Growing up, I seriously envied Generation X.
They had their own, self-titled novel.
They had their distinct clothing style.
They had Grunge… and with it Nirvana’s late Kurt Cobain.
They even had a name that sounded dark, badass, and intriguing. Seriously, what’s not to love about “Gen X”?
In contrast, we grew up with music that was so bubbly in comparison.
What it meant to be a Millennial
The figurehead of Gen X was Kurt Cobain, a tortured artist who made it okay for people to feel their own pain. In contrast, there was little room for darkness in Millenial-land.
What we also didn’t have was the same level of social conscience that’s apparent in Gen Z. We didn’t have a Greta Thurnberg who shouted at world leaders on our behalf and we didn’t create something like Fridays for Future.
Whether or not you agree with the behavior of Kurt Cobain and Greta Thurnberg and whether you like them or not, it’s hard to argue that they represent something.
Millennials never had a cultural figurehead with a cause. We were the “happy go lucky”-generation, or so it seemed.
Instead of just receiving a letter in the alphabet, we got a pompous name to identify ourselves with.
Instead of being overlooked like the previous generation, we got plenty of time in the spotlight.
Instead of being born into difficult situations, we were born during a time of optimism.
The end of naive optimism
As the generation born between 1981 and 1996 (the most commonly accepted definition), most of us got to experience a new millennium and new technologies before even becoming adults.
I guess it all makes sense, from a cultural perspective.
As the first generation born after the Berlin Wall came down and as the first digital natives, perhaps our optimism was inevitable.
Well, the optimism has come to an end, hasn’t it? The new millennium didn’t bring a radical departure from the past. The end of the cold war didn’t mean the end of all wars. And the new technologies that promised liberation have us chained to screens and threaten our privacy.
In the process of discovering many inconvenient truths, the Millennial optimism bubble burst.
I can’t help but think that Britney Spears’ brave struggle to emancipate herself from her conservatorship is symbolic of this cultural shift among Millennials.
As she put it during her recent court hearing: “You know, fake it till you make it. But now I’m telling you the truth, OK? I’m not happy.”
Why Britney’s struggle is to personal for many Millennials
Of course, it’s not just Millennials who are fed up with how Britney Spears has been treated and how she continues to be treated. Many people from all sorts of different age groups are appalled.
In the words of Christopher Melcher, a family law attorney in Los Angeles: “I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a fan movement as organized and passionate as #FreeBritney.”
It’s just that for many Millennials (and not just the ones who make up the core of the #FreeBritney movement), this somehow suddenly has become something more.
Writer Jo Livingstone argues that the 2007 revelation of how much Britney Spears was suffering
“represented an enormous ideological myth popping like a balloon.
That disillusionment was generational, and not confined to the world of pop music. Between the years 2007 and 2010, as the economy ground to a halt and Iraq burned, millennials learned en masse that their authority figures had been corrupt and dishonest. Britney is just one person, of course, with her own specific travails, but celebrity has a way of transforming the personal into the political…”
With the current discussion about Britney Spears’ conservatorship, we can now put this generational moment into perspective. As Samantha Stark, one of the filmmakers of Framing Britney Spears described it:
“When Britney was being shamed for her sexuality as a teenager and stalked as a young adult, the gatekeepers to all these media outlets — the ones doing the shaming — were in their 30s, 40s, 50s. We as teenagers watched that happen. Now that my/our generation are a lot of the gatekeepers, we’re saying ‘no more.’”
How Britney Spears is symbolizing her generation
Our naive optimism is gone, once and for all. It has been replaced by a more mature version of the Millennial belief in a good world — the desire to have goodness win.
That requires a new approach: It’s time for Millennials to face the darkness (like Gen X) and to become a rebel with a cause (like Gen Z).
Through talking about the pain she kept hidden for a long time, Britney Spears is making room for others to talk about their pain. In this way, she’s becoming the Kurt Cobain of her generation.
And through initiating an important debate about sovereignty and human rights (especially at the intersection of sexism and ableism), she is becoming a rebel with a cause. In this way, she’s becoming the Greta Thurnberg of her generation.
Right now, Britney Spears is both her generation’s cultural figurehead and the cause (#FreeBritney) itself. Just like her, Millennials have come a long way from being “happy go lucky.”
Their new soundtrack isn’t “(Hit me) Baby One More Time.”
It’s the Twisted Sister’s rallying cry “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
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