I have long since given up trying to understand youth culture. It wasn’t that long ago that I was supposedly a member of that culture—and considering the state of arrested development even many 30-year olds now find ourselves in, who knows, maybe I can still consider myself connected to it. (As far as advertising is concerned, we will all be kids until we turn 34.)
I’ve never believed there could be a youth culture that was meaningful. Because every generation of youth seems to be saying the same thing over and over again, regardless of how the world changes around it. Our generation is more free, more sexually adventurous, less beholden to tradition. If every generation really were that much more liberated than the last, shouldn’t we have reached some kind of critical mass by now? The children of America have apparently been rushing like lemmings to plummet into debauchery for the past fifty years.
During the ‘90s, every time someone put a microphone in Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera or Christina Milan’s face and asked them what the new video, album, photo shoot was gonna be like, they had the same default answer—it’s gonna be SEXIER. More SEX. Maybe their P.R. people told them to say this, but it also seemed as if Spears and Aguilera genuinely believed they were living in an oppressive society, which it was their mission to free us from. Did Madonna not tread this ground already? Or Elvis? Or, for that matter, Stravinsky?
When it comes down to it, rebellion really is the only message that makes sense for kids. Artists can never tell kids to listen to their parents, or respect tradition. It will never be hip to be square (Even guys as dorky as Huey Lewis and the News are being ironic, when they suggest that message). One might wonder whether rebellion against, say, oppressive stereotyping or the bullying atmosphere of high school might be worth exploring as well, but those concepts are a bit more complicated, require more self-analysis than most pop-culture mediums allow. I guess we will have to leave that stuff to the Sundance Film Festival.
But every once in a while, a show like Skins (MTV, Mondays 10 PM E/9 C) comes along, and the small number of people who care argue about the exact same things people just like them argued about two or three years ago. The Parents’ Television Council claims the show is pornography (the show casts teenagers, between 15 and 19 yrs of age, and depicts them having sex, although it isn’t quite as graphic as you might expect), Taco Bell pulls its ads (I’d rather they put cow meat in their tacos than take a stand against teenage sexuality, but whatever), MTV defends itself by claiming both artistic integrity and honesty.
The show, based on a BBC series of the same name, sets out very purposefully to create an environment where only the teenagers matter. The main characters are a group of friends attending public high school in a working-class neighborhood of a nameless city (it reminded me of New Jersey). The adults are ludicrously caricatured—emotional messes; raging but impotent patriarchs; disgruntled housewives who get naked in front of their windows so the boy next door can watch. Nothing worth paying attention to from that quarter.
The kids, meanwhile, are the most self-assured bunch of adolescents since the gang from Scooby Doo. This may have something to do with the fact that the show employs about 30 actual teenagers as script advisors, to make sure the dialogue and plotting are ‘genuine.’ News flash to the producers: teenagers think they sound smarter than they actually do. The banter is cocksure and self-possessed, but simultaneously tries to be gritty and genuine, and never feels right. (Imagine the cast of Dawson’s Creek or Gilmore Girls being asked to ditch the vocabulary and references, but still be charming)
There is something to be said for the style in which the show plays out, though. Early teasers gave the impression that Skins might be non-scripted. It is scripted from head to toe, but the lighting, editing, and, perhaps most importantly, appearance and disposition of the cast (none were professional actors before being hired), give the vibe of a different kind of reality than Gossip Girl. The show is highly emotional, but attempts to find emotion in places besides the upward swell of plot arcs. Skins is not really realistic, but it’s not a soap opera, either. MTV, which for over a decade has made its living in non-scripted programming, has announced a desire to start producing scripted shows. There is a germ of an idea somewhere in Skins that might work.
As for the sex, inevitably the hubbub will die down. And in a couple of years something else will come along to start it over again. I am still waiting for the day when some eighteen-year old pop star says she’s gonna wear corduroy overalls for the next video, just because that seems more rebellious in this day and age than posing naked with a boa constrictor.