Notes From the Youth Culture

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It's a bit amusing to read the reviews of Britney Spears' performance at the recent VMA awards ceremony.  As far as I can tell, the two main complaints appear to be that Spears is not Beyoncé,  and that she is stuck in a 1990s time warp.  Well, it's a relief to hear that the event wasn't a twerk-fest this time around. 


The particular details of Spears' not-very-overwhelming comeback attempt are not of especial semiotic interest, of course, but they do get me thinking about some things that are.  And one of these is what it means to live in a youth culture.


American culture—especially its popular culture—is so grounded in youth worship that it is very easy to take it all for granted, but the whole thing probably began just under a century ago in the Roaring Twenties, when Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were the self-appointed idols of a youth movement that swept America for a delirious decade—complete with a reverence for the latest in popular music, daring women's clothing fashions, and (in spite of Prohibition,) lots and lots of alcohol—until the Great Depression and the Second World War ended the party.  Not until the 1950s would America's march towards a fully-evolved youth culture be recommenced.


Of course, with a good deal of help from such outliers of their parents' generation like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, it was the Baby Boomers who completed our evolution into an all-out youth culture in the 1960s.  "Don't trust anyone over thirty" was a popular slogan for a generation that is now in its sixties and seventies.  "Will you still need me/Will you still feed me/When I'm sixty-four," sang a man who is now seventy-three.  "Hope I die before I get old," the surviving members of The Who still declare. 


This is something worth remembering for Boomers as we see ourselves castigated by Millennials for ruining their world.  I mean, we started it.  And since we started it, it is probably only well, you know, our karma that now that we aren't young any longer in a culture that patronizes old age (at best), or sneers at it, or neglects it, no one really cares about what lessons we may be able to share about what life holds for the young.  If every generation in traditional societies that have reverence for old age has managed to repeat the errors of their parents, why should our youth culture be any different?


But as I watch all the tittering at poor 34-year-old Britney from the vantage point of sixty-two, I can think of a few things that never get said in a youth culture that I rather wish had been said to me—not that I would have really listened, probably.  The first is that, believe it or not, though your body changes with the years, you don't—at least not all that much.  Others may not recognize you, but you do, and if, as Wordsworth said, "the child is father to the man," there is a remarkable amount of that child still around, even as the years go by.

But time is not the same, no matter how much of the child remains.  I recall very well what time was like when I was young.  Though it passed very slowly compared to the way it passes for me now, it also was packed with change.  I look back on my late youth and young adult years and am amazed at all that happened.  It seems to be squeezed together in some way.  The flow of time now, though faster in its way, is also more regular, steadier, more evenly paced. 


The change in one's experience of time is something a youth culture doesn't prepare you for, because, in effect, a youth culture has no past or future tense.  Grounded in an eternal present in which youth is expected to last forever (or until thirty, the age at which a twenty-something Scott Fitzgerald pledged he would commit suicide by .  .  . until he reached it), a youth culture ignores not only the fact that you get old, but that being old is a far longer stretch of life than is being young.  The popular culture that a youth culture creates only exacerbates this by insisting that one's life should be a constant series of excitements and diversions, "burning with a hard gemlike flame" (as Pater put it), or insisting that "it is better to burn out than to fade away" (as Neil Young put it when he was still young).


But no one is "Nineteen Forever," as Joe Jackson's rather remarkable song warns.  Perhaps someone should tell that to Britney Spears, or to whoever is running her life these days.  There are some rather interesting life stages that we go through past the early ones, but you won't hear much about them in a popular culture wherein now is somehow always forever—literally the last word. 


But it never is.  After all, believe it or not, someday even Beyoncé will get old.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.