The Death of Youth Culture


But what are they thinking...

I imagine it began in some sleek committee room of an advertising agency, sometime in the mid-eighties. An assortment of bright young things, creamed from the best universities were harvested by intensely attentive, steepled-fingered executives, to brainstorm the febrile potential of the then, relatively unexploited ‘youth market’. From this, sprang the normative tool of focus groups; translating the interests, concerns and passions of the young into marketing opportunities through the convenient categories of ‘tweens’, ‘teens’ and ‘young adults’, with the sole objective of generating hard cash.

It could be argued that there has always been a relationship between youth culture and the mass media, in which the media sought to affix labels on youth subcultures originating from the 1950s. But the main distinction between then and now is the direction of origination. In that brief period in history between the 1950s to the late 1970s, which represented the crucible, from which youth culture is understood, the mass media had a more reactive response the various modes of expression coming from young people as originators and owners of their subcultures. There was a stronger connection between the changing attitudes of the young, which fed directly to the ways in which they chose to express themselves; through the clothes they wore, the lifestyles they gravitated towards and the music they identified with.

This desire to innovate is a manifestation of the ‘natural fuel’ of youth culture, borne from the youthful inclination to see the world afresh; exploring new ideas with exuberant curiosity. Dismissing the contrasting rigidity of adult institutions, which in their eyes, seemed neutered and resigned to a state of grey conformity.

Music provided the vehicle through which the young could directly connect with and influence. The dominance of the musical scene of rock and roll in the 1950s provided an opportunity for the young to subvert the staid conventions of the day with scandalous expressions of sexualisation. The music of the sixties and seventies which dominated youth culture reflected the social and cultural upheavals of those times. In turn this social atmosphere produced young musicians and bands such as the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix who created music with conviction, in the spirit of youthful experimentation. This infused the music with a ragged and more original quality, generally absent from the anaemic offerings dominating the current cultural mainstream.

Furthermore youth culture had a more direct alignment with wider political and social concerns. It seems baffling in the current atmosphere to consider that once upon a time, university campuses could be viewed as radical places, alive with ideas and ideologies. And even outside of educational institutions, youth culture was more overtly engaged with the wider world. The hippy movement, aligned to concepts of peace and free love found a natural cause in the Anti-Vietnam protests. In a similar sense, the punk movement reacted against stultified suburban values, armed with the desire to subvert and shock. New Romantics, flamboyantly challenged gender expression through clothing, and the early rap movement, depicted in their own lexicon, the grim reality of the urban underclass through lyrics and graffiti.

Now whilst I do not view marketing as a threat, or object to its presence per se, it is dispiriting to observe that youth culture is increasingly defined by what young people purchase and by extension – consume, rather than by their ideas or beliefs. It seems as if the process of young people being the innovators of their culture; forming distinct values from the establishment, has been reversed. The ‘natural fuel’ of youth culture, embodied in a sense of questioning the status quo, with an energetic concoction of rebelliousness, subversion and idealism does not feature in this equation. Such concepts are too messy and unwieldy to contain, so the ‘natural fuel’ has been discarded and the more tangible aspects, such as clothing and music are commodified, packaged and sold back to the young as ready-made components of ‘Tribal Identity’.

The effect of youth culture being subject to the unrelenting noise of consumerism has enabled fashion to usurp style and for persona to masquerade as personality. The celebrities which the young are encouraged to idolise present further opportunities to sell and the machine generating batch after batch of bland idols is something which the young increasingly aspire to. Celebrity is widely seen by the young as a legitimate career route and considered to be the pinnacle of self-expression; where you are nobody until you are gracing a red carpet in your designer apparel of choice, posing for a baying brace of paparazzi. Running parallel to this is the media obsession of presenting young people as a group to be suspected and even feared. The prevailing flipside of mass produced youth culture is reflected in the inarticulate, criminally-minded representation, to which the term ‘asbo’ is often applied as a noun. This, combined with a synthetically produced youth culture has resulted in an effective muffling of genuine young perspectives.

This packaged and highly polished version of Western-inspired youth culture has become the dominant creed, not just on a global scale but also as a standard for all age groups to emulate. The cosmetic industry has successfully normalised high risk procedures, as harmless means for adults to maintain the outward appearance of youth for as long as possible, sometimes to tragicomic extremes. So in addition to the fear of growing old, is the fear of not looking young. While the interests and values of The Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y remain in the sights of the marketers, there is now a new demographic to focus on – The ‘Internet Generation’ and this is where it gets interesting.

The natural fuel; the very part of youth culture which has been discarded, has found the perfect medium to flourish – in the largely ungovernable terrain of the Internet. While the major drawback of the Internet is the isolation inherent in its use and dislocation from the wider community in a physical sense, the potential for individuals to connect to a global audience in new and evolving ways could be seen as an advantageous driver for the future of youth culture. For in the increased exposure to a global online community comes an unprecedented opportunity, unfettered by the mass media gatekeepers; for young bloggers to freely explore their ideals; for unsigned young musicians to gain a following; for artists and designers to find their public; for interest groups to express and exchange ideas which coalesce into something meaningful and genuine, re-calibrating the flow of the ‘natural fuel’, reversed by mainstream cultural interests.

Listen carefully; there may be signs of life yet…

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