Identity is the crisis can’t you see?1
My first engagement with subculture would come from watching The Mighty Boosh, with my dad, at a young age. Although many of the musical references would be lost on me until I rewatched the show, it formed my early interest in subcultural identities; pushing me to explore and understand the pattern of youth cultures, and encouraging my own engagement.
Youth subculture is a formulation (and a grouping), of young people who share similar musical tastes, fashion styles and political views. In this article I explore how social and political contexts such as class, gender, and race, help to shape the development of what we know today as youth subculture. I have chosen to focus on British music-based subcultures because I can acknowledge and identify the context, from songs written and produced as a direct reflection on their social and political surroundings. This is important in allowing me to recognise how artists themselves have represented their social and political context, rather than looking at how the media has re-represented the context for these subcultures. This provides a good sample of subcultures to analyse, and a steady timeline to follow. By exploring post-war subcultures we can begin to seek patterns and rituals of youth rebellion and apply them to less analysed and less well researched contemporary subcultures. This gives us a clear definition to allow us to recognise the introduction of new subcultures.
To begin my analysis of British youth subculture, I will first build an understanding of the British class system, in the chapter ‘Live Like Common People: An Introduction to the British Class System’. I then lay out a foundation of class based analysis, within the chapter ‘Born Under Punches, 1950-2000 British Youth Subcultures’. Finally, I apply the analysis of ‘traditional' based youth subcultures, in order to understand how digital development has affected subcultural identities, and how it can be used to recognise the pattern of youth subcultures within a digital space.
Live Like Common People: An Introduction to the British Class System
The British class system is distinctive and ‘sticky'. Class is dependent on three main factors - occupation, social status and education (Davies, H. 2021), although various unwritten rules influence perceived class, a survey conducted by Professor of Sociology Fiona Devine, and published by the BBC in 2011 explored class identity within 21st century Britain. Introducing the idea of “emergent service workers” and “new affluent workers” (Kerley, 2015), since many felt the old class system was outdated. Everyone is sorted into a class: upper, middle and working class, or “poshness to poverty” (Davies, H. 2021). Although the British system fundamentally follows the same baseline as other countries, the economic and cultural differences change how class is often reflected. This is prevalent in “Shameless” a comedy television show which originally was based in Chatsworth council estate, Manchester, but was reinvented for the US version, being based in Chicago. Although both versions of the show hold the same underlying storyline, how class is presented is vastly different, drawing on different lived experiences (Lewis, M. 2021)
‘What difference does it make?’ (The Smiths. 1987). Subcultural identities are formed from various lived experiences, in which class plays a key role. Punk’s DIY ethos didn’t come from nowhere; it was born of necessity and lived experience (McNeil, L. 2017). Grayson Perry explores how class impacts our visual identity and taste in his Channel 4 show The Possibilities of Taste, by analysing the belongings of people from different social classes. Although these objects themselves are not intended as a reflection on class, they become small tokens of a wider lived experience within social classes (Morre, S. 2013). This can also be seen in BBC documentary Man Alive - Not In Our Class Dear (Phipott, 00:01:55-00:02:00, 1966) where two women are seen assigning people to classes based on many factors; one noticeable being their dress. Here, fashion itself is used to highlight class structures.
These small tokens can indicate class, but they can also be used to market ‘industry plants’ to subcultures, with class-based identity. The term ‘industry plant’ is often used as an insult, to those artists who are seen as inauthentic and industry produced (Sridhar, S. 2019). These artists wear the ‘costume’ of class, playing on certain cultural references, in order to fit within a subculture; walking the line but never saying the words ‘working-class’. This helps us to understand how, although some of the subcultures being discussed here do not openly speak about class politics, the lived experience of class cannot be overlooked in the analysis of British subcultures (Hollingworth, S. 2021).
Born Under Punches 1960 – 2000 Post-War British Youth Subcultures
Post-war Britain was bleak, but youth culture offered the hope of economic recovery as young people engaged in consumer culture, following the rise in visual identities and leisure time (Milestone, K. 1999). Although many of these subcultures are rooted in white working-class identities, Dick Hebridge argues in his book Subculture the meaning of style, that the multicultural nature of post-war Britain was important in the development of many subcultural identities, and cannot be overlooked in their analysis (Hebridge, D, 1976). The politics and visual identities of these subcultures may change, but they all follow the same fundamental rules; this is mine, it’s not yours. If you can understand it, I’m going to change it. In the eyes of the current cycle of young people, do people (myself included), intentionally pivot into being one to be superseded, outmoded or rebelled against?
1960’s Peace and Love
The summer of love was a rejection of middle-class morality. The Hippies were less rooted in British politics; rising in part as an opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam War. Hippie anthems such as San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair (Scott McKenzie. 1967) This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie. 1944) and The Times Are-a-Changin (Bob Dylan. 1964) set a political tone for the Hippie subculture, based on the idea of freedom. Even The Beatles, released All You Need Is Love (Beatles, 1967), echoing a popular saying in the 60’s anti-war movement. The peace and love attitude was a natural rejection of the violent, often racist, working-class parent cultures.
The American influence on British Hippie subculture is important in understanding why it is one of the only British subcultures that is rooted in white middle-class identity. Britain has a distinctive class system that subconsciously influences a lot of youth cultures (Hollingworth, S. 2021), whereas the Hippies’ visual identity could be linked to colonisation and later commercialisation of the US, as well as Australian indigenous communities. Miriam Hahn speaks on this connection in her essay Playing Hippies and Indians: Acts of Cultural Colonisation in The Theatre of The American Counterculture (Hahn, M. 2014). Designers such as Alexander Jacopetti Hart being “inspired by nature and in some cases by Native American patterns” (Lemke-Santangelo, G. 2016).
All this peace and love offered an ideal space for women to move freely within countercultures for the first time. Previously, most subcultures were male-dominated spaces. In these male-dominated subcultures, the position of women was no less repressive, un-liberated or exploited, despite being referred to as a “women's liberation movement”. As in society at large, women within subcultures gravitated towards more passive roles within them, often going undocumented. Within these movements they were still confined to traditional family roles held outside of the community (Lemke-Santangelo, G. 2016). Historian and author Lamke-Santangelo describes the sexist stereotypes that followed women within the movement, by saying:
“There’s the naive, innocent victim who’s exploited by the predatory male. The earth mother. The love goddess. The hairbrained, sexually promiscuous hippie chick. And the domestic drudge, the woman who does all the hard domestic labour to sustain her family” goes on to explain it as “inaccurate, a complete distortion” (Lemke-Santangelo, G. 2016).
Independent publishing played a key role in the development of Hippie culture, with magazines such as ‘International Times’, ‘Gandalf’s Garden’, ‘ZigZag’ and ‘OZ’ serving as an archive of the political beliefs of the subculture, and their visual identity. ‘OZ’ was an Australian publication that travelled to the UK in 1967 and ran a range of stories on the anti-war movement and left-wing politics; stories which were often unreported by mainstream media (Ramaswamy, C. 2016). Viv Albertine, the guitar player of The Slits, speaks on the importance of these magazines in her autobiography “We couldn’t afford to travel, we felt connected to other countries because ideas and events from those places reached us through magazines” (Albertine, V. 2014 P.40). Propaganda posters were also produced by the movement to spread their message to those already engaging with the subculture, one of the most famous being Joan Baez ‘Girls say yes to boys who say no’. This type of publication was important in developing a free-thinking movement detached from the mainstream media.
The Skinheads would eventually reject the peace and love movement of the Hippies, aligning themselves within right-wing politics by engaging in the National Front, a far-right fascist political party, and its attacks on various communities in Britain such as the Pakistani community. The ‘brand’ of the Skinhead subculture was racist, right-wing and aggressive (Knopper, S. 2018). Their style was cultivated from traditional working-class imagery; dismissing their parents’ cultures who often used dress to convey affluence and aspiration. Ironically, at its core the Skinhead subculture was multiracial; developing from the reggae and ska filled dance halls (Knopper, S. 2018), but would be remembered as a white supremacist group throughout its later revivals.
The development of the Skinheads is the beginning in the pattern of rejection that forms within youth cultures, however, there also runs a pattern of revival, more accurately described as a pattern of reinvention. The Teddy Boy revival that followed closely after the Skinheads, was not a clean replication of the original subculture, instead it developed to suit the needs of the youth at the time. Although the dress remains similar it became a ‘costume’, based on the original subculture (Knee, S. 2015). The term ‘revival’ would soon be dismissed in favour of sub-categories under one larger subcultural identity; this is particularly important when speaking of later subcultures such as Punk. The revivals would often still be a rejection of the preceding subculture, but hold a different musical and political stance than their subcultural counterparts.
1970’s: Anarchy in the UK
The ’60s had ended, but the dark conservative days continued. At the same time, the Bowie Kids, or Glam subculture developed. The glitz and glitter provided a stark contrast to the industrial conflict and unstable income that affected many British families. Music subcultures challenged the masculine dominated spaces in terms of both music and visual identities; encouraging a fluidity in gendered looks, with men on the music scene often wearing makeup. David Bowie, in his song Rebel Rebel highlights the importance of this within the scene’s political identity by singing “you’ve got your mother in a whirl, ‘cause she’s not sure whether you’re a boy or girl” (David Bowie. 1974). Although the ‘Glam’ subculture challenged gender norms, it was seen as widely un-political because it neglected to comment on class politics; something many young people felt they couldn’t ignore. By using affluence within dress, the scene created a division between fans and artists, playing on the idea of superstars (Knee, S. 2015). Bowie in his later years would come under fire for endorsing fascism (Lee, J. 2020), which was a push for the scene's dismissal by young people. With the ‘death’ of Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie's created alter ego, came the death of the Glam subculture. This left only Gary Glitter standing, something I don’t think we want anything left in the hands of, especially not British youth (BBC, 2015).
‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us'' (Sparks, 1974). Glam was quickly rejected by the working class youth in the North, with the development of Northern soul, a music and dance-based subculture (Knee, S. 2015). Comfortably working class, Northern Soul’s visual identity was a Frankenstein of various British based subcultures such as late-Mod, Skinheads and Suedehead, but soon developed a style that favoured dance-floor friendly designs (Knee, S. 2015).
Northern soul rejected chart-toppers, although some may have slipped onto the turntable; instead focusing on soul music imported from America (Northern Soul, 2014). Just like reggae DJ’s, the key was covering both the track name and artist, to protect the exclusives (Northern Soul, 2014). Once the song lost its grip on the dance floor it would often be dropped from the set. However, songs such as Everything's Gonna Be Alright (P.P Arnold. 1967), Country Girl (Vicky Baines. 2008) and You Didn't Say A Word (Yvonne Baker. 2010), are widely regarded as Northern Soul Classics. Despite the music within the scene not being ‘on face value’ very political, by importing the records of black artists from America, and rejecting the current British mainstream, this became a political act within itself.
Glam’s detachment of fan and artist, as well as Northern Soul’s importing of American records left a lot to be desired by British youth, who wanted something that felt like their own. Ron Mael of the American Glam band Sparks expressed how “This whole energy and passion of Punk seemed to be directly be aimed at what we were doing” (The Sparks Brothers, 2021). Born and raised in the council blocks that housed British working-class youth, Punk pushed forward with its opposition to existing subcultures such as Teddy Boys, who used the visual identity of the upper-classes, instead playing to the delinquency associated with British working-class youth. Johnny Rotten, the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, expressed that “we wanted to be amateurs” (McNeil, L. 2017).
Punk’s Visual identity adopted a DIY ethos; one that favoured Dada influences, seen in the use of hand drawn fonts and photocopied images (Kirvine, A. 2020). This aesthetic promoted accessibility in direct opposition and contrast to the parent and mainstream cultures of the time. Small publications such as Temporary Hoarding and Ripped and Torn (Primois, M and Bernière, V . 2013) voice a distaste for the social and political climate, while also serving as small music magazines to promote bands, as part of a rejection of larger-run music magazines (Kirvine, A. 2020). The use of zines within the subculture is reminiscent of independently published magazines within the Hippie subculture, although the less 'refined' graphics helps to showcase the class disparity between the subcultures. This subcultural ritual would also be a foreshadowing of the future of internet blogs, as it fundamentally served the same purpose.
New York is considered by many as the undisputed birthplace of Punk (Claire, M. 2015), although both developed out of different social and political contexts. This conflict is commented on in the Sex Pistols song ‘New York’, where they claim that the New York Scene is unauthentic, “an imitation from New York, you’re made in Japan, from cheese and chalk” (Sex Pistols, 1977). British punk was so intertwined with British politics, and the feelings of hopelessness on the part of British youth, as commented on in the Sex Pistols single ‘God Save The Queen’ (1977) (originally titled ‘No Future’), that it becomes different to regard them as the same movement. British Punk also drew from vastly different musical references than their New York counterparts, with bands like the Ramones being influenced by 1960's pop music. Reggae was a known inspiration for many figures in the UK Punk scene. Its influence can be seen across various bands from PiL (Johnny Rotten’s later band) (Howe, R. 2019), The Slits (Albertine, V. 2014. P.209) and The Clash, who also visually took elements from Jamaican street style. This engagement with the Jamaican community would also go on to influence songs that spoke to the racial tension and oppression that many Jamaican immigrants would face. Songs such as ‘White Riot'’ by The Clash were intended to comment on white youths’ unease, and to engage politically at that time with issues regarding immigrant communities within London and overall. This can be seen in lyrics such as “Black men gotta lot of problems, but they don’t mind throwing a brick, White people go to school, where they teach you to be thick” (The Clash, 1977) .
While Punk was a male-dominated space, it also had strong female figures at the forefront of the subculture (Goldman, V. 2019). Often women within rock-based subcultures were assumed to fill the role of a groupie, being used for the sexual gratification of band members (Papadpoulos, M. 2019), but the women of punk wanted to be on stage. Bands such as The Slits, The Raincoats and X-Ray Spex challenged the ideals of women within music, using Punk as an outlet for their feminist Views. Poly Styrene, the lead singer of X-Ray Spex and the first woman of colour at the forefront of the Punk movement, spoke on identity politics and consumer culture on their first album ‘Germ Free Adolescents’' (X-Ray Spex. 1978) shouting “identity is the crisis can’t you see?” (X-Ray Spex. 1978). Women used the harsh, thrashing of Punk to protest the fragile social norms and the very real violence many of them faced at the time. The Slits speak on both issues in their debut albums ‘Cut’ (The Slits. 1979) by singing ‘Whilst walking home, whilst you were sulking I could of been raped on Ladbroke Grove’ (The Slits. 1979).
Despite Punk being regarded as a left-wing subculture, with many bands taking part in events such as ‘Rock Against Racism’, in opposition to the presence of the National Front (Haider, A. 2020), a right-wing political party that often recruited young people (Haider, A. 2020), it still frequently used Nazi symbols. Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols and partner to Vivienne Westwood, a well-known designer of the subculture, was known to hand out swastika armbands to accompany Westwood’s swastika jumpers (Goldman, V. 2014). The symbol was mostly used to cause people shock on a political and social level, in turn causing discomfort to the establishment (Knopper, S. 2018). However, despite the use of such symbols, Punk isn’t remembered as endorsing Nazism. The revival of the Skinheads came to combat the left-wing politics of Punk, and engaged in the National Front as a direct opposition to the Punk refusal to do so (Joy Leone, S 2018).
The split of the Sex Pistols, the undeniable face of British punk, was seen as the end of the subculture. Over the years a range of redevelopment sub-genres would form under punk, such as CyberPunk, Anarcho Punk and Art Punk (Knee, S. 2015). I’d suggest this is because the zine culture within punk opened a space for those with more niche interests within Punk to communicate those interests.
1980’s Margaret on the Guillotine
“Anger was an energy” (Rise, 1986), as Johnny Rotten once said, but by the 1980s, anger was out and melancholy was in. Post-punk, or New Wave, once again highlighted the North/South subcultural divide, opting for a new mellow sound. The subculture wasn’t particularly rooted in a Northern identity, but instead reflected the delayed spread of Punk out of the Kings Road, London. Bands such as Joy Division came to the front of the subculture. Their name made reference to a section where women were housed for the pleasure of Nazi Officers, a more subtle choice from their original name Warsaw (Middles, M. 2015),. New Wave held values of Punk very closely, and was not a full rejection of its parent cultures, but instead refined itself, in order to be radio-friendly. Many of these bands were among the Punk crowd, such as The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, PiL and even the Buzzcocks (Spotify, Unknown). New Wave would go on to become an umbrella term used to describe counterculture music up until 1984, encompassing a range of bands later known as New Romantics or Indie (Rock Influx, 2019).
Despite starting in a small club in Covent Garden, the New Romantics, or Blitz Kids, went on to set the tone for the 1980s, with many bands reaching mainstream success, and performing on ‘Top of the Pops’, a popular music show which ran on the BBC from 1964-2006 (Edwards, L. 2020). Bands such as Spandau Ballet, Culture Club and the performer Marilyn soon outgrew the small club (Blitz). Visually, the New Romantics picked up where Glam left off, experimenting with gender norms (Gale, N. 2021) and creating their own sense of affluence within dress/fashion. Both the Glam and Blitz Kids were wildly un-political compared to their parent cultures but offered a shiny contrast to the political dampness in Thatcher’s England.
The rise of Margaret Thatcher had an undeniable impact on youth culture. Although the Blitz Kids/New Romanticism may have started off life as a youth subculture, its rise into the mainstream and its refusal to engage politically had branded it right-wing (Johnson, D. 2009). This gave space for the developing youth culture in the North to voice their distaste towards Thatcherism, in a time where many young people felt they had no choice but to politically engage. Thatcherite policies affected working-class communities far harder in the North (Moss, R. 2013), and the South’s refusal to politically engage created the need for a new scene.
Bands such as The Smiths, a Manchester based band, claimed to give a voice to the “ordinary people of the world” (Datarun, 1984. 0.39). They were prevalent during the development of Indie music, and openly pushed left-wing politics with their album ‘The Queen is Dead’ (1986). Later their lead singer, Morrissey, would release songs such as ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ (Morrissey, 1988), which describes Morrissey’s hatred for Thatcher such that the lyrics even prompted a police visit to the singer (Morrissey, 1990). Other artists around this time produced music that openly criticised Thatcher, including The Beats’ ‘Stand Down Margaret’ (IBeat, 1983), Elvis Costello’s ‘Tramp The Dirt Down’ (1989) and The Jam’s ‘Town Called Malice’ (1982). However, these are only a few examples. The North/South divide is clearly present in the development and subsequent rejection of both Glam and Blitz Kids in favour of more accessible and politically conscious subcultures. In the words of Morrissey ‘The music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life’ (The Smiths, 1987)
Thatcher’s war with youth culture would end with Acid House (Holden, M. 2013). Known for their warehouse raves, the scene would draw influences from America’s gay and Afro-Carribean clubs. The subculture would take on two very different identities, developing in both the North and South of England. As the North were trying to recover from Thatcher’s policies, which had made many jobless through the miners strike and the closure of other industries, they would take comfort in being able to disassociate from the political dampness in the air, taking shelter in the abandoned warehouses that now surrounded them. This became a rejection of Thatcher and what she had done to their communities (Warne, C. Unknown). In contrast, the Southern rave culture would attract more affluent young people who could indulge in their weekend drug habit, becoming a business for many young Tories who would organise these events. Moral panic not only broke at the drug culture that started to appear at these events, but also Acid House crossed over into the gay scene. Under Thatcher’s government the gay community was attacked under clause 28, a law introduced in 1988 to restrict the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, and reflected the growing moral panic around the AID’s endemic (hatfulofhistory, 2019). The introduction of the The Criminal Justice Act 1994, would be used to phase out the last of illegal raves within the UK. Shortly after Thatcher would retire from the commons in 1992.
1990’s End of a Century
In the 1980s Thatcherism had divided the UK not only in terms of politics but also in pop culture. With many bands dismissing British imagery, when Morrissey draped himself in a Union Jack, NME, a British music magazine, ran a front-page headline that reflected the upset of many of his left-wing fanbase, reading “MORRISSEY Flying the flag or flirting with disaster?” (NME, 1992).
The dark Conservative days were soon to be behind Britain as a new Labour government was elected in 1997 (BBC, 2010). At the same time, Britpop had emerged. Relishing in traditionally British imagery, with red, white and blue infecting all elements of design, a clear rejection of the creeping Americanisation of US-led subcultures such as the Grunge scene (Lindsay, C. 2018) ran through Britpop. Being British was presented as something that everyone could support, although class still played heavily into the development of the subculture (Thorp, C. 2020). Lad Culture played a key role in the visual identity of Bripop and is often linked to the working-class culture of football (Knox, R. 2015/2016). Bands such as Oasis and Blur publicly engaged in football culture, with both taking part in a charity match that saw the Battle of Britpop taken to the football field (Whatley, J. 2021). As well, various Britpop anthems became regular songs played in football stadiums and used within advertisements (Week, M. 2009).
Britpop reinforced the masculine stereotypes that Glam and the New Romantics had fought so hard against. Lad culture was inherently white and misogynistic, creating very little room for women to move around the subculture freely (Healy, R. 2022). Although there were female-fronted bands such as Sleeper, Lush and Garbage that formed a small culture of ‘ladettes’, the ratio of women in the scene was still unbalanced, and both artist and fan were fetishised (Healy, R. 2022). Men still dominated the subculture, and the hierarchy was clear. Terms such as ‘sleeperbloke’ were coined to describe men who didn’t take centre stage, a reference to the male band members who played behind Louise Jane Wener in Sleeper (Long Live Vinyl. 2019). The formation of the Ladette culture perpetuated the idea that women must lose their femininity to be respected. Articles like ‘90’s Lad Culture Was Beautiful’ reflect this ideology by saying “Girls drank pints with the boys and watched the World Cup in the pub. They were ladettes, they had girl power... Women who slept around were still denigrated by many, for example, but there was progress” (Knox, R. 2015/2016). The song ‘Ladykiller’ (1996), by Lush, also offers an antidote to Britpop’s masculine point of view by painting a picture of how men within the subculture would act towards their female counterparts. The fallout from Lad cultures’ problematic behaviour, however, was not often reflected in the lyrics of many Britpop songs. In fact, some bands such as Suede had lyrics that contained homosexual references, with Brett Anderson, in their song “Drowners” (1993), singing “We kissed in his room to a popular tune” .
Authenticity in class was still important to the image of Britpop, the Battle taking place between the bands Oasis and Blur, once again creating a North/South divide. Many Northern fans questioned Blur’s working-class roots, with Noel Gallagher commenting on the class status of Damon Albarn, the lead singer of Blur, “What does he know about British culture, he knows nothing, he’s from Colchester, he’s a student, he took A-level music” (Live forever: Rise and Fall of Britpop, 2003). Blur’s lyrics never challenged class politics at face value, instead speaking on the mundane aspects of British life, particularly in their song Parklife, “I put my trousers on, have a cup of tea and I think about leaving the house” (Blur, 1994). Oasis’s lyrics tended to follow the same pattern, focusing on British life but not being explicitly political, “I was looking for some action, but all I found was alcohol and cigarettes” (Oasis, 1994). Class played an undisputed role in the development of Britpop. However, it was mostly used as a political tool by Tony Blair and his Labour government, with both Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn being summoned by Tony Blair (Barker, E. 2014). Blair publicly engaged with what was seen as working-class culture, wanting to appeal to the working-class communities most affected by Thatcher. Many subcultures had spent years shouting to the youth about how corrupt the government was, and now we had one celebrating it. “You wanna live like common people?... You’ll never fail like common people do” (Pulp, 1995).
2000’s Wot Do You Call It?
Britpop was rooted in working-class identity; it was mostly built on white working-class identities (Childs, S. 2018). In contrast, Grime was a subculture that developed in the early 2000s, and was rooted in the working-class identity of people of colour within East London, as well as areas like Peckham and Brixton. Accessibility was important in the rise of Grime, with many artists producing their own beats on software such as ‘Fruity Loops’ as well as manufacturing and selling their own music. Much like Northern Soul, records played a key role in the spread of tracks within the scene as many artists pressed small batches of 12-inch vinyls, referred to as ‘white labels’ or ‘dub pressings’ (Ward, B. 2020). White labels were sent to a range of pirate radio stations, which helped the distribution of self-released music, such as ‘RinseFM’, ‘HeatFM’, and ‘DEja Vu FM’ (Reed, D. 2018). The rise of MP3 players altered the production and distribution of Grime tracks by allowing the artist to distribute the files digitally. As pirate radio stations declined within the scene, it was important that the artist could continue to reach and represent their local audiences (The Conversation, 2017).
The music reflected the social and political surroundings of the young people within the subculture, making several references to life in high rise London council estates. Songs such as ‘Dealers’ by Devlin feat. Ghetto, Wretch 32 and Scorcher (Devlin, 2006) highlighted the drug and gang culture that many of these young people grew up within. While tracks such as ‘Fuck the Government’ (Bashy, 2014) by Bashy addressed the problems that many minorities had with the government and authority; highlighting the growing tensions as young people of colour were routinely targeted by police. Local slang would often be used within the music, which differed from each council estate, allowing localised forms of communication to develop (Paterson, S. 2017). This slang was used in order to recognise someone’s perceived class, but has been adopted by various artists in an attempt to capitalise on class-based identities, as discussed in ‘Common People, An Introduction to the British Class System’.
The UK Drill genre, which followed on from Grime and Road Rap, and the new cultural varieties which have also followed, are difficult to describe. Since being relatively current, Drill (for example), is still in the process of devising and delineating it’s own distinct identity. Not enough time has passed for it to have been the subject of retrospective interpretation.
Are ‘Friends’ Electric? The Digital Development of Youth Subculture
‘Video killed the radio star’ (The Buggles. 1980). The development of cyberculter changes the nature of youth subcultures. The web was new and unregulated, offering a space for young people to move freely between countercultures. The exposure to wider social and cultural ideas allowed spaces for the construction of new ‘online’ subcultural identities to form. Anthony Bennett discusses the new possibilities of online spaces in his essay ‘Virtual Subculture? Youth, Identity and the Internet, by writing “the Internet has been conceptualised as providing a potentially significant new resource for the formation of counter-hegemonic and subversive strategies that were previously unachievable on such a scale”. (Bennett, A and Kahn-Harris. 2004).
2003’s Virtual Boyfriend
Britpop waved its white flag in the war of Americanisation and as online spaces grew young people were able to engage much more easily with those outside of local reach. MySpace.com was an American social media platform founded in 2003 (Elephant, 2019). It allowed users to write blogs, talk to friends and share musical taste. The website quickly developed an audience of young people, giving birth to one of the first cybercultures, known as ‘Scene Kids’ (Makalintal, B. 2020). Based in both the US and UK, they were known for their colourful teased hair, bold eyeliner and band tee-shirts. The subculture is often compared to its parent culture Emo, a post-Punk scene out of Washington D.C. that would eventually land itself in the UK after many redevelopments, sharing some overlaps in music (Ewen, H. 2019)
Interaction between users on the website was paramount to the evolution of Scene Kids. The introduction of the ‘Top 8’ allowed users to select eight friends to display on their profile (Ross, A. 2017), helping to establish the stand out figures of the subculture. Just as Sid Vicious earned his place in Punk history not only through the Sex Pistols but his early engagement in the scene and its spaces (Banerji, A. 2021), Scene Queens followed much of the same path. Featuring on many top 8 lists, Kiki Kannibal, Lexi Lush and perhaps the most famous Jeffree Star, would become some of the platform’s largest Scene Queens (McCarthy, L. 2020). Most often these figures were female, although there were some males known as ‘Scene Kings’ such as Alex Evans, Kaiden Blake and John Hock, they were less present in the scene’s history.
Scene Kids are often described as a fashion subculture, but one in which music played a crucial role in the formation of the community (Elephant, 2019). Throughout the 1980’s mixtapes and independent music, publishing was significant in the development of youth culture and even played a role in earlier subcultures like Northern Soul (Northern Soul. 2014) and Punk (Good Vibrations. 2013). MySpace replicated this subcultural ritual by allowing users to embed music to their pages for free, easily sharing it with friends and family. Music was at the core of MySpace and it helped to launch a range of mainstream artists like Adele, Arctic Monkeys and Calvin Harris (Official Charts, 2019). However, bands like Black Veil Brides, You Me At Six and Bring Me The Horizon were much more aligned with the Scene Kid subculture (Official Charts. 2019).
Music within the subculture remained male-dominated, while women tended to engage with fan culture (Ewens, H. 2019). Much of the music within the subculture followed the masculine structure of music (De Boise, S. 2020), although whilst mostly male-led bands, they tended to be perceived as less aggressive than bands such as Papa Roach. Their song ‘Last Resort’ graphically described self-harm, singing ‘Cut my life into pieces, this is my last resort, Don’t give a fuck if I cut my arm, bleedin’ (2000). Compared to the Black Veil Brides song ‘Knives and Pens’ (2009), which also speaks on the topic of self-harm; “with knives and pens we made our plight, lay your heart down the end's in sight” (2009), it’s clear how they are tackling the topic in a much more emotionally conscious way. Other examples include ‘Teenagers’ (My Chemical Romance. 2006) and ‘Suicide Season’ (Bring me the Horizon, 2008), both still focusing on the themes of self-harm, depression and suicide; but in what was perceived to be in a ‘feminine’ way (De Boise, S. 2020).
The start of online/web-based ‘spaces’ would be seen as the beginning of a new era for subcultures, one that had no physical roots but was accessible, while in many ways replicating traditional subcultural patterns. Although MySpace would reach its peak in 2006 before declining (as those who grew up on the platform would move to Facebook), beginning the pattern of rejection spoken about throughout the essay. The website would become the first self contained archive of subcultural identities up until 2019 when a failed ‘Server Migration’ project would, unfortunately, erase over 50 million songs that had been uploaded to the website, along with many photos and blog posts (Stassen, M. 2019). However, the site has established itself as a nostalgic memory for those who engaged, inspiring countless threads of internet culture.
Tomorrow Never Knows The Future Progression of Youth Subcultures
The digital development of subcultures blurred the lines of what is seen as a ‘traditional' subculture, but the fundamentals of rejection and development are ever present. The freshness of contemporary subcultures doesn't allow for an accurate analysis to be made that can discuss in full, the social and political climate surrounding its development. Retrospective understanding of post-war subcultures is made possible because we can consider a wider social context, allowing a discussion to take place, of their development, or rejection. It also can’t be neglected that many participants of subcultures inevitably migrate into positions of power and go on to encourage academic or nostalgic engagement of previous subcultures.
Internet based subcultures follow the same fundamental ideas as post-war subcultures, using lived experience to inform their engagement (Bennett, A and Kahn-Harris, 2004). The need for young people to be heard and express their lived experience is still prevalent and can be seen on various social media apps such as Instagram and TikTok. These forms of open communication allow for smaller, more niche subcultures to form under one larger umbrella term, much as we saw with New Wave or Post Punk. This is because social media platforms or blogs play a similar role within the development of internet-based subcultures as independent publishing like ‘Oz’ or ’Temporary Hoarding’ had done for post-war subcultures (Kaplan, G. 2013). They can help to establish a political stance, promote ‘stand-out’ figures from the movement, as well as pushing new music.
Throughout post-war British subcultures, we can see a subcultural ritual forming around the freedom to distribute either your own or others' music, particularly in Northern soul and Grime. Despite the death of MP3s or physical records, music exchange is still a big part of online subcultural identities, which can be seen in the development of the MySpace profiles which allowed young people to embed their music to their page. This ritual can be seen to influence instagram in a similar way as you can directly share and link music through in-app features that encourage that engagement. Arguably, the closest comparison in a current social media platforms to MySpace would be TikTok, because not only does it allow someone to use music within their post (much like Instagram), but it also creates a space where people are able to showcase their own music. The app only focuses on video based content, as well as creating ‘stand-out’ figures within the space. When speaking on Scene Kids we discussed how much like Sid Vicious had grown a following before he joined the Sex Pistols by simply engaging in the scene. This had later been replicated in the MySpace feature of 8 top friends, and the same thing can be seen within TikTok.
At the moment it is difficult to see an obvious new subcultural identity forming, which could be for many social reasons, such as Covid stopping young people from engaging offline as well as online, or the digital divide restricting low-income working-class families from engaging in the very ritual they worked to refine. However, we can begin to see groups of people using revival subcultures in online spaces. Y2K is a term that encompasses past subcultures from 1994 to 2004, and can be seen presenting itself in various different ways across social media platforms (Wade, G. 2018). Meanwhile, early 2000’s subcultures have become part of a nostalgic engagement, such as we see in Scene Kids or Indie (Makalintal, B. 2020). For those who grew up through it, their engagement encourages a new revival to form that meets the needs of current young people.
Online, we can continue to see a pattern of rejection and development, but at a quicker pace, often being misinterpreted as a ‘trend’ rather than a fully-formed subculture. I suggest that we will continue to see a pattern occurring within digital spaces, as well as a pattern of revival, as young people who once participated in their respective subcultures encourage academic and nostalgic engagement. As the British class system is challenged and adapted to modern day Britain, I believe we will also continue to see a shift in the political context of subcultures that will no longer put as much weight on UK class ideology or local lived experience, but will grow from a much broader political context. The process of globalization makes it impossible to analyse them as ‘British’ youth subcultures alone anymore. As a result, the topics of conversation may change, the political stance may change, and the exact nature of preferred dress may change, but young people's need or desire to be seen and heard will not.
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- X-Ray Spex, 1978↩