At only 24 years old freelance TV producer Uzair Sawal is already a dinosaur in the scene. Now imagine what people like JUICE’s own WordsManifest feels like. This month’s last word sees Uzair Sawal taking a preemptive strike on obsolescence by challenging the notion of philosophical youthfulness versus biological age…
Youth is no longer just for the kids. The thought recently struck me that Henry Rollins, author, spoken-word artist, singer of Black Flag, and Ian MacKaye, legendary DIY musician and frontman for hardcore pioneers Minor Threat – were rapidly approaching fifty years old. These guys symbolised, for me, the spirit of youth rebellion that arose from the punk scene. They were the antithesis of adulthood: creative, idealistic, pissed off and engaged – living life on their terms rather than selling out for a pay cheque or sucking up for a promotion. So what does it mean when several generations of subcultural idols are well into middle age? What happened to those early underground pioneers, the hippies, punks, goths, skaters, ravers, hip hoppers, graffiti writers and riot grrrls that set the tone for generations of youth cultural rebellion?
Popular perception contends that “youth” scenes are temporary playgrounds in which kids wear spectacular costumes and engage in extreme activities until they “grow up”, turn in their boots and braces for corporate suits and ties or trade their skateboards and spray paint for MPV and life insurance policies. Everyone, such thinking goes, “sells out” their countercultural values and buys into conformist consumer culture, abandoning their ideals in favour of the safe, sanitary “real” world. Youth cultures are, then, relatively trivial – nine spaces to explore identities and have some fun, but no place for serious adults.
And indeed many kids do grow up and out of their youthful pursuits. After all, jamming all day or clubbing all night often conflicts with the standard markers of adulthood: a full-time job, family, home ownership, stability. Others become disenchanted with the contradictions within their scene, and find youth identities limiting rather than liberating. Yet the conventional wisdom about growing up is proving less than wise, as more and more unconventional adults refuse to “act their age”.
Of course many “adults” continue participating in what we typically consider youth cultures. Tony Alva still skates, Banksy continues to make street art, and Siouxsie Sioux still plays music. On the local front, Irman Hilmi and Palie runs a fixed gear bicycle shop, founding members of They Will Kill Us All and Twilight Actiongirl are in their 30s, and Joe Kidd maintains a (digital) zine documenting the regional punk rock scene. And aside from these individuals, countless veterans of youth cultures aged thirty-and-above maintain some connection to their youthful experiences, interweaving their long-held passions with new roles and responsibilities.
But it is not always easy. The ageing scene kid is in an awkward position: leave and be branded a “Sell Out” or stick with it and risk ridicule from both other adults and younger scene peers. After all, who wants to be the balding alternative rock guy in the faded Dinosaur Jr shirt shoegazing the remains of his wispy long hair at the edge of the crowd? Likewise, no one aspires to the role of an old, jaded Scenester continually recounting the “glory days” like a washed-up athlete whose star has long faded. Youth are not always kind to their elders, even those with whom they have much in common.
Yet there are several paths to ageing gracefully within a youth-oriented culture. A determined and lucky few forge careers atop their subcultural roots, becoming professional artists, musicians or extreme athletes. Some build small businesses around their passion such as a record label or clothing line. Others adapt youth culture values to new contexts, finding ways to balance “adult” obligations with scene life. In any case, avoiding stagnation is crucial. Even youth cultures encourage age-appropriate behaviour.
Youth is no longer the sole province of the young. Age is less about years than about perceptions, actions, interests; a socially created category based less on birthdays than identity, lifestyle and associations. And in many ways youth is expanding, as many young people put off establishing families and careers. What’s more, so-called youth culture isn’t totally incompatible with “adult” experiences. The dividing line has become increasing blurred. Older Scenesters may be less visible than their younger counterparts, but they often remain relevant. They are hip hop poets, punk rock parents, riot grrrl writers, and heavy metal teachers, neither stuck in the past nor afraid of the future.
Uzair Sawal has documented the local scene on video. Watch some of them at www.vimeo.com/uzair.