Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Let's talk about teenyboppers

It was in the 1950s when marketers first discovered "youth" as a specific market that teenyboppers appeared. Like "hipster" the word comes from the jazz world. "Boppers" originally meant people who were really into bebop. "Teenybopper" was applied to girls between roughly 11 and 17 years of age who liked to gather in private with one or two friends and listen to pop music. Years aren't very helpful here though: it's more helpful to think of the term as meaning girls in the years ranging from the onset of puberty until they become sexually active. Some start and finish earlier or later than others (and there will be considerable anticipation of the moment as well as a natural desire to prolong it too).

It's a time where a girl completely rethinks who and what she is. Up until this moment, her sexuality was defined in terms of outward trappings. She had all the necessary parts to be a girl to be sure but they weren't functional. And now they are. And that's just the beginning of it; there is a whole hell-of-a-lot-else that has changed too.

And you could write up a list of the characteristics of this new culture. Let's go to a really obvious and not particularly good source to begin: Wikipedia:
  • the subculture is exclusive to young girls
  • it is a "retreat and preparation", allowing girls to relate to their peers and "practice in the secrecy of girl culture the rituals of courtship away from the eye of male ridicule"
  • serving as a retreat to avoid being labeled sexually
  • it also allows young girls to participate in semi-masturbatory rituals
  • it allows its members to define themselves apart from younger and older girls
I've cherry picked those. There are others that are just stupid or driven by heavy-handed ideology. There are some I'd tweak a bit but I think the set I've picked here is pretty close to right. Now all we have to do is move by analogy from that to hipster for hipsters are a similar phenomena. It's a girl-driven subculture and it has been made possible by a linear expansion of "youth". Teenyboppers sprang up when girls stopped being married off or sent into service but instead went to high school thereby creating a stage of human life where they were neither children nor adults. That delay of adulthood has now been prolonged for another seven to ten years by increased access to university and internships.

What strikes me as most right about it is that there is no "Storyville" and no "Buddy Bolden" in the story. That is to say, there is no supposedly authentic but actually largely mythical place or person at the source of the hipster subculture. And that shouldn't surprise us because it could not be any other way. Any cultural phenomenon has to be sown in fertile soil so our definition has to be in general cultural terms. It might have sprung up only in a specific place at a specific time, of course, but that is relatively unimportant. What is important is the subculture that spread and was easily adopted and not the "authentic" source for it it; that source is like Wittgenstein's beetle in a box, it doesn't matter whether it exists or not because it wouldn't help explain anything if it did.

The thing about being a hipster is that millions of people got it without needing an explanation. They saw the role, understood it and decided it was for them. Most importantly, when they took it up, they knew how to do it without anyone having to explain it to them.

Anyway, I promised actual content today and here it is. Every one of these based on the teenybopper definitions above:

1. It is a subculture defined by and for girls
There are, of course, hipster guys, but they are curiously nonsexual beings. They might, of course, be living out wild sex lives behind closed doors (although I rather doubt it) but publicly they lack all confidence to project any sort of sexual identity. Hipster girls, on the other hand, all project something sexual. They are often clearly lacking in confidence or painfully uncertain about their sexual identity but we can see this because they are out there. If hipster life is a recital, the girls are up on stage actually performing and the boys are hiding in the wings desperately hoping no one will notice them.
2. It's a retreat allowing hipster girls to practice being adult women away from scrutiny.
Instead of hiding in their bedrooms with their friends and their favourite pop songs like teenyboppers, hipsters use various ironic stances to hide in plain sight. The irony says, these clothes and the roles that you might normally assign to them—bohemian, rebel, trucker girl, sex bomb—are just a put on. Beneath the irony, though, these roles are picked because she wants to try something like them out. (Notice, by the way, that Hipster roles are always pulled out of an historical closet. The pre-existing identity that can be ironically adopted is the whole point.)
3. It serves as a retreat to avoid being labelled sexually.
As I've said before, these girls are supposed to be very experienced and "savvy" about sex but can't help but feel terribly inexperienced (sex and Christianity are  two human activities that anyone doing them honesty will always feel like a beginner). As a consequence, they feel like they have to improvise all the time because they somehow missed the meeting where everyone else got a script. They are terrified they are going to say or do something that will allow others to forever cast them in a part they don't want before they can even figure out what the parts are.
4. It also allows young girls to participate in semi-masturbatory rituals
Nothing to add here except that the whole point of the semi-masturbatory exercise is to visualize different kinds of sexual status that might be available to her. Unlike boys, just getting sex is not hard to imagine. Getting it under terms she can live with is.
5. It allows its members to define themselves apart from younger and older women
This is a key ingredient, a necessary condition. Hipster girls want to differentiate themselves from others in an era where every identity is a market choice. The Suzanne of the famous Leonard Cohen song wore "rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters" but if you want her look today you go to a boutique that specializes in that look. Hipster girls can't opt out of the market. They have only two choices, a) pick an historical hip look like gypsy girl. flapper or trucker girl or b) become so good at the fashion game that they can play at it ironically.




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