Tuesday, May 01, 2012


I have numerous theories on the ever changing face of 'cool' or subculture is, and why I hate its seeming direction. Occam's razor though would suggest that I am simply getting old and in the wise words of Abraham Simpson: "I used to be with it, then they changed what 'it' was. And now what is 'it' seems strange and frightening to me." and I have simply undergone the same process. Is time merely cyclical? Almost certainly not. I mean we would skoff at people who suggest that Climate change is merely some solar phase because their argument boils down to 'Earth big, people small, vis a vis motherfuckers we can do whatever we want and it will never impact on the environment.' and in the same way James May pointed out that until the transistor radio existed, neither did teenagers because young and old gathered around the same radio/grand piano and thus enjoyed the same music. And there are perfectly valid reasons to hate pretty much any subculture. The difficulty is in ranking them. I rank the last two major subcultures 'emo' and 'hipster' pretty lowly, and this could as aforementioned be simply the result of the fact that when I was a kid the subcultures of my seniors seemed cool and desirable. When I was a teenager the subcultures I could join seemed ellusively unappealing, and when it was clear my ship of coolness had sailed and the batton had passed onto younger people what cool was seemed strange and frightening to me. What then? Am I merely to exert some self censorship and not speak out about the prevailing subcultures because I am old? Am I to be governed by some fear of being more readily identified with talk back radio hosts than internet radio hosts? I honestly don't know. These are pretty unappealing labels to bring onto oneself. However if I am to be judged mostly by people whom I judge adversely, does it even really matter? Instead I am going to make the concession that for me Hipster is to Grunge as someone else might find Skater Punk to Actual Punk. Or Nu Metal is to Metal as Metal was no doubt to 70's Rock. That we exist in some continuum of desire to be part of a subculture to revulsion at the thought of being identified as part of a subculture is the natural cycle of life, and as commentator I concede I am probably no better than the people I comment upon. So I judge you and me in one. happy? Almost certainly not. Anyway onto my more beguiling theories. 'On Average People Are Average' ~ tohm This is one of my oldest aphorismic truisms. That is are subcultures and their percieved vacuousness just an inevitable social symptom of peoples general ability to express themselves? Early 1990's film 'The Crow' is one of the movies credited with giving rise to the Goth subculture, along with the music of The Cure. In it, the bad guy I forget his name does a poigniant speech that I paraphrase thusly:
A man has an idea, the idea becomes an institution.
Subcultures, being cultures involve people are always going to have fuzzy edges and be hard to define. But generally they have this originating idea or rationale and 'epicentres' that can be geographical (The Seattle Grunge scene with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. The London Punk scene with The Sex Pistols etc.) but beyond the idea you have a swathe of for lack of a better/less/more insulting term 'average' people that subscribe to it, formalise it and make it an institution. The rest is just probability, when you interact with any 'member' of a subculture the odds of them being one of the originators or 'ideas' people is low. The odds of them being some vacuous cliched subscriber is relatively high. And whether inside or outside the subculture talking to a mere subscriber is annoying and will almost certainly result in frustration and resentment. And while the very notion of the 'average' person, or the 'norm' is kind of a fallacy, I may venture to define them so you have a clearer picture of what I'm talking about. The average person is risk averse. This doesn't just apply to gambling, but social situations as well. In any social function drawing attention to yourself carries risk - that you will be judged positively or negatively. By being socially risk averse the average person fears being negatively evaluated far more than they delight in being positively evaluated, so even while people may subscribe to the fantasy of being famous and unique and admired for it, they won't actually risk it. In the same way that almost everyone subscribes to the fantasy of betting their entire net worth on a roulette table and winning, very few people would willingly do this (or even gamble part of their net worth). The average person, as far is as useful to define for this discussion, while feeling a desire for self expression doesn't want to look stupid. Thus on average a person will look for some external reference to copy or imitate when expressing themselves. They will look to somebody they admire and imitate them. People we admire are as undiverse as fashion. They are concentrated, epicentres. A minority. The majority will almost inevitably imitate a minority. The majority of people are opinion seekers, the minority are opinion leaders. I'm not just making this shit up. The research has been done. There are academic, peer reviewed, published papers on this behaviour. With numerous examples. Like acting ability (and by extention talent in general) is often retrospectively applied. In theory an Oscar for Best Actor is the final and ultimate recognition of your acting ability. In practice, once somebody has recieved an Oscar the public will retrospectively apply talent and value to their acting career - ie, taking cues from respected authorities or epicentres. Network Theory I assume would also apply, that very few people/sources generate the opinions held by the majority. Pretty much half if not 75% of marketing research is on where people get their ideas from, it is from my marketing studies that I was first introduced to the 'opinion leaders' and 'opinion seekers' segregation. And I would ask you now to turn your attention to this website/project by dutch photographers/social anthropologists called 'exactitudes'
They call their series Exactitudes: a contraction of exact and attitude. By registering their subjects in an identical framework, with similar poses and a strictly observed dress code, Versluis and Uyttenbroek provide an almost scientific, anthropological record of people’s attempts to distinguish themselves from others by assuming a group identity.
I warn you that exactitudes can be confronting, I mean to learn that people dress exactly like you in Rotterdam, Netherlands, it's not even New York, the place you get your cues from. Their rational on the 'about' page tends to suggest that these subcultures sort of spontaneously occur, as a flash mob might appear to. The names applied may not be the generally used ones or even the label identified by their photographic subjects, but if you have photosets of 12 people, I would guesstimate that 12 is probably not enough subjects to contain 1 opinion leader. In summary, any subculture is only genuinely a subculture until it hits the critical mass where the membership is large enough and the identity formal enough that joining the group presents sufficiently low risk of embarrassment. Prior to this critical mass, a subculture looks cool. Post this critical mass, a subculture looks sad and pathetic. Depending on whether you are an opinion leader or an opinion seeker. This sadness may be experienced from inside the subculture and outside. Technology The theory of averageness is one we can all agree on. Subcultures will inevitably get up your nose. The details of which subculture don't matter. Lets get more contentious. Are subcultures getting shitter? If I say 'Hipster' a subculture named after a cut of jeans invented/popularised by Mariah Carey, on average people would probably say 'Yes' to the above question. I am lead to believe they would say this even if they are a hipster. But evolutionarily speaking there's no reason for humans to have gotten somehow 'worse' at expressing themselves. Generations aren't dumber, or less capable of getting dressed. Their drive for self expression and its competing need for group affiliation hasn't changed. We have the same reasons to try and forge our own identity and imitate our peers as any proceeding generation. Why then would I stick my neck out and say: 'Yes, subcultures are getting shitter'? Because of what has evolved. Technology. Specifically the internet and its role in globalisation. The exactitudes site above was forwarded to me by a buddy pal shona after reading my post that I am pretty much going to rehash in this section: Basically though for recent generations the fashion cycle has gotten far more effecient. That is the number of opinion leaders you need to create a critical mass for opinion seekers to form a subculture has shrunk. Basically, the internet has shrunk a lot of things, for one thing, fashions can spread and reproduce with higher fidelity, because a kid in Melbourne can easily look up what a kid in Williamsburg, New York is wearing on line. The local bookstore is now Amazon or Book Depository, the local record store is now Itunes or the Pirate Bay. The process by which Ballarat shoe stores knew to stock Dock Martins when grunge was big remains mysterious to me. But basically it used to take time for the Seattle Grunge scene to make its way out to regional Victoria. No longer. The difference between New York and Melbourne is no longer 3 years, nor even 6 months. It is the 10 day postal time. And if you really care about fashion you can pay for express post. When Cracked.com wrote up Hipsters they mentioned this shrinking time frame between cool and passe:
Hipsters also attempt to stay on the cusp of their perverted version of fashion. Are black framed glasses out? Try 60's horn-rims. Does your friend have his lip pierced? Try cutting yours off. This isn't about beauty or even basic hygiene. This is about looking like you traveled back from the not too distant future. A future populated by douchebags.
The not too distant future is probably literally the future the nearer you are to the epicenter of the scene. But if you leave in a country with an inferiority complex like Australia, the future is New York, the 'not too distant Future' - London. My experience of hipsters is probably more stationary than the cracked article. Skinny jeans for example seem to have been in for about 5 years. Ironic facial hair at least 3. But the cycle has sped up, the epicenters of fashion and culture haven't changed, they are still New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo etc. They have never been, and the chances of are diminishing rapidly, Australian. But it used to take somebody with genuine curiosity about the world and some kind of rare opportunity time and resources to tap into these epicenters, then their attempts to reproduce these exotic cultures would be frustrated by the materials they could obtain to recreate them. Thus a subculture used to take more time to form, and was subject to more mutation. In the 90's the kid with both an internet connection and a credit card was a slim minority. In the 60's you used to have to fly to London to check out the scene. Now any old nobody can tap into any subculture anywhere within approximately a week. The chances that you can buy the exact articles of clothing being worn by somebody on the sartorialist is probably 50/50 at this stage and in 10 years will probably become 1 (that is, certain). Last week or the week before, I caught up with a friend that has done the relatively retro-cool thing of moving to London, in discussing what opportunities London had that Melbourne didn't, whether they were real in practice or just psychically etc. lead to the observation that Melbourne is the kind of town where so little is going on that even if something cool and new does crop up, the time between it being cool and underground and becoming a pretentious 'scene' is perilously short. Conceivably in cities as large as London and New York, there is enough competition in the underground that it isn't really 'the' underground but many, and scenes can remain relatively thin. But regardless, technology enables us to import a scene really quickly and in numbers. The defining (and I guess, negative) trait of hipsters seems to be this hypocritical self consciousness about being cool, for cool's sake. And yet, I can actually relate to this desire to be ahead of the curve and getting frustrated by shit going mainstream. In Ballarat the fashion cycle was both slower and easier to observe. Without knowing the specifics of how it worked, to use a catch all term, the indie kids would go and buy their clothes from op-shops. In 6-12 months, the 'op-shop' finds would have a surf-brand label stitched onto them and be worn by everyone else, whom not only would steal the indie kids identity, but ridicule them for the new identities they had adopted. This I imagine happens to hipsters in the space of about a week, now. And everything has escalated because now instead of buying clothing at 1990's opshop prices ($1~$4) they have to buy them from internet warehouses at $70 plus shipping and handling. And buy them almost constantly. The idea doesn't even get time to enjoy itself before it's an institution. Imitators get frustrated at imitators, because it is hard to get undeserved kudos for imitating somebody when everyone else is imitating the same people at the same time. I was first introduced to Hipsters through Adbusters write up of them in the damningly titled 'Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization' They summarise the effect of technology and globalization thusly:
Hipsterdom is the first "counterculture" to be born under the advertising industry's microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations. Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion. But the moment a trend, band, sound, style or feeling gains too much exposure, it is suddenly looked upon with disdain. Hipsters cannot afford to maintain any cultural loyalties or affiliations for fear they will lose relevance.
In the same way that the transistor radio first brought teenagers into existence, it seems the rise of internet shopping and it's rapid, high fidelity dissemination of culture has frustrated the teenage existance. Talking 'Bout Your Generation My most beguiling theory and least thought about, backed up and documented comes from the depths of my irrational prejudices. Like technology it is an argument that is contentious in saying that subculters are getting somehow shitter. In the 60's you grew your hair long and took drugs to rebell against the social script handed to you by your parents that you find boring and suffocating. But very few individuals were relatively risk seeking enough to do this. 'Get a job you hippy!' presumably suggested that rebelling and growing your hair had significant costs associated with it back in the day. Like you literally couldn't get a job unless you cut your hair. These basic economic pressures probably gave rise to the seeming lifecycle that you rebelled as a teenager and then through university, then it was time to grow up, cut your hair and join the workforce. The risks have gradually reduced, just as the fashion cycle has sped up. Thus if you were a Gen-Xer growing up in the 80's the chances were that your parents hadn't been part of the minority that actually rebelled in the 60's, had probably never tried drugs and thus the tried and tested ways of rebelling were still good for you. The Gen-Xer's grew their hair and took drugs and none of it seemed to passe. But over successive generations, I theorise that the chances of your parents having experienced the forging of their 'self-identity' in the exact same way as people have been doing for 5 decades increased. You saw in the 90's a rise in the number of children whose parents let them smoke weed and try shrooms because they had at their age, and they turned out fine. In short rebelliousness needed to occur in a different way if one was to entertain the fantasy that their life would not somehow resemble their parents. At the same time, the rebellious phase seemed to have become less about not doing what your parents did, as to not doing what the generation directly preceeding you did. You don't care about rebelling against people that were rebels in the 80's, you care about rebelling against people that were rebels in the 00's. Here is where my prejudice comes in. To me the subcultures have gone roughly as follows - Rock, Hippys, Prog, Punk, Geighties, Glam, Grunge, Alternative, Skate Punk, Nu-metal, Emo, Hipster. I know this is very white subcultures and I know it is not exhaustive (for example I don't know where the New Romantics fit in). Generally though you can make an argument for cycles, but that doesn't reveal my prejudices. Let's just look at the end, so after the 80's you saw a rise in bands playing the loosely defined 'alternative rock' that coincided with a recession - in response to 80's rock like Guns & Roses and their ballad singing ways. It was defiant and rebellious in it's responsiveness in ways that I associate with strength (my prejudices) it was harder, louder, less commercially viable, dressed down, less self conscious, masculine, unappologetic etc. It asserted itself. If the generation proceeding you defined itself in a defiant way that I associate with strength, and had it pretty much covered? How do you following it define yourself in a defiant way? In ways I associate with weakness (again my prejudices) narcissism, pretentiousness, quieteness, synthesiser, commercialised, dressed-up, self consciousness, emasculation, irony etc. That's basically my extremely prejudice and unresearched theory. It is far more likely that music and fashion is cyclical. That contrary to rebelling against our parents we probably imitate them. My parents record collection was music largely from the 60's and 70's when nobody played synthesiser. The generation that followed me's parents probably had record collections that consisted of music from the 70's and 80's when everybody was fucking playing synth. Synth's will perhaps dissappear soon as an upcoming generation of children of 90's record collections (where the synth was once again abandoned) gets it's turn. Or perhaps not, since technology and youtube in particular means that the first largest record collection you discover is no longer necessarilly your parents.

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