Initially invented as a marketing target, "teenagers" only came into existence after World War II. Possibly our most important years, our teenage years are a time of transition, a period in which we develop from children into adults. We may remember them as either the best or the worst days of our lives, but the life experiences encountered between the ages of 12 and 20 leave a lasting impression: burgeoning emotional and sexual feelings; physiological development of secondary sexual characteristics; entry into the order of society through individual and group affiliations. Since the instantiation of teenagers as a category, they subsequently may have been exploited ruthlessly as such by commercial interests, but this also has allowed (and continues to allow) the identification and interrogation of issues affecting one of the most important groups within society.
Following World War II, a sudden boom in affluence in the West produced new market forces: a growth in original consumer goods (nylon, televisions, fridge freezers) and the appearance of new groups at whom those goods could be marketed. Teenagers were one; they were initially invented as a target marketing group, a new demographic to be tapped, whose wealth came from their parents' increased financial freedom. The number of products created for and aimed at teenagers since World War II has been phenomenal, and shopping remains popular. In the 1990s, teens made 40 percent more trips to the mall than other shoppers. What is particularly interesting is what those products tell us about teenagers: what they're (supposedly) interested in and what their concerns are, plus how we think about them and how that thinking has changed over the decades. The realms of pop music, television, and cinema provide especially illuminating examples.
Pop music is seen as music for children. Passion for the predictable and disposable three-minute song is perceived as an immaturity of taste; we supposedly "grow out of" listening to pop music and start listening to classical music, jazz, the blues, and so on. In addition, the short shelf-life of pop bands and the general transience and ephemerality of pop music is representative of the fickle tastes of changeable teenagers; it reflects the "passing phase" nature of teenage life. Elvis Presley was (and remains, even after his death in 1977) one of the most successful pop stars; unlike most pop musicians, Elvis's career spanned two decades. His meteoric rise to fame as a singer and guitarist was cashed in on with a raft of low-budget movies, often named after his song titles, including Love Me Tender (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and Blue Hawaii (1961). At the beginning of his musical career, Elvis drew attention by dancing in a way branded as sexually lewd; he gyrated his hips while crooning, earning him the nickname "Elvis the Pelvis." Teenage girls screamed and swooned at his concerts, behavior that has become a common female reaction to male pop stars, especially boy bands.
The sexual aspect of Elvis's music was a cause for concern. A supposedly trivial form of music suddenly seemed subversive. Could the lyrics of pop music, or the antics of pop stars, pass on unwanted messages to a susceptible teenage audience? This has been a persistent worry for moral guardians and would-be censors. Teenagers are still seen as children and thus vulnerable and worthy of protection, yet in their journey toward adulthood, they are interested in adult issues such as sex and drugs. Girls also screamed, notably, at the Beatles, the British four-piece whose enormous popularity and lengthy career challenged the status of pop music as trivial and ephemeral. Like Elvis, the Beatles also appeared in films specifically made for their teenage audience, including A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965). In addition, as with Elvis, no marketing opportunity was too silly. It was possible, for instance, to buy Beatle "moptop" wigs. Teenagers, it seemed, would spend their money on anything, so long as it had a faint connection to their pop idols. Similarly, they would buy anything targeted directly at them; thus, in pop music, songs could be found targeted directly at teenagers and their concerns, such as "Teenage Idol," "Teenager in Love," and "Sweet Sixteen."
If longevity and/or success is achieved (which can be assisted by the possibility of cross-media synergy), the potential financial rewards for pop stars are large. This has led to the artificial manufacture of a great number of pop musicians and bands, from the Monkees in the 1960s (who also had their own television show) to the Backstreet Boys in the 1990s. The formula remains an occasionally successful one. If there has been one change in the form of pop music, it is that lyrics have become raunchier as restrictive moral codes have relaxed; the songs of teenage soul/R & B star Usher are exemplary of this fact. Generally, however, pop music remains anodyne, all sexuality being expressed in a suggestive yet naive way. Pop stars themselves may be styled to be attractive to the teenage audience, but it is an ambiguous, soft-edged, safe kind of attractiveness. It is unclear whether this is really what teenagers want, or merely what the producers and manufacturers of pop music will allow.
The invention of the teenager category coincided with the widespread introduction of the television set into American society, but, initially, television had problems programming material for teenagers; in contrast, children's programs and those for adults were clearly identifiable. Teenagers had to make do with shows with a broader appeal, such as popular family-oriented dramatic series, variety shows, and comedy programs, some of which featured teenage characters: Little House on the Prairie, I Love Lucy, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, The Johnny Carson Show. This is not to say that programs for teenagers were not made; pop music shows, though usually lifeless and presented by adults, were popular, as were examples such as The Monkees television show. Teenagers were conceptualized by television during this period as "older children"; if they had their own interests, they were those dictated to them.
The gradual expansion of television over the decades, including the introduction of satellite and cable arenas, has produced a plethora of channels, all of which need filling with material. The 1980s and 1990s saw the production of an enormous number of programs aimed directly at teenagers, mostly comedies and drama series set in and around schools: The Wonder Years, Beverly Hills 90210, Party of Five, My So-Called Life, Saved by the Bell, and so on. In the 1990s, there were entire channels devoted to teenage programming. These programs projected a very different conception of teenagers than those of the 1960s. The adolescents of the 1990s were now "young adults," confronted with a raft of difficult social issues such as drug use, pregnancy, bullying, sexual identity, and homelessness. In addition, the stars of teenage television programs often appeared much like pop stars—physically attractive, yet sexually ambiguous and, therefore, safe.
Unlike television, cinema speedily capitalized on the existence of a solvent teenage audience. The 1950s was a decade in which drive-in movies became popular with high school students, and so a range of quickly produced films, in identifiable genres, were made specifically for this audience. These included a lengthy series of beach/surf movies, a wealth of teenage gang movies, and such cheaply made horror films as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957). Also released during this decade were films about teenagers with a broader audience appeal, such as The Wild One (1954) and Rebel without a Cause (1955). Because of the film rating system, these movies about teenagers were able to offer a corrective to television's sanitized conception; the adolescents in Rebel without a Cause, for instance, deal with alcohol, suicide dares, gang bullying, knife fights, and homelessness, among other factors. Films about teenagers are numerous. This may be because the tribulations of adolescence are effective (melodramatic) narrative devices; it may be because Western culture tends to associate youth with beauty. The 1980s were notable for the number of films produced about teenagers; with the recurrent presence of certain actors, a series of these became known as the Brat Pack films: Sixteen Candles (1984), Pretty in Pink (1986), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). Issues affecting the teens in these narratives included truancy, detention, dating, and drug use—issues similar to those impinging on 1950s movie teenagers.
Cinematic representations of adolescence tend to depict it as either a difficult time of angst, alienation, and loneliness, or as an idyllic period of innocence, unlimited fun, and growth through misadventure. The first set produces iconic images of rebel teens—James Dean, River Phoenix, Drew Barrymore, Natalie Wood. The second—including such films as American Graffiti (1973) and Stand by Me (1986)—serves a similar mythologizing purpose, reinforcing the cultural conception of adolescence as "the best years of your life." In the 1990s, there have been two minor developmental trends in the filmic depiction of teenagers. First, teenagers actually may be portrayed as sexually active, rather than this simply being suggested; for example, the audience sees two of the teenage characters having sex in Inventing the Abbotts (1997). Second, it has become possible to represent teenagers as vicious, unpleasant individuals; in Kids (1995), the two lead characters commit acts of racial and sexual violence without remorse.
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Bernstein, Jonathan. Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Jaffe, Michael L. Adolescence. New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1998.
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Owen, Robert. Gen X TV: The Brady Bunch to Melrose Place (Television Series). New York, Syracuse University Press, 1997.