The Kids Are—Yawn—Alright

Photo: Nina Leen/Courtesy of Viking

According to Jon Savage in his new book, Teenage, one of the first places the modern teenager appeared was as a pervy gleam in the eye of British author J. M. Barrie. Barrie had some issues. After his older brother died in a skating accident, his mother became fixated on the dead boy while ignoring her other son. As an adult, Barrie, a small man (he grew to only five feet) in a bad marriage, sought out the company of adolescent boys, specifically the five brothers Llewelyn-Davies, whom he later adopted after the death of their parents. Those boys, along with his own experiences, inspired Peter Pan, Barrie’s 1904 masterpiece of sublimation. Locked between adulthood and childhood, cloyingly sweet and scary and sexualized, Neverland, Savage argues, was an uncanny anticipation of the youth culture to come. Barrie was the toast of London, though one of the Llewelyn-Davies boys later said that he had stolen their souls.

Barrie was not the only adult who’d become obsessed with adolescents. By the time he met the Llewelyn-Davies boys, the old Victorian seen-and-not-heard ethos of child-rearing was definitely not working. Newly industrialized cities were plagued by an epidemic of latch-key kids, Clockwork Orange bands of young people (you can see some of them in Jacob Riis’s photographs) who were building their own culture based apparently on street brawls and funny hats. Stoked by newspaper sensationalism, youth became a crisis, a problem to be solved.

Savage is something of an obsessive himself, a rock journalist whose book England’s Dreaming told the story of the British punk scene in endlessly fascinating detail. Teenage, which begins in the 1870s and ends in 1945, aims to tell the story of youth culture’s prehistory, the tribes of young people that roamed before the invention of rock and roll, and the forces that controlled them, or tried to. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and woolly, too, a bi-continental youth-culture scrapbook overflowing with yellowed clippings about long-forgotten movements and cameos of rebels with all manner of causes.

The intellectual patron saint of Savage’s book is a psychologist named G. Stanley Hall, who had his own childhood issues (harsh Calvinist father; feelings of inadequacy and sexual guilt), transformed them into a voluminous book called Adolescence, published in 1898, and distilled its message into a kids-are-alright creed. “For the complete apprenticeship to life,” he wrote, “youth needs repose, art, legends, romance, idealization, and in a word humanism.”

It was Hall who first invited Freud to America, to lecture at Clark University in 1909, underlining a growing frankness about sex. In 1913, the magazine Current Opinion announced, “It’s sex o’clock in America; a wave of sex hysteria and sex discussion seem to have invaded this country.”

But then, of course, the war came. The First World War exploded the nascent teenage neverland, and then after an interregnum the Second World War did it again. War empowered adolescents, made them crucial citizens, whether goose-stepping little Leni Riefenstahl extras or G.I.’s, while stimulating their underdeveloped amygdalas in unpredictable ways. Adolescents are forever trying to leap out of whatever world they were born into, and war amplified these transcendental feelings. Some became soldiers, some zoot-suiters, fiddling while Rome burned, and some amazingly heroic, like the gentle young Germans who tried to bring down Hitler with a mimeograph machine.

There’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear. Teenage is a very frustrating book. One is never sure just what it is that this new youth regime was replacing, or what their parents thought about these sometimes outlandish enterprises, whether Mom was sitting tearily at the kitchen table waiting for Junior to come home, or whether she pushed him out the door, happy to be rid of him.

Instead, we’re yanked back and forth across the Atlantic to check out whatever scene seemed to have been bubbling at any given time. We get Rimbaud, Leopold and Loeb, Judy Garland’s bound breasts, and juvenile delinquents galore. The detail can be wonderful. (Sub-deb is an early word for what became teenagers.) But there never seems to be enough time to linger with the kids themselves. The lack of intimacy is odd, given that the flip side of teenage secrecy is teenage confession.

The other curious absence at many points in Teenage (although many a teenage boy can identify) is girls. One explanation for this is that there is a kind of fanboy sensibility at work, with Savage digging into the deepest corners of his record collection.

But girls come to take more and more of the stage. By the thirties, at concerts by swing superstars like Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman and then by Frank Sinatra, youth culture begins to appear in a very recognizable form: girls gone wild. And by the end of World War II, argues Savage, the teenage world had pretty much assumed its current alignment.

Part of the surprise of Savage’s book is just how old the current youth-culture regime has become—it’s only two years younger than Mick Jagger. And the system has, in many ways, worked well. The problem with kids today may be precisely that there’s no problem. Perhaps this is a trick of perspective, but youth now doesn’t appear to be a particularly revolutionary or transcendental force. In fact, MySpace notwithstanding, it’s hard not to think now that teenagers are the repositories for much that is most conservative in the culture: partially retrograde ideas about sex roles, careerism, rampant consumerism, too-extensive knowledge of the Led Zeppelin discography, you name it. Youth culture has had a certain Groundhog Day–like sameness, which can seem a little dull, especially to those who’ve seen a few cycles.

Still, the accelerating disappearance of the shame culture and its replacement with a positively Samoan, largely consequence-free sexual openness is a positive thing, unfortunate consequences though it sometimes has (one doesn’t reject its excesses—Britney Spears’s lack of underwear, say, or Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis’s bank account—because one is a prude). And though today’s youth culture may seem a little shopworn, after reading Teenage, with its deluded young legions and doomed heroes and dead-end kids, one doesn’t want to think about what it would take to overthrow it.

Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture
By Jon Savage. Viking Adult. 576 pages. $29.95.

The Kids Are—Yawn—Alright