on 6 May 2008
In 'England's Dreaming' Jon Savage explored the Britain of the 70s which gave birth to the Sex Pistols and Punk Rock in it's wider social, cultural and political context. In 'Teenage: The Creation of Youth - 1875-1945' Savage does the same thing but this time in respect to the emergence of youth culture in the first place.
Savage starts the book in his introduction by informing the reader that this is a 'prehistory of the teenager.' Inspired by Dick Hebdige's influential study 'Subculture-The Meaning of Style,' and by his own experience of the Punk scene in 70s London, Savage explains how he sought to discover the roots of what today we take for granted: namely the idea of adolescence as a seperate stage of life between childhood and adulthood, a specific cohort with loyalties to peer-group norms rather than those established by their parents and their parents culture.
Savage takes us on a tour which includes..... Fin De Siecle Paris, the waning power of Imperial Great Britain, the emerging militaristic power of Germany, juvenile delinquency, Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, 'Hooligans,' The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, G. Stanley Hall, Boy Scouts, Ragtime, Nickelodeans, Dance Halls, World War 1, Secularism, Jazz, 20s Berlin, Prohibition, 'Flappers,' Valentino, Hollywood, the spread of secondary and tertiary education, Leopold and Loeb, Clara Bow, 'It Girls,' the Charleston, Harlem, Jimmy Cagney, the Nazi Youth, the Depression of the 30s, Zoot Suits, French Zazou's, World War 2..... and much, much more.
Savage shows us that it was in this period that, in essence, the 'teenager' was born and that it's emergence as a social, economic and cultural entity was tied symbiotically with the emergence of America as a truly global power and the spread of it's values across the Western world. In this period a new incipient age of mass consumerism was born and with it a new market to be tapped. Savage conveys the themes of this book in a way which is both informative and pleasurable to read. Highly recommended.
Whilst modern folk lore hast it teenagers were in invented in the USA after the Second World War was won, Jon Savage has undertaken some urban archaeology to do some sifting and excavating to deliver truth.
Formerly the great and the good within sociology have concentrated a focus on defining the "normal;" alternatively viewed as the grunts who put in the shifts in to make the economic wheels turn, this book explores the lives of the "freaks". These are the young people who lived on the edge of "normal" existence, shunned by the mainstream whilst inhabiting a mayfly existence before they snap. The normals fear the freaks because the latter highlight the tedium of being a square.
Castigated for breaking all moral adult taboos, previous social restraints and the sacred codes those who need to believe in such ideologies find socially acceptable. Eventually the gangs are shunted out of the mainstream into early deaths, gravitate into criminal enterprises or eventually feted as prodigal sons/daughters after rejoining the flock and fold to engage in middle aged idiocy.
So the author travels back to the Victorian era, traversing the world in finding early signs of dissent and debauchery. Gently unpicking the sanitised versions of history, sanctified by pious Marxists who wish to deify the dignity of labour and the knee scraping penitents clinging to the belief life is better in the after life. Therefore why make ripples in this one? Christian Salvationists were the great enemy of youth cultures. Each adult discourse has colluded to back-fill history, who along with the free marketeers who wish to ensure progress is marked with constant diligence and drudgery. Being chained to the wheel of work time is their ideal world and the final orgasmic release is unleashed in unrestrained consumerism. Buy buy teenager, come on in Mr BMW
Jon however shows the bacchanal existed way before James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Elvis. There has always been a time just after puberty and just before the mill chain of work the iron ball of expectations was placed around the leg, young people had a window of opportunity for an individual expression and flocked to gangs for protection from other youth and older adults. Those who negated their lives, instead of dancing with unrestrained joy and creating something new, perceive the frenzy as a party that needs to stop.
Fortunately youth, apart from those existing within the present have always head butted the partitions to rise above the binds of the previous dead generations to catch a glimpse at what it is to be alive.
Within the book another trajectory for living is offered as a template. It differs remarkably from those platitudes offered by careers officers, teachers and pushy parents have to offer.
At least have a look.