Lil’ B Will Save Us All

Here is a popular narrative about the state of subcultures today: The internet killed them all. The odd or extreme groups that flourished in the 70s and 80s and 90s, the ones that gave us hardcore and no-wave, mods and rockers and, eventually, hip hop and house are, in the 00s, gone. They’ve been replaced with internet memes and viral videos that catch on quickly and burnout just as fast. If the 20th Century was a primordial ooze of subculture microorganisms combining and recombining and gelling together into massive life-forms, then today’s tiny world is a petri-dish, home to one fungal bloom after another.

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyways. And although there have, arguably, been a few 21st-century subcultures (DIY, foodie, hipster, maker, gamer, cosplay) none of them really caused the moral panic that a real subculture should. None of these could ever hope to offend a previous generation the way that the hippies or punks or hip hop ever did. There could be several reasons as to why subcultures today are kinda weak, and here are a few: (1) Subcultures ‘blow up’ too quickly through online exposure they don’t have time to gestate in the dark corners of CBGBs or the back alleys of Seattle or Washington DC. (2) People are too busy and entertained with new technology and old things that are new again. I mean, why should we develop a brand-new form of cultural expression when the entire catalog of 1920s Iraqi folk music (or 70s soul) is, all of the sudden, completely available? (3) Easy forms of humor that lend themselves to instantaneous media, including outrage, snark, irony and general self-awareness make earnest forms of expression too easy to ridicule.

Then there’s the bigger change that the Internet (and, just as importantly, the cellphone) has accomplished: almost everyone on earth today has a common language. Five spoken and a dozen machine languages will let you communicate with just about anyone or anything on the planet, and English alone will probably suffice. For all that we gain by increasing our ability to communicate with each other over vast distances, we lose the local and geographic quirks. We are in the process of forgetting all the different ways to say ‘snow’ in Eskimo, not to mention how to express emotion in Lule Samii. It’s also why a lot of cities, all over the world, are starting to look a lot more like each other and a lot less like themselves. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a thing. Something has been gained and something else, lost.

Whatever the reasons, the last major cultural breakthrough in the US, Hip Hop, was also the last pre-internet domestic culture grown from scratch. And we’re long overdue for something new. Kurt Anderson, in a Fukuyama-like end-of-history kind of manner, even went so far to suggest that cultural progress is effectively over in a piece for Vanity Fair, citing as proof the fact that people today wear the same clothes they did 20 years ago.

There’s no question that the internet has changed everything. But, from a cultural point of view – when it comes to music or fine art or fashion, it sometimes feels like we are stuck. Like we got the end of the tech tree sometime over the last 100 years or so and now we’re just filling in the corners. But there’s also an outside chance that things are about to get freaky again.

The generation that’s coming of age at the moment doesn’t know a world without networks. They don’t remember a world before wikipedia, when you would never know what music was popular in South Africa, let alone be able to watch it on youtube. And, incredibly, this generation is still bored. How great is that? While my generation sits awestruck, over-stimulated by Mad Men internet dating, the ‘digitally native’ are getting bored, getting weird and discovering confusing things to do.

Musicians like Lil’ B and OFWGKTA are doing things that are difficult to classify. Seriously: I don’t get Lil’ B at all – he genuinely confuses me and I can’t remember the last time I was confused by new music. I honestly couldn’t tell you if his music is any good or not, but I do know that he has a ton of passionate fans… It sure looks as though a subculture is being created in front of our very eyes. For some other examples, Google ‘sad rap’ and prepare yourself for a rewarding musical rabbit hole, or check out ‘design fictions’ and the new aesthetic blog for similar freshness in storytelling and fine art, respectively. It’s possible that it just took a while, but subcultures are developing resistances to being out in the open. The secret clubs of the 1980s are being replaced by the inside jokes and hidden meanings of the 2010s. So while only time will tell whether the teenagers tomorrow will still look like the teenagers of today, I’d put money that the worm is starting to turn.

At midnight on the A train to Brooklyn a couple nights ago, a group of high-schoolers held an impromptu poetry reading. There was a moment there, as we barreled beneath the East River between Fulton Street and York, when a sixteen year-old poet held court to a group of random, weary New York night-owls. His poem spoke about a girlfriend of his who was sexually abused by her uncle, and how hard that was on their relationship. When he finished, one of his suspender-wearing companions snapped his fingers, beatnik style, as the other commuters clapped or offered encouragement or ignored it all and his colleague stood in the center of the car and began a new poem.

I have lived in New York all my life, and I’ve never seen anything like this before. I think the kids are getting weird again.

– Aziz Isham CEO & Co-Founder of reKiosk

Twitter – @arcadesunshine


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