Thursday, 28 January 2010

Going With the Contraflow

"Counterculture: noun, the culture and lifestyle of those people, esp. among the young, who reject or oppose the dominant values and behaviour of society."

The word 'counterculture' might still be in the dictionary but it's getting harder to find in real life. The reason for this? Well, according to a YouthNet survey, teens are now spending an average of 14.7 hours a week on the internet. To put things into perspective, that's how much time I used to spend at gigs in my teens. Multiply that number by an entire generation and you will start to understand why bands prefer playing online these days.

A quick tour of popular YouTube videos and internet acts seems to confirm YouthNet's findings. Youth culture does seem to have shifted from the real world to the virtual one in the last decade or so. So if you want to look for signs of local counterculture, you have to start with the world wide web. (Can anybody else smell the irony?)

A search for web pages about new countercultures did not yield many results at first, just loads and loads of fashion pages. And after many hours of long, hard toil on the keyboard, I still hadn't found out much more about steampunk, emo, goth, hipster, rude boy, furries, fetish, new rave and so on, than I could make out from the photos. Today's youth definitely have radical style, but do they have radical thinking that goes with it? Some social commentators think not.

”In the noughties, the idea of ‘the underground’ in music seemed simultaneously to wither and to flourish,’ laments Simon Reynolds in his article for, ‘Notes on the Noughties’. He goes on to paint a bleak image of the internet as a kind of purgatory for the underground - a place where cutting edge bands and zines hover in limbo, waiting to be noticed. And the proactive element does seem to be missing from youth culture. As Reynolds points out, occupying physical space is the cornerstone of any 'real' underground culture. Without a physical presence, the idea of going against the grain is just that: an

Maybe youth stick to the internet because it's the only neutral space they still have easy access to in the UK. Almost all of the country's public spaces have been co-opted to reinforce the agenda of some powerful institution or another; whether it be the police carrying out stop-and-search operations; the local council trying to improve their borough's image through street drinking bans and camera surveillance; or corporations advertising themselves via billboards, shopfronts and property 'developments'. Even the kids who still use the streets seek to emulate these monopolies by forming into gangs, engaging in rivalries over who controls each post code. Unaffiliated individuals who pass through these spaces are meek and powerless, having next to no say in what happens there.

What makes a counterculture become big in the first place? Firstly, it should appeal to youth. Kids are the only group uncorrupted enough to be guided entirely by their dreams. Not only can they imagine a world that’s nothing like the one they live in but they also have time and energy to make it real.

Popular counterculture tends to be idealistic, too - which means that the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement probably doesn't stand a chance. Countercultures are often portrayed as confrontational but most of the time, they are fighting for something, not against it.

It should be accessible. The big countercultures of eras gone by did not have designer labels, bling-bling and glamourous shoes, nor did they have martini bars and gastropubs. What they did have was fun and a triumph of spirit over style.

It should have novelty value. A defining characteristic of being young is wanting to escape the control of adults, even if said adults claim that they wrote the book on counterculture...
especially if said adults claim that they wrote the book on counterculture! Joining a movement that didn't even exist when your parents were young is a foolproof way to avoid their meddling.

Counterculture usually provides a cure for what ails society. Once upon a time, punks were teens who were stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, they had recession and festering city centres; on the other, they had coke-sniffing disco queens who wouldn't put them on the guest list. There wasn't much of a future for them in either world, so they created a DIY culture where they could have fun and express themselves for next to nothing.

Which leads to the final and most important aspect of any counterculture: cool music. Put simply, music says what words and fashion cannot. It's as Emma Goldman once said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."

So what ails society now, and who or what is its cure? I've narrowed the list down four possible candidates. 1) Flashmob, the non-corporate variety. 2) Straight-edge is making a comeback too, although Minor Threat are not. High alcohol prices and the ID 25 program may have something to do with this trend. 3) More recently, there have been a number of highly publicized art squats like those set up by Oubliette and MuTate Britain. 4) And last but not least, there is Climate Camp, whom I've written about here once before.

Ever since last summer’s occupation of Blackheath, my money has been on Climate Camp. It links all the movements listed above and it has plenty of more room to broaden its scope. It also gives a lot of power to young people because of its on-the-spot, consensus decision-making process. To play an active role in Climate Camp, all you need to do is turn up, literally. It is minimal, low-maintenance and deadly serious about its beliefs; in other words, the polar opposite of mainstream culture. And it's fun, too. Sadly they didn't have music last time I was there but given time, who knows what will happen?

Having said that, I don't know about every movement that's happening in the UK and abroad! If you have a better suggestion I'd love to hear about it in the comments box below.

In conclusion:
People may doggedly follow routines which worked in the past but when circumstances change, they are usually quick to follow. Adaptability has always been key to the survival of the species. Since the advent of high technology, however, humanity has lost its willingness to adapt to its surrounding. Witness the current system, which has failed to adapt to new social, economic and environmental trends for more than 100 years.

Last week's entry discussed the apparent link between solar cycles and countercultures. I can't say for sure if these two things are linked but solar cycles do make a stellar metaphor for social cycles on Earth. Sunspots look deceptively like objects moving across the surface of the sun, when in fact they are is ripples caused by the magnetic pull beneath it. Countercultures work the same way: if they appear to be moving in a radical direction, it's only because they follow the tide of change while everybody else is standing still.

The image at the top of this blog is of an underwear-only flashmob in New York City in January 2008. It can be seen in its original context at Trendhunter Magazine.
The photo of Climate Camp's strategy meeting was taken from the group's website.


  1. One man's counter-culture is another ape's daily routine.

  2. I'm sure you would know all about that, Mr. gorilla ;)