***UPDATE, LONG AFTER THE FACT***
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Richard Linklater’s film Slacker has become a bit of local folk history, honored as the ultimate evocation of Austin at its weirdest, in the late 1980s. But it also perfectly evokes a time of life suspended between the strictures of childhood and adulthood, when it feels possible to imagine some alternative to both. Youth is a time when we might do nothing, and yet feel a vast unappeasable yearning for . . . well, something.
Slacker, in its dreamy way, follows its oddball characters as they hang out in bars and coffee shops, doing and talking about things that are important to them, though maybe not to anyone outside looking in. It’s a beautiful, seductive dream, this floating world of no work and all play (or work as play). If you buy into the dream, adolescence isn’t a phase of human development, it’s the place you go to resist the dull conformity of school or working life, whatever your age. Youth is raised to something like a political principle and lasts as long as you get away with it. But then again, there are those who find this whole spectacle depressing, or infuriating. Can’t these people find something better to do with their lives?
Jon Savage, the British music journalist best known for England’s Dreaming, his book on the rise of punk rock, has written a book called Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, which tries to sort out the extreme reactions that adolescence provokes, both in teenagers and their elders. He begins with an account of two 19th-century teens, Marie Bashkirtseff and Jesse Pomeroy. Bashkirtseff was a precocious writer who died young from tuberculosis, but whose journals, fueled by the usual teenage cocktail of grandiosity and self-loathing, were hailed as works of genius. Pomeroy, on the other hand, funneled his turbulent emotions into torture and murder. The teenager as angel or devil: For Savage, adolescent souls are up for grabs, and he spends the rest of the book looking at the many ways various authorities have tried to claim them, for good or ill.
Savage’s book is an entertaining account of youth culture from the end of the 19th century to the end of World War II. He ends where most people might expect such a book to begin, at the moment where mass-marketed adolescence really begins to set the tone for the entire culture. But Savage’s decision to focus on earlier decades makes an over-familiar phenomenon less familiar, and we can see its fundamental dynamics more clearly by watching them play out in other times and places. The book is jammed with fascinating details, drawn from a wide variety of sources: film, poetry, diaries, letters, memoirs, novels and reportage, to say nothing of philosophy, psychology, and sociology. We meet various odd groups—German Wandervogel and English Neo-Pagans, Hitler Youth and American Jitterbugs—each trying, in different ways, to harness and contain the unstable energies of the young.
The question that Savage asks is, who is doing the harnessing and containing? The chapters on the Hitler Youth are especially riveting, because they show so clearly how the state can put the directionless energy of young people to frightening use. But the chapters dealing with American pop culture suggest that here, too, someone is exploiting the young. Teenage entertains the idea that capitalist countries like the United States and totalitarian ones like Hitler’s Germany have more in common than we might suppose: Both rely on mass culture to pacify and repress the dangerous instincts whipped up in modern society. The industrial age brutalizes human beings, Savage suggests, and mass culture eases their pain, channels their rage, and fuses them into a single consciousness that can be bent to war or profit.
In this respect, the ideas we find in Teenage recall those of the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, though Savage is far more accepting of mass culture. Adorno could find no good in what he called “commodity music,” unless listening to it “sets free for a moment the glimmering realization that you have wasted your life.” For Savage, though, popular music can rescue young people from a wasted life, provided they choose it for themselves and use it for the right ends, like the French Zazous and German swing kids who resisted the Nazis by listening to forbidden American jazz.
But in Teenage the Americans themselves usually come off as passive dupes of consumer society, or as sheep in wolves’ clothing, their flamboyant dress and manner simply a disguised version of the capitalist’s calculation and greed. Writing of the bootlegger youth culture of Prohibition, for example, Savage writes that, “Unlike the dissident European youth groups, their rebellion did not reject the modern technological mass society but, having internalized its values, merely inverted them.” It would appear that American pop is wasted on the Americans, or at least most of them. It is the young people at the margins—those excluded from American affluence, whether they are the spotty proletarians of English slums or ethnic minorities within America itself—whom mass culture redeems.
In other words, Teenage interprets youth culture from the point of view of a British rock critic who came up in the punk years. British punks (and for that matter American ones) always had to reckon with the contradiction between hating and fearing the Land of Reagan but loving and playing its music. Punk ideology, and the English style of cultural studies with which it is loosely aligned, deals with this contradiction in much the same way Savage does, by evaluating pop culture in terms of the uses to which it is put.
The value of Bennie Goodman’s “Let’s Dance,” then, lies in the fact that a huge mixed-race crowd of kids danced frantically to it at Goodman’s famous Paramount concert in 1937. For the punk (or the cultural-studies professor), mass culture is totally manufactured, superficially appealing but empty inside; advertising conditions its consumers to swallow candy-coated plastic and think it’s food. But people who are excluded from affluence can see through these manipulations, and, using mass culture to their own ends, somehow get nourishment from it. It is an act of sociological alchemy, or perhaps reverse peristalsis, this transmutation of waste into food.
Teenage has serious ambitions as cultural history. The sheer breadth of sources Savage draws on shows that he wants to do more than tell entertaining stories. But the Big Picture that he tries to draw is nothing new—we’ve read it before in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style, whose influence Savage acknowledges, and in books by Stuart Hall and John Fiske, among many others. It is a cultural-studies narrative that belongs to a postwar generation of thinkers who grew up listening to rock and tried to account for their own experience. Savage’s innovation lies in projecting this narrative of youth culture backward onto the first half of the 20th century.
But the mass culture theory on which Savage relies ¬is problematic, not least for the moral equivalence between capitalism and totalitarianism it implies. And there is always something unconvincingly conspiratorial about theories of mass culture. If you write about adolescence being contained, you necessarily imply that there’s a “them” that’s doing the containing. But we never get a firm notion of who this is, beyond abstractions like “modern technological mass society.” It is an old countercultural move, beloved of the punks, to impute wicked designs to abstract systems, or, in the vernacular favored by an earlier countercultural generation, “The Man.”
There’s a wonderfully daffy moment in Slacker where one hipster is drunkenly explaining to another that Saturday morning cartoons are “a whole bunch of values and junk they’re throwing at you.” Apparently, kids watching the Smurfs learn to stay in line when they see a conformist system where “they don’t want some Smurf leaving the hive colony.” Such conspiracy theories are the breath and bread of hipster jive. And while Savage would certainly get the joke, at times Teenage isn’t too far off this kind of goofy philosophizing, and consequently ends up as much a manifestation of its subject as it is a dispassionate study of it. Which isn’t such a bad thing, actually. Teenage isn’t always convincing when it tries to draw large conclusions from its material, but it fascinates in showing us unexpected details of what has always been a lively corner of our culture—a place where Slacker’s beautiful dream of the floating world makes a certain kind of sense, and is perhaps still necessary.