Of all the terrifying new weapons developed in the Second World War and unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, the teenager was by far the most powerful. The supersonic shockwave of Fat Man and Little Boy was as nothing compared to that caused by dropping the teenager on Japan, Italy and Germany after their surrender - or Britain after her victory. American postwar global hegemony was guaranteed not by the Bomb but by the Teen. Forget the Nuclear Age; the second half of the 20th century was the Teen Age.
Like the bomb, the teenager was an American invention. The Cold War might have turned out differently if, instead of Los Alamos, Soviet spies had been installed at the offices of Seventeen magazine. Launched in a booming USA on the brink of historic victory in 1944, the same year as the word "teenager" was coined, Seventeen was aimed at the consumer queens of tomorrow with disposable income to spend today. " Seventeen is your magazine, High School Girls of America - all yours!" proclaimed the first issue. "It is interested only in you - and everything that concerns, excites, annoys, pleases or perplexes you..." Features on Harry James, Frank Sinatra, a Hollywood gossip column, record reviews, a "First Date Quiz" and a regular slot called "Why Don't Parents Grow Up?" did their best to prove it.
We're all self-centred, celeb-struck American high school girls now (I certainly am). No one, least of all parents, is in danger of growing up. The dominant "adult" culture is teenage, and Seventeen's 1940s editorial policy has been adopted by national newspapers. We all expect - nay, demand! - to be addressed intimately by a mass consumerism that is only interested in that wonderful unique thing that is YOU - and everything that concerns, excites, pleases or perplexes YOU. Teenitis, or deliberately arrested -development, is the modern sensibility. In the words of the curmudgeonly German Marxist Theodor Adorno, who fled Nazi Germany and found himself in 1940s Los Angeles, the satanic laboratory of consumerism: "All will be provided for, so that none may escape."
The teenager was perhaps the first subject to be created almost entirely by marketing. Little wonder that in a post-war world built on ruins of fascism and the American Dream of marketing and consumption (the Marshall Plan didn't just fight the spread of Communism, it provided the US with markets for its consumer goods), the teenager became the master race. But if we're all teenage now, is anyone a teenager any more? Particularly young people? Perhaps the teenager, at 63 years, is pushing retirement? Is there in fact anything "hot" or "cool" or even interesting, let alone rebellious, about teenagers any more?
Professor of Punk Jon Savage, perhaps wisely, doesn't directly ask or address these questions in his scholarly book, but proffers an answer of sorts by offering a history of the Teen Age not from 1945 to the present day, but from the late 19th century to 1944. Maybe it's merely a way of allowing for another two or three volumes, but it seems to suggest that you now have to dig deep into the past to unearth something... alive. Savage claims convincingly enough in his introduction that while the teenage may have been a product invented in 1944, he/she was in development for at least half a century before that and that this is what his book aims to profile. …