Textually Active

Textually Active

by Andy Hudson

Salmon pink and decked with pie charts, Dan Laughey’s Music & Youth Culture looks pretty plain next to Punk’s Not Dead, Post-Punk Portraits and Please Kill Me!: An Oral History of Punk.

And, like a frumpy bridesmaid, Laughey opened with a withering look at all the well-studied subcultures on the shelves—from Teddy Boy rock and rollers to beats, mods, punks and so on—and concludes that, with a few exceptions, both journalists and academics have badly sexed up our history of youth culture.

What do you imagine kids were up to in mid-1970s Britain? Punk shows and motorbikes?

Your average Brit, writes Laughey, was more likely suiting or skirting up for a Mecca Dance hall—a nationwide chain that kept up dance steps and dress codes.

A senior media studies lecturer at Leeds University, Laughey says too many researchers get blinkered by pet theories or don’t talk to anybody.

Steeped in semiotics—studies of signs and symbols that gave us Barthes’ sparkling take on soap ads and Dan Brown’s holy shit—Laughey says a lot of theorists are happy to see a photo of a punk with a Swastika patch, chalk it up to “shock value” and call it a day. No interviews, no account of how a fascist fad symbol played outside its own terms on buses, streets and punks-at-large.

For this book, Laughey spoke to 232 high school and college kids from a small city in Greater Manchester and, despite spats over Linkin Park vs. Motörhead, he found surprises: eclectic is the norm, and most kids respect a parent’s bhangra/bluegrass/T. Rex collection.

Seventy years before him, a group of sociologists were doing much the same thing, in exactly the same place.
In 1937, a group of 50 professors and students from the University of Sussex formed a kind of gentle secret agency called the Mass Observers.

During summer holidays, they all moved to Bolton, the same town where Laughey found his “youth sample.” The group was instructed “to see before being seen, to hear before being heard” and to secretly record as much as could be gleaned from the schools, factories, pubs and trams of a city so ordinary the Mass Observers renamed it “Worktown” in all their reports.

Sifting through the findings, Laughey discovered that pre-war teens with jobs actually had more spare cash than their parents—enough for dance mags and gramophone records. Big-band jazz beat out any other music genre across all ages and income brackets, and all the hip kids lived to go on “promenades.”

Given all the spectacle of 1930s and 1940s youth cultures, Laughey concludes that they had more in common with youth cultures today than the counter-cultures of the 1960s and 1970s.

Back in the dance-hall days, neo-Marxists like Theodor Adorno were first to point out that the new, mass-production pop machine could have a positive social effect—records were easy to access, remix and re-record.
But, stuck in a dominance/resistance paradigm that assumes all youth culture aspires to be a fist against The Man, even guys like Adorno went off the rails.

When Laughey quoted Adorno’s tirade against jitterbugging, it smacks of the same moral panic you read in today’s anti-hipster rants:

“Their only excuse is that the term jitterbugs, like all those in the unreal edifice of films and jazz, is hammered into them by the entrepreneurs to make them think that they are on the inside. Their ecstasy is without content … the ecstatic ritual betrays itself as pseudo-activity.”

One bonus in Laughey’s approach is the number of first-hand accounts he collected. After a whack of theory, we hear from bus-riding, mall-shopping goths in 2006 and an unnamed man who told a Mass Observer in 1939 that “I occasionally attend a dance for the sole reason of showing the local society that my wife is desirable and attractive.”
The book has drawn flak for focusing on individuals and their listening habits. Laughey downplayed a few sticky questions, like why so many of the kids he spoke to divide pop genres into racial categories. And his biggest question—was ‘70s punk the last true “subculture”—goes unanswered.

Those are dodges, but maybe forgiveable ones in a book that’s clearly trying to inspire better, more evidence-based research into such questions. If you’re a budding sociologist or extra keen on secretly observing and recording your fellow humans, Music & Youth Culture makes for good homework.