The Cultural Production of Teens

The skills American kids learn are mainly relevant to their being teenagers; many learn how to produce narcissistic identity ("cool") and nothing else. The product they make is only valuable for as long as they can pass themselves off as young and "relevant".

Using the "mosquito" -- a device that emits noise that only irritates those under 25 -- as a launching point, Jeffrey Sconce makes some interesting points about how the idea of the teenager has evolved in this essay. He regards the mosquito as part of a two-pronged technological approach to dissipating dissent among the pre-adult set (who can't actually expect to get a job in the kind of economy we have now):

now that they [teens] have become an annoyance en masse for the entire social order, the future seems clear: blast the "bad" ones with ultrasonic frequencies to send them scurrying like cockroaches into the community's most abject nooks and crannies, and cocoon the "good" ones with consumer electronics until they're ready to be fully functional butterflies on the outside.

If you extend "consumer electronics" to include the internet, mobile computing, and social networking, then that seems accurate to me, only I would argue that they are fully functional butterflies as teens, when the capital latent in their youthfulness can be fully exploited in a culture that has transformed "youth" into the transcendent source of value. Sconce suggests that "middle-class kids, meanwhile, unable just yet to reap the occupational inheritance of a middle-class upbringing, find this limbo of quasi-adolescent-adulthood extended into their late 20s or even early 30s -- a place to kill time until the economy has room for them." I don't think kidulthood is a mere holding tank, an ad hoc contrivance to accommodate a population for whom there are no conventional jobs. Rather, teens and 20-somethings must be kept in the cocoon -- adolescence must be prolonged as much as possible structurally -- because the intense self-consciousness of that psychological period is extremely productive and innovative from the culture industry point of view. The teens are swans who become ugly ducklings as they age. Put another way: the skills American kids learn are mainly relevant to their being teenagers; many learn how to produce narcissistic identity ("cool") and nothing else. The product they make is only valuable for as long as they can pass themselves off as young and "relevant" (as Carles likes to say).

In many respects, the teenager represents the ideal worker/consumer for the era of the "social factory" and immaterial labor. Teens inhabit a pitiless social world more relentlessly networked than for anyone else (i.e. the networking they perform and the nodes they inhabit in the network have to do only with their identity and their social life; there are no ulterior motives), and their identity is their most pressing existential concern -- their main job is to produce an identity that can withstand that ceaseless crucible of scrutiny and mockery and rapidly cycling trends, namely the widely vaunted flexible self of postmodernity. (I think this is a subtext of widely reported digital-bullying stories.) Immersed in that hostile environment wherein nothing is at stake but identity, teens become extremely productive of the sort of immaterial tokens and knowledge and practices that go into projecting identity, ideas that are harvested by the culture industries and marketed as the refined ore of "cool". But the harvesting depends on the digital cocoon Sconce posits. Mediatization of teens' social life makes the social factory an exploitable reality; it makes it ultimately accessible to marketers, manufacturers, industry, etc., without anybody actually having to give a teen a job -- they are "noisome" after all.

Basically, the new-model teen is the hypermediated, angsty producer or promoter of trends and attitudes that are then profitably distributed to the rest of culture and back to other teens, since the field of coolness is unevenly developed. Teens make cultural meanings and get paid in a tenuous sense of self-worth (which, however, is perpetually destabilized -- the cultural churn is ongoing, accelerated by the velocity of communication made possible by always being networked). The old-model ideal teen -- the credulous consumer spending discretionary cash on prefabricated junk culture -- has been supplanted by the tween for those old-media behemoths whose business model is still predicated on scale and uniform demand, as opposed to adaptive flexibility and informatization of identity. As Sconce notes:

The recent cultivation of a “tweener” market (pre-adolescents on the threshold of puberty and chronological teendom) suggests the culture industries have had to regroup when it comes to marketing prefabricated crap to a naive and hormonally confused demographic. In 1969, the possibility of finding a 16-year old Monkees fan was slim -- but not necessarily inconceivable.... Once 13-year-olds started listening to Megadeath and N.W.A. many, many years ago, the Disney corporation practically had to invent the tweener in order to better stabilize market predictability.

But the 1950s idea of the teen as a nonproductive delinquent is gone. Basically the mosquito and the technologies that will follow in its wake are meant to scotch that kind of loitering, menacing, non-middle-class teenager out of the public eye for good. The lower-class delinquent-tye teens have become what Sconce terms "lumpenadults" with no place to inhabit in society or in the circulation of goods and services in the above-board economy: They are "those left to fend for themselves as drop-outs, runaways, unskilled laborers, gang bangers, and/or entry-level workers in the drug and sex trades." They are not productive in the construction of identity, mainly because they lack the opportunities and social capital to produce an identity that would be valued. They are predefined as marginal, though arguably, they are the chief source of the "outlaw" modes of selfhood that are modulated into chic, marketable practices by enfranchised teens and young adults who observe and steal them.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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