It began in the 1960s, as they say; a new era of freedom, of rebellion. The youth let their hair down, their skirts up, and their freak flag fly. Everyone remembers the fresh-faced youth placing a flower in the barrel of a gun. But the Vietnam ‘situation’ had been running strong for ten years. The flood gates of war were widely flung before the youth of the West felt their first drops of rain. Who were these people, these Flower Children? What was it exactly that they stood for?
Today, we know them well. We know them because they are our teachers, our doctors, our bankers, our parents. Many of them are straight-laced, conservative, respectable citizens with a car or two, a steady job, and perhaps they turn the radio to the classic rock station now and then and reminisce about their youth. And we bemoan, “My parents were Hippies. What the hell happened?”.
Where did these young pioneers of liberty vanish to? These middle-class revolutionaries who tore up their draft notices, these psychonauts who explored the vast reaches of their own minds, who stood for peace, for love? Why do so few of them remain today?
The word ‘Hippie’ was coined by the media, used in newspapers to describe the youth movement of the 60’s. Hippie and Hip were synonymous, as many forget. Hip is all about fashion. Fashion is the key.
And fashion wasn’t just miniskirts and corduroy and long hair, buzzwords and acid and marijuana. Fashion was an entire lifestyle.
And fashion is fickle.
What else could explain the millions of American youth who rallied in support of peace? Who spoke of ending an unjust war? They certainly aren’t showing their bulk today. It appears that many have given up their ideals in place of a more comfortable life. But is this really the grand injustice that it seems to be? The great disappointment? Did our parents let us down?
Whatever it was that they had, it seems to be repeating itself, as history is apt to do.
A great deal of fuss was made in the year or so preceding the 2004 U.S. presidential election. America had never been so polarized. And a huge emphasis was placed on the thing that both sides deemed to be most important- the youth vote. Polls churned out the statistics- young people were registering to vote in record numbers, while the media’s number one job became ‘rocking the vote’, cleverly appealing to the heart of youthful rebellion that beats inside every young American, and promoting civic responsibility at the same time. It was clever. Some thought it would change the world. Pop stars and rock stars and hip-hop artists, the darling of America’s youth, spread the word. It was downright cool to vote. Every magazine advertised it. There were commercials for it on TV. Every other kid had a “Vote or Die” t-shirt. Hopeful Democrats looked to their children to pull the country out if its downward spiral… the youth would save the day.
On November 2nd, 2004, the youth vote stepped outside, yawned, and then went back to bed.
It was enough to have the right slogans on their breath, the right attitude, the right music in their CD players. It was enough. Nothing more was needed.
In the days that followed, newspapers all over the world carried articles along the lines of “why did the youth vote die?”…variations on a theme. How could the polls have been so drastically wrong?
In retrospect, the premature death of the youth vote isn’t truly surprising. A street team member of Rock the Vote was quoted saying, days before November 2nd, that peers on his campus were calling 2004 “The Hip Election”. Activism seemed to be the height of fashion.
Meanwhile, media-savvy clothing companies like Diesel had been creating ads that promoted youth activism- their 2002 advertisement series featured this powerful message: “This is a wake up call for the rebel inside you. If you want to live a successful life, you have to fight for it. Join with us. Seize the day.” The company’s website even featured a top-ten list of ‘Guidelines for Successful Protesting’ which included such inspiration gems as “wear the right clothes” and “before you start shouting, use some mouthwash”. Not only did this trivialize activism in the public eye, but it gave youth the message that all activism was about was fashion. In the words of Rachel Gaunt of Underground Advertising, “At worst this can be construed as simply a gimmick to get people’s attention, sort of jumping on the socially conscious bandwagon with no credentials.”
Did our generation simply duplicate the actions of our parents? And is the media merely letting history repeat itself? Perhaps it’s all inescapable… an inevitability.
Or maybe our generation will one day begin to value activism as more than a fashion commodity. As in all situations, nothing is absolute. There are youth living today that truly are dedicated to mobilizing themselves for worthy causes. I know. I’ve met some of them.
And they allow me to retain a small vestige of hope.
In a world where true activists are needed more than ever.
Fashion has taken our music, our clothes, magazines, movies, mindsets… we’ve turned around and made our own. Now fashion has ensnared our dissent as well.
And we will remake it.