Now a feature film, Jon Savage's history of 20th century adolescence Teenage is a modern classic on kids and demographics. Savage talked with TNI co-founding editor Mary Borkowski on youth culture now and then
Several years ago Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture fell into my lap, suggested by a good friend, and I devoured the book, intrigued at the time with the idea that I might never grow up (I was 23). Savage—a renowned music journalist who’d also written, inter alia, the award-winning punk history book England’s Dreaming—had as the central tenet of Teenage that sometime around the beginning of the 20th century a “new stage of life” was created: “Teen age,” or “Teen-age,” and later just “teenage.” That the adolescent demographic we now malign and mythologize was once effectively created—invented, marketed—is a fascinating notion to examine. Reading the book, I found myself equally fascinated by the parallel between adolescence and America’s own nascence as a country.
Recently, Savage partnered with filmmaker Matt Wolf to create a companion documentary film for the book, also titled Teenage (for venues, go to teenagefilm.com). While quite different, and slimmer in scope and information, the documentary succeeds as a lively companion to Savage’s impressive book. I had the opportunity to chat with Savage in early March about his experience translating the book Teenage into a film, and about the eternal draw and intrigue of this transformative step in the process of becoming-American.
Mary Borkowski: Good morning from here in LA. I read Teenage a few years ago, but I just recently watched the film, and I wanted to start off by asking about [director] Matt Wolf.
Jon Savage: Well, I’ve worked in television on and off since the late ’70s and I've made several other films as a writer, so I knew when I'd written Teenage [in 2007] that I wanted to turn it into a film or a television series. I tried to get it off the ground in the UK, but dealing with television people here didn't work. It wasn’t until a mutual friend put me in touch with Matt that I thought this is somebody I could work with, because Matt was young, he really got the idea of the book, and he's based in New York. It’s really an American story.
MB: I know you've written on music and worked on film for years, but historically, where does your interest in youth culture come from?
JS: I suppose, really, I'm the kind of person for whom music is everything. Telling social history through music is a good thing to do because music, in a way, is all about memory and all about emotion, and so it's a very good way to go into social history. But, in fact, the Teenage book was driven by an idea, and music comes into that, but it is the idea that a second stage of life was quote-unquote discovered around the turn of the 20th century. So you have this dialectic between adults and regimes trying to control it and militarize it and the actual real-time adolescence being defined as special. What does it mean to be this second stage of life? How can it work for us? How can we get some freedom? How can we avoid getting sent off into the army and pushed around by our parents, and if we're not going to do that, then what sort of world, what sort of culture are we going to create?
You ended Teenage with a beginning, with the “Teen-Age Bill of Rights” being introduced in America, but I also remember that your conclusion was that American culture was spreading. In what respect was that American youth culture? Or was it that American culture is the culture of youth, and that’s our export?
Obviously I haven't been observing the culture since 1950, but I was born in 1953, so I am of the generation that was very much inspired by American youth culture. I wanted very much to go to America when I was young and certainly, don't forget, America won the Second World War, you know, there's no doubt about that, and Britain, effectively, lost the Second World War. That was one of the things that punk rock in the UK was about, it was actually, we didn't win the Second World War everybody, hello! We lost! The two World Wars fucked the UK forever—particularly the first one, which just completely destroyed this country.
And so America was a great source of energy, and of inspiration. There’s a very influential book called The Teenage Consumer by Mark Abrams in 1959 which basically sets up the whole 15-24 age group in the UK as a subject ripe for exploitation in the late ’50s, in the same way that was occurring and had occurred in the US. When I was growing up, the British didn't produce particularly good homegrown pop music until The Beatles, and so my first music-listening was all Del Shannon, and “Goodbye Cruel World” by James Darren, I think. I should've joined the circus, that's a good song… So anyway, even with the British groups, they all wanted to come to the States and eat hamburgers and see late-night television and all that kind of stuff, and it seems to me that even now, because of the illusion of a common language, Britain is in thrall, if not in hark, to America.
How much in the latter half of the 20th century did "teenage" or the "teenager" just become a marketing demographic and have less to do with the spirit of rebellion and dynamic discourse?
It always was a marketing demographic, and the fact that it was linked up to the spirit of rebellion and dynamic discourse is really a kind of historical accident. You certainly see the marketing becoming all-consuming now, with the extension of the teenage mode of consumption into all demographics. When this really kicked in was the ’80s, when the music industry really started targeting kind of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings with the reissue of music on CDs, and actually turned away from the real-time “teenage” age group, which is kind of 13-24. So in many ways, teenagers have had their youth culture hijacked.
When I was a kid my parents were appalled by most popular culture—they hated just about everybody, from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones—and now a lot of parents want to be down with their kids. In some ways that's great, it means they get on better with their kids. But what it also means is that teenagers have lost their specialness as far as consumerism is concerned, and because they’ve appeared to have lost value, it means they are socially downgraded, particularly in the UK, and probably in the US as well. Teens are very hard hit here by youth unemployment.
Do you think youth culture has lost some of its authenticity?
I think it's very bad manners of people my age to turn around and say, well, the kids aren't doing this and the kids aren't doing that. Obviously I'm fascinated by teen culture, but I no longer live it and I don't think it's my place to be. So I don't condemn today's youth for whatever it is they are or are not doing, and I tend to remain thankful that teenagers, certainly people 18, 29, 20, 21—it’s a very powerful moment when you come out into the world and you realize the world isn't great and, you know, you want to do something about it, if you've got any spirit of argument in you. I think that will always be the case, and I'm very hopeful that today's teenagers will find solutions to the problems that they face, because they are also the problems that [old people] face, and if change doesn't happen then you have stasis, entropy and decay.
There’s been a lot of talk of an extension of adolescence recently.
You mean that because of the whole job situation, teenagers are experiencing adolescence into their thirties and, you know, living at home and all this kind of stuff? Yeah, but I mean that's what happens when you're at the sharp end of economics.
When I watch the film it makes me nostalgic, moreso than when reading the book.
That's good, because it means we've kind of got what it is to be a teenager. Sometimes I pick up a record that I used to listen to in 1969, when I was 16, and it takes me right back to how I was then, but you know, in reality, I wouldn't want to go back there at all. I mean there's absolutely no way. But the teenager is such an important moment in your life because it's a moment of identity formation, and it's a moment when you begin to discover who you are, and so that's really important—that’s really important.
I found this notebook the other day and it's got, in my neat hand, all the records that I used to have, you know, dreadful stuff, like Vanilla Fudge—I must've sold that one quickly—and Blind Faith, god that sucked too, and Crosby, Stills and Nash—some of the records are great and some of them are absolutely, completely dreadful but that's OK, you know—and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends, Love’s Forever Changes, Neil Young, all that kind of hippie stuff. There's some of them I can't justify them now, not at all. If I played them to someone younger they'd just laugh at me, but because I heard them at the time, they still have a lot of meaning for me, even if they're regarded as bad now. The way music hits the developing brain when you're a teenager makes music and adolescence so very, very closely linked.
Yeah, I always say that music is the gateway drug.
It goes back to the fact that we caught something about an archetypal teenage experience that made you want to feel nostalgic for it. To me, making film is fun. One of the things I hate in modern documentaries, and Matt and I totally agreed about this, is that you are told what you are about to see. I just can't stand that. I'd rather have a whole lot of dreamy, elusive, lateral-thinking material instead of what I call “radio with pictures.”
Right. I think the film succeeds on that level.
It’s supposed to be emotional. Above everything, it's supposed to be emotional. Otherwise, it's not really true to its subject.