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The term youth culture is used generally in reference to the ways adolescents set themselves apart from the adult culture. Although age-based cultural differences have existed since the beginnings of recorded history, it was only in the 1950s, after the crystallization of “teenagers” as distinct social personae with their own music, lifestyles, fads, and characteristic slang, that the concept of a “youth culture” as separate from adult culture materialized in North American and European society. Before then anyone reaching the age of puberty was expected to conform to the norms of the larger adult culture.
The emergence of an autonomous youth culture was heralded in fictional form by the American novelist J. D. Salinger (1919-) in his still popular and controversial novel The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. Salinger provided the first portrait of the new teenage persona—a portrait that was shortly thereafter enshrined in all kinds of media (magazines, songs, television programs, and movies), taking on a social life of its own. Since the mid-1950s youth culture has evolved independently and primarily through lifestyle designations associated primarily with youth-generated musical trends and styles (rock and roll, disco, punk, and rap). This is why cultural historians tend to characterize the evolving forms of youth culture with terms such as the hippie era, the disco era, the punk era, and the hip-hop era. Each era is in fact marked by its own pattern of symbolism, ritual, slang, and overall lifestyle (clothing and body decorations) derived from attendant musical styles.
The study of youth culture in the social and human sciences has become a major academic enterprise since the 1960s. Three major cultural theories have come forth relating specifically to youth, as separate from the psychology of adolescence. One of these posits that any youth trend is perceived initially by the adult culture as subversive or transgressive, constituting a sign of impending apocalyptic danger or threatening societal values, but which gradually dissipates and blends into the larger cultural mainstream. Known as “moral panic theory,” the concept was proposed by Stanley Cohen (1972) in his insightful study of mods and rockers in the mid-1960s. An early twenty-first century crystallization of moral panic surfaced as a result of the trend of many youths to “network socially” on the Internet at sites such as MySpace and Friendster.
Another main theory is that youth culture has become the default form of all North American and European culture, spreading throughout the social landscape independently of age. As the social critic Thomas Frank (1997) has skillfully argued, youth has become a social and economic commodity since the 1960s. Because youth sells, trends in the adolescent world quickly become the cultural norm, dictating look, taste in music, and fashion.
A third major theory of youth culture is that it constitutes a form of carnivalesque theater in which the sacred, perceived to be anything authoritative, rigid, or serious, is “profaned” or mocked simply for the sake of it. This theory has been inspired by the work of the social critic Mikhael Bakhtin (1986). It would explain why, for example, emerging youth forms of culture seem to fly in the face of the adult official “sacred world” while at the same time not posing any serious subversive political challenge to it.
- Bakhtin, Mikhael M. 1986. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Cohen, Stanley. 1972. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. London: MacGibbon and Kee.
- Danesi, Marcel. 2003. My Son Is an Alien: A Cultural Portrait of Today’s Youth. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Danesi, Marcel. 2006. Perspectives on Youth Culture. Boston: Pearson Education.
- Frank, Thomas. 1997. The Conquest of Cool. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen.
- Palladino, Grace. 1996. Teenagers: An American History. New York: Basic Books.
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