Last night my wife and I started watching the 1997 Bruce Willis film, "The Fifth Element". We haven't finished it yet, but my initial impressions are that it belongs to a school of European films that are long on striking images, arrogant coolness, and smooth moves, but short on content and character development. I'm thinking Run Lola Run, or the Matrix (which isn't European, but has the same feel). I guess these films aren't any more vapid than the typical US action fare--in fact, they are certainly more thought-out and artistic than most US flicks--but their pretension to be something more than mindless lowbrow entertainment always annoys me. In the case of "The Fifth Element", the acting is horrible (what can you say when Willis is the best actor in a cast?), and for all the stunning, imaginative visuals, what less imaginative setting could the director choose than New York City? Setting a film in New York City is cinematographic shorthand for "I want to seem cutting-edge and informed, but I'm not, so I'll just associate my film with the place whose residents think they're more cutting-edge and informed than anyone else".
Anyway, the movie's excess of attitude overlying a lack of depth helped me to gel some ideas that have been flitting around in my head, ideas relating to teenage subcultures. My wife and I are exposed to lots of adolescents and young adults in our mid-sized city in central Colombia. Through my stepdaughter, her friends and schoolmates, my nephew and his friends, our work at the local university, and our friends that also have teenage kids, we come into contact with a lot of young people, both in our town and the surrounding towns, and even in Bogota. Something that has stricken me ever since we settled in Colombia two years ago is the prevalence of so-called "urban subcultures". It seems that a large proportion of the youngsters in our life are either emo, or punk, or goth, or metal, or hip-hoppers, or rastas, or ska, or SHARP skinheads, or neo-Nazis, or some other sordid identification group based mainly on musical taste and fashion style. Even when we drive by a seemingly normal group of kids, the teenagers we're with are quick to inform us that they are preps, or hooligan fans of a certain soccer team, or belong to some group of thieves or graffiti artists/vandals.
A few things strike and concern me about this. First off, I worry that kids lose their identity in these groups. They are no longer Cesar, or Javier, or Marcela, but rather "one of the skinheads" or "that emo kid". They become circumscribed in the music they are allowed to listen to, the clothes they can wear, the friends they can have, and life becomes one big silly costume party, everyone wearing outlandish clothes to identify themselves in a pre-packaged category, instead of relying on the strength of their own character to set them apart. Of course all young people naturally separate themselves into somewhat exclusive groups of like-minded friends, and tend to lose some of their identity in these groups, but the urban subculture explosion seems like an extreme example. Even though I firmly believe in the value of the collective, that people shouldn't be islands unto themselves, I'd like to think that the individual still counts for something. For instance, recently we saw a rather generic-looking kid walking down the street in a town we were visiting. A friend of my nephew's remarked, "Can you imagine if I went out with a kid like that?" Did she mean that she couldn't mix with someone who was just himself, who didn't wear a costume? Who knows, that kid could have been a brilliant guy, or an iconoclast, or a kind soul, or a really fascinating personality.
My second worry is that most of these subcultures are imported from the US or the UK. Why are Colombian youth slavishly following the styles of another place and another time when here in Colombia we've got so much home-grown diversity? In Colombia we have devotees of salsa, cumbia, reggaeton, vallenato, carranga, traditional ballads, Colombianized norteno, and countless other regional musical styles. We have Catholics, Protestants, atheists, neoliberals, Marxists, narcos, right-wingers, insurgents, rural, urban, rich, poor, a whole plethora of different and often conflicting identities. Why do so many young people in our cities relate more to foreign identities than to our own range of possibilities? What makes the foreign more interesting and valid?
I think the answer lies with commercialization and globalization as lived today. We are all post-moderns and consumers now, which means we question and often scorn traditional culture and ways of doing things, while voraciously and unquestioningly taking up the new, the imported, the bought. A kid surrounded by Boyaca's simple peasant culture of wool, beer, carranga music, and potatoes is told by his TV, by his teachers, by the ads plastered everywhere, that he should reject the culture and the lifeways of his family and his ancestors, and adopt a flashy new way of living (based of course on consuming the products sold by those who are promoting such a change). The end result is not more individual choice or freedom, or an escape from a culture that suffocates individuality, but rather the exchange of one culture, with its respective restrictions and richness, for another. The problem is that the old culture has lasted and given meaning to generations of people, of villages, of an entire region, while the new culture is already starting to self-destruct after only a few decades, under the strain of its rampant consumerism, easy pleasure, and violence. So it's not a neutral exchange of one culture for another, but of a rich, evolving, robust culture for a cut-rate, superficial, unstable one. Just as natural fruit juice or corn beer have sustained healthy bodies for centuries, while Pepsi and Coke are creating a series of fatal health epidemics after less than a century of existence, traditional Boyaca village culture has given meaning and fulfillment to people's lives for a long time, while punk, ska, or rap are just a flash in the pan. These latter types of music and subcultures don't even last one lifetime, as kids usually take them up for a few years in their youth and then drop them. But what will happen if enough kids adopt foreign culture and consumption habits long enough to lose their own traditional culture? Will these imported trends be able to sustain the bodies and souls of our people as the old ways did? I think not. Expand this consumerist culture over a whole country or a whole globe, and what may seem like an expansion of his cultural options to an individual kid in a Boyaca town, becomes a global cultural impoverishment, as we replace our world of millions of vital places and diverse local traditions with a uniform, consumerist world where kids from Angola to Alaska will have only a limited set of pre-determined options of how to live: ska, punk, metal, or hiphop.
The last problem I have with the proliferation of the so-called "urban subcultures" is that so many of them are based in large part on violence and delinquency. I see in these young people a love of the sordid, the same type of thinking that in the rap culture of my youth affixed some sort of noble value to living amidst decay and decadence. I imagine this has something to do with my prior point of replacing traditional cultures with the new. In the absence of strong traditions that have evolved over centuries to more or less regulate and harmonize social life, kids seek meaning in these new cheapened traditions, which are immature and haven't yet figured out how to manage sex, drugs, violence, and excess in general. If they're not exposed to the profound meaning of millenarian lifeways, the analog kids look for is cheap, extreme thrills, which are ultimately unsustainable and self-destructive.
I can understand to some extent this fascination with thrills and illicit pursuits. I not only shared it as a young listener of early 90s gangster rap, learning avidly about the different signs and colors of the major Chicago gangs, but I also engaged in sordid activities like selling pirated movies when I was a kid. But it is dysfunctional to think that ugly things like crime, violence, gangs, and drugs, are good. I luckily grew out of it, but surely there are lots of kids whose adolescent fixation on the illegal turns into an adult vocation in crime and violence. Especially here in Colombia, where we've been suffering from over a hundred years of on-and-off barbarities, glorifying violence isn't new, or cool, or radical, or original. It's the most retrograde, awful aspect of our oppressive status quo, and it's heartbreaking to see a new generation baptized into it. So we see young kids rejecting most of traditional culture (village festivals, music, food, clothes, religion) but holding on to the worst demons of our nature.
Lest I sound like a nostalgic old-timer instinctively rejecting the new, let me make a few caveats. First off, I understand that young people in all eras and places have struggled to identify themselves as they become adults, and because of this they will latch onto one or a series of identities that are often in conflict with their traditional upbringing. In my youth in Chicago, our "subcultures" and identities were often more linked to ethnicity. In my high school, a constant question your freshman year was, "What are you?" meaning what ethnic background do you have. I'm sure anthropologists would say that ethnic identities are no less artificial and constructed than the skas or punks of this generation, but at least for me it seemed more normal to see Indians self-identifying as Indians, Polish as Polish, Mexicans as Mexicans, etc. Of course I had a tough time in this system, as a white kid growing up in a bizarre little black enclave in an otherwise white zone of a black city, but it never would have occurred to me to just make up an identity dependent more on musical taste than ethnic background. In fact, a classmate in my high school was into superska or some such obscure musical genre and corresponding culture, and I was just sort of bewildered by him. I hadn't seen anything like it before.
My other caveat is that evidently not all kids are into these subcultures. When I walk around our city, most young people I see are dressed more or less within the bounds of what I'd consider normal, without a costume getup. Lots of schoolkids dress in a standard uniform, and the university kids often just wear whatever they found in the dresser that day. Indeed, my past post on traditional dancing in Tenza shows that there are plenty of young people that are interested in their heritage, that keep their traditional customs alive through dance and music. So perhaps the trend of violent imported youth subcultures only represents a small part of the kids in Colombia, and it just so happens that many of the youngsters I'm surrounded by are involved with them.
At any rate, it doesn't help to just gripe about the perdition of today's youth. For a long time now, my wife and I have been wanting to start up some kind of center for young people. My vision is that it would offer some mix of book learning and help with school, hands-on training and work opportunities, and pure leisure activities like a band practice space or chess or things like that. Young adults in our town don't have many options open to them. They spend all day in school or on the street, and there are few job opportunities, not to mention a lack of healthy leisure activities. A center such as we're thinking would give kids something to do now, as well as training them for gainful employment and healthy living in the future. And in the meanwhile, maybe they'd feel less need to recur to the consumerism, violence, and slavish groupthink typical of the urban subcultures.