Smells Like Teen Spirit

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Teenage presents a lively but scattershot portrait of youth in the modern era.


Are the kids all right? Careful, that’s a trick question. Your answer will probably reveal more about you than it will about the next generation. Kids tend to elicit pangs of anxiety (if not outright moral panic) in people over 30; they are the promise and the threat of what’s to come, citizens-in-training whose potential must be harnessed lest they burn the place to the ground. You don’t hear many complaints about this arrangement from the grade-school set, provided you bribe them with snacks and playtime, but adolescents aren’t as easily pacified. As British historian Jon Savage amply demonstrates in Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, it’s in their nature to talk back.

A colorful though scattershot portrait of youth in the modern era, Teenage documents the impact of roughly seventy years of social, political, military and economic convulsions on young people in four Western societies: the United States, Britain, Germany and France. Tracing the “prehistory” of youth culture from its nineteenth-century roots to the end of World War II–at which point, Savage claims, most narratives on the subject begin–the book tracks a loose dialectic between moralistic attempts to control adolescent behavior and the forms of resistance such efforts have engendered.

Savage, author of England’s Dreaming, the definitive history of British punk, clearly has a keen ear for subcultural rumblings and an appetite for archival research. But in Teenage he bites off more than he can chew. Whereas England’s Dreaming offered a thrilling, deliriously exhaustive profile of a single movement, Teenage attempts to provide a comprehensive treatment of modern youth movements and winds up with a rather motley crew. Savage’s sympathies lie where you’d expect them to: with bohemian “decadents” like Rimbaud and Oscar Wilde; with the Wandervogel, a youth-run group that rejected imperial Germany and looked for utopia in the countryside; with the party-hopping American flappers and their British counterparts, the Bright Young People–that is, with all those who, like 22-year-old John Dos Passos, were repulsed by “the swaggering old fogies in frock-coats” who ran the world.

But while Savage’s heart is in the right place, it’s not clear that these bands of outsiders belong on the same historical stage. Though they shared an exclamatory non serviam and happened to come of age at about the same time, their milieus, motivations and modes of expression were vastly diverse. Ditto for those who played by the era’s militarist rules, such as the British Boy Scouts, the legions who rushed off to the slaughterhouse of World War I and the Hitler Youth. And what of those who don’t quite fit in with the “decadent” misfits or the “muscular Christian” conformists? At what cafeteria table do we seat the working-class “factory fodder” and the slum-dwelling “hooligans,” whose heightened visibility prompted a wave of hysteria and opened the path toward juvenile courts and child labor laws? The anecdotes Savage relates in his epic prologue are insightful and engaging, but the narrative string that holds them together is noticeably thin.

What unites the teens in Savage’s inclusive hodgepodge is not a cause but a condition: They were all being funneled into an emerging youth market. This thread of the story begins in 1904, when American psychologist G. Stanley Hall published a landmark study that defined adolescents as a distinct social group, and culminates in 1944, with the commodification of the teen ideal in the premiere issue of Seventeen magazine. As new forms of mass entertainment sprouted up in the first decades of the twentieth century, American high schoolers–followed soon after by their European peers–flocked to the nickelodeons, the magazine racks and the dance halls. Were teens creating a new market, or was the market creating a new demographic? It was hard to tell, since the feedback loop was so rapid and so intense. “America’s youth were perfectly complicit in this process,” Savage writes, “flexing their generational muscle by taking advantage of their new freedoms, then seeing their behavior reinforced on screen or in popular cartoons like Carl Ed’s Harold Teen.” Savage seems to suggest that teenagers used their newfound consumerism to their own, often subversive ends, an intriguing argument that he hints at but doesn’t fully explore.

If “the dawn of adolescence is marked by a special consciousness of sex,” as Hall proposed, then it made good business sense for Hollywood to titillate its youthful audience. Hence the runaway success of celluloid dreamboat Rudolph Valentino, the first in a long line of American pop icons who enshrined their sex appeal by dying young (in 1926 a mob of 90,000 mostly female fans stormed his funeral). Prohibition-era chaperones, of course, glowered at the eroticization of teen culture, particularly when it came to the flappers and their flirtation with “race music,” industry code for African-American popular music at the time: In the early 1920s the Ladies’ Home Journal waged a campaign against the “wriggling movement and sensuous stimulation of the abominable big jazz orchestra”; a decade later the Catholic bishop of Dubuque, Iowa, condemned swing as “evil” and “communistic.” Naturally, Europeans went mad for the stuff. Two decades before US troops landed at Normandy, American youth culture swept across the Old World; like the epidemic in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, it “jes grew.”

But not for long. As Hitler cast his shadow over Europe, the forces of youth liberation retreated. In Germany the Nazi Party put a horrifying stop to the roiling modernism that flourished in the Weimar era: By 1933 nearly 3.5 million Germans had joined the Hitler Youth; three years later anyone under 18 who wasn’t a member was branded an enemy of the state. With Hitler’s terror spreading through the Continent, the wild exploits of the German “Swing Kids” and the dandified Zazous of Vichy France became not simply daring but dangerous. Savage rightly celebrates these underground clubs, along with more explicitly political groups like the White Rose, a student network that littered Munich University with anti-Nazi leaflets and graffiti and whose leaders, most famously Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, paid the ultimate price.

Savage draws no parallels between his subjects and their contemporary counterparts, but the similarities and differences are everywhere apparent. A discussion of copycat crimes following the premiere of The Great Train Robbery, for example, presages ongoing debates about the impact of media violence on youth, and the fascinating case of teen murderers Leopold and Loeb eerily echoes our own era’s Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings. When I read that the social stratification of Midwestern teens in the early 1940s mirrored their parents’ class system, I could almost hear the soundtrack to The Breakfast Club humming in the background.

Needless to say, in the years since 1945 the intergenerational tensions Savage so scrupulously illustrates have only intensified. Adolescents remain the locus of heated arguments over everything from abstinence education to the nutritional content of the Whopper, and anyone who has seen the words porn star written across the chest of a 14-year-old knows exactly what the billion-dollar juggernaut of the teen market is peddling. Like their forebears, today’s teens form a dissonant chorus whose sentiments are homegrown and often hard to discern. We can get a sense of their tastes, frustrations and demands when we peer into their Facebook profiles or tune in to the screams of the Deaniacs and the riotous cries from Clichy-sous-Bois. Savage does not tell us what they’re saying, but he makes it clear that we’d do well to listen up. Soon enough, we’ll be taking our cues from them.

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