and we’re miserable fucks because the 80s scarred us for life and we’re kind of cranky misanthropes now and well if we gotta we might as well make a buck off all this total bullshit.

So, whatta ya got? What song do you think is the definitive song of GenX? There’s a slim chance I could be wrong here, and I’m open to new proposals.

UPDATE: Something I forgot — it’s not just the sell-outty nature of the song that makes it the definitive GenX song it’s that coupled with the acceptance of the shitty future.

UPDATE II: Something else I forgot. Part of “Misery” getting the definitive nod is that it’s got that soft loud soft sort of grunge, guitar-fueled feel to it. Even though I poo-poohed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” I do, in fact, believe, the definitive song should have a grunge feel to it.

Update III: If you append “just sayin’” to your argument I am going to ignore you because I don’t know exactly what that little bit of word vomit means. So if you’re “just sayin’” does that mean you don’t care if I have anything to say in response? Is whatever you are just sayin’ rhetorical? Is it a snarky, passive-aggressive way to say “I’m smart and you’re dumb?” I have no idea.

Update IV: I get that a lot of you have never heard the song “Misery.” It shocks me. At first I thought it was just my midwest bias, but then I did a little research and according to Wikipedia, the song was pretty popular.

34 Comments
  • M-----l
    March 7, 2013

    I’m listening to the definitive song of my generation right now…for the first time ever.

    That can’t be right.

    • Jodi
      March 7, 2013

      Did you not listen to the radio at all in like 1995?

      • M-----l
        March 8, 2013

        I followed your added Wikipedia link and learned that “Misery” was on a CD I used to own, so I guess I must’ve heard it at least once. I know that CD didn’t stay in the collection long and that I mostly listened to “Promises Broken” over and over again.

      • Albert Giesbrecht
        April 23, 2013

        OK, if you want a song or band from 1995, then I would say Courtney Love’s Hole. I went to Lollapalooza ’95 in Vancouver (Courtney Love used to strip at the No. 5 Orange strip clubi in Vancouver, BTW). I was almost 30, so I was too old, but what the hell right? I saw Hole, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Sinéad O’Connor and Beck, and a up and coming rapper by the name of Coolio. I also spent some time in the film tent, a very Gen-X-ie thing to do.

        Not quite as cool, but Bon Jovi’s Slippery when Wet was recorded in Vancouver. The song is about the No. 5 Orange, where you- know- who used to strip there.

  • Matthew Baiocchi
    March 7, 2013

    well hell, you sold me and i’ve never even heard of the song before.

    • Jodi
      March 7, 2013

      Seriously? Did you sleep through 1995? And does the song have to be one all of GenX has heard? Because then we’d have to go with something by like the Beatles because you know there’s some asshole who would be all “I never heard of Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

      • Matthew Baiocchi
        March 7, 2013

        i do not believe it has to be a song that all of genx has heard. and as far as sleeping through 1995, i’m going to go with the old hippie/woodstock saying – if you remember it, you weren’t there ;).

        seriously, i do like your pick for the arguments you listed. that’s how i remember it. we were all considered a bunch of slackers who were gliding through life without a plan.

  • Wolfdogg
    March 7, 2013

    Here’s my disconnect. A Gen X theme for me would have to come from the 80′s. Bastards Of Young would be mine. Fugazi’s Waiting Room. Sonic Youth’s Teen Age Riot. NWA – Bring The Noise.

    From the 90′s I would go with something like Green Day – Longview, Soundgarden – Outshined, Tracy Bonham – Mother Mother?

    • Jodi
      March 7, 2013

      I think if the song came from the 80s it would have probably be written by someone who wasn’t a member of GenX, that strikes me as wrong.

      Also, I think GenX is inextricably linked with grunge, it was the music of our coming of age and I think the Grunge has gotta be in there.

      • Wolfdogg
        March 7, 2013

        We might have to split Gen X into us 60′s born and you young folks.

        • Jodi
          March 7, 2013

          Yeah, or you can just admit I’m right. Listing songs is not making a case for them.

  • Wolfdogg
    March 7, 2013

    I’ll go with Bastards just because of when the song hit me. I was 17 and it was the right amount of angst. Bored defiance. Old hippies were singing nonsense about building cities on rock and roll, and the goths were pretending not to care what people thought. I just wanted to hang out and get by. Beats picking cotton and waiting to be forgotten.

    By 1995, my angst was over. Besides, Misery sounded like they were trying to rewrite Runaway Train and Black Gold again.

    • Jodi
      March 7, 2013

      I could get behind “Bastards.” But it’s missing that whole slacker-tinged bitterness.

      And even though your personal angst might have been over, the generational angst was still thick.

  • Jody
    March 7, 2013

    I was program director of a college radio station in 1995 and this is the first time I’ve heard this song. But I’d say definitively that at the time, I didn’t identify much with the slacker identity, although I’m with you on telling the Boomers to STFU, only in actual words instead of letters.

    The song I most identify with the mid-90s was, like the previous commenter mentioned, Green Day: Basket Case: angst, but in the I’m going to whine about nothing and everything all at once way, because really, my life doesn’t suck that much, but I need something to complain about, so here I am, being melodramatic. That pretty much wraps up the whole plot of Reality Bites in a neat, boppy package, but without wasting 90 minutes on Winona Ryder and Whatshisass.

  • James
    March 8, 2013

    preach!

  • Rich
    March 8, 2013

    I too am surprised that anyone could’ve gotten thru the mid90s without hearing this tune. I also am on board with splitting GenX into a younger and older subgens. My sis, born 67, me born 72, and my brother born 77, often discuss the fact that our “musical childhoods” were totally different, even though “Gen X” would appear to apply to all of us. She was Grease, Linda Rondstat, then U2 and early MTV. I picked up with the MTV, INXS, REM. Lee missed music on Music Television, picked up REM when I took him to the _Green_ concert, and wound up with DMB. (Blech). How to hit all of us with The One Song of Our Youth? The only album we all bought independently of each other might be TMBG’s _Flood_, but I doubt anyone will agree that “Birdhouse…” is the generation’s theme. Just our house’s.

    (This was so much more fun than writing for work!)

    • Jodi
      March 8, 2013

      So funny, but I just literally 10 minutes ago, wrote an email to a friend talking about TMBG’s “Flood.” For my sisters (we are mostly 70s GenXers with a lone 80s Millenial) the album we’d all get behind is The Gear Daddies’ “Billy’s Live Bait.” That’s probably a regional thing.

      • Wolfdogg
        March 8, 2013

        Now that I think about it, I could get behind Birdhouse. As a flipside to all the grunge happening.

        • Jodi
          March 8, 2013

          Also, it’s on the one album we listened to all the way through on that road trip.

  • Trish Frankland
    March 8, 2013

    My argument is for “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms.

    One, because I cannot hear that song and not be immediately transported to dark booths in The Grand Illusion circa 1994.

    Two, because it’s got that annoyingly catchy radio-friendly pop sound, but with lyrics rife with dirt and decay – dressing up the apathy to make it palatable.

    With an added bonus that the lyrics are a kiss-off to our Boomer parents: “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down.”

    I’ve always thought its navel-gazing type of passive-aggressive relationship regret, the lazy promise of slacker fun (aimless cruising), and the couch-surfing-ness of it all just epitomizes that time period.

    • Jodi
      March 8, 2013

      I could get behind “Hey Jealousy.” In fact, I would throwdown for the whole awesomeness of the “New Miserable Experience” album. In fact, I probably will someday soon.

  • NBFB
    March 8, 2013

    I wanna say something really smart sounding, but I’m sure I’ll fail. You can’t pin a “definitive genx song” tag on anything because of the nature of genx. We created the sub-genre. Everything before us fit into neat little categories – straight (conformist), hippie (counter-culture), or “greasers.” Genx created goth, metal heads, preppies… Music really demonstrates this with the likes of Metallica going one way, the hair metal bands going another, pop splintered into hip-hop, mixed with funk/soul and got to rap, pop country came from who the fuck knows where, grunge of course. Before that is was pretty much pop/top 40, rock (or “hard rock” like Sabbath and Zeppelin), and “Easy Listening.”

    Genx = the birth of the sub-genre. How can one possibly pin a definitive on that?

    • Jodi
      March 8, 2013

      This does come off as really smart, and I agree with your argument. However, it’s way more fun to make a bold proclamation about the definitive song and then argue about it than to accept that you’re right about the whole invention of the sub-genre thing.

  • NBFB
    March 8, 2013

    Sweeet, savory validation, I you so much.

  • Noodler
    March 10, 2013

    I’m an earlier GenXer (’68) with an older sibling who’s listening habits heavily influenced me. I identify with very little of the commercial radio fare of the 90′s.

    My question is, does the definitive GenX song have to have been written by a GenXer? I don’t think it does. I always connected much more with New Wave then I did with Grunge. I’d put Gary Numan’s Cars at the top of my list. Growing up in Reagan’s 80′s under the threat of nuclear annihilation was the defining mood and this song captured that. My other choice would be REM’s Its the end of the world as we know it.

    I consider Soul Asylum a guilty pleasure but I’d be embarrassed to consider them definitive in any way.

    • Noodler
      March 10, 2013

      After writing these last comments about Soul Asylum I immediately regretted it because I’ve always been a fan of Dan Murphy’s guitar playing. I just don’t think their appeal was big enough to warrant any of their songs being called definitive. If I was going to work along these lines I would consider Uncle Tupelo’s Factory Belt over anything written by Soul Asylum.

      • Jodi
        March 10, 2013

        First of all, it’s awesome that you’ve jumped into the fray. While I love Uncle Tupelo (more than Soul Asylum) even, I don’t think they were any bigger than SA, though what the spawned is definitely bigger than SA.

        However, I don’t think the definitive song is based on the bigness of the artist but rather the aptness of the music lyrics. If were based solely on the bigness than the definitive song would be Smells Like Teen Spirit, and mostly I don’t want it to be.

        Also, I kind of think that the song should be GenX penned. It would feel weird if it weren’t.

        • Noodler
          March 10, 2013

          Hmmmmm, okay I’ll play along. How about Miss Misery by Elliot Smith?

          I’m operating under the idea that GenXers are cynical, slacker, power questioning intellectual types. I’m not sure this is true but I’m working with Ethan Hawk in Reality Bites as my model although that’s problematic as he’s the one who gave us Lisa Loeb.

  • Barrett Chase
    March 12, 2013

    I’m a little late to the game here but I want to chime in as yet another person who’s never heard this song. I chalk that up to wadding up all of Soul Asylum and flushing them down the crapper the moment I heard “Runaway Train.” Seriously, I wonder if there is a worse song from the 90s. That’s what I want: to recreationally listen to a song about child abuse. For fun.

    And yet, that song got serious airplay. You couldn’t watch MTV for 30 minutes without seeing the video, which was like watching a UNICEF commercial for entertainment purposes.

    I’m all for celebrities using their star power to help important causes, but that isn’t the way to do it, kids. But that’s what Gen X was simultaneously fighting against and buying into, isn’t it? Boomer executives sitting around a table, saying, “These kids today seem to give a lot of lip service to caring about social issues — How can we use that to market shit to them?”

    • Jodi
      March 12, 2013

      There are worse songs from the 90s it’s called “What’s Going On?” by Four Non Blondes, or anything Gwen Stefani barfed all over the airwaves.

      And I get what you mean, I watched Soul Asylum videos the other night when I was sick and I thought “someone should do a story to see if any of those kids from the video were ever found.” However, I don’t think Soul Asylum was the first to write a catchy song about a societal ill (I’m thinking about how much I loved the song Luka by Suzanne Vega in 1987) and people are still doing. You might have been able to avoid it but that song “Pumped up Kicks” from last summer was kind of horrifying, lyrically.

  • M-----l
    March 15, 2013

    I’ve been thinking about this post and I’ve decided that my definitive GenX song would probably be by the Lemonheads. I haven’t figured out what song it would be, though. Maybe “Into Your Arms”.

    • Jodi
      March 15, 2013

      I love The Lemonheads, so I could probably support them as the singers of our generation’s song. Why did you choose them and that song?

  • Albert Giesbrecht
    April 23, 2013

    I would have thought Pink Floyd’s The Wall would have been the most Gen-X song. It was played when the Berlin Wall fell for Chrissakes!

    • Jodi
      April 23, 2013

      I’m of the belief that Gen-X’s song should be written by someone in GenX and not a babyboomer.

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