Why Does the Music World Idealize Teen Culture But Ignore Real Teenagers?


Barely a week goes by without some old white man castigating the yoof of today on the shallowness/stupidity/etc. of their taste in music, art and culture in general. It’s a narrative as old as culture itself — adults throwing up their hands in despair because Kids These Days just don’t get it. These pieces are reliably asinine, occasionally descend to the level of outright self-parody, and are lots of fun to deconstruct and ridicule. But actually, they’re only one manifestation of a wider cultural malaise: adults holding forth on teen culture as if they have the remotest idea what they’re talking about.

I got to thinking about this again recently, because during his interview with BuzzFeed last week, Stephen Malkmus had some interesting things to say about the nature of teen fandom. In particular, he argued, “What you like in your twenties is not completely trustworthy. I trust the teens more. Especially before you develop an aesthetic, you like what you really like, and they just glow to you in this way and it’s beyond capitalism.”

This is an interestingly pervasive view, too, because there’s a subset of music criticism these days that seems to view the taste and aesthetic of teens (and teenage girls, in particular) as weirdly sacred. It’s a sort of creepy offshoot of poptimism, one that starts from an unrealistically monolithic view of teen culture — not all teens like Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus, after all — and is, in its own way, as deeply patronizing as claiming from on high that teens have no taste. Michelle Myers did an excellent job of comprehensively demolishing this idea a couple of months back in a great post on her Tumblr:

I guess my … issue here is when “stop being awful to [young] women” turns into “teen girls have the best taste in everything!” especially when this idea is invoked by men in their 30s… because it is so often divorced from real life teenage girl’s experiences and opinions, because it is only applicable when teen girls like something that we want them to like, because most of those teen girls will grow up into women with completely different tastes who you will not care about.

In one respect, I do think Malkmus is right, in that I don’t think you ever again quite love things like you do when you’re a teen — that wonderful feeling that the object of your affection is somehow yours and yours alone, the sense that you have to defend it against the defamations of heathens and philistines. But equally, I don’t think your 20s bring on an inevitable jaded cynicism. You like things differently, perhaps, but there’s no reason why art and culture can’t be as meaningful or important to you later in life than they are in your adolescence.

Either way, though, unless you are a teenager, if you’re commenting on this stuff, you’re ultimately reliant on memories of what it was like when you were in your teens. You’re projecting, in other words. I like to think I’m still reasonably in touch with Adolescent Tom — probably moreso than my house/car/two-kids peers, anyway — but I’m also under no illusions that growing up in Melbourne in the 1990s is anything like growing up in the US 20 years later. So it seems a curious thing for me, or Stephen Malkmus, or anyone else in a similar position, to be making definitive statements about what it’s like to experience teen fandom.

This isn’t to say that adults can’t have some sort of opinion on things that aren’t reflective of their direct experience — otherwise you disappear into well-how-many-songs-have-you-written-anyway rhetorical oubliette so beloved of a certain breed of internet commenter — but either way, it should be an opinion based on research and fact, not some sort of generalized notion of what Kids These Days are like. Otherwise, pontificating about teen culture equates to claiming ownership of something that is, in the words of ’90s teen favorite (no, really) Eddie Vedder, “not for you.”

In this respect, people keen to criticize teens’ tastes and those romanticizing them are two sides of a coin — they’re both claiming ownership of a culture that is not theirs. And the thing is, the voices of actual teens/young adults are usually conspicuously absent in these conversations. When they are present, they’re treated with condescension — as Rookie’s Hazel Cills pointed out in an excellent piece yesterday, “Many adult males … seem to have this cute assumption that all girls are dying for their approval of our cultural tastes, though we never actually asked for it.”

Still, the fact that their opinion is neither wanted nor particularly well-informed doesn’t stop the same old white dudes from holding forth. As Cills argues, “Grown-up male journalists are probably not the best choice to assign stories about teen-girl culture to… What they come up with, too much of the time, is a lot of off-base and frankly clueless speculation about what girls think, what we do, what we want, and what we need.”

Indeed. For what it’s worth, my experience of Kids These Days is that they have impressively diverse tastes — the ubiquity of the internet means easy access to infinitely more culture and information than was available to previous generations, despite the apparent assumption of some adults that no one could possibly be familiar with anything created before they were born. But, y’know, ultimately, that’s just me. If you really want to know what teens think, ask them.