Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Teenagers

Matthew Sweet traces the idea of the teen through ten incarnations and many vicissitudes

Matthew Sweet | March/April 2015

ROMANTIC OLIVIA HUSSEY AND LEONARD WHITING, “ROMEO AND JULIET”, 1968
Life magazine discovered them in 1944, a new tribe of Americans. “Teen-agers” – members of “a lovely, gay, enthusiastic, funny and blissful society”. So where were they before that? Nowhere, perhaps. Not even in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, the product of an age in which the young had no society to call their own and seven was old enough for marriage. (Juliet is 13, Romeo could be in his 20s – we’re not told.) In 1968, Franco Zeffirelli’s film version offered lovely Leonard, 17, and blissful Olivia, 15, as exemplars of a reassuringly soft-focus form of teenage romance. And Life magazine? It was snapping their generation as they rioted on campus.

LITERARY MICKEY ROONEY, “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN”, 1939
Mark Twain once claimed to be contemplating what sounds like the Great American Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Novel – a “Tom Sawyer” sequel with two endings, one on Capitol Hill, the other on the gibbet. Huck Finn – Tom’s catfish-splittin’, cigar-smokin’, watermelon-thievin’ BFF – would never have submitted to such treatment. He’s master of his own fate, a ragged-trousered existentialist. On screen, he was embodied by the 18-year-old Mickey Rooney, a man with eight wives ahead of him. Rooney died last year, his debts unpaid. But an old movie can still return him to a condition of hope, where he wanders beside Huck, caught in the act of choosing his destiny.

MILITARY SOLDIERS OF THE 4TH ROYAL LANCERS, MARCH 1915
Five pals, new to the army, new to smoking, and perhaps as yet unacquainted with shaving, gather outside a house in Kent. That doorstep, I’ll bet, was scrubbed by one of their mums. The phrase “teenage Tommies” sounds like an injustice, but war, historically, has been a job for the boys. A fifth of soldiers in the American civil war were under 18; in Britain 250,000 under-19s fought in the Great War. When we look at this photograph, we think of doomed youth – but few read Wilfred Owen until the 1960s. Like so much of the sorrow of the first world war, it is stronger now than on the day this shot was taken.

DRAMATIC NATIONAL YOUTH THEATRE GRADUATES, LONDON 2014
If Eton, alma mater of Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston, is British acting’s Hogwarts, then the NYT is the democratic alternative, the school that produced Catherine Tate, Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor. This quartet of 19-year-olds – Finn Cole, Eben Figueiredo, Ciara Baxendale and Gavinder Singh Chera – may follow them. (Finn has already chilled the soul as a savage new addition to the BBC’s “Peaky Blinders”; Gavi is in “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” at the Olivier.) But the prize offered by the NYT is better than a chance to do the show right here – even when “right here” is London’s West End. It turns young people of different backgrounds into members of a company – and there’s a lesson in that for a ghettoised education system.

 

L-R: Finn Cole wears green polo top, £55, by Cos (cosstores.com); jeans, £100, by Hilfiger Denim (uk.tommy.com). Eben Figueiredo wears denim shirt, £160, by Reiss (reiss.com); black jeans, £38, by Topman (topman.com). Ciara Baxendale wears sleeveless khaki blazer, £68, by Topshop (topshop.com); cream jumper, £79, and jeans, £89, by Reiss; ring, £55, by Lola Rose (lolarose.co.uk). Gavinder Singh Chera wears grey jumper, £180, by Reiss; blue chinos, £24, by Topman 


PHOTOGRAPH SARAH LEE 
STYLIST Crystal McClory 

Stylist’s assistant Emily Rusby

Hair & make-up Isabell Böttcher

MUSICAL FRANKIE LYMON, 1956
If the 1940s discovered the teenager, the following decade saw the rise of their exploiters – men with hot breath and dollar-signs in their eyes. Teenage boys were the raw material, and this choochy-faced doo-wopper was one of the finest products: Frankie Lymon, the ur-Michael Jackson who, with his band, the Teenagers, asked why did fools fall in love. Morris Levy, aka “the Octopus”, was the manager who wrapped Lymon’s royalties in his tentacles. Levy died in 1990 as his Mafia connections were being elucidated by the FBI, but Lymon wasn’t free to snigger at the funeral. He had expired in 1968, aged 25, heroin-swashed on his grandmother’s bathroom floor.

FANATICAL BAY CITY ROLLERS FANS, 1975
The Victorian waif was once British culture’s image of perfect victimhood. Now it’s the 1970s teen – “Top of the Pops” ticket-holders whose ages nobody bothered to check. Photographs like this always were freighted with ambivalence. Some of these fans were taken from Newcastle City Hall by ambulance, hit by the friendly fire of a hysterical crowd. Now we’re obliged to read them alongside narratives of worse injuries to the teenage body. The Rollers’ manager, Tom Paton, was jailed for sex offences against boys. And the world through which he moved is now on trial, on the evidence of those who had every reason to scream.

ICONIC TWIGGY, 1966
A note for younger readers. Long before she became that pashmina-wrapped sixtysomething countrywoman who stands under oak trees advertising clothes for Marks & Spencer, Twiggy was the crop-haired girl from London’s least fashionable suburb (Neasden, no change there) who, at just 17, defined the female fashion ideal of the mid-1960s. As what, though? Nazi-blond ladyboy? Minidressed Margaret Keane portrait? No, what Twiggy promised was an eternally provisional form of female sexuality. Teenage androgyny, held in impossible stasis. Not one of those 1950s blonde bombshells like Marilyn Monroe or Diana Dors, but some new form of incendiary, prolonging the moment before the pop-art ka-boom.

SEXUAL “NEW YORK CITY, 1959”, BRUCE DAVIDSON
Being a teenager consists mainly of agony and embarrassment. But once you’ve stopped being one, those years can be reconfigured as a padlocked room of lost desire. Davidson’s camera captured the lives and the bodies of teenage gang members in 1950s Brooklyn – and did so with an envious eye. He shot them making out under the boardwalk, flirting over Formica, comparing tattoos. But these pictures are not made for leering. “Teen” might be the most popular search term for one-handed typists the world over, but Davidson’s lens registers more than heat. Anger shows up here. And frustration. And the sense that, as you kiss in the back of a moving car, an indifferent world is rattling past outside.

GYMNASTIC OLGA KORBUT, MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, 1973
In the 1970s, Korbut looped the beam with preternatural grace. It was the only room for manoeuvre that she possessed. “Smile,” her coach, Renald Knysh, insisted. “Always smile because there’s nothing else you can do.” Her generation of young Eastern Bloc medallists had their lives regulated by trainers, their bodies sluiced with drugs to suppress puberty. (The unluckiest were trapped in a cycle of pregnancy and abortion, timed to produce a competition-day surplus of red blood cells.) If Korbut’s teenage years have a meaning, it’s this – you can be young, smiling, lauded and applauded, and still be in the gulag.

TRIBAL “MEXICAN EMO”, CHARLIE MAHONEY, 2008
The “teen-agers” identified by Life were comfortable, conservative and Caucasian. The hyphen (still going strong in the New Yorker) mostly died out in the 1960s. By then the anthropology had become more nuanced, as had the tribes it sought to document: sub-debs, bobbysoxers, teddy girls, mods. The emos first applied their eyeliner in 1980s Washington, but the style migrated south to Mexico City, where, in 2008, their nastier peers gave them something to emote about – a wave of beatings, uploaded to social media with vicious diligence. Evidence of moral decline? Or this: the unstoppable spread of a cultural idea that now seems a part of nature.

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.