The relevance of subculture

June 6th, 2002

Module: 309CCM – Pop Music
Student Name: Guy Carberry
Tutor Name: Jason Toynbee
Date Due: May 2000

Question – Does the concept of subculture still have relevance
for the study of popular music?

This essay will answer the question detailed above by explaining exactly
what subcultures are. It will then briefly cover some famous sub-cultures
of the last fifty years explaining how they relate to post-war life in
Britain and America. Following on, it will further analyse the origins
of subculture, discovering whether they are media constructs or merely
people imitating the image of their favourite band. The main crux of the
essay will deal with the subcultures of the twenty-first century. The
essay will ask the question “do subcultures still exist?”.
In the postmodern age where there are a great diversity of musical styles
and there is a huge hybridisation between these styles it would seem hard
to pigeon-hole people. It is no longer as easy as Paul Willis’ (1971)
study of the mods and rockers or indeed as Sarah Thornton’s (1996)
study of club cultures. It would seem that in the late 20th century and
now there are bands who do not have any noticeable subcultural following.
The question asks whether or not subcultures still have relevance to the
study of popular music. For the purpose of this essay it shall be assumed
that the study of popular music in question is the music of today – the
twenty-first century. The definition of subculture is a group of people
who identify with a certain genre of music. They dress similarly, often
as the bands they follow dress. They are identified primarily by their
clothing which signifies the type of music there are “into”.
According to Brake in Titley (1999), “Subcultures are meaning systems,
modes of expression or life styles developed by groups in subordinate
structural positions in response to dominant meaning systems, and which
reflect their attempt to solve structural contradictions rising from the
wider social context.”

Pop music has always been linked with subculture. Simon Frith (1983)
is famous for his study of the Sociology of rock music in his book “Sound
Effects”. Hebdige’s (1979) book “Hiding in the light”
concerned itself with the issues raised by punk rock whilst, more recently,
Sarah Thornton (1995) presented the world with “Club Cultures”.
Even as recently as 1996 there was evidence of subculture in Britain.
1995/1996 was the year of “Britpop”, a definite subculture
had evolved. Some were critical of the subculture because of nationalistic
tendencies and for taking music back to the sixties. Yet, “Britpop”
is probably the last studyable subcultural form. Before “Britpop”
the nineties had “ravers”, “indie kids”, “metallers”,
“grungers”. The eighties saw the emergence of “new-romantics”,
“goths”, whilst the seventies had “punk”, “disco”
and “prog-rock”. The seventies pro-rock band “The Grateful
Dead” had their own specific culture of fans called “The Dead
Heads”. In the sixties there were “mods” and “rockers”
whilst the fifties had “teddy boys” and “greasers”.
In the late nineties an extraordinary “revival” took place.
People began wearing the sixties “beatnick” clothing whilst
enjoying hard-core house music or heavy metal clothing whilst listening
to goa trance music. It seemed harder and harder to locate their musical
taste with their clothing. Before addressing whether the notion of subculture
is still relevant in the study of popular music it seems appropriate to
look at how subcultures originate.

Titley (1999) says that “A subculture forms when the larger culture
fails to meet the needs of a particular group of people. They offer different
patterns of living values and behaviour norms, but there is a dependence
on the larger culture for general goals and direction.” By this,
Titley is referring to the idea that subcutures tend to find fault in
the wider culture as a whole and form their own break-away group which
relates more exclusively to their own needs. He says that in youth sub-culture
people find that the needs of their own particular age group are met.
In regard to music, the “pop” subcultures find fault with
the “mainstreem” and thus create their own group that reflects
their own needs. Titley (1999) suggests that there are five main reasons
why subcultures form: 1. The deepening of the division of labour separated
the family from the process of modern production and administration. The
industrial revolution gave “youth” space, 2. With the industrial
revolution came an educational system which required youth to be in schools
for far longer than at previous times. Youth were thus separated from
the labour process for far longer. This could be seen to be leaving them
free to “analyse” the system from the outside. 3. As time
goes by medical techniques advance leading to a higher living population
and therefore more children. 4. People lead increasingly more diverse
lifestyles which draw parents away from their families for increasing
lengths of time. Due to this fact their children become estranged from
their parents resulting in subcultural practises. 5. In this final point,
Titley talks of socialisation in modern society being highly discontinuous
and inconsistent. This apparently results in individuals who are not fully
integrated in society. They need to complete their process of socialisation
and they do this within joining subcultures. From these points Titley
arrives at the conclusion that youth-subcultures are “a natural
part of the journey from childhood to adulthood”, “A class
struggle expressed through the use of style”, “A rebellion
against the dominant culture using shock tactics”, “A construction
of new identities based on individualisation”. Titley would suggest
that the study of subculture is extremely important in the study of popular
music today.

If Titley’s (1999) argument for subcultures is to be accepted it
would seem appropriate to analyse exactly what he is suggesting. The idea
that subcultures are a “rebellion against the dominant culture using
shock tactics” can indeed be seen today in bands such as “Slipnot”,
“Cradle Of Filth” and “Marylin Manson” whose fans
adhere to the strict music and dress code dictated by the genre of “new-metal”.
“Young people in creating subcultures are setting out to shock.
One of the key ways in which they shock is through the clothes they wear.”
(Titley, 1999). Indeed, “metal” is synomous with morbid themes
and connotations. Cradle of Filth were deemed to have gone a little too
far in 1996 when they peddled one T-shirt depicting a nun masturbating
and another with the text “fuck god”. The alienation that
Titley talks of can be applied here too. Heavy metal has been said to
be the realm of the middle class, with working class youth preferring
dance and nightclub music as it could be seen as illustrated in the work
by Sarah Thornton (1995). The “estrangement” these middle-class
youth may feel from their professional parents being away from home so
often is also often the theme in film. One recent example of this is in
Sam Menzie’s American Beauty (1999). Another of Titley’s points
is that the subcultural process is a natural part of the journey from
childhood to adulthood. If this is the case then it can be argued that
subculture still has relevance today in the study of music. This is assuming
that there still are subcultures. For subcultures to have relevance in
the study of popular music today they must still exist. There can be no
denying that subcultures have been incredibly useful in the past in the
study of popular music but what this essay will address next is whether
at the dawn of the third Millennium there are any prevailing subcultures
at all or whether, as with everything else in the Postmodern world they
have been assimilated into Baudrillard’s (1991) mass of signs and
empty signifiers.

Today’s world is extremely diverse. Lee (1993) talks of a cultural
overload. In his work on Time/Space compression, he talks about the fact
that commodities are combined. There are two in one shampoos, mini/midi
systems, microwaves and a whole host of other consumerables to help speed
up the day and save space. In the same manner, there are numerous conglomerations
of musical styles and genres. The music press have apparently never had
it so difficult to label a new fad and zeitgeist. Glancing through the
NME it is evident that there is a sense of waiting for “the next
big thing”. The argument could be put forward that it is the press
and media who like to be able to categorise genre and subculture to fit
within their own formats. They would like to suggest that there are constantly
new subcultures emerging as long as they can attribute a label to it.
With society becoming more and more fragmented it is harder to see and
label subcultural groups. For this reason the idea of studying pop music
itself can come into question. It could be asked how can one study what
one can not locate? On the other hand, it could be seen that there are
far more diverse, subcultural groups to study and make sense of. In the
past there were subcultures, who liked a particular type of music and
wore a particular type of clothing. Now people pick and choose what they
like and want to hear. It is more acceptable to like different genres
of music without being ousted by peers. Even the mainstream seems acceptable
to a certain extent. This can be seen to be of benefit, since the subcultural
groups of the past were always “closed off” to anything that
did not fit in with the strict rules of the subculture. Cohen (1971) in
his study of Mods and Rockers talks graphically of the rivalry between
the two subcultures. With an obvious tolerance to other styles it can
be argued that the diversity and amalgamation between different subcultures
is a much better thing. For this reason, to study sub-culture today is
to expose a society more in harmony than ever before.

Titley (1999) expands on the idea of subcultural diversification in his
essay “A New Approach to Youth Subcultural Theory”. He challenges
the ideas of the Centre for Cultural Studies in Birmingham who have presented
ideas about subcultural groups since the 1950s. He uses the idea that
it used to be possible to categorise everything in the world according
to rigid structural values. Today the story is far different. There is
far more diversity, variety and heterogeneity. He refers to the work of
McCracken (1998) and his book “Plenitude” in which the author
states that in the fifties “you were mainstream or James Dean. You
had to be one or the other.”.

It should not be forgotten that pop music is contained within ideology
itself. The lyrics in popular music refer to culture, real life and therefore
– Subculture. A music group is always aware of it’s fan base, its
subcultural following. Groups such as Blur, challenge their traditional
base by releasing the latest album “13” which is a well documented
reaction to their previous “britpop” output. By doing this
they risk the problem of loosing their original fan base and associated

In conclusion, by looking at the points raised by this essay it is possible
to see that sub-cultures are still relevant today. This essay has revisited
sub-cultures from the past – drawing from the work of Stan Cohen and Dick
Hebdige. It has seen how sub-cultures of yesterday were important in defining
the zeitgeist of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. It has also illustrated
how subcultures have always walked hand-in-hand with popular music since
the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. To suggest that the new millennium
can study popular music without genre-defining subcultures would seem
ludicrous. It may be the case that popular music scholars may be finding
themselves further and further removed from the subcultures as they become
older themselves. Frith lived in the age of “Rock Music” and
as such seems to reminisce about the good old days whilst not embracing
the new, fast moving technology of now. Hebdige reverts back to punk –
a definable era. It seems harder and harder to label subcultures now as
new ones are cropping up all the time. It is important to note that it
is the music press that largely create the name for the subculture. At
this time there are a wide variety of subcultures. In days past there
were far fewer, they were easy to label and easy to manage. In this new
millennium there is no equivalent to ‘punk’ or ‘mod’
or ‘romo’ movements. There is however a greater diversity
of subcultural groups, their names ever-changing. It maybe more important
to look at the term ‘youth’ subculture as a whole as subculture
definitely belongs to the realm of the young. The same theory can be applied
to the subcultures of now as those of the past. There are middle class
subcultures – Skaters who like new punk music, and typically working class
subcultures – Night Clubbers who like chart dance music, HipHoppers who
like hip hop music, Indie kids who like music NME says it is ok to like.
Subculture will always be important in locating popular music within the
structure of society. As society is fragmented, so is popular music. The
more diverse society becomes, the more diverse subcultural groups there
will be. It is easy to say that it is the music that counts, why bother
with the non-musical elements? This is to forget that even pop music exists
within ideology. Pop music too has its referents. Pop music refers to
society and people create music to fit the ideology. Subcultures will
live forever.

Word Count: 2394


Published Books:
Frith, Simon, 1983, “Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the politics
of rock ‘n’ roll”, Constable
Blake, Andrew, 1999, “Living through Pop” Routledge
Cagle, Van M., 1995, “Reconstructing Pop/Subculture”, Sage

Internet Sites:
Tait, Gordon (Lecturer, School of Cultural & Policy Studies – Queensland),
2000, “Education Research and Youth Subculture Theory”,
Tittley, Mark, 2000, “A New Approach to Youth Subculture Theory”
Tittley, Mark, 2000, “Youth Subcultures and the Commitment Level
Model” (Essay),

Other Sources:
Dalton, Stephen, (2000), “Why Rock TV isn’t Rock ‘n’
Roll” (Feature Article), NME – 29th April 2000, IPC

Thornton, Sarah, (1995), “Club Cultures: Music, Media & Subcultural
Capital”, Polity
Toynbee, Jason, (1993), “Policing Bohemia, pinning up grunge: the
music press and generic change in British pop and rock”(Essay),
Cambridge University Press

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