Recently in subculture Category

dangerous fashion

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in further video news, i'm not sure how i missed last week's perceptive news report from WDAZ in North Dakota, but clearly, emo really is the new goth. and just like goth, emo began as a subgenre of punk music (emotive hardcore) that has morphed into a distinctive youth style complete with fashion codes (skinny clothes, floppy black hair) and alleged behavior norms (self harm, mopey poetry, morbid introspection). this current version of emo strikes me as difficult to distinguish from the darker side of indie/hipster style, and has become inseparably imagined alongside myspace and youtube, and similar digital sites of youthful social interaction.

the video is pretty predictable -- new youth subculture poses risks to YOUR kids! be on the look out for skinny pants and tight sweaters in dark colors -- they might lead to suicidal ideation! but the best part appears to be the newscasters' misrecognition of internet humor sites as legitimate guides to emo culture. such as the "Insta Emo Kit" at they also report on a supposed "point" system, which they acknowledge may be more symbolic than literal -- and of course, youth subculture often does rely on schema of cultural capital (specialized knowledge of scene norms, taste preferences, and slang) to confer status and credibility.

but as usual, hyping fears of the internet, self harm, and youth subculture does little to address the real difficulties many young people face navigating the educational system, media, and consumerism in a postindustrial world where they are frequently targeted by mass media and corporate interests, and where "youth" has become a dominant symbol for what's new, hip, and desirable in mass culture.

I Must Be Emo - News Report

emo is the new goth?

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according to Bones, Fox's latest forensic drama and David Boreanaz vehicle, smug, angsty teens dressed in black and sporting lip-piercings are... emo? i suppose this is what i get for tuning in to mediocre primetime television (sadly, i have class when Veronica Mars airs on Tuesdays). last night's episode turned on the classic plot twist where the most likely suspect, in this case, the spooky teen, is absolved of the crime in favor of the less obvious "normal" character, his pageant-contestant younger sister (the emo teen, on the plus side, was played by cutie Kyle Gallner, whose quirky character on Veronica Mars was not similarly redeemed).

it's the character's mother, however, that outs him to the audience as "emo," and expresses her revulsion and despair at his sartorial choices. on the one hand, the show seems to be trying to keep up with the times and with current trends in youth culture. but on the other, the imagery of the angsty teen in black mostly serves to reproduce adult fears about youth as rebellious and violent, and doesn't seem particularly grounded in "emo" style or affect at all.

youth subculture on trial

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Nothing like a little moral panic to bolster your murder case -- remember Scott Dyleski, the trenchcoat-wearing teenager implicated in the bizarre murder of California resident Pam Vitale last October? He'll be standing trial this week, and apparently so will his alleged subculture, according to the
SF Chronicle:

Acquaintances have described Dyleski as a typical suburban kid who later began to embrace the Goth culture, dying his brown hair black and wearing a trench coat.
Jewett, a 24-year veteran of the Contra Costa County district attorney's office, is expected to introduce witnesses who will discuss elements of Goth culture and music as it pertained to Dyleski.

So what, exactly, does his taste in clothes and music have to do with his alleged criminal activity? Perhaps the prosecuter missed out on a recent study published in New Scientist under the succint title "Goth subculture may protect vulnerable children." Without getting into a long discussion of what constitues a subculture in the first place, it troubles me to have the prosecution buy into the same flavor of moral panic that seems to spur the news media so often when it comes to young people.

I'm just surprised they haven't tried to work MySpace into this somehow -- but maybe that's because this case involves a white youth with a predilection for trenchcoats and possibly violence, rather than a teen girl at risk from imagined predators.

Authentic Youth: Cultural Capital and Credibility in Digital Youth Culture

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(from a proposed paper on the role of digital media in the lives of young people)

For young people, commodity culture offers an important site for the production of individual and collective meanings. Digital spaces such as the internet provide an excellent arena for do-it-yourself culture and creative consumption, but are ultimately structured by the same logics that determine how popular culture operates more generally. Discourses of credibility and authenticity afford us a glimpse into how young people navigate the complex interplay of social networks, cultural commodities, and subcultures in a mobile, mediated society. Given the role of cultural engagement in developing social capital, digital media offer a means for young people to become more invested in their social and cultural worlds.

subculture: the meaning of sp00ky

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fortunately, the media coverage of subcultural youth isn't all doom and gloom these days -- at least, not in a bad way. if a recent article in the UK Guardian is anything to go by, not everyone is stuck viewing goths as spooky and dangerous -- we might be able to get away with being just edgy (whew!):

I have seen the future - and it's goth

according to Dave Simpson, a new study in culture and media suggests that goths tend to be literate, educated and even financially successful. apparently, the subculture's emphasis on music, art and literature are partly to blame for worrisome outcomes like becoming a web designer, programmer or dentist (though any discussion of class appears to be MIA). in fact, the researcher, Dunja Brill at Sussex University, was once herself goth, and even the author of the article claims to have been into all things gloomy and artsy for six months back in the day.

all snarkiness aside, i couldn't help chuckling when reading the ten "telltale signs" your boss might be a goth, especially number seven on black clothing: "Many items in the longtime goth's wardrobe may now have faded to a sort of charcoal shade." looking in my own closet, i must admit this is sad, yet true.

seattle afterparty shooting: reflexive discourse in the rave scene

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in less upbeat youth culture news, apparently a gunman opened fire late last Friday night/early Saturday morning at an afterparty for a zombie-themed rave, killing six partygoers and then himself. the event, and subsequent news coverage, has provoked nervous responses from the local electronic music scene, which are unsurprising in some ways, yet don't seem entirely warranted. the initial news reports actually seemed pretty even-handed to me -- no wild speculations about the gunman being a drug-addicted Marilyn Manson fan who secretly worshipped Adolf Hitler and was an occult-loving loner (as opposed to how the media first described the Columbine shooters, or Scott Dyleski).

but at least some kids in the local scene (dubbed "rave" culture by the media) are worrying that their subculture will be blamed, classic moral-panic style. which is understandable -- both the media and public officials have a bad habit of looking to youth culture as depraved and destructive in order to explain these kinds of incidents, demonizing KMFDM or MySpace or whatever else is a convenient way to get parents worked up about their dangerous teenagers. because pathologizing adolescents is apparently easier than actually addressing the causes of alienation and disaffection in society.

in this case, though, the local scene's concerns seem more based in fear than reality. Rave, goth and other subcultures are targeted so easily and often that now we expect it regardless of how the media or local community might actually be responding. i have to wonder if amplifies this effect to have subcultural youth feel defensive anytime something dramatic like this happens. for the moment, at least, the police seem to be treating this as a freak shootout, possibly premeditated, but not precipitated solely by drugs or alcohol or dance music.

goth murder madness -- and Voltaire?

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Well, the Dyleski murder has morphed in "goth murder madness," thanks to Fox News. This is pretty classic media moral panic, when the press builds up an exaggerated panic with sketchy facts. Yes, Dyleski may have worn black and experimented with style and identity, as do many teens. But no, the "goth movement" is not corrupting teenagers and inducing them to attack and murder innocent people. Instead of blaming Marilyn Manson (as the press felt obliged to do in the wake of Columbine), however, Fox News turned to goth musician and artist Voltaire to be the spokesperson of the supposed "movement" (better known by adherents as the "scene"). Voltaire, aside from being at least moderately articulate, presents himself as clean, well-groomed and reasonably mature -- to say little of his commercial success in music, comics and animation. And unlike Manson, Voltaire is actually sort of a goth, and his music, though really more folk in influence, appeals to and is consumed by the goth scene. It seems like Fox is undermining their own sensationalism a bit by presenting this well-spoken and attractive man (albeit with a devilish goatee) as a figurehead for a "movement" that supposedly engenders "murder madness." But maybe that's just me.

goth: high fashion or teen cult? you decide!

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I'm fascinated by the disparity in how certain subcultures are sometimes represented in the media. Just a few weeks ago, 16 year old murder suspect Scott Dyleski was being described by CNN as a "goth loner" who "followed the occult and dressed in black," including that ubiquitous signifier of teen depravity, the black trenchcoat (thank you, Highlander movies!). Dyleski has been charged with bludgeoning Pamela Vitale to death in Lafayette, CA, allegedly because she received his marijuana-growing supplies that were being financed by stolen credit cards. Of course, whenever a white, middle-class teenaged boy commits some atrocious crime (Columbine, Red Lake), the media immediately finds someone (usually other students, who may or may not actually have known the suspect) to describe him as a goth, a loner, an occultist or Satanist, and usually a Nazi sympathizer to boot.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, the New York Times fashion section a few days ago declared goth style to be "in" -- or, more specifically, the "Gothic Aesthetic." (Embrace the Darkness, Oct. 30, 2005, in Fashion & Style) Admittedly, the Times doesn't really distinguish between "goth" (the contemporary subculture that revolves primarily around music and nightclubs) and "Gothic," a Victorian genre in literature and architecture in the 19th century that appealed to a decadent, macabre sentiment thought to be embodied in medieval architecture.

The Times article cites the imagery in Tim Burton's latest animated movie, Corpse Bride, not to mention a litany of recent works (a musical, a best-selling novel, a Met exhibit) -- and consumer fashion. Apparently, Goth fashion allows respectable New Yorkers (instead of "freaks" who embrace "subversive" imagery) to be "edgy." In all fairness, there's a common thread here, where "goth" is used to denote the dark, morbid and socially marginal. But I think it's telling that this demarcation is used perjoratively to frame the behavior of wayward, dangerous teen boys (at least, when they're white and middle-class), but is permissible for well-off women on the Upper East side of New York when they want to be "edgy."

I recognize, of course, that the use of subcultural imagery in the media is largely divorced from actual subcultural practices. This was entertainingly illustrated by local San Francisco news coverage of the Vitale murder, when reporters showed up at the DNA Lounge for a monthly industrial night called MEAT. After much deliberation, one of the promoters consented to an interview (which you can watch here). After the promoter described goth as a non-violent club scene that attracts adults over the age of 21 who want to dance and listen to dark-themed electronic music, the reporters concluded that the actual goth subculture had little to do with the allegedly "goth" teen murder suspect.

Still, the use of goth as a cultural category in the media attests to the semiotic value of imagery associated with the subculture. Goth, or rather, the stereotyped images associated with it (black clothing, dark makeup, an obsession with morbidity and death), has become shorthand for a particular kind of rebelliousness, whether that's the largely sanitized vision promoted by fashion designers, or the instant assumptions made in the press about teens like Dyleski, given a lack of better information (ultimately, for instance, it turned out that the Columbine shooters Klebold and Harris were not really into goth at all). The New York Times, however, is about 15 years out of date, since Victorian fashion was big in the goth scene in the early 90s -- subcultural styles continually shift just like in popular culture, and recent goth looks include more futuristic "cyber" styles, 80's-influenced deathrock looks, and retro/hipster fashion.

What I find interesting, however, is the relationship between goth imagery in the press and popular culture, and how goth style is used within the actual subculture (a community of semiotic "practice" and common interest). Of course, the goth scene is not immune to its stereotypes, especially as media exposure often attracts newcomers. Hopefully, these newcomers discover that the subculture is somewhat different from how it's popularly portrayed -- but presumably, these codified images of goth re-enter the scene through new participants. As a subculture, however, goth operates comparably to other communities of practice, using semiotic signifiers like style or slang to communicate identity and in-group affiliation to other members. Goth, as the newsreporters in San Francisco discovered, consists of a subculture concerned with music, clubbing, fashion and socializing, largely by young people in their twenties and thirties, and not brutal murders or sacrifices to Satan (or Marilyn Manson, for that matter). While I'm not convinced of the simple thesis that "mainstream" interests co-opt subcultural styles and diffuse their subversiveness, clearly the look of the goth scene has taken on symbolic meaning in popular culture, in intriguing and revealing ways.

culture/counterculture: thoughts on burning man and media coverage

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While waiting at the pharmacy today, I picked up a copy of Rolling Stone (with a very aged quartet of the same name on the cover, I might add), and discovered the article the magazine had run on Burning Man, sending a journalist and a photographer to the desert to cover the event. At the risk of being an apologist for something which I think can be legitimately critiqued, this article reminded me of all the reasons I dislike journalistic approaches to human social behavior.

Unfortunately, I can't provide a link because I'm pretty sure the article isn't available online -- just the photos:

So I'll have to try and sum it up first. The author purports to approach the event with an open mind, then proceeds to ridicule the majority of participants for being hairy, naked and benighted. He denigrates a pair of topless passersby as "freaks," and concludes that Burning Man is just about a bunch of middle-class white folks with corporate day jobs blowing off steam one week a year in the desert.

Of course, it's not that I haven't suggested a similar critique myself. I think there are legitimate questions of class and race that should be raised in the face of narratives about the value of temporary community or an uncommodified "gift" economy. Burning Man is only available to those with the resources -- time, money, material goods -- to take off a week (at least) and pack in everything needed for desert survival (food, water, camping gear) not to mention fun and creative expression (costumes, drugs, elaborate art installations). And furthermore, it's worth considering where the social benefit lies in devoting a significant amount of time and resources every year to an escapist festival far removed from everyday society, at least if you embrace the language of social change while doing so.

Burning Man, I would agree, is problematic in light of the stories participants tell about their involvement in it. But the pat, unexamined dismissal penned by this Rolling Stone journalist is just as limited and myopic. The author, for example, is unable to address any questions regarding the value of "symbolic creativity," the act of making meaning through everyday creative acts, from assembling a countercultural outfit to burning a mix cd. Perhaps thousands of people gather in the desert to walk on stilts and drive their art cars precisely because they do not find sufficient meaning in the everyday world, and Burning Man provides a site where this kind of creativity can be expressed, articulated, and realized.

What hampers this article is its complete lack of any kind of underlying method, or familiarity with the significant body of work that has already been devoted to examining youth subcultures and counterculture. There are no simple answers regarding the efficacy of symbolic rebellion. In a world of symbolic meaning and signification, why shouldn't creative acts have real consequences? Or is the symbolic expression of dissidence destined to remain an empty gesture?

Regardless of the value of cultural movements such as Burning Man, this kind of superficial journalistic attention fails to address the complex issues which underlie any form of cultural production. Instead, the article allows Rolling Stone to profit from flaunting the gaudier aspects of the festival -- fire, nudity, weird art -- while safely panning behaviors and attitudes the author (or editor, or readers) may find uncomfortable.

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