Thursday, September 11, 2008

Jon Savage - Teenage

The English journalist and writer Jon Savage is best known for his book England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond, both an history of the bands of late-70s punk rock and the social history of the punk movement of the time. Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture is a broader social history, dealing with the concept of adolescence prior to the emergence of the 'teenager' as a specific, commercial demographic in the 1950s. As such, Teenage focuses on a variety of movements, conflicts and problems which involved the youth of Europe and America from the last quarter of the nineteenth century up until the end of the Second World War.

The book's introduction traces its development from an early investigation into "the history of youth subcultures" of the post-war era to a realisation that "punk's historical collage... marked the moment when the linear forward motion of the sixties was replaced by a loop. Suddenly, all pop culture time was accessible, on the same plane, available at once." This realisation broadened into a wider interest in the development of youth and adolescence, not only in America but in western Europe; and the history of "the quest, pursued over two different continents and over half a century, to conceptualize, define, and control adolescence."

I haven't yet read England's Dreaming, so I can't comment on the strengths of that book: whether it is, as I have seen it reviewed elsewhere, a good documentary history of the bands of the era but "on slightly more dodgy ground" with regards to social and political context. Certainly Teenage is far more associated with the latter, but I think that is what gives it such strength as a work of popular history. It takes the idea of youth in a cultural and social context, and expands on it through documenting a wide variety of groups and movements. Moreover, it is vigorous in its pursuit of what really was revolutionary about the various youth subcultures - in reference to the discussion of adolescence at the end of the introduction, Savage states:

"There is a dialectic within the book, therefore, between the extraordinary and the ordinary. However, if I have to make the choice, it is to find the extraordinary within the ordinary."

Teenage does this by taking key groups from across the time period and geographical locations, and siting each in the broader social movements of its time. So there are decadents in late nineteenth-century Paris, and boy scouts in Edwardian Britain, juvenile delinquents and gangsters in American industrial cities, right up to the movements for and against Fascism in Nazi Germany. Some subcultures were a reaction to social progress, some were consequences of it, while others were impositions of the adult world on the youth it derived its power from.

To take an obvious example, the Hitler Youth in Germany grew from being one of many youth associations to the predominant, and eventually only, official one, deriving from the political and social ideology of Nazism; whereas around it dwindled a vibrant alternative culture stemming from the Wandervogel of the nineteenth century to a tiny minority of dissident groups. As the Guardian review of the books states, "Yet even the Nazis were unable to mould teenagers exactly as they wanted. Perhaps the strongest, most revelatory part of the book is a detailed account of how delinquent gangs and youthful tastes for forbidden British and American fashions and music survived throughout the Nazi era despite ever more violent state attempts to repress them."

While the most well known of these is the White Rose resistant movement of the late period of Nazi Germany and the war, it was preceded by and - by virtue of the isolation of totalitarian society - separated from earlier movements of looser rebellion by the German 'Swing Kids'. They form - along with the French Zazous - but one chapter of Savage's book, yet I'll discuss them below as both an example of the aim and arc of youth history in the rest of Teenage, and as a subculture of particular interest to my other area of writing.

Swing or 'hot' jazz spread from America into Britain and Europe during the 1930s, the latter form having already been established in Britain and France during the 1920s. In the 1930s, however, jazz came into conflict with the totalitarian and moral ideology of the Nazi state; the regime's attitude towards the genre of music is documented in Michael H. Kater's Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany from which Savage takes a quote from a Hitler Youth leader:

"The Nigger has a very pronounced feeling for rhythm, and his 'art' is perhaps indigenous but nonetheless offensive to our sentiments. Surely such stuff belongs among the Hottentots and not in a German dance hall. The Jew, on the other hand, has cooked these aberrations up on purpose"

With jazz as both a creation of an inferior Negro race and a Jewish conspiracy, censorship and repression soon followed. Savage describes how the divisions of Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry control and repressed the playing of jazz: the Reichsrundfunkkammer restricted radio play to ideologically controlled German jazz (having to recognise at least jazz's popularity as a form of light entertainment); while the Reichsmusikkammer policed the playing of jazz in public places and some musical venues. The " gaps in the totalitarian state" were exploited for as long as possible, allowing for small groups of jazz fans to form clubs for adolescents apart from the demands of the Hitler Youth, while following a mode of physical and cultural expression - swing - which stood in defiance of Nazi ideology. The largest of these groups was the Hamburg Swing Youth, formed in 1937.

In the 1940s, and in wartime Germany and occupied Europe in general, the Swing Youth was both under increased totalitarian pressure and availing of the confusion of war in both physical and social terms: they "instinctively responded to the freedom that they heard in their forbidden records", even if such

"passions were dangerous in wartime Europe, as the Nazis sought complete compliance from their subjects and their own people. At the same time, youth was destablized by the demands of total war: the chaos of mobilization, the disruption of family life, and the deranged psychology of war itsefl conspired to double the figures for juvenile delinquency in Nazi Germany during 1940 and 1941. At the time when confidence in the regime was at its height, there were over 17,000 recorded youth crimes, of which two-thirds were committed by members of the Hitler Youth."

While most of this youth rebellion was inner-city, working class gangs, the Swing Kids represent for history an extreme (and middle-class) manifestation of non-conformity. This dialectic of exceptionalism in Savage's book sits uneasily here with the class dynamics of Nazi Germany, as the significant Swing Kids had the effective protection of wealthy parents and the economic freedom to collect the consumer goods of the Swing lifestyle - clothes, records - which contrasts with the baser freedoms that working-class youths were able to hold on to. Yet the Swing Youth still represented a true cultural defiance; and many of its leaders, particularly from the Hamburg club, suffered true retribution at the hands of the state police.

This retribution was not, and needed not to be, as severe as that handed out to later and more explicit dissidents, but was still indicative of what we see today as the prime mechanisms of fascist repression. As Savage explains:

"The Gestapo's campaign [against Hamburg Swing clubs which had moved undergound] was extremely effective against a group of young people unprepared for such brutality. They used stool pigeons, pressurising vulnerable swings to inform on their friends. The Hitler Youth informed on swing pupils in local schools and acted with directors to expel the rebels. However, the subculture persisted to the extent that, in the summer of 1941, an appeal for help was made to the head of the Central Security Agency, Reinhardt Heydrich. In January 1942, the net was drawn even tighter with a new decree that banned dancing in semiprivate locations like sports clubs.

That same month, Himmler intervened. He was determined that there would be no "mere half-measures" against this contagion: "All the ringleaders, and I mean ringleaders both male and female, and all teachers with enemy views who are encouraging the swing youth, are to be assigned to a concentration camp..."

Outside Germany, in France the situation was more isolated from the direct actions of the Nazi state, but complicated by the political reshapings of the occupied and divided French state. In the south of the country, in the Southern Zone, power was vested in the Vichy regime. Under the leadership of the World War I her Marshal Petain, Fascism was created anew as a French ideology: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité was replaced by Travaille, Famille, Patrie. Vigorous morality and a subservience of youth to the "spirit of sacrifice" and the community defined this new Vichy culture. Though this represented existing strains of French conservatism, it was also opposed by the country's intellectuals and liberals, themselves under Nazi control:

"To Simone de Beauvoir, observing from Paris, the marshal's phrases about the family, God, and the "reign of virtue" was the "same violent prejudice and stupidity that had darkened my childhood - only now it extended over the whole country, an official and repressive blanket." In comparison to the Vichy's return to a nonexistent religious agrarian past, conditions in the Occupied Zone were both more modern and more serious. Although Vichy was the capital of the new France, Paris was the seat of power and under the direct rule of the Nazis."

In this culture of repression, resistance was both extremely dangerous and morally required. Sartre remarked, "Everything we did was equivocal; we never quite knew whether we were doing right or wrong; a subtle poison corrupted even our best actions." The rebellion of jazz was an implicit one, an affected attitude found "in the mannered sarcasm first rehearsed by Baudelaire" and a provocative dandyism, which Camus described in L'homme révolté as

"The dandy can only play a part by setting himself up in opposition. He can only be sure of his own existence by finding it in the expression of others' faces. Other people are his mirror."

With the increasing repression and censorship of the regime, in winter 1941 the Zazous emerged from the "petits Swings" and "Ultra Swings" of American influence. They were dandys set apart from the collabos (collaborators) by their dress, a blend of American, British and continental fashions. The jazz slang Zazou originated, in one version, from Cab Calloway "whose watch chains and checked jackets were highly influential on the style" and who "recorded 'Zah Zuh Zah' in 1933, and embellished it with the chant "zazouzazou - hey!", while scat singers "developed this clanging surrealism" further (Savage draws most of his documentation from Les Zazous, by Jean-Claude Loiseau.)

The Zazous continued as an underground movement, subverting the Fascist culture of France and its Fascist youth magazine Le Jeunesse, until by summer and autumn 1942 the state opposition - combined with the violent actions of collabo youth groups - essentially eradicated the "principally middle- or upper-middle-class" movement. In the final period of flux, some of the most interesting cultural statements of the group manifested themselves - from the adoption by a deliberately outcast few of the Jewish yellow star "to show their sympathy for the Jews... exactly like the official one, except for one detail: at the centre, there was a word of five letters: Swing" (or Zazou) to the emergence of a subgroup of 'zazou triste' ('sad zazou'), "wearing somber clothes and steel-rimmed glasses". (Sound familiar?)

"The Zazous appeared on the French stage and then disappeared, as if in a puff of smoke. Although they cultivated a blank facade, they left the authorities in no doubt about their total contempt for "The National Revolution." They also reveled in their bad press to the point of delerious abjection. Turning adolescent obnoxiousness into street theater, they offered a symbolic resistance to the occupation's "ambient, abstract horror" that also mirrored its ultimate vacancy. However, they learned that in Nazi states everything was politicized, and that defiance was punishable by violence, imprisonment and death."


TAD said...

I got 2 yr blog thru Lex Dexter's ThePrisonShip.
Don't know if it helps, but Jon Savage's "England's Dreaming" is great -- vivid, involving, good history, great close-up looks at John Lydon, Sid Vicious, Malcolm McLaren & the folks surrounding them, & neat snapshots of period figures like Poly Styrene. I loved it, & I was never much of a Punk fan -- tho I thot the Pistols' "God Save the Queen" was pretty freakin' great. NEway, the book's well worth yr time & some of the writing is frighteningly good. I posted a review of "England's Dreaming" at my website, -- feel free to check it out, but U just got the short version.
"Into the Wild" IS an Xcellent movie, tho I was disappointed in the Nding. What impressed me most is the depth that was added 2 the film that U DON'T get in Jon Krakauer's book -- which is worth reading, but U don't get the family background & history, etc. Basically U just get an idealistic young man who wanders off in2 the Alaskan wilderness & dies when his luck runs out. The movie, obviously, is about much more than that. The book's still worth reading, & U can read it in an afternoon -- it's under 150 pgs. Nowhere near as good or as dramatic as Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," but a good story.
Yr quote from James Joyce is beautiful. I LOVE that stream-of-consciousness stuff.
No new posts since last Sept? Have U given up on this blog then? But I just discovered it 2DAY....
-- All D Best,
Port Orchard, Washington, USA

gabbagabbahey said...

I've been meaning to check England's Dreaming out for a while - since reading this, plus other recommendations.

might do the same with the Krakauer book. interesting how both the film and the book are quite controversial in how they portray the idealism v. 'reality' (Buddhist scare quotes!) of the events.

I haven't given up on the blog in theory, but effectively I have in practice. as you can see, posts were thin on the ground in 2008 as a whole. might do something on Kerouac's On The Road soon though.

thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...