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On the Arts: Teen critics are bright, articulate and -- best of all -- fresh

Sunday, August 26, 2001

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The old counter-culture maxim, "Don't trust anyone over 30," was pretty bad advice. But it's equally ill-advised for grownup rock 'n' rollers to smirk or cringe at America's youth culture.

Previous generations pushed the envelope with the pelvic thrusts of Elvis Presley and Linda Lovelace. Turn on the radio, and it's easy to fear that the envelope has been brushed off the table. Sexual references in pop culture are pervasive even in products aimed at pre-teens. Depictions of extreme violence are routine. Scenes of drug use are mild by comparison.

But listen closely to what young consumers are saying about their own culture and its origins. Their parents' generation got what they wanted: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The kids are saying: You gave it to us -- get used to it.

The fact is, teens and young adults have cash, few if any financial responsibilities and no brand loyalties. They'll buy it if they like it, and they're likely to like what their friends like.

Corporations tap into the primal teen urge to be part of a group by linking their products to the hippest social cliques. Film, TV, fashion and music are more than a glue that binds the vast youth culture. They're the street colors that label an individual. Are you punk or pop? Britney or Blink? Down with the hip-hop nation or into the rave scene? Teens and young adults live in a global community where membership costs -- show the right colors and they might let you in. If you were part of "the Pepsi Generation" in the '70s, you know what I'm talking about.

That's why so many adults look at boy bands, girl groups, rap acts and gross-out films and say, "Huh?" They wonder if the hair conditioner in "There's Something About Mary" should be available for public consumption. They wonder what God ever did to upset Marilyn Manson. Back in their day, kids aspired to become rich, rock-star drug criminals. Now, rich drug criminals become rap stars.

Cultural standards are changing, and adults don't get it. Duh! "Freddy Got Fingered," Godsmack and 'N Sync don't appeal to most older consumers because they're not supposed to -- they're crafted to the strict standards of their target markets. The times they are a-changin', and like our parents and grandparents before us, we can't stop it. Best we can do is trust that our kids can handle the world we've made for them.

There's evidence that we can and they can.

Last year, when 'N Sync closed Three Rivers Stadium, the PG's thirtysomething critic gave the concert a favorable, balanced review, lacing his commentary with insight earned through many years of concert reviewing. As sort of an experiment to see how many young eyes were reading, we invited teens to submit their own 'N Sync reviews for publication on the paper's Web site.

The result was overwhelming. Dozens of young fans responded -- many more than expected. Many of the reviews were surprisingly well written. Without the background to compare and contrast 'N Sync's talents against those of past pop sensations, the young writers concentrated on what was important to them: flashy stage effects, precision choreography, rich harmonies and -- most importantly -- the feeling of unity with 50,000 other adoring fans.

Intrigued by the quality of those reviews, the A&E department launched a unique Web-only project that invites young people to add their two cents to ours in the hope of making change. A year ago this week, we christened "Movies 'n' Music," which you can find at www.post-gazette.com/mandm (if you're reading online, go to the homepage, A&E and then M'n'M).

At Movies 'n' Music, six teen writers are given one review assignment per week for a month. We spring for the concert and movie tickets, CDs and videos -- the opinions are theirs. The critiques are published with the authors' photos, fun dossiers and links to the reviews of PG staff writers and band and movie Web sites. The reviews remain accessible indefinitely on an archives page, and writers who complete the program (in a year; only two haven't) get a letter of reference from the Post-Gazette.

I've been analyzing the best and worst of pop culture for 20 years. As M'n'M project manager, I was not shocked to find that teen critics see things from a different perspective. What surprised me was the innate ability of some young writers to articulate complex ideas, their independence and willingness be honest in print and their maturity and dedication to the project.

While no one under 17 is asked to see an R-rated film, we don't preview the materials M'n'M writers are assigned to review. Though some of it is graphic, the language and extreme situations seem to phase them as little as David Bowie's cross-dressing offended their parents when they were young.

"[A] particularly catchy hook and [what] would be an altogether good track," wrote 15-year-old Sean Collier of West View in his review of the latest OutKast album, "were it not for the moronic and out-of-place vulgarity and crudeness."

"The only thing that I found to be tasteless" about Xzibit's Laga concert, wrote 17-year-old Amanda Leff of Plum, "was his frequent reference to marijuana. He makes a point of actually asking who in the audience uses this drug, which I feel is appalling."

They're not writing what they think we want them to write. Routinely, M'n'M critics define their culture's parameters and spank the artists who stray too far from the center.

I've noticed something else, too. Although most M'n'M participants probably get involved for the free tickets, some seem genuinely surprised to learn from their editor that they're actually good at this. I see it in the way they write with increasing confidence, read it in their e-mail messages and hear it in their voices -- a sense of discovery of an emerging part of themselves and pride in realizing that they're special. And isn't that what being a teen-ager is supposed to be about?

I have a drawer full of letters from M'n'M veterans who say the experience has inspired them to pursue careers in writing. Many have included their published clips and reference letters in submissions to college writing programs. A few have landed editorial internships.

In September, M'n'M goes to school. In a special feature to be called Critiquing 101, teachers and school newspaper advisers will be invited to turn pop-art reviewing into class projects that satisfy several state education requirements while getting all of their students published to the Internet.

Is the world going to hell? Beats me. But young people have something to say about it. Is anybody listening?

To be considered for a spot on an upcoming Movies 'n' Music panel, writers 13 to 19 should submit a sample review of a movie, CD, concert, etc. to mandm@post-gazette.com Include your name, age, phone number and town (be specific). Educators interested in Critiquing 101 should request details at the same address.

John Hayes is a Post-Gazette Arts & Entertainment writer.

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