Archive for May, 2009

Counterculture: How We Bought Into Our Own Habits of Different Consumerism

May 5, 2009

The following is a thesis I wrote on my independent study of counterculture at LSU as my final class.

Social Order and the Internal/External Norms

Uniformity is something that has been fought against for quite some time. From schoolyards, to work, and even social settings, as individuals, we try to be, well, individuals. By fighting uniformity, we fight for what it stands for, in essence, norms and discipline. Like the school children in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or the rebellious hippies of the 60’s and 70’s, there’s always been a fight against the “norms” of society. But the question is whether this deviance is either conscious or subconscious. Are we rebellious to change society for the better, or is it something in our brain that we can’t control? An inner child perhaps, playful, escaping responsibility, and continuously fighting our parent’s “rules.”

Counterculture would seem, on the surface, to be a counter to the norms, rules, and uniformity of society. With society, comes a marketplace of not only ideas, but of monetary exchange of those ideas. Walk into an Urban Outfitters, which screams counterculture on the surface, but is in fact just a store that sells another mass identity in a present state of nobrow. Urban Outfitters sells uniformity to a parallel idea of the normal society. It’s a counter to what some would call the “brainless, conforming jocks and preps,” but is in turn an exclusive clique of ideas all its own.

Counterculture looks to exist as an idea bigger than itself, but is actually just another marketed brand. It also seems that the people are to blame for their actions as opposed to the market that creates the images.

First and foremost, the idea of counterculture links to deviance in society. That deviant mentally stems from the Super-ego’s fight with the Id. On the Freudian spectrum of the Id, the Ego, and the Super-ego, the Ego stands a center balance trying to counteract both ends of the spectrum. Like a political independent whom rations for change, but feels some things should always stay the same, the ego takes on a lot of work within the neurons of one’s mind.

The Id is the inner child. It is the quick decision, impulsive behavior. According to Freudian theory, the Id is our impulse against the norms. On the reverse side of the spectrum is the Super-ego, aimed at tolerance and rules. The Id would be your youthful pranks against the Super-ego school principal. While one end tries to suppress the other, the Ego uses its common knowledge- that which is learned from everyday occurrences and situations- to form a conservative plan that may just have a bit of room to breath. Our Ego is the diplomat between the two extremes, allowing them to activate your thoughts and ideas in an appropriate manner, socially acceptable. When one side of the spectrum, most likely the Id, obtains the bigger end of the stick, a counter cultural idea may take place: “Oh, today I’ll roll my sleeves up at the office,” or “I really like those acid wash jeans.” By acting out in a manner unlike the “norms,” or “turning heads” in effect, we are “countering” preconceived notions.

With our impulses restricted by the norms, there’s another inner function that also affects our desire to beat to a different drum. Social hierarchy has, for centuries, been an internal concern with most people. Think about it, Tony Montana said it best in Scarface, “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power.” With social hierarchy, there’s always the notion of more power, which may, or may not, lead to more respect and control over others. We thrive for the top of the hill as humans, including the United States as a whole. We aren’t the “super power” because we just became “it,” we are because we strive to be “it.” In the process of becoming said “super power,” we took a road filled with “different” means to the end. We “took risks” and were “progressive” in our economical and social lifestyles. As a nation, we continued, over the last millennium, to evolve and succeed from the preexisting norms. Doesn’t that mean that as a nation, we were, and still are, continuing a counter cultural revolution?

Think of each decade starting with the 50’s to the new millennium of new technologies. Each decade is very different from the last. The reason, as humans, we get bored and move on. Counterculture never seemed to be about being deviant to “fight the power” or “cause anarchy.” Sure, those seemed like surface answers, but the deviance that arose in those decades were experimentations in other forms of social life. We were hippies, then disco drug induced club-goers, and then conservative Reagan-era families. I think of the example of the large disco record burning at the 1979 Chicago White Sox game, executed by radio disc jockey Steve Dahl’s “Disco Demolition.” People had to own those records to begin with, before they “grew” out of them; they were either “uncool,” or the consumer was simply “bored” with their previous purchases. At some point, those baseball fans were disco lovers, and at another point in time, disco was a counterculture. Disco, like any popular music, became so mainstream that it became bland and laughable, collapsing in on itself as a joke. And what emerged from the era? Punk and hip-hop music. What was the difference between mainstream “new wave,” a commercial offshoot of the “no wave” New York post-punk scene, and the pop hits of the 70’s disco era—not much!

The thought process never changed, just the scenery. But was it boredom with the quality of music, or was it because consumers of disco music followed the anti-disco revolution and unanimously said, “Disco Sucks!”

Counterculture is usually analogist to being “cool,” something we’ve mostly strived for since we were kids. This may include fashion, hobbies, and what we watch or what music we listen to. In Joseph Heath and Andrew Porter’s Nation of Rebels: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, they cite a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled “The Cool Hunt,” where Gladwell says there are three “cardinal rules of cool.” 1) “The quicker the chase, the quicker the flight.” 2) “Cool can’t be manufactured out of thin air.” and 3) “You have to be cool to know cool.”

The three rules sum up why countercultures exist for only periods of time—time not being specific, since each period heavily depends on the shift from a niche market to a mass market. Cool seems to only exist with the people who find it cool to begin with, which means the market didn’t initiate the cool factor, it only finds it. By the time the market finds it and mass produces it, the original niche market has moved on to something else, something cooler, and not “so last month.” This, in a way, is how the fashion industry works. No one wants to wear last season’s fashions, they’ll pay extra for the “new” cool look, that really might not be “cool” to begin with. The cycle then continues, or possibly moves backwards, since contemporary fashion is nostalgic.

Fashion is a good example as to how counterculture becomes consumer culture. One of my friends is an art major. Print artists, with extreme help of the Internet in the past few years, have marketed themselves by taking their prints to mass consumption. thrives on the idea of selling $25 t-shirt designs to the masses, as opposed to a New York or L.A. street corner. My friend said that he may take on the idea of printing t-shirts, but charge five or ten dollars less. I said that’s a good plan, but if a designer sells four t-shirts at $25 a pop by themselves in an hour, then they’re making $100 bucks an hour. Now imagine sitting on the street corner for four or five hours, and selling at least 10 t-shirts in that time. Maybe on a good day, selling 20 t-shirts, you are making a good living. Economically, where do you set your price based on demand? The demand looks to be high for outer city citizens and tourists. Your primary market is going to be a buyer who can’t consume the product in their area, so they may pay a price to obtain said item in the moment, unlike the store or mall that’s 30 minutes from their house, where everyone in town shops! That is the idea behind “cool” and counterculture: having something that not everyone else would think to have, or are able to obtain.

Distinguishing yourself with “limited” items can be expensive. The lower the supply is, the higher the cost will be because of natural demand. Something in the past few years changed, that gave people a greater option of consuming goods—the Internet., and other online t-shirt print designers, opened their business up to a wider audience. Thanks to the Internet, your small town has the same equal opportunity to buy the $25 dollar t-shirt design as anyone else in America. In the long run, possibly making it “less cool” or “trendy” to the preexisting consumer on the street, or who “originally” discovered the Web site. The counterculture has now crossed into the mainstream consumer culture, and those hipsters will have to find a designer even “more unknown.”

Crossovers in independent versus mass market fashion isn’t just about money, sometimes it has to do with the place and market that’s buying. A local example is Storyville. Located on W. Chimes St. at the North gates of Louisiana State University. Obviously catering to the artistic market of University students, a percentage of the boutique’s t-shirt designs cater to the University’s football team—a staple of any Baton Rouge and die hard student, no matter your social status or clique of friends. When Nick Saban returned to Tiger Stadium for the the ’08-’09 football season with his new team, Alabama’s Crimson Tide, Storyville sold quite a bit of “Nick Saban is a Douche” t-shirts, only a block away from Tiger District, a more conservative University clothing and accessories store.

The slogan on the purple type and gold t-shirt is blunt, and edgier to both a younger and older audience. The younger market likes it because of the shirt’s racy wordplay, and the 30-40 year old beer drinking super fans love it because it says what is taboo, but acceptable in the long run among campus at game time. The shirt is lowbrow in taste, but in fact highbrow in meaning among die hard fans. The nobrow wins out, and everyone is happy because of social acceptability. Everyone is inclusive from a liberal and taboo design. Funny.

Nobrow: The Death of Identity

Nobrow is an interesting topic because our generation knows not the difference, and the generation who lived the shift from identity to mass consumption most likely never saw it coming, or go by them.

In John Seabrook’s book Nowbrow: The Culture of Marketing + The Marketing of Culture, Seabrook, a writer for The New Yorker (a highbrow publication) uses real life situations and social commentary to convey the fact that everything is marketable, no one is safe from being marketed to, and if you think you changed the system, you essentially fell into it unbeknown to you.
Seabrook captures the reality of what the fast paced economy of our times has become in a simple illustration. In his comparison to common townhouses then, he says that social hierarchy used to be seen as high culture, middlebrow culture, and mass culture. Now, the same set of three is seen as identity, subculture and then mainstream culture, and that the lines of the new regime of identification is blurry, creating a “nobrow” effect. Since the market is so fast paced and massive, identity doesn’t necessarily exist anymore. Record stores don’t cut their music up into subgenres with equally accepted choices, instead there’s rock/alternative, hip-hop, country and small sections of classical, easy listening, and contemporary gospel. Within all of these so-called sections exist even more diverse sets of choices. If I walked into a store and wanted to find a new thrash metal album, there wouldn’t be a section of music to check out with recognition of bands like Anthrax or Slayer, but instead just rows and rows of “rock/alternative” music.

Identity doesn’t exist if your identity is being sold to you outright. There’s something more important to nobrow that stems back to the hierarchy of the elite versus the masses. For the elite and their so-called worth, it would be okay for them to dip down into the masses, but frowned upon for the masses to reach up the ladder and commandeer any of the higher standards of the social hierarchy. Seen throughout history, the king stayed in the castle and could walk around the villages, but villagers and peasants were never welcomed into royalty. Whereas hierarchy used to work as a double-edged sword, it has now cut across the board, where persons can consume freely, anything that they choose, even if that does mean it’s not “cool” enough for them by others’ standards.

Social hierarchy is usually synonymous with wealth. Wealthy people can buy and sell as they choose, while poorer classes must make the best with what they have. What happens in nobrow is that many of the popular trends are started on the lower end of the ladder and then sold to the higher end at a higher price. In the past decade, what is seen as poor is also hip and cool. One extreme example of this is jorts. Seen as the redneck equivalent to khaki shorts, many poorer artists and musicians have started the trend of taking their old jeans and cutting them at the knee, creating comfort for the summer without paying for khaki shorts. It seems logical. Why spend money on a new wardrobe when you can modify the old, cutting clothing costs? Well, it seems that jorts have been a recent trend across the nation. My friend worked at Pac-Sun, where he explained to me that the “cut and frayed” jorts that ran for the same price as the jeans were the jeans that didn’t sell for the winter months, cut-off and resold to style. They sold too! This means that not only a poor style that appeared “cool” and “hip” among young adults caught on, they also would pay money for the store to do what they could freely do for themselves at home, just to be a part of the latest trend.
When jorts began to catch on, other modifications occurred. Some would just roll up their pants into a Capri style, and others would switch to cutting off khaki pants instead of jeans, giving new identification to an already existing style they were trying to avoid in the first place. This is where counterculture never existed its ugly head. By avoiding norms, in the case of cut off jorts—affordability, the trend came full circle by being sold in boutiques at the avoided prices. Trendsetters thought of new ways to change their preexisting ideas to set themselves apart from the masses. By not buying into the system and “appearing” different, we’re only creating a new, interesting idea that will eventually be marketed back to us, or the masses.

The best conceivable answer for the way we intently try to change our ways is the “we always want what we can’t have,” opinion. Every once and awhile we consciously wake up and ask for either A) more out of life, or B) a slight change to the preexisting day in and day out. Heath and Potter use the movies American Beauty and Fight Club to discuss these internal clicks in our lives. At some point we awake, realizing that we are buying into the life we told ourselves that we wouldn’t end up in. At some point in our youth, we rebel against our parents, knowing better. We sit through history classes realizing we consistently make the same mistakes in contemporary politics and policies, even though the current administration had to have not only taken the same history classes, but experienced the history themselves. We’ve all had discrepancies in our jobs both with customers and our coworkers. As humans, we bicker for control and identity—and the counterculture then seeps through.

The Working Class Compromises and Counterculture Sells Itself Out

While Heath, Potter and Seabrook have all shown, through contemporary examples, that counterculture is a laughable theory—my favorite is the chapter entitled “The Empire Wins” in which Seabrook shows how George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise ended up turning him into his father, something he aimed not to do from the beginning—the findings of all three writers showcase how counterculture cannot exist, especially, in a world based on monetary exchange. From Seabrook’s examples of high-end fashion to Heath and Potter’s example of how “townhouses” were fashioned together identically to not only save money, but also turn an efficient profit in the chapter “Coca-Colonization” in Nation of Rebels, money has always been an issue in both conforming and non-conformity. Starbucks Coffee was once a small shop, and TOMS shoes were a novel, charitable idea that spread across the nation from hipsters to rich school girl boutiques. But everything has a value, both socially and economically.

What then has changed?

The “bobo” generation has changed the once fought system into their own. Instead of fighting the machine, they have embraced it, and changed it for the long run. In the Marxist Capitalist system, there exist two classes, the bourgeois and the working class—or “bohemians.” The former was royally handed down investments and power through wealth, while the other worked and garnished their wages. No matter the class, each side strived for financial security. The differences lie in “how wealthy” does one strive to be. The two worlds meet as the baby boomer “bobo” generation strives for financial security—without incorporating the system. A music critic may work for fewer wages, but he receives all his music for free, attends concerts for free, and doesn’t have to worry about spending a portion on his earnings for what he loves, because that is what his job is. In the long run, the critic earns less, but is financially secure because he automatically receives his enjoyment level in his job. These are the “cool” jobs that everyone strives for in the workforce—getting up and doing what you love, emotionally stable, while also being financially stable. That’s not counterculture in reality, just in theory. In theory, you must work strenuous 40-60 hour work weeks, and have a 3.5 family with two cars and a washer and dryer, but realistically, some of us can get by pinching pennies securely and rejoicing at the same time.

Back to a point I made earlier, counterculture sometimes stems from boredom and a need for change. Why are we changing our environment? We aren’t happy with it, even if it is getting by. If we don’t change, but don’t disrupt the system, then we’re seen as squares, another screw in the bigger machine—and that’s where the backlash enters. Happiness comes from self-worth, but many don’t act upon it because they don’t want to disrupt the “norms” for whatever reason, whether it’s because of family, money, or fear of shaking things up.

For those looking for change though, we can either succeed or fail, or fail within our succession by becoming what we tried to get away from without even knowing it. This is what happened to Lucas, and this is what happened to the “bobo” generation—but they both embraced it because it brought them joy! And isn’t happiness more to a person, and greater on society in the end then money?

New Technologies and the Final Nail in the Coffin

The Internet killed counterculture. Technology killed counterculture. Our obsession with both, you guessed it, killed counterculture. Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music sheds light into how new types of genres were wrenched by corporate processing on one end, and artistic change on the other.

In the first chapter, entitled “Where Did You Sleep Last Night? Nirvana, Leadbelly, and the Allure of Primeval,” Kurt Cobain is put through the ringer, picking apart his band’s 1996 MTV Unplugged performance, and the late songwriter’s decision to go with a cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” which, according to the chapter, was an even older version of “In the Pines.” Nirvana’s Unplugged set was riddled with other covers and lacking the band’s hit singles. He presented the concert that people would remember, in a way that he, as the artist, would want them to remember; not a set consisting of a typical selection from the band’s discography.

In the chapter, Cobain is referenced in a back and forth set of values for how he wants to be perceived. At one end, he thinks he’s not this great musician everyone takes him to be—talent through self-loathing, I guess. On the other end, he strives to be as good as his influences. Cobain is fighting to be counter cultural on the outside, but to be something great, he may just have to play into the machine. For the influences that he wants to be like, they played by separate rules under a completely different industry where artists were given a chance, not a thumbs up or thumbs down by a mass audience looking for a quick hook, riff and sinker. Cobain wanted his cake, but didn’t like how it was made for him. Ultimately, it would seem that he never became a “bobo,” incorporating a positive self-conscious image matched to an equally agreeable public image. He couldn’t figure out how to please the elitist, while at the same time being acknowledged as a great artist to the masses, without selling out.

If Nirvana tried to break the preexisting mold of music today, Cobain would have an even tougher time doing so. With the introduction of (formally and, everyone has an equal chance to be a rockstar and hustle themselves from their suburban homes rather than from the former streets and nightclubs. Panic at the Disco were signed without playing a show, just off demos on their page. They now sell-out arena shows across the United States and in Europe. The Internet was the new “counter” to hustling music through former DIY ethics. It was still DIY, but innovated and faster paced. The “buzz” didn’t have to wait through word of mouth by playing shows for years, and eventually being “buzzworthy” on MTV. Instead bands were, and are now, able to “friend” a ton of people through a social network—a network that most of the new generation is attached to at the hip, literally through cell phones and PDA’s.

It’s the urgency to consistently use technology and social networking sites such as and that keeps the cycle alive. We’ve innovated our cell phones to allow instant access when there’s no access to a computer, or a computer with Internet capability. We check our “apps,” and gain knowledge through “wiki” sites instead of reading books or going to the library to dig for information. If we want to know something, we want the knowledge to be quick and disposable. Where does this stem from? I believe it’s the difference in applied knowledge versus forced learning. Our generation, myself included, have endured hours upon years of classes we weren’t interested in taking, but crammed for to regurgitate for a passing grade. If we never applied what we learned for an “x” number of time, then it simply fades. Also, like a Biblical family tree, much of what I was meant to learn seemed like a memorization game of dates, people and places, as opposed to the contemporary application of past and current events. But the former also seemed easier to cram than the later, as well as you would have to know the former to explain the later. What’s the simple way out? Learn the former, make the grade, and move on. This is also another problem with the Internet: too much information at once. Since the information is obtainable as quick as it is disposable, then why retain the information to begin with?

This brings us to the documentary Before the Music Dies. In the documentary, industry insiders explain focus groups and how they are used to choose what music is to be cycled on mainstream radio. A younger audience is crowded in an auditorium and played 30-second clips of songs for the audience to hear. They rate the clips with audience reactions. In essence, no tracks have time to grow on the listener, and are ultimately disposable. When Nirvana released In Utero as a follow-up to the super successful Nevermind, the music was meant to be less mainstream and hookable. Comparatively, In Utero is a tour de force to Nevermind, but with songs like the opener “Serve the Servants” and the taboo single “Rape Me,” the album shouldn’t have been a success. The irony is that it was critically, but not fiscally in the long run. Not the only mainstream versus critical example, but one that proves that even ten years later, the same stays true. Maybe In Utero would have been a bigger success with the help of the Internet, and maybe Nevermind would have been larger with the help of the Web as well. Possibly, things could have been reversed. Singer-songwriter Kevin Devine once told me that Nevermind, though one of his favorite records, never killed bad music. He says that popular, mainstream music has always existed! It’s true. There’s always been a mainstream and there’s always been an underground. Over the past few decades the lines have blurred. Now people get independent films and trash blockbusters. Ethnic and multicultural design and food is preferred over fast food. Entertainment and society has accepted a mixture of good tastes and mass appeal—and so has the market, due to mass consumption brought on by quick disposable yay’s and nay’s over the Web through use of devices that are carried around on a daily basis.

The Death of Counterculture and the Birth of Uncool

So, if no one has identity, everything—no matter how cool or hip—is marketable, and social hierarchy is a thing of the past, then does the hipster thrive in smaller communes, or never thrive at all?

Technology has given everyone an equal chance of gaining styles, knowledge, and swagger with a simple disposable click of the mouse or cell phone. Just as quickly as trends would come and go, it would seem that the only way to stay fresh is to consistently move forward, or in the case of music, move backwards and come full circle. If this is true, and we keep diversifying, and progressively moving forward with a mixture of preexisting ideas, then isn’t there a state of counterculture that will always exist against the mainstream, or is the contemporary mainstream and mass market too quick, killing off the counterculture before it even made its way out of the womb?

Counterculture today seems like a state of matter continually changing form. Imagine if each of the four forms (liquid, solid, gas, and plasma) had even more distinguishable attributes. That’s what counterculture has become. Instead of a steady underground phenomenon, those consistently looking for cool, as opposed to being themselves and creating identity and internal cool with potential of perceived external cool, they are taking in disposable ideas, never sinking their feet into stable ground. Realistically, it’s sad for both the individual and the market. The individual is never happy, and the market has to continue to reinvent itself, which cost a monetary value, while the individual (consumer) also has to put out money to reinvent themselves. Unless you’re cutting up your old clothes and stealing from other’s closets, then you have to put out some dough. Some of the best things in life are free, but unfortunately, buying coolness isn’t.

Identity and Being a True Counter to the Norm

When it comes down to it, there really is no way to survive and get through life without buying into the system both socially and economically. Maybe some of us want the 3.5 family, and others just want a townhouse with one kid and “bobo” job that brings them happiness. The bottom line is that we all have to pay the bills. Counterculture stems from many things: aggression against the norm; already feeling an outsider and pushing yourself further away; an escape from boredom; or simply trying a new road. The problem with all these theories is that you aren’t the only person who feels this way, but that’s okay. Be progressive, but be outgoing for the right reasons. The “bobo” generation changed the system for the better, but the new system is also changing social norms everyday, pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, and what is still taboo. Each generation is pushing the line because each generation is rebelling against the last, probably for some of the aforementioned reasons.

Punk may be the best example to explain the cycle that counterculture seems to exist in. In the late 70’s punk emerged from both London and New York. Each area adopted a mean streak, rebellious, “whatever” ideal. People caught on, and wanted to be a part of the “cool” new thing. It became marketable. Then there was a split led by Sex Pistol’s front man John “Jonny Rotten” Lydon, and the art school kids of Manchester who decided to take the punk idea further, incorporating art and film into live shows, releasing photograph bundles instead of music, and so on. The backlash was the American Hardcore scene, who wanted punk to be more ferocious and tougher. Each idea then grew into melodic hardcore, pop-punk, thrash, post-hardcore, and tons of sub-genres. Someone kept coming along in boredom and backlash and changing the system, but always for the better, thriving on new sounds and mixing new techniques with nostalgia.

Counterculture kept changing indefinitely—and still is!

Most would like to believe that being hip and cool is synonymous with counterculture, my theory is that it’s the reverse. By being progressive and adapting new ideas with the old regime (most importantly “on your own terms”), you favor being hip and cool. You know what? That’s the most joy anyone can experience in life, is truthfully expressing themselves, and being honored for it—well, at least until the masses consume it, you lose your identity, and move on to new ideas.

Oscar Wilde said it best when he wrote, “A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. The moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman.” – “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (taken from Seabrook’s attribution in the chapter “From Town House to Megastore”)

Counterculture is dead. Long live counterculture!