Who Killed Youth Culture?

I was struck, not so long ago, when I happened to be walking around New York City in the early morning. Everyone was dressed pretty much the same. Or, at least, no one stood out. A few decades ago, a modern, Western city like NYC would have been filled with all kinds of youth cultures — punk, skinhead, rockabillies, breakdancers, etc. I’m not saying they don’t still exist; I’m merely pointing out that they don’t exist in anywhere near the same numbers. This is weird. If you lived in the suburbs of London (and undoubtedly the suburbs of America), a few decades ago, then you knew or saw plenty of people dressed outrageously — more than I see in NYC or London today.

siouxsie-punks

Youth culture, it seems, is dead — at least as we understood it. True, there are “Hipsters,” but they are so inoffensive that they don’t stand out the way every other youth culture has (if it can be considered one).

What happened? Both London and NYC like to claim that they invented punk — the pre-punk Ramones, Blondie, and so on in the latter, and The Sex Pistols and the Clash in the former. But why was it invented?

Life was pretty bleak during the ’70s, when punk emerged. In Britain, there were mass strikes and frequent electricity blackouts. The garbage collectors and fire brigades all went on strike. Instead of nice, shiny red fire trucks, green army ones patrolled the streets. It wasn’t really much fun. Unemployment was high; despair higher.

Then there was “fashion.” A few decades ago, it took several years from the latest thing to trickle from the catwalk and pop stars to the high street. Regular fashion, sold in every mainstream store, was usually boring and exactly alike.

If you wanted to resemble your musical idol, or just didn’t want to look like a geek, then you had to do it yourself. Youth cultures gave those who were dissatisfied with the status quo a way out.

Nina Hagen with leather jacket (left) and Siouxsie Sioux (right).
Nina Hagen with leather jacket (left) and Siouxsie Sioux (right).

You could go to small stores in the city and buy clothing, but pretty much every subculture took regular items of clothes and modified it, cutting it up, bleaching it, painting it, and so on. It was more creative. (Even skinheads bleached and cut their jeans short, sewed patches on their flight jackets, and cut their wool hats small.) The wearer was able to express himself. And it drew similar people together, into gangs based on music, clothing, aesthetics, and ideas about life, and even humor.

Today, no one needs to bleach or cut up their jeans. If you want that, you can buy it. Designer labels are happy to charge you for it. Fashion is, it has to be said, a whole lot more interesting, and pretty much everything is available. Unlike a few decades ago, there is no overwhelmingly singular style. No one would be surprised or shocked to see a girl in jeans today, a miniskirt tomorrow, and a dress the day after that. But that wasn’t the case a few decades ago.

Youth culture has died, because there is more choice — in clothing, music, etc. — and there is no necessity to create one’s own look or, perhaps more accurately, to create a new world.

What have we lost?

Creativity has filtered from the youth as an expression of energy and utopianism. Creativity exists online — in blogs, sometimes — and it exists in brands. But the raw energy of youth culture has dissipated. Music genres don’t seem to change much. Notably, Hip-Hop, now 40 years old, is generally still considered the most daring genre. Country has made a come-back.

We’ve also lost another community. With the destruction of the extended family, then the nuclear family, young people made their own very tight-knit groups. There was a strong sense of what it meant to be an insider or an outsider. They listened to the same music, wore the same clothes, hung out in the same places, read the same magazines and books, liked the same kind of art, and had a vision of what life should be — a vision that they expressed through the youth culture that they created.

It would be foolish to claim that these groups were ideal, but, like it or not, we should acknowledge that members were able to support one another when others — often including parents, family, teachers, etc. — did not.

What we have lost is not just one of the roots of modern creativity, but one of the few ways in which young people could find guidance — not always very good guidance, admittedly, but some kind of guidance — into adulthood and into ideas that superseded purely mundane and material concerns.

Angel MillarAngel Millar is the author of The Crescent and the Compass: Islam, Freemasonry, Esotericism, and Revolution in the Modern Age as well as other books on Freemasonry, symbolism, and spirituality. His writing has also been published in New Dawn magazine, The Journal of Indo-European Studies, and at Disinfo dot com, among others.

3 Replies to “Who Killed Youth Culture?”

  1. I am only 30. but i would spare a child from the sort of “guidance” I received at the hands of the previous generation. Gen x molded gen y, then mocked them for being “hipsters”, while still maintaining that they were somehow not that thing much worse than hipsters: *Aging* Hipsters…no, we could never be as cool as you, raised on the internet with second-hand knowledge (somehow, this implies second-hand love?) David Bowie died only a few days ago and I can assure you I felt it with the exact intensity of all of those musicians who came between his time and mine. Yes, I saw “The Labyrinth” before I knew anything about his music. Yes, I was already *even too young for The Labyrinth*…not really my generation, but I guess I had older babysitters show it to me. Why should any of that matter? Am I not who I am today because of his influence, just the same as so many 80’s and 90’s icons? Your generation ruined mine. Spoiled isn’t quite the right word. It wasn’t just the over-sharing, it was the simultaneous exclusion. What “guidance” do you speak of? The sexual predation? The mockery and ego-attacks? The questioning of authenticity, based on nothing but our accidental emergence into the timeline? The punishment for being born to middle-class parents who would call the cops on us if we left our bedrooms at the wrong hour of the night? Yes, you “latch-key kids” were so much cooler…since your parents cared that much less. Fuck you. You projected your neurosis onto us and then said we weren’t “doing it right”. Youth culture is dead because you strangled it in your own hands as they were growing up in your ugly-souled, cynical shadows.

    1. Dear Charlotte (if that is your real name, since the email you registered with (…@blahblah.blah) is so obviously fake — though, we think, so appropriate),

      In regard to the “guidance” you mention, this refers to the guidance one received within groups of friends that had, by adopting one youth culture or another, put themselves outside of the mainstream, not just in terms of music and clothing, but in terms of opinions and way of life. The author does not suggest that one generation somehow guided — or that it should guide — the next. It is normal, after all, for each generation to rebels against the preceding one, and to do something new and interesting on their own. (Hand holding is not something we endorse on this site.)

      As for “being born to middle-class parents who would call the cops on us if we left our bedrooms at the wrong hour of the night,” we’re sorry if you feel a bit too bourgeois to be cool, but that’s on you.

      You may want to insult or shock us by telling us “Fuck you,” but you don’t do either. But, as for ourselves, we prefer not to knock people down but to pick people up. So, here is our suggestion for how you might become a bit more interesting (warning: it will take some work):

      (1) take up some kind of art, learn it thoroughly, and push beyond its limits, (2) get some life experience and put yourself into your work, (3) don’t think not being interesting is the fault of your parents or previous generations (you make your own life), (4) think outside the box and seek out and try to understand opinions that offend or upset you, (5) don’t whine, and (6) put your name to your work.

      We’d also recommend taking some form of spirituality, and (if you are fit and healthy enough) some type of physical exercise that challenges you, such as a martial art. You’ll develop yourself as a person, and will see the world totally differently. (But you can consider those added options if you are just interested in youth culture.)

      Best of luck

  2. While I don’t totally agree with Charlotte, it seems she felt like you had trashed your for being 30. I’m like 36, and I agree more with what you said. In the 80’s, it was… you had the Repo Man film fan or the Risky Business film fan. Very different styles of clothes, and well, both awesome. There were JOCKS, preps who were half the time also jocks, punk/car freak types, intelligent nerds(who dressed like accountants already), dorky nerds, outcasts, gangsters, shit kickers(rednecks who were still cool with other groups), rednecks who were not cool with other groups… I feel like everything’s becoming so identical. Everyone has a smart phone(I don’t, and WON’T LET anyone get me one), and fear this was done by design. It’s a created singularity. Everyone is so politically correct while losing whatever potential he/she has at being really creative or amazing. All music, rap or whatever is popular sounds almost the same. The concerts, the looks.. are the same. It reminds me of the movie ‘Enemy.’ Great film about being stuck in some sort of repetition. Everyone is identical or most are trying to fit in, and not step out of line. Stuck in a totalitarian state while most argue that it’s not true… not quite communism, but something where everything’s part of a web. You only realize it when you’re stuck, and the spider comes to eat you. My friend and I were talking about this, maybe just a week ago. Saying how all movies were looking the same, and it feels as though time is slowing down, and nothing is changing. Been sayin’ we live in a fascist state so long(corporations and government and religion all combined)so it hasn’t felt different in a while. Charlotte doesn’t realize that she probably had worse parents than we did, ours were just more naive yet successful. Or we were far more spoiled without knowing it, and were allowed to play any sport we wanted and actually went outdoors to play. We could walk with our friends knowing we wouldn’t get mugged or harassed by cops. There were less cars, and less garbage on the streets. Less buildings, more trees and parks. Public pools, public basketball courts and tennis courts(though that was a dead place where I lived.) Basketball court was full of all young people… and the parents accidentally taught us that we could expect all great things. They were unaware of how screwed the country us and that it’s actually a corporation. I’m only six years removed from her, but that’s how it was for me. And I don’t blame anyone but our corrupt government that’s been corrupt since day one.

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