By the time I headed off to college in August 1982 — which is to say, by the time the lead-edge of Generation X (those born between 1962 and 1980) had finished high school and headed off to college — the classic rock radio format had already begun to dominate the FM dial.
We children of the Seventies, who’d grown up in the Baby Boomer’s undertow, did not recognize in this musical phenomenon any overt Boomer-centrism. Not at first. It took another pop cultural marker to crystalize the audio-generational connection: The Big Chill. This film, released in 1983, had plucked a dozen “classic” Sixties tunes for its destined-for-platinum soundtrack, and an intersectional light flipped on in my head: This is Boomer music! In their plenitude, they have now claimed it as their own. That’s why radio programmers have deployed it as a staple of classic rock formats.
You may have noticed I spend a lot of time working to distinguish my fellow GenXers from our next elders in the culture. This matters, to me, because I’m often mistaken for a Baby Boomer (born between 1943-1961), and I don’t want to be associated with this cohort that has so dominated and distorted the culture, the economy, the political landscape.
Accordingly, I’m extra inclined to notice all the different cultural markers that serve to set us part. “Sesame Street” is one such indicator: Gen X was not insignificantly shaped by this show, while Boomers were too old to partake of this PBS standard when it debuted in 1969. The Big Chill and its soundtrack represent another prominent bellwether. Indeed, Lawrence Kasdan’s Oscar-winner (Best Picture, 1984) did more than cement a burgeoning radio format: It reinforced ideas Americans already held about ‘60s-era culture and student activism, while cannily updating us on what had happened to all these Boomers since.
This wasn’t the first bit of cinema to attempt this specific retrospection: John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven arguably did it first (1979), and more artfully. But The Big Chill did introduce to a far broader swath of U.S. culture the intense nostalgia Boomers still held for the 1960s — the idealism, the style of communitarianism, the capacities to make change, stop wars and pioneer a youth culture.
More pointedly, the film also posited that adult Boomers were, by the early 1980s, beginning to actively sell out and abandon those ideals, economically and politically.
Having first witnessed this massive generation of Americans transition from activist-idealists to Seventies-era truth-seeking hedonists, I already associated my next elders with self-indulgence — never with any great degree of false virtue, however. Nonetheless, as The Big Chill makes evident, Boomers already recognized this burgeoning hypocrisy in themselves. Eighties America and Reaganism were about making money. Grown-up Boomers wrestled with this market/capitalist ethos for a time: Remember the blowback Kevin Kline’s character gets for owning a business, making friends with cops and selling out to some multi-national? Lovable, non-threatening Kevin Kline!
Eventually, however, Boomers bought into naked capitalism and the politics of self-interest. Big time.