19-year-old Scot Keiren Hunter, whose mother posted this photo of him passed out online to warn people off NekNominate (courtesy of Deadline News)
NekNomations, the cinnamon challenge, milking, turning up at parties in blackface. For many, these internet-led crazes are the definitive proof that young people in Britain have hit an all-time zenith of stupidity, an absolute cultural zero, the point where no form of intelligence can survive. To the broadsheet commentariat, the people involved – and, in particular, the people who've died – are tragic victims of an increasingly banal society, a depleted culture that treasures mindless peacocking over changing things for the better. To the tabloids, they're just fucking numpties who spend too much time on the internet.
It's easy to sympathise with both points. Watch the NekNomination videos of people drinking pints full of live goldfish, or dead mice, or stripping in supermarkets, or riding horses into supermarkets (these things always catch on in the countryside eventually), and you can't help but wonder if British youth haven't lost the plot a bit. Why now, in our hyper-developed, information-obsessed culture, are young people doing this?
Depending on your perspective, you could level the blame at anything from the international financial crisis to the legacy of Jackass. It might be the bleak employment prospects young people are facing, it might be Grand Theft Auto, it might be Uni Lad culture, it might be British society's lack of respect for alcohol, it might be parents, it might be the lack of religious education in schools. You can choose your own scapegoat; there are plenty to pick from. Wherever you find yourself on the political spectrum, chances are you'll find a facet of modern British life upon which to blame the popularity of NekNominate.
But while the left and right find a kind of middle ground in astonishment, not many people are trying to understand the appeal of NekNominate. I think that perhaps – in their own tasteless, Scream pub kind of way – these internet trends offer some kind of identity to people. I think that this is what we have instead of subcultures now.
A photo from Neville and Gavin Watson's book Raving '89
This country has been home to Teddy Boys, New Romantics, ravers and garage-heads. When I was 14, I had nu-metal; when I was 18, I had new rave. Both of these were things that could quite possibly get you knocked the fuck out. There are pictures of me back then and they're embarrassing now, but that sense of tribal involvement – all the love and fear and acceptance and alienation that wearing Criminal Damage jeans, or glowsticks, or black nail polish could offer you – was just part of growing up. It was something even our parents had gone through. It was ugly at times – and yeah, there was often a lot of drinking, puke and stupidity – but everyone came out stronger the other side. It was a cultural puberty – a coming-of-age lived out in Warped Tour compilations and purple shoes.
But in 2014, subcultures are on the wane. Britain's shopping centre water features are surrounded by kids not wearing Atticus but Abercrombie, and what kind of vital identity can you carve out for yourself in clothes that look like the sort of thing your nan would snuggle up on the sofa in on a Sunday night? It seems to me that young people in Britain have nothing to risk getting beaten up for. Youth culture rivalries give teenagers something to believe in, and subcultures provide a sense of belonging to something more exclusive than just late-Western capitalist society. They're basically al Qaeda for people who like to drink in parks.
But due to a variety of factors – ranging from the post-iPod acceptance of all music, to rising shop rents that equal a monopoly of big chains and their uniform stock – young people feel they have very little ownership over anything. In consensus, coalition, resolutely capitalist Britain, youth subcultures are processed in the same way as veal. They're snapped up by trend forecasters before they've had a chance to grow, locked in a dark room, sold to the high-street butcher and flogged back to the kids at inflated prices. We saw it with Libertines-era indie, dubstep and Odd Future. They should have had a chance to mature and actually make some kind of dent on mainstream culture, but they were all denied that by the collective lack of patience you'd expect of a society used to 4G.
Of course, you can't do that with these internet crazes, because there's no way to monetise drinking a pint full of grasshoppers or getting your mates to pepper spray you in the face. They remain one of the last things in our society that are essentially unmarketable. Very few brands are going to encourage you to drink engine oil any time soon – they don't want a shout out at your funeral, they want your money. NekNominate doesn't, and it remains nihilistically enticing for that.
The author going through a "Thamesbeat phase"
But what are the long-term ramifications of this? What happens to culture as a whole when youth subcultures treat music or fashion as merely a side dish to acting like a prick on the internet? When the dominant youth movement is essentially just a macho pissing contest, an extreme form of weaponised banter?
Subcultures always need to grow, and if NekNominate is a type of subculture, surely it's taken off in this country because it's an extension of the much-maligned Uni Lad thing of 2011 – the hardcore scene to truelad.com's Oi! phase. The semi-ironic, distant, anonymous approach of those sites has now been replaced by something way more flagrant and in your face. NekNominate is the Agnostic Front to their Sham 69, the Skrillex to their Kode9 – the old idea of "cheeky" laddishness has been replaced by a raw and physical kind of deliberate stupidity. It's people playing by the same rules, essentially, just far more seriously. NekNominations isn't uni boys pretending to be Frankie Boyle online, it's valley-boys acting out Danny Boyle nightmares IRL – it's far more real than a couple of Macro-based Maddie jokes.
What happens next? Will slut-dropping pass over from its urban legend status? Does the "condom challenge" become the chainsaw challenge? Will all music become merely a soundtrack to drinking your own blood? Who knows.
However, I still can't help but sympathise with those involved, albeit from my gainfully employed, culturally engaged, city dwelling, mid-twenties ivory tower. In some ways, I think it actually goes further than being just a subculture and becomes something of an unconscious ideological movement. In a world in which the baby boomers are living longer and longer, still refusing to relinquish power and generally fucking it up for the rest of us – in a world where health is such a valued commodity – the idea of young people risking their lives for little more than a few Facebook thumbs up and WorldStar comments is one that's as subversive as it is stupid.
Jack Buckby, the young Liberty GB politician, shaking hands with BNP leader Nick Griffin
As Cormac McCarthy said in No Country For Old Men, "the point is there is no point". Some men just want to watch their own hair burn. Because of that, it's more frightening to previous generations than any Jack Buckby or Jordan Horner.
I'm not saying this hench Welsh lad is an arch provocateur like Aleister Crowley or William Burroughs – if anything, he's a shit Henry Rollins – and I'm certainly not saying that flying a plane while pissed is constructive way of taking on the evils of the modern world. But you can't help but wonder if the NekNominees are the neglected children of a society that's so fucking immature that people in their fifties still write about pop music for a living. So maybe this is an unconscious attempt to reclaim the generation gap. I mean, your dad might be able to download the same Joy Orbison track on the same day as you, but he's unlikely to drink a gallon of vodka and urine, right? Well, I don't know your dad, but my dad wouldn't.
At the risk of stating the obvious, there are no jobs any more and no subcultures. Even the fucking Lib Dems are more than willing to screw the kids over these days. Why not just enrol on a Sports Science course in a cheap town, fail for as many years as you can to prolong your stay, take the loan and piss away your days snorting Creatine and drinking through your eyeball?
The broadsheet writers who frame copies of London Calling above their desks probably won't like it, but NekNominations, the cinnamon challenge, et al really are the closest thing we have to punk in 2014. Society has created a dirty pint of neglect, debt, unemployment and substance abuse, and now it has to down it. In one.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive