The Teen Idol Vanishes

Luke Perry’s untimely death reminds us that Dylan McKay was one of the last icons of adolescence.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | March 2019 | 8 minutes (2,230 words)

Dylan McKay was never quite there. In the physical sense — he would kind of just turn up out of nowhere on Beverly Hills, 90210, in random staircases or under random cars, and disappear just as fast — but also, like, existentially. He was supposed to be a high schooler, but you could never imagine him in class, getting bored, learning. He seemed to know everything there was to know anyway, even though he was only 17 — but he wasn’t really 17. He had this sort of aged face, with the eyebrow scar, the never-ending stacks of lines on his forehead, the throwback pompadour, the Homeric sideburns, and seemed to have the sexual history of a middle-aged playboy. Depending on the circumstances, he exuded the hard-partying past of a retired rock star or the bodhisattva-like wisdom of an ancient yogi. Even though he had supposedly hit puberty only four years ago.

All of this resulted in an otherworldly, ageless icon of adolescence that was impossible to grasp completely because of the way it constantly vacillated between poles — old and young, violent and gentle, smart and goofy, rich and poor, public and private. But Dylan McKay’s was the kind of mythic narrative that could only float along on a dearth of details, the holes filled in by our imaginations. By a pubescent girl, for instance, who thought the “Dylan” in her new class would be something like the Dylan at West Beverly only to find he was as acne-ridden and awkward as she was because he was an actual teenager. As opposed to Luke Perry, a 24-year-old actor whose biography was so elusive that Dylan McKay stood in for him, turning both of them into this perennial abstract symbol of romantic teenage-hood.

So when Luke Perry died suddenly earlier this week following a stroke at the age of 52, it was a particular shock because…he was 17, right? The death of Luke Perry was the death of Dylan McKay, even though the Dylan McKay we all remembered dates back to 1993. That was the time when a teen heartthrob could still define a generation; maybe not as singularly as in the ’50s, but much more so than today. Because when Dylan McKay arrived in 1990 on the first teen soap, so-called youth culture had already been established and girls were familiar with icons of masturbation (sorry, masculinity). There were teen magazines, there were teen shows and music and movies. Without 24/7 media, without the internet, a fiction like Dylan McKay could overtake a fact like Luke Perry. But after him, the deluge: there were even more teen shows and music and movies and more media, fracturing the idolatry industry into multiple parts. Now there are too many alternatives — too many vehicles, too many teens in them, too many teens consuming them — to have one person represent all things; if everyone is an icon, no one is an icon. But Dylan McKay’s — I mean, Luke Perry’s — death reminds us, at least for a moment,  that the teen idol was once very much alive.

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From Franz Liszt in the 1840s to Rudy Vallée in the 1920s to Frank Sinatra in the 1940s, little girls were always swooning over boys. Is it because so many real boys were terrible, that these fantasy boys without all the constraints of the quotidian could become the perfect avatars for the affection these girls deserved? “The teen idol never appears to be autonomous and therefore never appears to be threatening as an adult,” writes P. David Marshall in Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture. “He remains, as long as he is popular, perpetually childlike and dependent.” He. Always he. But “he” also meant sex. These idolized guys were an outlet for adolescent female desire that was otherwise ignored — this was the sexual gratification provided by Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips, Marlon Brando’s renegade leather smolder, and, of course, James Dean’s angsty white-tee’d rebel. The latter was a particularly potent symbol, having died at only 24, before the release of Rebel Without a Cause; death trapped him in an afterlife plastered on the walls of teen girls. Like Perry, he looked world-weary, older than he was. The two actors were the same age when their stars flared — one burning out, the other lighting up — and their spirits seemed somehow connected.

“There’s always someone being called the next James Dean,” Perry told The Chicago Tribune newspaper in 1991. “But there was only one. And he’s dead.” As if to underscore his point, Eve Babitz published a feature the next year in Esquire, titled “They Might Be Giants,” which featured Perry alongside three other young actors — his co-stars Jason Priestley and Jamie Walters, and some guy I’ve literally never heard of named Dana Ashbrook (oh wait, I looked him up, he was in Twin Peaks) — who looked like James Dean, all of them styled identically in jeans, white shirts, and black boots. “It’s dangerous to call anyone the new James Dean,” Babitz wrote, “because even the old one found being himself somewhat impossible.” In the spread, Perry is the only one not smiling.

Dylan McKay literally wasn’t there at the start — he didn’t arrive until the second episode of 90210. Out of the dark of a high school robotics lab, he emerges to defend a geek against a couple of jocks about to delete all of his hard work. You hear his voice first, that soporific, almost-bored soft-drawl: “Touch that board, my friend,” he says, as we see him from behind, next to an electricity ball making electricity sounds, as though Dylan McKay is being conjured like Frankenstein. Then he turns around and we are face-to-face with his furrowed brow and that high forehead and higher hair: “Please. Touch it. You know the tragedy of this country is that cretins like you two end up running it.” (Oh, man, Dylan was prophetic too!) Then, like greased lightning, he vanishes, and 90210’s star Brandon Walsh says, “Your friend’s pretty cool.” Then the least cool guitar that ever guitared amps up and Dylan and Brandon are surfing (don’t ask me) and when Brandon asks one of the surfers if she knows Dylan, she says, “Who does?”

“After the pilot, we felt there should be someone who is a little dangerous, a little on the edge, and we came up with the Dylan character,” 90210 executive producer Aaron Spelling told Rolling Stone in 1992, with creator Darren Star adding, “When Luke walked into the audition, it was like ‘Wow, that’s the person.’” Perry was one of those small-town kids who came to Hollywood to make it big and kind of… didn’t. After leaving Ohio upon graduating high school, he starred in two soaps — Another World and Loving — then spent time laying asphalt to pay the bills. In 1992, he told Vanity Fair that he only felt at home, “any place that I’m alone.” I didn’t know any of this as a kid, of course, because as a kid you don’t read about your crushes in newspapers or People magazine and you aren’t up late enough to watch Leno. You get what you see on the cover of teen magazines — a cute picture, but not much else — and on TV, and that defines everything. And when you turn up at a mall to see this guy (I didn’t, he never showed up at mine) who looks kind of like a grownup, you aren’t really turning up for Luke Perry, but Dylan McKay. He’s the one worth fainting over. “I’m a simple guy,” Perry told People in 1991. “I don’t need a whole lot.” Neither did we.

We got posters (Luke Perry was the top seller in 90210), we got dolls, the lucky ones got mall appearances or auctioned dates. But mostly we got this guy of indeterminate age and provenance, who we were told was cool, who treated an inexperienced girl with smoldering kid gloves. Though Dylan and Brenda Walsh (Brandon’s twin) didn’t become a thing until episode 10, three months into the show’s first season, that’s when anyone started really caring. That gave him a re-do. This time when he first meets a Walsh twin, he is all dirty under a motor. One of the first things he says to Brenda, after rolling up with a sexual innuendo is, “I saw you.” He asks her out while emerging from the shower, dripping. He’s a lot: On their first date he fights with his dad, almost takes a drink, breaks a flower pot, and then makes out with Brenda. He literally wears his equivocation on his sleeve when he dons a cashmere sweater to meet Daddy Walsh before covering it with a leather jacket for Daughter Brenda. At episode 21, the Spring Dance where he and Brenda have sex for the first time, he officially became the show’s go-to heartthrob. “We’ll make our appearance,” he tells Brenda, holding up a set of hotel keys, “and then we’ll make our disappearance.”

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The indefinable paradox of Dylan McKay, who ends up in a predictable love triangle with brunette Brenda and her blonde best friend Kelly, issues from the first three seasons of 90210, which concluded in the spring of 1993 (though the show lasted for another seven). But Luke Perry already had one foot out the door in 1992, when he played Dylan’s opposite in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie). Pike was a “loser” whose forehead (and wrinkles) was obscured by bangs, who wore a trench coat instead of a leather jacket, and who shaved off his sideburns instead of growing them out for prom.  Of course, he still rode a motorbike and had a soul patch in place of a soul, because Luke Perry had a sense of humor. But without Dylan McKay, the actor all but vanished. A marriage to a civilian in 1993, People announced, “ended Perry’s reign as one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors.” In the same story, an editor for both the ridiculously named Bop and Big Bopper said the hysteria around him was “over.” A month later, Entertainment Weekly cited him in its eulogy, “The death of teen pinups,” as though his step back from 90210 and Dylan McKay had driven in the stake. But it was true; teen magazine circulation was down, a saturation of teen shows meant no individual stars, and, anyway, corporate entertainment no longer wanted to target teens alone. Today, with celebrities as digitally ubiquitous as they are, an abstract iconic version of their personas is no longer possible. All that to say: there are no more lone icons of adolescence in America (though Timothée Chalamet is certainly giving it the old college try).

Even though Luke Perry tried to shed Dylan McKay — he played a post-apocalyptic loner in the series Jeremiah (2002-2004), a reverend in Oz (2000-2002) — he accepted his legacy and reverted back to himself in The Simpsons, Johnny Bravo, and Family Guy. As he told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet in 2008, in a quote that circulated heavily this past week, “I’m going to be linked with him until I die, but that’s actually just fine. I created Dylan McKay. He’s mine.” Nine years later, on the self-aware, homage-fueled Archie comic adaptation Riverdale, he fully succumbed, playing Archie Andrew’s dad, Fred, a meta-moral compass advising a teenage son who finds himself in a familiar blonde-brunette love triangle. Perry appeared amid a cast of social media-savvy stars, none of whom are as iconic as he is, but none of whom are as anonymous as he is either. Our collective public mourning for Perry unites us in a shared nostalgia for an imaginary past, staving off our increasing sense of alienation. There will unlikely be a similar group experience for his Riverdale co-stars, but perhaps that’s better for them as individuals. When Perry popped up in their Instagram feeds, it was reminiscent of that weird electricity ball from his first episode of 90210, some kind of otherworldly cosmic intervention. Because we are not meant to see what’s behind Dylan McKay.

In the midst of my research I found an old 1991 interview with Luke Perry, his first with Entertainment Tonight, when he was around 25. I didn’t see it when it originally aired; I would have been all of 11. From where I am sitting now, at 39, following Perry’s death at 52, he looks tiny and so young, in a grey tank top, talking to a muffled voice off camera, a bit bashful, fidgety, joking about a passing airplane. His voice is less smooth, his hair lifts past the edge of the frame, his brow is as flat as a newborn’s. This is Luke Perry, not Dylan McKay, and I don’t know him. At one point he looks the youngest I’ve ever seen him on television, sucking his lips and sticking out his jaw to puzzle over a question about whether his fans are shouting for his character or for him. “They’re screaming Luke, ‘cause they know that’s what my name is but, they don’t really know Luke too well,” he says, smiling and somewhat sheepish. “They know Dylan.”  And, just as he predicted two decades later, Dylan McKay was the name we were all saying when he passed, because that was the name we knew.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.