(Reprinted with permission from the American Historical Review, written by Ruth M. Alexander.)

Teenagers: An American History surveys teen culture from the 1930s to the present. Like many other historians, Grace Palladino defines high schools as the production sites of adolescent subcultures and stresses the social power teenagers gained as consumers. Palladino’s book is distinctive primarily because it tries to bridge the experiences of black and white teenagers and dispenses with academic prose; its breezy narrative is easily accessible to a wide audience.

Palladino begins with the Great Depression, when working-class adolescents were forced out of the workplace and into high schools. The New Deal aided this process, providing poor adolescents with money for shoes, textbooks, and lunches. The public expected high schools to be adult-directed, but even in the 1930s, high schoolers looked to their peers rather than their elders for guidance.

By the late 1930s, adolescents were avid fans of swing music. Advertisers marketed records, clothes, and soft drinks directly to the high school “bobby soxers” and began to call them “teenagers.” White middle-class adults tried to pretend that bobby soxers were sexually innocent, despite their taste for “hot” jazz, wild dancing, and “jive” talk. World War II made it difficult to sustain this fiction, however. Swing music became a consuming passion among high schoolers who were too young for military or defense work, and some teenage girls engaged in promiscuous relationships with military men.

Although some teens from status-conscious homes modeled their consumption patterns on those of their parents, the majority used the marketplace to reject respectability and cross racial, class, and gender boundaries. Whites danced to black rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, and the gyrating performances of Elvis Presley. Middle-class kids refused to think of the future, enjoying fast cars, premarital sexual experimentation, dancing, and drinking. Rock ’n’ roll also offered opportunities for rebellion to black and mixed-race adolescents who were impatient with the cautious striving of their parents. In Detroit’s Motown Studio, almost any teenager with a modicum of talent could cut a record and dream of stardom. A few, like Diana Ross, succeeded spectacularly. In the South, a small minority of black teens staged a different rebellion, protesting racial segregation.

By the 1960s, Beatlemania was proof that “the demographic power of youth” was setting standards for society. Teenagers dominated the entertainment and fashion industries; their opinions began to matter in politics as well. The Beatles were less sexually explicit than the rock ’n’ roll musicians of the 1950s, but they evinced little respect for conventional authority. Over time, teenage fans of the “British invasion” became civil rights activists, free speech advocates, and critics of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Teenage girls rejected the sexual double standard as they gained access to contraception and legal abortion. And yet, despite the independence they won, the teenagers of the 1960s became rather conservative middle-aged parents in the 1990s. Worried about the alienation of present-day teens who must confront economic uncertainty, sexually transmitted disease, and fragmented families, these parents seem to want to return to a time when families offered “real” shelter to adolescents. Palladino asks whether anyone would really benefit from returning to a society of sharp gender and racial inequity. For her, there is no turning back from teenage independence.

Palladino makes a credible attempt to integrate the histories of black and white teenagers, although she might have done more by comparing, for example, black and white parents’ responses to modern teenagers. She might also have challenged the utility of an interpretive framework that sees only one dynamic, rebellion, in teenage conduct. We need a thoughtful analysis of teenagers’ conformity to market trends and their search for adult approval, even in the twentieth century. Despite these weaknesses, Palladino has written a useful and readable book.

We tend to assume that the rise of independent teenagers (as opposed to dependent adolescents) is really a tale of cultural decline and parental neglect. But in fact, the evolution of teenage culture over the past fifty years is a story of institution building, market expansion, racial desegregation, and family restructuring...it is easy to lament the passing of a simpler time when teenagers respected their parents, high schools turned out educated graduates, and sex never reared its ugly head. But that cherished image of a well-functioning past...tells us more about adult fantasies than teenage reality: The order and discipline we usually associate with the good old days had more to do with a lack of opportunities and alternatives than it did with a shared culture of “traditional” family values or teenage respect for adult authority.

Teenagers: An American History

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