Thursday, 24 October 2013

My So-Called Teen Life

Ok, so tomorrow I'm off to the funeral of my friend Matthew, at which I'm giving the eulogy. Because I'm essentially shallow and have soaked up too much mid-90s popular culture, my mind wandered from the funereal to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, in particular the episode delivered entirely as a musical.

Here's Buffy's aria 'Life's A Show': the actor isn't a great singer but it's pretty impressive nonetheless.

Yes, like the entire show, it's an allegory for teenage alienation. I loved Buffy, even when it got a bit preachy. Despite hating musicals, I was transfixed by an entire episode in the genre – the first time this kind of thing had been done on mainstream TV. I just liked the idea of playing with genre - very smart. Similarly, I warmed to Melrose Place when I read that the designers were in cahoots with an art collective to dress the sets with unexpected items: paintings of massacre sites, a duvet patterned with the molecular structure of an abortifacient - little things like that.

Not that I ever watched Melrose Place, to be honest. I was too busy soaking up whatever BBC2 showed at 6 o'clock before they got snobby. Westerns, Star Trek (not TNG), Quantum Leap, Blossom, My So-Called Life, Degrassi Junior High, The Phil Silvers Show and a whole lot else besides. Pretty much entirely American (Degrassi was Canadian) and certainly part of the Hollywood sausage machine which strongly implied that teenage life in America was sparkling on the outside and thoroughly miserable on the inside. The answer, every time, was to 'be yourself', which is pretty much meaningless even before I later discovered the decentred subject. Presumably the infestation of TV with teen angst movies is a manifestation of social unease with the erosion of the self. Adults are easy: by then you can perform a stable self on TV by blowing someone away, engaging warp speed or (if you're female) having a middle-class career and children (later on, perhaps even by having sex and not feeling guilty about it). But for the teens, it's a more pressing issue: adults trying to impose a deterministic selfhood on you and treating the instability of identity as a problem, not a solution.

Looking back, I was a sucker for thinly-disguised educational (hegemonic, ideological) material. No doubt if I'd been an American teenager I'd have dealt with the daily routine of jocks and killing sprees  with wisecracks and complaint rock, just like my TV heroes. Perhaps resenting the social pressure to become socially-integrated as a coherent subject is why I identified with the slippery characters: the ones who came to a bad end in the teen dramas, or the wily Bilko in The Phil Silvers Show, the classic trickster who always beat the institution oppressing him – in his case, the army which prefers rigid social structures to his capitalist anarchism. Here's Bilko's Bopster, in which the eponymous hero comes to term with the jazz hipster generation:

Too many of the teen shows, perhaps all, were carnivalesque: they promised a certain amount of leeway for wayward kids as long as it was understood that they'd shape up in the end: get a job, learn to express their feelings, do well in school or at least become reliable, predictable figures. Certainly they never had any concrete feelings about the social structure: politics was off the menu. Instead, their job was to adjust themselves to a world whose levers were forever beyond reach. It was, in fact, a variant of self-help literature. The kids would object to some social problem, perhaps do something to help the local situation, then integrate lessons into their 'real' selves.

Buffy, for instance, spent several series learning that she had to accept her destiny as the Chosen One, then the rest saving the town from 'evil'.

(Can't find any unadulterated clips for posting, so I'm exposing you to the true horror of fan tributes with tear-jerking music)

It was more sophisticated and knowing than most, but Propp would have had no problem fitting it into the Morphology. The rest eschewed the supernatural in favour of an unconvincing realism in which the default solution to any situation (divorce, coming out, bullying, anger) was a cuddly blanket of liberalism and good intentions – no character ever challenged capitalism, or sexual identity as a fundamental component of identity, for instance. A bit of quirkiness is permitted: rejection is not.

Instead, the disaffected teen would – by the end of the episode or in more ambitious cases, by the end of the series – discover their 'true' selves, which coincidentally enough, fits into a narrow trajectory of bourgeois success: just look at Smallville.

So basically, all these characters were Judas goats for globalised teenagers anywhere: soft power writ large. I didn't watch much UK teen TV because it was so familiar. Who wants to watch some friendless loser get beaten up in a fictional comprehensive school when I could experience the real thing from a first-person perspective on a daily basis… in 3D Punchovision too. Sunny Californian teen angst felt so much more significant than my usual routine of having books ripped out of my hands ('are you some kind of poof?') and being mock-executed for not owning a pair of Kickers.

What's the result? Apathetic apolitical losers whose idea of a good time is to get nostalgic about whatever culturally-negligible mush was on TV when they were at school (for a perfect example of where it gets you, watch The Big Bang Theory in which the supporting cast – including Blossom – are survivors of 80s and 90s teen entertainment, pressed into the service of a viciously conservative project).

Damn it. That includes me.

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