Friday, August 10, 2007
The Allure of Youth Culture
Is it possible to ruin your teenager’s favorite things by liking them yourself? This is not just a philosophical question at our house, where the coolness of teenage culture has suddenly become appealing to the parents ... and I’m wondering where we’re headed.
Music, in particular, has become the uneasy mixing ground of old and young cultures. After years of coaxing our children to like the music we like –and, happily, they took to the Beatles like French Fries to catsup – suddenly we’re finding ourselves drawn to their bands. Our daughter has been generous with sharing her music so far, but as we know from Sinatra to Elvis to Woodstock, music is the essential way teenagers say “Stuff it!” to the older generation, who are supposed to scratch their heads and worry.
So, when the sound of rebellion is tuneful to elder ears, you’re in uncharted territory. This was the strange landscape of our recent family trip to Millennium Park to hear the Indie rock band, the Decemberists. At the concert, I saw folks in the bifocal set, for sure, but I haven’t been surrounded by so many cool youths since, well, since I was one. And, I’m sorry to report, that while youth may indeed be wasted on the young, it looks very, very good on them. I felt every inch the frumpy duffer watching the concert-goers around me. The young women wore ironic little braids and sincere Obama-for-President t-shirts. The young men were pierced and had the floppy hair I remembered fondly from my middle-school crushes. And there sat I, on my blanket with my big library book, my umbrella for sun, and my concealer sliding into the crinkles around my eyes.
When the music started, we all seemed to be on the same page, but while I knew most of the lyrics, the young woman next to me, who sang, swaying, with her eyes closed and her hands folded over her heart, well, she GOT the music in a way that I didn’t. I loved the concert, but I also felt the outsider’s longing to be part of the scene, not just observing the pulsing thrill around me. Afterward, my daughter’s eyes were bright with the power of being with her peeps, and I felt myself slipping down a generational rung.
On a recent re-viewing of the movie, The Graduate, I was surprised by my sympathy for the Mrs. Robinson character, whose pathetic grab for youth culture spoke to me, for the first time, more than the callow, sweet drift of Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock. Yikes - suddenly, I got her leopard-print bras and her desire to snatch something fresh from the young.
Sociologist have studied the ways adults today are dressing more like kids, as Peter Pan Baby Boomers try to Botox the clock backwards. Not so long ago, boys wore beanies and dads wore bowlers; girls wore hot pants while moms wore house dresses. Now? Most of us wear some version of the Gap, pretending there is no generation gap, but it’s there alright. In The Graduate, it’s surprisingly easy to understand Mrs. Robinson’s need to prove she’s still sexy – after all, who can deny the appeal of being the hot mom? But is there a figure more susceptible to ridicule? Who among us wants to be the paunchy, bald guy walking the beach in a skimpy Speedo designed for an Adonis? How strange, though, to be old enough to feel the prickle of empathy for these backward strivers, instead of scorn.
While I use the terms “cool,” and “hip” conversationally, my teenager recently quoted dryly from one of her favorite blogs, “The only people who use the word “hip” are those who are not in fact hip.” While we share some common musical ground now, I can tell that she’s about to head out to hipper territory I won’t fully understand, just as my folks could follow me to Paul Simon, but not out to the teenage wasteland of The Who and the Clash. She’s already mentioned a band called Neutral Milk Hotel, a musical space that probably doesn’t have a room for me.
Honestly, though, my memories of those youthful years are as much of the scary drift and fear of the unknown as they are of the plain old irresponsible pleasures. There’s a scene in The Graduate that I’d forgotten in which Mr. Robinson tells Benjamin, “You’re twenty? That’s a helluva good age to be.” Really, though, it may just sound good. But it can sound awfully good.