Excerpted from Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music. Chapter 12. Green Day’s American Idiot: Apocalypse in the 7-Eleven Parking Lot - The Kids Aren’t Alright(PopMatters / Soft Skull, March 2009)
Aside from those moments leading up to the big question mark that waits on the other side of life, no period of the human life cycle is as fraught with apocalyptic anxiety as adolescence. As a transition from childhood to adulthood, adolescence is often framed in apocalyptic terms. Adding to the anxiety surrounding adolescence is the worry, which every adult generation seems to succumb to, that the current crop of adolescents have lost their moral center and are hell-bent on destroying the heaven on earth that their elders have made for them.
While references to an adolescent stage of human development, and anxiety directed at those going through it, extend back to Aristotle, and though the term itself entered the English language in the middle of the 15th century, it was not until the early 20th century that adolescence became a widely studied—and contested—element of human development. This area of study developed, for the most part, in America.
Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music
David Janssen, Edward Whitelock
In 1904, G. Stanley Hall, a student of William James’s and the first president of the American Psychological Association, published his two-volume study Adolescence, a work that would dominate American understanding of adolescence for the first half of the 20th century. In it, he characterized the period of transition between childhood and adulthood as one of “storm and stress”, referencing the German Romantic movement exemplified by Goethe’s tales of Sturm und Drang, and placed it within the onset of puberty to approximately 22 years of age.
To adolescence, he applied the Darwinian principle of recapitulation, which declared that an individual, in moving from infancy to adulthood, passed through a series of states of being that mirrored the development of the human species as a whole, from the primitivism of early childhood to the refined civilization of the adult. Adolescence was, to Hall and his many followers, best understood as a period of savagery. One hundred years later, many social commentators and public figures continue to view the adolescent stage as one of savage enslavement to confused and baser desires, despite the more enlightened work of mid-century psychologists and sociologists.
Erik Erikson, whose Childhood and Society was published in 1950, shortened Hall’s estimation of adolescence to the period between 12 and 18 years of age and brought a Freudian perspective to his concept of the stage. Adolescence, for Erikson, was a period of identity crisis brought on by separation from the past, discomfort in the present, and anxiety about the future. Erikson’s adolescent walked a radically changing landscape, alienated from the family and social structures that had once made the future seem secure and predictable.
In this phase of life, the peer group overtakes the family as a source of role models for identity formation. But, Erikson notes, counter to expectation, it is adult values of predictability and security for which adolescents are ultimately striving. Erikson’s theories of adolescence, particularly his concepts of “role diffusion” and “identity confusion”, which are exemplified by alienation from or an inability to function within society, had a significant impact on Nicholas Ray as he crafted the first great film of adolescent apocalypse, 1955’s Rebel without a Cause. That film’s tragic trio of Jim, Judy, and Plato (who find parallels in American Idiot’s Jesus of Suburbia, Whatsername, and St. Jimmy) are, despite the implications of rebellion within the film’s title, seeking discipline and guidance from a collection of adults incapable of fulfilling their roles, so they are left to create their own world where they can form meaningful self-identities, if only briefly.
Ray’s film was not a romanticization of rebellion and juvenile delinquency as it has often been popularly characterized; rather, it was a damnation of an adult generation that was failing its children by refusing to let them grow up and take responsibility for themselves. For Ray, James Dean’s rebel certainly had a cause.
Like Erikson, the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead influenced American perspectives on adolescence in the second half of the 20th century. Mead coined the term “cultural relativism” to emphasize the significant role that social institutions and the overall cultural condition play in the formation of a young adult. She was particularly concerned with how our growing mass media was complicating that development, providing an excessive and contradictory collection of potential role models in conflict with traditional family models.
Further, Meade worried that what she saw as an increasing emphasis upon competitiveness and conformity within America’s public schools would stifle the creativity and experimentation necessary for healthy identity formation. For some, this smacked of the kind of “permissiveness” that, in the popular mind, was best represented by Dr. Benjamin Spock, who advocated a less disciplinarian role for parents and whose 1946 book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, has sold more than 50 million copies.
In no small way, large-scale cultural reactions against the influence of Erikson, Mead, and Spock have brought us to our current hardline position towards adolescents, which presents them as helpless, misguided, super-sized children when it comes to granting them self-autonomy, yet also holds that they deserve to be punished as adults when they enter the criminal justice system. In America, an 18-year-old can’t buy a beer, but can buy a gun. Or better still, the government will provide one for free, along with new camouflage clothing and a plane ride to a warmer climate.
In sum, adolescence begins when an individual reaches sexual maturity and ends when that person reaches social maturity, and this period of time usually comprises some or all of what are now termed the teenaged years. It is a period beset by sometimes destructive psychological anxieties related to identity formation, a need to break away from family to form that identity, and a tendency to look towards one’s own peer group for ultimate acceptance of self. That seems a pretty simple definition. But in current practice, that definition is anything but simple.
Social forces in the early 21st century have, for many young Americans, conspired to extend the adolescent stage well beyond even Hall’s estimation of 22 years of age. Where 19th century teenagers experienced a short transition period within adolescence, leaving formal schooling, entering the labor force, marrying, and starting families of their own, often by the time of their 16th birthday, such an early entry into adulthood is effectively illegal in most of our 50 states. Even getting beyond some of the laws that have been devised to discourage, if not outright criminalize, teenage sexuality and autonomy, it’s just not economically viable.
As Thomas Hine notes in The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, “Today’s teenagers are faced with the prospect of an adolescence that stretches well into their twenties, as graduate and professional education are increasingly required for jobs paying a middle-class salary.” Beginning in the 1980s when legislation that raised the legal drinking age to 21 spread to all 50 states (under federal threats of denying highway funds to states, like Louisiana, which fought the change), American lawmakers have worked to extend adolescence artificially and deny America’s late teens their rights as adults.
With an expansion of the period of adolescence comes an expansion of anxiety, of waiting for the next world to come. American teenagers become the walking personifications of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, which most of them were probably assigned in high school but didn’t bother reading: “Wandering between two worlds, / One dead, the other powerless to be born”. They know that they aren’t kids anymore, but they aren’t adults yet, either, unless they get arrested.
As America’s teenagers wait upon a hill for the arrival of their future, that future continues to recede into the horizon, its promised arrival to come at a day and time unknown even to the angels. The indications, though, are the wait will be a long one.
Tamara Draut’s book Strapped coins the term “generation debt” and catalogues the challenges facing today’s young in an increasingly divisive and exclusive economy. The numbers Draut presents are not optimistic, but they uphold the fatalistic impressions that so many young people have already formed. The average graduating college senior will carry a debt of $20,000 on his or her first steps into independence, yet the average starting-salary of a job requiring a bachelor’s degree is statistically equal to what could be earned in 1970 with a high school diploma. So the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma; the only difference being it ain’t free and it puts life on hold for at least another four years.
Those who make it face an uphill battle; those who don’t or don’t even try, such as the teens who populate American Idiot, well, they’ve already lost the war in the new American economy. As Mike A. Males declares in Framing Youth:10 Myths about the Next Generation, “For the first time in the history of the United States, the younger generation is growing up not just poorer, but much poorer, than its elders.” Males attributes this downward spiral not, as do so many, to the failures of contemporary youth themselves but to the very people who place the blame upon them: The baby boomer generation, Males contends, has spent the past 30 years dismantling the federal programs and social initiatives that enabled earlier generations to live the good life. The “bootstrap myth” sold by an older generation is, says Males,“nostalgic hokum”, a conclusion echoed by Stephanie Coontz in her book The Way We Never Were.
According to Coontz, the American family was never the self-reliant institution that the social purveyors of “family values” and the bootstrap myth contend it to be. In the period between 1945 and 1970, the childhood and formative years of the boomer generation, the GI Bill opened the doors to college for thousands of men and women, the National Defense Education Act poured money into primary and secondary public education, and the Federal Housing Authority subsidized first-home purchases with low, fixed-interest rates for tens of thousands of young families. Further, road, sewer, water, and utility services were provided, using mass-generated public funds for the benefit of a suburban minority of citizens.
Since 1970, Coontz documents, these programs have all been gutted, necessitating the kind of bootstrap pulling that so many boomers fancifully imagine themselves to have done. It’s easy to pull oneself up by the bootstraps when the federal government has subsidized the purchase of the boots themselves. Today’s young people can’t depend upon such federal help programs; hell, they’ve got to worry about the federal government criminalizing shoelaces out of fear that teens will use them to hang themselves because they listen to Marilyn Manson.
There is a great and advancing fear of adolescents in America today. Some prominent fearmongers have even coined a catchy phrase for this generation’s decline: “adolescent apocalypse”. In a country where the perception of growing youth violence is encouraged by a seemingly endless procession of “bad news” stories—babies birthed and abandoned in bathroom stalls during the prom, senseless gang violence, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, blow jobs in the back of the middle school English class, school shootings—Americans have begun to fear their children, and hysteria has become the defining characteristic of the public conversation regarding public schooling and the legal system.
The phrase “adolescent apocalypse” was first coined by Ron Powers in a 2002 article for the Atlantic Monthly titled “The Apocalypse of Adolescence”. In the article, Powers takes the stories of two Vermont murders perpetrated by young men—one the murder of a college professor couple by two boys aged 17 and 16; the other a 17-year-old boy who killed his mother—and extrapolates them as representative examples of “a new mutation in the evolution of the murderous American adolescent.”
The crux of Powers’ argument for what he sees as the massive, murderous evolution of a new kind of American adolescent is the same one at the heart of the nation’s shock at the school shooting at Columbine High School that left 15 dead, including the shooters: It can’t happen here, but somehow it has. These types of things, Powers says, shouldn’t be happening in Vermont, which he goes to great lengths to show has traditionally finished at the top of annual “best” and “safest” places to live in America. That such things have indeed happened must mean that we’ve reached critical mass.
It’s a sentiment Powers works into a complete book, Tom and Huck Don’t Live Here Anymore, also about two separate murders committed by teenagers. In this case, the murders happened in Hannibal, Missouri, which has dubbed itself “America’s Home Town” because Mark Twain grew up there (apparently, whoever came up with that feel-good slogan had never actually read Twain). Powers grew up there as well, and he can’t seem to shake the fact that both his halcyon boyhood home and the home he chose as an adult to escape from urban crime could have generated such horrifying events. Powers writes of the Missouri murders, “In the pit of its stomach, at the base of its nighttime fears, America was starting to perceive that something horrible had metastasized. America’s children, as a category, had unaccountably turned alien.” For Powers, adolescence isn’t a stage, it’s a cancer.
But the perceived crisis of an “adolescent apocalypse” is nothing new, as Jon Savage demonstrates in his comprehensive social history Teenage:The Creation of Youth Culture. Savage introduces readers to an impressive list, extending back to the middle of the 19th century, of adolescent reprobates and the panicked voices of adult authorities who see their actions as a sign of an end to order and human value.
There’s 15-year-old Jesse Pomeroy, for instance, who sexually assaulted, tortured, and mutilated ten young children, killing two of them, in 1870s Massachusetts. Then there’s the adolescent “Growler Gangs” of 1890s New York City, who provided many of the foot soldiers in the Manhattan turf wars waged by the mythic urban gang lords Paul Kelly, Dandy Johnny Dolan, and Monk Eastman. Savage demonstrates that youth violence, or the fear of it, has been a condition of every age.
Rather than panic over his subject, Savage examines the psychosocial elements of adolescence that create these conditions and concludes that it is imperative that society harness adolescent energies and anxieties towards constructive goals. Savage identifies a collection of adolescent psychological needs, including a need for order, for self-identity, for communal attachment, for identification with a larger cause, and for a physiological and psychological outlet for so much of the nervous energy of youth.
He points to two early 20th century youth organizations that expertly harnessed all of these values, each bringing militaristic discipline to a love of nature, pride in country, and an appreciation of work, self-esteem, and communal value. One, the Boy Scouts of America, funneled these energies and values into a program of social responsibility and personal accomplishment that continues to this day, though its influence has diminished from its mid-century peak. The other, the Hitler Youth of Germany, applied the same values and behaviors to an apocalyptic vision of world domination. The significance for Savage, and what the hysterical town criers of “adolescent apocalypse” seem to miss, is that the inherent psychological characteristics of adolescence can be harnessed for good or ill, and that such harnessing has less to do with the individual adolescent than it does with the social order as a whole.
It’s not accidental that such a nuanced treatment of the slings and arrows of adolescence comes from the author of the definitive history of UK punk, England’s Dreaming, for in the past 50 years, no single social institution has been more influential in uniting the adolescent tribe than rock ‘n’ roll in all its myriad permutations. As Savage so gracefully notes, adolescents are easily led or misled (as the purveyors of boy bandz and pop-tart divas have realized and exploited for millions).They just need somewhere to go, something to do, a connection, and a sense of worth. Increasingly, in our collective panic, we have failed to provide these things and have inadvertently become prophets of a crisis that is ultimately of our own making. The so-called adolescent apocalypse is a trap built by a self-important and deluded generation of adults.
Want to continue reading about teenage angst, American Idiot, and more on the obscene and dangerous musical form known as rock ‘n’ roll? See Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music