what does youth culture mean in 2016?

As London’s nightclubs close down en masse, we look into the relevance of old teen tribes to Generation Z.

by Felix Petty
16 November 2016, 8:55am

There are few more iconic sites of youth culture than nightclubs; the sweat, the dark, the snogging, the fashion; bass vibrating through you, your body lost in a sea of bodies, the collective euphoria. And few places capture the imagination with such a distinct pang of nostalgia like the first clubs you went to as a teenager, fake ID in hand, reek of cologne, smear of hair-gel. Stepping through the doors into a new world. Out the other side, 3am, a new person.

But is the idea of the nightclub as the definitive space of youth culture on the way out? Today it feels like we're living in the age of the individual and clubs are anything but individualist. Clubs are a collective experiment in being and belonging. But for us, millennials, Gen Z, the hyper-loyal teen subcultural scene of old makes no sense. So maybe the club doesn't make much sense anymore in the hypebeast-era of carefully and painstakingly curated Instagram accounts. In the age of the individual there are no more punks and no more rude boys, no more teen tribes. Youth culture's changed so it should be undeniable that clubs will have to change.

The age of the individual is an age that, paradoxically, reaches towards a kind of bland, homogeneous, aesthetic perfection; everyone dressed in the same very rare streetwear, taking the same pictures of the same holiday destinations. Everyone's invited to the same exclusive parties, they hang out with the same cool friends. Everyone eats avocado on toast for breakfast, kale salads for lunch, eats dinner at just-opened ethnic-fusion restaurants. Everyone is freelance, creative, highly cultured, always online and carving their own careers out of the office. It's American Psycho meets High Snobiety.

What luxury means has shifted too. Old signifiers (Cannes, Chelsea, Cashmere) aren't relevant anymore. What matters is authenticity, or a perception of authenticity, your life is your gesamtkunstwerk, a seamless reality played out online. Instead of shifting from teen tribe to teen tribe, as trends change (like in the good old days), today it's more about crafting yourself as a perfectly individual individual from a bricolage of pieces. Luxury is the magpie of references your personal brand puts out to the world. Engagement, authenticity, reality and experience are the buzzwords that matter.

This means there's less and less emphasis put on the old subcultural signifiers of identity; these off-the-shelf tribal packages don't feel authentic to Gen Z. There are no goths, ravers, metalheads (well, there's always metalheads) or punks anymore. We now fall into broader, more flexible categories, which it's easier to mix and match from. You are... skater meets fashion addict; goth meets feminist; black lives matter activist meets punk; artist via anti-austerity politics; grime meets vegan; health goth via underground techno.

Fabric's closure sum up our times, our city. Not on the dancefloor but in the transfer of joy and escape and pleasure into investment, development, luxury flats and boredom...

If this is the new youth culture, by extension then, the places where we think "youth culture" happens are changing. The greatest clubs sum up the spirit of the time, the cities they inhabit, the people that grace their dancefloors. Berghain is maybe our generation's. Although surely part of the allure of Berghain is that it might be the only place left in the world without a single picture being taken in it. But what club screams London? Fabric?

The closure of Fabric came as a shock because of its size, history, acclaim. Drugs were cited as the reason for its closure, but as anyone who has tried to take drugs in Fabric will tell you, taking drugs in Fabric is a fucking nightmare. Drug taking is of course an excuse. Everyone's taking drugs everywhere, close everything down. But the closure of Fabric is part of a wider shift in our culture. I find it hard to mourn Fabric, if we're honest, as a club; as a signifier though it feels like another nail in the coffin of the London I love.

Much of the discussion on Fabric's closure has circled around the fact that there is nothing to replace it. But then, do we need something to? What impact has Fabric had on youth culture in the last few years that reverberated beyond its owns walls? The era of the super club is almost dead; the clubs that do matter and make an impact? They're increasingly small basements, packed and sweaty and a little loose and very free; Visions and Vogue Fabrics in Dalston; The Globe in Notting Hill; Canavans in Peckham; Corsica Studios in Elephant and Castle. Or they're moveable feasts, set up and shifting and existing wherever they can find room to lay down roots in the few cracks allowed in London's cold steel-and-glass veneer; Endless, Eternal, Loverboy, World Unknown, PDA… These are in many ways small hyper-specific overlapping scenes as much as club nights.

What it seems London can't support now are world class superclubs of the kind of Fabric, and even smaller ones too, seeing as recent years have seen Plastic People, Madame Jojos, Cable, Bagley's, The Astoria, Turnmills, The End, Mass all close their doors. All victim to licensing laws, local development, gentrification, or changing trends in going out. It certainly feels like there's a legal attack upon the kind of nightlife Fabric represents, born out of a bureaucratic feeling of loss of control, an inability to totally police what happens inside. It's health-and-safety gone fascist as an excuse for more luxury flats

And it feeds into a stigmatisation of drug users and clubbers as a throbbing sweaty mess of reprobates who at best contribute nothing to society, and at worst are actively engaged in trying to undermine the solidity of its foundations. Clubbers are an easy target, because closing Fabric won't stop people dying of drug overdoses, or dying because of drugs in general, as most drug related deaths result from alcohol or tobacco. The occasional deaths related to MDMA are more likely to result from our country's outdated prohibition laws; when you don't know what you're taking, you're more likely to take too much by accident and overdose. So maybe Fabric's closure does sum up our times, our city. Not on the dancefloor but in the transfer of joy and escape and pleasure into investment, development, luxury flats, and boredom...

Why, culturally, are the superclubs dying? They are hardly the most Instagrammable places; too busy, too policed, too staid, too uptight, too dark (flash isn't flattering). The dominant theme of our generation seems to be; dance as if the whole of social media is watching. Or rather, if no one was watching I wouldn't dance at all.

The things that the archetypal club does best, that we so long for, is to provide a brief moment of freedom from clutter and chaos of life outside. The best clubs are the ones that shield you from the slings and arrows of your deadbeat job or prejudice or your problems in a whirl of pure joy and sweating bodies. This is why they'll always be so potent, so fertile, so indirectly creative. Nightclubs are spaces of potential and possibility. But youth culture is no longer bound-and-gagged and dancing in the dark. It's a mistake to put the club under the microscope and look for signs of life of teen rebellion. That's because there's no one site really for youth culture anymore, the cutting edge exists, but the old clubs are too stuck in old ways to adapt to a generation raised not on LPs but illegal downloads and argueing around Spotify at a party to accommodate 20 different hyper-specific music tastes into one mutually satisfactory aural orgy.

This loss of specificity results in a flattening. Everything begins to look and sound the same. Everything's available, everything's possible, everything's a little boring. In an age of total availability, unavailability and mystery might be the new counter-cultures.

The clubs and youth cultures (as we might have previously understood them) that succeed now seem to cater to something more involved, less shallow, narrower in an age of diffuseness. The only way to succeed maybe is to go against the grain. Difference is capital.

Why are there no more original subcultures growing organically from the streets like they used to? A question often on the gnashing teeth of ageing broadsheet cultural commentators. A question that implies that Gen Z aren't interested in rebellion, and yet, Gen Z are maybe the most politically engaged, informed, left leaning, liberal, concerned and combative generation to have sprung up since the 60s. Why not, having done away with the old restrictive subcultural distinctions, not do away with the failed counter-cultural forms of protest too? Social media, the millennials favoured form of communication, now powers protest around the globe; from education and engagement in issues, to actually translating it and organising outrage into boots on the ground to fight for our rights. Nihilistic punk poses of the blank generation feeling pretty vacant don't make sense anymore. It's a positive generation, who're pretty engaged. No more empty spectacular gestures, instead concerted effort.

Which brings us, circularly, back to the closure of clubs. Each of which, big or small, is usually greeted with online campaigns, IRL fundraisers, petitions, events, protests. They might not always succeed, Fabric closed, Plastic People and Madame Jojos closed. But as the spaces of the subcultural old world disappear, new ones grow, for a new age; as old counter-cultures disappear, new ones spring up. Just because they don't look like the old ones, dress like the old ones, or protest like the old ones, doesn't meant that there's no youth culture out there. We're out here dancing in clubs you didn't even know existed.


Text Felix Petty
Image via Flickr

generation z
felix petty
the game-changing issue