A handful of other singer-songwriters have made great records before exiting their teens, from Laura Nyro to Fiona Apple, but none made great records so explicitly about their teens. In captivatingly nailing everything that is awesome and awful about coming of age—“in real time,” as she puts it—her nearest antecedent might be sixties-era Brian Wilson, the one true adolescent auteur before she came along. But he stayed in the sandbox, and she can’t. Swift does have one great truth on her side in easing from teen apologist to grown-up troubadour: Adult life is just like high school.

Chris Willman, “Princess Crossover,” New York Magazine, October 10, 2010 (emphasis added)


I’m not buying this album. But I AM buying the 99 cent single version of “Our Song” on Amazon, because dammit, it’s a good song. And it’s a great song about friendship, too!

This New York excerpt identifies one of Swift’s greatest talents: her ability to vividly describe adolescence with high emotional precision. What makes her so rare isn’t just her youth, but her ability to talk about how own experiences with such clarity. Pop music has had other teen stars, but most teenagers are unable to effectively describe what it’s like to be a teenager — or not in a way that produces great art, anyway.

I understand culture to be a system of shared meanings, and teenage culture has a unique, rarely mentioned quality: there’s a sharp divide between the people who are producing the pieces of culture that impart meaning and the people who consume it.

Other cultural groups don’t have this divide, or not so stark a one. If you’re a young twenty something from Williamsburg, you can hear other young twenty somethings from Williamsburg talk about being a young twenty something from Williamsburg, and you can negotiate those ideas with other young twenty somethings from Williamsburg and together you’ll produce a culture. And the same applies to all kinds of other groups whose members can produce works talking about themselves for people who are like themselves.

But the people who produce works for teenagers are relying on memory, which creates an odd little piece of time-travel. Teenagers who want stories that explore what it’s like to be a teenager have to turn to works in which this information is filtered through memory. Memory doesn’t make the information worse, but it does change its quality. It probably exaggerates certain aspects and elides certain others, though I can’t say precisely what aspects they are, because I’m also speaking from memory.

Since teenagers are having their culture interpreted at the same time they’re forming it this memory acts as a hegemonic force: all those songs and movies and TV shows and books about being a teenager are actually people telling teenagers how to be teenagers based on their memories of adolescence. And because teenagers don’t yet have the skill set required to tell each other about adolescence, their direct experience remains unenunciated.

There are a handful of exceptions, and I think it’s notable how small this set is — not quite a literal handful, but it gets close. There’s Taylor Swift, of course. S. E. Hinton. Supergrass’s “Caught By the Fuzz.” Probably not Superbad, considering it likely changed a lot since Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg first drafted it at fifteen. Even the Brian Wilson example isn’t quite accurate: Wilson was nineteen when he wrote the Beach Boys’ first single “Surfin’,” and in his twenties for most of even the group’s earliest material. Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys — whose lyrical nous is inflated, though not unapparent — was twenty when Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not came out. Billie Joe Armstrong was just shy of 22 when Dookie was released.

So teenagehood is a cultural black spot described a bit like the way astronomers discover planets orbiting distant stars. Scientists work out those planets are there not by directly observing them, but by noticing the gravitational effect their presence has on the stars they orbit. And works about teenagers aren’t direct tellings, but ideas filtered through memory and exaggeration and forgetting.

The exception to this, of course, are those cultural artifacts not commercially distributed: LiveJournal posts and Tumblr reblogs, Facebook notes and MySpace comments. These aren’t unusual because they’re produced by teenagers; they’re unusual because they have distribution. Teenagers have always had a home grown culture alongside their hegemonic one (add diary entries and letters to the list above), but it’s a home grown culture built out of the hegemonic culture, rather than one that exists along side it. So if the Internet frees the home grown culture from the bounds of bedrooms and high schools, what does that mean for an adolescence now defined less by adults’ memory and more by one’s own experience?

(Incidentally, though the last line in the New York excerpt pertains to a particular story related in the article, in general it’s false. Adult life is not at all like high school, which is why this memory stuff creates a disconnect.)