You can now walk into most newsagents in the UK and buy a packet of XXXTREME energy sweets for 59p. I know this because the other day I received – as you do when you work at a snowboard magazine – a pack of free sweets and a fact sheet from Fox Confectionary, the makers of XXXTREME. It’s the usual drivel of course: “Those who live life on the edge know that sometimes, reality can get in the way,” reads the accompanying press release, without much thought for what any of that actually means. “Whether you’re whizzing down the slopes or plunging through the rapids,” it continues, “you don’t want to be lagging from the long hours spent in the office, or late nights out with the lads.” Fair enough I suppose. But can a packet of boiled sweets really solve those problems? Fox’s reckon so.“The launch of XXXTREME should give you the energy you need, meaning you’ll no longer have to compromise your lifestyle.”
Without being too cynical, aren’t we all too media savvy to realise what’s actually going on here? Correct me if I’m wrong but I’m picturing some poor PR junior – possibly paid less than minimum wage – who’s had to whip up a press release about some useless product that has in turn been conjured up by swivel eyed marketing types at Fox. Judging by the text, the junior has tried to aim the release at his or her picture of what an ‘extreme’ sports fan might look like and what they might want to hear. And of course, that picture is probably based on some sort of Bill and Ted or Dude Where’s My Car stereotyped character. Which is to say, way off the mark. In their defence, it’s almost certainly the stereotype that the Fox execs had in mind too, so it’s not exactly like the brief hasn’t been met.
And here’s an even stranger thing: none of that matters. Because the truth of the matter is that it probably won’t be snowboarders (or skateboarders or surfers or anyone who rides a board) who’ll be rushing to get the sweets – it’ll be kids who think that by buying a packet of XXXTREME they’re also buying a badge of honour and membership into a sporting club that they are constantly reminded – via TV commercials and paper adverts – is exclusive, cool, dangerous and sexy.
The whole thing is, in a word, strange.
Or maybe that’s a load of hot air and I’m just a jaded hack who’s seen one too many press releases. If so, ignore the whole intro and instead answer me this: when did all this ‘extreme’ nonsense become part of our world? Who was it that sat down one day and thought ‘if I chuck in a few more X’s on this logo it’ll really appeal to the kids’? In short, what’s up with this ‘X’ shit?
I only ask because – as I’m sure you’re all aware – in 2005 it’s hard to move without bumping into some sort of ‘X’ branded youth concept. From morning to evening we can gorge ourselves on our so-called ‘extreme’ sports on TV’s The Extreme Channel, check into what’s going on with the Extreme Science team on BBC 1, get our cars souped up by a company called Extreme Car Tuning, practice Extreme Voodoo or indulge in the fantastically ironic (no pun intended) craze of Extreme Ironing. I mean why not? Everyone else is at it.
That is, unless you’re looking for something a little more, ahem, extreme. If that’s the case, marketing types have realised that dropping the ‘E’ and just going with ‘Xtreme’ is much more in keeping with the image. Hence we have Xtreme Scooters, the Xtreme Digital Keyboard, people who drink Xtreme Muscle Building serum (‘the only patented Nitric Oxide Formula!’ according to the label), and the people who sell the saucy sounding Airplus Xtreme G Router.These, of course, are not to be confused with the makers of Xstacy Xtreme, which to be fair is bypassing the youth market and going straight for the adult stuff. But I think we can agree that the name has been borne from the same seed, as it were. All in all, it’s enough to bring you out in a sweat – a situation that hasn’t gone un-noticed by Right Guard, the makers of the one and only Xtreme deodorant. Not that any of the above products are at the top of the Extreme tree. Oh no. To do that, as any marketing exec worth his or her salt will tell you, dropping letters isn’t a good idea. In actual fact what you want to do is to add some. Preferably they’ll be X’s. Thus, should you wish, you could feasibly now start the day slapping on a bit of Exxtreme Mascara, then head out to the garage to put the fi nal touches on your model airplane ‘the Exxtreme Flying wing’ before relaxing away the night by wearing something from the brilliant range of Exxtreme Knitwear. Assuming you’re a complete nutter. In make up.
We’re so used to the concept of all things youthful and rebellious being somehow connected to the letter ‘X’ that companies have boiled everything down to that simple letter. So whilst you’re wearing your knitwear you could play your X-box, listen to a bit of the punk band X, crank up the computer which runs on Mac OS X, drop a couple of X’s (the teenagers choice of drug in the US these days) before either sitting glued to the X-Games, applying for the a slot on X-Factor, playing on your X-Piano, chewing on some X-Mints (not the same as Fox’s) or thinking about your SSX Snowboard game and wondering what it would be like to listen to some Xxtreme Hardcore Techno on XFM (106.7 fm).
If that all sounds a little hectic, you could always sit back, open a cold Castlemaine XXXX, slide a copy of The X Men into the DVD player, and put your XXXXing feet up.
Why not? You’ve earned it.
So you see what I’m saying? This X stuff – it’s everywhere.
I put one of the Fox sweets in my mouth. Perhaps due to the overwhelming energy I was getting from the Caffeine and Taurine double whammy, I felt compelled to look into the murky past of this X anomaly and get some answers. I was energized and defi nitely not ‘lagging from the long hours spent in the offi ce, or late nights out with the lads’, to paraphrase someone I heard recently. With my jaw going ten to the dozen, and my fingers speeding away over books, old magazines and search engines, a picture began to emerge. Seemingly, all the roads led to one simple phrase: Generation X; and if I was pushed to fix a date on the birth of the whole X phenomenon, I’d probably settle on the early 1990’s.
So here’s what I found out. According to the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymologic definition, the phrase ‘Generation X’ has been around since the year 1952. Originally it described a lost or dissatisfied group of any age, the ‘X’ having been taken from the mathematical use of the letter to denote an unknown or unspecified quantity. Although the person or place that originally coined the phrase is now lost in time, the phrase itself must have had some poetic qualities, since it survived the decade to reappear in 1964, when it became a minor cultural phenomenon
Jane Deverson was working on the UK magazine when she was asked by her editor to go out and speak to the youth of Britain. “They were looking for a nice feature on wonderful British teens and why we should be proud of them,” said Deverson in a recent retrospective on her study. For six months spanning 1963-64, Deverson toured the north of England, talking to 15 to 17 year olds from all walks of life. The material she compiled was honest, compelling stuff, but when she handed in the interviews her editor was far from impressed: “You’re saying young people sleep together before they are married, don’t believe in God, dislike the queen and don’t respect their parents?” he asked. “We can’t print it.”
Sensing that the study’s material was too good to lose, Deverson pitched it to various publications, during which time she met Charles Hamblett, an up-and-coming Hollywood writer who was aware that British youth culture was at an all time high. Together they decided to publish the study in a book, and possibly recalling a phrase he had come across earlier, Hamblett suggested the book’s title should be Generation X. On every level, the phrase worked perfectly with the contents of the book.
It was a massive hit: the book kick-started the whole pop-literature craze. Mick Jagger was said to be a huge fan and according to legend, John Lennon wanted to turn Generation X into a musical. None of that happened of course. As the decade wore on the book’s popularity waned, the 60’s movement, as expected, moved elsewhere, and the phrase went underground. But it didn’t completely die, and bizarrely, the next time it appeared, it was once again at the head of a youth movement. This time, it was all about Punk.
In 1976, a group of kids from Bromley in Kent decided to form a band. Their original name of ‘Chelsea’ wasn’t hitting the right buttons, so before their fi rst gig at the Roxy club in the heart of London, when the Punk movement was in its energetic infancy, the band’s leader – a 17 year old kid named Billy Idol – convinced his bandmates to go with the title of one of his mum’s old books from the 60’s. The book was of course Generation X by Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett, and the band went on to have a succession of hits until 1981, when Idol left to go solo and the rest of the group took off to become Sigue Sigue Sputnik – a group that Rolling Stone Magazine remarked had the “dubious accolade of being the first band to have an advert on one of their singles.”
So the phrase was well and truly out in the public sphere. But even by the early 1980’s the idea of marketing stuff to kids using this great imagery of a mystery ‘Generation X’ was completely foreign. It simply didn’t exist. True to current form, Gen X had come to mean something rebellious, punk, and perhaps slightly left of centre, but it hadn’t yet captured the public imagination, or even become a marketing byword for youthful pursuits. In fact, by 1987 the phrase had, if anything, come to mean one of two things: an old, credibility-stripped punk band or an even older, well-thumbed book.
And then Douglas Coupland came along.
Coupland was a Canadian scribe whose writings happily merged hardcore political themes with observational and character based comedy. In September of 1987 he wrote about a theoretical Generation X in Canada’s Vancouver Magazine. The characters from that fi ctional short story eventually formed the backbone of his greatest work – a book published in 1991 entitled Generation X, Tales for an Accelerated Culture. It went on to be a global bestseller.
The book’s main theme is essentially that modern life is pretty drab. Its main characters are overeducated, under-fulfi lled and have little to aspire to but to work in the service industry – the book is famous for coining the phrase ‘McJob’ to describe the phenomena. With title chapters like ‘Our Parents Had More’‘Shopping is Not Creating’, and ‘I Am Not a Target Market’, it’s pretty negative but brutally honest stuff.
Critics jumped on the chance to use the book’s theme to defi ne their era, with the added bonus that its catchy title was literary gold for journalists seeking to pigeon-hole people of a certain age. Until then, the only catchphrases circulating to describe the emerging generation (who were becoming increasingly keen to distance themselves from their parents by way of music fashion, and sports) were the fairly un-inspiring ‘20 something’s’, the drab ‘Grungers’ or ‘Grunge Generation’, and the positively clumsy ‘post-baby boomers’. When Coupland’s Generation X came along, contemporary teenagers had a poetic, memorable and in some ways, sexy term to describe themselves. The social historians, meanwhile, had a useful, all-encompassing phrase. Never mind that it was a borrowed term, it worked.
Which is all good and well, but it doesn’t explain how it came to be attached to free-sports. And here’s where the old ‘right-place-right-time’ coincidence kicks in. For the era that Coupland wrote through and described – essentially the late 80’s and early 90’s – also saw the emergence of a twist in the sport of skiing. It started with mountain guides such as the French pair of Patrick Valencant and Anselme Baud, who mixed skills they’d learned as climbers with daring descents down some of the most un-skiable terrain in the world, creating a virtual new sport in the process. Anyone who’s ever taken the cable car to the top of the Aiguille du Midi above Chamonix in France will appreciate that the territory they were pioneering was, to put it mildly, hardcore. The routes they chose to ski were littered with places where abseiling or jumping off cliffs was a necessity. Bored with the monotonous slalom features that until that point had characterized their ski magazines, editors everywhere jumped on this new sport, and at some undisclosed point it become known as ‘Extreme Skiing”. The beast had been born.
That’s not to say it was all skiing’s fault. There were other factors involved. Crucially, the photos of this new sport were both accessible and spectacular, and they hit newsstands at the same time people were noticing that young people all over the world were trying out daring new sports like skateboarding and BMX, neither of which fi tted into the traditional ‘team’ mentality. Kids were also starting to take time off after leaving school – heading to far-fl ung destinations to indulge in activities like bungee jumping in Africa, jet boat riding in New Zealand, or bridge swinging
in South America. Coupland, ever alert to such trends, categorized them as the ‘Poverty Jet Set’, and described them as “a group of people given to chronic traveling at the expense of long-term job stability or a permanent residence”. He even wrote, with a biting wit that runs throughout Generation X, that this growing group “tend to have doomed and extremely expensive phone-call relationships with people named Serge or Ilyana.”
Yet again his words were a gift to subeditors everywhere. With Generation X now an accepted term, and a whole genre of sports emerging along the new tag-line ‘Extreme’, it wasn’t a huge leap of the imagination to combine the two concepts together. ‘Generation Extreme’ was born, lending anyone with half a brain the ability to make puns on the phrase. It’s an epidemic that has yet to be controlled.
It is, in short, why we now have XXXTREME mints. And here’s the maddest thing: Coupland is gutted. If there’s one central theme to his greatest work, it is that the constant onslaught of marketing bullshit should be rebelled against. His characters, for all their faults, are unifi ed by a hatred for the situation they feel they’re in, and their inability to fi ght against the corporations that seem to govern their lives. So it’s with a heavy bout of irony that the phrase has been appropriated by the very enemy of the book – faceless corporations – in order to sell us more shit.
Hats off to Coupland for never having given in to the barrage of offers he must have had to associate his book with some youthful product. “Back in 1991,” he said in a recent interview, “some guy in Orange County named Warren kept hounding me to make Generation X T-shirts, and I said, ‘Warren, keep your money, because nothing could be less X than wearing a T-shirt saying ‘Generation X.’” ■Did Douglas Coupland take the name from the Punk band or the 1964 book?
It’s a question that has been hotly debated for some years. According to the man himself, Coupland was aware of the punk group and hence the phrase’s power of suggestion, but reckons the name for his novel came from a book called Class, by Paul Fussell, printed in 1983. In Fussell’s book, ‘Class X’ is a group of kids who don’t seem to fi t into any social pigeon hole, and spend the majority of the story in a sort of social limbo. “In his fi nal chapter” said Coupland in a 1995 interview, “Fussell named an ‘X’ category of people who wanted to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money, and social climbing.” Sensing this applied to the people he was observing in his homeland in the late 80’s, Coupland extended the phrase to take in a generation. Which could mean, in a sense, that the story of X stops not at Jane Deverson or Charles Hamblett’s door, but Paul Fussell’s. Letters to
photos by Markus Paulsen/Tomas Zuccaren Dom Coole/Nate Abbott/Shazamm/ESPN/ACM