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The Fade of Subculture

By Areni Panosian

We all know that one guy: the guy who approaches women in Led Zeppelin t-shirts and asks them to name five of their songs, the guy who criticizes people for listening to The Smiths because they seemingly “don’t get it,” the guy who views himself as the Christ-tiered savior of subculture in a world of Urban Outfitters shoppers and newfound Nirvana fans. We don’t like this guy, as his opinions are entirely unsolicited and purely negative, but could his statements on the inauthenticity of modern trends be, to some extent, correct?

Subcultures that formed in the 20th century, such as punk culture and hip-hop culture, originally stemmed from one’s identity, whether it be political, racial, creative, etc. They existed as an opposition to a world of war, corruption, and judgment, utilizing fashion and lifestyle choices to convey defiant messages to oppressive presences. Subcultures were a contrast to political or social narratives of the time, creating not only a shift in fashion or music, but also in the mental frames of individuals within a generation, linking aesthetics to ideas. But in a time where the ideas and interests of the masses are so heavily skewed by the hyperfixation on creating an internet persona, the various aesthetic choices that once paired with a social subculture have now manifested in the color scheme of one’s Instagram feed, or where they shop. TikTok’s recent coronation as the all-knowing mind of society represents the birth of a world where trends shift at an astounding pace, namely in fashion and music, two things TikTok audiences consume rapidly. Fashion used to correspond with the social subculture one identified with, whereas now, it manifests itself entirely through the presentation of an internet personality. The influx of ingenuine internet influencers diminishes the authenticity of anything gathered online and applied into the real world. 

Despite this, social media promotes the commodification of subcultures through TikTok trends, shifting the focus from cultural experiences to merely aesthetic value, and turning formerly “underground” subcultures into profitable fads. Personal style, taste, and culture are slaughtered in the hands of apps, as the curation of one’s online avatar supersedes the cultural implications of such aesthetics. Societal fixation on displaying a personal “aesthetic” online transforms former subcultures into an online performance, which we see mainly through fashion—TikTok-spawned labels such as “clean girl,” “indie,” or “street style” completely dilute the visual components of 20th century subcultures. When TikTok popularizes an aesthetic, the corporate world pounces onto new prey, commodifying every artistic choice that formerly existed within this subculture. Modern aesthetic trends are very evidently rooted in post-WWII subcultures, and their commodification removes any prior social connotations, making these trends finite. When trends die, society tosses linked subcultures into the trend graveyard with them, along with any personal and online identities that center around them. 

I recently stumbled across a video that questions why the dark goth character of Allison in John Hughes’s cult-classic film, The Breakfast Club, was labeled a “basket case” before receiving a makeover in the film, as she initially looked perfectly fine. This criticism reflects a generational shift in what’s fashionably acceptable, which is positive, as giving someone an unwarranted makeover is now recognized as objectively mean. Nowadays, teenagers wouldn’t offer the goth girl an overly bright and feminine makeover, and if anything, the grungier look is quite popular. Today, it’s difficult to identify one aesthetic trend or that’s deemed as more desirable than another, which is a refreshing depiction of the youth’s increased tolerance to differing aesthetic subcultures. That’s not to say social hierarchies don’t still exist on the basis of appearance, taste, and self-expression, but our generation places somewhat less of an emphasis on it. This is a positive result of the modern popularization of formerly underground subcultures, as it allows for increased self-expression without the 80s bullies—if you want to wear pink, you can, if you want to wear black, you can. Nonetheless, this presents the question of whether or not our internet-induced discovery of these styles is truly sincere, as the sincerity of this stylistic mayhem is questionable too. 

Fashion and music taste are mostly influenced by one’s individual values, but this appeal is most definitely skewed and compromised based on internet findings. People naturally gravitate towards the trends depicted on their curated social media feeds, whereas in generations prior, it was based heavily off of the consumption of other, slower forms of media, or by current events. 

In his piece titled “American Punk: The Relations Between Punk Rock, Hardcore, and American Culture,” scholar Gerfried Ambrosch states that “In the U.K., punk rock was mainly a movement of frustrated working class youths” and that American punk “emerged as a middle-class phenomenon and a reaction to feelings of social and cultural alienation in the context of suburban life,” and despite the evident, fascinating, and incredibly topical differences between the American and English punk scene, it ultimately reflects how punk culture started in the mid-70s as a reaction to social unrest and emotions. Numerous fashion trends today reflect aesthetic elements of punk culture, but the origins of these trends often go unrecognized, watering punk culture down. 

The same applies to hip-hop culture—according to scholar Rachel E. Sullivan, rap rose to prominence in the 1980s to address politically and socially charged issues such as police brutality and gang violence. Hip-hop culture and music was created by Black artists, hence its heavy association with Black American culture; however, issues form when the internet spreads the hip-hop subculture so widely. Now, white suburban youth want to emulate the aesthetic without an understanding of its cultural roots. The vast commercialization of the hip-hop subculture opens doors for the appropriation of overall Black culture and the erasure of hip-hop’s roots in Black political and social movements. I am in no place to tell anyone which subcultures they can or cannot appreciate, or to criticize people for cultivating an “aesthetic” based on internet trends, but, I do believe that society should gain a better understanding of the subcultures which modern trends derive from, and be aware of the cultural implications of these. We experience a hefty portion of our lives online, which makes finding our own values, interests, and “aesthetics” (as annoyingly superficial as that word may be) even more difficult. Though the internet could be a vessel for self-discovery and community, it cannot substitute lived experiences. Placing these subcultures in a more mainstream light isn’t necessarily an issue, but internet popularity does cheapen the message behind the subculture due to its rapidity and commercialization. I believe it’s significant for people to gain awareness of the social movements these aesthetic subcultures stem from, to promote education and appreciation. The commercialization of 20th century subcultures constantly bombards the youth, creating identity issues for young Americans trying to find an “aesthetic,” and there often seems to be no remedy for this. Spending less time online and placing less significance on the curation of an online avatar is immensely difficult for today’s youth: however, it promotes ideas outside the storm of internet opinions through hobbies, sports, or creative endeavors, possibly generating a new set of authentic subcultures to represent the modern world. 


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