WHEN I first arrived in Sumatra I was a little nervous about its ‘wildness’ - I’d built up an image of its swamps and jungles, its tribes that were cannibals a century ago. Instead I found kids wearing Superman costumes, a local fleapit showing Close Encounters and, blaring out in the cafe where I ate, Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon (a black German group singing a Jamaican song which transplanted a Hebrew myth to Africa, recycled for the benefit of an Englishman in Indonesia). To cap it all, when I travelled to a tiny village in search of my elusive ‘real Sumatra’, I was eclipsed as the people’s star attraction by the appearance of The Biottic Woman on the communal television.
A simple case of cultural imperialism, you might say if the phrase hadn’t become so tedious - and you’d be right. Boney M’s appearance was the least surprising part of this Western invasion: you’ll find cassette shops peddling European and American pop in every major city in the Third World. But that doesn’t make it any less bizarre to hear Indonesian pop music that sounds just like Abba, or to watch Japanese kids echoing the American Fifties as they dance to rock’ n’roll in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park.
Youth music is now a worldwide phenomenon. You’ll hear it in remote villages that don’t even have electricity - the simple cassette machine has penetrated much deeper and faster than the satellite, cable and laser technology that will inevitably follow it. Third World countries may account for only 12 per cent of world sales of records and tapes, but 12 percent of a retail value of $ 11 billion is still a lot of money.
The profits from this global harvest are reaped by just five multinational record companies: CBS, RCA and WEA from America, EMI from Britain, and Polygram, a Dutch-German conglomerate which is the biggest of them all (in 1978 it became the first company to top one billion dollars in world sales). These corporations record the sounds made by young Britons and Americans and sell them wherever they can - which turns out to be almost everywhere. Only six per cent of Canada’s pop sales and less than five per cent of New Zealand’s are of home-produced music.
The multinationals recognise their own power. EMI said of itself: ‘It operates in every continent, through group companies in 33 overseas countries. Using hundreds of promotion men and over a thousand salesmen, it has the power to stimulate demand both in quantity and quality and to meet the demand when sales accelerate.’
Listen to that and you might think the record companies are in total control, exploiting a passive teenage market for all it’s worth. It can be argued that Western economies found themselves booming after the last war, capable of producing too much for people who already had all the basic necessities. So they had to create new, artificial markets - and the ‘teenager’ was the ultimate example.
Teenagers didn’t really exist before the Fifties. Before that decade, young people consumed what older people did - just less of it. They danced to the same bands as their parents, kissed to the same crooners, didn’t even dress very differently. But suddenly someone realised that although teenagers have less money, almost all the money they do have is spent on leisure. So they supplied a leisure culture based on fashion - and made a fortune. It’s a commercial dream. Records and clothes go out of date within a matter of weeks and you buy more not because you need it but just because you want to ‘keep up’.
You can take this position further. ‘Mass culture’ critics like Charles Parker believe that pop culture is ‘a peerless form of social control’. In other words, one by-product of the youth culture business is that young people spend their energy on it as well as their money - energy that might have been dangerous to the establishment.
There’s clearly some truth in this. Take the 14-year-old Londoners described in this excerpt from The Face - Britain’s hippest magazine: ‘Style don’t mean a thing: the brand name’s the game. Get it wrong and you’re an object of derision. Get it right and you’re . . . right. Detail of course is what counts. And detail - to wit Lacoste’s crocodile, Fiorucci’s triangle, Pringle’s lion - is damned expensive. Roughly, the cheapest you can get the complete outfit is around $250 (tennis shirt $35: jumper $60: tracksuit top S90; jeans $30: training shoes $35) and, let’s face it, one lemon Lacoste isn’t going to last till laundry day. What’s more, as the pace-setters move on, it isn’t getting cheaper. What to do? Nag your parents. If that doesn’t work? Get a Saturday job. The alternative is ridicule.
Depressing stuff - but it’s not the whole story. The youth culture business may exploit young people but it can’t quite control them. Certainly American companies leaped forward eagerly to push products at teenagers but they were responding to a need, not creating one. Young people didn’t ‘need’ a new rock’n’roll record or T-shirt every week - but they did need a culture of their own that set them apart from their parents. allowed them to assert a separate identity with separate values. Because they had no power at home or at school, they had to assert it in terms of leisure - so they invented rock culture. And they go on re-inventing it.
The strongest evidence that youth culture can be a force for changing values comes from the Sixties. In the Fifties business and an initially horrified society had managed quickly to absorb the explosion of rock’n’roll - to transform Elvis from a thrusting pelvis into a clean-cut GI, and the sexual swagger of the street into the romantic respectability of the boy next door. But in the Sixties, for the first time, youth gained a sense of itself as a generation. The teenager who yearned to change the world no longer felt impotently alone. The collective force of a generation’s certainty that it could change the world tomorrow - this minute! - gave it a political impact by strength of will. America pulling out of Vietnam provided evidence that youth power worked. Society fought back in the Seventies: the safe music of the time reflected the counter-swing. The heavy rock movement headed by Led Zeppelin, for instance, was just a new conservatism, especially in its hard-line machismo. In Britain the punk revolution threw down the gauntlet once more, reclaiming rock for the young and amateur. But for all its energy even punk was assimilated.
This cyclic conflict is what the story of youth culture is all about: the idealism of young people, their enthusiasm for risk and change - and the conservatism of the music industry and society at large which rides greedily over youthful creativity like a tidal wave and swallows it.
It’s certainly harder in 1984 to claim that youth culture is a radical force than it would have been in 1968. Almost as many young people as old now vote for conservative political parties. But without youth culture things might be even worse. If it didn’t exist, where else would young people hear the message that it’s good to question things - hear a message like that shouted loud and clear by Paul Weller, the key figure of this rock generation? (see box). Even pop’s mass-marketed superstars challenge convention - like Boy George frays the edges of rigid sex roles.
Above all, rock is radical because it is the only kind of culture that isn’t based on middle-class attitudes. Instead it has involved suburban kids adopting working-class values and styles, not least through its mythologising of ‘street life’.
But as soon as this youth culture is exported beyond the industrialised world, it loses most of its meaning. In Third World societies the ‘rebel culture’ message barely gets through. Rock tends to be seen there less as ‘youth music’ than as the rich world’s music - yet another facet of all that glisters gold in the West. And as such it has set in motion a profound change in the way that people in developing countries regard music.
In most traditional societies, music is inseparable from its cultural context; that’s why in Swahili, for instance, there is no word to describe it. The idea of music simply as entertainment, divorced from any real cultural meaning, is an alien idea. But it has taken root in the Third World since the advent of mass music.
Initially the tendency in most countries was simply to copy the imported pop they heard on the radio. But by the early Seventies local musicians were producing Western-styled music in their own languages - the first Sri Lankan pop record sung in Sinhalese was released in 1969. And though at first both radio stations and governments resisted the music, by the beginning of the Eighties it was widely accepted.
Perhaps it’s a good thing for alien music to become intelligible to a local audience; the danger is that it threatens the existence of indigenous musical forms. Since traditional music is so bound up with cultural identity, that’s worrying: will music lead the way to a kind of global ‘transculture’ dominated by the West? Where Boy George leads, will lemon Lacostes follow?
This is why Tanzania radio doesn’t allow Western pop and actively promotes instead the ‘national ngoma style’ derived from the Wagogo tribe - with some success. Countries that actively foster their own local musicians seem to produce music of great quality and originality, like Jamaican reggae and the Swahilijazz of Tanzania. But as soon as a local music is acclaimed and recognised, the big record companies move in - reggae has already been exploited worldwide, while the promotion in the West of African artists like Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade and Orchestre Makassy has already begun. And that, in the end, could mean that they’re absorbed into the global music.
So rock as a cultural export to the Third World may have a lot to answer for. And even in Britain youth culture seems to be sinking deeper into the commercial doldrums with every passing year of the Eighties. It’s difficult to think of it as radical now. Perhaps the industry is becoming more sophisticated, learning how to control the explosions in advance. Or perhaps I’m only thinking like that because I’m 29 now. Roll on the next teenage whirlwind.
Reprinted by permission of Paul Weller.