Youth subculture - a minority youth culture whose distinctiveness depended largely on the social class and ethnic background of its members; often characterized by its adoption of a particular music genre
The meaning, formation and behaviour of youth cultures have been the subject of research since the 1930s. In August 2011, England witnessed a number of ‘youth’ riots in several London Boroughs, Birmingham and Bristol.
The following article was published in The Guardian newspaper in December 1999. You can find the original article online by clicking here.
'They blast the flesh off humans! Teenage hoodlums from another world on a horrendous ray-gun rampage!" So ran the promotion for the 1959 film Teenagers From Outer Space, in the days when teenagers were viewed by grown-ups as deviant, difficult and scary.
The emergence of this thing called "youth culture" is a distinctly 20th-century phenomenon; the collision of increased standards of living, more leisure time, the explosion of post-war consumer culture and wider psychological research into adolescents all contributed to the formation of this new social category defined by age. Previously, the rite of passage between childhood and adult life had not been so clearly demarcated -this is not to say that young adults didn't have their own activities before the invention of Brylcreem and crepe soles (youth gangs were common in Victorian Britain, for example) but it hadn't before been defined or packaged as a culture.
Once "invented", the "youth culture" provoked a variety of often contradictory responses: youth was dangerous, misunderstood, the future, a new consumer group. British post-war youth culture emerged primarily in response to the American popular culture centred on rock 'n' roll. The 1955 film Blackboard Jungle, with its soundtrack featuring Bill Haley And The Comets' Rock Around The Clock, was a defining moment, inspiring people to dance in the aisles (and some to slash seats).
The fear was not only of hoodlums but also of the creeping Americanisation of British culture. But the impact of imported US films and music did not lead to cultural homogenisation; instead, it inspired a series of spectacular - and distinctly British - youth subcultures from the mid-50s to the late-70s: teds (quiffs, Elvis, flick-knives, crepe soles, working-class London origins circa 1953, drug of choice: alcohol); mods (Jamaican-rudeboy/Italian-cool style, US soul, purple hearts, The Small Faces, scooters, working-class London origins circa 1963, drug of choice: amphetamines); skinheads (Jamaican ska, exaggerated white, British, working-class masculinity, contrasting starkly with middle-class hippiedom of the same period, boots, braces, shaved heads and violence, sometimes racist, late 60s origins, drug of choice: amphetamines); punk (Sex Pistols, spit, bondage, swastikas, circa 1976, drug of choice: glue and amphetamines).
Drug use became a feature of youth subcultures from the Mods onwards - not just any old drugs, but ones that characterised and defined the subculture in question. Mods chose speed because it made them feel smart and invincible; it also gave them the energy to keep on the move, awake at all-nighters (and through work the next day).
Later, within rave culture, drug use - this time, ecstasy - was central to the point of being almost obligatory. Dick Hebdige, acommentator on youth culture, argues that the multicultural nature of post-war Britain was crucial to the formation of many subcultures; each one, he says, should be seen as a response to the presence of black culture in Britain, the ska/rudeboy-inspired two tone movement being a particularly vivid example. The tribes were created through the amalgamation of particular types of cultural goods; music, fashion, hairstyles, politics, drugs, dances - with their boundaries defined through crucial choices: Vespas or Harley-Davidsons, speed or acid, Dr Martens or desert boots. But then, youth culture is full of contradiction: the desire to express individuality by wearing the same clothes as your mates, and rebelling against capitalism at the same time as being a perfect capitalist slave.
Britain also led the way in the study of youth, and its celebration of creativity and resistance, though these studies, naturally, have their favourite subcultures, often overlooking others. (Still, the kiss of death for any subculture is to be "understood" by a sociologist.) By the late 70s and early 80s, youth subculture began to change, and became less gang-oriented.
The regular emergence of new subcultures slowed down, and the first major period of revivals began. It became difficult to identify distinct subcultures, rather than just musical styles. In fact, something weird happened: everyone started behaving like a teenager.
By the 90s, "proper" grown-ups had started to complain that contemporary youth were dull and conformist, and the music of small children became the preferred choice of most teenagers - Pinky & Perky dressed up as Steps.
Today, there are still plenty of new genres of music, but they don't have such visible subcultures affiliated to them. Even something as recent as 80s dance music and rave culture - after its initial, Smiley-faced, ecstasy-fuelled unity - fragmented into a multitude of sub-genres with no definable set of cultural attributes.
Despite society's consistent attempts to regulate youth culture, perhaps the main cause of its demise in recent years is the extension of adolescent behaviour until death by the Edinas and Patsys of this world. Youth culture is now just another lifestyle choice, in which age has become increasingly irrelevant.