Monday, January 17, 2011

Contemporary Subculture of Dogmatic Consumerism and Apolitical Milieus

Originally I had planned to contextualize this conversation through my (albeit limited) understanding of the Zeitgeist. A current professor of Art History of mine warned the class to be wary of people who use the term "post-" to describe a movement of any sort, since that usually means they don't know what they're talking about-- yet. But the high Post-Modern era has come and is beginning to be replaced by a new generation of technologies, social conventions, political issues, and power structures.

If the previous era was marked by Warhol, Jeff Koons' vacuum cleaners and Reaganomics; the glory & glamor of being on the handle-end-of-the-stick, then this one is marked by Banksy and Fairey's Andre the Giant, and the reality of sending critical messages through the capitalist infrastructure itself.

The author of Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, & the Erosion of Integrity Anne Elizabeth Moore refers to it as "manic, late-stage capitalism," as she details in her book the various ways in which advertising organizations have infiltrated not only alternative media, but
the alternative ethos itself.

Advertisers target an alternative audience by becoming them. The Diesel Jeans ad emotes political passion, depicting protesters in the act of standing up for their message. Their signs say "Kiss your Neighbor" but their message is simply "Buy Diesel Jeans."

This approach of marketing fashion through a direct association with protesting is all the rage. This image appeared on Vice magazine's website shortly after the recent student protests in Britian, right above a sub text listing the brands of the clothes the model is wearing, and right to the left of an American Apparel ad.

Directly above are the clever Sony PSP GraffADis which appeared on the walls of major cities overnight. The international street artist community was outraged by the seamless transition of public spaces from canvas to billboard. They argued that the average passerby would not be able to differentiate an ad from an artistic expression when it presents itself in a medium which, up until this point, belonged expressly to the latter.

The tactics of energy drink producers such as Red Bull are a common and visible example of the veracity of advertisers in their attempts to reach not just young people, but cool young people. Whether on foot or in a weird chop-top mini cooper, hip looking associates hit skate parks, coffee shops, local hangouts, college campuses, trendy neighborhoods, social events, music festivals, etc. in order to get their brand recognized. I've even seen the Red Bull car handing out drinks to whitewater rafters at a boat launch on the Colorado river.

Word of mouth messages weren't always diluted with consumerism. Two decades ago, in our very own rainy backyard, punk and feminism has fused to form the Riot Grrrl movement. Anything but capitalist; people like Alison Wolfe, Kathleen Hanna, Molly Neuman, and Tobi Vail and the zine they produced were dedicated to promoting egalitarian ideas, or more adamantly, criticizing oppressive practices.

The movement gained much of its momentum from the healthy punk and alt scene of the early 90's. Token Riot Grrrl bands Bratmobile and Bikini Kill often played with (and even dated members of) Nirvana. It was a pure, rebellious message, but it was obscured by the mainstream media when "girl-power" was used simultaneously to describe No-Doubt and the Spice Girls.

Nowadays Bonnie Burton, zinester & underground media person, uses the -grrl suffix to promote Star Wars: The Clone Wars drawing books on her "indie" blog

By playing off of popular Minor Threat album art, Nike SB was able to commandeer the attention of punks on the East Coast. Most of them were livid, but the nationwide backlash only led to more brand recognition for Nike within the punk community. Dischord Records never filed a lawsuit, since doing so would send the message that it really is all about the money.

Just last year there was an uproar when an AT&T commercial showed national monuments and buildings being wrapped in orange fabric. Anyone who is familiar with the work of Cristo and Jeanne-Claude immediately recognizes the association, and if there was any doubt, the disclaimer on the bottom the the last frame confirms that indeed the commercial has (no) association with artists Cristo and Jeanne-Claude. Whether or not AT&T was marketing specifically towards those with a background in contemporary art history, is unclear. Judging by the comments on Youtube & the Huffington Post, the commercial reached a very general audience and then gained popularity through word of mouth controversies, just as in the example above.

What does it mean to live in a world where urban and indie images and media are regularly hijacked for advertisement? Well, for one, more kids are seeing corporate logos. Many of them in media where art or egalitarianism used to (or should still) be. I argue that this infiltration, this invasion, has had devastating effects upon the contemporary subculture and its political identity.


Dating back to the 1920's and perhaps earlier, the US has traditionally seen a relatively consistent progression of subcultures throughout the decades. Jazz, Beat, Mod-Rocker, Hippie, Alt-Punk, Indie-Emo, and now, the Hipster. But whereas hippie subculture arose out of a discontentment with modern conventions and the Vietnam War, and punk was borne from sheer rebelliousness and anarchism, the new subculture seems to have risen up without any corresponding political ideals.

Traditionally western subcultures have always had a large constituency of white middle-class college students and other young intellectuals, and this one is no different. These college students have time, money, and intellect to devote towards progressive, artistic, and inventive expression, and are typically the conduit through which radical ideas travel. The only difference is that where earlier subcultures were organizing demonstrations and screaming anti-capitalist criticism from a microphone, the current, is not.

Postmodernism witnessed a shift towards recycling and re-contextualizing existing material as a means of production, as opposed to a more traditional approach which relies upon originality. Hipster as a late-postmodern (or early post-postmodern) subculture, looks towards all earlier styles and cultural phenomena to re-adapt and re-combine to call their own; the granola aesthetics of the hippies, the day-glo colors of 1980's hip-hop, and the tight pants of the punks and emos. The hipster does what any person does, socialize him/herself according to the closest recent historical matches, but since the hipster does not match perfectly any historical movement, he or she does what any postmodern person does, and re-adapts past elements to form his or her "own" style. Within the culture is a fundamental fear of conformity, which is caused by the multitude of individuals involved in this far reaching pastiche of modern style. There is even air of disillusionment and disgust, since even the simplest things such as flannel shirts have been "stolen," appropriated, made hip. And of course, once it's hip-- it's no longer cool.

Assuming the close association of any social movement with its respective musical movement, this contemporary subculture appears relatively healthy. Despite the massive fragmentation of today's indie music into niches (among them doom gaze, chillwave, dub-step, sludge metal, trip-hop and other forms of new electronica), there are robust indie scenes in many major US cities. Perhaps it's this very dichotomy between generic indie & highly-specific niche music, or perhaps it's because they haven't figured out how to dance to it yet, but the term "indie" has been somehow replaced by "hipster" to describe the culture of up-and-coming bands. Without a wider recognition of the concept indie or independent culture, hipsters are less likely to identify with not only indie shows and bands, but books, films, games, news outlets & other publications, shops, and services. Despite being recognized for the most elementary acts of being independent (riding and building bicycles, eating local & organic food), the term "hipster" is still widely preferred. Wikipedia even defines hipsters as "urban middle class adults and older teenagers with interests in non-mainstream fashion and culture, particularly indie rock, independent film, and magazines such as Vice and Clash, and websites like Pitchfork Media." It is unclear whether or not the appropriation of the term "hipster" itself is a conspiracy to sideline indie culture and open up a new markets for flannel shirts, but one things for certain; the nomenclature of the current subculture is confused.

In a time where photos and blog posts are picked up and left behind like a million intersecting bread crumb trails, advertisers are just as likely to lay a trail as they are to follow one. Douglass Haddow argues in the Adbuster Magazine article “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization” that being born under the microscope of the ad industry has caused the counterculture to meld, despite itself, with the mainstream. He also suggests that “hipsterdom” and its ongoing identity crisis help create an environment of constant consumption; as the old band or trend becomes popularized, the hipster must find the new one...

 Never before has a society witnessed such a massive manipulation of the concept of cool. The mainstream media and our education system also shape the contemporary subculture, though, and in the age of smartphones and Texas standards, advertorials and infotainment, the young person is not afforded much help in developing a critical viewpoint of the society around them. A politically charged counterculture is important for any society, as an outstanding example of opposition to the status quo, but more importantly as a framework for young people to express their ideas and learn about the world. Without one, the threat of an entirely homogenous youth culture unthinkingly subservient to the whims of mainstream society is quite real and already underway. Though it is unlikely a massive DIY movement will come to replace hipsters in the next few years, an inevitable paradigm shift is on the distant horizon. Whether or not the future will usher in a new generation of critical and politically active youngsters will largely be up to us.

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