While finally irreducible to any particular, punk rock has something to do with youth. (Although, it has nothing to do with childishness).
—John Maus’s 8th Thesis on Punk
1. Youth is a fluid fiction.
If “culture” is a term impossible to pin down, then the modifier “youth” only complicates it as a category. There is no geographical designation of youth, no ancestry, no institutions, none of the vertical channels that usually make cultural studies ostensibly coherent. There is only a horizontal stratification, that of time creating age, which runs through all other distinctions. Furthermore, the delineations of youth have become elastic over time, now stretching well into one’s 20s in the West. For our purposes here, we will de-fine youth as the ages in which one is not expected by society to have a “real job.”
2. Youth is actively antagonistic.
The state of youth is not always a sufficient condition for a bifurcated culture, but at least since the time of Socrates, it has been regarded as a subversive force: “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”1 Therefore, any youth cultural movement will be regarded as a threat to mainstream adult culture, which will attempt to recuperate it. This is carried out through one of two forms as described by Hebdige: the commodity form (the co-opting, packaging and re-selling of the products of youth culture) and the ideological form (either excessive media attention and stereotyping or denial of difference).2
3. Youth culture opposes mainstream culture through urgency.
The production values of youth culture are necessarily low, quick, and dirty. Refinement is the mark of dominant culture and usually only available with a high price tag. Youth cultural production operates necessarily through gestures and sketches, DIY venues and house shows. Since youth is fleeting, time is of the essence—full development of-ten takes too long. Youth culture must take advantage of what is cheap, and so it specializes in the creation of sign systems (which can be produced and reproduced with a pen, paper and Xerox machine). Image is bartered in an “economy of signs”3 which excludes those of mainstream culture in favor of inverse values (photocopied zines are more desirable than coffee table books, for example).
4. Youth culture creates alternative barriers of entry, opposed to those of main-stream culture (money, class, race), the primary of which is age.
Band logos, stickers, patches, album covers, tattoos, posters, and other outward signifiers act identifying marks, signaling devotion to a certain style or form. The technology of distribution of content reenforce these barriers— today’s top 40 music would never be released on cassette, so youth culture seized cassette as an additional condition of engagement. Acceptance is based on dedication or mutual exclusion from the dominant culture, but when commodified, the rules of the game are reverted back to that of the dominant culture (based on money, class, and status).
5. The creative engine of youth culture is futurelessness.
The most powerful youth cultural movements have come at times when conditions were historically grim for the young, such as Vietnam (60s counter-culture) or Thatcherite England (at least partially responsible for punk). Malcolm McLaren commercialized alienation and sold “No Future” through the Sex Pistols, with the astute understanding that futurelessness is the engine of participation in, and the creation of, youth culture. Curiously, youth culture engages in the negation of potential, when potential is often the only capital the young possess.
6. Youth culture can only be a temporary revolution.
Youth culture’s political innovation is the negation of “permanent revolution,” the one-step revolutionary process popularized by Trotsky that bypassed the bourgeoisie in favor of a proletariat-led revolution. Permanent revolution required a stable and stratified class system, while youth revolution is at best temporary and bound by time and age. It is a minute-by-minute revolution of trend and fluid or absent ideology. If punk is dead (and it must be dead, because it has ceased to be revolutionary), its spirit is the constant. The famous slogan “don’t trust anyone over 30” could be amended to “don’t trust anyone older than yourself”: while aging is inevitable, one’s present self disowns one’s future self—all are destined to sell out. This is an ideological stance, but unlike the adult ideologies it opposes, there is no way to maintain its orthodoxy. The heroes of youth culture are those who died too young to be recuperated.
7. Youth culture is vulnerable to both co-opting (the commodity form of recuperation) because of its semiotic similarity to advertising, and to stereotyping (the ideological form of recuperation) because of its dependence on outward distinctions.
The particular usage of signs makes youth culture easy fodder for commercialization. The language in which it expresses itself is already akin to that of marketing and advertising, which allows commercial forces to reclaim a future in the form of “youth as target market.” Youth is a default avant garde and, as such, is a relatively certain predictor of trends. Aesthetic trends in music, visual art, and fashion find their way into the mood boards of marketers and retailers without regard for original intention, “turning rebellion into money” in the words of The Clash.4
8. Any co-opting or commercialization of youth culture is a recovery of a future and therefore negates the creative power of youth.
When youth culture is commercialized, the original barriers of entry are erased or co-opted. The things that marked the youth as futureless (i.e. unemployable or unmarketable) are recovered as marketing tools by the dominant culture. Turning youth into consumers provides a gateway into recovered adult life and voids any creative potential youth once had by way of opposition.
9. Youth culture is destructive creation as opposed to capitalism’s creative destruction.
Youth cultural production tends toward nihilism and negates personal future while prioritizing an idealistic future for others. On the other hand, capitalist production tends toward maximalism, and prioritizes personal future at the expense of the future of others. Youth culture is not concerned with growth or expansion; on the contrary, things are best when kept small and exclusive (hence the barriers to entry). It is often inefficient and prefers outmoded technology (i.e. tapes, vinyl, second-hand and analog equipment). It opposes the “ruthless unity”5 of mainstream culture in favor of small, local scenes.
10. All participants inevitably outgrow their claims to youth culture but need not forsake its aims.
Youth culture is particularly constrained by time in a way that other cultures and subcultures are not. When created outside of the temporal boundaries of youth, the potential for commercialization and homogenization exists in greater measure. The aims of youth culture—do-it-yourself work ethic, creating outside of the profit motive and disrupting the power structures of dominant culture, are unconstrained by time and those who practice them are allied with youth cultural movements everywhere.