Kids in America (or, like, wherever)

By Kate Garrett

To celebrate the release of our YA collection, Heathers, the most awesome and very lovely Kate Garrett talks about another favorite high school movie and the art of re-telling.

Before biting into my short slice of tasty nostalgia, let’s get one mildly unpalatable idea out of the way first: I am a child of postmodernism. I was born in (the USA? yes, that too) 1980, only one year before MTV hit us over the head with its fragments of sound and vision. Coming of age in the mid-to-late 1990s, by which time alternative rock music had pried itself out from under the basement carpet to blink suspiciously in the spotlight, was both a blessing and a curse. Much of society was certain that those of us listening to this music, those of us who were at the tail end of one generation or maybe the very beginning of the next, were posing. Feigning apathy or depression was merely another badge of pre-packaged “meh” chic being sold to all the little Lollapa-losers. Blame Prozac Nation. Blame Kurt Cobain. Why not blame Beavis – and Butthead, too? Kids should be happy! Kids should not be depressed! What have they got to be worried about?

This was not the case. The world was and is often a depressing place, a place that will test a person of any age. Bad things happen. It was thus in the 1990s, and ever will be. To underestimate the emotional acuity of a teenager in any generation is a big mistake.

Of course, not every aspect of our adolescence was doom and gloom – but the sunnier side, the humour, the romance, much of which can be found on film, was chock full of intertextuality and pastiche: nods to the past, to pop culture, and redoing what’s been done. Some of today’s youth wear peace signs and smiley faces, and believe it is “so nineties” to do so. Yes, it was fashionable, but still retro, in the nineties. The sixties did it first. To add to this cultural amalgamation of past and future, mid-1990s teenagers had their feet in two different generational pools. The teenagers of the 1980s (who were then the twenty-somethings making music and films in the 1990s, nigh-on worshipped by people like me) were firmly viewed as Generation X, and much – admittedly derisory – fuss was made of them by the media. The folks born just after us are definitely Millennials, those shimmering, confident, selfie-snapping beacons of the new technological dawn, and even more fuss is being made of them. For a few years at the turn of a decade, babies were born who would later be shifted between one generation and another by journalists and sociologists for the rest of forever.

The generational muddying in the 1990s for me is represented best through those myriad retellings, cover versions, and rehashed cultural relics. Enter Amy Heckerling’s brilliant film Clueless (1995), which at the time made me simultaneously crestfallen and relieved that I lived in Middle of Nowhere, Ohio where there was a bit less pressure to choose your date outfits by Polaroid snapshots. Clueless was, in a previous incarnation, Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma, about a stubborn, spoilt, but good-hearted girl who plays matchmaker whilst ignoring her own love life. Later, after I’d finished school in Middle of Nowhere, and moved across the pond to A Very Big City on a Small Island, 1999 gave us 10 Things I Hate About You. Turning The Taming of the Shrew’s mouthy male lead Petruchio into bad boy Patrick Verona, and strong-willed Kate into modern feminist riot-grrrl Kat was part of a new vision of the Bard as a super rad guy people should enjoy reading instead of dreading. (You might also remember that little Romeo + Juliet movie from 1996. Some people quite liked that one.)

Not only were these films retellings of centuries-old romantic comedies resting comfortably in the canon of English Literature, but check out those soundtracks – new old songs! Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America”, as covered by The Muffs and played over a montage of laughing, beautiful young people for the opening scenes of Clueless, makes immediate sense. Kim Wilde was totally not a Kid in America. She’s as English as Jane Austen herself. Kim Shattuck of The Muffs, on the other hand, is cute-and-snarling, all American. Cher, our adorable heroine, is Emma, but like, totally new, and Californian, and like, “way existential”. 10 Things I Hate About You’s soundtrack features Letters to Cleo bending the original gender roles with a cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” – again, perfectly placed, because the entire premise of The Taming of the Shrew – I mean, 10 Things – is that Kate – I mean, Kat – doesn’t want Petruchio – I mean, Patrick – to want her. But then, of course, she does. And the beauty of the 1999 story is, the shrew is not tamed, there is no question of whether the plot is cleverly feminist or outright misogynist. Kat is loved and understood, and gets a new guitar to boot.

The young uns watching this stuff and listening to these tunes weren’t victims of the most postmodern of all decades. We enjoyed the retellings, the cover versions (even now you’ll find I am a traitor who prefers Save Ferris’s ska pop version of “Come on Eileen” to the original Dexy’s staple of my childhood) – they introduced us to classic lit and classic rock, in ways that school and parents never could. And then we grew up and expanded our minds even further outside of it all, as young adults do. And then some of us made a difference by creating things ourselves.

Update it. Repackage it. The retelling will still lead to some kind of truth. But above all, don’t underestimate the kids – in America, or anywhere else.


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