Guest blog: Music and youth identity

In this special guest blog, MNet intern and University of Ottawa criminology graduate Aaron Bawn looks at the importance of music to youth identity.

The famous comedian Bill Cosby once said, “Nothing separates the generations more than music. By the time a child is eight or nine, he has developed a passion for his own music that is even stronger than his passions for procrastination and weird clothes.” Cosby was certainly correct about the power of music, but he may have failed to recognize that characteristics youth become ‘passionate' about may not actually be separate from their musical affiliations.

Recent studies have made numerous conclusions regarding the influence and power of music, more specifically the large amount of power music has over youth identity. A 2009 paper entitled “Musical Taste and Ingroup Favouritism” explains how musical taste can be seen as a social ‘badge' or a means for individuals to categorize themselves within society; for youth, “the distinctiveness of young people's musical affiliations appears to contribute to their social identity,” as Dominic Abrams puts it in his article Social Identity on a National Scale: Optimal Distinctiveness and Young People's Self-Expression Through Musical Preference. One theory explaining the tendency of youth to self-identify based on their musical preferences focuses on the stages of human development. The term self-schema describes the internal cognitive portrait of one's self, in other words the “who I am” part of the human psyche; as a youth passes through the various stages of childhood, his or her self-schema is developed. During the development of one's self, youth use musical subcultures as role models and guides to determine how they should create their own self-schema.

Not only do we use music to define our own identities, but we often use musical tastes as a key to how we see others, stereotyping fans of different musical genres to social categories or labeling them with particular psychological characteristics. This can sharpen the importance of our own musical tastes in defining our identities: see what happens when a 14-year-old “punk” is referred to as “emo,” a mistake any musically literate teen or tween can tell you would be considered identification blasphemy.

What is the difference between “punk” and “emo” music, and how did these subcultures of music evolve? Out of the undifferentiated “rock and roll” of the 1950s – which was itself an offshoot of Blues music – came a dizzying array of subgenres, each of which valued some different aspect of the music. The earliest example of this was the division of rock fans into “rockers” and “mods” (though the Beatles attempted to bridge this schism by declaring themselves “mockers.”) In the 1970s, in reaction to the perceived excesses of disco and “prog rock,” the “punk” genre presented itself as a return to the basic values of homemade rock, with “hardcore punk” as one of its own subgenres. This too divided into multiple genres, with one being called “emotional hardcore” – later shortened to “emo”, the term it is referred to today. (Similar subgenres of punk include “Screamo”, “Skate punk” and even “Christian Hardcore Punk.”) Nearly all genres of popular music have a similar spectrum of subgenres: rap, for instance, can be divided into “Gangsta Rap” to “East Coast Hip-Hop” to “Dirty South Chopped-N-Screwed” among many others, and like punk music each subgenre has its own self-identified fans who belong to related subcultures.

Author Daniel J. Levitin helps explain how we as a culture discriminate between the different subgenres of music in his 2006 book “This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession”. As Levitin explains, categories are formed around prototypes, cases or examples we consider to be the fundamental specimens of a particular thing. (For instance, researchers found a particular shade of red that all their subjects agreed was the “most red red”; this was the prototype of the colour red.) New forms of music, then, are judged in comparison to the prototypical band or example of the genre. The catch however is that there need not be any attribute that is the same amongst all the bands in the genre; rather, they only need to be comparable to the prototype. Surprisingly enough, in Levitin's studies “people appear to agree as to what are prototypical songs for musical categories, such as ‘country music,' ‘skate punk,' and ‘baroque music.'” An unusual example of a music prototype that has created its own categorization is the band Insane Clown Posse. Unlike most subcultures, which self-identify based on their preference for a genre of music, the term “Juggalos” refers specifically to those loyal to this particular group, which has inspired a subculture that is recognizable based on similar interests, attire, and the slang language used.

Musical subcultures have the power to bring individuals together, set fashion trends, influence language and, as seen recently in Ohio, inspire hatred. As Bill Cosby explained, musical interests are powerfully developed at a young age; they can explain both how youth are viewed by society, and how individuals view themselves, both of which can influence a person's behaviour. As musical genres continue to proliferate, and the lines between them continue to blur, so too will the lines between musical subcultures become less distinct. It is hard to say what implications further distortion may have towards youth; perhaps as musical groups reposition and redefine themselves within the different genres listeners will have trouble self-identifying, abandoning the process entirely – or perhaps listeners will embrace this distortion simply create more and more new subcultures.