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FY, Pump Up the Volume! A Movie Reflection

I’m pretty consumed by my Education Week blogging these days, but I wanted to come back here to reflect on a film my kids, home from college on spring break, had us watch last Friday, our traditional pizza and movie night. It was good to be all together again, with cheese dripping off slices of the local House of Pizza’s very best. And the film forced me think about school, and about technology, in ways I hadn’t bargained on.

The movie was the 1990 Pump Up the Volume, written and directed by Allan Moyle and starring Christian Slater. Brief plot summary (spoiler alert): disaffected teenager (Slater) uses his pirate FM radio station to broadcast anonymous angsty, angry soliloquies that excite his schoolmates and infuriate school officials (and in time the FCC). Things move to a crisis,
not surprisingly, but not before the high school principal (who uses wholesale expulsions to rid the school of “low performers” and maintain its record of the “highest SAT scores in the state”) flips out to the point that she herself is fired—it’s a sort of happy ending.
Pump Up the Volume is about kids and voices, with the illegal radio station offering the student and some of his listeners (he does call-ins) the chance to express their frustrations, their boredom, and their adolescent rage. The contrast with the school officials, bullies all, is stark and striking, and the principal herself is especially horrible—Dolores Umbridge thirteen years before she shows up to nearly ruin Hogwarts with a similarly ruthless regime.

The filmmakers stack the deck in favor of the Slater protagonist, and you root for him to fully grasp the liberating power his show offers to the town’s victimized teenagers. But all I could think of—along with having bad Umbridge flashes; remember how creeped out you were the first time you read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix?—was that ten years later the low-power FM technology that is at least the co-star of Pump Up the Volume would be forgotten, a technological dead end except to retro hobbyists.

What Slater and the kids in Pump Up the Volume need is blogspace. I think the best analog would be Tumblr, which does for connected global youth nowadays what Allan Moyle hoped that low-power FM might do. I follow one of my kids and a few friends on a multiplicity of Tumblrs (the Tumblr “fy”form—which may not mean what you think it means—pretty much conveys the affirming message of Pump Up the Volume), and I can safely say that I’ve encountered enough angst, anger, piercing insight, and anonymous soliloquies on Tumblr to script a hundred sequels to this movie.

It’s a better world for a technology that gives kids a voice—not just Tumblr, but every platform: Twitter, Instragram, YouTube, Facebook, and who knows how many more. Kids may hide behind pseudo identities, and they will still feel, will always feel, the full measure of pain and joy and confusion that comes with confronting life, but at least there are platforms—and multiple media—where they can channel their thoughts and words. The portrayal of adults in Pump Up the Volume may be appalling (and even more chilling in its prefiguring of our current testing mania), but the movie had me cheering for a world in which kids can save themselves through authentic self-expression.