Do you ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked?
In the late eighties there was a great deal of nostalgia for the sixties. There was something in the air, thanks to the interminable “it was 20 years ago today” celebrations of the Summer of Love. I was born in 1968, so was a product of flower power, yet I felt a sense of frustration about the generation that had come before. The idealism of the sixties and seventies sense of equality, liberty and fraternity seemed washed-out and sold-out in the wake of neo-liberalism’s finest hour. The prophets and the visionaries were wearing business suits and for Generation X there was a moribund sense that we’d missed the boat. At the time, I remember many cultural commentators speculating on the potential emergence of The Next Big Thing. Something was going to emerge that was shiny, new and promising. There were new drugs. There were consumer gadgets. There was The Stone Roses. It was the sixties coming back all over again, but with better cars, ecstasy and energy-effiecient heating.
PUMP UP THE VOLUME articulates the feelings of that period perfectly. Christian Slater plays Mark, a shy kid who has reluctantly moved to Arizona from the East coast, because his dad has become the local education commissioner. He is so shy that he is only able to communicate to his fellow students through the anonymous character of Happy Harry Hard-on who broadcasts from his bedroom via a short-wave radio broadcast. In his radio persona he is able to articulate his feelings about the world – particularly the confined universe of the school and how the sterility of the system has left his generation disenfranchised. He talks of being exhausted by a decade of no one to look up to. All of the baby-boomers have sold-out. His main inspiration comes from Lenny Bruce’s ‘How to talk dirty and influence people’: his routine includes an extended simulation of wanking.
It is the masturbation that captures the ears of his peers who, thanks to word-of-mouth, begin to hang on his every word. He begins to act like an agony uncle, asking his listeners to write in with their problems. When a fellow shy student asks whether he should kill himself ‘Harry’ fails to talk him out of it. The subsequent moral-panic from the adults inflames a witch-hunt to get Harry off the air. The character that Mark created in his bedroom to alleviate his loneliness, suddenly becomes a call to arms to the students – ‘steal the air’, ‘so be it’ and express yourself!
Rather than the more solipsistic approach of Ferris Bueller, Mark not only appeals to his listeners to liberate themselves from the conformist roles imposed on them by the regime of school, he actually provides a means of doing it: the prim, high-achiever puts her pearls and many diplomas in the microwave, causing it to inexplicably to explode – they always seemed so dangerous back then. The shockwaves are felt throughout the school, destabilising the head teacher who is driven to maintain the schools reputation by weeding out the trouble-makers and excluding them from the school. Her sharp practises are exposed as a kind of ‘gaming’ of the SATS system and she ultimately faces her comeuppance.
The touchstone for all teen movies must be Nicolas Ray’s ground-breaking REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). It wasn’t the first – thanks to the rise of the b-pictures, cinemas were awash with the likes of TEENAGE DEVIL DOLLS and TEENAGE CRIMEWAVE, but Ray’s film had the production values and budget of Warners and attempted to address teen-agers with a sense of empathy and understanding rather than a didactic tone. Its influence and longevity was helped by the death of James Dean, its star, days before its release. He remains an icon of cool. His characterisation of Jim Stark hit a chord with the youth of the fifties in a manner that still resonates and I think there’s something of Dean in Slater – Stark is also a kid from out of town trying to find his way through relationships.
PUMP UP THE VOLUME is all but forgotten. Moyle went on to produce the more mainstream EMPIRE RECORDS (1995), where the staff of an independent record store fight off a take-over by the all-consuming mega-store. He clearly had an ear for the prevailing moods in popular youth culture. In retrospect, the central premise of PUMP UP THE VOLUME seems remarkably prescient: The anonymity of the internet allows the modern teenager the chance to play with the social construction of themselves to their peers, too bad that today’s Happy Harry Hard-ons are spending their time wanking rather than rebelling.
As for that feeling that ‘something’ – anything – new is going to emerge that’s going to shake the world like the summer of 68 … well, we’re still waiting.