Teen magazines, globalization and cultural encounters

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Bravo magazine, circa 1992

Last year I participated in the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, held in Wroclaw, Poland. For two weeks me and my fellow PhD students took courses on globalization, culture and democracy. The academic experience was fantastic, but it was in socialization (as always) that I learned the most interesting things.

Being that it was in Poland, many of the TCDS participants were Polish. Given that this was a sort of “summer board school”, I talked quite extensively with them. At some point, whilst talking to one such Polish girl, I was engaged in a great conversation about popular culture in the 90s, when both of us were teenagers.

Some context: Under communist rule, Poland had great restrictions on the import of cultural goods from Western Europe and America. For that reason, when the opening of the cultural markets occurred in 1990, all sorts of Western popular culture products were introduced into the country. For many Poles born around 1980, this new Western popular music, movies and television became a part of their adolescence and their teenage dreams. Being a teenager at that time, I was told by my Polish friend, meant that  this was the first generation to experience growing up as a child of the Polish communist culture and then developing taste (in their teenage years) for Western popular culture (an industry which, after the fall of the communist regimes, had a new huge international market to conquer). In a way, the generation of those born in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the first generation that grew up feeling they shared European and a globalized sense of identity, thanks to their exposure to cultural globalization in the new age of the global mass media industry.

At the same time, in Peru, after a decade of restrictions on imports (due to state restrictions to encourage national industry), the markets were open for new “official” (non-black market) imports. It is true that north american and European popular music had always been available to the Peruvian public (even if LPs were pressed nationally and in a restricted manner), but what had not been available up to that point were the international mediums that surrounded foreign popular culture.

There WERE peruvian radio stations playing music in English, television programs where their music videos were shown and even magazines about popular culture in Peru. However there were no imports of magazines or any other medium that would allow their readers to feel part of a “global” public sphere. Until the early 1990s, the Peruvian popular culture market did not have a regional (south American) or international medium for discussing popular culture outside of the local context (remember, these were the days before the Internet age).

At the beginning of the 1990s in Central and Eastern Europe there were Europe-wide “public spheres” of popular music. In many ways, the opening of Europe-wide markets for consuming popular culture was already a public spheres in itself; but in addition to that, there were (albeit in local versions, particularly due to the difference of language) television channels (MTV for instance) and popular culture magazines. German publishers were particularly interested in the new markets in the newly liberalized Central and Eastern Europe, and they expanded their readership by millions by offering local versions of many of their flagship magazines. However, given that completely local adaptations of these magazines would mean the need to employ a completely local writing staff for each country, at this point in time (between 1990 and around 1994) most magazines were mostly local translations of the original German content. Which means that, in the end, everyone in the new Europe were exposed to the same content.

This was the case, in particular, of Bravo magazine. For those who are not familiar with it, Bravo is a German equivalent to American teenage magazines such as “17″. In its day, the magazine was very popular not only for discussing music and popular culture, but also because in its pages their readers could find discussions relevant to teenagers, with sections about sexuality (a big part of the appeal of the magazine apparently), school, friendship, etc. By 1992, the magazine was widely read in countries such as Germany, Austria, Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and others. The readership: mainly teenagers between the ages of 12 to 16 (that is, those born around the late 1970s and the early 1980s). Through its pages, its readers began to form a “European” identity of popular culture, in a loose sense.

The Peruvian popular culture market has always been closer to the United States. Foreign-language popular culture had, since the 1940s, come predominantly from North America. However, with the market having just been opened, economic distress and a lack of legislative securities, there was much fear from American publishers to establish “brands” in the Peruvian market. It is for that reason that, for instance, at that point in time there were no Peruvian versions of 17, Rolling Stone or Spin magazines (eventually there would be “Latin American” versions of them, but this would only happen many years later and mainly at a regional level). Because of this American fears for entering the Peruvian market , it was actually the German publisher of Bravo that stuck deals for the importation of their magazine with local a single magazine importer. Being that the import of this magazine was very small-scale, what people read was not a Latin American version of Bravo magazine, but rather the German version of it… and it was expensive! (in current money, this magazine would have cost around $10, in a market where most magazines would cost around $2).

Now, not many people speak German in Peru (even less at that time). On top of that, who would buy a magazine for such a high price? Well… I did, as did many teenagers coming from the upper and upper middle class of Peruvian society (many of my friends). We did not read the articles (save for the few who were educated in the German school), nor did we buy the magazine every month, but we were fascinated by its pictures, the European advertisements, the visual culture that was presented, promising us a piece of the new cosmopolitanism that my generation (amongst those that I shared a similar sociocultural and socioeconomic background) was told we could now aspire to. On top of that, we were very much aware that purchasing it was a privilege that only we could afford. In a society of extreme inequalities such as the Peruvian, this sort of consumption became subcultural capital. The possibility of buying a piece of European cosmopolitanism meant that we belonged to a privileged and exclusive class within Peruvian society, and “reading” a German magazine was not dissimilar at that time to being able to shop at a United Colors of Benetton store or traveling to the United States during school holidays.

So, interestingly, in my conversation with my Polish counterparts, I realized that, in many ways, we were united by popular culture and by a certain “phantasmagoric” (far and close at the same time) sense of identity… even if during our teenage years we were separated by geography, language, history and all that there is to say about the distances between Latin America and the former countries of the communist block. In many ways, I felt that I was perhaps closer to them in that aspect of my identity than I was with the majority of people living in Peru.

Perhaps this is a good example of what it means to look at culture in the process of globalization… realizing, at the same time, that it is not only about big impersonal and seemingly reified processes of the global market, international politics and international networks of consumption.

On the contrary, the effects of globalization are also felt in individuals, their identities and how they define themselves. The fact that in Poland two people from seemingly different social, cultural and historical backgrounds could encounter each other and feel that they sort of had a shared teenage “dream” is quite a powerful and emotional thing.

Thus, I think this is a good opening reflection on why culture matters and how culture both shapes and is the shaper of social and personal processes; that is, the guiding questions this blog hopes to assess.

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