The significance of popular music for youth and gender identities

Topics: ArtSymbolism


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Last updated: April 10, 2019

Ever since the birth of youth culture in the years following the Second World War, young people have tended to attach themselves to one of a number of specific subcultures. Thus it has so far been the case that youth as a whole can be viewed with a degree of accuracy as being divided into a relatively small number of dominant subcultures, with location and economic factors often dictating the local subcultural mix. Similarly, since the growth of music as a universally accessible form of popular entertainment, music itself is often viewed as consisting of a number of easily recognisable genres and sub-genres.This essay will examine the evidence of a link between these two twentieth century phenomena and discuss the possible significance of any link for youth and gender identities. The earliest significant youth subculture is the teddy boy. Emerging in the 1950’s,the teds were vilified by the press and demonised by parents as a symbol of Britain’s decline. Their style consisted of the drape jacket, suede shoes, drainpipe trousers and overblown quiffs.

The look was designed to shock and subvert and to this end it succeeded.For any youth style to endure however it needs icons to give it credence, to actively communicate that styles continuing viability. For the teddy boys this role was performed by the explosion of early rock and roll artists such as Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochrane. These performers served as highly visible endorsements of this particular style, particularly since it was perhaps the earliest example of an organic street look being successfully adopted by stars of the mass media as opposed to the mass media imposing style on the masses.The soaring popularity of such artists gave the teddy boy movement the legitimacy all subcultures crave and allowed the style to reach far and wide; Britain’s youth soon had Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde and Billy Fury to look up to and mimic. And therein lies the proof of the important role of music for youth identities. For whilst a local gang uniform can influence the youth it comes in to contact with, a media icon who adopts the style can use his or her elevated status and mass media access to convert infinitely more young people to that particular style.

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Apart from the visual approval such performers lent to the teds, there were the rock and roll lyrics they were singing. Though tame by today’s standards many early rock and roll songs were far more aggressive, self-promoting and sexually, if implicitly, driven. Such songs did little to raise the stock of the teddy boy in the eyes of society’s moral guardians at first but it did give him a voice, without which he could be all too easily accuse of lacking purpose or meaning. In summary, the first major youth subculture was shaped and crystallised by the music that assimilated it.So why does the youth market at any given time appear to adhere to a group of distinct and dominant subcultures? Some would argue that as different groups and classes of youth encounter varying social experiences and problems, their accordingly differentiated messages of protest drive different communicative styles and sounds. Others may see it in reverse; the mass media machine creates and recreates style in order to maintain the profitability of the youth market who can always be relied upon to be relentless in their pursuit of the ‘up-to-date’. In truth it is both.

Youth subcultures are a natural by-product of youth’s need for ‘resistance through rituals’ (Hall et al 1976 as cited by Hebdige), and for young people who have opposition to the status quo or authority, regardless of their ability to articulate this, subversive styles and style attitudes are the most attainable form of resistance. Meanwhile, there are many young people who are not motivated to resist the norms of society. By definition these people want to fit in and ironically the best way to fit in is to adopt the so-called subversive styles of their peers.It is this simple paradoxical situation, which creates the unique nature of the youth market for fashion and music. Countless acts have become overnight successes by relying solely on this market. Any act which can give the impression of having a purpose other than the music has a chance of tapping into the youth market simply by making young people believe that to buy their music or merchandise has a greater meaning than the sale itself. This is not to say that such marketing ploys are the sole domain of the fly-by-night pop creation.Arguably the two most influential acts of the last century David Bowie and The Beatles were no strangers to such marketable stylisation hence Bowie being coined ‘the pop chameleon’.

His ever-changing persona in the 1970’s and 1980’s held a mirror up to the workings of the industry itself. However, it would be very hard to argue that the malleable nature of the youth market hasn’t been responsible for a constant supply of artists who thrive on style over substance. Bowie is also notable for his affect on gender issues. Before his emergence in 1969 popular music and style was generally gender defined and clearly separated.In the teddy boy era girls had their separate uniform and separate role to fulfil within the everyday workings of that subculture. Essentially the icons were male and therefore the boys were more able to ‘become’ their heroes. Likewise with the mods and rockers young women who joined the scene generally played second fiddle to the pervasive motorbike machismo. The teenybopper culture was where girls could participate without the distraction of male symbolism and dominance, but this often took place in the home rather than the pub or the street corner.

The emergence of Bowie and, to a lesser extent, T-Rex and Roxy Music, had a seismic effect on these static gender roles. In his first incarnation, Ziggy Stardust, Bowie achieved cult status in the early 70’s. He attracted a mass youth audience willing to show their dedication by aping his unique visual style ‘which created a new sexually ambiguous image for those youngsters willing and brave enough to challenge the notoriously pedestrian stereotypes conventionally available to working-class men and women’ (Hebdige).Ian Taylor and John Wall described Bowie as ‘playing back the alienation of youth onto itself’ and this is precisely what he was doing. However, Taylor and Wall attacked Bowie for helping to create a class of passive teenage consumers instead of a youth culture of persons willing to question the world around them.

There are two major flaws in this accusation. Firstly it relies on the assumption that the majority of youths are willing and/or able to apply themselves to such sociological analysis of their environment when most historical or observational evidence would suggest otherwise.It may be true that for every Ziggy lookalike with a social conscience there were ten who just liked dying their hair and playing with make-up but in reality the same could be said of every other youth style. Secondly it could be argued that Bowie did more than any other individual to promote the attraction of being different. By blurring the gender lines, projecting an otherworldly presence and concerning himself with less fashionable social issues he extolled nothing other than the art of setting oneself apart.The fact that the youth of Britain and later the world flocked to buy into bowiemania and all it’s capitalist trappings serves merely as a reminder of the natural tendency of the youth market to group, belong, re-group, and belong once more.

If any proof were needed of Bowie’s real intentions there is a big clue in the name of one of his early backing bands, The Hype. This was at a time when a strong sense of anti-commercialism prevailed and yet ‘here was a band announcing itself as a fraud from the outset, which embodied David’s first faltering attempts to draw attention to the strategies put in place to sell pop’ (Buckley 1999).This watershed period for gender identities meant that by the time punk truly arrived in 1977 it was not a great shock to see women being just as quick and just as numerous as men in adopting its styles and attitudes in a very public way. Punk was the archetypal counterculture, the only rule being that there were no rules, and street punks could wear anything they chose and know it was possible to incorporate it into the punk style.

Apart from this opposition to the traditional gender barriers punk also had some female icons such as Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees and The Slits.Such artists made the most unfeminine of all subcultures on the surface accessible to young women by dispensing with the traditional selling points of female music. Simon Frith states that ‘the legacy of punk to women’s rock was that in making ugliness an aspect of authenticity, it opened up to female singers sounds that had previously been regarded as unfeminine and therefore unmusical’ (Frith 1981). However, many would argue that this did little to enhance the position of women in rock or shift the gender boundaries since all it proved was that women could succeed in rock just so long as they acted more like men.The importance of popular music for youth and gender identities is obvious and significant. Music can and has been both a channel of expression for youth subcultures with a need to be heard as well as a powerful tool used in tapping the economic power of the youth market. In summary music’s role in youth culture is defined by this two-way relationship.

Whilst much is made by experts of the social causes of new youth subcultures and the sensibilities of those who follow them religiously, some with less romantic notions of youth might notice how flimsy and changeable these convictions must be.Setting punk aside- due to the obvious economic factors at play in the late 1970’s- most music driven subcultures are dominated by subscribers who believe in little more than the importance of being seen in the right tee-shirt. Those who disagree, we must assume, would expect to be able to speak to some of the endless stream of ever younger people sporting Nirvana tee shirts and come away with a consistent and coherent reason for displaying such an allegiance.In reality it is only ever a small minority of youth in times of prosperity who display interest in social consciousness. The music, which creates youth cultures, may often be produced by members of that minority who have something to say but the vast majority who buy into it are doing so for reasons of peer acceptance rather than any highbrow notions of subversive resistance. Those who fail to see this at a time like now will perhaps never see it.

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