Yesterday’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine is yet another trend piece identifying the latest anti/counter/sub-subculture. This time around it happens to be clothing designers (or is “lifestyle designers” more apt?). The article is actually very interesting, but I think the author, Rob Walker, is giving these entrepreneurs too much credit. The Hundreds, aNYthing, et al., are hardly the first DIY businesses to start up as a means of marketing and selling their own subculture (whether independently or in bed with a corporation). Indie record labels, small presses, boutique clothing lines, and ’zines have all existed for decades, and the most prominent and successful ones have often been tied to an express subculture.
But Walker is trying to make the claim that his subjects are unique because they are a sub-consumer-culture, which is somehow antithetical to being part of a “regular” subculture. As if desiring a T-shirt or pair of sneakers is inherently “more mainstream” than wanting to see a show or buy a CD, chapbook, or fanzine. Walker is, I think, not stepping far enough away from his microscope. He writes:
The symbols and references and logos these minibrands create are usually said to “represent” a culture or lifestyle. But I found myself asking, What, exactly, did that culture or lifestyle consist of—aside from buying products that represent it?
Bobby [Kim] did his best to clue me in. “It’s just the idea of trying to be rebellious,” he said. “Or trying to be a little bit anti, questioning government or your parents. Trying to do something different.” Those are familiar answers, and this is hardly the first time that vague rebelliousness has been translated into an aesthetic. The style and iconography of punk, like that of other “spectacular subcultures” (to use the phrase Dick Hebdige coined in “Subculture: The Meaning of Style”), arguably did more than music—let alone ideas—to fulfill one of the crucial functions of any underground: group identity. It just happens that in this instance the symbols, products and brands aren’t an adjunct to the subculture—they are the subculture.
I would argue that this type of subculture has always been here; it’s just been too conflated with other subcultures that were previously attached to a musical genre or art form. Ten or twenty years ago these guys would have been tagged as part of skater culture or graffiti culture, but now that websites, hipster magazines, and, well, New York Times trend pieces parse our culture as never before, people such as A-ron (from aNYthing) or Ben Hundreds are being highlighted for holding fashion and “lifestyle” above music or skating. And a new subculture is born.
Before the rise of globalism and the internet, our powers of cultural perception were less fine-tuned. The internet has served not as a catalyst for new subcultures but as a more powerful microscope into those that have already existed. After all, the quark did not come into existence simply because scientists found a way to see beyond the atom. It was always there.
Going back, for example, to when I was in high school in the early 1990s, the social and cultural cliques were all easily identifiable. There were metal kids, hip hop kids, alternative kids, and “mainstream” (i.e., not identified by their musical taste) kids like jocks and honor students. Yet, as someone who was considered a grunge/alternative kid (full disclosure: only in my senior year; I was totally metal before then), there were friends within my clique that looked the part but actually had very small CD collections and limited musical knowledge beyond the Big Four Seattle bands. Would those same friends be identified by their musical tastes today? It’s certainly not what they’d be discussing on their MySpace blogs. They might just as soon be concerned with flannel, long johns, and colored sunglasses instead. One girl was a hair dye enthusiast. Similarly there was a devout Mormon nerd in many of my classes who absolutely loved Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. Where would he fit in today’s age? Likely occupying some sub-chat room—whether a hardcore rap thread on a Mormon youth website or a religion & faith thread on a hip hop board, I don’t know.
Simply put, these sub-subcultures are nothing new. Whether now or ten or twenty or thirty years ago, when you ask someone what kind of music they like, the rote response has always been “everything.” It was always a frustrating response because it couldn’t possibly be true, since everyone—except me, right?—is supposed to fall under clearly delineated demographics. But today, now that people’s iTunes playlists can be displayed on their blogs, it turns out to be true—people really do listen to everything! Two effects result: one, the parameters of how one defines his/her tribe by music widens (we like punk, dancehall, and grime, but not emo or metal); or two, something other than music comes into play. T-shirts and sneakers, say. Ultimately these two tribe types overlap like Venn diagrams, creating still more tribes that do or do not fall within certain areas of the diagram. And then someone starts a blog. Soon enough the Times comes a-calling.
It would be silly to say that the internet has not had a profound effect on the culture of the twenty-first century, but my point is that it has actually created less than it often gets credit for. Our current age is an outgrowth of postmodernism— though by now it is also well beyond postmodernism. Much postmodern thought taught us to be suspicious of storytellers, spoke of a polycentric cultural narrative, and depicted all aspects of the world as entropic white noise—chaos, in which we must somehow find sense.
Where this was positively headspinning in the late-twentieth century, the global, internet age has begun to refine it. We are picking out strains within the chaos and finding new labels for them. And as they morph we simultaneously relabel them. The speed and breadth of the internet has created a mutually acting/reacting relationship between critics and creators, to the point where it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the two.
It’s not just music and T-shirts. Look at film: right now John Favreau is interacting with his “friends” on his MySpace blog hyping a film which he has not even cast yet, let alone begun shooting (Iron Man). He is involving his audience before he even creates his art. Meanwhile Kevin Smith, on his own blog, is responding to critics of his recently released Clerks II as soon as their reviews are published, in the case of LA Weekly critic Nikki Finke, or as soon as they leave the theater, in the case of CBS’s Joel Seigel. But is this symptomatic of a new film culture or has the internet only highlighted what previously happened on the street or on the phone, between fewer people in smaller circles? Last week A. O. Scott lamented the diminishing role of the critic in a laughably self-validating article in the New York Times. He’s right to question his professional worth. All of this—Favreau, Smith, and Scott—is emblematic of the internet-as-microscope. After all, the phrase “opinions are like assholes” existed well before the internet. Technology just allowed everyone to take their pants down in public.
The current political situation is also exemplary: the Middle East is embroiled in wars not between states but between amorphous groups that have little use for abstract concepts such as borders or governments. Gone are the days of Hitler’s rallies or FDR’s grand speeches; now Hezbollah and Al Qaeda communicate by videotape and Bush’s policies are filtered to the public not through speeches but via 24-hour news pundits whittling everything down to sound bytes and headlines (or blog posts, for that matter).
What all of these have in common, aside from the speed and brevity with which most of it happens, is something that I think postmodernism did not anticipate, and the thing which truly sets the current age apart as a new paradigm: everything is done in anticipation of criticism.
There is a sense of self-awareness or self-consciousness in art today, as evidenced, for instance, by wink-wink irony in much contemporary literature (spawned by Dave Eggers & McSweeney’s). If Walker’s article is any indication, there is a similar arm’s-length awareness in these lifestyle designers’ business sense. ANYthing has a line of T-shirts that are labels for subsets of Lower East Side hipsters, as identified by A-ron—Cool Guys, Art-Damaged, Parent Haters, etc. This is obviously social parody, yet A-ron is also quick to claim himself as a Cool Guy. So it’s commentary and self-mockery entwined. A-ron’s intent, according to the article, is to brand his own lifestyle (by the way—where’s the shout out to Martha Stewart? Isn’t this her business model?). Should his brand ever come under attack, then so too does his entire lifestyle. To hate aNYthing, the brand, is to hate A-ron, the person—something he must be aware of and prepared for. Thanks to our metacritical, hyperconsumerist era, as shaped and reshaped by the internet—placeless, anonymous, global, amorphous— navigating beyond the critics and shapeshifting from passé T-shirt to au currant short film is as easy as a new domain name and a well-timed head nod.