There's no single face on youth rebellion

By Josh Bluhm

A pallid-faced crowd dressed in black gathers outside Chicago's Metro nightclub, and draws derisive shouts from a passing car. "Hey, where's the funeral?" mocks 26-year-old goth David Birdwell of Chicago. For Birdwell and other goths, such vocal abuse is almost a cliche. Yet, such a casual approach reflects the attitude of alternative groups.

Hip-hop, gangsta, grunge, punk and hippie. The gothic scene is one of myriad youth subcultures that have emerged, or re-emerged, at a stunning pace in recent years. This splintered face of alternative cultures is a result of the electronic age. The explosion in Internet use has inundated youth with information, and given them countless opportunities to experiment with identity In 1999, there's no one face to youth rebellion.

Of course, there's a side to youth subcultures that's timeless. Adolescents have always faced simultaneous and conflicting impulses: to identify with others and assert individualism. The dissension between mainstream society and subcultures, including the goths, sounds as if it comes from 1960s revolutionary Tom Hayden's Justice in the Streets'. "As the misfits of a dying capitalism, we were repressed in unique ways and had to rebel in unique ways."

Though ways to rebel may have evolved, the reasons to participate in subcultures remain a constant. "Youth identify with subcultures because they are looking for a home, looking for the thrill, the risk of being perceived as dangerous," says Beth Doll, an expert on youth development and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Colorado. Young people are going through rebellion and experimentation just as previous generations did, but today's easy access to information widely expands the experiences available to contemporary kids, says Nanette Potee, a professor of intercultural communications at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Such communication barriers as time and space are shattered by technology, and cultural distinctions between geographical areas become more obscure.

Changes in the face of society have given room for the computer to become a powerful influence. Many children have both parents working, says Wheeling High School social worker Tom Scotese. This tends to mean they look more outside the family for identity. What they are discovering for themselves, through the infinite possibilities made available by computers, often defies easy categorization by mainstream society.

"Youth today are more technology oriented, technology driven. As a result, what used to be a huge division between urban and suburban no longer exists," Potee says. "The experience of the kids in the suburbs is, at times, not so different from the kids in the city."

Potee calls the mosaic of youth groups "co-cultures," and Doll says teens may shift from one group to another. Most subcultures are constantly in flux. Lacking any rigid hierarchal structure, subgroups have a tendency to resist definite labels. Any one subgroup may share features of other groups.?

The goth scene is just one of the many subcultures that have grown exponentially as a result of technological advancements. Yet gothic remains a relatively loosely defined concept. "It is difficult to say what is gothic," Bird-well says. "It is not, as portrayed by the media, an organized group with leaders. It is basically artists and creative people who have decided not to follow the masses in letting television and fashion magazines tell them what is hip to wear this month." He adds, "We'd just rather go to the new Jekyll and Hyde club, and laugh at the cheesy B movies and talking skeletons, than go to the ESPNzone."

Springfield Southeast High School teacher Joni Paige says she has noticed that her students are dramatically affected by the media images issuing from electronic sources. She points to the response of her students in the aftermath of the events last spring in Littleton. "Students were just as confused and had just as many questions about the images coming out of Columbine

26 / November 1999 Illinois Issues

Teens Rock...

as everyone else." She adds, "They really were anxious to talk about what was happening."

The universality of the computer-focused world, in particular, with its diversity of images, provides young people with a broader experience. But at times that can be disorienting. Paige says, "These more intelligent kids exhibit more disillusion."

And David Birdwell notes, "It is traumatic for kids to grow up seeing adults in the media fighting, having affairs; 'Just Do It' and 'Just Say No' on the same TV."

The contradictory messages contribute uncertainty to the already unstable period of adolescence. And at times, any form of identity the young develop represents, for them, a sense of security amid the confusion.

Birdwell adds, "Many kids feel that they should be able to wear black and pierce their nose, since it is so much more tame than what their parents were doing when they were that age. "

Illinois Issues November 1999 / 27

|Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois Issues 1999|