Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Decline of Overtly Signaled Subcultures

"...entire subcultures could rise overnight, thrive
for a dozen weeks, and then vanish utterly." - William Gibson's Neuromancer

The web is full of essays with nostalgic hat tips to the optimistic naivete of 1950s science fiction, but I feel the same way about the naive pessimism of 70s and 80s science fiction - not only cyberpunk but the whole body of sf with the theme of "the future will be disjointed and schizophrenic and incomprehensible and alienating" beginning in the 70s and extending through the 80s, exemplified by works like Shockwave Rider. It's 2009, and guess what? Yes, things move a little quicker; we have a recession and some wars; and on the whole, not many people pine away for the simple 70s - a time when, if you wanted to learn about a company, you had to drive to the library and hope you could learn something from of the two printed paragraphs about them you might find if you dug through microfilm for three hours.

One prediction of the dark, scatterbrained future that seems to be exactly wrong is the fragmentation of subcultures. When was the last time you saw a kid with a metal shirt on? Compare that to ten years ago. I have a special sensitivity to this issue, because as a reformed (but not retired) metal fan, I've noticed the trend - and it seems to extend to every strongly-signaled subculture (in terms of clothing or speech or hair). I don't think that's a coincidence.

Youth subcultures are about establishing identity - not only in opposition to your parents, but to the rest of the people in your own generation. I never once wished there were more metal kids at my school - I didn't have much contact with the other kids who were, and I kind of liked being "special". In fact, at my first Metallica show I had the uncomfortable realization that I was no longer "the metal guy", because suddenly I was surrounded by 10,000 Klingon-looking guys that were indisputably more metal than me.

But what did I get out of the long hair and the scary facial hair and the T-shirts? That signalled my specialness, and (stupidly) as a teenaged male, made me feel good that here, finally, was a way I could make others react - by signal that "I am a member of this clan of loudness and drinking and aggression." Contrary to one folk belief, most metalheads actually do like the music - it's not just about shocking people, and in fact it's the only part of the deal that I retain today. But would it have been as much "fun" if I couldn't signal my membership in this subgroup of unknown values to strangers? Of course not.

You can apply these same arguments to any non-mainstream subculture of the 80s or 90s whose members behaved or dressed in such a way as to mark themselves; I think kids do it for the same reason, and I think that signaling has faded for the same reason. That reason is, what else, the internet.

Kids in 2009 don't expect to be able to shock guys my age or older by coloring their hair or putting something on a shirt. They know we have access to the same websites they do; driving by a high school one day you see a weird-looking kid wearing a T-shirt with some incomprehensible expression on it, you go home and Google it, and you say "Oh, that's all it means." Any subculture that would rise and fluorish - or even survive - must be able to do so even after being catalogued and described and compared by the peers and families of the teenagers that would adopt them. References to taboo subjects are irreversibly weakened when you can start reading Wikipedia articles about them. That's why, if you're a teenager now, you know instinctively the futility of trying to establish an incomprehensible artistic and dress code, because it'll be on Youtube tomorrow. And in particular, any subculture that tries to build a feeling of power in its members through the intimidation that its other-ness creates is doomed to failure ab initio. Know why? No kid, your Satan shirt doesn't scare me, because there's never been a real sacrifice. Now go back to gym class and see if you can run a mile in under 10 minutes.

In a way I feel sorry for kids who are 15 right now who, had they been born 20 years earlier, would have been punks and metalheads and goths. But there are still pockets of America where one can view these endangered species. The last time I saw a group of teens in full I'm-not-mainstream regalia during business hours (i.e. T-shirts and black trenchcoats not right outside a concert) was in Cody, Wyoming in August 2008. Go there, would-be Goths and punks and metalheads! Be free!


Dan said...

You should have come home for Community Days this year.
You would have seen many holes in your theory.

Primus was always twice the band Metallica wished it was.

Michael Caton said...

Perhaps my neighborhood is not the best place to form my theory. Then again, BayArea(tm) is more wired than Shillington. I predict the same effect within five years in Shillington.

If Primus was so great then why did Les try out for Metallica? Why did he cry like a little girl when they said no? Huh? Huh? He's up in Sonoma making wine now.

Dan said...

He was clearly trying to fix them.

What's wrong with making wine?

Michael Caton said...

Wine is a tool of the bourgeousie!

I don't know, it just seems like in Northern California that everyone who hits 45 and has a little extra money or ego starts installing oak barrels and A/C in his garage. If he was making whacked-out wine like this guy, then fine. But he's making wine like my previous VP made.