Where are the decadent young?
A generation has hijacked the notion of cool, and has hung on to it into early middle age
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 26 February 1999
But the worst of it is the awful, appalling music they seem to like. They like girl groups, they like songs that come with dance routines attached, they like cuteness and cleanness. They like the sort of acts that were dreadful old has-beens even when I was a boy - I mean, I'm old enough to remember Abba and Cher and M-People first time round, and can assure you that we all thought they were completely crap even then.
The young like dressing up in feather boas and platform shoes, and when they go to night-clubs they want to revive the Seventies, and to hide the depth of their naffness under a brave display of pretend naffness. All in all, I must say, you would not have them in the house unless you absolutely had to.
The fact that the younger generation seem to have given up on the obligation to pursue new heights of debauchery that is an essential part of youth culture does not, however, free the rest of us to take on that obligation. In doing so, we wouldn't be perpetuating our raucous youth; it's much more likely that we would simply become that dreadful thing, an ageing trendy.
I had a bad experience the other week, and suddenly realised that aging trendiness had settled upon me like a mouldering kaftan. Indeed, now that it's happening to me, I start to think not only that ageing trendiness is a universal condition, but also that it may not be all that bad.
A few months ago, I recorded a radio programme for Radio 3, a sort of Desert Island Discs for the intelligentsia, called Private Passions. The idea is to choose and talk about your favourite pieces of music. Alongside the customary high-art choices, though, I wanted to have a dance track since, as everyone pointed out, most of the music I listen to is less allegro non troppo and more 140 bpm. And I was rather tempted by the idea of someone tuning in to hear Michael Berkeley saying, with exquisite tact, "And that was `Smack My Bitch Up' by the popular music combo the Prodigy."
Anyway, I was casting around for a good track in November when someone sent me a new release. It hit the mark immediately, and Fatboy Slim went into the selection between Busoni and Stravinsky; I genuinely thought it would make the programme a bit more cutting-edge. You can guess the rest. The Fat One released the track two months ago as a single; it instantly became vieux jeu by going to number one in the hit parade for precisely one week; its creator got engaged to Zoe Ball, and revealed that his real name was in fact Quentin. How I would have laughed, in my youth, at the spectacle of some thirty-something attempting to demonstrate how cutting- edge he was by enthusing about a two-month-old number-one hit single, and if you want to indulge your merriment, the programme goes out at noon on Saturday.
But really, the more you think about it, the less it seems apparent that the banner of metropolitan style is being carried by the kids. If you go to a really decadent and sexy night-club such as Trade, it is not full of 20-year-olds; most people there are in their thirties. The boys and girls, on the other hand, are bouncing round eagerly at Seventies revival nights, or standing with their mouths open at the Ministry of Sound. The epitome of enviable cool isn't, as it was 10 years ago, a transatlantic supermodel in her early twenties, but a Clerkenwell conceptual artist of 35.
The only thing odd about this is that a generation has hijacked the notion of cool, and has managed to hang on to it into early middle age. You often read some journalist expressing amazement that the party animals of the 1987 Summer of Love are still partying hard, 12 years on. But it isn't so strange; what is strange is that 18-year-olds haven't come up with any very compelling alternative.
The truth is that people tend to continue through their lives with the habits they established when they were young. Our grandparents, for instance, didn't start going to tea dances when they hit retirement. That was what they'd done all their lives. And it's pretty obvious to me that, in 40 or 50 years' time, the chemical generation will still be dancing, with a warm feeling of nostalgia, to the Renegade Master, Funky Monkey and Fatboy Slim.
We won't be ageing trendies any more; by then we'll be going round saying "Young people nowadays...", and shaking our heads at whatever truly appalling nonsense they seem to like.
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