We are the mainstream culture. Lower your defenses and surrender. You will be assimilated. Your attempts at rebellion will be absorbed into our commercialism. Resistance is futile!
For that angsty high schooler in your life, Walmart is now selling a bunch of Banksy knockoffs. Most ironically, one print is titled, “Destroy Capitalism”. Another print of a work by street artist Eddie Callo that Walmart mistook for a Banksy featured the words, “If you want to achieve greatness,…
As I sat here today writing a section about underground music for my forthcoming novel, I thought back to something a friend of mine reblogged here on tumblr. It was about women being marginalized in emo. I personally did not even realize that the genre was all that big any longer. Nonetheless, looking at underground music, indie rock, emo, or whatever the hell you choose to call it, I had some thoughts about this whole marginalization business.
Try to put marginalization to one side of your brain for a moment and simple observe the larger social dynamics of “the scene”. In my many years of experience observing and being a part of “underground music” the one reoccurring theme I have observed is elitism. This might come as a bitter, jagged pill to the people heavily invested in it, but try to be honest with yourself anyway.
Not every fan of underground music is an elitist. Rather, it happens to be a subculture which attracts elitist like shit attracts flies. Sexism, racism and homophobia may be components in marginalizing certain people from “the scene”. However, it runs deeper than that. When you subtract those elements from the equation, you still have elitism. Why are you not instantly embraced with open arms into the culture of underground music? Is it because you are a women? Perhaps. But then again, if everyone was accepted as part of the group, how would elitist douche bags feel special?
Ever met that person that stopped liking a band the moment they became popular? Yes, you have. You might be some random internet person I have never met and know nothing about, but what I do know is human behavior. So I know you have met that person, because they are everywhere. Underground music is a haven for those people. If a band is only playing for 10 people in someone’s basement or living room, then they are obscure almost by default.
The ethos of underground music is often defined in opposition to the mainstream. Simply watch an interview with the pioneers of punk rock. By their telling, punk rock started because they got sick of hearing overproduced 70s rock albums with too many guitar solos. Their lack of talent and poor production quality was a badge of honor. Spent a million dollars recording in a state of the art studio? Well fuck you, we recorded on a four track in our basement.
Think about the terms “sellout” and “poseur” and how often they are used in musical subcultures. These are terms used to define in group/out groups boundaries. Elitism is simply a part of these subcultures. Do not expect to be instantly accepted within a group that defines itself by exclusivity.
Do not mistake me here. I am not denying that women are often regarded as second class participants within music. It definitely happens. What I am trying to draw your attention to is the bigger picture. Even if you are a white, heterosexual male, do not expect to be greeted with open arms in musical subcultures. There is an unwritten code of dogmas certain people will expect you to adhere to before you win their acceptance.
I think this is an issue that should be addressed beyond the scope of the social justice warrior crowd. This sort of behavior is not only annoying and marginalizing, but it also becomes self-defeating at times. This is especially true in smaller scenes that struggle to maintain the critical mass necessary to perpetuate. When people don’t feel welcome, they stop showing up, and when they do that, the scene suffers.
For the record, I for one do not think that my local scene is a huge offender in this area, but on the other hand, I don’t pay close attention. Nonetheless, I think underground music needs to seriously rethink some of the mentality it inherited from punk rock. DYI has come to mean using obsolete equipment and distribution methods because god forbid we try!
Some of the people I know (and they know who the fuck they are) have come to the conclusion that the best way to get their music to the public in the 21st century is with a medium that has been obsolete for decades. I am speaking of course of cassette tapes. Some claim it is the way their music is “meant to be heard” and that it gives their music more “authenticity”. I regret to inform you that such people are thinking of their fans or potential fans as people just like themselves. Namely, poor punk rockers too busy buying dime bags to save money for a MP3 player and using equipment that bought for $1 at a thrift store. This conflation of music fandom with technology is asinine. The reality is that there are people growing up that have never used a cassette player, or simply do not own one. You may think it makes your music more intimate and exclusive to put it onto a cassette. You may think it cheapens music to make it widely available. And you may doubtlessly find an audience of people that will agree with you and enable your mail order cassette tape distribution system. But you are being elitist, and so are they. The majority of people are not listening to cassette tapes and more and more people are throwing away their old cassette players by the day.
Jesus said “do not hide your light under a basket”. To not get with the times and use every means available to you to reach an audience is to hide your light under a basket. Your recordings are not better because you did not invest the time and effort into their production quality. You are not going to go down in history as underground rock legends because no one ever heard of you. The impulse to voluntary obscurity is just thinly veiled elitism. What would stick it to the record companies more than to succeed without them? But at some point it would seem that success itself became the enemy, regardless of how you succeed.
I personally despise the entire Luddite, anti-technology, backwards looking trend that enthralls underground music. This sort of identity-through-opposition does not make your music better. And for the love of god, please spare me your pseudo-technical arguments. Analog does not sound warmer because it captures some aspect of the sound that digital does not. It is something being added to the sound by the medium. Want your digital recording to sound warmer? There is a plug-in for that!
But again, it’s an elitist smoke screen. These hang ups about technology are just a way of demarcating the lines of who is a true fan and who is a poseur. “Real fans” listen to music on cassette tapes and vinyl they got through mail order because that’s what people did back in the day. Unlike these stupid kids these days with their Ipods or whatever. Technology was perfected before I was born, so why move forward? The idea seems to be that by going against the grain, you are special and different. Everyone else is listening to MP3s? Well then I am putting out my new album on tape!
So long as underground music is about defining yourself against something and exclusivity, then it will be elitist and marginalize people. It need not be this way. It is just an attitude that should be rooted out. Music would be better for it. How likely that is to happen is another matter altogether, because it is the elitist mentality that draws some people to the underground music scene to begin with. They were unpopular dorks that probably got picked on and beat up in middle school, but now they have found the place where they get to be the cool kid, and god help anyone they perceive as an interloper…
I think that few people have bettered the critique of underground music scenes given by The Dead Kennedys in their song ChickenShit Conformists off their album Bedtime For Democracy. So I will end with a quote from that:
“Punk’s not dead It just deserves to die When it becomes another stale cartoon. A close-minded, self-centered social club, Ideas don’t matter It’s who you know. If the music’s gotten boring it’s because of the people who want everyone to sound the same. Who drive the bright people out of our so-called scene till all that’s left is a meaningless fad.”
For many, it’s easier, or at least more comforting, to approach these problems as intractable. They’re just too complex and would involve levels of agreement, cooperation, and coordination that seem beyond the capacity of humans at this stage in our cultural evolution, anyway. So in lieu of doing the actual hard work of fixing these problems in the present, we fantasize instead about life afterward. The crisis of global warming morphs into the fantasy of living off the grid. The threat of a terrorist attack on our office tower leads us to purchase an emergency personal parachute for easy egress, and to wonder how far up the org chart we might be promoted once everyone else is gone. The collapse of civilization due to nuclear accident, peak oil, or SARS epidemic finally ends the ever-present barrage of media, tax forms, toxic spills, and mortgage payments, opening the way to a simpler life of farming, maintaining shelter, and maybe defending one’s family.
The hardest part of living in present shock is that there’s no end and, for that matter, no beginning. It’s a chronic plateau of interminable stresses that seem to have always been there. There’s no original source to blame and no end in sight. This is why the return to simplicity offered by the most extreme scenarios is proving so alluring to so many of us.