Backstreet Boys: A reminder of the good old days for Gen X

In 1993, when Backstreet Boys performed their first show, their tracks became anthems for college fests. Thirty years later, when they took the stage in India, it was nostalgia, emotions and a thousand dreams relived for Gen X that grew up watching shaky images on black and white TVs

Updated: Jun 8, 2023 06:10:55 PM UTC
American boy band Backstreet Boys perform during the DNA World Tour concert in Mumbai on May 4, 2023. Image: Sujit Jaiswal/ AFP

We were the 'Class of ‘99'. We got our MBA degree in the year 1999 just before the impending apocalypse and the Y2K bug, thankfully both of which never happened. We completed our MBA successfully.

This was the year Backstreet Boys launched its album Millenium—a prelude to the year 2000. The euphoria triggered by Millennium globally can only be explained by filching the words from one of its songs, 'larger than life'.

While Millenium was breaking all sales records, we were learning our sales and marketing jargon back home. During those times, MBAs were much sought-after. It was a newly liberalised, privatised, and globalised India.

Management institutions had grown faster than weeds in the backyard. Parents would tell neighbouring uncles and aunts with pride that their son or daughter was studying in some pricey management school. And we, the typical MBA grads, would feel internally elated as we talked to our non-MBA friends about seemingly complex topics like stock markets or corporate branding with an air of supremacy and manufactured panache.

The 90s was an important era for India. MNCs were swarming the country, setting up high-rise corporate offices. Information technology was gaining a foothold. Sunrise sectors like retail, hospitality, and pharma were witnessing a surge. A new profile of jobs was emerging.

Amidst all this, young boys and girls were beaming with dreams in their eyes and aspirations in their hearts. Small-town youngsters were venturing out in search of that shiny bright object. Young India was increasingly getting exposed to the Western lifestyle. Burgers, soft drinks, Walkman, and English music became the recipes to acquire the 'cool' tag.

English movies and songs were typically not the norm in most families.

So, often the difficult task of listening to music was executed by borrowing cassettes from friends. The joy of humming with the singers, catching a few words here and there, and imitating the stylish difficult-to-maneuver accents gave a sense of great aplomb. We suddenly felt modern and trendy, and our ticket to the coveted club of 'English music lovers' was confirmed.  It helped transcend the subtle cognitive dissonance one was grappling with on account of the moral pressures of falling for 'Western' influences.

But music has always been the language of sentiments and musical cultures have symbolised the larger fabric of society. Popular songs hold perennial cultural significance. The 80s, for instance, was the decade of disco. Blinking lights, jazzy dance floors, and glittery attire—the ostentatious and flamboyant symbolism of the West—ushered in a revolution not just in Indian music but also in the Indian psyche. The Disco culture amplified into elements of city life. It gave rise to a generation that was rushing to cities in the quest of a seemingly more glamorous, affluent life only to be shaken up later by the many grim realities of urban melancholy.

Gen X, which loved to bask in the music of The Beatles and the like, had by the 1990s graduated to bands like Backstreet Boys. Their electrifying music and beats lent new energy to the young generation.

Gen X are typically those born between 1964-80 (the mid-80s, according to some). This was the pre-Internet and social media era. These were simpler, less uncertain times, where scary thoughts of AI [artificial intelligence] and robots taking over our jobs and lives didn’t invade our minds. We were not confounded with notions of drowning in big data. There was no blockchain or IoT [internet of things]. Those were the times when people were connected, not things. ChatGPT and chatbots were not giving us nightmares. The only chats we had was with our families and friends.

We managed our routines much better without the smartwatch monitoring our daily steps. We lived without electricity for hours and enjoyed lighting candles. We were not flooded with professional advice on how to do what or the preposterous admonitions by self-appointed motivational gurus. But we did have our share of worries. This was the generation that grew up under difficult financial conditions in India. The middle class was struggling to make ends meet. For many, it was often a challenge putting food on the table while trying to maintain a decent standard of education and lifestyle. Expenses were curtailed, eating out was rare, food supplies were bought from ration shops, new clothes were occasional and family vacations were limited to visiting grandparents.

Most youngsters didn’t have the backing and gumption to foray audaciously into startups. Unlike present generations who are happy becoming YouTubers and taking up gig jobs for a career, Gen X went in for conventional jobs. In this pursuit of livelihood, they gave up their dreams of becoming an actor, sportsperson, or singer. Nobody told our parents, "Let children follow their passion". Our aspirations and ambitions were rationed—we were largely conforming to social norms. Most parents were strict disciplinarians. Our mental models for life's journey were simple—get a degree, get a job, and get married. We obediently did that.

Having grown up under modest conditions, we had subdued dreams. Rather, we subdued our dreams. Perhaps, this is the reason we learned to value the little glad tidings that life brings—the joy of small things. We learned hard work, struggled through life's adversities, paid our EMIs, and became what we became.

This generation is known for its allegiance to traditions, loyalty towards relationships, and emphasis on good parenting. Most Gen Xers have conscientiously spent their time taking care of their parents and providing their kids with opportunities they missed. They have been the shock absorbers for their families during Covid-19. The sacrifices made by the Gend Xers to fund their children's fancy university degrees and to support their lifestyle are getting visible on their brows. But Gen X parents take it all without expectations. They have learned to expect less.

Not much is written about Gen X now. More recent generations are taking their space. Already into their mid-life, Xers have shown maximum resilience- from watching shaky images on black and white TVs to adapting sportingly to the digital revolution. This is the generation that has produced some of the greatest CEOs and leaders. The many luxuries that today's generations enjoy are mainly the hard work of Gen X. A little tired and weak, Gen X is still a formidable force to reckon with.

In 1993, when Backstreet Boys performed their first show, their tracks became anthems for college fests. Thirty years later, when they took the stage, they echoed the sentiments of middle-aged Indians. Their music reverberates through the years.  Though music has evolved tremendously with digital machinations and electronic synths, for Gen X it is still old melodies with their feel-good tunes that help momentarily forget the burdens of adult responsibilities and get a feel of “party like it’s 1999”.

The writer is the faculty of management studies and research, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. She’s also the author of Strategic Human Resource Management, Cambridge University Press, University of Cambridge, UK.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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