Like most British teenagers, so much of my time in secondary school was defined by being defined – working out who I was and where I fit.
I was therefore always envious of people who could sum up their ethos, identity, aesthetic and musical tastes all in one word. Goth, emo, indie kid – even when it was determined externally and pejoratively, as “chav” and “grunger” were, it seemed preferable to being a “nothing”. I, too, desperately wanted my personal pigeonhole, to be a part of a “thing”.
As I grew older, I realised these “things” were subcultures, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture”. Teddy Boys, ravers, moshers, townies, hipsters: every generation has them.
Aside from my friends, I longed to find my own tribe of like-minded people whose tastes matched mine exactly. My issue, however, was that as a characteristically indecisive Libra, I couldn’t decide what my tastes actually were, and it’s hard to find like-minded people when you’re not sure of your own mind.
Because of this, I dabbled, listened to and wore a bit of everything, though this pick-and-mix approach didn’t gel well with the near religious purity peers had for their groups back then.
It’s something that followed me into adult life. My approach to clothes has never gone beyond, “I just like it,” making me impossible to shop for and seeing me treat each week as if it were an “era”, like a pop star.
Of course, this isn’t just me anymore. Today most people are as I was when at school – listening to and wearing a bit of everything. Over a decade and a half later, things that were once deemed alternative are now universal; Dr Martens, once a staple for punks, goths, hippies, and skinheads, are no longer just worn by non-conformists.
The Thrasher logo from the magazine dedicated to skate culture was once heavily associated with skaters, but alongside celebrities like Rihanna, Ryan Gosling, Justin Bieber, and many a model, “normies” started donning T-shirts with it on, too.
You don’t have to be a punk to dye your hair acid green and shave the sides into a mohawk. Not too long ago, I sported pink dreadlocks, which once might have been mistaken as an ode to cybergoth, but was actually more to do with how long I’d spent scrolling Tumblr for hair inspo.
“Subcultures” are no longer the preserve of the countercultural – they are culture. Things that were once specific to a group continue to exist without the social and cultural elements that once pulled them together.
Words like “fam”, specifically used by inner-city Black working-class youth, and “yas”, originating from America’s Black drag scene, are no longer indicators of a person’s socioeconomic background or interests. They’re everyone’s. They are no longer, for better or worse, specific to a particular identity.
Decades ago, it would be impossible to imagine Drag Race as an internationally recognized brand, or grime, often referred to as the modern-day equivalent to punk, featuring on Christmas Ikea adverts.
If video killed the radio star, then it was the internet that killed subcultures. In the same way that social media provides an immediate entry point to different societal groups, it also homogenises. As we try harder than ever to differentiate ourselves from each other, elements of subcultures are increasingly coveted because of their connection to the fringes.
The cycle of niches eventually being subsumed by the mainstream has happened over generations, but the internet has sped this process up at an unrecognisable rate. These days, before a subculture has fully formed, it’s already been co-opted. Combined with the rise of sample culture, different cultural touchstones are now a dress-up box for Gen Z.
This new mix-and-match approach to fashion and music means we now have trends over tribes. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing – young people can wear what they like as opposed to ascribing to the puritanical fashion “rules” within a group, as was the case when I was growing up.
The large catchment area of my school meant pretty much every late Noughties subculture was represented. It was like Mean Girls, but instead of The Plastics and “sexually active band geeks”, we had scene kids and “those girls who brought Jane Norman bags as PE kits to school”.
We even had chemos, a geographically specific hybrid between “chavs” and emos, who primarily dwelled in Purley. Then, being alternative was derided (at least, before Channel 4’s Skins had everyone in Year 10 backcombing their hair and frantically searching MySpace for as many bands prefixed with ‘The’ as they could).
The classic, cartoonish distinctions of high-school life – jocks, geeks, “weird” and preppy kids – have today been upended by “quirkiness” becoming the norm. E-girls, essentially new-age emos with their chokers and dyed hair, are “in”, but years ago would have likely been the victims of bullying. “VSCO girls”, meanwhile, are the “basic bitch” of Gen Z, who are mocked for their lack of distinct identity, though they would have likely ruled the schools in my time when being mainstream was, well, mainstream.
Similarly, the rise of Normcore – the unisex fashion trend characterised by no-frills, normal-looking clothing in the mid-aughts – was mercilessly made fun of. But in our bid to be different, we are potentially even more similar than we were then.
There is evidence that subcultures of a sort are alive and kicking, however – just not as we know it. Gaming culture is huge, albeit largely invisible to the general public, and has its own terminology, in-jokes, heroes and values, and “hypebeasts” have not only influenced youth culture, but high fashion, too, with labels adopting graphic-heavy, athletic clothing and limited drop releases.
At one time, young people used make-up as a visual code to gain admittance into different subcultures: black lipstick for goths, winged eyeliner for punks. Now, make-up is a subculture all of its own; in communities centred around Instagram and YouTube, young people gather virtually to look for inspiration, swap product tips and master techniques.
The likes of “bronies”, “furries” and “stans” have created large online communities over the last decade, and social media means that groups don’t need to be geographically linked in order to come together. While the era of goths hanging around graveyards or “chavs” at the shopping centre may be over, people with shared interests in music, style and life values talk about it online, on forums, in their bedrooms.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before subculture became culture; for Gen Z, shaving your head and piercing your eyebrow is probably less rebellious than when your dad did it in the ’80s.
But even if it feels like it’s in decline, we may be more tribal than ever before. Subcultures were the safe spaces of yesteryear, but in many ways, identity in terms of gender, race, class, and sexuality has taken its place.
Political causes, flags and pronouns in our bios are how we now understand ourselves and try to be understood, a new age iteration of putting your favourite song on Myspace. Who knows how the next generations will be making sense of themselves, as the generational need to sum ourselves up isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
But I must admit, as I mourned my lack of a subcultural home as a teen, I mourn their potential slow extinction as an adult.
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