Upon hearing the term “subculture,” one is likely to be graced by the image of a tall spiked mohawk atop the head of a London punk, or the substance-hazed gazed of a flowered, picketing hippie in the 1970s San Francisco. Each with their own respective persona, many former subcultures remain easily recognisable, lending certain aesthetic and character traits to our recognition of them.
According to Oxford, a subculture is “a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture.” When we glance back to times of subcultural prominence, what often coincides are heavily politicised moments in history. Take for example the post-thatcher anti-conservatism views apparent in punk, ska, and later acid house rave music. Similarly, the hippie movement, influenced musicians, artists, and writers alike, all in response to their disdain for injustices of the 1950s and 1960s perpetrated by the American government, such as the civil rights movement and The Vietnam War.
As a result of its indelible ties with the politics of a given time, subcultures have often acted as catalysts of political movements for youths aiming to project their voices in hopes of changing the wider perspective. In the nuances of today’s ephemeral societal structures, are subcultures something we can still recognise? Or have they been left behind in the dust of the past?
Sociologist Aron O’Connor argues in his 2004 essay, The Sociology of Youth Subcultures, that the subcultural phenomenon has often been fuelled by “deviance” brought on by ill-fated young members of society, in vagrant efforts of creating their own pseudo-societies, where they are given acknowledgment that may not have normally been afforded to them. It would be rather nihilistic to say that youth culture has merely vanished over the last forty or so years, but to make light of a dramatic shift in the presence of subcultures is rather valid.
At the height of the Millennial generation, it seems that a distinction between different groups of a “subcultural” status isn’t quite clear. What is apparent, however, is the extreme degree of political involvement seen by our digital generation. Today, certain marginalised groups that may formerly have been considered candidates for subcultural status, are experiencing greater visibility by the ubiquity that is lent by digital platforms such as social media. O’Connor, referencing the perspective of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, also emphasises a thematic link between the “structure” of social class and youth subculture, as often there is a certain rebellion carried out as a result of the disparity in societal experiences of youths and their parents.
This concept of “generational conflict” remains constant and is expected with the introduction and facilitation of new perspectives brought about by products of societal evolution present amongst different age groups. Social media-fuelled activism that is often driven by the products of “generational conflict” frustration highlight millennial political involvement; we are all fighting to increase the volume of voices not heard. But opposing past standards, these participants are not exclusively members of working, or middle classes, or necessarily those taking “alternative (non-legitimate) routes to social status,” as was once recognised by a 1950s American sociological perspective of deviance. Today, the symbolic noise which has routinely been epitomised by the term “subculture” has taken new shape, as resistance to societal norms continues to creep into other crevices of social hierarchy.
In lieu of affirming the altogether disappearance of subculture, we can instead allude to its structural shift. With this shift, it seems that still, our motives remain the same. Through the various tropes available to us, among them being social media platforms, we millennials are dissolving the preconceived spaces between us and instead coming together—a massive counter-culture collectively indebted to bringing forth a new perspective alongside lasting change.
Words: Jessica Gianelli
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu