Allison told me an amazing story while we were listening to Debbie Gibson at work. In midde school, she hated her math teacher, who never seemed to understand the disturbing nature of word problems, the moral depravity of a farmer deliberating between jettisoning his wife or his goat when crossing a river. This was 1989. Allison carried a bottle of Electric Youth in her purse. Because she didn’t have to move seats from homeroom to first period, she was is the perfect position for sabotage: she waited until everyone had emptied out, pried open the nozzle (an impressive feat, given the intrusiveness of the neon pink plastic coil), and poured a thimble-sized amount of perfume into the recessed elliptical pencil holder of the desk behind her. I like to imagine it gave Allison an added electric thrill to identify the geometric shape of the pencil holder.
The sweet liquid pooled briefly beside a chewed-off eraser, then soaked into the wood. The desk was like a potpourri stick. Classes had to be held in the hall. For months after, it smelled like someone had tried to crimp a fruit roll-up with a curling iron. That year history saw the falling of the Berlin Wall and the execution of Ted Bundy, but in an unventilated classroom somewhere in Georgia, no one could identify the source of a candied stank.
Allison performed other acts of quiet rebellion, including systematically removing the rubber ball from each mouse in the computer lab. She also carried these around in her purse like a tiny, private bouncy cage. But I like the Electric Youth coup best of all, because it seems like an apt metaphor for what youth often does: come-on suddenly with a boundless citrusy-energy, then linger in a sedentary stale cloud.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because our college town is filling up with students again. Summer is over. Gone are the days of claiming a window seat in the coffee shop and driving main roads with minimal traffic. Yesterday I went running and got my foot caught in the cardboard litter of a Miller Life six-pack and screamed like an animal. “Oh my God, it’s a beer trap,” I thought. Later, Dan and I peered through the living room blinds at the four ponytailed undergraduates moving in across the street. We tried to size them up. I was hoping that when they set down their Good Will couch they would start communicating in sign language and wind up being sisters in a deaf sorority. “Quiet parties,” I whispered to Dan, who then pointed out that in order to feel vibrations, the music would have to be much, much louder.
When did I become Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino? It’s ridiculous of me to exalt people my own age. I was born in 1977, which makes me a member of Generation X. Jamie Notter in “Generational Diversity in the Workplace” claims that “unlike their parents who challenged leaders with an intent to replace them, Generation Xers tend to ignore leaders.” This seems pretty on-par with perfume-bombing a classroom. She then goes on to list our “core values,” which include diversity, thinking globally, fun, and self-reliance. When I was in sixth grade, dressing like Kimmy Gibbler on Full House and collecting Beanie Babies, I didn’t have a sense of belonging to a larger group, except maybe chorus. I was lunch-room subaltern. I did weird shit like stage a recess production of “Feed the Birds” where the kids even weirder than me agreed to play the birds. The eponymous title track of Electric Youth, then, offered my first real glimpse into collective manifesto.
Gibson yippies and yays her way to a powerful closing litany of generational descriptors: inflation/flirtation/relaxation/elation/generation of/an electric youth! (I would be lying if I said I didn’t hear this playing in my head when I knocked on doors campaigning for Obama the fall of ‘08.) My favorite part of the video is when the clairvoyant waves her hands over the crystal ball and Debbie Gibson’s bangs appear, crested in a wave of optimism, followed by a dramatic cut to group choreography set against Castle Greyskull. When she urged me, at age 12, to flirt and inflate, to relax and elate, she did so in tree pose with arms raised, like she was about to karate chop the present into the future.
I wonder if I’ve failed her battle cry, or even worse, heeded its message all too well. I went on to pursue a degree in poetry, which at times gave me an inflated sense of confessional self-importance. I spent the better part of my twenties hooking up with boys and exerting myself minimally in the work force. My electric cohorts – my generation – seems a bit too disappointed to be elated, but still, we manage to summon enough energy to lift our arms and keep championing our ideals: sustainable agriculture, social liberalism, alcohol sales on Sunday. I listened to “Electric Youth” on repeat for the better part of last Friday afternoon, trying to decide if embedded in the lyrics were the seeds of an apathy we’re too often accused of showing.
The beautiful thing about music on cassette was that it required a certain amount of active listening. Lying on my best friend’s bedroom floor in 1989, underneath her Jelly Belly dispenser, we would be crying over yet another failed swim team romance (hers) and in order to continue the descent into bottomless abjection, one of us (me) would have to either get up or extend a toe to re-wind “Against All Odds.” In this sense, our generation was the opposite of apathetic. By taking charge of our ineffectualness, we energized it.
The spring of '89, Mrs. Byrd, my science teacher, taught us how to make a battery out of a lemon and a copper wire. Once everything was properly connected, the result was an illuminated bulb. I found this project confusing because I thought you weren’t supposed to get liquid anywhere near an electrical outlet. But I did it anyway, without protest and without a basic understanding of purpose, just as I had grown crystals with food coloring or cut into a frog. Rather than deposit my battery-lemon in the trash like the other students knew to do, I stowed mine in my desk. Perhaps I thought it might come in handy during a power outage (which was not totally crazy, since a tornado had practically destroyed our school that fall).
When classes reconvened after spring break, I was surprised to discover that my lemon had rotted into a knotty black sarcophagus. It appeared to pulse of its own accord, not with any kind of light, but with the whipped up wind from dozens of agitated fruit flies. Mrs. Byrd held her nose in one hand, and in the other, wrapped my lemon in a paper towel. She left the room with it and returned several minutes later. She asked me to stay after class.
“Why did you leave your lemon in your desk?”
“I don’t know.”
“Lemons go bad.”
“Yeah,” I offered, in what was quickly becoming the most obvious sixth grade science lesson ever.
“It seems like you sort of underestimated here.”
“I think so.”
That soft reproach – “you sort of underestimated here”– was both stilted and timely. Timely because in the soon-to-be chart topping hit “Electric Youth,” Debbie Gibson was issuing her own national warning: don’t underestimate the power/of a lifetime ahead. In that moment, staring into Mrs. Byrd’s chickadee eyes, I got excited about this youthful power. I pictured my future as a heap of rotten lemons shoved in a cavernous slot. I savored the rankness of my potential wafting up and making way for something new. I agreed to never leave discarded science projects in my desk again, but I had learned something valuable: I could clear a room. Somewhere in Georgia, shy socially-awkward Allison was learning this, too.
University classes are starting up again today. In the distance, I can make out a soft cicada-like sorority chanting. It was over 23 years ago that I first heard and wore “Electric Youth.” Deborah Gibson has since gone on to pose for Playboy and play Belle on Broadway. I work in a room full of maps (literally). I pull them out of drawers and cabinets and ink small indelible X’s next to train stations, airports, piazzas. It’s my daily reminder of the generation I represent, of how we’ve both succeeded and disappointed, and of the brevity of a lifetime.