The Changing Mode of Subcultures: How Generation Z Cope
I did not choose to associate songs with a picturesque lifestyle based on their jangle or old age. But thinking back a little more, I very much did.
It is a rainy Thursday, and what better to do but scroll through Pinterest while the riff to Boys Don’t Cry perfumes the room. I’m dressed up in “seventies attempts forties” — the kind of long skirts, wide lapels, and free hair achieved with minimal effort. Conversely, my makeup mimics the fox-eye trend popular right now. I am several dates condensed into one person, several points in history simulated, butchered and bastardised until I am a brand new formula. I am what an older person might call, a trendy member of Generation Z.
It is at this mundane moment where a realisation hits me; it is online life influencing how I advertise my identity to other people. I think, is the presentation the identity, or does Death of the Author now apply to personal agency as well? What I would really want to scream at the top of a cliff is, is how others perceive me really me?
There is a misconception that Generation Z do not immerse themselves in subcultures. I am here to tell you why this is all wrong.
Unlike previous generations, Generation Z have grown up with a looming awareness of our age category. With Baby Boomers’ dramatised feud with anybody younger than them, and the Millenials with enough venom to kill an industry whilst inept at securing a property, the “Gen Z” identity has been coined as the saviour demographic to change the world. This identity has been constructed as a response to the Millenials in that we are not only puritanical and frugal, but cynical like our forgotten Gen X-ers — just with no property shares or wrinkles.
Commonly nicknamed the “I-Generation”, it is impossible for us to know a life without the internet. With more accumulated knowledge than doctors of the nineteenth century, the young individual is expected to have the means to predict and thereby fix the future of modern life. One small problem: we are not here to fix your mistakes.
Everywhere you go, there are more people talking about a sense of dread than an actual shroud of dread. Gen Z has overheard the terrible things of the past, and are living the terrible things of the present, all the while with the terrible things of the future at the back of our minds. In an ever-expanding world, every sour event is tangible, on the edge of your fingertips. And although this can be a gateway to modern problems like radicalisation or activist burnout, another set of stairs leads to a world where you can respond, “everything is beautiful”.
Fashion and culture have always had a close relationship with historical events. Like how the French Revolution led to lighter garments as a reaction against excess consumption, and how World War II rationing raised the hemline, and how rock-and-roll provided a masculine identity to rebellious teenage boys. During the mid-century, rampant consumption and a booming teenage population birthed the Subculture. Mods fought with rockers, hippie stoners fought with the establishment, Disco began underground as a culture for marginalised communities, the mainstream New Romantics distinguished themselves from Punks — who also fought the establishment. The Gen Z landscape compared to that of their parents seems pretty bleak in terms of variety, drama, and feud. There is the argument that we are a more gentrified culture, and this is true from my experience, at least, on the surface. But that does not mean subcultures no longer exist or hold significance. Rather, the nature of subcultures has changed. Much like how political participation has expanded from voting to online activism, expressing yourself now exists in multiple different modes.
A timeless quote I adore from fashion historian Amanda Hallay is “Fashion is not an island, it is a response”. Today there is a different sort of response. However, it is more in line with history than what we might assume. What Gen Z have adapted through their response is not necessarily political, but in dialogue with politics, in that they wish to escape it… at least, with their clothes. Mods, stoners, and punks embodied a political identity and stigma with their practices — but the diluted forms of these aesthetics are simply just that: aesthetics.
It is reasonable for my generation to be among the most political of modern generations. The more exposure you have to a scenescape, the higher its area in your mind, therefore the more rabbit holes you can burrow. That is how I view the internet and its many burrows into informative, uninformative, and often absurd sources. This ends in you knowing everyone else’s business at once — your place in history seems undefined in comparison. You fight online but see no hope of it ever doing anything. But, the important thing is to see yourself as an active agent of history. What can you do to manifest into your reality? Curate an aesthetic, that’s what.
The people I discuss my aesthetics with will often be into the idea of “Aesthetics” itself instead of embodying one and rejecting all others. The interest in subculture, as far as I can see, is now its own subculture.
For example, Tumblr and the rise of “aesthetics” in the early 2010s existed as a soft artistic medium: moodboards, themes, and blog curation. These blogs would appropriate certain themes, adding the suffix “-core” as a tag acknowledged by the algorithm to mean “grungecore = photogenic grunge images”. You could be into the “Grunge Revival Aesthetic”, or you can choose not to participate in it. This simulation of something else can be seen in the accessible YouTube makeup and style tutorials, emulating fashion popular over ten years ago: Y2K, Grunge, and 80s fashion have made significant revivals since the mid-2010s. These things have effectively been already done, but are revamped with new life, a new awe at what was once deemed prosaic or minute.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the appeal of anything vintage or things located outside of our current time has been even more successful. Pinterest aesthetics such as Cottagecore not only adopts a vintage aesthetic, but a lifestyle allowing for an isolated rural life with no crowds and need for facemasks. Meanwhile, Dark Academia, employing gothic and classical elements from decades and even centuries past, embodies the physical university experience many young people are missing out on. The perfect historical temperature has given these subcultures the conditions to flourish.
So, I ask myself, how do these differ from subcultures from twenty or more years ago? How did the previous generations experience subculture, compared with young people today? Today, subcultures have been far more inclusive. From listening to several oldies and not-so-oldies, groups back then sounded monolithic as though they performed like a clique. To someone so conditioned by the connectedness of the modern online world, it seems that to be part of something niche before social media, you were either huddled up in a forum on the internet or in a small group of outsiders who shared your music, fashion, and political tastes. I acknowledge my tendency towards comparing the interlinked world we have now to the internetless one before the nineties has shaped my perspective here. I should state that this is merely from hearing other experiences that I have not lived, where everything was closer-to-home, compact, and completely and utterly alien to me.
What is not alien to me is the 21st century. “Goth” and “Emo” subcultures were adopted in direct conflict with mainstream standards — the identities, originating from 80s Gothic, punk, and rock scenes, aimed to fixate on the dark, the morbid, and deep emotions. By the 2000s, online subculture boomed among teenagers, with Goth branching out into Emo and Scene identities positioned in conflict with mainstream fashion ideals. For the first time, kids on MySpace could view other kids on MySpace who dressed like them, liked the same music as them, and held the same labels.
With the popularity of the internet, by the late 2000s these alt styles and other alternative interests had leaked into the mainstream. The exposure of gaming, nerd culture, and anime were inevitably popularised throughout the online decade of the 2010s through YouTube videos and internet forums. Even Goth and Emo, which used to be labeled as “freak” aesthetics before my adolescent years, have integrated their visual aesthetics into the E-Girl subculture, a style popularised by TikTok in the late 2010s.
Picture yourself in a rustic charity shop. The air is old, but incensed, and takes you to another place in time. Every item engulfing you has been worn or used, some even over fifty years old. Each piece is unique with its own story. That is what picking out an aesthetic in this day and age feels like.
I must reinstate that subcultures differ from aesthetics. However, the subcultures seen today such as E-Kids and Cottagecore, all root in internet aesthetics. The market for these subcultures have diluted, blurred the distinction between strictly subculture and strictly aesthetic, making it easier than ever before to wear one style one day and toss it the next for another.
Even though aesthetics may not be inherently attached to political ideas, they can be used to adapt political messages, especially on YouTube. The Leftube video-essay, as seen with popular creators such as Philosophy Tube and Contrapoints, features double-entendre skits, theatrical lighting and costumes to convey leftist ideas. This then dramatises the video-essay medium into something more of entertainment as well as education. These components can be seen in smaller creators such as Jordan Theresa, Ms. Lola, and Angie Speaks. The video essays take on the style of blog-posts with their expositions and critical analysis, except steeped in coloured lighting, portraying a visual journey through these critical ideas. Instead of the aesthetics themselves as inherently political, these essays adapt theatric and cinematic effects to convey political ideas. The signs and symbols themselves lose their collective meaning, and the surge in reclaiming something to represent something else has taken the lilac spotlight.
In my short life spanning barely twenty years, I sense a predominant self-awareness in my peers. We are ironic; we make a parody of semiotics and renew everything into our own little aesthetic haven. This may be a transitory phase in history. It may even dissolve once we pass our twenties. But what is obvious is that this is our way of healing. With everyone prattling on about the unprecedented future, we naturally look to the past to revive a rose-tinted image more beautiful than reality ever was. Nostalgia is beyond a sentimental emotion. It is a coping mechanism.
In our heads, we have hit our rock bottom. Even the dullest of past eras look promising to us. We are under the crushing illusion that it cannot get any worse, that we are in the direst point in history. And there is validity to that feeling; after all, it is a feeling, and as long as it creates something beautiful, I will continue to stay wrapped up in my headspace, lounging about in my dated clothes and dated songs clouding the room. But there needs to be a hole in that cloud to see the light. After all, this all spawned from darkness. As long as I can see the light. As long as I can breathe, I will continue to choose a path where everything is beautiful.