‘Merchants eye teenagers the way stockmen eye cattle’: youth, media, and theories of mass culture

After 1945 the social profile of American youth was accentuated by a combination of demographic shifts, the expansion of education and a proliferation of the commercial youth market (see Chapter 2). The increased ‘cultural visibility’ of young people contributed to popular anxieties about juvenile crime (see Chapter 3), but many social scientists responded positively. During the 1940s, for example, the distinguished sociologist Talcott Parsons coined the phrase ‘youth culture’ to denote what he saw as a distinct set of values and behaviour shared by the young. Presenting this in a relatively optimistic light, Parsons stressed the positive role of youth culture as a transitionary stage between childhood and the responsibilities of adult life. ‘Youth culture’, Parsons explained,

... has important sensitive functions in easing the transition from the security of childhood in the family of orientation to that of full adult in marriage and occupational status.

(Parsons, 1942: 614)

One of the most widely-known postwar studies of American adolescence also depicted youth culture as relatively benign. James Coleman’s The Adolescent Society (1961) was nervous in its survey of Illinois high school cliques, depicting an adolescent culture with its ‘own language, symbols and, even more important, system of values ... different from those established in the wider society’ (Coleman, 1961: 9). Nevertheless, while Coleman depicted a youth culture increasingly divorced from the wider adult world, his view was optimistic. With prudent adult intervention, he argued, the peer culture could be steered towards socially beneficial goals.

But there were also more disconsolate voices. For some commentators, the upsurge of American youth culture after the Second World War was the nadir of the country’s more general slide into a shallow, debased world of ‘mass culture’. The view was constituent in a broader climate of uncertainty. Although America’s postwar economic growth had brought widespread prosperity, the 1950s saw a wide body of opinion revile what was regarded as the malignant cultural fallout of the consumer boom. Historian Richard Pells (1985) shows how, across the political spectrum, authors decried the rise of a degraded ‘mass culture’ they saw as the corollary of trends towards cynical mass marketing and bland consumerism. And, from this perspective, the flourishing youth market seemed stark evidence of mass culture’s oppressive banality. In 1950, for instance, writer David Riesman condemned a pop music industry he saw as wielding the power ‘to mold popular taste and to eliminate free choice by consumers’ (Riesman, 1950: 361). Cultural critic Dwight Macdonald also saw the young as falling easy prey to the wiles of commerce. ‘These days’, he dolefully explained in a 1958 overview of the teen market, ‘merchants eye teenagers the way stockmen eye cattle, thinking in terms of how much the creatures will cut up for’ (Macdonald, 1958: 63).

But the most acerbic critique of the youth market came in Teen-age Tyranny, a best-selling book of 1962 authored by Grace and Fred Hechinger. Denouncing popular dance crazes such as the twist as ‘bump-and-grind exhibitionism’ and a ‘flagrant example of a teen-age fad dominating the adult world’ (1962: 112—113), the Hechingers lamented the way Americans seemed to be ‘growing down rather than growing up’, the nation standing ‘in such awe of its teen-age segment that it is in danger of becoming a teen-age society, with permanently teen-age standards of thought, culture and goals’ (Hechinger and Hechinger, 1962: x).

An equally despondent ‘mass culture’ critique appeared in postwar Europe. The rise of teenage consumption during the 1950s and early 1960s was often celebrated as the essence of prosperous modernity (see Chapter 4) but, for some commentators, modern youth culture was indicative of a drift towards a tawdry and crudely commercial ‘Americanisation’. As cultural theorist Dick Hebdige shows, for many European critics the United States - the home of monopoly capitalism and commercial culture - became a paradigm ‘for the future threatening every advanced industrial democracy in the western world’ (Hebdige, 1988ii: 52-53). In Britain, for example, the writer Richard Hoggart derided contemporary trends towards ‘canned entertainment and packeted provision’ that seemed, for him, to offer an ‘unvaried diet of sensation without commitment’ (1957: 246). And Hoggart singled out contemporary youth as a benchmark of this cultural paucity. Denouncing modern youth as a ‘hedonistic but passive barbarian’, Hoggart poured scorn on ‘the juke box boys’ with their ‘drape suits, picture ties and American slouch’, who spent their evenings in ‘harshly lighted milk bars’ putting ‘copper after copper into the mechanical record player’ — a realm of cultural experience that, Hoggart argued, represented ‘a peculiarly thin and pallid form of dissipation’ (1957: 248—250).

Writers such as Reisman, Macdonald and Hoggart offered a liberal version of the ‘mass culture’ critique. For them, modem culture was being undermined by the rise of a vulgar and inane commercialism. But a more radical version of this ‘mass culture’ thesis was also developed by Marxist and neo-Marxist theorists, who attacked popular culture as an oppressive apparatus serving the interests of capitalism. Significant in this tradition were writers associated with Germany’s Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt am Main. Writing during the 1930s and 1940s, members of what became known as the ‘Frankfurt School’ were deeply critical of commercial popular culture. For the Frankfurt theorists, the ‘culture industry’ was not only a source of profit for capitalist business, but also functioned to secure the status quo by fostering conformity, passivity, and political apathy among mass audiences.1

One of the most well-known versions of this critique was produced by Theodor Adorno in his analysis of popular music, originally published in 1941. Adorno had little time for the products of the commercial music industry, arguing they were characterised by two processes - standardisation and pseudoindividualisation. Standardisation referred to the substantial similarities between modern popular songs that, Adorno argued, were churned off a productionline like any other mass-produced commodity. Pseudo-individualisation referred to the incidental differences that worked to disguise this uniformity. According to Adorno, slight variations from the norm and moments of novelty (for example, the hook-line of a chorus or a catchy musical rift) made a song attractive and gave it the semblance of originality'. In contrast to the creativity and intellectual depth of classical and avant-garde forms of music, then, Adorno saw popular songs as standardised products devoid of originality or meaning. His view of popular audiences was equally disparaging, seeing them as ‘arrested at the infantile stage ... they are childish; their primitivism is not that of the underdeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded’ (1991: 41).

The Marxist version of the ‘mass culture’ thesis, then, saw popular music as a vapid, standardised product working in the service of capitalism. From this perspective, popular music (in common with other branches of the ‘culture industry’) was criticised for not only being part of an exploitative capitalist market, but also for fostering banal conformity among its audiences. In 1973, writing in Marxism Today (the journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain), John Boyd articulated the viewpoint succinctly. For Boyd, 1970s youth culture was characterised by an ‘imposed alienation’. ‘Platform shoes and long skirts’, Boyd warned, represented ‘the antipathy of freedom’, while young workers were brainwashed by that most insidious instrument of capitalist domination — the 1970s disco:

Alienation is epitomised in the discotheque — the room is darkened so that you cannot see who you are with; the ‘music’ is so loud that there is no possibility of conversation with others ... the mind is further clogged by flashing lights causing near hypnotic conditions; concentration is not required as the maximum playing time of one record is three minutes. Every sense is taken care of to ensure that not one thought, let alone a social idea, takes place.

(Boyd, 1973: 378)

Boyd’s portrayal of the 1970s disco as a cunning capitalist conspiracy now seems laughable. But comparable scorn for popular media is detectable in the work of many more recent critics. Theorists of postmodernism such as Jean Baudrillard (1983; 1985) and Frederic Jameson (1984), for instance, have viewed cultural trends in the late twentieth century with differing degrees of despair and resignation, interpreting the media-saturated age of postmodemity as marking the rise of a uniquely ‘depthless’ form of cultural life (see below). And, surveying youth culture of the early twenty-first century, US journalist Alissa Quart was especially pessimistic. In her book Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers (2003), Quart lamented ‘the unbearable commercialization of youth’ (Quart, 2003: xxvi). In her biting critique of corporate brands, Quart argued that young people’s creativity had been crushed by relentless commercial manipulation, the book’s promotional blurb ominously warning readers — ‘Did you know you’re being brainwashed?’

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