While currently studying a BA (Hons) degree in Music Management & Artist Development, i've been fascinated with some of the topics we've covered, especially subcultural analysis, trends and how these affect the interaction between the artist and the audience. Understanding subcultures helps to understand consumer behaviour, as well as the behaviour and ideology of your potential fans.
For one of my assignments, we had a choice of questions to answer on a range of subcultural theory. I chose to discuss Subcultural Identity as, while it has always been important, there is a question to be answered as to whether subcultural theory is applicable in the present day as we no longer have such defined subcultural groups (see: Mods, Rockers, Punks, Hippies, etc), more a meld of past subcultural identities.
For anyone who finds this piece interesting, please let me know by way of a comment below or an email.
For anyone who uses this within an academic piece of work, please use the following reference within your bibliography and email me so I can read your work (this stuff fascinates me!):
Winter, S (2014). 'The Importance of Subcultural Identity'.
Available: www.sunnystuartwinter.com. Last accessed: DATE
“Subcultural identity is theatrical in its concern with display, show and façade” (Evans).
Discuss in relation to one or more subcultures.
Subcultural identity allows identification of an individual into a particular social group within society; semiotically, behaviorally & ideologically. It “gives alternative interpretations and values to young people’s subordinate status; it reinterprets the social world” (Thornton, 1995, in, Gelder & Thornton, 1997: p.208).
Hebdige writes that “the communication of a significant difference… is the ‘point’ behind the style of all spectacular subcultures” (1979: p.102), that style is an intentional communicator. This also relates to Umberto Eco’s quote “I speak through my clothes” (Hebdige, 1979: p.100) in so far as to say that wearing a particular band t-shirt, for example, communicates that you ‘belong’ within a certain subcultural group, which has it’s own behaviours and beliefs.
However, in modern day subcultures, it could be argued that there are now overlaps between subcultural signifiers, be it stylistically or behaviorally. “Many accounts of post-war youth subcultures have also overlooked the dynamic quality to their styles” (Muggleton, 2000: p.49) and “are discussed as though they are immutably fixed phenomena” (Muggleton, 2000: p.50). Taking the previous example in the present day, it would not seem unusual for someone who identifies themselves as ‘punk’ to modify their car and play music; albeit punk music, not drum and bass music.
Under past subcultural theory, this could question the authenticity of the punk within their subculture, but now within the post-subcultural realm, this act of mixing subcultures is becoming normal. In Polhemus’ “Style Surfing” he argues that the rules are there to be broken, “mixing sportswear with workwear, the old and the new, crossing traditional gender divides” (Polhemus, 1996) and more.
Stylistically, hipsters adopt the styles of other cultures that they do not belong to, going against the mainstream, often into niche areas. Weinzierl (2001) in Muggleton & Weinzierl (2003: 170) describes this kind of subcultural hybridity as a ‘hybrid mainstream formation, which can hardly be demarcated from subcultural scenes’. Hipsters are known to fetishise and appropriate multiple aspects of multiple subcultures.
Hipsters are apparent within multiple genres of music, regardless of whether it is heavy metal or indie, and constantly move between them. Under Evans’ theoretical discussions, subcultures “have in common the production of “fixed” identities, and this “knowledge” about sub-cultural identities merely targets them as something co-optable”. (Evans, 1997: p.180) This may have been relevant within the 1980’s rave scene of which she writes, but is not as fitting in the modern day, post-subcultural world where fluidity of identities are commonplace.
This could be a valuable example of Tribus, the ‘post-traditional’ concept by Michel Maffesoli, who identifies that “consumption patterns and practices enable individuals to create new forms of contemporary sociality” (Muggleton & Weinzierl, 2003: p.12); multiple identities, fluid involvements, rather than letting class, gender or religion dictate identity. This also means there is the ability for post-subcultures to take on new meanings, change and evolve due to their “dynamic quality” (Muggleton, 2000: p.49 )
The main difference however, between hipsters and many other subcultures, is that hipsters do not readily identify themselves as hipsters. This is largely due to the negative connotations associated with being a hipster; the arrogance, the unwillingness to be associated with anything mainstream and their nihilistic attitude.
As mentioned, tribus is a concept developed by Maffesoli, where a group identity is “no longer formed along traditional structural determinants like class, gender or religion” (Maffesoli, 1996, cited in Muggleton & Weinzierl, 2003: p.12) and where the single members of a group “do not foster their community as a priority but use the group to satisfy their individual needs” (Maffesoli, 1996, cited in Muggleton & Weinzierl, 2003: p.12). This is becoming more appropriate for modern youth cultures. With regards to Hipsters, it can be argued that there is no true group identity, as the individuals do not regard themselves as hipsters, let alone a subcultural group.
The end of group mentality means hipsters, like those within other subcultures, can appropriate multiple other ‘tribes’, moving freely between them, encouraging “plural, fluid and part-time rather than fixed, discrete and encompassing group identities” (Maffesoli, 1996, cited in Muggleton & Weinzierl, 2003: p.12). Maffesoli goes on further to say that “social existence is conducted through fragmented tribes of humanity”. (Maffesoli, 1996, cited in Evans, 1997: p.171)
Whilst the use of safety pins and do-it-yourself clothing was to originally serve a function, to make a statement to revolt or of intent and then appropriated into the punk subculture, the style of clothes chosen by hipsters can not be deemed ”style in revolt” (Hebdige, 1979: 106), but more style as pastiche of past subcultures; satirically collaging, and re-appropriating former and current culture. Subcultures no longer have clear uniforms of style.
Taste, one of the most vital aspects of identification within a subcultural group, is inherently linked with tribus and is a complex theory that can include the things you like, do not like, ‘should’ like but do not, guilty pleasures and more. The advent of the Internet has allowed people to access a wide array of culture, compared to the more limited resources of say, punks in the 1970’s; not to mention the speed of change within cultures.
Whilst Evans’ subcultural identity is a functioning theory of subcultures, certainly in the twentieth century, twenty-first century post-subcultures have become unstable and fluid, no longer defined by factors such as class, allowing individuals to harness ‘multiple identifications’ resulting in them being harder to define, with Shields describing them as “the multiple masks of a postmodern “persona” who “wears many hats” in different groups and surroundings” (1992: p.16).
With such a huge supply of culture and potential “subcultural capital” (Thornton, 1995: p.203), it is no surprise that self-identity is becoming harder to resolve. If we are born into a particular sociological, economical and cultural class as Louis Althusser suggests, but do not accept it or seek subcultural groups to align ourselves with, there is such an abundance of expansive choice and regular change that it is not surprisingly that we will carry these multiple identities, as discussed by Shields and Maffesoli.
Concepts of ‘consumer lifestyles’ suits the post-subcultural terrain more than Evans’ could in modern life. The idea raises the importance of consumerism in the identities of modern youth. Whilst Miles states that race, gender and upbringing are still important, he argues that young people “construct lifestyles that are as adaptable and as flexible as the world around them” (2000: p159).
Identity could also be linked to performativity; the theory that identity is not natural or fixed but is rather something one acts and is fundamentally unstable. Barker says that “Subcultures do not exist as authentic objects but have been brought into being by subculture theorists” (Barker, 2000, p.322).
In a post-subcultural terrain, where subcultural borders are blurred, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know if there is such a thing as the “real” you.
The idea that “we are always already subjects” (Athusser, L QUOTE) by way of the life and upbringing we have been born into, can be illustrated in that a child, born of upper class parents, is probably more likely to take an interest in opera or horse racing than a child, born of lower class descent, who instead is more likely to be interested in hip hop music or skateboarding for example.
With hipsters, the premise of subcultural capital is an interesting point. Their relationship with music, for example, changes if a band were to become exceptionally popular or “mainstream”. Whilst they may have followed a band whilst they were relatively unknown, they often disregard their fandom toward that band when they are appropriated into the mainstream.
This ties in with Thornton’s study within the rave scene where the exclusivity in the subcultural capital of music is valuable and “must be prevented from being continually coveted and appropriated by the ‘mass’” (Thornton, 1995, in, Muggleton & Weinzierl, p.9)
The PBS idea channel further discusses hipster behaviour, this time in opposition with geek behaviour, saying that “both groups are defined not only by what they enjoy… but also how they enjoy it” (PBS, 2013). Geeks are more likely to be honest about their fandom towards a book or game or type of music, whilst hipsters are known for ‘playing it cool about how much they like something’ (PBS, 2013).
Subcultural capital can be gained by the things you own or the hairstyles you have. However, when the whole ‘point’ of hipsters is that they do not supposedly follow trends, be they societal or subcultural, and they seek to be unique, it is clear that subcultural identity and the multiple identities of tribus, is complex.
It could be said that our culture ‘speaks’ to us in a white, middle class, heterosexual ‘voice’ and anything outside of that is deemed as “otherness”. The “other” can be “trivialized, naturalized, domesticated” where difference is denied, or as a “pure object, a spectacle, a clown’ (Barthes 1972, in Hebdige D, 1979, in Gelder & Thornton, 1997). Subcultures, certainly the hipster subculture, are eagerly appropriating “other” or past cultures, to try to appear different and stand out from the crowd.
The list of subcultural ephemera associated to hipsters is vast. Low V-neck tops, handlebar moustaches, vintage glasses despite having twenty-twenty vision, fashion that can include clashing colours or vintage wear (Figure 1.0), loafers without socks, topknot hairstyles, bow ties and at times, outfits that serve to blur the boundaries of sexuality whereby, males for example, will wear items of clothing mostly associated with women, such as tights. (Figure 1.1)
Other subcultural ephemera includes riding a ‘fixie’ bike, veganism, their association with coffee houses such as Starbucks and the elaborate coffee concoctions chosen, all to promote their ‘uniqueness’ or ‘otherness’. (Figure 1.2)
However, looking at this with regards to Strinati’s postmodernism, it could be said that hipsters ‘perform’ cool for the sake of cool as we “consume images and signs precisely because they are images and signs, and disregard questions of utility and value” (Strinati, 1995: p.225). Also, “consumption is increasingly bound up with popular culture because popular culture increasingly determines consumption” (Strinati, 1995: p.224).
This postmodernist approach ties in with post-subcultural theory and how hipsters, “in their quest to be different, have wound up virtually identical” (Proud, 2014), and are very much a part of the mainstream consumer culture they have tried so hard to oppose.
Grief describes it as a “thwarted tradition of youth subcultures… which had tried to remain independent of consumer culture, alternative to it, and been integrated, humiliated, and destroyed” (Grief, 2010: p.6).
Whilst structural identification has previously been linked to deviant behaviour by Stanley Cohen, with “the focus… on how society labels rule-breakers as belonging to certain deviant groups” (Cohen, 1987: p.12), it could be questioned as to whether this model applies to all modern day, post-subcultural subcultures, when the boundaries have been blurred and multiple identities are the norm.
Evans’ idea of “subcultural identity” being “theatrical” is not as obvious as it once was. The difference in the post-subcultural present day is that due to multiple identities, there are now also multiple displays, multiple shows and multiple facades to contend with.
Whilst punks may have been the first subcultural group to use bricolage, mixing the old with the new to create a new language or dress code, it has rapidly become typical in modern day post-subcultures where self-identity is desperately sought.
The break up of mass culture and melding of classes, where everyone could possibly now be deemed ‘middle class’, has left fewer groups to be ‘at variance with’, leaving subcultures ever complex.
In closing, if “popular cultural signs and media images are taking over in defining our sense of reality for us” (Strinati, 1995: p225), and ‘style over substance’ continues to dominate, it is likely we will see a further, future departure away from Evans’ subcultural identity theory into a further blurring of subcultural lines.
Barker, Chris. (2000): Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage p. 318-348.
Bennett, A. (1999). Subcultures or neo-tribes?. Rethinking the relationship between youth, style and musical taste. 33 (3), 599-617.
Cohen, S (1987). Folk devils and moral panics: the creation of the Mods and Rockers. London: Blackwell.
Cova, B, Kozinets, R & Shankar, A (2007). Consumer Tribes. London: Routledge. p.96.
Dangoor, R. (2010). Being A Dickhead’s Cool. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVmmYMwFj1I. Last accessed 20th March 2014.
Evans, C (1997). Fashion Theory, Volume 1. 1st ed. Oxford: Berg.
Gelder, K & Thornton, S (1997). The Subcultures Reader. London: Routledge. pages.
Granfield, M (2011). HipsterMattic. New South Wales: Allen & Unwin. Accessed online at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/books/retro-types-in-pursuit-of-the-vacuous/story-e6frg8nf-1226203929858. Web. Last accessed 18th March 2014
Grief, M (2010). What Was the Hipster?: A Sociological Investigation. London: HarperCollins.
Hebdige, D (1979). Subcultures: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.
Hesmondhalgh, D. (2006). Bourdieu, the media and cultural production. The Open University. 28 (2), 211-229.
Hujic, Lida, 2006. ‘My name is Lida and I am a Hoxtonite’. The Guardian [online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2006/mar/31/fashion [Accessed 19 Mar 2014]
Kinzey, J (2012). The Sacred and the Profane. London: Zero Books.
Miles, S (2000). Youth lifestyles in a changing world. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Muggleton, D (2000). Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style. 1st ed. New York: Berg. p.49-50.
Muggleton, D &, Weinzierl, R (2003). Post-Subcultures Reader. Oxford: Berg.
PBS Idea Channel. (2013). 'Are You A Hipster?'. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3xe-Wxio1o. Last accessed 20th March 2014.
Polhemus, T (1996). Style Surfing: What To Wear in the 3rd Millennium. London: Thames & Hudson. Extract accessed online at: http://www.tedpolhemus.com/main_concept5%20467.html. Last accessed 18th March 2014.
Proud, A. (2014). Why this 'Shoreditchification' of London must stop. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10561607/Why-this-Shoreditchification-of-London-must-stop.html. Last accessed 19th March 2014.
Rayner, A. (2010). Why do people hate hipsters?. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/oct/14/hate-hipsters-blogs. Last accessed 19th March 2014.
Shields, R (1992). ‘Spaces for the subject of consumption’, in R. Shields (ed.), ‘Lifestyle Shopping’, London: Routledge.
Strinati, D (1995). ‘An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture’. London: Routledge. 225.
Thornton, S (1995). Club Cultures: music, media and subcultural capital. Cambridge: Polity Press. p.98-105.
The title of a popular Onion article, “Two Hipsters Angrily Call Each Other ‘Hipster‘”, quite humorously and simply highlights an interesting curiosity about hipster subculture: there seems to be a pretty good understanding of what it means to be “hipster,” yet no one group of people accepts this label as their own. Hipster subculture is unique in inspiring universal discomfort in a way that few other subcultures or trends of today can even come close to; the modern conception of the average hipster is convinced of his pretentiousness and annoyingness to the point that even those who subscribe to the understood beliefs, styles, and actions of this subculture consider the label an insult to their authenticity (Greif 1). Mark Greif, New York Times writer, attributes this response to the fact that the label “calls everyone’s bluff” in terms of authenticity and taste. This assertion seems to largely fall short of an entire explanation; the sweeping discomfort brought about by the development of the modern hipster runs much deeper and echoes societal tensions to a degree that a simple distinction between genuine and unoriginal fails to embody.
Examples of hipster style, specific to Portland, Oregon
The hipster subculture is primarily composed of affluent millennials who tend to be college educated and politically liberal, live in gentrified neighborhoods, associate with indie/alternative rock music, and dress in styles that subvert mainstream fashion. The crux of hipster ideology is to portray an entirely unique state of being and nonconformity through personal taste, often through choice of music, fashion, and alternative lifestyles (Grief 2). As one of the most prominent new subcultures of the elite, hipsterdom is known for recycling past trends and styles of historically ostracized and oppressed groups, as is seen in the resurfacing of trucker hats and wifebeaters, both of which were previously typical styles of working-class, white Americans. The word “hipster” itself has a history that reflects this pattern – the term was first used to describe black subcultural jazz artists in the 1940s, and eventually extended to include those artists’ white fans, who embraced the realm of new, exciting, and exotic energy that they admired in their favorite black artists. Hipsters in these decades, both black and white, were convinced of the powerlessness of minorities to make choices about their own lives and insisted upon the importance of personal knowledge gained before being influenced by what society teaches (Wailer). The term resurfaced in 1999, again likened to the value of knowledge gained before societal influence, now tied to “discovering” fashion and lifestyle trends before the mainstream (Grief 2). The fact that elite culture determines its stylistic preferences in light of both current and historical subcultures of common people is an interesting change. It puts the hipster in an unfamiliar realm – directly in between the recycled aesthetics of other, rebel subcultures and the underlying elite privilege of the dominant culture.
In his essay, Grief begins to decipher the cultural phenomenon of the hipster by defining taste as the central drive in its appropriation of marginalized cultures, and as their own brand of a seemingly paradoxical elitism. French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu claims that the notion of the elite possessing a superior taste can be explained by the elite’s usage of it ‒ as an affirmation for their right to power and privilege ‒ to oppress the lower class and maintain societal divides. Bourdieu found that taste can accurately be predicted by socioeconomic factors (specifically one’s class at birth and achieved education level), making it predominantly a reflection of environmental factors rather than a representation of individual expression or assertion. Moreover, Bourdieu observed that a sizeable portion of highly-educated French elites showed a marked preference for flea markets ‒ a finding largely reminiscent of the “thrifting” trend brought into the contemporary mainstream by hipster subculture(Bordieu). Bourdieu’s argument would suggest that the hipster notion of cultural supremacy stems solely from economic motives, but this assertion contradicts the quintessential “hipster” as antipodal to those with mainstream tastes and lifestyles, invariable to equivalent social class. Even though the hipster subculture distinguishes itself from others by taste, and therefore has inklings of classism through the implication of superiority over those with lesser taste, it furthers its distinction by separating itself from those in the same class who do conform to the mainstream through intellectual superiority. This doesn’t mean that the “hipster” is a cultural figure that is free of elements that suggest the inferiority of the poor (e.g. few working class people actually have the time and money to maintain the exacting form of authenticity that is tied into being hipster), but rather that its underlying assumptions are, as Bourdieu describes, more a product of the hipster’s place in society than any sort of idea or image specific to the subculture itself. The rejection of those of an equal social class on the basis that they embody the mainstream is a feature of hipsterdom that has been noted by the television show, Portlandia. In a 2011 skit, the show featured a disgruntled hipster who furiously proclaims “It’s over!” after witnessing a clean-cut, white collar man enjoying the same activities and interests as him. The hipster continuously renounces the reflected aspects of himself until he has completely taken on the other man’s original appearance and behavior. What’s interesting about this skit is that it wouldn’t really work if Portlandia’s writers had casted a black man to play the hipster’s counterpart, since “the professional white man” is the mainstream that the hipster avidly avoids.
The disgruntled hipster writes “IT’S OVER” on a window to the confusion of the white-collar man sitting in a cafe.
The hipster’s perception of the lower class innately possessing a lesser taste brings up the question of how race is perceived in the context of this intellectual elitism. In being a supposedly counter-cultural and decidedly liberal subculture, the modern hipster outwardly embraces ideals of racial harmony and progressive reform for marginalized groups. However, the commercialization of hipster culture in recent years has led to controversy over the style’s tendency to appropriate the cultural figures/practices of ethnic minorities, without attempts to credit their origins or appreciate their cultural sanctity. The subculture’s persistent growth has thus begun a trend of increasing rates of cultural appropriation, or at least increasing its publicity. This is particularly so in the fashion of music industries, as concert-goers and performers alike are now more commonly wearing bindis, traditional headdresses, and other culturally significant garb during concerts and music festivals (e.g. Coachella, Burning Man, Lalapalooza, etc.). Although the current version of mainstream cultural appropriation may be new in some ways, it nonetheless derives from a combination of intellectual elitism and liberal political leanings, that together have created an ironic refusal of political correctness amongst its proponents. This tendency has led to the phenomenon coined “hipster racism,” which occurs when racial stereotypes are used ironically under the pretense of a person’s self-perception that he/she is not actually being derogatory (Quart). This can be explained by noting that the higher standing hipsters feel they have over others may have easily evolved into a penchant to diverge from social norms as well as established guidelines of political correctness. There is present a fundamental belief that they have progressed so far from common bigotry that they are permitted to make remarks that would normally even be considered racist, when coming from others less forward-thinking than them. The principal problem with this guise is that the comments are most often representative of discriminatory motifs – the humor in jokes is not always clearly ascribed to any ironies or understanding of minority sufferings. One of the most infamous perpetrators of this kind of disregard for political correctness is the trendy and self-proclaimed “hipster” clothing chain: Urban Outfitters. The company once sold a hugely offensive board game entitled “Ghettopoly,” a knockoff of the classic Monopoly™ board game, that propagated harmful stereotypes about African Americans who live in ghettos. Land properties in the game had titles like “Cheap Trick Avenue” and “Smitty’s XXX Peep Show,” and bonus cards had descriptions such as “You got yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack. Collect $50” (The Week). Only through the false perception of their being above discrimination could this have had success in a store that attracts droves of young liberals. The underlying justification for the production and sale of this inarguably racist product boils down to blatant acceptance of prejudiced sentiments, with the assurance that the buyer is obviously not prejudiced. In this way, the liberalism of Urban Outfitter’s clientele, alongside the store’s trendy image, overpower norms of political correctness, due to the commercialization of the hipster’s modal “ironic” thinking. The end product of hipster racism, as seen through the example of Ghettopoly, is just as damaging as displays of prejudicial sentiments by poor, right-wing Americans that the consumers of Urban Outfitters would normally be quick to fervently condemn.
Image of cover of the board game “Ghettopoly” carried by Urban Outfitters
The hipster as a modern symbol is not much more than a quirky makeover of problems that have challenged American society for years. It is a refined representation of the oppression and “bad taste” of the poor that has allowed elitism to hold hands with progressivism. It is a response from elites that embodies styles of the common people’s subcultures and cherry-picks trends without respect for their sanctity or meaning. They trivialize issues such as race in a way that puts those at the top of society in a position to liberate themselves from political correctness and justify their prejudicial actions. It is heavily implicated that this justification can only occur amongst the intellectually “superior”, while the intellectually “inferior” are labeled backwards bigots for expressing the same ideas. This dichotomy of racist versus accepting or backwards versus progressive is obviously likely to result in broad generalizations that work to either support that elites are so removed from bigotry that they’re entitled to tell offensive jokes while not being part of the problem, and that less educated people displaying similar sentiments are racists or sexists who represent all that is wrong in society. Thus, the strong and largely unanimous discomfort brought about by the initially subcultural figure of the hipster is not just the product of it questioning everyone’s sense of taste, but also of the consequential classist and racist undertones that exist within the concept of taste itself. And if you’re still not exactly convinced of the extremely political existence that hipsters possess, you should check out the German Neo-Nazi party’s recent adoption of hipster style – combining the trendiest hipster fashion and lifestyle with classic Neo-Nazi ideals, the group also differs from American hipsterdom in that it readily accepts the title of “Nipster” (Smith).
Advertisement for a Nipster T-shirt line
Bordieu, Pierre. “A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.” (1984): 9-169. Monoskop.org. Harvard University Press. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
Greif, Mark. “The Sociology of the Hipster.” New York Times. New York Times Company, 12
Nov. 2010. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.
Greif, Mark. “What Was the Hipster?” NYMag.com. New York Times, 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
Quart, Alissa. “The Age of Hipster Sexism.” The Cut. New York Media, 30 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
Smith, Kyle. “10 Alarming, Hilarious Facts about Nazi Hipsters.” New York Post. NYP
Holdings, 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
The Week Staff. “15 Urban Outfitters Controversies.” The Week. N.p., 29 Apr. 2016. Web. 16
Wailer, Norman. “The White Negro.” Dissent Magazine. Dissent Magazine, 20 Oct. 2007. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.