In trying to make sense of the “conservative resurgence” of late – beyond the demographically driven, sociocultural change underway in the US, beyond the fear of the first non-fully-”White” President, beyond the death spasms related to the “last days of Archie Bunkerism” — I can’t help but to also find fault in today’s “youth culture” . . . or lack thereof. This may be the first generation in modern American history to not have such a culture.
The TWENTIES were roaring with flapper decadence and illicit booze. By the late FORTIES into the early FIFTIES the smooth and cool sounds of the clove cigarette smoking, Jazz-loving ”Hepcats” were causing a stir. The “American Graffiti” of the mid-to-late FIFTIES into the SIXTIES saw the first blending of Black and White culture with its “race music” later coined “Rock-n-Roll”. The SIXTIES itself, of course, blew the lid off of this twentieth-century counter-cultural impulse of a maturing America by literal blending disparate, counter-cultural desires with “love-ins, peace-ins” and the like. And then there was of course the Civil Rights movement(s) for racial and gender equality. By the SEVENTIES, the “Stonewall Riots” gave notice that the “Gay community” was joining the Civil Rights train and contributed greatly to the massive if not brief counter-cultural phenomenon of Disco with it Studio 54 and various off-shoots. By the late SEVENTIES into and through the EIGHTIES, boredom, “malaise,” and Reagan “austerity” bred life to the Punk and New Wave movements. By the late EIGHTIES and early NINETIES, Grunge briefly flirted with its time in the sun, only to be cut short with the passing of its ”voice of the generation” in Kurt Cobain.
So here we are, devoid of anything giving artistic succor to the perpetuation of this generation’s “youth culture”. While all the previous eras eventually, perhaps inevitably, fell prey to commercial desires and indulgent dalliances, they non-the-less were able to ratchet forward the American popular culture and its attendant social understandings and expand its sensibilities. The problem with pop music today (and subsequently the body politic) is that having no corresponding youth scene/culture that allows it a contextual voice it becomes all about hype, self-promotion and exaggeration — elements that used to mark the end of a movement, not the movement itself. I will argue that like most things organic, societies too detest voids and when a progressive artistic/cultural void corresponds with a time of rapid, seismic, sociocultural change the energies of conformity and familiarity fill the empty space.
This “regressive” attempt to fill space on the part of US “conservatives” too will pass and like most things, it may be quite ugly for some time. The sad thing is that in the past when the social fabric became challenged and frayed, we had innovative music to listen to, books to read, and movies to watch reflecting the rising voice of the new generation. Unfortunately, for now, all we have are digital files of manufactured culture and artificial reality programming like American Idol and the air-brushed Barbie perfection of Katy Perry. Give me Billie Holliday, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Diana Ross, Grace Slick, Jim Morrison, Michelle Phillips, Marianne Faithfull, David Bowie, Nico, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux, Debbie Harry, the Ramones, the Sugarhill Gang et al. and the art houses, the sweaty clubs and caverns that nurtured their art and our culture!
Culture bespeaks the society, hopefully this digitized plasticity won’t be America’s cultural legacy for it will then likely also foretell its demise.