As the social historian Philippe Aries reminds us (1962), “childhood” and “youth” are socially constructed conceptions of age and not biological givens. Indeed, the idea that a transitional period of youth occurs between childhood and adulthood is a relatively recent invention, beginning with Rousseau’s Emile in mid-eighteenth-century Europe, which celebrated childhood and delineated stages of youth. Generational terms referring to the “lost generation” of the 1920s, or the “silent generation” post-World War II (1950s), began emerging in the twentieth century. During the post-World War II period, “youth culture” was widely used to describe the growing music and rock culture and consumer and fashion styles of the era that quickly mutated into the counterculture of the 1960s.
Since then there has been a flourishing industry in sociology, cultural studies, and popular media designing terms like “baby-boomers” – who were born in the mid-1940s and the postwar period and came of age during the affluence of the 1950s and 1960s (Strauss & Howe 1991; Gillon 2004). This generation were the beneficiaries of an unprecedented economic expansion and a highly self-conscious sense of generation, having gone through the turbulent 1960s together and emerged in many cases to prosperity and success in corporate, academic, and political life in the 1970s and beyond.
Origins Of The Concept
The category of “youth culture” can be traced back to theorists associated with and influenced by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Britain who emphasized its counter-hegemonic and “generational” qualities and examined the ways in which working-class youth sub-cultures resisted subordination through the production of their own culturally subversive styles (Hall & Jefferson 1976). From this perspective, youth of the 1950s celebrated beatniks, teddy boys, and the styles associated with American rhythm and blues music. A decade later, when these became appropriated by the mainstream, 1960s youth turned to the mods on the one hand, and hippy and countercultural styles of sex, drugs, and rock and roll on the other. After the commercialization and appropriation of the counterculture in the 1970s, youth turned to new movements like punk and, with the rise in global popularity of hip-hop culture from the 1980s onward, youth have turned increasingly to more urban and underprivileged “gangsta” styles of violent rap sub-culture (Kellner 1995).
While there have been attempts to present baby-boomers and “post-boomers” as coherent generations (Howe & Strauss 1993; 2000), in fact contemporary youth embrace a wide array of young people and its youth culture is equally heterogeneous. Postboomers include those who helped create the Internet and the culture of video-gaming; the latchkey kids who are home alone and the mallrats quaffing fast food in the palaces of consumption; the young activists who helped generate the anti-globalization and emerging peace and antiwar movements; the cafe slackers, klub kidz, computer nerds, and sales clerks; a generation committed to health, exercise, sustainability, ethical dietary practices, and animal rights, as well as anorexics and bulimics in thrall to the ideals of the beauty and fashion industries. Today’s youth also include creators of exciting zines and diverse multimedia such as can be found on sites like MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube; the bike ponies, valley girls, and skinheads; skaters, gangstas, low-riders, riot grrls, and hiphoppers; all accompanied by a diverse and heterogeneous grouping of multicultural, racial, and hybridized individuals seeking a viable identity.
By the 1990s, new forms of “postmodern culture” became a central part of youth culture (see Best & Kellner 1997; 2001). Originating during this period, the style of MTV has come to influence postmodern media culture on the whole – normalizing a cultural style that seeks to absorb and pastiche anything and everything, while it turns oppositional cultural forms such as hip hop and grunge into seductive hooks for fashion and advertising. The postmodern media and consumer culture is alluring, fragmented, and superficial, inviting its audiences to enter the postmodern game of consumption, style, and identity through the construction of look and image. Postmodern cultural forms are becoming dominant – at least for youth – with genre implosion a recurrent feature of contemporary film and TV, as are pastiche, sampling, hyper-irony, and other features of postmodern culture. Novel forms of electronic music such as techno and rave clubs also produce cultural artifacts where youth can experience postmodern culture intensely as they indulge in designer drugs, chemical and herbal ecstasy, and psychotropic drinks. Thus, for contemporary youth, postmodernism is not merely an avantgarde aesthetic, or an academic topic, but the form and texture of their everyday lives.
Most crucially perhaps, experiences of the Internet have brought postmodern culture into the homes and lives of contemporary youth. Hooking into the world wide web, individuals can access myriad forms of culture, engage in discussions, create their own cultural forums and sites, establish relationships, and create novel identities and social relations in a unique cyberspace (see Turkle 1995). Internet culture is on the whole more fragmented, diverse, and interactive than previous media culture and as sight and sound increasingly become integral parts of the Internet experience individuals will live more and more in a space significantly different from previous print and media culture. Being propelled into a new cultural matrix is thus an integral part of the postmodern adventure with unforeseen results. Contemporary youth constitutes the first cybergeneration, the first group enculturated into media and computer culture from the beginning, playing computer and video games, accessing a wealth of TV channels, plugging into the Internet, and creating communities, social relations, artifacts, and identities in an entirely original cultural space for which the term “postmodern” stands as a semiotic marker.
Youth culture is thus today intersected by media and computer technologies, and the current generation has grown up in postmodern culture. Media culture has indeed extended and prolonged youth culture as 1960s rockers like Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, and Bob Dylan continue to strut their stuff, and youth becomes an ever more obsessive ideal in US culture with the mass marketing of plastic surgery and medicines like Viagra supporting a highly sexualized mass culture that appears to idealize the youthful libido as a satisfying state of being ideally obtainable by every person. Yet in opposition to the dominant media and consumer culture, resistant youth sub-cultures have emerged that provide autonomous spaces where they can define themselves and create their own identities and communities (Kahn & Kellner 2003). Youth sub-cultures can be merely cultures of consumption where young people come together to consume cultural products, like rock music, that binds them together as a community. Yet youth sub-cultures can also be countercultures in which youth define themselves against the dominant culture, such as in punk, goth, grrrl, or hip-hop culture (see Epstein 1998).
“Global youth culture” is the transdisciplinary category by which theorists and policy analysts attempt to understand the emergence of the complex forms of hybrid culture and identity that increasingly occur among youth throughout the world due to the proliferation of media like film, television, popular music, the Internet, and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their everyday lives (for a global range of forms of contemporary youth culture see SPoKK 1997; Dolby & Rizvi 2007). “Youth,” defined alternatively as post-adolescent and pre-adult groups, or by the United Nations as the over 1.1 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24, are perceived as a primary engine for the growth of global media culture. Youth generally comprise the most media- and technologically literate sector of their societies and the multinational corporations that trade in global media commodities actively target young people as a consumer class now believed to be worth more than US$2 trillion in potential sales.
The potential for global media to enlist youth as agents for the cultural logic of advanced capitalist culture and economy has led some theorists to criticize global youth culture as dangerously ethnocentric and imperialist (see Gidley & Inayatullah 2002). Others see global popular culture as promoting a progressive postmodern diversity, hybridized cosmopolitanism, and proliferation of voices, cultural forms, and styles (see Dolby & Rizvi 2007). In this view, youth are being empowered by new cultural opportunities to question reactionary and regressive cultural and political attitudes in their respective societies. Therefore, while global youth culture is mistakenly characterized as being simply homogeneous and imperialistic, it also cannot be separated from a rigorous critique of its political economy. In this respect, there are ways in which global youth culture is undergoing a “McDonaldization” and represents a form of “McWorld” that seeks to replace local and traditional cultures with universal liberal and egalitarian values that surreptitiously support the geopolitical aims of countries like the United States and the profits of primary multinational media conglomerates like News Corporation, AOL/Time Warner, Vivendi Universal, Viacom, Bertelsmann, Sony, and the Walt Disney Company.
But either condemning youth culture as homogenizing, or celebrating it as hybridized and creative, may miss the potential resistant elements in youth culture. Youth sub-cultures can comprise an entire way of life, involving clothes, styles, attitudes, and practices. Youth sub-cultures contain potential spaces of resistance, though these can take various forms ranging from narcissistic and apolitical to anarchist and punk cultures, from environmental and social justice activist cultures promoting progressive vegan lifestyles to rightwing skinheads and Islamic jihadists promoting startlingly reactionary ideas and values. Thus, although there might be elements of opposition and resistance to mainstream culture in youth sub-cultures, such counterculture might not be progressive and must be interrogated in specific cases concerning their politics and effects.
Globalization And Youth Culture
Though there are undeniably a plethora of contemporary youth sub-cultures, the thoroughly mediated aspects of today’s youth culture, with technology like the Internet able to provide youth the world over with instant access to a wide diversity of cultural styles and artifacts, has led recent theorists to question the applicability of the concept of “subculture” in a global context. Proposing “post-subcultural studies” which emphasize the complexity, multiplicity, diversity, and syncretistic aspects of youth cultures as they localize global media influences and globalize local lifestyles, postmodern cultural theories are attempting to account for the ways in which global youth negotiate individualism amid market-based tribalism and strive for political agency within a world of media spectacles. In this perspective, one would trace the international appeal of a rapper like Eminem, but also observe how local forms of hip hop have taken root from New York to Tokyo and Berlin to Sao Paulo, with global music channels and websites broadcasting not only these performances, but also hybridized forms of club music that mix rap styles with a mélange of cultural sounds and ideas. Further, whereas it was once believed youth culture was little more than a symbolic political gesture of defiance, today’s youth have utilized new media to mobilize and coordinate global political expressions like the anticorporate globalization movement which voices the desire of youths for a progressive world based upon alternative globalizations.
While television and radio remain the most powerful and pervasive media in the lives of most global youth, the Internet often supplant them as a primary influence and will continue to do so under institutional frameworks that push for the further development of a wired world that is both global village and global mall. While western corporations like Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, eBay, ESPN, and Electronic Arts maintain top websites for global youth, Asian sites from China, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore also represent some of the most fashionable domains. As Asian countries are estimated to comprise 60 percent of the world’s youth, evidence suggests that Asian website popularity may still be regional in large part. But the Japanese anime-style Internet phenomenon of the Neopets site, where over 70 million global youth have created virtual pets that they care for and compete with for real prizes, demonstrates the manner in which online global youth culture can be hybridic and complex.
The continued growth of the Internet throughout Asia, Latin America, and Europe, as well as in parts of Africa, means that material on the global Internet will continue to become more diverse. Still, the hundreds of millions of global youth who live in abject poverty, fight in wars, and continue to be forced into slavery must serve as reminders that theories of global youth culture that celebrate its urbanity, cosmopolitanism, and mediated qualities can be misleading and may not be applicable to the cultural experiences of the downtrodden whose “youth” itself has become a political question.
Contemporary global youth culture is thus defined today by products and usages of mass media and information technologies and a common social and political environment. Today’s youth are not the first TV generation (their boomer parents had that honor), but their media experience is far more intensive and extensive. Where boomers were introduced to a TV world with limited channels in black and white, post-boomers experienced the cornucopia of 100-plus channels in living color transmitted by cable and satellite television, a wealth of video cassettes, remote control and wireless devices, massively multi-player online games (MMOGs), DVDs, BitTorrent, MySpace, and YouTube. Whereas much boomer TV-watching was rigorously supervised and circumscribed by concerned parents, post-boomers, often with both parents at work, were parked in front of the TV as a pacifier and indulged themselves in a media orgy supplemented by video and computer games.
A Multimedia Environment
Post-boomers have therefore watched much more TV than boomers, the time competing with that they spend in school and with other forms of media consumption. The shows post-boomers watch are of a very different nature, often filled with images of sex and violence the likes of which were not seen in the 1950s and early 1960s, replacing shows like Ozzie and Harriet, Dobie Gillis, and Lassie with Law and Order, the CSI series, and The Sopranos. Since the late 1990s younger viewers have watched shows like The OC and Grey’s Anatomy (teens), SpongeBob SquarePants and The Fairly OddParents (pre-teens), compared to the likes of The Howdy Doody Show, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Mr. Ed, which had entertained young boomers. While for young boomers the nightly news was iconic, post-boomers prefer the comedic critique of The Daily Show, and follow the superficial antics of American Idol and the dramas of celebs like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.
The current wave of “reality TV” shows feature young contestants struggling for survival, prizes, and celebrity against older players in Survivor, locked up in a panopticon of surveillance in Big Brother, and subject to the degradations of sexual and social rejection in the highly competitive personality/sex contests of Temptation Island, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire, and MTV’s The Real World. These latter shows generally feature narcissism and sadism, depicting a highly Darwinist neo-liberal struggle for survival of the fittest and sexiest, while losers are rejected and cast aside as unworthy.
But post-boomers are also the first generation to grow up with personal computers, CD-Roms, the Internet, the world wide web, and iPods, which provide for exciting adventures in cyberspace and proliferating technological skills, making this generation the most technologically literate in history and offering unprecedented opportunities for them to become politically engaged and to create their own culture. Peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing of music, video, computer programs, and other digitized products represents more communal and social sharing than is evident in the reality TV shows, and programs like BitTorrent, MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube represent social technologies designed by youth to create a participatory and shared digital youth culture, one currently at war against the adult world of copyright litigation and the net police.
Of course, one needs to distinguish between a youth culture produced by youth themselves that articulates their own visions, passions, and anxieties, and media culture produced by adults to be consumed by youth. One also needs to distinguish between youth cultures that are lived and involve immediate, participatory experience as opposed to mediated cultural experience and consumption, and to be aware that youth cultures involve both poles. Moreover, one should resist both reducing youth culture merely to a culture of consumption and glorifying it as a force of resistance. It is best instead to ferret out the contradictions and both the way in which youth cultures are constructed by media and consumer culture and the way in which youth in turn construct their own communities.
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