Friday, 27 July 2012

Mind the Generation Gap

This week, my almost-teenage daughter has started listening to music my wife and I really, really hate.

It's about time.

Aside from all the hormonal madness, being a teenager should be about experimentation and discovery, about exploring your individuality. It's a period in our lives when we get perspective on our parents, or, rather, lose all perspective and begin to suspect that they are in fact aliens, beamed in to make things as difficult as possible for us. YA fiction gorges on this feeling of alienation, and the self-centred teenage girl who believes that no-one understands her has become a trope of the genre.

Creatively, the power of being a teenager is a belief that anything is possible and that nothing is sacred. This "rip it up and start again" mentality has driven successive youth revolutions from Rock and Roll to Acid House. Where adults lumber under the weight of their cultural knowledge, clucking their tongues at the desecration of their artistic icons, a teenage audience can take something old and make it new again. The generation gap lives on.

Or does it? Because as a member of The Generation Who Never Grew Uptm, I'm aware of how far adults interfere with this process in modern society. There have always been adult svengalis behind youth music and popular culture, but the strings have never been as visible as in our post-X-Factor world. I've heard the opinion that popular culture is being filtered down to the level of a twelve-year-old boy, and it's certainly true that 12A has become the certificate of choice for the blockbuster movie. Look also to the huge popularity of YA fiction and teen-centric video games among adult audiences.

With the big media businesses reluctant to take risks, a lot of our youth brands and franchises begin to look very, very familiar. Consider Dr Who or Star Wars or Marvel Comics, creative brands whose reach effortlessly spans the generations. This is great for maximising revenue and word of mouth, but not so fantastic for giving kids something that is theirs and theirs alone. Brands like these have their own mass and gravity, pulling their stories towards familiar characters and situations, stifling anything that does not fit with the accepted canon. How can we make an entirely new story, when the old ones are forced down our throats again and again?

It used to be said that major cultural revolutions (certainly in the UK) came in 11 year cycles: 1955 - Rock and Roll; 1966 - The Hippie Movement; 1977 - Punk; 1988 - Acid House. But you'll notice that the series ends there, because the next predicted revolution never came. Why not? Is it because commentators tried to impose a static timeline on what was essentially a freak phenomenon? Or did the revolutions move away from music into other media? Perhaps The Generation Who Never Grew Uptm, in tandem with the internet, stifled and homogenised culture into one huge mass of "if you like that then you'd like this" consumerism.

I think children and teenagers have the right to something that speaks to them directly, without that product being filtered and focus-grouped for mass appeal. There are a lot of fine children's stories providing that right now, but as publishing companies consolidate, so franchises and crossover sales become more attractive. After all, what publisher wouldn't want to sell a million copies of their book? Maybe the DIY publishing revolution can bring a punk outlook to the business of storytelling, and the generation gap can live on. Because, in order to keep our culture from stagnating, I think we need it.

Nick.

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