Consumerism offered the perfect counterbalance to riot and rebellion: it was the American way of harmlessly diverting youth’s disruptive energies.
And a perfect way to summarize Jon Savage’s book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. But youth culture didn’t start exclusively in the US, as he notes in this thorough reconstruction of modern Western cultural history. Thorough as it is, there’s one missing link he fails to connect to his thesis. The recent boom in human population worldwide can be directly tied to the rise in a youth oriented, if not youth driven, society. He connects the industrial revolution to the extension of childhood, or the delay of adulthood, yet fails to add in the major force behind the elongated transition of adolescence. With any swelling of a population, there is a downwards shift in the average age. Given a higher percentage of adolescents and young adults, they are going to be more visible and vocal. This may not have been obvious in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Later, come the baby-boom post World War II, it is incontestable. His omission, as large as it appears, is hardly a major fault, for in every other way Savage buries his proposal with articulated detail.
There’s another thread stitched throughout the book : As youth asserts its independence, commerce and the media capitalize on it. Together they instigate a self-perpetuating feedback loop that shapes pop culture. Teens rebel against the established norms to express their independence. They start a new style, pickup a new music, take a new drug. The human tendency for copycat behavior amplifies the trend. Social needs and group acceptance outweigh logic and sensibility. The media pick it up, whip it up, and fan the frenzy. Marketing latches on to sell new product contrived from the raging fad. And the fanatical behavior shifts to a higher orbital, attracting more attention to itself, gaining momentum, and driving consumption. Although, the pathetic irony of being “with it” is that by the time something has been picked up by marketing departments, it’s also already worn out and commonplace. It’s lost its edge, and barely rebellious. Make a note; once commerce begins selling you trendy thingies, it’s over. To be really cutting edge, you have to be out of step, otherwise you’re just another blatting sheep, and always behind the curve. The double irony is that being out in front of the pack is rarely being with it. Only a small fraction of new turns will ever catch on, leaving the real trailblazers looking more idiotic than ingenious.
The devastating effect of the World Wars on Europe was another factor fueling youth revolt. Reacting to the loss of life, severed relationships, and the disruption during WWI of an entire generation’s youth, turned those coming of age post war in the 1920s radically military adverse. They headed to sex, and drugs, and Jazz.* Again, memories are short. In less than 20 years, less than one generation later, Europe was in a repeat of military turmoil with WWII. After barely recovering from the first mass madness event, their world was one more time blackened by mutual destruction. It’s amazing how stubborn humans can be once they get something fixated in their collective heads.
The most alarming part of the book is the recounting of the Nazi war and propaganda machine. We have been barraged with reminders of the Holocaust, and for good reason, but the Nazi dynamo was bigger and more insidious than the genocide of a religious minority alone. Though Savage’s story is centered on youth culture, the most compelling message surfaces in the reminders of the fanatical, lockstep control the Nazis imposed on Germany. The loss of rational, higher level logical thought processes allowed oblivious group-think to take over a whole country. The bizarre dominance by a small number of weasels imposing their deluded ideas to impel an entire population to undertake egregiously detestable actions is unimaginable. Their impossibly twisted disregard for their own people, especially their youth, adds still more to the cognitive short circuit. The majority swallowed, with no questions, a psychotic mass death-wish for Jews as well as themselves. It happened twice in the same country within the span of a few decades. It could happen again—in any country.
Teenage is reading that’s marshmallow fluff from the youth culture perspective; and leaden gravitas from the war-consumerism-media establishment perspective. It shows us youth’s elusive springs of hope, and uncloaks the desiccation of those springs as each generation “grows up.”
Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, Jon Savage, Viking, 2007
* See [Bug Music].
Next : Part 2 of the Hearing series.