‘Glocal’ youth cultures and the appropriation of ‘mythic’ America

For cultural theorists Sunaina Maira and Elisabeth Soep (2005) young people occupy a central place in processes of globalisation. Adopting Appadurai’s phraseology, Maira and Soep coin the term ‘youthscapes’ to denote the ways modern youth cultures are spawned through ‘the intersections between popular culture practices, national ideologies, and global markets’ (Maira and Soep, 2005: xv). The importance of youth to globalisation, they argue, lies in the way young people figure in all five of the ‘scapes’ comprising Appadurai’s model of globalised cultural flows. ‘Youth’, they explain, ‘is a social category that belongs to all five of his units of analysis’:

Young people participate in social relations; use and invent technology; earn, spend, need; desire, and despise money; comprise target markets while producing their own original media; and formulate modes of citizenship out of the various ideologies they create, sustain and disrupt.

(Maira and Soep, 2005: xvi)

The notion of youthscapes is suggestive of the way local youth cultures are not formed in isolation. Rather, they are generated through complex processes of international connection and young people’s active engagement with global media. Indeed, for critics of the cultural imperialism thesis, one of its greatest weaknesses was its failure to take adequate account of the agency of local audiences, and their capacity to appropriate, adapt, and ‘indigenise’ globally circulating media. Theorists such as James Lull (1995) and John Thompson (1995), for example, highlighted the way local audiences inscribe new meaning into global media forms, reworking them to take on fresh cultural significance. As Thompson explained, the way media products are understood and used ‘is always a localized phenomenon’:

... it always involves specific individuals who are situated in particular socio-historical contexts, and who draw on the resources available to them in order to make sense of media messages and incorporate them into their lives. And messages are often transformed in the process of appropriation as individuals adapt them to the contexts of everyday life.

(Thompson, 1995: 174)

Ethnographic and reception studies have drawn attention to the way local patterns of media interpretation and use are invariably diverse. For example, research by Tamar Liebes and Elihu Katz (1990) and Daniel Miller (1992) on different national audiences for TV soap operas suggested the meanings of transnational media were relatively ‘open’, and this allowed for a range of divergent — in some instances even ‘resistant’ — readings by indigenous audiences. And similar elements of media ‘reinterpretation’ and ‘re-embedding’ have also been prominent in the history of international youth cultures. US popular culture, especially, has often figured in these processes.

American texts and images have been a conspicuous presence in the cultures and subcultures forged by young people worldwide. Partly this is a consequence of the way US economic power has ensured the historical prominence of American culture in global media. But it is also indebted to the way US media offer a relatively ‘open’ set of cultural signifiers. As Dick Hebdige argued:

American popular culture - Hollywood films, advertising images, packaging, clothes and music - offers a rich iconography, a set of symbols, objects and artefacts which can be assembled and re-assembled by different groups in a literally limitless number of combinations.

(Hebdige, 1988ii: 74)

Like ‘youth’, ‘America’ is, in Roland Barthes’ terms (see Chapter 4), a repository of rich ‘mythologies’ and symbolic connotations. As Rob Kroes argues, in modern popular culture ‘America’ represents ‘a construct, an image, a fantasma’ (2006: 92):

America’s national symbols and myths have been translated into an international iconographic language, a visual lingua franca. They have been turned into free-floating signifiers, internationally understood, free for everyone to use.

(Kroes, 2006: 96-97)

Obviously, the mythic American Dream of untrammelled freedom and boundless opportunity bears scant relation to the realities experienced by vast numbers of people living in the US. But, as Kroes suggests, young people around the world who embrace US music, films, and fashion effectively ‘recontextualize and remsemanticize American culture’, and ‘make it function within expressive settings entirely of their own making’ (Kroes, 2006: 94). In fact, rather than being resented as an instrument of US cultural imperialism, American goods and media have often been championed by local audiences as positive symbols of freedom and modernity. As Steve Chibnall has observed, for many young people around the world, buying Levi’s jeans or Coca-Cola ‘can take on the status of a personal political statement because the symbolic association of these objects with freedom, individuality and the “American way” is underwritten in countless cinematic and televisual texts which relate product aesthetics to social attitudes, personal aspirations and nationality’ (Chibnall, 1996: 150). For many audiences around the world, then, American goods and media have become symbolic tokens of autonomy and emancipation. And, possibly because American style has been such an emotionally-charged earner of individuality and freedom, it has frequently been the target of conservative criticism and authoritarian control.

In Nazi Germany, for example, American music and style was a site of cultural struggle. The Nazi government of the 1930s favoured German classical or folk music, while American jazz and Big Band swing (performed by the likes of Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman) was maligned as ‘degenerate’. But the music still boasted many German enthusiasts. It had particular appeal among what were termed ‘Suring Jugend’ or ‘Swing Youth’ — groups of young people from mainly liberal-minded, middle-class families who eschewed the ideals of ‘youthfulness’ promoted by Nazi youth movements such as the Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth), and instead enthused over American music and style. ’ Beginning during the late 1930s, Germany’s major cities -Berlin, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Hamburg — saw distinctively dressed youngsters gather in bars and cafes, enjoying jazz music at dances characterised by what one Gestapo report described as ‘an uninhibited indulgence in swing’ (Noakes, 1998: 452). Swing youth were never a formally organised group, and did not oppose the Nazis in any self-conscious way, but there was a latent sense of defiance in their devotion to ‘American’ hedonism and their refusal to conform to Nazi ideals. As Claire Wallace and Raimund Alt suggest, they stood as ‘an example of everyday resistance that, while not being an overtly political struggle, seemed to represent a rejection of the dominance of the regime’ (Wallace and Alt, 2001: 278). It was an insolence, moreover, that infuriated the Nazis. Heinrich Himmler - head of the SS — took the view that all young people who listened to jazz music should be ‘beaten, given the severest exercise, and then put to hard labour’ (Gill, 1994: 195). And during the early 1940s the suppression of swing youth intensified; with raids on clubs, arrests, and even imprisonments in concentration camps.

In the Soviet Union, too, American style became a vehicle for anti-author-itarian dissent. As Hilary Pilkington (1994) shows, during the Cold War the stilagi were a particular topic of controversy. Groups of relatively well-to-do

Media, globalisation, and the youth market 145 urban youngsters, the stilagi showed little interest in official forms of Soviet culture and instead adopted Western forms of music and fashion, developing their own distinctive image — stil’ — a (re)interpretation of American rock ‘n’ roll style. Reviled as ideologically subversive and unacceptably bourgeois by the Soviet establishment, the stilagi faced concerted opposition from state institutions and the press. Brigades of Kosntosol (the official Soviet youth movement) were formed to campaign against the influence of stil’ and, in the cities of Sverdlovsk and Ul’ianovsk, Kosntosol patrols were reported to have cut both the trousers and hair of local stilagi (Pilkington, 1994: 226).

The mythologies of US popular culture have also exerted strong appeal in Britain. Against the drab backdrop of the postwar years, especially, visions of America offered a taste of excitement.10 This appeal was felt especially keenly, Chibnail argues, by working-class youth, for whom ‘Yankee style offered a sense of worth, individuality and empowerment’ (Chibnail, 1996: 155). According to Chibnail, the zoot suit was a preeminent example of the way cultural forms transplanted from America took on new meanings in the context of postwar Britain. The broad, draped jackets and pegged trousers of the zoot suit had originally been sported by young Mexican-American Paehncos and black hustlers in US cities during the early 1940s. Brash and flamboyant, the style seemed an insolent defiance of dominant conventions. The swaggering gesture was not lost on white society and, in 1943, gangs of off-duty servicemen roamed the streets of Los Angeles brutally beating zoot-suited Mexican-Americans in a series of racist attacks.11 By the end of the 1940s, however, the violence dissipated as zoot style crept into mainstream American fashion. But in Britain, Chibnail (1985) argues, the zoot suit retained its rebellious aura. Imported with the arrival of GIs during the war, the zoot suit was adopted by British ‘spivs’ (flashy petty villains), though by the late 1940s the style had become more firmly equated with working-class youth. In this context, Chib-nall suggests, the original, ‘racial’ significance of the zoot suit was lost. Filtered through indigenous conceptions of style, ‘the impenetrable argot and defiant machismo of the Pachuco and Harlem hipsters were cut away and replaced with the familiar rhyming slang and quick-witted banter of the artful dodger, the rascally opportunist’ (Chibnail, 1985: 66). Gradually evolving into the distinctive dress of the 1950s Teddy boy (see Chapter 4), the style represented a ‘blasphemous mixture of orthodox British dandyism and Yank style’ and, among both working-class youth and officialdom, was recognised as ‘a symptom of a fundamental disrespect for the old class modes and manners — a disrespect bom of a romance with an alien culture’ (Chibnall, 1985: 74; 69).

In a similar vein, Andrew Blake (2010) has highlighted the history of interplay between American and British popular music. From rock ‘n’ roll and R’n’B, to hip-hop and techno, American music has exerted a strong influence in Britain. But, as Blake argues, this relationship is ‘not a one-way traffic but cultural exchange’ (155, orig. emphasis) that has been characterised by ‘dialogue, differentiation and diversion’ (151). Rather than simply imitating American ‘originals’, then, British musicians have reinterpreted and reconfigured musicalgenres, feeding the new result back into the global flow of culture. The explosion of Beatleniania is illustrative. Admittedly, the success of The Beatles and the British pop ‘invasion’ of the US during the 1960s could be seen as a by-product of ‘Americanisation’ - with the British music industry remaking and re-marketing music genres imported from the US. But this would overlook the way British musicians (like K-Pop bands 50 years later) appropriated and reinterpreted the American idioms, and combined them with local cultural elements. As a consequence, the end-product was a distinctly ‘British’ cultural form that in turn, fed into the development of music and style not only in the US but worldwide.

Other British contributions have also loomed large in the global ‘youthscape’. Christine Feldman-Barrett (2009), for example, shows how the mod subculture that originated in London’s dimly lit clubs of the early 1960s (see Chapter 4) subsequently took root as a variety of ‘glocalised’ incarnations in the US, Germany, and Japan. Punk, too, spilled out from its foundational scenes in 1970s London and New York, and developed ‘glocal’ expressions across the world. Moreover, as Russ Bestley and his colleagues argue, these local punk scenes have not simply mimicked the Anglo-American originals, but have developed as distinctive milieu that ‘hybridise and assimilate, and in turn reflect national, regional, and local identities’ (Bestley et al., 2019: 11).

In this respect, punk is not alone. As styles and music circulate around the world, processes of glocalisation invariably take place as they are taken up and reworked by local audiences. Some cultural forms, however, may especially lend themselves to such processes. Andy Bennett, for example, has argued that hip-hop possesses certain characteristics that make it particularly suited to glocalisation and local reconfiguration. The commercial packaging of hip-hop as a global commodity, Bennett suggests, has facilitated its easy access by young people worldwide (Bennett, 2000: 137). But also important is the distinctive ‘hands on’ nature of the genre, which has meant that audiences and performers become essentially interchangeable. Thus, while hip-hop existed as a huge commercial industry, Bennett contends, it could still win numerous local audiences because it retained ‘a strong identification with the street and with the ethos of grass roots expression’ (Bennett, 1999ii: 86).

Other authors have supported Bennett’s account of hip-hop’s ‘glocalisation’. Tony Mitchell’s (1996; (ed.) 2001) research in particular, testified to the wide-ranging uses of rap music and hip-hop style across the world - with French12 and Italian hip-hop functioning as a vehicle of protest against racism and police harassment, while Maori rap groups in New Zealand have campaigned for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world. And similar themes of glocalised adaptation emerge from studies of hip-hop in Japan (Condry, 2006), Latin America (Catillo-Garsow and Nichols, 2016), Africa (Clark, 2018) and South Korea (Song, 2019). So, rather than spawning a legion of inferior imitations of the African-American original, the global flow of hip-hop has seen the genre reworked and reconfigured as new, identifiably local, forms of cultural expression (see Chapter 8). Local hip-hop scenes, therefore, are part of a ‘transnational

Media, globalisation, and the youth market 147 hip-hop community’ but, as Russell White succinctly puts it, each scene also has ‘its own identity, addresses nationally specific issues and employs its own culturally and linguistically specific markers’ (White, 2010: 169).

 
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