Where did all the subcultures go?
And do we even care?13-Jun-2014
I was born in 1989, which puts me pretty much right in the middle of Generation Y, or the Millenials depending on which outdated media outlet you’re following. My generation cops a lot criticism, some of it justified and some hyperbolic, which I guess is just the price we pay for being born in the era of clickbait headlines and internet pop-psychology. One of the most common allegations against my entire generation is that we’re alternatively overly entitled, lacking ambition, and narcissistic. We’ve also witnessed the disintegration of the cohesive youth movements that characterised previous generations. The ravers, sharpies, hippies, punks, skins, mods, and other networks of likeminded individuals have crumbled under the weight of our self-centeredness. The fabric of community has been torn apart by personal branding and our desperate individual need for validation – or something like that.
Culturally, this is a dark time. The economy is fucked; politics are fucked; the elderly are fucked; we can’t find a job and if we do then we’re going to work until we’re 70 to pay off our monumental student debt handed down to us by a generation who received their education for free. Baby Boomers cling to their money; the suburbs spiral outwards endlessly while we desperately try and live in areas where we can’t afford to participate in the cultures that make them desirable to live in in the first place. The world is sinking and the polar bears are dying. There’s a storm cloud that’s hanging over us, the constant hum of dread that somehow we’re responsible for everything that’s wrong. What is there to do about it though? It’s all so big, so intangible that the only option is to plug in your headphones and listen to Drake as loud as you can. In the states lobbyists call for more access to guns to protect themselves from deranged gunmen, and closer to home in Sydney they lock kids out of the bars because somehow that’s the answer to a culture that drives young men to go out and annihilate themselves, and then each other. The problem is always us: we’re drinking too much, doing too many drugs, we sext and we fuck and we fight and we don’t take any responsibility.
When the soundtrack to your night out is Chief Keef, an 18-year-old on house arrest at his grandma’s slurring “Anti-sober, for no reason / ‘Cos we can’t spell sober,” and that resonates more profoundly and deeply than anything else, then maybe that means something for us. These aren’t protest songs. We don’t have anthems; we have escapism from bleak paranoia. This isn’t nihilism or defiance – it’s just vast cultural indifference. No wonder we don’t have unified subcultures in the same sense that our parents did. The energy that defined previous generations of teenagers and young adults isn’t there anymore. We don’t have a Haçienda or a Woodstock to rally behind, but we do have Snapchat and Instagram. We have #neknominate. We have YouTube fail compilations. We have Buzzfeed lists. We have #GOT and #OINTB spoilers. We have anything that will distract us just long enough to make it through the day. We’re suffering from cultural schizophrenia, a maelstrom of influence, parody, homage, retweets, cynicism and irony. The problems – economic, political, environmental, even fucking spiritual – seem to be insurmountable. The scale of issues that need addressing, of debate that needs to be had, of the reform that we so desperately need is just too big. So what’s the alternative? We keep up with the Kardashians; we pop molly with Miley; we throw ourselves wholeheartedly at anything to distract ourselves from the reality of the world around us.
This isn’t supposed to be an indictment, or a call to action – it’s just an observation. Can you blame us, at all? We’ve inherited the ills of our parents and our parent’s parents, and suddenly we’re supposed to pick up the pieces? So instead, we disengage and withdraw – lose ourselves pursuing micro-cultures. Vaporwave and slimepunk and sad boys are things that can only exist in this dialogue of nebulous uncertainty. We’re trying to build castles out of quicksand, and it’s never going to work. We have nothing to rally around because no one believes in anything anymore. We know better than that. We’ve surpassed the sarcastic disengagement of ‘90s MTV culture and perfected it as a lifestyle. The best products of our culture right now understand this and play with its representations. I mentioned Drake before, and he’s the king of this – the Canadian child actor turned hip-hop phenomenon balances his roles perfectly. ‘Drake’ is more of a concept than an individual identity, oscillating between cloying emotional honesty and more traditional rap braggadocio. Drake is a complicated three-dimensional identity who at times is unsure of himself in the world, and that vulnerability is compelling. The same guy who raps “Fuck going platinum / Look at my wrist and it’s already platinum,” is keenly aware of passive-aggressive tones in text messages. That binary is what gives him depth, and makes him an engaging artist.
The same, albeit on a smaller scale, works for an anomaly like Yung Lean, who makes perfect sense in this context. Why wouldn’t a 16-year-old white Swedish kid who raps about his ‘emotional squad’ work? The beauty of these moments of cultural incoherence is the fact that they can’t be co-opted: they’re as pure as they can possibly be. Youth cultures need time to develop and find their feet, and that’s a luxury that’s been removed in the age of the instant. Marketing is savvier than it’s ever been. The line between content, culture and advertising is so blurred that a lot of the time it’s non-existent. The only way to navigate the minefield is to make something so bizarre, so far removed from everyday life, so deeply entrenched in reference and wavering irony that it defies commercialisation.
That process is compelling, but it’s also exhausting. The endless ebb and flow of information makes it impossible to stay ahead of the curve, because coherence and linear narratives belong to a past that’s not indicative of the present. Life is not episodic, no matter how much we want force that framework onto the sequence of events that characterise our existence. For each generation preceding us, youth movements have risen to challenge the status quo. The enemy was clear – be it war, or conservatism, or racism. Now, there are too many and they’re all too ill-defined to confront. It’s the age of uncertainty, where threats shift and shimmer and dissolve. Where cultural anxiety is the norm, and the answers aren’t apparent. So we withdraw inward, shirk the reality, and aim for a cultural formlessness that’s emblematic of our times. Sure, the world might be burning – but at least we’re building a hell of a firework show.