Minor YA novel peeves

Literally every single contemporary young adult novel I read has a hero who listens to the Smiths, The Cure, The Ramones, The Pixies, Elliot Smith, etc. I even read one John Green novel where the teenage hero listened to Neutral Milk Hotel! Now come on, I mean, this is not realistic. Whether you like it or not, pop music is basically for teenagers. Kids listen to One Direction, Taylor Swift, Adele, etc. It doesn’t make them terrible people, it just makes them human beings who listen to the music that’s being created for them.

Furthermore, nowadays alternative identities are just as commoditized (through Hot Topic, etc) as mainstream ones. In fact, when an author (published by a large media conglomerate like CBS, News Corp, Disney, etc) perpetuates the stereotype of the sensitive, alternative kid who listens to these bands, they’re really just participating in the corporate marketing of rebellion to teenagers. I mean, I know they don’t see it that way, but there’s no real transgression in this sort of characterization. Rather, it’s a dog-whistle: look at this kid, they’re so cool that nobody can tell they’re cool! And when so much weight is placed on certain brands and bands–when these things are made to mean something–that’s exactly what it means to commodify an identity. It tells kids that if they buy the right thing, then they can be different and unique.

I’ve never read a YA novel where the protagonist listens to Lady Gaga, but when I went to a Lady Gaga concert once, all the rhetoric was about how transgressive and outside-the-mainstream the audience was. Lady Gaga kept talking about how her audience was composed of these unique and special “little monsters,” and how here (in this massive stadium) they were finally safe from all the terrible people outside. And meanwhile I was sitting there being like, what? You’re the most popular artist in the world!

And that’s the rhetoric of the day. There’s never been a band that sold conformity. Everyone is a rebel. Everyone feels special. And it just seems a little bit lacking in self-reflection for a YA novel to pretend that high school is a tiny cadre of unique and different people who are surrounded by a vast mass of people who are happily conformist.

Comments (



  1. Karen

    Great blog post!

  2. Ian Creasey

    I agree with your analysis of the commoditisation of identity and rebellion.

    But it’s not just YA authors who make their characters listen to anachronistic music. I see it in SF all the time. There’ll be 23rd century space mechanics, or whatever, listening to the Grateful Dead. Yeah right, because today’s road-diggers are noted for their consumption of classical music.

    Heck “The Martian” had its hero watching huge amounts of 1970s TV!

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Haha, that’s true. I kind of feel more forgiving there though because it’s hard to invent new art.