Jonathan S. Epstein, editor. Youth Culture: Identity in a Postmodern World. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998, 329 pp. $U.S. 57.95 cloth, $U.S. 26.95 paper

This is a professionally edited book on the sociology of youth and subcultures. It reads like a special issue of an academic journal and deserves its place in university libraries. The theoretical framework offers little that is new and the case studies, while sometimes interesting, generally lack depth. For these reasons it would not make a very exciting textbook.

It has been a harsh decade for youth. The current generation is often described as the most oppressed since Second World War. Black and Latino kids in the United States especially live in the shadows of the police, prison and violence. Young women negotiate the pressures from male peers in this context. (Queer kids are pretty much absent from this book, except for the occasional mention of youth homophobia.) The overall emphasis is that youth style and subculture must be situated in this sociological context. A semiotic approach to subcultural style alone would be quite unconvincing.

The book is fairly weak theoretically. The subtitle is misleading because there is little theoretical discussion about identity and about postmodern culture. Epstein’s introduction, and Nixon-Ponder’s discussion of high school curriculum issues both start with interesting personal experiences but offer mainly reviews of the literature. Throughout, the purpose of academic writing on youth cultures is never discussed. If the kids treat you as an outsider, why are you writing about them? I’ll come back to this issue. The book divides into two chapters on media representations of youth and the bulk of the contributions, which mainly describe different subcultures.

The chapters on media representations are among the strongest in the book. Giroux writes on 1995 Calvin Klein ads and Larry Clark’s film Kids as exploitative images of youth. Best and Kellner give a reading of the MTV cartoon series Beavis and Butt-Head as postmodern television about other television shows. Obviously one cannot do a sociology of youth from media fictions. Giroux gets around this by describing the sexy teen ads and Larry Clark’s movie as pedagogy. For Giroux these are poor lessons for society about today’s youth. However, Best and Kellner argue that the sub-literate cartoon characters of Beavis and Butt-Head actually provides a diagnostic critique of lived youth culture. “Media culture provides privileged access to the situation of contemporary youth because it is a big business that must resonate to its audiences’ experiences if its wares are to be successful”(p. 88). I saw Larry Clark’s movie with a 21-year old ex-skater kid who wanted to walk out because it was an adult’s version of skater culture and because it didn’t teach anything. Younger kids would think that the main character’s style and irresponsible sex are cool.

There are some interesting chapters among the case studies of subcultures, though in general they are lacking in depth. Locher describes the relative failure of “industrial” culture in the early 1990s. It’s hard to know what this means. Although short-lived in Toronto, DJ club nights with music by KMFDM, Ministry and Nine Inch Nails were enormously successful and the black jeans and t-shirts style overlapped into an aggressive queer culture (this was the height of Queer Nation and pro-sex queer theatre in Toronto). The short life of “industrial” is worth more investigation. I suspect it has little to do with its identity (or lack thereof) and more to do with its dependence on a music industry and on club managers who didn’t understand it.

Andes chapter on growing up punk is apt, but should be part of a much longer discussion. She shows very clearly the dangers of an approach solely in terms of style. Some kids who look “punk” aren’t (either in their musical knowledge or their politics), whereas some really punk people dress quite straight. The individualistic ideology of punk deserves more discussion. Kearney offers a straightforward description of the riot grrrl phenomenon and a discussion of separatist feminism. There are now a handful of largely similar academic articles describing grrrl power through zines, bands and regional meetings. Given the movement’s media blackout since 1993, these articles raise more general issues of the purpose of academic writing on youth subcultures.

It grates to read U.S. academic prose describing Birmingham School researchers as “scholars”. Just as it grates to see hardcore shows described as “punk concerts.” To reverse the question posed earlier: if you’re treating the kids as outsiders, why are you writing about them? What are the relations here of power and knowledge? Surely any study of youth culture must start with the reflexivity of the subcultures themselves: youth endlessly debate the meaning of their symbolic action. If punk kids are forever talking about what it means to be punk, maybe researchers should listen to and respect that conversation.

Alan O’Connor
Cultural Studies
Trent University

May 1999
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