Updated: Jun 22
Originally published in the Spectator Australia: https://www.spectator.com.au/2022/05/were-missing-those-subversive-and-dangerous-ideas/
The biggest shifts in culture have always come out of subcultures or scenes that go mainstream.
It was mostly African American subcultures that produced a new genre of music in almost every decade of the 20th century. Each of these genres was birthed in America but soon went global. From blues to jazz, ragtime, soul, funk, hip hop, and rap along with every subgenre in between.
I was a weird teen that became fascinated by record labels such as Stax and Motown. These recording studios became cultural powerhouses that pumped out hit after hit despite (or more likely because of) being quite subversive places where the cultures mixed, and new genres were born. Arguably, soul and funk did more for the civil rights movement than street protests.
In one of the nicest rebukes against the charge of cultural appropriation, Professor Shayne Lee in this podcast with Thaddeus Russel says that it is not cultural appropriation for white kids to rap because this is the dominant culture in America.
Saying that these kids America should not engage in rap would be like calling children in Germany in the 1600s guilty of cultural appropriation for wanting to be like Bach.
America was and still is the cultural hegemon and one of its main exports is music. To want to imitate American culture from any decade in the 20th and 21st century is to be a student of popular culture – not a cultural appropriator.
If not for the influence that came from America’s most oppressed people at the time playing in underground venues the biggest bands in the world such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones would not exist. Even today, most songs use a 1-4-5 chord progression which is the signature blues harmony.
Even in my time there was a subculture whose music made it to mainstream (despite still being roundly mocked). I refer to the infamous Emos.
We who went in high school in the noughties may have not adopted the dress, but we still listened to Avril Lavine, Good Charlotte, and Blink 182 (and many many more).
When I attend a regional high school music student gathering, a lot of the female vocalists had chosen for their example piece Evanescence’s My Immortal. For this generation, she was kind of a musical heroine that – despite not dressing or acting like Emos themselves – the young ladies wanted to emulate.
It isn’t just music that tends to progress in scenes. In fact, the most influential movements are multi-medium.
The Bloomsbury Group weren’t, as asked by their Tate page, ‘Privileged bohemians who dabbled in the arts – or creatives who made an important contribution to the development of modern culture’ but both an eclectic and bourgeois (or boujee as the kids today would say) group that influenced everything from art, writing, and economics.
One of my favourite movements is the Vienna Succession which influenced art, architecture, interior deign and spurred many other movements such as the Glasgow Style and Art Nouveau.
There are many examples throughout history of groups or movements that start as a bunch of people that influence each other but end up influencing the whole culture and society at large.
Perhaps that is why modern culture is so bereft of novelty or edginess. There are no subcultures, only mass-produced on-demand culture from Spotify and Netflix.
The consumption of culture is no longer communal, and at least during the era of Covid, neither is its creation. The lack of human contact and lack of cultural developments can’t not be interrelated.
Even the eccentric lifestyles the bohemians of the past lived are in no way edgy today. Everything from ‘free love’ to ‘androgyny’ has been sterilised by or subsumed into the dominate culture with the rise of ‘ethical non-monogamy’ and ‘non-binary pronouns’.
Recently, the mainstream media have predicted a backlash against all this orthodox-unorthodoxy. They warn that being conservative is the new counterculture and that a wave of sex-negativity will soon envelope the culture.
Maybe it really will become Hip to be Square in the twenty-twenties.
Whatever the reason for the dearth, there is a definite need for some actually subversive and dangerous ideas and art to break into the mainstream. But for that to happen there needs to be real-life in-person-subcultures where people can meet, mingle, clash and create.
I am playing a small part with All Minus One to fill this void but there is a need for plenty more movements to make up for the last few years of physical and artistic sterility.