Last November, me and a friend decided to start a zine. The zine would consist of interviews with musicians and artists whose work and politics we found radical and innovative. It took us a while to come to a fully formed ethos, but when we did, the project transformed into something really exciting for both of us. Doing it required for me to come out of my shell, going to DIY shows a couple times a week and being an active participant instead of an observer, going up to people I admired and talking to them, asking them for a favor, embarking on long conversations. Until then, I had never really engaged with a creative scene like that. I had listened to DIY punk for years, and spent hours in my room reading other people’s interviews with musicians I loved, scrolling through music blogs and watching videos of live performances. But my first real DIY show had felt like a misstep, and I spent the whole time standing in the corner watching stylish punks drink vodka from mason jars and feeling like an awkward appendage to the events at hand, a child who had wandered out of her playpen into the big wide world of punk. When I started going to shows again last fall, it never occurred to me that my age could be anything but a hindrance. But when I started my zine, and started actually engaging with people (normally adults) in the scene, I realized that my youth was viewed as something exciting, not embarrassing.
People would laugh when they heard my age, or give me incredulous looks. The most common response I got was “how do you know so much already?" which often led to “you’re so cool!" As someone who’s always been anxious about my perceived maturity, proclamations of my impressive taste or precocity felt like a hard earned gift. I had always compared myself to impressive teenagers I knew or read about, and suddenly, people were treating me like one just by virtue of my having cultivated my own unique taste. It was exciting, but sometimes it left a bad taste in my mouth, and I could never pinpoint why. The kind of compliments I was getting were exactly the kind of compliments I wanted, but after a while they stopped giving me the rush I initially got from hearing them. Behind those compliments there seemed to be a subtle vein of condescension.
It shocks me, time and time again, when I enter a DIY show or a poetry reading and am viewed as somehow exceptional for simply being there. That by virtue of having tastes and being creative, I am viewed as doing something completely outside the norm for people my age. I won’t lie, it’s a great ego boost to be called “the coolest teenager I know" and have my tastes lauded as special and impressive. But underneath all the pride I feel for having cheated the system and discovered cool things before other people did, there’s an underlying insecurity. When all of your creative or intellectual accomplishments are tied up with your age, it begins to feel like your impressiveness is ephemeral, that one day, when you turn eighteen or twenty one or graduate college, you’ll join the ranks of everyone else; that suddenly, the barrier to accomplishment will be raised so high that you won’t be able to reach it at all. I often feel like I have to squeeze in as much as I can into the next couple years, that I have to lay out an entire professional framework for myself before I graduate high school.
With all the “twenty under twenty" lists and newspaper profiles of teenage wunderkinds, youth is becoming more and more coveted. The new millennial success story is all about starting as early as possible and having a cultural empire fully constructed by the time young adulthood is over. As much as the DIY scene or other creative communities try and rewrite the script of how youth is treated, sometimes the pressure to embody the prodigious teenager trope is inescapable. I find myself clinging to age based compliments and insults, the things that make me feel like I am somehow special. I find myself doing things not just for the joy of doing them, but for the rush of being told I’m “really smart for a teenager" once I’ve done them. I even find myself competing with my friends, worried that if they do something more impressive than I do, I will retreat back into the realm of a normal kid. And maybe this can all be drawn back to my personality, the neurotic and power hungry monster that lives inside of me, the Capricorn in me. And that’s definitely part of it. But I think my insecurity lies within the web of something bigger, a pervasive cultural attitude that tokenizes youth to the point where for us teenagers, our youth is inescapable.
But youth isn’t inescapable. Youth is, in fact, incredibly fleeting, one of the only identity factors that everybody possesses at some point and then eventually loses. We were all a kid once. And we’ll all eventually transition out of that mode, whether or not or childhood and adolescence amounted to incredible accomplishments. In the moment, it’s easy to forget that there will be a time in your life past what you are living now. And sometimes, the media wants us to forget this. For the teenage success story, this success can be a double edged sword. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch people like Tavi Gevinson, whose oeuvre gets more and more complex and interesting with every new endeavor she takes on, get the same questions over and over again about what it was like to go to Fashion Week at thirteen years old when she obviously has so much more to say than that. It’s frustrating to watch brilliant teenage activists like Amandla Stenberg’s incredibly valid critiques of white supremacy and cultural appropriation be reduced to adolescent rantings (though with Stenberg, the situation is more complex, as a young black woman, age based criticism coexists with racist expectations of how black women should behave.) When a teenager is intelligent, creative, or powerful, what should be held at the forefront of the narratives surrounding them should be their intelligence/creativity/power, not their age. Everyone’s personality, and everyone’s achievements, should be given the opportunity to stand alone.
This is why we need more outlets that value, but don’t valorize, teenage accomplishment. This is why we need more platforms to showcase teenage creativity, more all ages shows with young bands on the bill, more magazines publishing young people among more established writers. This is why we need platforms like this very issue of The Media, which showcase a variety of young voices doing so many different interesting things. Because the truth is, creative young people are not the exception, they’re normal, they’re everywhere. This doesn’t mean that individual teenagers doing impressive things are any less impressive, it just means that almost every teenager is contributing something interesting to whatever discourse they engage in. As nice as it can be to feel like my coolness is the exception to the rule, it’s not true. All my teenage friends are cool teens, people I admire are cool teens, even people I can’t stand are probably cool teens in their own way. The world is brimming with young people doing innovative and amazing things. We need to celebrate that for what it is, not diminish it or aggrandize it.
And even deeper than that, there’s no obligation for teenagers to do anything amazing or innovative. You can be a unique and interesting person without changing the world. One of the main tenets of the narrative of the ~cool millennial teen~ is doing something that is in someway groundbreaking, that makes waves through society as a whole, but this is not at all necessary. Adolescence is, after all, a time to explore yourself and make mistakes. My zine isn’t some sleekly produced, nationally renowned publication, it’s a clumsy independent project that owes just as much to procrastination and confusion as it is does to creativity and initiative. You can be cool, you can be interesting, you can be valuable, without having it all figured out. Adolescent accomplishment is a fraught terrain, but that doesn’t mean that you have to squeeze yourself into that narrative. You don’t need to make any concessions based on your age. You don’t have to feel like you have to be any certain way to have your adolescent accomplishments matter. Because no matter what, they do.