The Death of the Teenager
by Pil and Galia Kollectiv
the whole teenage epic was tottering to doom"
The teenager was officially pronounced dead in 1994. The suicide of Kurt Cobain, the last rock n roll icon of a doomed youth culture, signified the end of the alternative music scene that had defined the teenagers difference throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Cobain had played out the drama of teen ennui that he so aptly phrased in Smells Like Teen Spirit to the extent that his lament of the inevitable commercialisation of grunge was no longer a critique of the mainstream, just a description of the impossibility of subverting it. 1994 was also the year that we were recruited to the Israeli army, which, though we were only 18, effectively ended our teenage years.
There was nothing really new, though, about the death of the teenager. The idea of youth contained its own demise from the start. From the Futurists declaration that "When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts-we want it to happen!" (Marinetti) to The Whos "Hope I die before I get old", the notion of youth implied a temporariness that made it inherently terminal. The repeated death and resurrection of the teen spirit, in the seventies when the baby-boomers became parents, in the eighties when the hippies became yuppies, is part and parcel of its definition, which was cemented into the public consciousness in the post-war years through a series of moral panics and sociological debates. But as time passes and the socio-economic circumstances that heralded the age of the teenager grow more distant, "the concept of youth retains only a residual, even vestigial, connection to its biological referent" (Miklitsch, 1999). If the nineties added anything to the conflicted history of the teenager, it was a weary self-consciousness, a painful awareness of the impossibility of sustaining its dialectic.
While a separate youth culture can be traced at least as far back as the seventeenth century, the teenager was first identified as a distinct category by sociologists devoted to the study of deviance and delinquency at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 30s. From these studies, which interpreted delinquent youth as a response to cultural norms, the focus of the study of youth gradually shifted after the second world war towards "a new approach which suggested that youth itself was capable of generating a series of norms and values, that youth was, in effect, a culture or subculture in its own right" (Bennett 2000, 15). This approach, promoted by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, analysed working class youth practices and style-based subcultures such as Teddy Boys and Mods as forms of resistance to the limitted options offered by the parent culture.
The post-war rise in teenage purchase power had turned youth into a profitable new market for such consumer goods as 45rpm records, clothes and cosmetics, these new spending trends creating a variety of subcultures. The emergence of the teenager as a consumer was accompanied by a series of moral panics and an acute sense of crisis that, as Jon Savage points out, was translated by the film industry into a sci-fi horror metaphor: "our kids are turning into (the) Martians (that we cant admit to being)" (Savage 1988, 144). The raucous sounds of rock n roll, with its black origins and sexual overtones, became synonymous with the alien/alienated children of the damned. During the 1960s, generation gap paranoia was replaced with a general acceptance of teen vitality as the driving force behind social renewal a utopian teen world in which young people were "no longer working-class juvenile delinquents to be patronized or reviled [but] positive role models, harbingers of the new age" (Savage 1988, 152).
However, both the earlier criminalisation of youth and the new found enthusiasm towards this vibrant social class seemed to posit youth as a kind of avant-garde, radical, non-conformist, both a menace to established conventions and an experimental foray into a new and more progressive future. This conceptualisation of youth set up many of the contradictions that continue to haunt the idea of the teenager, which, like the avant-garde, is forever caught up in a dialectic of nihilistic iconoclasm and rebellion countered by the threat of selling out (a dialectic most explicitly played out in the realm of popular music). If the concept of youth has been on the brink of death for most of its life, it is because, like the avant-garde, it is founded on a "culture of crisis" and "has a profound in-built tendency ultimately to negate itself" (Calinescu 1987, 124).
As suspicions started to creep in that the youth was not quite the revolutionary force it was purported to be, the rebel myth propagated by such films as Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One and Blackboard Jungle came under criticism, particularly by the new left. Despite the crucial role that students played in the protest against the Vietnam war and the May 68 revolts, they were seen by the Situationists as a necessary product in the market of spectacles. By selling back to the adults a spectacular alienation that prevented them from ever addressing their own boredom and dead time, the teen myth is no more than another façade of capitalism turning on itself:
Thus any new revolt of youth is presented as merely the eternal revolt of youth that recurs with each generation The youth revolt has been subjected to a veritable journalistic inflation that presents people with this spectacle of revolt so that they will forget to participate in it This youth is a product par excellence of modern society, whether it chooses total integration into it or the most radical refusal of it (Situationist International 1966, 326).
Punk, perhaps the most self-conscious of the post-war subcultures, endeavoured to acknowledge the problematics of youth as a subversive category, as exemplified by such texts as The Adverts No Time to be 21: "Well be your untouchables/ Well be your outcasts/ We dont care what you project on us/ Its no time to be 21". Instead of clinging to the anti-consumerist idealism of the hippies, punks inverted the values of the establishment without positioning themselves outside it, adorning themselves with the detritus of the now emptied ideologies of the past. This attempt to create a teenage identity based on the inherent tensions and contradictions of youth culture, held together with safety pins and staples, left the idea of youth in suspended animation, rotting at the extremities but still available to journalists trying to plug a new pop band and lonely goths busy asserting their independence through eye makeup, ourselves included.
Rigor mortis hit in 1991, The Year Punk Broke, according to the title of one Nirvana-centred documentary. Alternative Kids were by now a normalised part of the teen story, recurring in teen flics as dark, brooding misfits with a secure place in the highschool hierarchy. As the accepted flipside of mainstream youth, the teen rebel myth was nullified. Punks celebration of pretty vacant youth was ironically realised in the emptying out of everything the teenager once stood for and which was now used as the perfect sales pitch for an adult market that grew up on that myth. This left teenagers (and their on screen representatives) with two options: either reject their status as a different class, morphing into highschool mutants with forty year old minds, or continue to enact the teenage clichés as a kind of empty ritual, with a knowing, ironic attitude thrown in for good measure.
The first option is perhaps best illustrated by Dawsons Creek, a television series that prides itself on putting Thirty Something dialogues in the mouths of 15 year olds. Constantly haunted by the notion that they might be missing out on their youth, the shows protagonists desperately try to balance experimentation with sex, drugs and drinking with responsible career choices, all the while observing as their parents overshadow their pathetic attempts at being teenagers. Dawsons Creeks off-screen parallels are the internet whiz kids who start companies and make millions before their 14th birthdays. Meanwhile, Britney Spears, an aging business woman trapped in the body of a cheerleader, provides the soundtrack for this youth gone not-so-wild at all. Combining an almost puritanical devotion to hard work with a less than innocent exploitation of underage sexuality, the queen of contemporary teen pop is also the antithesis of youth itself.
Hip-Hop and Nu-Metal, set up as an alternative to these sanitised versions of the teen archetype, share the same duality. In a school talk at Newham Sixth Form Hip-Hop DJ Jeru defined the genre as "an expression of the oppressed youth", in the same breath stressing the importance of "know[ing] how to present yourself as a valid business prospect" (NME 2000). Similarly, the latent tension in youth culture between commercialism and independence becomes explicit in Nu-Metal, which functions not as a local subculture with its own alternative institutions but as an integral part of mainstream culture. Limp Bizkit might paraphrase The Who with lyrics like "My Generation dont give a fuck", but they seem to care quite a bit about the lead singers film and video production company. This is more than mere hypocrisy: these artists might well be "keepin it real" since it would be meaningless to make claims for any kind of alternative reality. Limp Bizkit, Puff Daddy and the host of other artists who make up what a writer for The Face once termed "the voice of mildly pissed off white American youth" express the collapse of youth culture as a distinct class within society and discourse. Here, the teenagers death takes place through assimilation, bringing to a close half a century of resistant subcultural activity.
At the other end of the scale are bands like the Donnas, who, though well aware of the collapse of the teenager as a viable category of difference, still insist on performing the role of defiant teens and actually use its obsolescence for added ironic cachet. Self styled American Teenage Rock N Roll Machine, they all go by the name Donna (Donna A., C., F. and R., respectively) in obvious homage to the Ramones. Loud guitars and lyrics about partying, smokin cheeba and wanting/not wanting stuff round off the teen rebel image while leaving them utterly sweet and innocuous, as saccharine as their pink album sleeves. A similar impression of teens going through the motions is given by Sophia Coppolas film The Virgin Suicides, where the doomed protagonists seem to fulfil a James Dean-esque prophecy of revolt and catastrophe, but no explanation is provided for their actions, which remain an empty ritual (Coppola 2000).
Sarah Jones portraits of teenagers reflect the same tendencies. A sharp contrast to the American tradition established by Jim Goldberg, Mary Ellen Mark and Larry Clark (photographers who, as Val Williams proposes, "bought into the subculture notion") her images "are concerned with body language and the complex ways in which adolescents relate to space controlled by adults Joness teenagers are secret beings, they stare into the space beyond the camera and ponder. We have no idea of what their thoughts might be" (Williams 1997, 31). These empty signs of teen displacement present adolescents trying to define their place, having been stripped of the identity once assigned to them by popular culture.
Larry Clarks Kids (1995), the most celebrated teensploitation movie of the last decade, is yet another powerful illustration of this crisis of authenticity. Clark may have bought into the idea of subculture, but like his earlier portraits, his film work seems to capture the teenager as a repository of lost meaning, allowing him to relive not only his own past but also the mythological past of the teenager in popular culture (Kelley 1992). As Amy Taubin suggests, Clarks hormone-crazed teens are "less determined by culture than biology" (Taubin 1995, 17), but in an age where the idea of youth is as far removed from biological age as ever, this determination of youth is almost reactionary. Although the film depicts contemporary New York skater kids, in many cases playing themselves, it seems to have very little to do with the present. Clark has claimed that his inspiration for Kids was the desire to make a "great American teenage movie" (Taubin 1995, 18), and its this classicist approach that makes Kids such a throwback to the fifties. In the words of Jon Savage: "Clark has squared a circle between the 50s and the 90s which excludes those who were teenagers in the 60s and 70s liberal baby-boomers like most of you. In many ways, these particular 90s teens have been brought up in a world deliberately reminiscent of the materialist, red-baiting 50s: the return to free-market values and traditional morality promoted by the New Right" (Savage 1996, 9).
Despite the realistic, pseudo-documentary cinematography, the film does not penetrate the real world of kids today, and its verite style is constantly undermined by competing filmic qualities (what Amy Taubin terms its "movieness"). This double perspective, possibly stemming from the age difference between the films director and its young screenwriter (Harmony Korine, then 19), is partly responsible for the ambiguity that so riled the conservative lobbies that wanted the film banned. But as Jon Savage notes, the promiscuity of the main characters is equally a celebration of the freedom of youth and a moralistic warning for concerned parents. Savages interpretation of Kids could easily be applied to other contemporary representations of teenagers. Marilyn Mansons Disposable Teens, for example, is as much an indictment of the liberal attitudes behind the fin de siècle institutional breakdown as a teen rebellion anthem. Elsewhere, the bands über-goth lead singer takes the diseased corruption of society on himself as a kind of purifying gesture: "You built me up with your wishing hell", "I am so all-American, Id sell you suicide". At times, this stance almost appears to coincide with that of his enemies at the PMRC. In fact, the only youth movement that continues to bear any resemblance to previous subcultures in terms of clear non-conformism rather than knowing pastiche is Straight Edge, a movement founded on abstinence (from drugs and sex, if not rock n roll), "presenting a positive alternative to the tired conventions of youthful excess" (Batey 2001, 119).
Keeping in mind the conservative inflection of contemporary youth culture and its representations, its no wonder that teenagers have had to strain hard to live up to obsolete media images of teen rebellion. The uproar that followed the Columbine High Trenchcoat Mafia massacre, for instance, seemed to push them into stereotypes that no longer fit very well. The geeky misfits responsible for the shooting werent rebels without a cause, but more likely victims of the restrictive power structures that have come to dominate American highschools, in which the kids no longer riot against authority but mimic that of the adults. This, at any rate, is the picture painted by the recent revival of the teen horror and romantic comedy genres in cinema. While films as diverse as The Faculty and Shes All That share this post-teen trait, it is 1999s Disturbing Behaviour that most aptly demonstrates current shifts in the teen myth. In this recent thriller, the clean-cut highschool clique is in fact the result of a sick science experiment in which the need to rebel is extracted from the teenagers minds. The real threat, then, to social well-being is not the kids, but the bizarre adult cult trying to restrain them. One wonders, in light of other representations of youth in the nineties, if such action is even necessary. Scares about teen violence and pregnancy seem to grow in inverse proportion to the actual ability of teenagers to conceive of themselves or be conceived of as a radical avant-garde.
The death of the teenager as a radical signifier of rebellion has left the image a kind of void ready to be projected on to, up for grabs in the postmodern reappropriation game. Matei Calinescu defines this process as central to the present cultural mode: "Abandoning the strictures of the avant-garde and opting for a logic of renovation rather than radical innovation, postmodernism has entered into a lively reconstructive dialogue with the old and the past" (Calinescu 1987, 276). It is this logic that has allowed artists like Jones, Clark and even Marilyn Manson to remain engaged with the teen myth post mortem without succumbing to necrophilia, but much of its continued relevance relies on the way that the construct of the teenager is now applicable to all parts of society, from nine year old tweenagers (a recent media coinage) to middle-aged playstation fanatics.
In 1950, Isidore Isou defined youth as "a concept [which] could be enlarged to include anyone who was excluded from the economy and anyone who, through volition, or for that matter dissipation, refused to take a preordained place in the social hierarchy" (Marcus 1990, 270). Today this concept has been expanded to anyone who is included in the economy - attributes like freedom, progressiveness, rebelliousness, excessive consumption, open sexuality and the alienation that comes from asserting ones identity against the world are so omnipresent that they no longer signify any rupture. Teenage modes and tactics thus become common practice. But does this mean that their effectiveness is diminished or do they, perhaps, gain a new significance from being so widespread?
Yet another BBC documentary attempted to capture the children at the one end of the youth scale, assigned the catchy name of tweenagers (Townsend 2001). This budding market of (mostly) young girls, who enjoy activities like shopping and dating, is increasingly targeted by record companies, clothing manufacturers and teen-magazines. As demonstrated by the recent controversy surrounding the publication of Mad about Boys magazine, the sexualisation of this demographic sector has not gone unnoticed. But there is more to this change in the perception of children than sex the scantily dressed and heavily made up tweenagers are not being turned prematurely into adults, they are, as the word itself suggests, simply extensions of adolescence. The fact that they are sold miniature pink t-shirts with captions like Destroy is not merely indicative of the commodification of punk, but also of the way in which they now function like surrogate teens, cuter perhaps, but often no less subversive than their sixties precursors.
This potential for subversion has been used in some ways by Southpark, which does more than just rely on the childrens innocent point of view as the source of its social criticism, as in novels like Huckleberry Fin. The shows protagonists seem to cope much better than their parents in a world shaped by new technologies and the media and by accepting the future become something like the radical teenagers who heralded the modern age. Thus in an episode devoted to the debate over the effects of violent television on young minds, a recurrent theme in pop teen sociology, they explain that parental neglect is far more harmful than television programs could ever be. Although obviously functioning as a mouthpiece for the shows creators, these kids take on something of the oppositional teenage stance in this and other instances of harsh critique.
Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara similarly juxtaposes childhood and teen angst. Although the specific context of the cute Japanese comics tradition allows for many other interpretations of his big-headed, big-eyed naughty children, his use of text (as in "Aggressive Teens") clearly relates his work to teenage iconography. Here the subversion works both ways not only are the baby-faced children made confrontational, but the teen themes that are referenced, from band names to drug-taking become sweet and innocuous. However, there is another level to these scribbled drawings. By using ruled notebook paper as his background and the very lo-tech coloured pens and pencils as his medium, Nara positions himself as a teenager making doodles instead of taking notes in class or doing his homework.
This has become a common strategy in contemporary art. What is fairly latent in Naras drawings becomes central in the work of Amy Adler, for instance, who makes pastel drawings of teens and their idols in the manner of a fan copying photos of a beloved star (Ratnam 2001). Initially publishing her work in the fan-art section of a teen magazine alongside 13 year old contributors, she now works with icons like Leonardo DiCaprio, whose portraits she photographs and exhibits. Exploiting exclusively adolescent institutions and infiltrating the communities of fans which surround them, Adler takes the place that is traditionally reserved for the teenage girl and subverts their logic: the passive teen- or pre-teen consumer who can only adore from afar is positioned as an active participant in her own culture. But what does this mean for the artist? While it would be hard for Adler and Nara to claim convincingly that teenage tactics make them outsiders in the high art world, their use does provide them with a way of relating back to a consumer culture of impenetrable technologies and glossy finishes. Like the lo-fi music movement of the nineties, artists who embrace such adolescent modes of production may not be resisting commodification, but they are finding a way of operating within it.
Nevertheless, this dual perspective, at once portraying teenagers and identifying with them, is not unproblematic. Positing the teenager as an object of desire while incorporating the teenage perspective creates an identity split, which is evident not just in art but throughout society, perhaps most notably in the current fad for paedophile panics, of which more later. A good example of the anxiety created by equating the self as teenager with the teenager as object is the writing of Dennis Cooper. Simulating the disintegration of the teenager in the last two decades, Cooper has created a series of novels that, although they can be read independently, are crammed with intertextual references and repetitions characters from previous novels reappear, old scenes are revisited. More than a stylistic device, these structural breakdowns mirror the fragmentation of Coopers characters, literary constructs of fantasies of teenage lust. In Period, the last and concluding chapter of his five-novel cycle his confused, fragmented teen characters, some of them no more than internet aliases, are haunted by an ominous feeling that they are displaced and emotionally disconnected, shadows of other peoples (and the authors) desires. Vaguely holding on to the myth of the teenager as outsider, they echo the transgressive teens of the past while never pretending to be more than words on a page. But, as in Coopers other novels, the recurring figure of the artist/writer shares their obsessions and tastes, to a degree that he can be counted as part of their milieu. Nonetheless, whenever his desire is realised something like exploitation always occurs. The transgressiveness of Coopers writing does not arise from the depiction of gay sex with minors, but from the collapse of these distinctions between adult and teenage sexuality and identity.
This identity crisis might explain the rise of the paedophile as a kind of folk demon in recent years. The collapse of sexual boundaries that eventuates from adults thinking of themselves as teenagers while eroticising children creates a confusion that can only be countered with a reinstating of the age taboo. Was it because he found them awkwardly attractive that the police constable who attacked the Saatchi gallery wanted Tierney Gearons nude portraits of her children removed? In a culture where thirty year olds on T.V. live in messy flat-shares and obsess over comics (Spaced), get excited over K-9 robots (Queer as Folk) and expect their workplaces to be about "fun" (Ally McBeal), it would hardly be surprising. "Even if were not kids, we [all] like to pretend we are" asserts John Cage in Ally McBeal, and as they put on their school uniforms for nights like School Disco, todays not-so-young clubbers seem to agree.
Angela McRobbie relates these changes in the work and leisure patterns (the two becoming increasingly indistinguishable) of youngish adults today to a wider "aestheticisation of everyday life" (McRobbie 1999). As more people find employment in the culture industry they prolong their juvenile engagement with popular culture and use freelance and short term work as a way of maintaining their youthful lifestyles. In other words, the teenification of the adult world has social implications beyond the television screen. This sector of well-trained consumers embraces the logic of late capitalism, much to the dismay of writers on cultural studies, while often expressing anti-capitalist views and an acute social awareness, a tension we shall expand on later but which is also impossible to comprehend without considering the teenage modes of thought and behaviour that dominate it. Dennis Cooper writes this of teenagers: "The point is, you cant predict with teenagers. Theyre still developing. Theyre just human transitions" (Cooper 2000, p. 83). But this description can now be applied to a large part of society, and as human transitions, young people, ages 9-90, shirk many of the responsibilities that used to be associated with growing up. Whether holding on to McJobs or expressing their creativity as journalists, artists and new media employees, they continue to view the world from within the contradictions that have shaped youth culture in the past fifty years. Taken out of its historical context, this youth culture now exists as a simultaneous present reflected in the wide array of musical and fashion styles available to one and all. The result is a youth culture emptied of its original meaning, a transition that Simon Frith dubs "from youth counter-culture to shop-counter culture" (Frith 1988, 92). Or, as Jon Savage aptly puts it:
The teens won, but they took over at exactly that point at which they lost their idealism: the result is a consumer society based on the teenage sensibility a perpetual present and perpetual change that is part dream, part nightmare. Infinitely graded and sophisticated, this society is still dominated by that brief but explosive period in the mid-sixties whose implications (and detritus) live with us still (Savage 1988, 163).
Club culture, which for many writers has replaced previous youth subcultures, exemplifies this claim. As Andy Bennet explains, it has in fact "led a break up of the subcultural tradition":
music culture is indicative of a new form of post-subcultural
[and] opens up entirely new ways of understanding how young
people perceive the relationship between musical taste and visual style
infinitely malleable and interchangeable nature of the latter as they
are appropriated and realised by individuals as aspects of consumer choice
to be woven into a personal system of identity politics (Bennet 2000,
So if everyone can be a teenager forever (possibly with the exception of teenagers themselves), if subcultural styles are laid out for all to choose from and work is just another way of having fun creatively, why is it that the people with the most to gain from this state of things (middle class, youngish adults) are also leading the anti-capitalist/anti-globalisation movement? While Naomi Klein insists that this is because they are tired of having their own culture appropriated and sold back to them by multi-national corporations (Klein 2000), perhaps a better explanation would be that in order to posit themselves as rebellious teenagers, the eternally young have had to create their own oppression solely for the sake of some thing to rebel against: "The only thing to kick back against", writes Rachel Newsome in a recent issue of Dazed and Confused devoted to rebellion, "is the lack of anything to kick back against the All-New Reinvented Rebellion is increasingly less about something we do and more about re-creating an experience with no reference to anything except itself" (Newsome 2001, 107-109). This would account for the amorphous and faceless nature of the new oppressors not governments, but silent, conspiring corporations authoritative entities removed from the visible sites of power, which can only exist within a simulated parent-child relationship of control and rebellion. To be bored, alienated teenagers, for all the creative options that this position entails, we need to establish a system in relation to which we can be outsiders. Since the adult, or square world can no longer function as such a system (it too wants to be young and cool forever), it must be found within the consumer culture that created the eternal teenager, an enemy within which reinforces the shared experience of rebellion. While these tensions might not be easily resolved, they continue to shape our society. Drawing on the now bankrupt rock n roll myth of the teenager, they form a rich terrain for artists to explore and shop in.
Batey, Angus, 2001:
UK Straight Edge, in Dazed and Confused, no. 76: April issue
Bennet, Andy, 2000:
Popular Music and Youth Culture: Music Identity and Place, London: Macmillan
Calinescu, Matei, 1987: Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism,
Durham: Duke University
Clark, Larry, 1995:
Clark, Larry, 1971: Tulsa, New York: Larry Clark
Cooper, Dennis, 2000:
Period, New York: Grove Press
Coppola, Sofia, 2000:
The Virgin Suicides, Paramount
English, Katherine, 2001: Cannibal, shown on Channel Four, 20th February
Frith, Simon, 1988: "Video Pop: Picking up the Pieces", in Facing the Music: Essays on Pop, Rock and Culture (Simon Frith ed.),, London: Mandarin
Kelley, Mike, 1992:
"Larry Clark: In Youth is Pleasure", in Flash Art, no. 164:
May/June issue, pp. 82-86
Klein, Naomi, 2000: No Logo, London: Flamingo
Marcus, Greil, 1990: Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
McRobbie, Angela, 1999: In the Culture Society: Art, Fashion and Popular Music, London: Routeledge
Felippo Tomaso, 1909 : The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,
Newsome, Rachel, 2001:
"The Death of Rebellion", in Dazed and Confused, no. 76: April
Ratnam, Niru, 2001: "Oops I Drew It Again", in The Face, vol. 3, no. 52: May issue
Savage, Jon, 1988:
The Enemy Within: Sex, Rock, and Identity, in Facing the Music:
Essays on Pop, Rock and Culture, London: Mandarin
Savage, Jon, 1996:
Now Larry Clarks Kids, in Sight and Sound, NS-6: May
1966: On the Poverty of Student Life, in Situationist International
Anthology (Ken Knabb ed. & tr.), Berkeley: Bureau of Public
Taubin, Amy, 1995:
Chilling and Very Hot, in Sight and Sound, NS-5: November
Williams, Val, 1997: Theatre of Attitudes, Creative Camera, no. 349: December 1997/ January 1998