We catch up with pop historian Jon Savage, whose book inspired the documentary TEENAGE.
Having charted punk’s short, sharp cultural shock with England’s Dreaming, pop historian Jon Savage now sees his 2007 book Teenage: The Creation Of Youth Culture turned into a wonderful documentary.
It’s a natural step, of course, going from pop music journalist – for the likes of Sounds and Melody Maker – to noted pop historian. You’ve been there, noted that, and managed to write some witty, insightful articles about the whole thing.
In the case of the 60-year-old Jon Savage – real name Jonathan Sage – that burst of pop music journalism coincided with the birth and early death of punk, and his account of those times in 1991’s England’s Dreaming is regarded by many as the one true account of those heady days. It’s the book that formed the basis for a BBC documentary series, and a rather fine Julien Temple Sex Pistols documentary, 2000’s The Filth & The Fury.
When it came to charting the pre-history of the teenager – before Elvis came along and gave this troubling and troubled new movement a voice, and, in rock’n’roll, a unifying soundtrack – Savage spent seven years writing his 2007 book, Teenage: The Creation Of Youth Culture. And now, working with director Matt Wolf (Wild Combination: A Portrait Of Arthur Russell), there’s a highly-acclaimed documentary. Simply called Teenager, it charts the rise of the teenager, from the establishment in the US of child labour laws in 1904 – taking kids out of the factories and onto the streets – to the eve of rock’n’roll’s birth, concentrating largely on four disparate subjects; tragic English ‘bright young thing’ Brenda Dean Paul, German ‘Swing Kid’ Tommie Scheel, Hitler Youth Movement member Melita Maschmann and black American Scout Warren Wall.
Director Matt Wolf does a fine job bringing your book to the screen – did he surprise you at all?
Jon Savage: No, because when I first met him, I realised that we could work together. I’d seen his earlier film, Wild Combination, which I thought was very good. He got the concept of the book, and also, we worked extremely well together, developing the book into a film. Which is, of course, something quite different. So, no surprises. Matt has done a fantastic job, and it’s all I could have ever wanted.
Were you tempted to go the full Adam Curtis here – the young masses being kept in check by the powers that be, rat-faced slum kids being turned into fit and healthy soldiers, primed for war…
JS: Well, we included the kids being turned into healthy soldiers, you know, but I’m not as determinist as Adam. I don’t believe it’s all control. I think there are periods when that control lessens, or it’s not as powerful, and it is possible for people, young people, to make a difference, to make change happen.
Teenage wildlife is an endlessly fascinating subject – we’ve all been there – and they’re also cinema’s biggest demograph. Ironically, they may be the hardest market to chase here…
JS: I don’t agree. The best responses we had, when we showed the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, were from young people. Not just older teenagers, of course, but people in their early twenties too – we got a fantastic response from them. And I don’t see any real-time teenagers shouldn’t like it because the film contains a lot of teenage emotions and experiences which transcend time and place.
Shedding your parents’ skin is no longer quite the rebellion it once was, given that the battle lines on so many fronts have been blurred. Adults behave, and dress, like teenagers, and teenagers themselves stage-manage their own lives on social media and beyond. Do you feel the teenager will nonetheless always need to be, even for just a short burst, an outsider?
JS: Well, most teenagers aren’t outsiders. Young people want to be in with the group, and they accept the dominant culture. I’m interested in the outsiders – I always have been, because I’m one myself – and film is largely interested in outsiders. And there will be outsiders in every time and place.
Every teenage rebellion is soon repackaged and sold back to them with a label on it – punk being a prime example. Do you feel today’s media-savvy teenagers can see beyond such corporate shenanigans?
JS: Em, I would hope they would. I think it’s part of one of the problems that they have to deal with. But I always think teenagers are hardwired to deal with the world how it is, and the more spirited among them will always try and figure out how to make a difference.
Teenage opens with the establishment of the Child Labour Law at the turn of the last century, yet there are still 150 million child labourors around the world. All change, and no change at all…
JS: Well, the key phrase in that question is ‘around the world’. The film and the book deals with non-European nations, Germany and the UK, and in the book, France, and also America. So, it’s an entirely different situation. Certainly in America and Britain and Germany, there is comparatively little child labour, but in the rest of the world, that’s not the story.
It strikes me that it’s harder today for teenagers to be dreamers – they get to see behind the curtain from a very early age…
JS: Well, it’s the difference between being a realist and a cynic, really. I think teenagers can be dreamers today. Daydreaming is quite different from wishing the world was a certain way and it not being a certain way, and being media-aware of all that stuff. So, I do think that compared to my age, and maybe of your age, teenagers are much more media aware. But also, you have the distinction between the cultural and social construct of what it is to be young, and the actual physical, biological construct of what it is to be young. And I think it’s part of puberty where a lot of daydreaming goes on, and I don’t think that’s going to change.
Jason Schwartzman is on board as executive producer – how come?
JS: He’s a friend of Matt’s, and he was completely behind the project, helped it get funding, and he’s a great guy. We did two or three days of press after Tribeca last year, and we had so much fun. I’m a huge Jason Schwartzman fan.
Being a pop historian is, in its own way, a form of arrested development. Once we hit middle-age, we all turn into Bob Parr, wishing we were our teenage Mr. Incredible selves once again…
JS: Em, I completely disagree, and not for the first time. I don’t think pop historian is a kind of arrested development. I certainly do not feel like a teenager. If I had any ambiguities towards the teenage state, I would have, and did, work them out while I was writing the book for seven years.
I have a problem with this. People have a very simplistic attitude about human developments and human lives. It’s quite possible for someone at my age – sixty – to remember how I felt as a teenager, and identify and empathise with that without wishing to be in that state. I don’t want to be a teenager. I can remember how I was, and I celebrate the good sides and the bad sides of that, because it’s a crucial point of identity formation.
Early on, one teenager here talks of his ambition; he wants to leave some kind of mark behind, and not just leave some black space. What about you?
JS: Well, there’s my CV. I’ve done it in my own way, and I’m perfectly happy. Yes, you know, if you’ve got anything about you, you’re going to want to do things, and if you’re lucky, you’re going to get to do them.
Where to next on your pop culture expeditions? Might Fame make it into film form?
JS: No, I’m writing a book about 1966 – a series of essays. I’ve just done an introduction for a book of Joy Division lyrics for Faber & Faber and Deborah Curtis. And I’m probably be going to do a book with Cornell University about a huge gay archive that’s being donated.
TEENAGE is released in Irish cinemas on January 24th
Words: Paul Byrne