Normal People has a lot to answer for. Not only did it stir up old memories for many a viewer, it had this writer dusting off the photo albums – and pondering the phenomenon of the teenage girl’s bedroom
Who was your first love?
If you’re of a certain vintage, and heterosexual, chances are it wasn’t the boy next door but Corey Haim, Ralph Macchio, New Kids on the Block, Patrick Swayze, River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, Johnny Depp, Christian Slater, Kurt Cobain or Leonardo DiCaprio. And I have the photos to prove it.
I blame TV's Normal People. I hadn’t planned on spending my free time spring-cleaning storage in the spare room, in fact, I’d spent the past ten years actively avoiding it. Dare I disturb the universe, TS Eliot asked, and so the panoply of old memories lay dormant in a Russian doll-like series of boxes: diaries from 1986-1997, love letters, exam certs, gig stubs, press cuttings of my first published yarns for the local newspaper and – critically – old photo albums.
This hallowed space in the 1980s and 1990s was a gallery of heartthrobs du jour; a shrine to He who made your heart (and loins) flutter, enabled by poster-toting teen magazines
So just as Normal People had unlocked a million Pandora’s boxes of pent up adolescent emotion, I embarked on an excavation that was at once hilarious, poignant, distinctive and sociological: reliving the cultural phenomena of the hetero teenage girl’s bedroom.
This hallowed space in the 1980s and 1990s was a gallery of heartthrobs du jour; a shrine to He who made your heart (and loins) flutter, enabled by poster-toting teen magazines: Look-In, Just Seventeen, Smash Hits, Number One, Big, Mizz and Bliss, which catered to every crush and craze of the day.
Although I don’t have photographic evidence, I vividly remember my first mega poster was of Wham! – it wasn’t enough to have had George Michael’s face on my Club Tropicana T-shirt – that I accidentally beheaded after throwing a tantrum and hurling a shoe at the wall. You can only imagine the dirty great shame followed by bereavement.
Next up came pin-ups of Bros, Rick Astley, Corey Haim, the film poster for The Prince Bride. And lest we forget, this was the era when we consumed Americana faster and harder than a Slush Puppie. We looked upon the US of A as the very height of glamour: bigger, better and cooler than anywhere else on the planet (oh, the irony). It was the birthplace of Dynasty, Hard Rock Café, shopping malls, Global Hypercolor T-shirts and New Kids on the Block, for god’s sake.
As I transitioned through puberty, my aesthetic tastes and therefore my objects of lust become more sophisticated, obviously: magazines Sky, The Face, i-D, Empire, Select, Vox and Q – plus lads’ mags, which, while puerile to a young woman, boasted candid interviews and stylish photo shoots with hotties of the era, such as Jude Law, Damon Albarn and Brad Pitt.
I also framed black and white postcards of Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray and Henri Cartier-Bresson portraits, and hung film posters ranging from the emo (The Crow) to the ubiquitous (Trainspotting, which I’d won in a lucky draw at Waterstone’s bookshop, it having featured in their window display). Poster girls, at various interludes, comprised Winona Ryder, Patricia Arquette, Drew Barrymore, PJ Harvey, Louise Brooks and Tank Girl.
Evidently, I was proud enough of my curated bedrooms to photograph most of them. Whether that was for smugness or posterity, I’ll never know. Certainly it wasn’t to showcase my technical prowess, the cameras’ auto-flash bouncing off a plethora of patinas... But I’m so glad I have these time capsules. In middle age I can look at these pictures and bear witness to my sexual evolution from pubescent to young adult, crushing on winsome, whisker-free teen actors and boyband stars through to hirsute grunge frontmen, Britpop rogues and furrow-browed thespians.
But, without the plethora of teenage magazines, what do modern-day teenage girls have on their bedroom walls? All they have to do is type ‘Harry Styles’ into their search engine and have an instant ogle, no need for literal pin-ups.
I am reliably informed by parents of 21st century teens that posters still exist (though large-scale and ordered online), however the mainstay of the teenage girl’s bedroom is unchanged: the photo montage.
While celebrity dreamboats chop and change like the latest hair fad, fun photos of friends and family provide enduring anchors within the hormonal maelstrom. Digital photographs may be Generation Z staples, however their “need” for instant gratification has resulted in a surge in Polaroid and Instax cameras, as well as app-enabled pocket printers.
Which ever way teenage girls “consume” their crushes going forward, I urge them to document their bedroom walls with the same due care and diligence as the exactingly-placed images and objects themselves. Not only will these photos provide equal-measure amusement and mortification in later life – your man’s hair! My curtains! That stained coaster I put on my pinboard because it was the night I kissed whatshisname! – they’re a vital portal into the vagaries of pop culture and, best of all, the complex, eternal cult of the teenage girl.
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