Columbia grouse

A video documentary reveals how Nirvana exposed the generation gap at America's largest record club.

THE AMERICAN DREAM, revised version, calls for sharp middle-class kids to graduate from college and stride proudly into the real world of jobs, relationships, and IRAs. A vortex disrupted this orchestrated dance between the late ’80s and early ’90s, however, and a sizable subculture emerged—dazed, confused, and convinced that distorted guitars spoke for their emotional state.

Some brave souls fought the current, clinging to the hope that a corporate job would deliver them from a group so beleaguered by injustice that despite its hatred of labels, it became known by the humiliating tag “Generation X.”

Christopher Wilcha was one of these fighters. A ’93 graduate, he took a job out of college with Columbia House, the venerable mail-order record club. His primary qualification? A knowledge of the band Nirvana, whose Nevermind was continuing to climb the charts and to change the tastes—and buying habits—of young music fans. Columbia House needed a punk adherent like Wilcha to explain this phenomenon, to decode the flannel messages and murky music.

All this meant nothing to Wilcha’s parents, who were thrilled that their son had landed a marketing job out of college. To congratulate him, they bought him a Hi-8 video camera. He began to use it to document the quotidian duties of a lower-rung office worker, what his peers at the time would no doubt refer to as a “corporate sellout.”

To avoid this distinction, the aspiring musician and budding filmmaker turned Columbia House’s New York City headquarters into his own running skit, complete with a supporting cast of dozens of co-workers and bosses who inexplicably let Wilcha tape every staff meeting, office party, and private discussion within view of the lens. “I was the dorky, touristy young guy,” he recalls on the phone from New York. Before leaving for grad school in 1995, he’d amassed 200 hours of footage.

At CalArts in Los Angeles, Wilcha edited the video down to a slender 70 minutes, overdubbed a wry narrative, and turned it in as a graduate thesis, The Target Shoots First. It’s since become a minor hit on the video festival circuit, even meriting a screening at Lincoln Center. (Wilcha will appear at the sole Seattle screening August 21 at 911 Media Arts Center.)

At its most direct, the video skewers a decidedly unhip company, where the suits on the 19th floor and the marketing and creative teams on the 17th floor orbit around the outside world’s counterculture from different perspectives—though neither has any hope of honing in on its target. Enter Wilcha, one of those irreverent kids who are up on the latest Pavement 7-inch and whose cramped studio is probably decorated in disposable Swedish furniture.

His rise through the ranks, brought about in part by a co-worker’s departure but also because of his capabilities for advising on the grunge craze, drags him deeper into the corporate world than he’d ever meant to go. Soon, he’s jetting off to Terre Haute to watch bedraggled Midwestern workers stuff boxes full of product—Columbia House’s famed eight-CDs-for-a-penny deal. He’s counseling writers on how to address a disaffected generation that doesn’t want any part of a “club,” despite the fact that this club sells music.

I was translating this culture for them,” Wilcha says of his employers.

His translation was so fluent that the suits charged him with developing an alt-rock catalog. Deviating from Columbia House’s technique of merely printing an album cover with an unclever blurb and a few song titles, he infused the text with a dose of that trendy teen spirit. As he recounts in Target, the catalog turned into a sort of magazine, replete with commentary, flashy graphics and personality—provided by a group that included Dimitri Ehrlich, later the host of MTV’s short-lived video show “Indie Outing.” By introducing criticism into the Columbia House catalog, Wilcha presaged the arrival of online record retailers, which today use the same approach to appear more personable to consumers. The suits, however, didn’t share this foresight—as their desperate acquisition last month of Amazon competitor CD Now confirms—but they liked Wilcha’s ‘zine concept enough to try it for a while. He and the team of young writers and designers in turn thought they’d committed the ultimate Gen-X gambit: subverting the company from within.

“It seems naive,” he says, waxing nostalgic. “But for a while we felt like we were getting away with something. Of course, we were really helping colonize the market.”

For their efforts, Columbia House replaced Wilcha and the catalog crew with a ponytailed bunch of advertising agency wankers, making for one of the more hilarious and heart-wrenching scenes from Target. On the phone, Wilcha recounts the ad shills’ techniques for ensuring the devotion of the emerging market.

“They did focus groups, but they did them with an alt spin,” he says. “They went to the classic ‘alternative’ cities, places like Seattle and Chapel Hill, and they’d go to kids’ apartments and feed them tons of beer and food. It was really abject shit.”

In the video, Wilcha reports that the agency came back to Columbia House finding that everything Wilcha and his crew had done with the catalog appealed to the intended audience, confirming what the company should have already known.

Wilcha got his revenge, but there’s a twist. After returning to New York with his thesis project in hand, he received a phone call from an old co-worker: There was another marketing job open at Columbia House, and they’d love to have Wilcha back. He snickers at the turn of events, but notes that it’s made the job of obtaining release forms from his subjects that much easier.

And now that he’s back with the company, Wilcha’s begun taping more footage. The target shoots again.