Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, and Ben Lloyd-Hughes in Divergent.
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Laurie Penny on fiction: No wonder teens love stories about dystopias – they feel like they’re in one

Civilisation as we know it could collapse in 15 years, something which is reflected in the viewing habits of today’s kids.

Fifteen years. According to a Guardian report, “civilisation” as we know it could collapse in 15 years. In a Nasa-funded paper, accepted for publication in the journal Ecological Economics, resource depletion, climate change, escalating inequality and the unstoppable greed of the elite are all cited as reasons to imagine why democracy as we know it is time-limited. The study was initially reported uncritically; Nasa has since attempted to distance itself from the paper. Yet the countless young people who shared its conclusions on social media seemed to do so with a gloomy shrug, as if their suspicions were merely being confirmed. I was reminded of this while booking tickets for Divergent, the film version of a wildly popular dystopian young adult novel.

It is always worth paying attention to what the kids are reading. Sparkly chauvinist vampires are finally falling out of fashion, with “supernatural romance” giving way to “horrific post-apocalypse dictatorship” as the main refrain of young adult literature. The Hunger Games, thankfully, has killed Twilight. It elbowed aside wilting reactionary female leads literally dying to be abducted by floppy-haired, cold-blooded aristocrats in favour of badass heroines shooting arrows through the heart of post-capitalist patriarchy. What would Katniss Everdeen do with Edward Cullen? The creepy love interest of the Twilight novels would surely find himself staked out at the gates of Panem as a warning about what happens when entitled nobility oversteps itself.

The themes of Divergent, the debut novel of the 25-year-old American author Veronica Roth, are no less exciting for being familiar. A courageous but flawed young girl finds herself at odds with a repressive oligarchy established after an earlier collapse of civilisation. She must fight for her survival and that of her people. Along the way, there’s some smooching, moral turpitude and buckets and buckets of blood.

Today’s teens love stories about dystopia and they have plenty of appetite for more. Readers are already eagerly anticipating the next instalment of Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season, starring yet another complex, challenging female lead who is more afraid of her government than any monster. Shannon was a teenager when she began writing it. Veronica Roth was 22 when Divergent was released. That these books are febrile and replete with the rhetorical simplicity of a teenage manifesto only makes their message more compelling: Cinderella as rewritten by CrimethInc to a riot grrrl soundtrack.

Young adult books (and films) are part of a relatively new genre and they speak to the young adult inside us all, the part whose identity is yet unformed, full of rage and fear and longing. They’re not great literature, which is fine, because they’re not designed to be. The new teen dystopias are profoundly romantic, full of doomed crushes and broody heroes in tight athletic suits, but they resist portraying love as the answer to the heroine’s problems. Kissing is fantastic but what Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior and Paige Mahoney need is someone with pretty eyes to help them bring down the government. Don’t we all?

The stories begin with co-option – with the heroines being forced to compete in the system of violence of which they are unwillingly a part. Why do they do it? Why would any rebellious girl consent to play along, fighting her peers for the amusement of those with power? Because they’ve got her family, of course. A running theme in the new teen dystopias is profound anxiety for the protagonist’s siblings, parents and friends – an individual might be able to escape but they’ll have to leave their loved ones behind. This is an important break with the more conventional young adult device of killing off the family before the story starts. Today’s teen protagonists are worried about how the people they love will manage in the meathook future. They want to know if romance and adventure will still be possible. They want to know if they’ll have the strength to survive.

There are clear reasons why this sort of story is appealing. The complete collapse of the narrative of what a secure future looks like for today’s young people and the grim messages about what the teenagers who grew up with Occupy and austerity have to look forward to as the planet heats up, the job market stutters, pension provision is depleted and the police get meaner have fostered a generational anxiety about how to cope with overmighty state power. These stories function both as manifesto and pressure release valve. They are escapist only in that they allow for the possibility of resistance. The message of The Hunger Games, like the message of The Bone Season, could not be starker: however much they make you fight one another, you must always “remember who the real enemy is”.

The next generation don’t need a Nasa-funded study to predict that their adult lives will be harder than those of their parents. Slavoj Žižek, every hipster’s favourite communist philosopher, once opined: “It’s easy to imagine the end of the world . . . but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” I’m not sure that’s true any longer. I suspect that young people today are gradually beginning to imagine what the end of capitalism as we know it might look like – and while it might be exciting, it won’t be a lot of fun and might require some weapons training. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.