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Autumn 1998
   
Youth Culture’s Lament
Roger Scruton
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Youth, as we know it from our modern cities, is a new human type—a "race of new mutants," in Leslie Fiedler's words of a generation ago. It has its own language, its own customs, its own territory, even its own economy. It also has its own culture—a culture entirely indifferent to traditional boundaries, loyalties, and forms of learning. That culture is a global force, propagated through media that acknowledge neither locality nor sovereignty in their easygoing capture of the airwaves: "one world, one music," in the slogan adopted by MTV, a station that assembles the words, images, and sounds that are the lingua franca of modern adolescents.

Because youth culture seems to press on modern life from everywhere, it gives the impression of plenitude, of completeness. But despite its ubiquity, at its center is a void, which it continually tries to fill, without success, and continually bemoans, with characteristic inarticulateness.

You can see the effort, the failure, and the inarticulateness most clearly in pop music. On the surface, the words and images lyricize the transgressive conduct that fathers and mothers condemned in the days when disapproval was permitted. But behind the anarchic words another message is encoded, a message that resides not in what is said but in what is not said, in what cannot be said, since the means of saying it have never been supplied. In the effort to give voice to this cryptic message, words float free of grammar and become flotsam on a sea of noise. Witness Nirvana, once the most popular of all popular music groups and still revered by a cult following:

Was the season, when a round
Earth can do anything.
What's the reason in around,
If the crown means everything?

And then: How uncultured can we get?

A good question, to which Oasis, a group hailed at its birth as the new Beatles, gives an answer:

Damn my education, I can't find the words to say
About the things caught in my mind.

Here, encrypted within the routine protest, is a more strangulated cry—a protest against the impossibility of protest. Trapped as he is in a culture that treats articulate utterance as a capitulation to the adult world, the singer can find no words to express what most deeply concerns him. Something is lacking in his world—but he cannot say what. He excites his fans to every kind of artificial ecstasy, knowing that nothing will be changed for them or him, that the void will always remain unfilled. As the Verve so miserably sings: "The drugs don't work."

What is this thing that is missing—this thing for which the singer has no words? The answer lies beyond the lyrics, in the music itself, so strangely different from the music of the past. Rhythm, melody, tone color, and harmony are all "externalized," seeming to come not from within the music itself but from elsewhere. The music clearly has been assembled by procedures that involve little or no invention but that set the music into a machine-like motion, with repetition as the principal device. The percussive sounds that generate the rhythm, for example, have little or no relation to anything else that is happening. Often enough, the music itself draws attention to this disjunction, opening with some mesmeric sound effect or cheesy crooning and then bringing in the drum kit with a barrage of amplified noise, as when a gang lurking on the staircase suddenly breaks down the door.

The construction of melodic lines matches the externality of the rhythm. Pop melodies are assembled from curt phrases, with little internal variation or prolongation and no modulations but only unprepared changes of key. Even when pop aims to be lyrical, it synthesizes melody from trite, standardized units that could be rearranged in any order without losing the effect. It is not that such music is tuneless, but rather that the tune comes from elsewhere—like a meal from the freezer, heated in the microwave.

So, too, with tone color. The electric guitar, of course, owes much of its appeal to the fact that the player straps it on and brandishes it like a dildo. But it is also a machine, which distorts and amplifies the sound, lifting it beyond the realm of human noise. If a machine could sing, it would sound like an electric guitar. So-called techno-music, assembled electronically from a store of recorded and processed sound effects, literally is the voice of the machine, triumphing over the human utterance and canceling its lyrical meaning. In such music, we encounter the background noise of modern life—the buzz of traffic, the clamor of airplanes, the whirr of the automated teller machine—suddenly projected into the foreground, so as to fill all the auditory space. However much you listen to this music, you will never hear it as you hear the human voice, not even when it sounds so loudly that you can hear nothing else. You are overhearing the machine, as it discourses in the moral void.

Pop music treats the harmonic dimension of music purely vertically, as a sequence of chords. The idea that chords are composed of notes that stand in horizontal relations to one another and therefore should sing like separate voices has been the acknowledged basis of harmonic organization not only in the classical tradition but also in jazz and all forms of popular music before the present. But this principle has no real meaning for youth, brought up not to construct chords in this way but merely to strum them on a guitar. The chords in modern pop are taken from the shelf and laid out in a sequence. They are lifeless relics of harmony, which do not move but merely replace one another, since no note bears any melodic relation to its successor.

A perfect illustration of this characteristic (and most of the other peculiarities of pop) is "In Bloom," from Nirvana's second album. The chords succeed one another in exactly the arrangement produced by mechanically moving the hand up and down the neck of the guitar and hitting all the strings. The resulting sequence makes melodic sense in none of the voices, save that which generates the paltry tune.

Modern pop rarely comes to a conclusion. The music bursts out, repeats itself, and then fades away. Lacking any harmonic movement of its own, it cannot move toward anything—certainly not toward anything that requires careful preparation, like a cadence. There is, to put it another way, a lack of musical argument— a lack, indeed, of musical thought.

This mechanical, externalized approach to the musical material serves a function. When the accompaniment is deprived of any melodic organization and reprocessed as noise, the singer, rather than the song, becomes the focus of attention. He projects himself and not the melody, emphasizing his particular tone, sentiment, and gesture. The croaks and the groans with which he delivers it become the central features of the melodic line, and the song's one distinguishing feature. The singer stands revealed exactly where the music should be—in stark contrast to the tradition of classical performance, in which the singer is the servant of the music, hiding behind the notes that he produces. The Spice Girls are a recent, exemplary case in point.

This music is not designed for listening. It is the accompanying soundtrack to a drama, in which the singer, strange as it may seem, becomes something like the sacred presence of a cult, the incarnation of a force beyond music, which visits the world in human form, recruiting followers the way religious leaders recruit their sects. The pop star's appearance onstage is not like that of an orchestra or an actor: it is a "real presence," an incarnation of an otherwordly being, greeted by a release of collective emotion comparable to the Dionysiac orgies depicted by Euripides.

Singers, groups, or lead performers are constrained by their quasi-totemic role. They must be young, sexually attractive, and throbbing with the plaintive voice of youthful desire—like the girlie group called All Saints. Of course, popular musicians have always been idolized—think of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, or Cliff Richard. But those old-style icons grew up in time, passed over from adolescence to adulthood, became mellow, avuncular, even religious. The modern pop star does not grow up. He grows sideways, like Mick Jagger or Michael Jackson, becoming waxy and encrusted, as though covered by a much-repainted mask. Such spectral creatures haunt for a while the halls of fame, trailing behind them the ghosts of their vanished fans. And then they disappear.

Modern pop stars often refuse to answer to a normal human name, since to do so would compromise their totemic status. The name must be an icon of the tribe. Sting, R.E.M., Nirvana, Hanson, Madonna, U2, and Oasis are like the species names assumed by tribal groups in order to clarify their social identity, with the difference that it is not biological species that are invoked by the titles, but symbols of disaffected glamour.

Until recently, the song has been detachable from the performer; it has been a musical entity that makes sense in itself; it can be internalized and repeated by the listener, should he have the skill. But modern pop songs are put together so as to be inseparable from the group, so as to be indelibly marked with the group's trademark. Pop fans therefore find themselves deprived of one of the most important gifts of traditional folk music—the gift of song. It is almost impossible to sing the typical pop song unaccompanied and still make musical sense. The best you can do is to impersonate the idol during karaoke night at the local bar or club, when you have the benefit of full instrumental backing, amplification, and audience, and can briefly fit yourself into the empty groove where the sacred presence lay. This intense and cathartic experience once over, the fan must step down from the stage and reassume the burden of silence.

In effect, we witness a reversal of the old order of performance. Instead of the performer being the means to present the music, which exists independently in the tradition of song, the music has become the means to present the performer. The music is part of the process whereby a human individual or group is totemized. In consequence, it has a tendency to lose all musical character. For music, properly constructed, has a life of its own and is always more interesting than the person who performs it. Much as we may love Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, we love them for their music—not their music for them. And this is music we can perform for ourselves.

This fusion between the singer and his song promotes another and more mysterious fusion—that between the singer and the fan. You can sing the song only by becoming the singer. You are for a moment incarnate in him, as he is in you. But the song is musically inept. Anybody (given the right machinery) can sing it, since nobody can. The fan knows this, and through his idolization of the singer runs the thought: "What has he got that I haven't?" The answer is: Nothing. To the fan in the audience, the gyrating figure on the stage is himself. As he fuses with the totem, the fan is transfigured, relieved at last of his isolation.

The modern adolescent finds himself in a world that has been set in motion; he is beset by noise, by external pressures, and by forces that he cannot control. The pop star is displayed in the same condition, high up on electric wires, the currents of modern life zinging through him, but miraculously unharmed. He is the guarantee of safety, the living symbol that you can live like this forever. His death or decay is simply inconceivable, like the death of Elvis, or, if conceivable, understood as a sacrificial offering, a prelude to resurrection, like the death of Kurt Cobain.

The fan belongs to his pop group, which also belongs to him. Like the totem animal of the tribe, the pop star is an icon of membership, set apart from the everyday world in a sacred space of his own. Hence, pop CDs often contain instructions as to where to write for further information about the singer or group, with a help line and support service, in the form of posters, diary items, and bulletins, like the circulars offered to its congregation by an activist church. The pop group offers membership. It is therefore imperative for the fan—or at least, for a certain kind of fan—to choose his group, and to exalt it above any rivals. The choice is, in the end, arbitrary—or at least, not guided by any criterion of musical merit. But it is a choice that must be made. Thereafter, as Simon Frith has noted, the fan receives any insult to his group as an insult to himself.

Key to the transformation of the pop star into an icon is the music video, perhaps the most important innovation in the sphere of pop since the electric guitar. The video sublimates the star, recycles him as image, more effectively than any painted icon of a saint. It is expressly designed for home consumption and brings the sacred presence into the living room. And it completes the demotion of music, which now becomes background, with the pop star, transfigured into the divine status of the TV commercial, occupying the foreground. The idol has entered the condition familiar from the other forms of youth art. Like Young British Art—the art recently celebrated by the Royal Academy in its exhibition Sensation (See "Trash, Violence, and Versace: But Is It Art?" Winter 1998)—he has become the advertisement that advertises itself.

The primitive societies studied by great anthropologists were organic communities, bound by kinship and sustained through myths and rituals devoted to celebrating the idea of the tribe. In such communities, the dead and the unborn were present among the living. Rituals, ceremonies, gods, and stories were the private property of the tribe, designed to enhance and fortify the experience of membership. Birth, marriage, and death were collective, not merely individual, experiences, while the crucial process of acculturation—the transition from raw human material to a responsible adult member of the community—took place among rites of passage, trials, and ordeals, through which adolescents cast off their childish willfulness and took on the task of becoming spouses and parents, so as to pass on the tribe's treasures and traditions to the next generation.

In the more complex European societies that shaped the great nineteenth-century anthropologists themselves, there existed a common store of myths, rituals, and ceremonies that created a comparable sense of the divine origin of society and its right to individual sacrifice. Adolescents received instruction in the ancestral religion and learned to respect its rites. Birth, marriage, and death were still collective experiences. Erotic feelings, regarded as the preparations for marriage, were duly sublimated and hemmed in by interdictions. Complex forms of induction marked the transition from adolescent to adult, reinforcing the view that all stages of existence prior to the adult state were but preparations for it. In exploring primitive societies, the Victorians were delighted to discover simpler and more transparent versions of an experience that lay at the heart of their own civilization—the experience of membership, enhanced by a common religion and by the rites of passage that lead to the full adult state, in which the ancestral burden, and privilege, are assumed.

None of that is true of modern adolescents, who are brought into a world from which the old experience of membership, with its ordeals and abstinences, its sacred moments of transition, and its assiduous "framing" of the adult state, has vanished. They are protected from external and internal threat and rescued from the elementary experiences—in particular, the experiences of work and of war—that renew the bond of social membership and give credibility to the adult virtues. They have little or no religious belief, and such religion as they have is detached from the customs and rituals that form a congregation. Television has confined each young person from childhood onward before a box of intriguing platitudes, so that without speaking, acting, or making himself interesting to others, he nevertheless receives a full quota of distractions. The TV provides a common and facile subject of communication, while extinguishing the ability to communicate. The result is a new kind of isolation, as strongly felt in company as when alone.

Moreover, the modern adolescent is heir to the sexual revolution. It is impossible for him to regard erotic feelings as the preliminary to marriage, which he sees as a condition of partial servitude, to be avoided as an unacceptable cost. Sexual release is readily available, and courtship a time-wasting impediment to pleasure. Far from being a commitment in which the voice of future generations makes itself heard, sex is now an intrinsically adolescent experience. The transition from the virgin to the married state has disappeared, and with it the "lyrical" experience of sex, as a yearning for another and higher state of connectedness, to which the hard-won consent of the other is a necessary precondition. All other rites of passage have similarly withered away, since no social institution demands them—or, if it does demand them, it will be avoided as judgmental, hierarchical, or oppressive. The result is an adolescent community that suffers from an accumulating deficit in the experience of membership, while resolutely turning its back on the adult world—the world where membership is offered and received.

All human beings, whatever their condition, are social animals, and can live with themselves only if they also live with others. There is implanted in us the need to join things, to be a part of some larger and justifying enterprise that will ennoble our small endeavors and protect us from the sense that we are ultimately alone. The deficit of membership must therefore be made good, but in another way, without the rite of passage to a higher or more responsible condition. Hence, new forms of "joining in" arise. Unlike armies, schools, scout troops, churches, and charities, these new forms of joining need not involve participation—unless of a rough and undemanding kind that imposes no discipline on those who opt for them. They center on spectacles rather than activities.

The modern adolescent will follow the actions of his favored team, pop group, or idol and adopt those actions as his own. Hence the emergence of professional sport as a central drama in popular culture. In Europe, soccer has lost its original character as a form of recreation, in which large numbers of people directly participate, and has become instead a spectacle, through which the fans rehearse their social identity and achieve a kind of substitute form of membership, not as active participants in a real community but as passive respondents to the virtual community of fans. The pop music fan is, in some sense, a part of the group, in just the way that the soccer supporter is a part of his team, bound to it by a mystical bond of membership.

Of course, the old tribal feelings are there just below the surface, waiting to be activated and erupting every now and then with their usual tributes to the god of war. Soccer hooligans are not the peculiar and perverse criminals the press paints them as being. They are simply the most literal of soccer fans—the ones who wish to translate the most gratifying experience of membership that has been offered to them into the direct expression of a tribal right.

After all, on both sides of the Atlantic, the tendency has increasingly been to allow adolescents to define their own social order, their own history, their own loyalties, and their own sense of who they are. This is, indeed, the logical outcome of the "child-centered" approach to education recommended by Dewey, enthusiastically adopted by a generation of radical teachers, and described in its most extreme manifestation by Heather Mac Donald in her account, in the last issue of City Journal, of a New York high school that offers its pupils a course in hip-hop culture. The fan is trying to rescue himself from the predicament in which adults have placed him—the predicament of having to invent his own identity, in a condition where being young is the only way of being anything.

In a sense, the membership offered to the fan—in which a mesmerized passivity neutralizes the desire for action—is the greatest safeguard we have that modern societies will not fragment into tribal subgroups, contending against one another in the concrete jungle. For when tribal groups emerge in modern conditions, they take the form of teenage gangs, whose initiation ceremonies forbid the transition to the adult world and arrest their members in a stage of rebellion. The first concern of such a gang is to establish a right to territory by violently erasing all rival claims.

The teenage gang is a comprehensible response to a world in which the rites of passage into adulthood are no longer offered or respected. I do not say that such a world is a healthy one. But it is—at least in part—our world, and we have to make the best of it. Youth culture is an attempt to make the best of it—to make oneself at home in a world that is not, in any real sense, a home, since it has ceased to dedicate itself, as a home must dedicate itself, to the task of social reproduction, to the transmission of tradition and responsibility.

Home, after all, is the place where parents are. The world displayed in the culture of youth is a world from which the parents have absconded—as these days, they generally have. This culture aims to present youth as the goal and fulfillment of human life, rather than a transitional phase that must be cast off as an impediment once mature commitment calls. Youth culture promotes experiences that can be obtained without undertaking the burdens of responsibility, work, child rearing, and marriage. Hence sex, and especially sex divorced from any long-term commitment, becomes of paramount importance; so do experiences that involve no cost in terms of education, moral discipline, hardship, or love—the paradigm being drug taking, which has the added advantage that it shuts out the adult world completely and replaces it with a cloud of wishful dreams, the very same wishful dreams that float across the screen of MTV. When youth culture invokes the adult world, it is only to pour scorn on it as a delusive fiction or a source of tyrannical constraint.

Youth culture is therefore inherently transgressive. It announces itself always as radical, disconcerting, infuriating, disorienting, and lawless. The group Prodigy, currently in the charts with "Slap My Bitch Up," makes the point explicitly in its techno-slam number entitled "Their Law"—the law of adults, which is there to be trampled on.

But the explicit incitement contained in such a number should not blind us to the fact that transgression is also institutionalized by pop, so as to become a new conformism. The group Future Bitch, for example, announcing its debut at the Ministry of Sound—the club that is the heart of London's youth culture—declares its aim "to disorientate [sic] its audience, pushing the current cultural scene to its limits and toward the millenium [sic]." "Future Bitch," the advertisement goes on, "is challenging, radical, disconcerting, stimulating, unpredictable, subliminal, and unprecedented." And what could be more predictable than that?

Now, there is an academic industry devoted to representing youth culture in general, and pop in particular, as genuinely subversive, a response to oppression, a voice through which freedom, life, and revolutionary fervor cry from the catacombs of bourgeois culture. If the adepts of "media studies" and "cultural studies" are to be believed, youth finds itself hemmed in at every point by an "official culture" dedicated to denying the validity of its experience. On this view, the profane and anarchic messages of pop are a sign of uncontaminated virtue—gestures of protest against a life-denying social order.

Only years in a university could convince someone of that. For the fact is that the culture of youth is the official culture of Britain and probably of everywhere else. Any criticism of it is greeted by cries of outrage. Every public space in our country is filled by pop; politicians of all persuasions seek endorsement from those who produce and market it; and people with ears, who seek the few pockets of silence where they can be alone with their grief, are an endangered species, though one that will never be protected by the conservationists. It is no accident that the owner and director of the Ministry of Sound, James Palumbo, is the son of one of the pillars of the former Establishment, Lord Palumbo, chairman of the Arts Council for many years under the Tories; no accident that he is a friend and advisor to New Labour's spin doctor Peter Mandelson; no accident that the first roll call of guests at No. 10 after the last election included Noel Gallagher of Oasis. The culture of youth seeks and finds legitimacy with the very transgressive gestures that deny that there is any such thing.

Youth culture prides itself on its inclusiveness. That is to say, it removes all barriers to membership, all obstacles in the form of learning, expertise, allusion, doctrine, or moral discipline. For these would be rites of passage, constituting a tacit admission that to be young is not enough, that the world expects something, and that there is a higher stage of existence to which we all must eventually proceed. This very inclusiveness, however, deprives the youth culture of human purpose. It remains locked in its moral void, looking for good causes, spiritual icons, ways of representing itself as legitimate but without crossing the fatal barrier into responsible adulthood. How lucky it was for those who found themselves trapped in this frame of mind that Princess Diana should have achieved the perfect postmodern death and been beatified by Elton John as the holy single-parent family.


Pop culture purveys a kind of institutionalized transgression. Gestures of defiance are now passports to wealth, power, and fame, and a kind of ossified, injured-adolescent rudeness defines the manners of a new state-sponsored elite. Take, for instance, the Sensation exhibition from the collection of Charles Saatchi, mentioned earlier. To anyone familiar with the tradition of Western art, this collection might seem to reflect nothing so much as the poor education provided by the art schools, which have failed to inform their students that warmed-over Marcel Duchamp jokes are a poor substitute for inspiration. But that reaction misses the point.

Duchamp's jokes have set the agenda for youth art in our time. They are the raw material of desecration. Young artists must constantly repeat the gesture first made by Duchamp, in order to neutralize the resurgent feeling that there is another world to which art might also be pointing—a world in which labor and sacrifice are sanctified and redeemed by the image of their beauty. Those works in the exhibition that have aroused the greatest indignation are precisely devoted to mocking or dirtying the idea of such a higher world. Art as we knew it is of only marginal significance in the culture of youth. Art as we knew it required knowledge, competence, discipline, and study, all of which were effective reminders of the adult world. The culture of youth, by contrast, makes use of ready-made images and cut-and-paste techniques. It eschews subtlety, allusion, and implication. It is indistinguishable in the end from advertising—with the sole qualification that it has no product to sell except itself.

In this connection, it is worth quoting from a 1997 interview given by Damien Hirst, the doyen of Young British Art, who has excited the critics and bored the rest of us with his pickled sharks and rotting cows: "I spent more time in the art library and watching TV than ever I did in galleries. I used to go into the art library and say to myself: 'I wish I could be like these guys. . . .' Sitting there, looking at 5-by-4 images of paintings, that was the world that I grew up in. At the same time, though, I spent a hell of a lot of time talking about commercials when I was at art school, conversations like, 'My God, did you see the Coalite advert where the dog kisses the cat and then the cat kisses the mouse? Fantastic!' . . . I didn't realize at the time, but that was where the real art was coming from—the rest of it was in the art library going: 'Shit, I wish I could understand all this stuff.' "

That is the authentic voice of the youth culture as it was a few years ago—not quite discarding the high culture of our civilization but reluctant to make the effort to embrace it. Things have moved on since then—partly under the influence of Hirst himself—and the ad, the comic, and the photographic image have now dethroned the painted image and all that it stood for. And it is a law of human nature, confirmed by social revolutions throughout modern history, that old authorities, when they fall from their eminence, are instantly trampled on before being kicked aside.

Hence, there is a direct connection between the art exemplified by Mr. Saatchi's collection and the graffiti that decorate modern cities. Most graffiti vandals use lettering taken from an expressly subliterary source—the comic strip. Moreover, the vast majority of graffiti do not form coherent words or even genuine letters. They are a kind of revenge taken against the written word, in a gesture that lays subversive claim to the public space where the written word has for so long been sovereign, but where, thanks to TV and advertising, it is sovereign no more.

The artlessness of graffiti is an act of defiance, a declaration that the knowledge enshrined in the written language is now superfluous. Remember that the written word is the most vivid symbol we possess of adult competence: it is the first obstacle set before the growing child, the original source of adult power and of the mystery of power, which in the hands of adults is propagated and exploited without force or commotion but through signs alone. The graffiti are spells cast against the written word, designed to neutralize its power and liberate the spaces it once occupied. Hence, graffiti become badges and symbols of the new form of membership. They are the heraldic emblems of the gang. Every place disfigured by the gang's insignia is a place reclaimed from the public world, privatized by youth, to become a site for the new kind of membership—membership with no rites of passage and for the time being only.

The high culture of our civilization was a vivid reminder that youth is not enough, that we become fully human only in time and only through learning new things and renouncing old things. Our high culture aimed to capture the attention of its adepts: it addressed the most intense of human interests and required a reverential silence if its message was to be absorbed. This is true of the picture gallery and the concert hall; it is also true of the written and the spoken word.

When broadcasting first was invented, it was conceived—at least in Britain, under the benign jurisdiction of the old BBC—as a way of extending the high culture of the elite to a wider audience, making available aesthetic and educational experiences that would otherwise require effort and expenditure beyond the reach of ordinary people. A radio talk took the form of a lecture addressed to the listeners, from whom it demanded undivided attention. The speaker would prepare his talk meticulously, with attention to style and diction, in order to make the greatest impact. Radio entered people's lives as a new and riveting authority, a voice from the adult world of knowledge, inviting its listeners to improve themselves and to rise to the level of the things they heard.

Essential to the effect was the invisibility of the speaker. He was a disembodied voice, slipping down the airwaves like an angel from heaven, straight into the ears and hearts of the public. Once the speaker became visible, on television, his appearance undermined his angelic authority. If he were a brilliant improviser, he might still be able to stare from the screen and utter an unbroken flow of elevated prose, as Bertrand Russell once did. More likely, however, he would offer only hesitant words and require the constant prompting of an interviewer if he were to sound coherent.

Very soon after the invention of television, it was the interviewer, the person who "fronts" the show, who had secured the initiative. Distinguished people appeared before him only to risk their hard-won authority. Interviewers became debunkers, and one by one the heroes of the national culture submitted themselves to adversarial demolition for the benefit of a public at first incredulous, then amused, and finally indifferent. If a cultured elite still existed, it had fallen out of communication with the viewers of TV, since it could not make itself listened to in such a medium but, at best, only heard.

The standard format of TV spread in time to radio, so that radio talks and readings became increasingly rare. Even on Radio 3, the BBC's "highbrow" station, the listener is now seldom addressed directly, with well-rehearsed words designed to elicit his complete attention. Informal dialogue replaces the authoritative utterance, and discussions are conceived in adversarial terms, with every opinion balanced against its opposite and thereby neutralized. Everything transmitted over the airwaves arrives in the ears of the public stripped of its authority, reduced to the private exhalation of a passing speaker. And this speaker has no more weight than the indefinitely many contenders for attention who might have been—but as it happens, were not—called into the studio.

Another way of putting the point is that, through broadcasting, speech becomes a background murmur, with no special claim to our attention and addressed to no one present. The effect is to create a new conception of the public world. The social, cultural, and political elite parade across the stage of broadcasting, chattering inconsequentially, appearing and disappearing like figures in a crowd, endlessly and fruitlessly experimenting with opinions whose significance is exhausted in the moment of their utterance. The educated class steadily loses whatever authority it might have had, dissolved at last in the universal chatter. The public sphere is not the forum of high culture, discipline, or virtue, but merely a special kind of noise: the noise of people who are paid for making it.

In these circumstances, it is hardly possible to convince young people that the adult world is in some way higher, more fulfilling, or more richly mysterious than the world they create through their own resources. All that exists out there is noise, and even if some noises pay more than others, no noise is better or worse than any other. Besides, the noise that pays the most is the noise that hits the charts—and this noise is usually made by young people, whose success arrives with all the suddenness and arbitrariness of a win in the lottery. There can be no compulsion to move to the adult sphere, and no rite of passage that will land you there, since all that you can ever do is to replace one type of noise with another. In such circumstances, the noises made by youth are protected from criticism and given the go-ahead to drown out the unconfident murmurs of the fathers as they trudge away toward extinction.

It is in similar terms that we should understand the dances of modern youth. In almost all tribal communities, dancing has had an important role in reinforcing the communal spirit, particularly in ceremonies of initiation and marriage. It represents an act of surrender to the tribe and its ruling deities. In dancing, we set all purpose aside and allow the spirit and forms of the dance to rule us. At the same time, dancing has a peculiar social intentionality: in the normal case, dancing is a "dancing with," a fitting of one's steps and gestures to the steps and gestures of others.

In the old culture of Europe, dancing was therefore a part of courtship—a kind of stylized intimacy in which the sexual allure of the body could be displayed and enjoyed without social catastrophe. For young lovers, dancing was a way of going "part-hog," as Harold Pinter would put it, while behaving with proper decorum.

But it was not only young lovers who danced. Traditional dances—such as the minuet, the jig, and the saraband—were formation dances, in which you changed partners to find yourself dancing with someone in whom you had no sexual interest whatsoever (your grandmother, perhaps). In the Mediterranean, it was even unheard of for the sexes to dance together: the men performed in a troupe, and then the girls, each sex with an eye for the other but decorously removed from physical contact. In this way, dancing became a ceremony in which the community enacted its bid for eternity beneath the stars.

Young people perceive love, sex, and the body differently today; courtesy and courtship have disappeared from their dancing, since they have disappeared from their lives. The idea of dancing as an orderly affirmation of community is dead. Dancing has become a social and sexual release, among people who expressly represent themselves in the dance as sexual objects, even when—and especially when—they dance without a partner. Indeed, the concept of the partner—of the one with whom you are dancing, and who agrees to dance after an exchange of courtesies—hardly engages the new reality. You all dance together, and every step or shake or gesture is right, just so long as it feels right. Nor is this new kind of dancing of marginal significance: it is the central episode in the youth culture, the moment when the individual renews his attachment to the group and is raised to a heightened level of excitement and a sense of the rightness of being what he is and doing what he does. The "rave"—in which throngs of drug-fueled young people dance orgiastically to pop music pumped up as loud as it can go—is the Holy Communion of youth, and it is a communion without decorum, in which the distance between people is not transcended but denied.


The anthropologist Arnold van Gennep coined the expression "rites of passage" in 1909, after noticing the important structural analogy between ceremonies of birth, puberty, initiation, marriage, and death. The ceremonies, he argued, involve three components, ordered successively: separation of the individuals or groups from their previous condition; existence on the margin, during which they remain suspended in limbo; and incorporation as participants in their new condition. Thus, initiation into full membership is preceded by a period of alienation, as the youth is cast out from childhood and care and forced to earn the fruits of adult freedom.

Imagine, however, a situation in which the adult world is clouded over: everything pertaining to adulthood has become dark, forbidding, enslaved. The only freedom lies in youth itself. A young person must forge an identity from nothing but his own adolescent experience—the experience of alienation, in which the protection of the adult world has been withdrawn, and nothing put in place of it. The traditional totems, which represent the continuity of the tribe, now lose their significance. The youth must construct his own totem, his own ceremonies of initiation and membership, his own sense of togetherness, while inheriting nothing at all from the expertise and knowledge of his forefathers. His dances must be formless and violent, so that only youth can dance to them; sexual pleasure, the mark of youth, must occupy the foreground of the ritual, but sex must be meticulously divorced from marriage and the birth of children. His totems must be formed in his own image—perpetually young, perpetually transgressive, perpetually incompetent.

As he dances among his kind, such a youth will be conscious of a lack. All this commotion ought to mean something; it ought to be lifting him to a higher plane. But it leaves him exactly where he was—on the margin of society, enjoying a freedom that is empty since it has no goal. He tries to lift himself with drugs and, as a result, sinks further into the void. His protest resolves itself at last in a strangulated cry—a song that sounds like music only when the drumming feet of adolescents sound along with it. And if he discovers words for this song, what can they be but these:

I can't find the words to say
About the things caught in my mind?

 

 

 
Pop culture’s noise and glamour try in vain to fill a gaping void.
City Journal Autumn 1998.
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