The Null Device
Alexis Petridis looks at the decline in visible youth subcultures; i.e., how, whereas a few decades ago, teenagers would differentiate themselves into subcultures, each with its style of dress, music, and other unfalsifiable badges of commitment, today's teens no longer do this:
And I've had a long and fascinating conversation with historian David Fowler, author of the acclaimed book Youth Culture in Modern Britain, who has an intriguing, if controversial, theory that subcultures such as hippy and punk had very little to do with the actual teenagers who participated in them – "They were consumers … they were sort of puppets" – and were instead informed and controlled by a slightly older, university-educated generation. "Youth culture as a kind of transformative, counter-cultural philosophy, it has to be shaped by older people and invariably it's by students," he says. Today, the lack of anything equivalent to the radical student movements of the 60s that fed into both the hippy movement and punk means a lack of ideas trickling down into pop culture.
But the most straightforward, prosaic theory is that, as with virtually every area of popular culture, it's been radically altered by the advent of the internet: that we now live in a world where teenagers are more interested in constructing an identity online than they are in making an outward show of their allegiances and interests. "It's not neccesarily happening on street corners any more, but it's certainly happening online," says Adams. "It's a lot easier to adopt personas online that cost you absolutely nothing apart from demonstrating certain types of arcane knowledge, what Sarah Thornton called subcultural capital. You don't have to invest in a teddy boy's drape suit or a T-shirt from Seditionaries."Of course, arcane knowledge in the age of Wikipedia and YouTube is hardly a barrier to entry, being little more than a token amount of homework; an otherwise naïve teenager with a desire to belong could do the legwork and become an expert on, say, DC Hardcore or early-80s Gothic Rock, in a Saturday afternoon, in between more official forms of schoolwork. Once you know the coordinates of a piece of cultural capital, you can own it without leaving your bedroom, and so being into obscure subcultural genres is no longer a peacock-tail, a difficult-to-falsify indicator of passing some criteria (in this case, belonging to and being accepted by a subculture). So subculture has evolved into a mélange of underground cool, commercial mainstream and utter kitsch, with veins of irony and sincerity running through it, with the map of where the mines are buried—what's in and what's out, what's genuinely cool, what's ironically cool (for several possible levels of irony), what's passé, and what was passé but is fit for semi-ironic reclamation, being passed along by word of mouth.
Modern subcultures, thus, look a lot different from the fiercely committed youth tribes of the 60s/70s/80s; there are no external uniforms or fixed musical allegiances (once one outgrows Justin Bieber and/or One Direction, of course), but rather a whole wealth of the last half-century's pop-cultural paraphernalia to plunder and mash up like Noel Fielding on a meow-meow binge. What emerges tends to be more evanescent, thriving in the blogosphere, spawning a wave of YouTube videos and MP3 mixes (incidentally, the music tends to be made electronically on laptops or even phones/tablets and influenced by rap and dance music, and parties/music nights for all these subcultures are called “raves”), and, by the time the recording industry and the Urban Outfitters of this world notice, being discarded and declared dead by its creators, no longer fit for its original purpose. One example of this is the Seapunk subculture that was big a few years ago:
And then there's seapunk, a movement that started out as a joke on Twitter, turned into a Facebook page, then gained traction to the point where it became a real-life scene, with a seapunk "look" that involved dyeing your hair turquoise, seapunk club nights and seapunk music. "Seapunk is the name of a mid-western club movement created by a group of turquoise-haired twentysomethings who like to drown warehouse breakbeats in a flood of sub-bass and watery Wu-Tang samples," ran one piece in style magazine Dazed And Confused. "The term was originally envisioned in a psychedelic GIF dream by Lil' Internet, but producer Fire For Effect has been responsible for turning it into a fully fledged lifestyle." Before you dismiss that as sounding like something made up by Charlie Brooker for a forthcoming series of Nathan Barley, it's perhaps worth noting that seapunk genuinely appeared to make an impact on mainstream pop: the seapunk look was variously appropriated by rapper Azealia Banks, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Taylor Swift. In any case, I'm too late. One of seapunk's supposed core members, Zombelle, apparently declared the movement dead when pop stars started cottoning on to it, which perhaps tells you something about subcultures in 2014.Petridis' article mentions one modern subculture, though: “haul girls”, whose mode of cultural production is to make YouTube videos of clothing and accessories they have bought.
Down the phone, Helina is explaining what a haul girl is to me. "Basically, you go out shopping for clothes or beauty products," she says, "then you make a haul video and show viewers on YouTube what you got. You go through the items of clothing one by one. I guess what people get out of them is not showing off, like, how much money you've got or anything, but lifestyle: you get to see how one person lives, what their taste is."Along similar lines, it may be that modern youth are not starting a subculture unless they get paid for it:
17-year-old Wayne Hayes said: “We’ve got great concepts interweaving music, drugs and politics in radical new ways that will change the world forever. “But first we need a cash injection to get our subculture through the development stage.
Teenagers are hinting at something ‘really big’ possibly called ‘Snung’ which over people 30 cannot relate to on any level. 16-year-old Nikki Hollis said: “It’s not just drum machines and weird hats, it’s something altogether different involving psychic powers and colours you can hear.To be honest, “Snung” sounds like it'll decay into another form of “new rave” and/or neo-hippy psychedelia within nanoseconds of contact with the commercial sphere.