What is subculture

A subculture is, at its most basic level, a niche of nonconformity and creativity that seems to burst out of nowhere, colonises the mainstream and vanishes again. Subculture nests within wider society, acting in opposition and in parallel to them, providing different voices a chance to be heard. Arguably subcultures are a 20th Century phenomena, born out of nightclub culture of the Jazz Age; one of the unofficial legacies of World War One. After World War Two, another chain of subcultures began to emerge.

Traditionally subcultures are middle class, a way of expressing disdain for the values of older generations, whether politically, socially or aesthetically. They thrived in the shadow of the Cold War, Hippy, probably the most famous of subcultures, though by no means the first, embracing pacifism and free love as a counter culture. In stark contrast to the hawkish nature of the establishment and the grip of the traditional family, Hippies were associated with feminism and progressive politics, protesting the state's excesses. Other scenes followed, often with markedly different agendas; and slowly growing steadily less overtly political. Rebellion became an aesthetic, if there was a political element it embraced singular issues rather than being dedicated to a grand scheme. By the end of the Cold War, alternative culture was so deeply entrenched in the West that it could only spread to the formerly Communist countries. Oddly though, to many people, urban tribes remain mysterious; alien things accessed only through an ambivalent press or dismissed as youthful fallacy.

Is being part of a subculture just a passing phase?

The defining characteristics of a subculture are set in a central ethos or philosophy, a sound, symbolism and, arguably most importantly, an easily identifiable look that marks out the subculture's Skinhead subculture in Brighton Museummembers from the mainstream. Whilst some subcultures spread into other art forms, many never escape beyond these essential roots; they remain a music and fashion scene right up to the point they vanish back into the underground. It would be incorrect to say that subcultures disappear, but the mainstream is fickle and demands constant movement. For the casual member, new identities are created every few years, whilst more serious, adherents of a particular subculture find their homes in urban tribes; it reflects their identity, their soul, perfectly.

The commercialisation and future of subculture?

Subculture's growth can be traced to the growth of entertainment technology. Television, film and pop music allowed new fashions and ideas to spread easily, creating a demarcation line between generations. Television particularly meant new heart throbs could be discovered overnight, on the back of three minute songs. Suddenly image was as important as content, musicians were viewed as dangerously subversive, unchristian even, with their obsession with sex, drugs and music (this had always been the case of course, but they had been tucked away; new media made them accessible anywhere, something seen as terrible by the establishment). As the West grew richer, a mixture of marketing and longer schooling created the teenager; another market to sell to. This capitalised on subculture's burgeoning presence, linked it to profit: attempted to tame it for the very thing it largely opposed. The Sex Pistols, for example, were entirely manufactured; most people would point to them as the defining Punk band. Other subcultures are far from immune to this and retailers are quick to capitalise on anything that resembles an underground trend.

One curious thing of note is that every eleven years or so there's typically a shift in direction, shuttling between two poles perhaps best espoused by Hippie and Punk. The former is psychedelic, peaceful; the other diametric opposed, dedicated to ripping down the existing order. Other subcultures sit somewhere between the two: Goth shares Punk's nihilistic vision, but embraces Hippie's quest for beauty and aesthetics that can grant salvation of some sort, albeit through a more morbid lens.

Punk subculture in Brighton MuseumThe way subcultures mutate to reflect their surroundings show it's impossible to see our society without them, no matter how marginalised they might seem. Ideas warp and grow, creating new alternatives to what's enshrined on the high street; they appeal to our hunter/gatherer instincts, creating a look of one's own rather than buying off the peg. Subcultures provide a necessary fulcrum for change within society, with the downside that they are easily hijacked to provide fads and fashions to distract people from the world. They are a double edged sword, providing both salvation in a cruel world and another way to dilute rebellion. For some people being part of a subculture will only ever be transitory; for others they provide the bedrock for their souls. Whatever their affect, the phenomenon of the subculture is here to stay.

This article on Subculture was written by Steve Cotterill, a writer, gamer and steampunk/goth. His blog is called Shores of Night.