PRINT October 1986


Oedipus in reverse.

RECENTLY, A CARTOON OF THE editorial pages of the English paper The Mirror showed a darkened room in which, in a high-backed chair, like Dorian Gray, sat the Culture Club singer Boy George, hunched cruelly into the configuration of an old man. His brother Kevin O’Dowd, recognizable through his trademark spectacles, was opening the front door to the Grim Reaper, handy with scythe and syringe. From behind his own dark glasses, George uttered, as if talking about the milkman or a foot-in-the-door reporter, “Just tell him, not today, thank you, Kevin.”

This explicit image is a blatant example of the icy dynamic implicit in the relationship of the mass media to youth culture. Beneath the glare of attention a new form of iconoclasm reigns. The image of the fallen idol, the pop star who expresses the collective being, is the medium of the message. The pathetic story of Boy George and drugs, of a life “made” and then “ruined,” has been plastered on dozens of covers as national as well as international “news.” On one level the press response is trivial, a simple case of another celebrity being filed in the image bank under the tag, “It’s lonely and dirty at the top” (with the moral, of course, that we should stay where we are). But it also marks a special viciousness, the viciousness of the mass media toward youth, and toward the difference or otherness that youth seems to supply.

The vampiric attraction of the mass media to youth is a worldwide phenomenon, but nowhere as much as in England. Partly through the country’s small size, partly through its bad economic state (which hits young people worst, providing a sense of a collective identity through collective unemployment), media access to youth here is total. The media’s interest relates symbiotically to a national appetite: nearly one fifth of the population of the UK, on overage, watches the national pop-music chart show Top of the Pops. This is visibility pushed into a paradigm of exposure.

What youth is now, the myth has always gone, determines the future; thus it is a battlefield for every ideological power struggle. In the postwar period (except for the early ’60s, when Hollywood was making teenage beach-party movies and the Beatles were making themselves charming in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!), the media’s most significant treatment of youth has revolved around fear. Whose fear? Both youth’s and everybody else’s—their fear of each other. Even today, with the Hollywood “brat pack” and the picture of the young corporate adult, whose only goal is social integration, perking up the status quo, serialized horror and slash-and-bash-’em movies aimed directly at teenage fear are perpetuated as surefire box office hits.

The global popularity of the Beatles brought to light the role of youth as a discrete consumer category; today, fear of youth and youth’s fears are marketable products. These dramas are played out nowhere more clearly than in England, beginning in the early ’50s with the frail figure of the first English teenager proper, the Edwardians or teddy boys. The teds mixed the fashion details of the Edwardian dandy (velvet collars, tight trousers) with the American hipster’s aggressive command of space—the padded shoulders and superhuman bravado of the zoot suit. The pattern was set: these were alien presences, assuming the plumage of rare game. And the pattern of press response was also set: rare game was to be shot down.

Since the teds we have seen adolescence in full bloom taking on many fantastic forms before its final assimilation into adult society. Every time, the mass media come in and codify their difference, thus rendering “understandable” complicated and deliberately baffling visual processes. When the first attempts at a new style arrive, their visual difference has no code, and therefore cannot be understood or translated to the general public. They are almost invisible. The beginnings of the Mod style in the early ’60s, for example, are still obscure and lost: as nobody knew how to describe them, they remain undescribed. But the Mods’ seeming attempt to shrink into anonymity through subtle transcriptions of business clothing were eventually given a role. If they were invisible as individuals, they would be significant as a pack. The mass media found a way in by building up the gang fights between the Mods and another youth group, the Rockers, whose visual extravagance the media had early on been able to categorize and anathematize. Battles in England between Mods and Rockers were reported on around the world.

Another example of media transformation lies in the amplification of punk from its origin as a sophisticated art-school style, with many variants, to the world-famous image now accepted as the symbolic record of a troubled Britain—as fixed an image as beefeaters or Buckingham Palace. A trivial 1976 incident in which the Sex Pistols, interviewed for television, disrupted its strict codes resulted in a new symbol of fear: the foul-mouthed punk. The media reduced punk’s complicated visual style to empty key ingredients and laid it out in a kind of “how-to” fashion guide which could be applied in a variety of situations—from the streets of London to American college campuses. Punk, in its difference, was subject to a process of media attention and then absorption; absorbed, the very otherness that had been the point of the initial expression merged back into invisibility.

Today, England’s youth retains its visible group identity, but it is threatened by another kind of invisibility: at the cutting edge of an unemployment uncannily prophesied by punk rock, it can no longer consume. Outcast, it is now an abstract “problem,” given back a version of the label originally conferred on it by consumerism—the “junk generation,” as the tabloids claim, in a combination of wish-fulfillment and literal reportage (we are currently seeing a nonstop media barrage about the dangers of heroin). The press’ Boy George story is an emblem of all this. It isolates several key “out” groups already under attack and hammers home the penalties of difference by connecting it with an explicit death wish. At a time when Joan Collins can appropriate all the properties youth once possessed as consumer, it is time to note the media’s iconoclastic relationship to youth, rendering it visible only to put it back into invisibility. To be killed off in the media can mean that you do not exist; however, this enforced invisibility, embraced, can be a source of strength. Look at the kind of invisibility hinted at and articulated by Margi Clarke in her forthcoming film Leaving the Twentieth Century: "For a thousand of us, by changing our names . . . cease to exist! For example one might parade the streets in the most outlandish costume, choosing not recognition but concealment. Hide the loot under the light. The very last place to search. So here again, my friend, is the Law of Invisibility—lots have learnt it!”

Jon Savage is a writer who lives in London. A regular contributor to The Face and The New Statesman, he is currently writing books on the Sex Pistols and on postwar British youth culture.