ã Deena Weinstein


" I found it hard/ It's hard to find/ Oh well, whatever/ Nevermind. " -Nirvana


'I feel stupid and contagious Here we are now entertain us,' sang Kurt Cobain in Nirvana's 1991 hit song 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' Cobain was talking about and speaking for his audience, a new generation of American youth (culture) drenched in what rock critic Jim DeRogatis (1994) calls 'cynicism, skepticism and ironic sense of humor.' How did American youth become ironic- an attitude that Nietzsche associated with old age? We must first inquire into the vicissitudes of youth as a signifier in the modern period, concentrating on what happened in the United States after World War II. The emergence of a generation of 'ironic youth' follows from the history of 'youth culture' and the struggles that have been waged around it at its core, which is rock music. We will follow these struggles as they played out in the United States.

It would be a mistake to think that there is some fixed or natural definition of 'youth'. If it is nothing else (which does not at all mean that it is nothing more) youth is a term in discourses that discriminates certain phenomena and marks them off from others. As a term in our discourses it has a history.

The word 'youth' has at least three forms of distinct and sometimes divergent meanings: a biological category defined by age, a distinctive social group, and a cultural construct.

Youth in the biological sense refers to a category human organisms of similar age going through a process of physical maturation. Cultures often find ways of marking off this physiological group from others by codes and disciplines.

The social definition of youth is the center of the modern idea of youth. In many technologically unsophisticated cultures there is no separate youth age-grade. One is either a child or an adult. The vast changes that gave rise to a modern life characterized by specialization, continuous innovation, an increasingly knowledge-based economy, high rates of geographic mobility, economic surplus, and leisure created a socially-defined period in the life cycle between the dependency of childhood and the responsibility of adulthood. The social definition of youth and its consequent marginalization as a group betwixt and between (not fully integrated into society) coincided with the industrial era. A socially defined period of transiting from being cared for to becoming a provider originated in the upper middle class in the period following the French Revolution and increased in length and spread throughout the population as surplus wealth, specialization requiring lengthy schooling, and the power of labor groups to restrict employment opportunities increased. Youth as a social group became universal in the West after the recovery from World War II. Since that time the number of years included in this age-grade has increased.

The Rise and Fall of Youth Culture

When society isolates a group of individuals into a category that group will begin to be defined for itself, both by its members and by others. The group develops its own distinctive values, ideals, sentiments, and activities. From the eighteenth century onward, 'youth' appeared as a proto-subculture (for example, the 'jazz age' and various youth movements), but by the mid-1950s in the United States it had become a distinctive subculture, with symbols, practices, and folkways peculiarly its own; that is, 'youth' became a cultural construct as well as a biological and social category.

The flowering of the youth subculture in the middle of the twentieth century was related to suburbanization, an extended and universal secondary school system (Coleman,1961) and a nationwide electronic mass media. Despite all of their diversity and the fact that not all young people affiliated with them, it is not inaccurate to speak of a 'youth subculture' and a later 'counterculture' in the United States in the 1950s-1960s. In the 1950s 'youth' became a mass market served by mass media. In the 1960s young people became important factors in determining and controlling what the youth subculture would be in form and content, and even how it would be merchandised. 'Youth' gained a sharp cultural configuration through its music ('rock 'n' roll'), certain forms of attire, and a set of rituals and activities centered on leisure and entertainment.

The youth subculture was partly created by adolescents themselves and partly contrived by the consumer-goods industry. During '...the fifties, youth became an isolatable consumer market, with its own capital, its own desires and its own commodities.' (Grossberg,1984:107)

The central feature of the youth culture, and its metonym, is its music. Rock 'n' roll symbolizes youth. As Keith Roe (1987:215) puts it:

The whole adolescent milieu is penetrated at many levels by an active interest in music; ... adolescent discourse centers around the language and terminology of rock and that music provides the core values ...

The youth subculture, from its beginnings, was in opposition to, and not merely different from, the general (adult) culture. Markson (1989:4) elaborates on this point claiming that attempts by family and school to direct and restrain adolescents were contested by them: 'Rock emerged as part of the resistance to such disciplinization as a music of opposition to the enforcement of mainstream values.'

At first, in the 1950s, opposition took the form of transgressing sexual, racial, and class codes. As a derivative of black 'race' music and poor-white country roadhouse music that was marketed to white middle-class youth, rock 'n' roll was a subversive celebration of pleasure and romance on the wild side of society. By the 1960s transgression had spread to protest and rebellion against established authority systems, and the use of mind-altering drugs, both of which were promoted in rock music that was created by white youth for themselves throughout the West.

By the late 1960s the youth subculture was transformed into a counterculture. Still attached to biological and social youth, its way of life was explicitly and self-consciously understood as standing in opposition to mainstream/adult culture. Moreover, it was promoted by the young as a universally good culture, one that should be adopted by adults. 'Turn on, tune in, drop out' was the official invitation, the raising of the gap between childhood dependency and adult responsibility into the human ideal.

The fabled 'sixties' ended sometime in the first half of the 1970s, decimated by a multiplicity of events including the killings at Kent State, the end of the military draft, and the OPEC-induced economic 'stagflation.' The end of the 'sixties' was also the end of the youth culture as centered on the demographic grouping of young people. Youth culture persisted and youth, in its biological and social dimensions, certainly did not disappear; but the cultural formation of 'youth' floated free from the social group of young people. No longer restricted to adolescents, 'youth,' smoothed over by advertising and entertainment discourses, and made a safely energetic state of being and feeling with an aura of rebellion, became available to all. The youth culture got co-opted into the general leisure culture, and lost its moorings in a particular group. It became a designation or identification that could be taken up by anyone as the emblem of a life-style. It was 'chic' for adults to take up aspects of the youth culture in the late 1960s, but afterwards a youthful image, as defined by the leisure culture, became a normalized component of anything else that might be 'chic,' 'trendy,' 'hip,' or 'in.'

The free-float of youth culture, the detachment of a social group from its set of significant symbols, created two newly isolated entities, one cultural and the other social. Having been set loose from its biological and social moorings, the 'youth' culture drifted around adolescents, drawing upon their significance, but only so much as to be fit for appropriation by anyone of any biological age or social position. 'Youth' as a cultural category was eviscerated and sublimated into a commercialized spirit of 'youthfulness,' haunting contemporary life at every turn. On the other hand 'youth' no longer belonged to young people as a cultural designation, as their own style of life, but belonged potentially to everyone in some way or other. As Gillis (1993:14) notes: 'What was once called adulthood is becoming more like adolescence.'

Youth, in the sense of young people in a special biological and social predicament, became marginal to 'youth' as a cultural code of beliefs, values, sentiments, and practices. Youth did not have its own 'youth,' but instead the 'youth' that was given to it and to everyone else through the media. Young people did not have a culture that was theirs. Rock, like youthful looks, was no longer the province of the young. It was 'the sound of perpetual adolescence, making of adolescence a model for the whole of life...' (Duncan, 1984:199) Indeed, it is the rock that was firmly attached to biological/social youth during the hegemony of 'youth culture' (the 'Classic Rock' radio format) that became popular with the no-longer-young crowd. Gillis (1993:12) points out that young people had become 'as active as their elders in recall and recollection, and seemed to look 'nostalgically to the past as [their] future.' Youth had become marginal to the idea of youth itself.

Recapturing Youth Culture

Young people responded to the extortion of 'youth' from them in a variety of ways. As the youth culture of the 1960s dissipated into the youthfulness or youthful mystique of the leisure culture in the 1970s, most young people simply followed along, losing any special distinctiveness and merging into the youthful leisure culture as its distinctive representatives. Others attempted to preserve a youth culture that was exclusively for the young.

These hold-outs fragmented into subcultures, such as 'punk' or 'metal,' which raised the symbolic stakes too high for the general leisure culture to appropriate them. These attempts to reattach a youth culture to a biological and social group began shortly after youth culture floated free from its social anchor and has continued since then, centered in the realm of rock, the one sphere in which the myth of the youth culture was embedded. Rock also was one of the few cultural spheres in which youth could be a producer, not merely a consumer, of cultural forms.

Punk, which originated as a form of music in New York around 1975, spread as a youth subculture to Britain shortly thereafter. Generally interpreted within an economic framework as working-class dissent, the British punk movement should also be seen as an attempt to reinstate a genuine youth culture. Its enemy was not the rich, not even the bourgeoisie; it was adults. E. Ellis Cashmore (1987:247) states:

Punks decried anyone or anything connected with the established social order as boring old farts (BOFs). They regurgitated the impulse behind the mod slogan of the '60s, "I hope I die before I get old"...

Much of the punk style (mohawks, neon-hair colors, safety-pins through cheeks) would not be appropriated by adults. The US punk scene, originally centered in LA around 1980 cannot be understood in economic terms either. These were no dole-queue kids. If anything the US punk fan's parents tended to be upper-middle class.

Heavy metal, which appeared as a form of music around 1970, achieved subcultural status in Britain by 1974. This subculture too spread to the US and to much of the industrial world by the end of the decade. Heavy metal's rhetoric and imagery puts forward Dionysian themes and themes of Chaos, which are related in that both conjure with powers that the adult world wishes to keep at bay and exclude even from symbolic representation. Like punk, heavy metal raises the stakes higher than adults can reach; for example, the style of very long hair for males. The focus on power in the subculture is exemplified by an emphasis on extreme sonic volume. 'If it's too loud then you're too old' is the often repeated metal rallying cry.

During the 1980s, the post-punk period, there were repeated attempts by demographic youth to recapture a youth culture for themselves. Many of these efforts built upon the heavy metal and punk subcultures of the prior decade. Examples include hardcore, thrash metal, skate punk and death metal. All of these are sonically, physically, and lyrically too rough for either little kids or adults. They too were not commercial and received no mainstream radio, or MTV, exposure. They were only known to cognoscenti and are, given their 'underground' status, not easily co-opted by the forces of commerce.

During the latter half of the 1980s still another recapturing project was underway, which looked to the mythic past of the sixties. Centering around the Grateful Dead, the music, clothing style (especially tie-dyed T-shirts), and drugs of choice (particularly LSD) of the counterculture found a new audience among young people in the upper-middle class. Here the reattachment efforts were not aimed at excluding other demographic groups, but rather at embracing the simulacrum of an attached youth culture.

Many of the fragmented attempts to recapture youth culture found their way on to independent labels and then college radio, both of which became 'alternative' media to mass commercial pop and rock music. Independent labels catered to a wide variety of musical forms excluded from the dominant media; '...the indie phenomenon is all about keeping the torches burning for genres and styles of music that don't fit the mainstream mold.' (Ouellette, 1992:62) College radio had no positive program of its own but only the negative and enabling one of airing music which was not commercially acceptable. Within this space of freedom a multitude of experiments went on, the most important of which for the present moment of 'youth' was the formation of a rock sensibility that did not resist appropriation into the mainstream by the tactic of extremism (punk and metal), but simply by an inappropriate attitude.

In 1981 and 1982 Husker Du, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, and REM all released debut albums. These four bands represent the core sensibility of the select group of hip college youth of the 1980s - the Reagan/yuppie era. They did not directly affiliate with the punk/hardcore subculture though they adopted much of its ideology. Unlike the punks and metalheads, this hipoisie did not reject the pop-rock strain in 1960s music - the Beatles. Yet their music began in the underground and they were self-conscious perpetuators of the counter-cultural allergy to/contempt for established institutions.

Thus, in the era of dispossession of 'youth' from the young and the absorption of the majority of the young into the leisure culture, the hip college bands preserved and nurtured a counter-cultural pop-rock music that was potentially acceptable in its sonic values to a more mass audience but defied the regnant values of capitalist greed and the 'youthfulness' projected by the commercial leisure culture.

By 1985 these 'alternative' pop-rock founders had all released their classic albums and had crystallized a sub-genre with a wide following among college youth. One of the emerging bands at that time was Camper Van Beethoven, whose singer David Lowery remarks about the term 'alternative': 'I remember first seeing that word applied to us.... The nearest I could figure is that we seemed like a punk band, but we were playing pop music, so they made up this word alternative for those of us who do that.' (Puterbaugh, 1994:68) The attitude of the music was at sharp variance with that of the 1960s counter-culture, which exuded the confidence of a generation that believed it was morally good and was destined for a great future, and that explored the frontiers of experience with verve, drugs, and naivete.

Against this picture and the 'fun' of being 'youthful' provided by the leisure industry, the hipoisie of the 1980s took up the punk credo 'no future for me,' but in an ironic way. Along with the loss of belief in their future went loss of belief in themselves and in their goodness. The hipoisie was not seduced by the Reagan imaginary. They responded to their socio-historical position on the downside of the Baby Boom, not to the Baby Boomer mythology projected on/by the media. The hipoisie did not believe that it was living in the best of times and adopted a rejectionist stance toward their circumstances.

Jon Pareles (1991) describes (parodies) the attitude in its fully crystallized form from an outsider's viewpoint:

Performers tend to wear street clothes, sing as if they'd just rolled out of bed and shamble around the stage at random. A few try to make political points, but most detail a kind of suburban alienation and disorientation, an endless self-conscious shrug.

Peter Buck of REM expresses the way an insider sees it: 'REM is part lies, part heart, part truth, and part garbage.' (Gray, 1992: back cover)

Unlike the 1960s counter-culture, which held itself superior to the suburbs, the hipoisie knew themselves to be of the suburbs. They had no utopia, but only the horizon of the Reagan imaginary - Disney World, the shopping mall, MTV. They felt entrapped and marginalized in the simulacra, all the while knowing that they were not going to surrender whatever stake they might get in the system. As a result they became figures of self-irony - knowing and declaring themselves to be lies/truth, heart/garbage. Hence the 'endless self-conscious shrug.' It is the shrug of irony, saying: 'That's what it is folks and that's who I am.' As REM puts it: 'It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.'

'The endless self-conscious shrug' is the consummation of revisiting the 1960s counter-culture's rejectionism knowing that the counter-culture is dead, that one is enveloped in the simulacrum, and that the capitalist leisure culture is one's horizon - although one will act like a bum or a mental case if given the opportunity. One plays at rejectionism and thereby becomes (somewhat of) a rejectionist who produces (somewhat of) a counter-culture. One has it both ways, getting to be 'authentic' while denying the possibility of authenticity. One revisits with a shrug, but one revisits (with a shrug).


At the turn of the 1990s the hyper-fragmented counter-cultural musical sub-genres and micro-subcultures that had come to be known as 'alternative' began to blend in almost every possible way, generating hybrids. Perhaps this was the postmodern moment of music, when every possible transgression of boundaries was carried out.

Will Straw (1991:375) states:

Arguably, the most notable feature of alternative-rock culture over the last decade or so has been the absence within it of mechanisms through which particular musical practices come to be designated as obsolete.

When everything began to misceginate there was a riot of diversity, not the collapse into chaos that conservatives fear, but a stunning kaleidoscope of sound and meaning.

This explosion of creativity at the turn of the 1990s was in great part the result of a series of media that had sprung up over the 1980s to serve the alternative audience. College radio stations, independent record labels and marketing companies, fanzines, and urban venue owners, provided a support network by which people throughout the fragmented audience were kept aware of the diversity of experimentation and, when they were musicians, could carry the experiments further.

Fragmentation was brought into a permissive frame that created a nascent sense of being for-itself among alternative media. The alternative media gained coordination in the late 1980s through the formation of alternative music industry publications and conferences-cum-showcases. The College Music Journal, New Music Seminar and South by Southwest bring together the alternative bricolage. This coordinative tendency coincided with the mainstream media's (major record labels, MTV, and mass radio stations) narrowing their musical range.

In 1991 the alternative bricolage was brought into concert through the Lollapalooza Festival, the first overt manifestation of an alternative youth audience - a (simulated) counter-culture, not a subculture - with a sense of being a youth group in-and-for-itself. Simon Reynolds (1991:22) indicates the musical diversity of that event:

Each band represents a different faction of alternative rock: Siouxsie and the Banshees (goth, a mystical, morbid descendant of punk), Living Colour (black rock), Nine Inch Nails (electro-industrial), Ice-T (gangster rap), the Surfers (acid rock) and the Rollins Band (hard-core punk).

Reynolds mentions one band in particular - Jane's Addiction - that 'belongs to the new hybrid genre that has been dubbed "funk-and-roll,"' and whose audience 'is a bizarre coalition of metal fans, punks, college-radio hipsters, goths, nouveau hippies and the unaligned and curious.' They are drawn to Jane's Addiction because 'the band has managed to bring back a sense of rock-and-roll as an underground.' Lollapalooza was the brainchild of Jane's Addiction's main man, Perry Farrell. It smells like teen spirit, ready to erupt into the world above ground.

The situation at the turn of the 1990s was further complicated and enhanced by the emergence of regional alternative music scenes, which, as Azerrad (1992:44) notes, were made possible by 'the network of college radio, fanzines and indie distributors that sprang up in the wake of punk rock.' It was out of one of these scenes, in which musicians could feed off each other and crate a distinctive sound and style, that the breakout from the 'alternative' 'underground' occurred.

In 1991 too, the band Nirvana, from the Seattle, Washington scene, released their album 'Nevermind,' which sold nine million copies, engendering/serving a mass youth audience for music that was neither sonically nor symbolically acceptable to an adult audience, but had sufficient pop-music values to gain a wide following. The most significant effort thus far to recapture 'youth' for the young was underway.

Nirvana represented the 'Seattle sound,' which had been dubbed 'grunge' for its slovenly attitude and visual imagery. Seattle had a small but genuine scene with bands, venues, 'zines and an indie label (Sub Pop) that catered to the new sound. Grunge was one of the especially exotic and improbable hybrids that were generated at the end of the 1980s. It combined elements of punk, heavy metal, and college hipster rock. Kurt Cobain describes his band's blend: All in all we sound like the Knack and the Bay City Rollers [pop], being molested by Black Flag [hardcore punk] and Black Sabbath [heavy metal].(Azerrad, 1993:84)

Grunge's heavy guitars and massive distortion, from metal, though mixed with tunefulness from college pop-rock, made it sonically unacceptable to adult ears. Its primitivism and rejection of the rock-star image (the artist is not to be placed above the audience) and its hostility to commercial appeals, both of which came from its punk roots, and its adoption of what came to be known as the 'slacker' attitude, from college hipster rock, made it symbolically unacceptable to adult sensibilities.

The Seattle slacker style of appearance is a variation of punk for the Pacific northwest region of the United States - flannel shirts and torn jeans (identification with the homeless and destitute) which were (or were made to look as if they were) purchased in thrift shops. These 'styles' are now mass marketed as a fashion.

The lyrics of grunge center on failure, on being a 'creep' or a 'loser' or 'broken,' on suffering the loss of innocence and victimage in the family and the wider society. They are vocally delivered in a defiant whine- the vocal equivalent of the college hipster's shrug. Its anger is self-humiliated, not the rage of the self-righteous who are sure of their goodness and confident of their future, but an anger that is always already repressed because the individual is unwilling or unable to express it fully. John Leland (1992:57) describes Nirvana's attitude as 'arch, hazy, angry, equivocal, idealistic- a juggling act of contradictions.' When grunge revisits/recaptures youth culture it does so not with the optimistic sense that 'we can change the world, rearrange the world,' but ironically, with a sense of irretrievable loss attended by sentimentality.

The album cover of Nirvana's 'Nevermind' encapsulates the grunge sensibility. A naked baby boy in a pool of clear blue water swims toward a fish-hook baited with a dollar bill. Corruption/seduction is always already an unavoidable feature of our environment: the baby has been seduced. The title 'Nevermind' shows the response (the verbal shrug) of the slacker's studied mindlessness to a damaging world: there is the sense of 'never mind' ('don't worry'), taken ironically since the irreparable damage has already been done and that is what one is compelled to attend to even if there is nothing to do about it; the sense of nevermind as not having one's own mind, the only cure for the pain caused by irretrievable loss.

Perhaps what has been lost irretrievably, among other things, is a utopian youth culture - the counter-culture of the 1960s, hyped by parents and the media, which alternative youth culture rejects but also simulates and in some sense envies. Perhaps grunge has recaptured 'youth' for the young, but 'youth' is now signified negatively (which can be a very empowering stance for symbolic rebellion).

Since 1991 the Seattle sound has become the core of a distinctive sound and sensibility that has taken over the signification of the term 'alternative.' Capitalized Alternative went nationwide in the United States and then worldwide. Although grunge far from exhausts the musical spectrum represented by Alternative as a marketing category of the major labels that produce the music and the large commercial radio stations that broadcast it, its sensibility of loss and its bleating complaint are highly generalized and can be taken to epitomize the attitude of a broad white middle-class youth subculture that no longer submits to the sensibility of the adult leisure industry.

What is it about the Seattle sound that has allowed it to capture/create a mass youth audience? The audience was waiting for it, prepared by its generational experience to try for a (simulation of a) counter-culture again. The slacker generation is referred to in the mass media as the Baby Bust generation - the ones who are suffering from the austerity involved in paying for the economic excesses of the 1970s and 1980s and know that they face a contracting horizon of opportunity. They have had environmentalism drilled into them and they are aware that the natural environment is badly degrading. They are painfully aware of the threat of AIDS, which is depriving them of normal youthful sexual experimentation and restricting their sex lives in general. They are often personally affected by the deterioration of social relations (divorce, and child, spouse, and substance abuse).

They feel that they have been betrayed, damaged, and victimized by the older generation. That is, the older generation has become delegitimized in their eyes; not to be trusted, not to be emulated, not to be honored. Rejection of the received cultural model is a condition for the possibility of a counter-culture - youth must eschew its parents' sensibilities in order to create a counter-culture.

Yet the hook baited with a dollar bill is always already there, waiting for the baby. There is no utopia on the downside of an economic cycle. The kids are not so much rebellious, as they were in the fifties, or adventurous, as they were in the sixties, as angry - yet dependent and, indeed, still more or less seduced by the simulacrum contrived by the Boomers. Hence, the appeal of grunge's angrily defiant whine and lament, and of its identification with the homeless and destitute (giving rise to mass-produced thrift-store fashion).

The emblematic institution of the Alternative movement is the Lollapalooza festival, a commercial simulacrum of Woodstock, strained through movie and TV mythology and Grateful Dead concerts. Reynolds (1991:22) observes that 'Lollapalooza seems to be a conscious attempt to remake the 60s sense of rock as counterculture, in defiance of today's perception of rock as a leisure industry.' The 'reinvocation,' however, is heavily ironic.

Lollapalooza is a big profit-making enterprise that is mass-marketed and hyped through the media. More importantly, it is a normalization of a counter-cultural happening. Everything that is supposed to be at a youth festival has its assigned place. There are booths for political groups and places for carnival acts and games. The music is provided by the major-label Alternative groups, with side stages for the less commercial bands. The scene is safe, regulated, and predictable - the disciplinization of the counter-cultural spontaneity of the 1960s.

Yet Lollapalooza also creates an occasion for young people to experience a 'youth' culture together that has not been tailored to suit the imaginary of 'youthfulness' that is circulated by the adult commercial leisure culture. Like the angry whine of the Alternative singer, Lollapalooza is a compromise formation indicating that the slacker generation wants it both ways - in this case both to play it safe and to have something of its own that is opposed to the (adult) leisure culture.

The ironic youth of the Alternative generation are caught between their biological vitality and their social malaise. In 1994 Pearl Jam, another Seattle band, had become 'the biggest [best selling] rock band in the world.' (Kot, 1994:22) Its singer and lyricist Eddie Vedder is emblematic of Alternative youth and seen by them to be so. Cameron Crowe notes Vedder's 'deadpan irony,' which is evinced when Vedder tells Crowe (1993:88) how music saved his life in an oppressive family and then adds: 'My folks are very proud of me now ... And again, I'm thankful that they've given me a lifetime's worth of material to write about.'

Frederick Mosher (1994:12) describes Vedder's delivery of the song 'Black,' a lament over the irretrievable loss of love that Mosher calls a 'hate power ballad' (another irony):

That may be a peak of excitement at the end, but it's a peak of despondent excitement. The song is a wail of despair, Eddie's lyrics carried along by a glacial pace and a doom-laden chord progression.

All of his power is poured into the declaration that he is a loser: despondent excitement. Yet there is more.

The despondency is subverted by Vedder's behavior at concerts. Mosher (1994:14) indicates how Vedder performs feats of derring-do like hanging by one hand from a lighting truss 30 feet above the stage or allowing himself to be 'passed around the crowd like a beach ball.' He dives from the balcony into the mosh pit in front of the stage, confirming a punk ritual of trust and of identification with the audience. The excitement and the affirmation overcome the despondency. The slacker's vitality frames the slacker's moaning complaint. This time the irony is affirmative; 'The Kids Are [NOT] All Right,' but they are, as the Bad Examples sang, 'Not Dead Yet.'





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