The musical subculture is no more.
In some moldy basement you may find a brony metalhead sect sticking it to the system, but subculture - as in rave, or punk; or any group of people that sustainably detaches and differentiates itself from the existing culture in countercultural defiance is an extinct creature of the pre-digital age.
We now have capital ‘C’ Culture. It’s one big arms-around-shoulders-kumbaya where the mainstream and its foes are a tag team. A three-legged-race champ. And it’s not this way because of corporate machinations (although that plays a part), but because of culture vulturing – the insatiable desire to indiscriminately consume culture and never miss out. Mix this with the internet’s all-seeing-eye, where all is known and exposed, and nothing worthwhile can fester below the radar long enough to develop into anything sustainable or pose any sort of countercultural challenge.
The internet dissolved boundaries, which has many upsides to it: artists reach fans directly, bypass the old guard, communicate peer-to-peer, access the history of recorded music, etc. But boundary dissolution goes two ways. So it also means mainstream networks now nibble 24/7 on a smorgasbord of little youth rebellions and toss the bones back at you before you even realize what it is. It’s cultural appropriation on steroids, the extension of which, means that subcultures are completely disempowered.
Does it matter? Who knows. But what’s weird, is that after decades of post-world war struggling for the space to congregate sub-culturally and thrive, the towel’s just been handed in. Neatly folded, and dry cleaned. For every sob story about Rihanna stealing from Venus X, or Coldplay from Creaky Boards, there’s a colony of sub-culturalists live streaming their own culture right at the very people they’ve defined themselves as eschewing. Free of charge. Boundary dissolution goes two ways.
A certain amount of disconnect and out-of-reachability was part of the subculture package. If everyone’s a member, the club doesn’t exist. If everyone’s a winner, everyone also loses.
It wasn’t just music that was alternative, it was the sub-cultural network and its currencies, that was alternative. The music was an expression of that system. The sustainability of the subculture, outside of the mainstream, was where the real potential lay. Not in the fuzz pedal or the ripped jeans.
Grunge, rave, cassette culture, whatever you want to argue was the last genuine musical subculture, could not happen in this world. As soon as Nirvana drew a hundred people to their Olympia shows, the Internet would be all over it, Axl Rose would be sporting Chuck Taylors and Michael Jackson’s label would’ve re-titled 1991’s Dangerous to Contagious. Cobain’s claim to fame would’ve been a Twitter rant.
It can be argued that this is cultural improvement, that the world is becoming more egalitarian, more open. I have friends that make that case. But is that really what was meant by equality? An all-access-granted-everyone’s-in the-audience culture? It’s the most Gen Y thing I’ve ever heard of.
To be sub-cultural now - punk, whatever - is a sanitized throwback to a hollowed out ideal; a collective pretending.
Like an Ayahuasca ceremony without the Ayahuasca.
I picture an army of anti-Internet, anti-sharing, Generation Z artists tearing things apart in the not too distant future. The huge rise in the nostalgia industry in the last few years - scouring old styles and forgotten artists to replicate – should serve as a huge flag that says something has been lost. And hopefully when we’re all bored of being infinitely cultured, when the wave of Internet future shock has crashed, we’ll go looking for it again.
Unfortunately, breaking away from the Internet economy entirely or opposing it, on your own, has become untenable. Disconnecting, solo, has as much impact as Russell Brand would giving all his money to a council estate. It requires collective disconnect.
Without going the way of bikies or the mafia, the only subcultures sticking to their guns, resembling anything remotely to an artistic subculture, are groups like the Bronies. Say what you will about them, Bronies are more punk than your band will ever be. Think about that at your next band meeting.
And while there’s a lot to love in the modern age, good times and great art left and right, at the end of the day, when all is shared and done, sub-cultural richness and potential to stimulate or challenge the larger culture isn’t winning, it’s losing.
It’s not a Leary call to Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out, but it might be worthwhile to re-evaluate what’s valuable in the long term: having every cultural aberration we want zapped into our psyche and broadcast in real time as a form of cultural oversaturation; or, un-entitling and disconnecting ourselves a bit, so that more can fester in the unknown, deepening and sucker punching the way the musical culture unfolds, without everyone necessarily having to be there.
Steven Viney is a Melbourne based writer. Follow him @stevenviney