In the last few weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time with academics, commentators and film makers discussing young people and what they are, or are not, doing culturally and politically now. It does seem that I’ve been rather stuck in an 80s rut.
Dr Nick Bentley, Dr Mark Featherstone, Dr Beth Johnson and Dr Andy Zieleniec organised a major conference on the representation of youth called Teenage Kicks at Keele University. Spread across three days and numerous disciplines, representations of young people, and their subcultural or radical identities were unpicked, contrasted and theorised. A couple of things struck me. How tempting ideas of ‘authenticity’ are when we talk about subcultures and what young people do. Original Mods, Original Skins, Original Punks, Original Ravers – all better, sharper/rougher, less compromised than what came next. Even though we know intellectually that its a load of old nonsense, with styles and tribes picking up ideas, symbols and codes from previous incarnations, the emotional pull to spot the Original remains. The second is that the pay-off of is that we then get to judge contemporary young people, seeing them as ‘revivalists’, for not managing to live up to our myth of the ‘original’. So when I read Dan Hancox’s recent article No Platform for Billy Bragg on OpenDemocracy I was struck by his critique of the nostalgia, lack of engagement with the present and obsession with a very particular version of 1980s, that runs through so much political, and cultural commentary.
Girls tend to be rather absent from the retro-radical pop culture of the 1980s. It does get rather dominated by boys with guitars, Bragg, Weller, Geldof who sum up the 80s, whilst channeling earlier troubadours like Johnny Cash or Woodie Guthrie.
Girls, where they do appear, tend to be one of two things. The amazonian punk rock icon (Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, Viv Albertine, Jordan) or more generally the screaming mob of girl fans that by their very existence demonstrate the inauthenticity of mainstream commercial pop. So this week’s discussions with Daisy Asquith about her forthcoming documentary for Channel 4 ‘I Love One Direction‘ helped me to put the 80s in its place, and move beyond Boys with their Guitars. I don’t want to claim that One Direction fans are the revolutionaries of the future, however much fun it might be to try. But, by giving Directioners a voice, Asquith cuts through the mobs of screaming, suggestible consumers. But as Hancox wrote ‘There is politics in any kind of collective cultural gathering’. Its clear that One Direction have brought considerable commercial success to the gamedoc TV music industry, tabloid journalists and Simon Cowell. But, the young women Directioners also told Asquith something very different about personal politics. They talked about what fan culture has given them, or rather as Directioners, what they have given each other in terms of a shared experience. Though certainly there were stories about female fans humiliating themselves to garner a moment of the band’s attention, what really struck me were the ways in which the girls’ fantasies about The Boys, let them take the meaning of their fandom to a whole new level, for themselves. Directioners’ fan fantasies often focus on imagined erotic relation(ship)s between band members as much as between fans and The Boys. Despite what the old boys with guitars might think, for girls’ being a fan can be as much about your relationship with other fans as with the band. Thinking back to Bragg, Red Wedge and the rest of the politico musos from the 80s, they might have thought it was all about what happened on stage and at the press call, but for the everyone else, what happened in the audience, and in their own heads might be just as important.
I can’t help thinking we should all get out and get into it all a bit more.