Today, are we all Young Werthers?

Before the rise of modern information technology, the shaping of a person would have likely happened through the local community – parents, elders, priest, officials – and I wonder if the culture was relatively static. Of course, there would have been fashions in culture but I get the impression these gradually spread and were longer-lasting. Picture it this way: La Roman de la Rose, most likely based on earlier oral stories is written by Guillaume de Lorris in the early 1200s. It spreads through France and abroad over the next 100 years. It’s translated into other languages, notably by Chaucer in around 1360, possibly Dante and van Aken as well. It’s popularity is maintained throughout Europe for at least another 100 years. So, too, spreads and transforms the conception of courtly love. There’s no doubt that La Roman de la Rose influenced how men and women behaved in love. I also wonder whether this even spread the idea of romantic love itself as an aspect of a person’s individuality?

Progress in transport and – above all – the printing press enabled culture to be spread faster and, perhaps, the shaping of people’s beliefs and their self-identity. Remember, the printing press – much like the internet today – was seen as allowing people access to potentially dangerous ideas. The faster the transmission of ideas (printed) the easier it is to share ideas, stories, music that create a cultural sensibility that affects how people think and behave.

I’m writing this sitting in a Starbucks listening to the music they play that sets the mood. Some teenage girls have been sitting near me looking at their phones and chattering about Love Island (which “boy” they like most) and this is what’s making me reflect on the effect of that certain combination of mood-music, social media and the presentation of romantic love for these teenagers. Where conceptions of courtly love took hundreds of years to spread through European society, the romance presented by Love Island seems relatively new and has got its claws itself into British youth culture rapidly.

I’m not saying that this sort of “influencing” or “shaping” of the way in which people behave is anything new. It’s how total it is.

In 1774, Goethe famously published The Sorrows of Young Werther, a fictional account of a sensitive young man who – unable to have the woman he loves and is rejected by German aristocratic society – shoots himself. It was an immediate sensation and led to the “Wether Effect” throughout Europe: men dressing like Werther, products sold as tie-ins to the Werther craze and even an epidemic of suicides in the fashion of Wether with a copy of the book beside the bodies (it’s claimed nowadays that the suicides were an early example of a media moral panic).

Even the “Werther Effect” – and its melancholic sensibility – took several years to spread through and influence European young men. And I’m sure that the numbers of men involved were relatively small. It’s the way that men’s (romantic) identities were influences that interests me.

Also, I think the post-World War Two sub-cultural groups (mods, rockers, glams, teddies, punks) are somehow linked to this developing cultural influencing of an individual’s identity. The groups that I came into contact when I was a youth (goths, New Romantics, indie kids) didn’t seem to get replaced as the internet came on the scene. Cinema, TV, radio, magazines, comic books and records no doubt created people through the hegemony of mainstream culture – but there was an identifiable presence of “outsiders” who thought and behaved beyond the mainstream. They were genuinely different. From the 1990s onwards – and it seems to me to be the technology of the internet assisted this – these types of “outsider” groups disappeared somehow or seemed assimilated directly into mainstream culture. Look at how quickly – within two or three years – hipster culture became a defining cultural phenomena in the mainstream. It’s as if everything is mainstream now.

It could be that I’m getting old. Looking at the Top 40 UK Singles Chart, which is where you’d find something that would register as sub-cultural, its completely full of pop (singers like Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Drake, Lewis Capaldi as well as dance music and rnb). There doesn’t seem to be anything different from 10 or 20 years ago and certainly nothing that would make your dad shout at the tv: “What is this rubbish? It’s not music!” Lots of people have commented on the strangeness of hearing a pop song for the first time and having that impression that you’ve heard it before.

It’s almost like there’s a consensus in culture that’s existed for the last 20-30 years of which Love Island is the latest manifestation. I wonder whether (to get political) whether it accompanies the Age of Neoliberalism in which we seem to be living. It influences totally.

I’m rambling now. So I’ll stop.