Teenagers Are Ruining Everything

by zunguzungu

From an article on 1950’s era Hollywood’s belated efforts to cash in on their primary audience becoming younger and younger, this is the sort of paragraph I couldn’t possibly be expected to resist:

“Many responded to the sudden prominence of the American teenager with fear and trembling. Throughout the 1950’s, cultural guardians likened this “new American caste” to savage hordes descending on a city under siege. But even as editorial writers, law engforcement officials, and parents were shoring up the barricades against them, the business community were welcoming their arrival at the gates. With good reason: there was a fortune to be made selling trinkets to the barbarians.” (from “Teenagers and Teenpics, 1955-1957: A Study of Exploitation Filmmaking,” Thomas Doherty)

It’s the kind of upside down and backwards image that might appear if you projected my dissertation through a series of particular screens and filters, bounced it across several dozen mirrors, and then displayed it on an uneven surface. Almost unrecognizable, unless you know it really well, but all the key terms are there, practically, from the extraneous use of the word “caste” to the uneasy conversation between capitalism and cultural antipathy, all served up with a healthy dose of what I would creatively misparaphrase Marc Bousquet creatively misparaphrasing Stuart Hall to call “Youth as a category through which race is lived.” Reality is so often even better than the films, in such cases. For example, the guy who was responsible for pioneering the industry’s direction into its teen audience after 1956? A guy first known for making jungle movies who therefore became known as “Jungle Jim.”

In any case, I think the speed by which “youth” gets recast as “race” suggests how inseperable “race” (or rather, “developing world” status) is from notions about the the proper place and role that youth must occupy vis-a-vis their elders, which is why I cringe every time I hear the phrase “young democracies.” But it also makes histories of things like rock and roll, which are about both youth and race, legible in an interesting way. Which leads me to the last little nugget this article revealed: after movies like Rock around the Clock, which established teen-rock films as great moneymakers, our man “Jungle Jim” was casting around for the next big thing and settled on: Calypso. After Harry Belafonte’s version of “Banana boat song” was all the rage, Jungle Jim and others decided, comically, that calypso was going to be as big as rock music (which was clearly on its way out) and they started registering every possible movie title with the word “calypso” in it, to get ready. Obviously, calypso wasn’t quite the next big thing that they thought it would be, but I’m interested in more than just the studios’ amusing cluelessness about what the kids are into, since there’s something suggestive about what they didn’t get: the fact that “rock and roll,” a black music become white and American, would be so much more powerful and long lasting than a music that wears its foreign status on its sleeve (after all, “banana boat song?”), even if studio executives couldn’t themselves tell the difference, or care. There’s race, after all, and then there’s furren, but in this case it wasn’t the evil mainstream media that was the cause of that difference being observed.