Time to Grow Up?

First published in University of Toronto Quarterly 74.1 (Winter 2004-2005): 541-42.

Review of Marcel Danesi, Forever Young: The Teen-Aging of Modern Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2003)

The central argument of this book is announced in its preface: “Teen tastes have become the tastes of all because the economic system in which we live requires this to be so, and it has thus joined forces with the media-entertainment oligarchy to promote its forever young philosophy on a daily basis.” But is this “media-entertainment oligarchy” somehow distinct from our economic system? Isn't it rather an essential component of that system, the means by which popular assent even to its grossest depredations is manufactured? Whatever the case may be, a reader interested in analysis of the economic and ideological concomitants of the cultural “juvenilization” that is the subject of this book will be disappointed.

Marcel Danesi's first chapter offers an outline both of the reconceptualization of childhood since the mid-nineteenth century, and also of the twentieth-century invention of adolescence (a supposedly universal “developmental stage” unknown to many societies)—in which a key moment was the business world's discovery in the late 1960s of “how to incorporate the powerful images of youth protest into the 'grammar' of everyday life.” The following chapter, “Looking like Teenagers,” analyses in terms of fashion and cosmetics the delinking of physical from social maturity in our culture. Chapters 3 and 4, “Talking like Teenagers” and “Grooving like Teenagers,” provide an entertaining account of the absorption into mainstream discourse of teenage slang, and an unsteady (and sometimes flatly misleading) history of the development of pop music from early rock to rap. In an admonitory final chapter Danesi proposes the elimination of adolescence as a socio-cultural category, urging as steps towards this goal “three obvious things: (1) eliminating our social-scientific view of it; (2) restoring worth to the family as an institution; and (3) imbuing media representations of adolescence and family life with more dignity.”

But by his own account, two at least of Danesi's proposed remedies are non-starters. Social scientists' interpretations of adolescence may indeed be in need of revision—and urgently so if the US National Academy of Sciences and the McArthur Foundation were in 2002 “pegging the end of adolescence” at the startling ages, respectively, of thirty and thirty-four. Yet unless Danesi intends radically to alter the social and educational structures that have produced the phenomena his colleagues are seeking to describe, it seems silly to speak of “eliminating” their interpretations. The notion that the media might be persuaded to reform a system of representations that has proven its value in marketing and manipulation seems equally futile, especially given Danesi's argument that there's no point trying “to censor or repress media images of any kind.”

An awareness of the futility of his project may be one reason for the repeated outbursts of petulance that Danesi permits himself. He seems particularly exercised by the possibility that some of the best rock-to-rap music might belong to the category that Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble have recently defined as “rebel musics,” and declares that any such music that “appears to have a transgressive or subversive intent” is actually, “like all other things in modern society ... nothing more than the shrieking of a pampered group of self-anointed pseudo-activists whose ultimate goal is to get teens to buy their CDs and music videos.”

Descents of this kind into the declamatory invective of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity seem symptomatic of a larger conceptual failure. Cultural history of the sort that interests Marcel Danesi should require, at the least, clear analyses of late twentieth-century racial politics and of the interactions of the “media-entertainment oligarchy” with the cultural productions of a racialized underclass and of youth subcultures pushed into dissidence by an open-eyed awareness of global and systemic injustices. To these I'd add usable notions of cultural appropriation, of the recuperation of subversion (a subject thoroughly explored during the 1980s and 1990s by scholars in the field of cultural studies)—and also, if one wishes to avoid foolish comparisons between Chuck Berry and Beethoven's Appassionata sonata, of generic difference.

Having abstained from work of this kind, Danesi should not be surprised if his book gets a better reception from radio shock jocks than from cultural historians.