OMG, like - WTF???!?!? I am sooooo pissed. Can anyone tell me, like, why my friends have begun talking like teenagers? And not just, like, teenagers, but American teenagers. And not even just, like, American teenagers, but specifically rich, white American teenagers from New York or southern California? And not even just like rich, white American teenagers from New York or southern California, but actually more like, rich, white American teenagers from New York or south California who are in fact characters in TV series?
Do you – if I might use an olde English expression for a moment – know what I mean? I’m talking about the adoption of American slang, by British people – but not the usual British people. I know that in our teens and early 20s, most of us have picked up phrases and usages from American kids in films and TV series, but it seems to me that in the last couple of years this youthful tendency has spread to about respectable, professional adults who are in some cases married with children.
Please note that I do not solely refer to chat room/e-mail/text acronyms like OMG, BRB, LOL, but to the appalling mimicry of entire vocabularies. “Ohmigod I am so pissed!” A 33-year-old woman informed me in January, referring to annoyance rather than inebriation. “Work is a total bummer, and Anna is, like, totally giving me shade. My life just totally fucking sucks.” I was so bemused by this that I didn’t know quite what to say in reply (although “aren’t you from somewhere near Bradford?” was tempting), but after that it got worse. I began noticing dozens of people I knew, lightly greying, wrinkle-eyed people like me, trying to sound like a sort of cross between Perez Hilton and Blair Waldorf – and actually bringing to mind characters in the Arctic Monkey’s Fake Tales of San Francisco. “Kudos to you!” “He’s so hot right now!” “Ewww!”. Someone, born and brought up in Leeds, even referred to “a regular TV show”, which was strange because “show” and “regular” in this context were not even interesting new usages. It was like an American thinking they sounded more modern because they said “standard television series”. Strange. Are these just tics, or are there stranger psychological currents eddying around here?
The best-known of the fictional characters and “reality” stars currently leading tongues astray include Blair Waldorf (Gossip Girl), , Lauren Conrad (Laguna Beach/The Hills), the late Marissa Cooper (The OC), Chuck Bass (GG) and even, Lord help us, Troy Bolten. Their influences have built on the established acceptability of “dude” and “kinda cool” to make even such transatlanticisms as “TMI” and “totally sucks” as over-familiar as footless tights and bad fake tan among 30somethings who should know better. What makes these influences truly terrifying is that they are not restricted to language. This year I have begun to notice this subconscious (as I really hope it is) assimilation of modern pubescent-preppie idioms creeping into other kinds of behaviour too. Clothing, facial expressions, food tastes, everything; the signs are that the ultimate effect will be the creation of an entirely new British lifestyle demographic; the Drag Teen.
If the sole definition of Drag Teen was copying of slang from imported television programmes, it might not be too bad; it would, at least, mean you didn’t have to look at it. Unfortunately, though, it has not stopped there. It has begun to seep into a) wardrobes, and b) possibly – ewwww! – erotic fantasy. Let us consider a) first.
The great male DT wardrobe staple is, of course, the low-slung, pulled-down jean; it looks bad enough on fashionable adolescents, but on 32-year-olds it looks like something that in previous centuries would have got you locked up in a lunatic asylum. For lady D Ts, the corresponding offence is the lumpy legging. I don’t know whether the leggings revival actually began in LA or not, but the teen-TV programmes have certainly promoted this most tricky of legwear as part of that young LA, thrown-together look. Why can mature women not resist it? I could be missing something, but to me it seems strange that women who seriously ask themselves and each other if they are too old to wear mini skirts, will happily insert themselves into such unforgiving items; in a mini skirt, fake tan can help an older leg no end, but a legginged leg has nowhere to hide.
Ra-ra skirts, brightly-coloured converse trainers, excessive frill-age, Urban Outfitters T shirts, super-hero paraphernalia, over-fancy haircuts, all things flurouescent-bright and not very beautiful, the Drag teen loves them all. But it doesn’t end there - no way, man. It extends to grown men riding on pavements on their adolescent-fantasy Schwinn bikes, and their wives, who would usually be fussy about artificial additives in their food, fetishising Jolly Rancher sweets and Tootsie Rolls bought at inflated prices from Cybercandy in Covent Garden. And it exists in private just as much as it does in public, I know one couple who recently watched High School Musical on television while their three-year old daughter was asleep, but there was worse to come than even that. In the early summer of 2009, I ended up in Starbucks with a gay male friend and a straight female one who also has two children. As we sipped those weird dessert-substitute cold drinks, the two of them discussed with barely any embarrassment their guilty pleasure in fancying Zac Ephron. TMI, dudez.
To be fair, this is all just a question of scale; after all, there is nothing new about US teen drama influencing UK style. However, it is also fair to say that this time around, potential Drag Teens have been targeted and encouraged. The current crop of TV programmes probably have a lineage going back to the early 1980s when the American entertainment industry discovered Valley girls. Frank Zappa’s 1982 song Valley Girl, featuring spoken vocals by his then 14-year old daughter Moon Unit, is usually credited with facilitating the discovery of these upwardly socially-mobile young women from the San Fernando Valley in Los Angles. The track highlighted their most memorable characteristic, ie “Valspeak”, the distinctive sociolect full of qualifiers (like, duh! as if! totally!) and sentences that, like, made statements sound like questions? Secret languages and dialects always have a certain appeal, but there was something about Valspeak, with its inventiveness and its collision of pop-culture references (Baldwins, Bettys), irony (tres, as if), cod-formality (seriously, U Vs) and blankness (Whatever!) that felt right for the 1980s. Maybe it was the same in the early 1960s when the Beatles’ irreverent, informal witticisms somehow captured a mood and, in the process, the heart of America.
Valley girls got their own eponymous film in 1983 (Zappa tried to sue), and then they and similar fast-talking, wise-assing, power-shopping sub-species featured in other Eighties teen flicks, crossing over to Tv courtesy of Aaron Spelling’s Beverly Hills 90210 in 1990. The zippy dialogue has always been important – think, for example, of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or Clueless, or Buffy The Vampire Slayer – and in the last decade some writers have set out to deliberately capitalize on that, With Buffy, the writer Joss Wheedon consciously created and exploited a language that was half Valley, half Goth, and used it in the promotion of the show. With The OC and Gossip Girl Josh Schwartz did the same, only, uh, like more so. The Gossip Girl website has a (rather good) section called Gossip Guide, with Speak of the Week video clips exploring and explaining phrases (Bass-talk, Blairnoid, Ment-whore etc). The clips are used to promote Gossip Girl on video-sharing sites.
Perhaps Drag Teens were inevitable. The TV series were good, their marketing was smart and the British are always susceptible to Americana because of the shared language. It’s hard to know if it’s a Bad Thing or not. It does seem strange that the whole thing is based on fiction. It’s not as if real people in America talk in such a convoluted way (well, not most of them anyway), so DT-ism can seem like an example of that modern practice of trying to live a kind of life that doesn't really exist apart from in the mass media. In some ways D Ts are like a posher version of the men and women in my local pub who, when they get pissed, start talking as though they’re on the Jeremy Kyle.
It could also be seen as a logical progression in a world of botox and collagen and lipo? The media/celebrity-fuelled obsession with preventing aging means that it has become completely unacceptable for people to show any signs of aging; even the parents in the new teen tv have to be hotties (see Gossip Girl). This is ridiculous but very difficult not to get sucked into, and as a result we now have loads of people who think they are being 'young' but in fact just look like old people with inappropriate clothing/haircuts etc.
And yet, even though the sound of 40-year-old British men saying “I am sooooo like whatever!” does make me wince, this analysis seems somehow terribly serious and unforgiving now I’ve said it. Or rather typed it. It seems unforgiving because most of us are going through a frightening, confidence-sapping and depressing time when guiltless fun is a bit thin on the ground. Such times need forgiveness, daftness, escapism and small consolations; karaoke, , Susan Boyle, Kate Winslet winning an Oscar and some people thinking you’re bonkers but you just thinking you’re free. In this context, maybe using silly made-up slang is just a free way of adding something of interest to daily life. What are we meant to talk about past 35, our mortgage deficit?
To be honest, I have to make allowances anyway. The couple watching High School Musical was me and the wife. I loved it; to be honest, I didn’t even mind my friends going about Zac, really, apart from one detail about they’d like to do to him. That was TMI, but you know. Whatever.