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History Table of Contents
1991 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1991
Growing up on the Edge: The Emerging Generation and Canada's Future


Assistant Professor, Department of Film Studies,
Carleton University

It is virtually impossible to talk about youth popular culture without coming up against a number of well-entrenched myths.

The first of these myths is that youth culture is necessarily about rebellion. If you read most of the standard histories of youth culture — and of youth music, in particular — you will find that most of them describe that history as a series of rebellions, of spectacular disruptions of particular youth groups upon the political cultural stage of the Western World.

Southern whites in the 1950s giving us Elvis Presley, California Hippies in the 1960s, British city kids in the late 1970s. Each of these erupts as what writers have called spectacular sub- cultures; sub-cultures that attract media attention, that become great visible forces emerging on the world scene.

In between, we are told, music is complacent, it is complicit and bland: Doris Day before Elvis Presley, Pat Boone before the Beetles and the Jefferson Airplane, the Bee Gees and Rod Stewart before the Sex Pistols and so on.

Well, there are a number of problems with this view of things — not the least of which is that if you see youth culture as a history of rebellion, you end up privileging a particular segment of youth culture; generally that of white, middle- class boys.

This shouldn't be surprising — after all, they are the ones who write the histories.

But, as feminist critics and historians began saying at least a decade ago, "If you only look at what is happening on the street, at what is spectacular, you miss what is going on in the teenage girl's bedroom — where she listens to records with her friends or sings along by herself.

Or, you miss what is going on in the dance club, where teenagers, or blacks or Latins or gays who have come to explore modes of self expression and interaction.

The history of youth music as it has so often been written, is told as a struggle between art and industry, rock and pop, the serious versus the frivolous, authenticity versus the artifice and so on. But the first term in these oppositions, the ones held up as positive, are almost always the terms used to describe boy's music — and white boy's music, at that.

And one of the problems of the mythology of rebelliousness is that it assumes that music is about expression — when, in fact, it may be just as much be about possession: The way you take a song or dance record and do something with it, connect with it.

When heavy metal fans in Chicago in 1979 burned disco records in Shea Stadium, or when an industrial rock bank like Front 242 calls for a European rock music purged of African American influences, what we have once again is the sense of the values of hard-edged males are necessarily more respectable than those of young girls or North American blacks.

The second myth, which has perhaps lingered too long, is that youth culture is about generational conflict.

There probably was a brief period when this was true.

But people today don't really define their musical tastes against those of their parents. They define them against those of their peers.

This is, I think, an extremely important fact, because the distinctions youth make within their own culture and the importance and intensity of these distinctions. The great investment in minute differences, which of course always confounds sociologists and so on, means that music and clothes are central to the ways in which youth come to learn and occupy their own social identity.

They do so — not as youth in some kind of embracing sense — but as members of either sex, as members of racial and ethnic groups, as members of social classes and so on. And, so to a large extent, I would argue, the meaning of youth culture and youth music does not reside in anything called youth, but it resides in the differences of taste.

It is there that one learns what it means to be rich or poor, well or lesser educated, male or female, black and white and so on.

The problem is not simply that youth does not speak with a single voice — people have always argued that — but that youth is the most intense and the first realm in which one's social identity is learned. I think it is through music, for a number of historical and perhaps even accidental reasons, that one comes to learn one's tastes and learn to distinguish oneself from others.

In the field of popular dance music, in which I am most interested, subtle, but meaningful distinctions are made according to whether you like rap or house, acid house or deep house, real voices versus electronics, and so on.

What these means of consuming music reveal, of course, are your social positions. And one of the great differences between youth and adults is that where as the social position of an adult is primarily a function of the work they do, for youth your social position is most obviously revealed in the choices you make at all kinds of levels, in terms of the music you buy, the clothes you wear, the brands of beer you drink and so on.

It is not only simplistic to say that there is a single youth culture, but to say so misses the extent to which what youth culture is most important as a realm of difference, of social and cultural differentiation.

Finally, I'd like to say something about the notion of a popular Canadian culture.

Earlier this year, at least five British music magazines ran cover stories on the Dream Warriors, a Toronto rap group. You needed a private detective to find anything in the Canadian mainstream media about them.

The lesson of this is not simply that the Canadian media have a distorted view of what is and what is not important culturally, but that the whole notion of a national culture is changing.

Like many people, I tend to believe that popular culture is now local and international, but rarely national.

It is local because people are positioned in local communities, where their tastes confront those of others and oppose or interact with the tastes of others. And it is international because lines of communication and influence which connect blacks in Scarborough to blacks in New York and London are, in many ways, just as culturally significant as those which connect them to other people within their own cities.

In trying to come up with definitions of Canadian musical identity, for example, we are too often concerned with historical continuities rather than geographical links. This leads people to claim, as a prominent Canadian arts reporter did recently, "That the only authentically Canadian music is country music — when, in fact, — as the Decima poll shows, most Canadian youths express a preference for rap and dance music over other forms.

Those genres are genres of cultural diaspora — they circulate from one Western city to another, from youth audiences in Berlin to those in Montreal. And, unless we start thinking about youth and youth culture in these terms, we're always going to miss the point.