Bhangra? That's so yesterday

September 8, 2006

Research on youth studies is doomed to be outdated by the time it is published, admits Rupa Huq, whose own contribution looks at Asian dance music but has nothing about the Crazy Frog

Oscar Wilde once commented: "Youth is wasted on the young." When I first came across the quote I remember thinking that contemporary youth are just plain wasted. But then, that was in the days when I was a carefree young 'un myself. Hurtling towards my mid-thirties, sprouting an increasing number of grey hairs and having become a parent, I find myself as someone who has, oddly enough, grown old while studying youth.

Furthermore, my experiences of doing a PhD on youth culture, undertaking fieldwork on related projects and now publishing a book on it have led me to the conclusion that researching the whole area of "yoof" is pretty much an impossibility.

It is undeniable that youth studies is making something of a comeback. It was sociologically fashionable in the 1970s, when neo-Marxist academics pontificated at length on subjects such as Mod v Rocker rivalries and the place of the skinhead in a world where the traditional working class was in decline.

The methodology was observations of male gangs hanging around street corners. The conclusion was that youth culture and its expression was all part of a latent subcultural class war. Then came the 1980s, and interest in youth studies tailed off somewhat unless it involved number-crunching unemployment figures or other worthy-but-dull policy dimensions.

Fast-forward to the turn of the century, however, and, on the other side of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the study of youth culture is back with a vengeance. There is a heap of books ruminating on how we inhabit a world that is "post-subculture", "after subculture", postpostmodern, post-political and even post-youth.

So I ought to be using this article to tell you how the best of the bunch of these new tomes is my own - Beyond Subculture (available in all good bookshops). It should be a proud moment, a career landmark. And while it is gratifying to have my name on the spine of a volume as opposed to its being subsumed into a footnote or hidden behind the mysterious incantation "et al", something seems strangely anticlimactic about it all. The finished product saw the light of day last spring. But in the fast-moving, ever-accelerating area of youth culture, it was out of date before it had even hit the shops.

Although I set out on a mission to address the gaps of youth studies, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that ultimately it is impossible to ever satisfactorily theorise about this type of stuff.

Admittedly, the bits in my book on Asian youth grooving along to East-meets-West dance music at daytime bhangra happenings was the kind of territory that the old youth studies steered clear of - Asians were present only as victims of skinhead aggression. Similarly, my adding a European dimension by looking at hip-hop in France is novel when the concept of globalisation enjoys high currency.

You can hear the "but" coming now, can't you? I signed on the dotted line in 2001 to deliver a book based on 20th-century research. The completion process spanned the birth of three babies - my editor's, then mine, then another from my editor. By the time things were back on track and the book was finally published, a whole set of other developments characterising youth culture in 2006 had unfolded that were nowhere to be seen in the pages of my work.

I never anticipated the rise of the Crazy Frog. The annoying green thingummy is significant, nevertheless. Youth culture was always seen as being synonymous with the consumption of pop music. But today the unholy trinity of ringtones, tour receipts and T-shirts outstrips record sales.

Indeed, the term "record" is now an anachronism. These days, youth consume music via "file-sharing" and the MP3 format.

The web, too, is all-pervasive. The global media mogul Rupert Murdoch bought the MySpace website after cannily spotting its potential. It is here where the kids of today hang out - forget your street corners. I remember reviewing a book on patterns of Sony Walkman use in The Times Higher back in 2001. I noted that the observations about music in privatised spaces (headphones) listened to simultaneously in public spaces (for example, on the Tube) was interesting enough; but, I contended, the book displayed an overreliance on an outmoded technology - cassette tapes. Fast-forward to now, however, and the iPod is a style icon of our times with all the arguments about the transportability of sound intact. I dread people taking similar pot shots at Beyond Subculture for being woefully outdated, as well they might.

It is an occupational hazard to try to capture every single cultural shift in academia: the timescales just do not allow it. There is an obvious time delay between the unfolding of youth cultures "in action" and their objectification by journalism and, even more so, academia. Indeed, if something really were cutting edge, chances are that the likes of me - a thirtysomething academic ensconced in the ivory tower of my suburban workplace - would never get to hear of it. So the best we can hope for in the printed product of youth culture is a temporal snapshot of events that is methodologically kosher.

Lynn Chisholm, an eminent youth studies academic who does Europe-wide studies, has written: "Ageing researchers who cling vicariously to their own past through a falsely perceived symbiosis with young people become thereby neither younger, nor do they remain empirically effective." The comment amused me when I first read it some years ago. Seeing it now I just think "ouch".

So, for my next trick, I plan to use the methodology previously used by youth scholars looking at teenage magazines (mainly Angela McRobbie) to undertake a semiological and content analysis of mother and baby/parenting publications. This is a booming market, as a trip to the relevant section of W H Smith will testify. These titles implicate all sorts of morality issues, and their representations of women are surely worthy of serious academic study.

In the meantime, evidence abounds that even creatures of the most youthful folly grow old in the end - if they do not self-destruct in a blaze of youthful excess along the way. After all, the remaining original members of the ageing 1960s rockers The Who are embarking once more on a full-scale tour. Proof, if proof were needed, of the ridiculousness of the band's memorable line: "Hope I die before I get old."

Rupa Huq is senior lecturer in sociology at Kingston University. A conference, New Labour 10 Years On , will be held at Kingston on September 11.

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