If you look up "youth culture" in a dictionary or a thesaurus you will probably find something like "a cultural expression designated for young adults" or "a culture with certain distinctive patterns and beliefs typical of young people, such as social belonging, music and fashion." However, some fifty years ago no dictionary would have listed any definition of youth culture - simply because it did not exist.
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The Times They Are A-Changin'
Up until the 1940s and early 50s there was no specific culture that the young could identify with. Youth was just a transit phase between childhood and adulthood. The youngsters were seen as small adults and had no alternative to the culture enjoyed by their parents. Music was dominated by ballroom crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Matt Monroe along with smooth jazz bands like Glenn Miller's. Hollywood offered nothing on the big screen that could be associated with youth culture as such and with few exceptions literature was either for children or for grown-ups. However, times were about to change, and in the American Century it was only natural that the change took place in the USA.
From the Ballroom to Blues and Rock 'n' Roll
Black music had been around for centuries, spirituals, gospel, and blues, but America at the beginning of the 20th century was a segregated society, also culturally. It all started when white performers began to pick up the rhythm and style of the black blues, and turn it into a ground-breaking new sound: Rock and Roll. And from the mid-fifties the musical scene opened for a new and young audience. Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly and Bill Haley were all white performers of this “black” music. Chuck Berry and Little Richard were two black performers who brought this new wave of music to the young. The lyrics became more explicit, and the stage performance was direct with sexual overtones; most grown-ups thought the way Elvis moved his hips when he sang was obscene. Musically it was an up-tempo, two-beat rhythm which was very catchy and easy to go along with on the dance floor. And young people embraced this new music as their own. At concerts the audience went wild, and there were riots in the streets. In general it was all a kind of protest against adult culture and values.
Then there was another wave of youth protest, channelled through the American folk music traditions by performers like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. This was a more political trend speaking up for justice and equality, and declaring disapproval of how the older generation was running things in the world. Some of Woody Guthrie’s songs took up the darker sides of American society such as poverty, unemployment and racism. His song “This Land is Your Land” became a people’s national anthem, but the official version was censored; certain lines were omitted since they mentioned aspects of America that the establishment thought were unfavourable for “the greatest nation in the world”. Bob Dylan's "The Times They are a-Changing" is a message for the older generation: "Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don't criticise what you can't understand". Dylan took up the legacy of Woody Guthrie, and though he didn’t want to be labelled a protest singer, some of Bob Dylan’s first songs were clearly addressing the political scene at the time. He actually wrote “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” during the Cuba crisis in 1962, and many of his songs from the 60s, capture the spirit of the time by highlighting social issues such as racism and poverty. Bob Dylan is still active after a career of more than fifty years.
America was the big trendsetter for youngsters all over the world, young people who had the same need for a cultural identity. In Britain gangs like “Mods” and “Rockers” were entering the scene, and London became the capital of rock and pop and youth fashion, thus the name "Swinging London". And the rest is history – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and all the other British and American bands from the 60s, promoting young people’s own life style and producing great music. And since then the ball has kept on rolling. From the sixties the trends have multiplied; from traditional pop and rock to punk and glam in the 70s, via various types of heavy and metal, to electronica and house in the 80s and 90s and rap and hip-hop today. The vibrant music scene over the last sixty years is where youth culture has had its most significant development and manifestation.
The rock ‘n' roll culture of the late 1950s was soon picked up by Hollywood directors, who saw this as a new market and a gap to be filled for an audience in search of different role models than their parents. New stars such as James Dean, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe represented this new rebel stand against dull and obsolete adult values. Typically, James Dean’s breakthrough movie was called Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The ultimate synthesis of youth culture was the rock and roll film Rock around the Clock with Bill Haley, which caused riots where it was shown and theatre managers had to call for police protection to control the teenage audiences. During the last half of the century, the market has been flooded with films designed for young people, some good, most of them mediocre and many disastrously substandard. When grown-up Hollywood film makers try to relate to young people’s universe, the result is often a cliché–filled plot and sentimental over-acting as a poor cover for pure commercial interests.
During the first half of the 20th century there was an increasing market for books for children, but teenagers were not seen as a reading audience until halfway through the century. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye was published in 1945, with a disillusioned 17-year-old school drop-out as protagonist. He is in clear opposition to what he sees as the phoney adult world. The literature of the so-called Beat Generation a decade or so later became standard reading for the Hippie Generation of the 1960s. Leading names are Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. The literature evolved around “sex, drugs and rock ’n' roll” and many of the books were banned because they were explicit and seen as demoralizing for young people. But as usual, there is no better way to promote a book than to ban it, so the books found their audience nonetheless. J.R.R. Tolkien opened a market for fantasy literature that has exploded today; there is a continuous line from The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter and beyond. The Lord of the Rings was actually published in the 1930s and 40s, but neglected by the audience, until it was embraced by the Hippies 30 years later and got a new revival in the 1990s aided by the successful film version. This literary universe is primarily the domain of young people. Studies have concluded that eight out of ten readers of fantasy literature are between 12 and 18.
Dress and Fashion
The way we dress is a mirror of society. The sixties were a time of social and political upheaval and the conflicts are recognized in fashion styles. Designers saw a new market in the young generation, and clothes were now - for the first time - designed for young consumers. As with anything else, the young wanted to rebel against the parent generation. The Hippies, with their inspiration from the 1950s' Beat Generation, favored natural materials, such as cotton and hemp and loose garments. The popularity of an androgynous style, with blue jeans and tee shirts (often tie-dyed) reached an all-time high. Ethnical and hand-made accessories, such as Indian love beads became part of the "obligatory" outfit.
Icons like James Dean had a tremendous impact on young fashion. In his Lee 101 Riders' jeans and short leather jacket, Dean coined the American teenager, whereas the Beatles were trendsetters for hair fashion among young males. Much to the dismay of their parents, boys all over the world started to grow beards and refused to cut their hair. In the sixties Twiggy was a skinny, boyish-looking top model who earned an iconic status. Critics maintained that her thin image and unexcelled fame contributed to an uhealthy body ideal among girls.
The fashion styles of the sixties and seventies has never lost its grip on the young and is mirrored in nostalgic and retro clothing. Over the last two decades second-hand clothes have become "chic", some fashion shops even offer used vintage clothing. Many of the shops are charity-run, with the British Oxfam as a predominant example. It has become part of many young people's cultural identity to recycle and demonstrate environmental consciousness while others want to signal their preferences (mostly inspired by their taste in music) by wearing Emo, Punk, Hip-Hop (Gangster) and Gothic clothes and accessories.
Branding the Self?
To sum up, the rise of youth culture, has paved new ways for adolescents to signal who they are. They do not only send out a warning addressed to the grown-ups and the Establishment, but also to their peers, about their subcultural identity. Beliefs, values and desires are flashed through taste in music and entertainment, style in clothing, body decorations, food and the car you drive. A thriving industry has developed to help young people achieve their sense of self through branding. Now, take a look at yourself; what kind of sneakers do you wear, what kind of apps do you have on your i-Phone and what is your playlist on Spotify like?