are music subcultures losing their definition?

​Today, the music we listen to no longer dictates the clothes we wear. In our consumer-driven, social-media obsessed society musical subcultures are in danger of losing both their definition and their ability to challenge the status quo. Tish Weinstock...

by Tish Weinstock
04 March 2015, 2:50pm

Today, thanks to the wonders of modern technology we can plug into any genre of music, anywhere, and at any time. We've opened up our iPhones to sounds from all over the world, but what does an unlimited access to music actually do for us? Not only are we becoming less committed to one genre of music, but our musical choices are also increasingly losing their ability to challenge the status quo.

A far cry from the distracted youth of today, who spend their days fiddling around with selfie sticks and hashtagging themselves into oblivion, kids of generations past lived and breathed music. Music dictated what they wore, how they danced, who they hung out with and what drugs they took. No longer children, but not quite adults, these kids spent what little they had on the perfect threads and rarest vinyl, as they tried to carve out an identity outside of an oppressively conservative mainstream culture.

"Music was all encompassing, emotional and raw; it was life as we knew it and it was brilliant,'' muses Elaine Constantine, fashion photographer and director of 2014's scintillating masterpiece, Northern Soul. Born out of the 60s Mod scene, at a club called the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, Northern Soul marched to the soft beats of Motown, until soon DJs began to seek out rare tracks from obscure labels. Almost like searching for gold or other exotic rarities, kids in brogues, baggy trousers and Fred Perrys would journey as far as the rough ghettos of black America to find the holy grail of buried B-sides, forgotten tracks, and songs that had never been released before. "The outsider thing was a great feeling,'' recalls Elaine. ''We were all awake and dancing when everybody else was in a drunken slumber after a night at the local, dancing to the charts.''

The same outsider sense of belonging could easily be said for the Punks, Goths, Skinheads, Suedeheads, Hip Hop Heads, Rude Boys, Teddy Boys, Mods, Rockers, Ravers or any other subculture that has divided Britain's youth since the Second World War. Because, for the disgruntled kids of generations past, belonging to a subculture is what defined you. And with clearly consigned sartorial codes to match your distinct taste in music, there was no confusion as to which tribe you belonged to.

"Back then music was behind everything," agrees cult photographer and author of iconic photo book, Skins and Punks, Gavin Watson. "You'd go to school and talk about the bands you liked. When you met up after school you'd talk about the bands you'd like. That's how you'd relate to your peer group. I remember hearing Madness on Top of the Pops, when I was 14. It just blew me away. The day after, the school was literally a buzz: who was that band?! It was only later that I found out they were Skinheads. At the time I just thought: 'this band are fucking brilliant. I want to look like them.'" But back then it wasn't like you could just casually shop the whole look from Asos, if you wanted to look like your favorite band you actually had to leave the house to do so. And even then, the music and its surrounding imagery were still pretty hard to come by. Yes, there were the music papers which came out once a week and, yes, you had Top of the Pops, but there was no Soundcloud or Spotify to stream your tunes from. No Tumblrs dedicated to Suggs' thigh gap or an endless feed of Jerry Dammers' selfies to swoon over. Only snippets of information being whispered in dark corners at gigs, which if you were underage you had a hard time sneaking into anyway. "It kept everything very exciting,'' recalls Watson. "Music released the pressure of having to live."

Lumped together by high tuition fees, no jobs, unaffordable housing, and the fact that we grew up with Facebook - not to mention homogenized through terms such as 'Millennials' or 'Generation X/Y/Z/whatever' - today's youth is totally removed from that of generations past. Bloated from an overload of information and spoilt by our digitalized access to absolutely anything and everything, we're no longer polarized into different subcultures, and the vast range of music we listen to no longer dictates the many styles of clothes we wear. "It's much harder to keep things underground these days due to the internet creating an 'I want everything and I want it now'" generation,'' agrees Mike Pickering, who DJ'd at The Haçienda during the 90s and who was one of the UK's biggest pioneers of acid house. "I think there are still many subcultures, there is just nothing quite as revolutionary."

From grime to gabba, PC music to J-POP, because of the sheer wealth of choice we have today, the ease with which we have access to it (gone are the days of journeying to the black ghettos of America to find a never heard before vinyl), and how programmed we are to consume rapidly, we no longer have to commit to one genre of music like we once did. And, even then, because we experience most of our music through personal devices like our iPhones or iPods, taste in music is no longer a thing of the collective, it's much more down to the individual, which is why music subcultures are becoming increasingly less defined. This, in turn, affects the clothes we wear; because without any one genre of music dictating our sartorial choices, and the internet opening the floodgates to everything from Harajuku to health goth, normcore to Navajo, and seapunk to chola, we can click in and out of post-Internet trends, when and as we please.

Furthermore, in our consumer-driven, social-media obsessed society, subcultures are not only losing their definition they are also losing their ability to challenge the status quo. While the internet has given us so much in the way of democratizing music and its surrounding culture, by making it universal and accessible to everyone, and allowing us to connect to like-minded people from all over the world, it also has the ability to numb us into mindless consumption.

"There is less of a separation between youth groups now then there was in the late 70s and early 80s,'' agrees legendary British photographer Derek Ridgers. ''Because of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, everything can be in the spotlight on the same day as it happens. If anything interesting happens, people will tweet it, or they'll put it on social networks and immediately people know about it. And then, almost as immediately, people will be online knocking it, and criticizing it. So these things don't have a real chance to grow out of the spotlight like they used to."

If the term 'culture' refers to the dominant ideas, customs, and social behaviors of a given society, then 'subculture' must refer to their subversion. However, thanks to the internet (which has seen the tropes of subcultures past reduced to cheap gimmicks and commercialized nostalgia, and, more importantly, emancipated from their original subversive meaning) scenes that develop in today's subcultural shadows are assimilated to mainstream culture quicker than you can take a selfie. And how can something be underground if it's already gone viral? How can music be subversive if you're listening to it on the same Spotify account you share with your mum?

Although all wildly different, the one thing that united subcultures of generations past was their being forged in opposition to mainstream culture. They were rebellious and subversive. They stood up against mindless submission, against their parents' conservatism and government oppression. But fast-forward to today, and what are chola and Navajo except gross misappropriations of minority cultures? And what about health goth and seapunk? Sure, they're nice to look at, but ultimately they're just the product of a self-obsessed generation that values its self worth on how many 'likes' it gets. By posting a picture of a mermaid or Joey Essex in an airport, dressed head to toe in Nasir Mazhar what are you actually getting other than square eyes and a virtual erection? And then there's normcore (the most Googled trend of 2014) a trend that advocates rebellion through conforming to bland, boring, beige society. What could be more dangerous than indoctrinating Britain's youth into submitting to the norm? And anyway, none of these subcultures are associated with a specific type of music, they're just image based.

As the sun sets on the year that brought us a wealth of meaningless trends, let 2015 be the year that subcultures find their definition. Let kids put down their iPhones and go out into the real world and engage with the subversive, as opposed to listlessly posting a picture of it. Ultimately, let 2015 be the year we shake off our social media induced narcolepsy and reignite our passion for music.


Text Tish Weinstock
Image from i-D No. 1

The Music Issue
Tish Weinstock