“Actually, Gen X Did Sell Out, Invent All Things Millennial, and Cause Everything Else That’s Great and Awful - The New York Times” plus 3 more

“Actually, Gen X Did Sell Out, Invent All Things Millennial, and Cause Everything Else That’s Great and Awful - The New York Times” plus 3 more

Actually, Gen X Did Sell Out, Invent All Things Millennial, and Cause Everything Else That’s Great and Awful - The New York Times

Posted: 13 May 2019 09:06 PM PDT

What is an X? An empty set, a place-holder, a nothing that fills a void until an actual something comes along.

For the members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, that was never us.

"They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own," wrote Time magazine in a 1990 cover story called "20-something" that marked our debut, as a class, on the national stage. "They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial. They hate yuppies, hippies and druggies. They postpone marriage because they dread divorce. They sneer at Range Rovers, Rolexes and red suspenders."

Leave aside the fact that struggling 20-somethings of any era tend to sneer at luxury goods. At that point, the oldest members of Generation X were 25. No one really knew what we were.

But someone apparently knew what we weren't: dreamers, revolutionaries, world-changers, like the baby boomers before us. To the extent that we were defined, we were defined in the negative — the first generation in American history to be written off before it had a chance to begin.

Now it's been a quarter century since the clichés ossified. Here is another negative to chew on: What if everything we decided about Generation X turned out to be wrong?

There is one thing people do get right about America's Generation X: There aren't that many of us — roughly 65 million, according to recent data from the Census Bureau. Sandwiched between the change-the-world boomers (around 75 million) and the we-won't-wait-for-change millennials (approximately 83 million), we were doomed to suffer a shared case of middle-child syndrome, an eight-figure-strong army of Jan Bradys.

And our generation may be smaller than that. Only 41 percent of the people born during those years even consider themselves part of Generation X, according to one MetLife study.

Most people I know who ever copped to X-ness were born in the later '60s or early '70s, a window of maybe eight years. (My wife was born in 1979 and has no idea who Fonzie is. Case closed.)

Read more about the tech, music, style, books, rules, films and pills that scream Gen X.

Our generation also showed a disturbing tendency to lose its leading lights due to untimely death. Boomers never got over losing Jimi, Janis, and Jim during a ten-month span of 1970 and 1971, but consider the Generation X icons who were snuffed out at an early age: Tupac Shakur, Jeff Buckley, Brandon Lee, Elliott Smith, Biggie Smalls, River Phoenix, Shannon Hoon, Aaliyah and a certain beloved flannel-clad rocker from Aberdeen, Wash., who has gotten enough ink in Generation X articles.

It wasn't just that our numbers were small. Our cultural moment was a blip. Boomers owned several decades of mass entertainment, and it was truly mass — from "Howdy Doody" in the 1950s to "The Big Chill" in the 1980s, with about 82 percent of the rock 'n' roll that's worth listening to between them.

We don't even have exclusive rights to our own name. Generation X was the title of 1964 book about mod-era British teenagers, a punk band from the 1970s featuring Billy Idol and satirical novel usually mistaken as a sociological treatise by Douglas Coupland — all boomers.

The artifacts that branded Generation X as irony-obsessed iconoclasts scarfing antidepressants under a permanent Seattle-gray sky — think "Hunger Strike," by Temple of the Dog, Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Prozac Nation," maybe "The Ben Stiller Show" doing a "Lassie" parody with Charles Manson as the dog — were niche to begin with, and were booted from the stage after maybe four years of the early '90s.

Elizabeth Wurtzel with her Prozac locket in 1991. CreditCatherine McGann/Getty Images

Grunge was on life support the moment the news media decided to call it "grunge" (to folks in the scene, it was still punk). It was given last rites in 1992, when Marc Jacobs unveiled his then-risible (now visionary?) "grunge" line that got him fired from Perry Ellis.

And grunge was cremated, its ashes flushed down the Pike Place Market Starbucks toilet, that same year when the Styles section of this newspaper allowed itself to be hoaxed by a former Sub Pop records employee on its "Lexicon of Grunge," serving up bogus mosh-pit lingo like "big bag of blotation" (drunk), "lamestain" (uncool person) and "swingin' on the flippity flop" (hanging out).


So it's easy to decide that Gen X is culturally irrelevant — if you're comfortable with the dangerous prospect of making sweeping conclusions about the identity, values and culture of millions of individuals from every imaginable background.

Did the working-class class trans kid living in Tulsa, Okla., the Marine recruit from the South Bronx, the heiress in Rhode Island, and the surfing phenom in Huntington Beach, Calif., all groove on "Mystery Science Theater 3000" in 1992? Would it matter if they did?

But to cede irrelevance, even after 25 years of reflection, would be to let the winners — the boomers, or maybe the millennials — write our history for us. Like bell bottoms, aviator shades and Birkenstocks, we have been wearing the clichés imposed by other generations since Zima was cool (Zima was never cool).

And now, as our AARP cards begin to arrive in the mail, maybe, just maybe, it's time to turn those clichés on our heads one by one?

There it is, the Big Bang, the Generation X cliché from which all others were born. But where did "slacker" come from? The answer, in one sense, is obvious: from the 1991 film of the same name by Richard Linklater (also a boomer).

"Slacker" featured a bunch of 20-something nonactors wandering around Austin, Tex., before a 16-millimeter-film camera muttering daffy inanities like "we've been on Mars since 1962" until the film's $23,000 budget ran out. Martian colonies, apparently, were what you talked about when you were young, the economy was lousy and you could still freely traverse Austin without running aground on banh mi food trucks and émigrés from Brooklyn.

"Slacker" was, by all counts, a seminal film, although I don't remember any of my Gen X friends getting through more than 30 minutes of it.

We preferred "Dazed and Confused," Mr. Linklater's celluloid Slurpee from 1993, because that was about high school students in 1976 — yes, boomers! — and for years we bought the lie that older people's culture mattered more than our own, just because there were more of them. Rootless cosmopolitans, we were told to look to the past for significance, so we did — to the Sinatra Rat Pack ("Swingers," 1996), to Kennedy-era Madison Avenue ("Mad Men," created by Matthew Weiner, b. 1965), to the male blow dryer era ("That '70s Show").

What we did not find significant was the "slacker" label.

"The slacker tag never really applied to me, or anyone I knew," said Sarah Vowell (b. 1969), an author and contributor to "This American Life" who spent her 20s juggling graduate studies with a teaching gig at an art school and multiple deadlines per week as a freelance journalist. "Even though my friends and I all looked like extras from 'Reality Bites,'" she said, "our Puritan work ethic was probably more 1690s than 1990s."

Central to the slacker myth was coming-of-age during the early '90s recession, which, according to '90s surveys of our generation, apparently doomed us to failure for life.

And yes, the recession was real. People lost jobs (including George Herbert Walker Bush, in the 1992 Presidential election). People looked for jobs and did not find them. But the recession that supposedly served as cement shoes for a generation was, in historical terms, relatively short and mild. It lasted just eight months, with unemployment bottoming out at 7.8 percent, compared to the 1980s recession that lasted 16 months with a peak unemployment rate of 10.8 percent, and the Great Recession starting in 2007, which lasted 18 months with unemployment around 10 percent.

But by the time the '90s recession ended, in March of 1991, the oldest Gen Xers were barely 26. The youngest were in middle school. And the post-recession economy that followed was closer to the Roaring '20s than the Depression '30s, marked by the longest running economic expansion in the nation's history. Gen X had it good.

With low inflation, rising productivity due in part to technological advances and a booming stock market, the National Debt Clock near Times Square actually started to run backward by 2000, as flush times allowed the country to pay down its debt.

Whether or not we still hated "yuppies," as Time magazine once asserted, the professional classes of Generation X were beginning to earn, and that only continued, despite the giant dislocations of the dot-com bust (2000) and the Great Recession.

By the middle of this decade, in fact, Generation X already had more spending power than either boomers or millennials, according to a survey by Shullman, a market research company that focuses on the luxury sector, with 29 percent of the estimated net worth and 31 percent of the income, though we comprise just a quarter of the American adult population.

The generation also seems to have gotten over its aversion to Rolexes and Range Rovers (although not, it seems, red suspenders). As of 2012, we were also spending 18 percent more on luxury goods than our yuppie boomer forebears, according to one American Express survey.

We did not get there by slacking. We just have our own way of enjoying life.

"As for our notorious hustle-to-debt ratio, it speaks to a generational lifestyle ambition that often exceeds our career ambition," Jason Tesauro (b. 1971), the food writer behind the Modern Gentleman series of advice books, wrote in an email.

"I've published, accomplished, saved, succeeded, but 0.0 family elders would add my name to our ancestral canon of iconic workaholics," he continued. "I'm 47 and I can sum-up my financial goals in a simple mantra: 'Older wine, newer shoes.' I call it Pellegrino rich. I just want enough affluence so that when I'm asked, 'Still or sparkling?' I don't have to check my balances first."

Younger generations who consider the Kardashians the highest model of professional achievement might have a hard time believing it, but there was a brief moment where some Gen Xers did actually express the opinion that selling out was bad. Maybe they just figured no one was buying.

It certainly was true for Elliott Smith (b. 1969), the prototypically X singer-songwriter, as he made abundantly clear during his memorably strange Oscars appearance in 1998.

Somewhere between Billy Crystal's Broadway-by-way-of-Bel-Air opening number and Sean Connery popping the envelope on "Titanic" for best picture, Mr. Smith, the McCartney of melancholy, ambled onstage, alone with an acoustic guitar, looking uncomfortable, not just in his ill-fitting white suit, but in his own skin.

Mr. Smith, then 28, was an inscrutable genius plucked from the college-town club circuit. He mumbled and squirmed through interviews, rocked greasy hair and thrift-store sweatshirts onstage, and had a tattoo of the state of Texas on his arm, even though he hated Texas.

To the surprise of virtually everyone, including Mr. Smith himself, his forlorn song "Miss Misery," which was featured in "Good Will Hunting," had been nominated for best original song.

From a Generation X perspective, it seemed like a moment of arrival. Here was one of our own — complicated, elusive, yet infinitely worthy — at last given the chance to serenade the Bob Mackie gowns and tuxedos with lyrics like "to vanish into oblivion, it's easy to do."

And for him, it was. The moment of triumph lasted exactly 120 seconds. The Titanic crew (who else?) took home the gold statuette for "My Heart Will Go On," sung by Celine Dion (who else?), and Mr. Smith followed what seemed like a predestined Gen X career arc — a couple more critical-darling albums that failed to go platinum, or even gold, and an early death, in 2003, from a knife wound to the heart — an apparent suicide, albeit a highly murky one.

"I'm the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous," he once said, and it sounded like an epitaph for a generation — except for pretty much everything else that happened in the 1990s.

It is often said that we were the last analog generation, and it's true, most of us remember rabbit ears, vinyl records before they were ironic, and calling 1-800-Collect on sidewalk pay phones.

But our lo-fi world ended on October 13, 1994 with the introduction of the Netscape browser, which made it possible to actually "surf" the "net," to invoke a term that has aged a lot worse than vinyl albums. In the coastal capitals of capitalism, opportunity, suddenly, was in the air.

"I remember distinctly thinking 'Wait, you mean I don't have to wait a decade to start something?'" said Andrew Yang (b. 1975), the tech entrepreneur and current presidential candidate, who bailed on his prestigious Big Law job in 2000 to start a web company.

There was no time for talk about Mars colonies. There were fortunes to be made. Generation X professionals were suddenly eager to sell out, so long as it came with stock options and a tent at Burning Man (founded 1986). They felt pity for sellouts of an earlier generation, like the hippie-turned-yuppie boomers whose idea of a payday was a crushing yellow-tie job in finance or law and a BMW 5-series. Dude, where's your ambition?

Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google's headquarters in 2000.CreditRandi Lynn Beach/Associated Press

For some, it almost seemed easy. James Altucher (b. 1968), a serial entrepreneur turned self-help guru, was a broke dude who liked to fiddle with computers when the madness started. Back then, every company needed a website, but no one seemingly knew how to build them.

One Fortune 10 company had no luck getting a big advertising agency to cobble one together, "so they asked a friend of mine," Mr. Altucher said. "He didn't know how to do it. He asked me. I knew how to do it. I had zero dollars in the bank was working a full-time job. Three weeks later I made the website and they gave me $250,000."

As much as millennials like Mark Zuckerberg like to claim dorm-room-to-riches ethos, X got there first. Two late-'90s whiz kids, Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman, were still in their early 20s when they went public with a company, Globe.com, which they started in their Cornell dorm room. It was some crazy idea called a "social network" — imagine. Overnight, they were worth nearly $100 million.

And overnight, they weren't.

Still, you get the point. The boomer Steve Jobs might qualify as the original disrupter, but when boomers broke the rules, there was always a sense of grandiosity and self-satisfaction — Procol Harum performing with the London Symphony Orchestra. Mind: blown.

When X broke the rules, it was punk rock, the Dead Kennedys covering "Viva Las Vegas" (I know, Jello Biafra was a boomer, but spiritually, he belonged to us). We broke the rules because we didn't care about the rules. We weren't even sure they existed.

Consider Facebook, a company founded by fresh-faced millennials like Mr. Zuckerberg himself, except for the token, trailing-edge Gen- Xer, Sean Parker (b. 1979), the company's founding president and, effectively, its id. No skinny-armed tech geek, Mr. Parker was a tech swashbuckler who built his entrepreneurial reputation on piracy (or so the record companies argued about his first venture, Napster); threw Hollywood-lavish parties that would make his onscreen alter-ego, Justin Timberlake (one of the oldest millennials), proud; and famously proclaimed that "running a start-up is like eating glass. You just start to like the taste of your own blood."

For Generation X, anarchy was a business model. The "New Economy" was our economy.

Were we not apathetic so much as app-athetic. Sorry, that was lamestain. Whatever! The digital natives of the millennial generation would hardly be drowning in 1s and 0s without Xers like Elon Musk (b. 1971), Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google (b. 1973), Jack Dorsey of Twitter (b. 1976) and even Tom Anderson of Myspace (b. 1970), who for a brief, shining moment was everyone's friend.

Jay-Z at his desk in New York City in 1996.CreditAl Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Our generational megalomania was hardly confined to techies. Jay-Z (b. 1969) took Martha Stewart's human-as-brand impulse and created an empire state of mind. He became a generational icon, turning four letters and a hyphen into a fashion line, a nightclub chain, a sports agency, a tech company and a sliver of a professional basketball team, while still managing to cut a few albums along the way. Diddy (then Puffy) (also b. 1969) went from mogul to rap star, as if it were a hobby.

"Jay and Puffy made it O.K. to be capitalist in hip-hop," said Michael Gonzales, a longtime hip-hop writer. "Rap had always been about the jewelry and the cars, with everyone rapping about making the Benjamins. But a lot of those guys were struggling and living at home. Jay and Puffy showed them how to take it to the next level. It wasn't just all records — you've got to get points, own your publishing, own your masters. And that became part of the culture."

Are you a businessman or a business, man? And the adage applied to women, too — in some ways for the first time. Missy Elliott (b. 1971) saw what was obvious, founding her own label and becoming a producer.

Far from staring down morosely at scuffed Converse All-Stars, we craned our necks, looking for that next big thing over the horizon, never comfortable, never satisfied. If that next big thing was bad, we got over it.

During the housing bust of the mid-aughts, we got creamed. Many of the home buyers among us had only recently began trading up to house the kids we put off having. Often, we were buying near the top of the market. Our median home equity plunged 43 percent during those years, according to Pew Research Center, a lot worse than for boomers (28 percent).

Who's sorry now? Between 2010 and 2016, Generation X saw its median household net worth skyrocket 115 percent. Boomers were still mired at pre-2007 levels.

Maybe that's the thing about being a generation without any particular identity or belief system: We are adaptable, a weedy species, like rats or cockroaches, built to survive any environment. We are hard to stamp out.

In 2012, our generation finally made its mark in Washington, or seemed to. Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (b. 1970) became the Republican nominee Mitt Romney's running mate, a potential vice president. The McJob generation, it seemed, might actually inherit one of the most powerful jobs in the world (well, kind of).

While not exactly the '90s Mountain Dew ad vision of shreddin' youth, Mr. Ryan's Generation X-ness became a presumptive selling point to youngish voters, even as Mr. Romney evoked their mom's divorce lawyer.

As I wrote in 2012 in The Times, Mr. Ryan "favors grunge music, Coen brothers movies and craft brews. He sprinkles the word 'awesome' into daily speech." As a teenager, he even worked an actual "McJob," at an actual McDonald's.

The Gen X notables I talked to then, however, seemed underwhelmed. "I wonder if the Germs ever felt this way about having Belinda Carlisle as their first drummer," Johnny Knoxville said, in the most Generation X terms imaginable.

America's "jackass" need not have worried. Congressman Ryan did not get the job. Six years later, we still have not even sniffed the White House, which may be another reason we suffer a generational sense of athazagoraphobia, an abnormal fear of being forgotten or left out, as Jeff Gordinier pointed out in his 2008 book, "X Saves the World."

Lots of people seem to believe that Barack Obama was the first Generation X president. The confusion is understandable. As a teenager, the 44th president spent afternoons smoking pot in a van with a crew called the Choom Gang, which is a very Generation X thing to do.

But Mr. Obama was born in 1961 and therefore is not Generation X by most definitions. Some demographers like to argue that the generation began in 1960. To put it in scientific terms, this is hogwash. Most people born in 1960 graduated from high school in 1978. The white suburban high school students I remember in 1978 wore feathered hair, thought Camaros were cool, and considered "Lucky Man," by Emerson Lake and Palmer, to be the height of synth-pop. Case closed.

The Gen X-adjacent Barack Obama in 1990 at Harvard Law School.CreditJoe Wrinn/Harvard University/Corbis, via Getty Images

There is no guarantee that Gen X will ever hatch a president. One vague possibility is the mediagenic Democratic hopeful Beto O'Rourke, "a walking, talking Generation X cliché," as Elizabeth Spiers of The Washington Post put it. The former Texas congressman "was a skater (sort of)," Ms. Spiers wrote. "He was in a punk band called Foss; he was, we learned recently, part of a hacker collective called the Cult of the Dead Cow, where he ran a bulletin board called TacoLand."

He had an early moment — then Mr. O'Rourke's popularity was immediately leapfrogged by another mediagenic white male, Pete Buttigieg, who at 37 occupies some sort of Generation Y gray zone.

Still, we may still have our day. Generation X, along with Millennials, finally rocked the vote in greater numbers than boomers and older voters in the 2016 election, according to Pew. That is one way, at least, we can still feel young.

We were never an afterthought of American politics if you take "politics" to mean the all the real stuff that goes on outside the Beltway, in terms of gender politics, racial politics and environmental politics.

It might be a cliché to say that we are a generation of iconoclasts and mavericks, wired to challenge authority. But when Apple unveiled its "Think Different" campaign in the '90s, they were selling to us. And we bought it.

Many of us lived it, too. Before "politically correct" was a cudgel that Fox News types used to hammer the left over gender-neutral bathrooms, college students of the '80s and '90s who might now identify as progressive rallied under the P.C. banner as a point of pride, renovating a busted old language for a new era where "pets" became "animal companions," "illegal aliens" became "undocumented workers," and "gay people" became "queer," which was confusing for a lot of straight people at the time.

"My Gen X world when I was young was full of activists, not slackers — AIDS activists, reproductive health advocates, and L.G.B.T. fight pioneers," said Garance Franke-Ruta (b. 1971), a longtime political journalist who in her late teens led a campaign for the advocacy group Act Up to pressure the government and pharmaceutical companies to develop new AIDS drugs.

It didn't hurt that we grew up in a post-Civil Rights era, where knocking down walls — like the one in Berlin — was less a goal than an assumption.

"My mother didn't go to integrated schools; I did," said Kevin Powell, a Jersey City-bred activist, speaker and author who was also a member of the MTV's "Real World" cast in 1992. "So my friends were from different backgrounds. I loved N.W.A., but I also loved Guns N' Roses."

On television, we grew up with shows that were pushing envelopes, Mr. Powell said — "All in the Family," pitting an old-school blue-collar bigot against a self-righteous lefty son-in-law; "The Jeffersons," featuring a mixed-race married couple; "Soap," with an openly gay man dating a male football player.

"I believe that shaped us," Mr. Powell said. "I can quote stuff about the Monkees, about 'Soul Train,' and I'll get white people, Latinx people, Asian people, black folks, all different folks having the same reference points. I really believe that we were the precursor to millennials. There were these crossing of boundaries."

It was hardly one big gorgeous mosaic (it never is). In our formative years, we saw racial attacks in Howard Beach, Queens, and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, become national news, as well as the rise of neo-Nazi skinheads and gay conversion camps. Gay marriage was politically unthinkable, and even some progressive boomer parents had a hard time when their children came out.

Even so, some progressive Xers saw an old order crumbling, sometimes just with a visit to the record store. "When I think of the meat of the '80s, I think of the gender-bending of the early Depeche Mode, the early Cure, Erasure, Culture Club, even Wham," said Alli Royce Soble (b. 1973), a photographer and painter who now identifies as nonbinary, recalled the abundant sense of permission growing up in the Atlanta suburbs. "Being young and coming out, music was my connection to a community."

In the wake of Anita Hill's testimony during the Clarence Thomas hearings, a generation of Generation X women rallied to the call by the third-wave feminist Rebecca Walker (b. 1969): "Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don't prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives."

It was one step toward #MeToo. There were others. Some were small, but not insignificant.

Tabitha Soren interviewed Bob Dole for MTV in New Hampshire in 1996. CreditPool photo by Jim Cole

Tabitha Soren (b. 1967), who unwittingly became a generational symbol when she interviewed the first President Bush as an MTV News correspondent, fresh out of New York University, recalled how Kathleen Hanna of the Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill "had the brilliant idea of moving male mosh pits to the back of the show, so that girls didn't get pushed out of the way, combat boots in their faces."

"It was a metaphor as much as a more ideal way of seeing shows for everyone," said Ms. Soren, now a photographer.

The hard-won proto-woke triumphs of that era look a little more complicated now. The Beastie Boys, when they weren't fighting for the rights of rich kids from New York private schools to party, were celebrated for ending the rocker tendencies of white suburban youth and opening the door for them to discover Public Enemy and Queen Latifah.

Leaving aside the 2019 questions of cultural appropriation, even the Beasties have to admit that a lot of their beer-swilling party-boy fans were "probably not that far off from Brett Kavanaugh," as Michael Diamond (b. 1965), or Mike D, told Vice in a video published last year.

It's a messy question. No matter. We're used to them. We were born into Vietnam and Watergate and at a time when, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx was burning. We came of age in a decade ravaged by AIDS and crack. Ideologues find that sort of stuff crushing. Survivors, on the other hand, survive.

Maybe this is why, in a country cleaved between blue and red, we tend to shade purple, opting for pragmatism over ideology. On several hot-button issues — immigration, same-sex marriage, government spending — we tend to split the difference between the more conservative boomers and the more liberal millennials, according to Pew.

We are the original "socially liberal, economically conservative" generation, David Rosen, a consultant who focuses on the psychology of politics, recently wrote in Politico Magazine — we were happy to believe that the problems are bad, but their causes are very, very good, as the joke goes. This scrappy, if self-defeating, independent streak, he suggested, was a consequence of our under-parenting. "If you wanted lunch and Mom and Dad weren't around, all the moral values in the world wouldn't add up to a grilled cheese sandwich," Mr. Rosen wrote.

You could take all of that as a negative — once again, here we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, right the middle — displaying centrist tendencies in a political climate that celebrates the extremes.

But I'm not so sure. In today's polarized online hellscape of a world, regardless of background or political chances, I like our chances to fix things after whatever inferno awaits. I have to. It would kill me to see millennials take all the credit.

Taste the rainbow.

Desus and Mero Give a Crash Course in Wokeness - The Atlantic

Posted: 16 May 2019 05:01 AM PDT

John Cuneo

Desus and Mero are sitting and talking and making each other laugh. This is what they do, for hours on end, for growing audiences and rapidly increasing sums of money. The rooms change, the chairs change, but the basic idea remains. They sit. They talk. They laugh. They also drink: Desus takes slugs from a beer that's been relabeled D+M, while Mero keeps a bottle of rum between his feet. This Thursday morning, Desus (a.k.a. Desus Nice, a.k.a. Daniel Baker) and Mero (a.k.a. The Kid Mero, a.k.a. Joel Martinez) are taping their new weekly Showtime series at a Manhattan TV studio that has been designed to look like a TV studio dropped onto a street corner in the Bronx, which is where they are from. The walls are graffitied. There's a subway-etiquette poster, like the real ones New Yorkers see every day, only this one urges passengers not to blast music "unless that shit slaps." Guests enter through a fake bodega storefront.

Right now, Desus and Mero are not just making each other laugh, but also waiting. The camera crew needs a few more minutes, so they kill time by serving as their own warm-up act for the studio audience. From a table just off camera, Julia Young, one of their producers, lobs topics that are in the news—the college-admissions bribery scandal, the 2020 presidential campaign, Jussie Smollett, the supposed "Jexodus"—and then watches, with a mixture of delight and dread, to see what will follow. A year ago, Desus and Mero were doing a version of this show four nights a week on Viceland, where they were limited to five fucks an episode. But Showtime is premium cable, with no advertisers to worry about; they've already aired a gleefully scatological ode to a very specific sex act, accompanied on piano by John Legend.

Desus asks for a recap of who's running for president so far, and Young starts rattling off names, pausing after each one to give the guys time to riff: Elizabeth Warren. Amy Klobuchar. Bernie Sanders. Kamala Harris. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is an actual, real-life Desus & Mero fan and, as it happens, next week's guest. Oh, and Beto O'Rourke.

Desus looks puzzled. "What is Beto running for?"

Young's eyes convulse in their sockets. "President."

Now it's Desus's turn to have a small stroke.

"Of America?!"

Outside this studio, O'Rourke might be the darling of progressive elites, but in here, he's just another white guy tap-dancing for votes. Desus circles back to Sanders and asks whether he's older than Trump. "By, like, 18 decades," Mero cracks. Young does a quick Google search: "He's 77." "Wow," Desus says, his eyes wide. "When do people die nowadays? Damn." Mero starts giggling and rocking back and forth. His laugh sounds like a jug of water tipping over, and when Desus is next to him, it rarely stops. Desus, meanwhile, just grins like a villain.

All of this back-and-forth gives the audience ample time to consider Desus's sneakers. For about 30 percent of viewers, his footwear is the episode's biggest reveal; the identity of the guest—today, Ben Stiller—is a distant second. Desus feels a particular responsibility to delight deep-cut fans, the ones who have followed him and Mero from their first podcast for Complex, the street-style magazine and sneaker bible, through their stint on MTV2, through Viceland, all the way here. You've got to give the people what they want. You've got to give them what Desus and Mero's longtime manager, Victor Lopez, calls "a statement piece."

Today, Desus is rocking a pair of sky-blue Nike x Tom Sachs Mars Yard Overshoes, a very limited release that retailed for about $500—if you knew they existed in time to buy them at that price, which most people didn't. The Mars Yard Overshoes are enormous, with red snowboard-style buckles and a billowy, waterproof white drawstring ruffle at the top. They are a statement piece for sure, one that seems to have begun with a question: What if an anorak was a shoe?

At least 15 minutes pass as Desus and Mero kvetch about the recent trade that shipped the New York Giants' star wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., to Cleveland. "Gimme a guy that plays the right way," Mero jokes. "Enough with all these touchdowns." On it goes, just like always, to the point where a ripple of confusion begins to spread through the audience. Wait—is this the show? Have they already started rolling? Do I need to put my phone away?

Just when it seems clear that this must, in fact, be the show, the stage manager calls out, "Okay, are we ready?" She fixes Desus and Mero with a hard stare and explains that she's going to do a silent countdown from five. "Do not start talking until I do this," she says, waving her index finger past the camera lens by way of demonstration.

And then, finally, for a brief five-four-three-two-one, Desus and Mero are silent.

It's Friday, and Desus and Mero are sitting and talking and making each other laugh. Yesterday was the Showtime series, and today is the Bodega Boys podcast—their long-running chat-a-thon, just Desus and Mero and two hot mics—which they record in a dim basement grotto at Milk Studios in Chelsea. The contrast with yesterday's surroundings offers a tidy shorthand for the decline in respectability as they shift from TV to podcast. Desus & Mero tapes in the same building as CBS Sunday Morning. The room where they record Bodega Boys looks like a heroin den and smells lightly of stale blunts. The walls are covered with old magazine clippings of topless fashion models. The ceiling, too. An 8-foot-tall stuffed dog sits in the corner, slumped and dead in the eyes, like an enormous, strung-out Snoopy. The sun seems very far away.

Today is a big day in the Bodega Boys corner of the D+M multiverse, and they are eager to get to it: the anniversary of what has come to be known as "The DJ Envy Ambush." DJ Envy is a co-host of The Breakfast Club on Power 105.1 FM, one of New York City's biggest hip-hop stations; a year ago today, Desus and Mero stopped by the show to promote a comedy tour. Envy can get a little salty, and on this occasion he was fuming because at some earlier juncture, Desus had made a wisecrack about his wife. So Envy came out swinging, introducing the pair with epithets, the more polite of which was dickhead. As the cameras rolled (The Breakfast Club also airs on YouTube), Desus and Mero gritted their teeth, made jokes, and tried to calmly continue the interview. This seemed to only enrage Envy more, so much so that he walked off the set, leaving Desus and Mero with no choice but to roast his empty chair.

If jokes about Beto O'Rourke and visits from Ben Stiller are the domain of Desus & Mero, the DJ Envy Ambush is pure Bodega Boys—hyper-local and hyper-viral. The podcast is where they can keep speaking to listeners in the neighborhood, even as their TV audience expands to include older and whiter people who mistake the X-shaped arm gesture they're always making—a shout-out to the Bronx—for the one that means "Wakanda forever."

When Desus and Mero made the decision to leap from Viceland, where they'd been for nearly two years, Showtime promised not to tinker too much with the formula. Desus compares the choice to that of baseball free agents such as Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, who recently signed big contracts with new teams. The only difference, he says, "is we went somewhere nice." Gary Levine, Showtime's president of entertainment, told me that the network hadn't necessarily been in the market for a late-night show, but Desus's and Mero's names kept coming up. "We want shows that are entertaining," he said, "but also subversive."

The prospect of a large corporation (like CBS, Showtime's parent company) hiring subversive talent (like Desus and Mero) is always tantalizing, though not necessarily in the way the large corporation might hope. This particular week, the biggest story in America is the college-admissions scandal that ensnared, among many others, the actress Felicity Huffman, whose husband, William H. Macy, is a star of Shameless, the longest-running series on … Showtime! There is practically no chance Desus and Mero will avoid either the subject—it was a parade of white privilege—or the awkward coincidence. And they don't.

"This is very exciting for me," Mero announced during the TV taping, bouncing in his seat. "A bunch of rich white people got arrested!" They rolled a clip of Huffman, and at the mention of Macy's name, Mero yelped, "SHOWTIME yaaaaah!," while Desus, with mock indignation, insisted that their own hands were clean. That other Showtime series, he assured the world, "has no relation with us."

Desus and Mero are well aware that as their audience swells, it will include some white viewers who watch the show less for comic relief than for a crash course in wokeness. Or "a hood safari," to use Desus's phrase. The dynamic also works in reverse, though: Desus & Mero is a sort of cultural Trojan horse, using laughs to slip past the gatekeepers, then, once inside, taking over the joint. Somehow they manage to clown a chunk of their audience and enlighten it at the same time. Take me, for instance: I'm a 40-ish white dad who doesn't need to watch Desus & Mero to know what deadass means, but I've picked up some pointers about how to use it in a sentence. Not that I would ever try.

This can be a fraught dynamic, of course. In the years since his heyday on Comedy Central, Dave Chappelle has talked about feeling eaten alive by the fear that he was helping white people laugh at black people. But Desus and Mero don't see it quite like that. "The thing of the show is, it should never feel like you're watching us," Desus explains to me. "What we want you to feel like is you're in the middle."

"You're participating along with us," Mero adds.

"A lot of times people watch this show and immediately hate it," Desus says. "They're like, 'You talk too fast,' 'I don't get any references,' whatever. But you stick with it—all the time we have people who hated it and now they love it."

Comedians tend to have more demons than the average person, and Desus and Mero, who are 37 and 35, respectively, have had to work through their share. They grew up a few miles apart—Desus in the Wakefield section of the Bronx, Mero in Kingsbridge, then Throgs Neck—and met in summer school, but didn't become good friends until years later, when Twitter brought them together. Desus, the son of Jamaican immigrants, worked all kinds of lousy jobs in his late teens and 20s, including tech support for a pornography website, which required him to learn, in exhaustive detail, which types of sexual imagery were illegal in which countries. Mero, whose family is Dominican, absorbed his father's cynicism about life in the Bronx in the 1970s and '80s: "He was always very anti-establishment. I almost wanna say anti-America. He was just mad at the country, and I was like, 'Why are you so mad at this place?' And then he broke it down for me." Mero took the lessons to heart, and after brief stints at Hunter College, in the mail room and IT department at Lehman Brothers, and as a special-education teacher—the one job he actually liked—he started behaving badly.

"I was fucking wild," Mero tells me at one point. "I was just kind of like, 'I want instant gratification—I wanna get high now, and I wanna get laid now.' I can get a job, work 12 hours a day, wait until Friday for a check, or I can just go to Connecticut, hit 10 CVSes, steal all the hydroxyzine they have—" Desus cuts him off: "Okay, you're being very specific right now." Mero dissolves into a giggle fit: "Operation Shoplift! We got him!"

Today's episode of Bodega Boys goes on for more than an hour and a half. Somehow they manage to get laughs out of a conversation that begins with the Boeing plane crash in Ethiopia. Many things are said that cannot be printed in this magazine, or any other, and that might make even Showtime blanch. In fact, Desus and Mero splinter off in so many directions that they never once mention the DJ Envy Ambush.

Desus and Mero have just finished taping their podcast, and they are sitting and talking and making each other laugh. They are also pondering the clout they've suddenly accumulated. Their first guest on Showtime was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the eastern part of the Bronx in Congress and whose easy mastery of its vernacular only underscored the desperation of Republican attacks on her authenticity.

Gillibrand, who appeared the week after my visit, won over Desus and Mero by being equally true to her own roots, which are in rural upstate New York. It didn't matter that she's not from the Bronx; what mattered was that she didn't pretend to be. She didn't pander. She was herself. "It looks like she's just hanging with two people," Desus says. "And that's what we're going for."

Already, the Showtime series is beginning to play a king/queenmaker role among Democratic hopefuls, similar to the one played by Rachel Maddow's show on MSNBC; as of this writing, Cory Booker is up next. Desus and Mero are giddy about these appearances. They know that if a candidate wanders on set with no idea what she or he is signing up for, that person could end up getting pantsed on national TV.

"We're gonna be very up front," Mero says. "We'll be like, 'Yo, fam, watch the show before you come up here.' Because you're not gonna be able to come up here and be like, 'Don't ask me about this.' Say you come on this show, like, 'Oh, I wanna reach out to Millennials'?"

Desus jumps in and finishes the thought: "You might look like a complete asshole."

Sitting side by side in a pair of bucket seats ripped out of a scrapped car and planted beside a coffee table, they take turns answering what seems like a natural question: Don't you ever get tired of talking to each other?

Mero tilts his head as if he's trying to think, but he comes up empty. He shakes his head. Nope. Never. Once, during a gig in Boston, they went on so long that the theater owner had to intervene. "He was on the stage flashing a flashlight," Desus says. "He was like, 'You have to get the fuck off the stage. These people have homes. They wanna go home.' " Now many of their contracts for live gigs include a stipulation fining them if they go on too long. "It's the only way we'll get offstage," he explains, adding that their friendship has but one logical endpoint: "We're gonna get fused together."

"Just one big DXL suit," Mero jumps in, giggling.

"I don't know how your wife is gonna feel about my sex life, though," Desus says, dragging things into his favorite gutter. "I gotta put the sheet up."

And if the fusing doesn't take?

"Write this down," Desus says. "Both of us are gonna host The Price Is Right."

This article appears in the June 2019 print edition with the headline "Desus and Mero Beyond the Bronx."

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

More Start-Ups Have an Unfamiliar Message for Venture Capitalists: Get Lost - The New York Times

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 12:00 AM PST

On a sunny Saturday morning in New York a few months ago, a group of 50 start-up founders gathered in the dank basement of a Lower East Side bar. They scribbled notes at long tables, sipping coffee and LaCroix while a stack of pizza boxes emanated the odor of hot garlic. One by one, they gave testimonials taking aim at something nearly sacred in the technology industry: venture capital.

Josh Haas, the co-founder of Bubble, a software-writing start-up, told the group that he and venture capitalists "were pretty much totally on different wavelengths" about the trajectory of his business.

Seph Skerritt, the founder of Proper Cloth, a clothing company, said that the hype around raising money was a trap. "They try to make you feel inferior if you're not playing that game," he said.

The event had been organized by Frank Denbow, 33, a fixture of New York's tech scene and the founder of T-shirt start-up Inka.io, to bring together start-up founders who have begun to question the investment framework that has supercharged their field. By encouraging companies to expand too quickly, Mr. Denbow said, venture capital can make them "accelerate straight into the ground."

The V.C. business model, on which much of the modern tech industry was built, is simple: Start-ups raise piles of money from investors, and then use the cash to grow aggressively — faster than the competition, faster than regulators, faster than most normal businesses would consider sane. Larger and larger rounds of funding follow.

The end goal is to sell or go public, producing astonishing returns for early investors. The setup has spawned household names like Facebook, Google and Uber, as well as hundreds of other so-called unicorn companies valued at more than $1 billion.

But for every unicorn, there are countless other start-ups that grew too fast, burned through investors' money and died — possibly unnecessarily. Start-up business plans are designed for the rosiest possible outcome, and the money intensifies both successes and failures. Social media is littered with tales of companies that withered under the pressure of hypergrowth, were crushed by so-called "toxic V.C.s" or were forced to raise too much venture capital — something known as the "foie gras effect."

Now a counter movement, led by entrepreneurs who are jaded by the traditional playbook, is rejecting that model. While still a small part of the start-up community, these founders have become more vocal in the last year as they connect venture capitalists' insatiable appetite for growth to the tech industry's myriad crises.

Would Facebook's leadership have ignored warning signs of Russian election meddling or allowed its platform to incite racial violence if it hadn't, in its early days, prized moving fast and breaking things? Would Uber have engaged in dubious regulatory and legal strategies if it hadn't prioritized expansion over all else? Would the tech industry be struggling with gender and race discrimination if the investors funding it were a little less homogeneous?

"The tool of venture capital is so specific to a tiny, tiny fraction of companies. We can't let ourselves be fooled into thinking that's the story of the future of American entrepreneurship," said Mara Zepeda, a 38-year-old entrepreneur who in 2017 helped start an advocacy organization called Zebras Unite. Its members include start-up founders, investors and foundations focused on encouraging a more ethical industry with greater gender and racial diversity. The group now has 40 chapters and 1,200 members around the world.

"The more we believe that myth, the more we overlook tremendous opportunities," Ms. Zepeda said in an interview.

Some of the groups are rejecting venture capital because they've been excluded from the traditional V.C. networks. Aniyia Williams, who started the nonprofit Black & Brown Founders, said a venture-funded system that encourages many failures for every one success is particularly unfair to black, latinx and women founders who "are rarely afforded the opportunity to fail, period." Members of these organizations, she added, see more value when whole groups in their communities thrive, rather than venture's winner-take-all model.

Other founders have decided the expectations that come with accepting venture capital aren't worth it. Venture investing is a high-stakes game in which companies are typically either wild successes or near total failures.

"Big problems have occurred when you have founders who have unwillingly or unknowingly signed on for an outcome they didn't know they were signing on for," said Josh Kopelman, a venture investor at First Round Capital, an early backer of Uber, Warby Parker and Ring.

He said he was happy that companies were embracing alternatives to venture capital. "I sell jet fuel," he said, "and some people don't want to build a jet."

Right now, that jet fuel seems unlimited. Venture capital investments into United States-based companies ballooned to $99.5 billion in 2018, the highest level since 2000, according to CB Insights, a data provider. And the investments have expanded beyond software and hardware into anything that is tech-adjacent — dog walking, health care, coffee shops, farming, electric toothbrushes.

But people like Sandra Oh Lin, the chief executive of KiwiCo, a seller of children's activity kits, say that more money isn't necessary. Ms. Oh Lin raised a little over $10 million in venture funding between 2012 and 2014, but she is now rebuffing offers of more just as her company has hit on a product people want — the very moment when investors would love to pour more gas on the fire. KiwiCo is profitable and had nearly $100 million in sales in 2018, a 65 percent increase over the prior year, Ms. Oh Lin said.

"We are aggressive about growth, but we are not a company that chases growth at all costs," Ms. Oh Lin said. "We want to build a company that lasts."

Entrepreneurs are even finding ways to undo money they took from venture capital funds. Wistia, a video software company, used debt to buy out its investors last summer, declaring a desire to pursue sustainable, profitable growth. Buffer, a social media-focused software company, used its profits to do the same in August. Afterward, Joel Gascoigne, its co-founder and chief executive, received more than 100 emails from other founders who were inspired — or jealous.

"The V.C. path forces you into this binary outcome of acquisition or I.P.O., or pretty much bust," Mr. Gascoigne said. "People are starting to question that."

Venture capital wasn't always the default way to grow a company. But in the last decade, its gospel of technological disruption has infiltrated every corner of the business world. Old-line companies from Campbell Soup to General Electric started venture operations and accelerator programs to foster innovation. Sprint and UBS hired WeWork to make their offices more start-up-like.

At the same time, start-up culture — hoodies and all — entered the mainstream on the back of celebrity investors like Ashton Kutcher, TV shows like "Shark Tank" and movies like "The Social Network." Few questioned the Silicon Valley model for creating the next Google, Facebook or Uber.

Those who tried to buck the conventional method experienced harsh trade-offs. Bank loans are typically small, and banks are reluctant to lend money to software companies, which have no hard assets to use as collateral. Founders who eschew venture capital often wind up leaning on their life savings or credit cards.

Jessica Rovello and Kenny Rosenblatt, the entrepreneurs behind Arkadium, a gaming start-up founded in 2001, initially avoided raising venture money. It took four years before the business earned enough to pay them a salary. The sacrifices were "very real and very intense," Ms. Rovello said. Nevertheless, the business grew steadily and profitably to 150 employees.

By 2013, though, as investors poured capital into some rivals, the lure of easy money became too tempting to pass up, and the company raised $5 million. Tensions ensued as Arkadium's investors expected the company to continue raising money with the goal of selling or going public. Ms. Rovello wanted to keep running the company profitably, growing revenue at 20 percent per year and developing a new product that could take years to pay off.

In September, Arkadium used its profits to buy out the investors, allowing the company to remain independent and grow on its own terms. Ms. Rovello said she had no regrets about stepping off the venture-funded path.

"If your end game is having a business that you love and continuing to thrive and making careers for people," she said, "then I'm winning."

In September, Tyler Tringas, a 33-year-old entrepreneur based in Rio, announced plans to offer a different kind of start-up financing, in the form of equity investments that companies can repay as a percent of their profits. Mr. Tringas said his firm, Earnest Capital, will have $6 million to invest in 10 to 12 companies per year.

Hundreds of emails have poured in since the announcement, Mr. Tringas said in an interview. "They're almost entirely from people who assumed there was no form of capital that matched any version of their expectations," he said.

Earnest Capital joins a growing list of firms, including Lighter Capital, Purpose Ventures, TinySeed, Village Capital, Sheeo, XXcelerate Fund and Indie.vc, that offer founders different ways to obtain money. Many use variations of revenue- or profit-based loans. Those loans, though, are often available only to companies that already have a product to sell and an incoming cash stream.

Other companies are inspired by the investor buyouts executed by Buffer, Wistia and Arkadium, and are asking investors to agree to similar deals — at potentially lower returns on their investments — in the future.

Indie.vc, based in Salt Lake City and part of the investment firm O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, offers start-ups the option to buy back the firm's shares as a portion of their total sales. That caps the firm's return at three times its investment. In the typical venture capital model, the earnings for a home-run deal are limitless.

When Indie.vc started three years ago, it saw two or three applications a week, mostly from venture capital rejects. Now it gets as many as 10 applications a week, mostly from companies that could raise venture capital but don't want to, said Bryce Roberts, the firm's founder.

"We think there is going to be a tsunami of entrepreneurs who have experienced the one-size-fits-all venture model and want to cherry-pick the pieces of it that work for them," Mr. Roberts said.

Some venture capitalists have applauded the shift; their style of high-risk investing is not right for many companies. In a recent blog post, Founder Collective, a firm that has invested in Uber and BuzzFeed, praised Mr. Roberts's offerings while warning founders of the dangers of traditional funding. "Venture capital isn't bad, but it is dangerous," the post reads. The firm created ominous warning labels and brochures to send to its companies.

Privately, some venture capitalists have bemoaned the way they're locked into rigid investment mandates with perverse incentives. "We heard from many investors who said, 'I can't say this publicly, but I'm in the machine and I know it's broken, and I know there is a better way,'" Ms. Zepeda said.

Others have dismissed the trend, according to Mr. Roberts. "It's amazing how thin-skinned and threatened V.C.s tend to be around people who question their model," he said.

Even if venture capitalists ignore the companies rejecting their model, some of their investors — endowments, pension funds and mutual funds — are exploring ways to participate. The tech industry's year of bad headlines has inspired some soul-searching.

"I think we should, as investors, take seriously our role in driving some of these destabilizing forces in society," said Rukaiyah Adams, chief investment officer at Meyer Memorial Trust, an investor in venture capital funds and nonprofits. "As one of the controllers of capital, I'm raising my hand and saying, 'Wait a minute, let's really think about this.'"

Still, the new growth models represent a tiny percentage of the broader start-up funding market. And venture capitalists continue to aggressively pitch their wares — even to companies that aren't interested.

Notion, a collaboration software company based in San Francisco, has just nine employees and close to one million users, many of whom pay $8 a month. The company is handily profitable. Aside from a small seed round in 2013, it has avoided outside funding.

Venture capitalists, desperate to get a piece of the company, have dug up Notion's office address and sent its founders cookie dough, dog treats and physical letters, company executives said. Every few months, a new investor inevitably shows up unannounced at Notion's gate.

Notion's ambitions are big — the company wants to replace Microsoft Office. But its executives don't believe they need hundreds of millions of dollars in financing to do it, nor do they want the strings that come attached.

"We're not anti-V.C.," said Akshay Kothari, the company's chief operating officer. "We're just thinking for ourselves, rather than for them or other peers."

McDonald's is buying a startup that uses AI to try to make you spend more - CNN

Posted: 26 Mar 2019 12:00 AM PDT

[unable to retrieve full-text content]McDonald's is buying a startup that uses AI to try to make you spend more  CNN

McDonald's is buying Dynamic Yield, a tech startup that it hopes will help it sell customers more of what they want.


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