Conformist Rebels Kindle Teen Spirit

By Jon Savage
Viking, 549 pages, $29.95

Jon Savage’s breathtaking history of the punk movement in the United Kingdom, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (1992), combined the excitement of a fan caught up in a fevered cultural moment with the perspective of a critic who could stand back and see the big picture.

Mr. Savage’s new book is Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, and the prospect of reading him on that subject was­—for me, at least—almost mouthwatering. So it gives me no pleasure to report that Teenage is a major disappointment. Both too much and not enough, the book is clearly the result of a prodigious amount of research. What it’s lacking is the unifying narrative linking all the byways and ratholes that England’s Dreaming ventured into. It’s simply not clear what story Mr. Savage intends to tell here.

His book ends in 1945, just at the point you might expect any history of youth culture to begin, with Sinatra already a teen idol and Elvis waiting in the wings, with the postwar prosperity looming and the buying power of the American teen just starting to manifest itself.

There’s nothing wrong with a cultural historian who delivers readers to the point at which they’re capable of following the story on their own. And there’s both originality and inspiration in Mr. Savage’s decision to bookend his tale with incidents that highlight the constants of teen life: feverish, melodramatic suffering; reckless, even psychotic lashing out; rebellion and conformism.

Teenage begins in 1875, in Nice, when the 17-year-old Russian émigré Marie Bashkirtseff starts keeping a diary that would, 12 years later (three years after her death from tuberculosis), become the first best-selling chronicle of teen angst. A year before Bashkirtseff began her diary, a 15-year-old named Jesse Pomeroy was sentenced to hang in Massachusetts for 10 killings—nine of the victims were little boys. The punishment was commuted to life in prison, in solitary confinement, but society is still stymied by Pomeroy: How do we reconcile existing notions of juvenile delinquency and the diminished capacity attributed to young offenders with the deliberation of Pomeroy’s crimes?

When Teenage ends, nearly 500 pages later, in 1945, Anne Frank—whose diary portrays adolescent growing pains against the starkest backdrop imaginable—has just died of typhus in a concentration camp. American youth, meanwhile, was set to become the engine of a new pop culture that would reach more lands than even the Allied armies had.

With bookends like that, there are all sorts of places the story could go—into accounts of teens becoming the heroes they imagine themselves to be, or else allowing themselves to be the villains others fear. But what comes in between feels like nothing so much as a pile-up of incident; there’s no connective tissue to make the jumbled narratives into one story.

The problem may be that the subject has been on Mr. Savage’s mind since 1980, when he began work on a documentary television series—also called Teenage—that never aired. Twenty-seven years is a long time to work on anything, and ample time to lose the thread. (Mr. Savage tells us in his introduction that material on Italy and Russia was cut from what is already a long book.)

Teenage comes alive only towards the end. Mr. Savage does his best writing on the youths who resisted the Nazis in Germany, France and other occupied countries. He writes not just about the White Rose (the group to which Sophie Scholl belonged), and Helmuth Hübener, a Mormon youth executed for producing pamphlets that ridiculed the Nazis’ claims of imminent victory, but about the swing kids whose rebellion was no less dangerous for its insouciance, responding to “Heil! Heil! Heil!” with the likes of “Sing! Sing! Sing!”

Perhaps Mr. Savage felt that to dwell on these stories would have been to fall back too readily on the iconography of teenage rebellion, on stories that are comfortably heroic. But he can’t disguise that these stories rouse something in him that nothing else in the book does. He’s particularly good on the Zazous, the French swing fans living under German occupation. Like the punks who would follow them, these kids practiced a form of what the Situationists called détournement, unmooring the banal and overlooked from their established contexts and setting them adrift in new surroundings where their emptiness spoke like an open secret. Scouring the Vichy papers for the latest mealy-mouthed pronouncement from Pétain, the Zazous passed the marshal’s phrases around as examples of the “crystallised perfume of stupidity,” in much the same way that, years later, a shot of an ordinary family gathered in their ordinary kitchen would provide the cover for the Sex Pistols’ most terrifying single, “Holidays in the Sun.”


INEVITABLY, THE STORY OF the rise of youth culture is the story of the growing economic power of teenagers, particularly American teens. Oddly, uncharacteristically, this fact leads Mr. Savage to some conventional thinking. The faintly disapproving comments on consumerism that crop up throughout the book are summed up by these lines towards the end of Teenage: “The postwar spread of American values would be spearheaded by the Teenager … living in the now, pleasure-seeking, product-hungry, embodying the new global society where social inclusion was to be granted through personal power.”

Those lines, a gloss on George Melly’s observation that pop culture turns revolt into style, are true enough, as far as they go, but they also miss the point. Surely as dedicated and ardent a lover of pop music as Mr. Savage understands that consumer culture has—through Elvis and some of the early rock ’n’ rollers, the Beatles and, later, the first British punks—led to spontaneous outbursts of enthusiasm that call into question the very underpinnings of the society that makes consumerism possible.

It’s a letdown that Jon Savage seems content to believe pop will eat itself, when previously he’s written so brilliantly on a cultural moment when pop damn near swallowed everything around it.

Charles Taylor has written for Salon, The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He’s a frequent contributor to The Observer. Conformist Rebels Kindle Teen Spirit