Much has been written about Lena Dunham's $3.5 million book deal, restarting the kerfuffle about whether she's actually the voice of a generation, etc, etc. I say she's got a pretty good claim, but it's a competitive field, so let's take a look at everyone Google says has ever been awarded the title:
David Foster Wallace
Source: NPR, others
Major generational observations: "There's something particularly sad about [what it's like to live in America around the millennium]… It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether it's unique to our generation I really don't know."
Legit?: I love DFW, so I'm going to say yes. Beyond even his all-too-prophetic subject matter, Wallace's prose captures the discursive thought patterns you get when you're trapped in a giant, overstimulating, corporate-communications echosphere. And we all are, so, voice of a generation right there.
Source: The Independent, everyone
Major generational observations: "Here we are now, entertain us"
Legit?: Definitely. Enraged, passive-aggressive, ironically distanced, self-lacerating, self-pitying, and lost — that was '90s youth culture in a nutshell. Also, Cobain hated his generation and hated being called its voice — what could be more generationally appropriate than that?
Turn-of-the-century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar
Major generational observations: "We wear the mask that grins and lies / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes"
Legit?: Yes — memorably articulated the feelings of divided identity and psychic dissociation of an oppressed race.
Source: Her record label
Major generational observations: "Unique and different is the new generation of beautiful… You don't have to be like everybody else. In fact I don't think you should."
Legit?: Seems like a nice person. Arguably gets some VOAG points by virtue of representing the eternal teenager; we've all been infantilized so thoroughly that Swift may well be speaking for all of us with her aw-shucks girl-meets-boy dear-diary earnestness.
Major generational observations: "You're a whole new generation / You're loving what you do / Put a Pepsi in the motion / The choice is up to you, heeey / You're the Pepsi generation / Guzzle down and taste the thrill of the day"
Legit?: Probably ended up being too weird to be the voice of a generation. My guess is that even Pepsi would agree.
Twenty-one-year-old aspiring media personality Chelsea Krost
Source: The New York Observer
Major generational observations: "I think our generation is the most different out of every generation."
Legit?: Well, maybe, in the sense that she's pretty fired up about the Chelsea Krost experience. "My expertise, is that I'm a chameleon. I could talk to Tyra Banks, Anderson [Cooper], Hoda [Kotb] on the Today show, but then I could be relating to the people where, literally, their feet are in their own feces in Africa, in the slums… Once people meet me, they realize that I can really be articulate in many facets of the world: entertainment, or philanthropy, or something practical, like cyberbullying or whatever. I really don't think there's anything I can't do." Media-savvy, achievement-focused, and highly self-regarding; that probably is the voice of this generation. Go, Chelsea!
NEXT: "I believe that children are our future…"
Source: LL Cool J, Clive Davis, Randy Jackson, all in memorials
Major generational observations: "I believe the children are our future / Teach them well and let them lead the way"
Legit?: I always hated that line. "I believe the children are our future" — no shit! I also believe the future is tomorrow and the past… was yesterdaaaaaay. These are not radical beliefs. And yes, I know she didn't write the song. But she sang it! Counterpoint: she did have a nice voice.
Source: Bono, everyone else
Major generational observations: "Come mothers and fathers throughout the land / And don't criticize what you can't understand / Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command / Your old road is rapidly aging"
Legit?: Definitely, even if he never wanted the title. Few people have captured an era better.
Source: A lot of people, plus Cornell Alumni Magazine
Major generational observations: "Dear future generations: please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum."
Legit?: Yes, I think so. His world-weariness, puckish sense of humor, and contempt for dehumanizing institutions all make him a good contender for voice of the '60s. Dylan probably gets the edge though, because he vocalized revolutionary fervor while Vonnegut was just too damn sad to really embrace that side of the era, generally distrusting fervor of all stripes. (Cf. that scene in Mother Night where the narrator finds himself standing in the street for hours because he can't think of a single reason to move.) On the other hand, given the way things have gone since the '60s, maybe Vonnegut was right.
Source: Turner Entertainment head Steve Koonin
Major generational observations: "David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and was not, and as a result my generation of comedians wanted to be David Letterman. And none of us are. My peers and I have all missed that mark in a thousand different ways. But the point is this: it is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique."
Legit?: Maybe not in general, but certainly in terms of comedy; Conan anticipated the pop-culture-fuelled surrealism that's dominated the past decade of humor, and made older comedians look hacky and out-of-touch in the process.
Source: Allen Ginsberg, of all people
Major generational observations: "I think my whole generation's mission is to kill the cliche."
Legit?: That's a sharp quote, I've got to say. And maybe the mission of the subsequent generation is to find something to replace all the cliches that Beck and his peers killed off with their reflexive irony. This is proving to be almost impossible, incidentally.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Source: Edward Weeks, in a 1942 issue of the Atlantic Monthly; many others
Major generational observations: "I'm a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation — with every reason to throw my mind and pen in with the radicals. Even if, deep in my heart, I thought we were all blind atoms in a world as limited as a stroke of a pendulum, I and my sort would struggle against tradition; try, at least, to displace old cants with new ones." (and a ton of other killer lines)
Legit?: Oh, hell yes.
Source: Herself, facetiously
Major generational observations: "The idea that I could speak for everyone is so absurd. But what is nice is if I could speak for me and it's resonant for people, then that's about as much as I could hope for."
Legit?: Probably too early to say, but the thoughtful, bright, self-effacing Dunham has as good a shot as anyone. Girls can only be its own story, but by dialing in so precisely on those specifics, it does manage to capture a lot about internet-age kids. Most of the things people say are insufferable about it are clearly meant to be funny, and not in a gross Andrew Dice Clay "hey feminists, where's your sense of humor?" kind of way — Dunham is usually going for laughs at her own expense. Whether she'll maintain VOAG status is up in the air, but I wouldn't mind.
Source: Himself, not facetiously
Major generational observations: Rarely talks about anyone or anything other than himself
Legit?: …which, of course, makes him a perfect spokesman for the most narcissistic generation of all time. OF ALL TIME.
Want to meet the voice of a generation? They're probably waiting for you… on Nerve.