Youth Cultures, Youth-Made Media, and Mainstream Media: A Brief History of Inextricable Relationships (Part 1).

freestyling en el lobby
The relationships between youth-made media and youth cultures and between youth-made media and mainstream media are diverse and inextricable. All of them occur inside the complex sociocultural and economical system of late capitalist and post-industrial societies. The relationships are historically and geographically specific, and have been in constant flux and transition during the second half of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st. As time has passed, they have become more visible to the public, and have motivated several research projects of social scientists and humanists. In this blog entry and the next one, I articulate some of the approaches and theories from this area of study, in order to understand the complexity of the relationships and describe how they have changed over time.

Before describing how the relationships function in a complex and integrated system, it is necessary to establish some basic definitions. I understand youth-made media as the cultural artifacts, texts, and messages produced by youth in specific social, cultural, economic, technological, geographical, and historical contexts. Riot Grrrl fanzines, hip-hop songs, DJ remixes, amateur films, refashioned second-hand clothes, graffiti art pieces, clubbers’ flyers and mailing lists, are examples of the media texts that youngsters have been making and that scholars have analyzed. Acknowledging the contextual character of such cultural production is important because it allows us to recognize the kinds of barriers and opportunities that female and male youth have encountered when expressing across different arenas (domestic, school, and public). Class, race, gender, sexuality, spatial location, ethnicity, and history determine youth-made media, as well as youth.
A simple explanation of the concept of mainstream media can be elaborated by opposing it to the one of youth-made media. In this sense, mainstream media can be understood as all the media texts produced and distributed by professional adults. Although this basic dichotomy is limited, it is useful for the purposes of my analysis. Furthermore, it can become more complex as we situate mainstream media in specific contexts and analyze them from different theoretical perspectives. For instance, it is not the same to talk about mainstream media in the context of the 1960s, when the paradigms of mass media communication, mass culture, and structuralism were guiding the academic discussions, than to talk about mainstream after the 1990s when the paradigms of rich digital networked media environment, interactive technology, and postmodernism have emphasized the complexity and fragmentary nature of cultural and symbolic flows. Whereas the former context assumes the existence of a centralized production of media texts by a system of hegemonic cultural industries, the later assumes a complex and rich media environment with proliferation of media texts, computer networks, and a decentralized system of production and distribution.

The significance of context also applies to the category of “youth.” It is according to specific contexts that “youth” is defined. In the second half of the 20th Century, in the context of late capitalist, post-industrial, consumerist, and democratic societies, “youth” has gained increased visibility and has been made into a subject, an identity, and an agent. Although ambiguous and slippery, “youth” has been used to describe a particular stage in the life of human beings (associated with the age between childhood and adulthood) and to describe particular cultural and social practices and identities. Because the realities of youth have been the ones of a subordinated population with little input in the policy debate (lack of political power and voice), limited economic opportunities, and subjected to the control and discipline of adult regulatory regimes (surveillance, lack of autonomous spaces), it makes sense to argue that definitions of “youth” are only elaborated by adults (Grossberg). However, in the articulation of those definitions by adults, the agency of young people is already present. It is when youngsters become visible in the public space with their particular fashions, writings, noises, and performances, that the category of “youth” gets activated and mobilized in the official documentary discourse and the social sciences (Hedbidge, 1983).
teddy boys
By defining youth as a visible and active actor capable of articulating its own identity, scholars have been able to elaborate sophisticated theoretical systems and, in thorough analytical and empirical studies, have revealed the richness of young people experiences. Those experiences have been understood as part of specific cultures with unique sociocultural practices, meanings, and relations. Youth cultures, therefore, are the ones made and lived by young people. In an effort to characterize young people experiences in late capitalists post industrial societies, academic researchers have articulated several theoretical concepts such as subcultures, countercultures, lifestyles, neotribes, and postsubcultures. Despite the differences among each term, all those concepts describe the sociocultural practices of young people, and, in one way or another, describe the relationships between youth-made media and youth culture, and between youth-made media and mainstream media.

During 1970s, British researchers from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) elaborated perhaps the most influential conceptualization of youth cultures. Using Marxist cultural theory (way of life, class struggle and conflict), Gramsci’s theory of ideology and hegemony, and textual and semiotic analysis, CCCS scholars analyzed the practices of working class youngsters and conceptualized them as “youth subcultures.” They used the label “sub-cultures” in order to emphasize that young members of the subordinated working class were the ones who produced them.
punk band
Active working class male youngsters resolved the contradictions of their class in the realm of leisure through the adoption of oppositional styles. As Clarke, Hall, Jefferson, and Roberts explain, “the subordinate class brings to this ‘theatre of struggle’ a repertoire of strategies and responses -ways of coping as well of resisting.”(44) By rebelling, resisting, and opposing the contradictions of subordinated class life (parent culture), youth organized a visible cultural response and produced distinctive group-styles. Using the raw materials that were available to the group such as dress, music, and talk, male youth constructed well-defined subcultural identities such as the Teddy Boys, Rockers, Mods, Skinheads, and Punks. Because the origin of those materials, its source, was located in the consumer market, the acts of stylization made by subcultural groups were meaningful acts of re-signification of commodities.

It could be said that by giving new meanings to the commodities and cultural goods available in a capitalist consumer society, by “reworking” them, members of a subculture created a relationship of appropriation with the meanings that circulated in the mainstream media. Subcultural stylistic ensembles, as Hedbidge (1979) has argued, communicated a significant difference from the parent culture and a group identity by means of recombining and juxtaposing different symbolic materials and articulating particular codes. Because CCCS subcultural theorists focused on working class consumption and leisure, the productive practices of youngsters were limited to the recombination of commodities available in the market. Youth-made media, although limited to music, fanzines, and fashion stylization by the CCCS approach, were very important for the different youth subcultures because they helped them to define boundaries with other groups and to cohere as a meaningful whole (Hedbidge’s concept of homology).

However, under the CCCS approach, the borrowing/theft relationship is just one of the relationships that occur between the youth-made media of the subcultures (fashion) and the mainstream. Another relationship is the one of incorporation or “freezing” of the subculture fashion. As Hedbidge (1979) points out, “youth cultural styles may begin by issuing symbolic challenges, but they must inevitable end by establishing new sets of conventions; by creating new commodities, new industries or rejuvenating old ones.” (96) Hence, the relationships between subcultural youth-made media, understood as a style (fashion), and mainstream media, understood as commercialized and consumerist mass media (“the Other”), became circular. They were described as a cycle of resistance and diffusion (Hedbidge, 1979) in where a heroic youth subculture emerged in radical opposition to a dominant commercial mass culture, and where a mass-mediated hegemonic world colonized the original innovative styles of a rebel and authentic youth.


Clarke J., Hall S., Jefferson T., Roberts B. (1976), Subcultures, Cultures and Class in S. Hall and T. Jefferson (eds), Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, London: Hutchinson

Grossberg, L (1994) The Political Status of Youth and Youth Culture. In Epstein, Jonathon S. (ed). Adolescents and Their Music: If It’s Too Loud, You’re Too Old. New York: Garland.

Hebdige, Dick. (1979) Subculture: the meaning of style. London ; New York : Routledge.

Hebdige, Dick. (1983) “Posing… Threats, Striking… Poses: Youth, Surveillance, and Display.” SubStance , Vol. 11/12, Vol. 11, no. 4 – Vol. 12, no. 1, Issue 37-38: A Special Issue from the Center for Twentieth Century Studies (1982/1983), pp. 68-88

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