What Happened to Youth Culture?

What Happened to Youth Culture?



Photo by Le 21ème

This year amidst the usual barrage of “news” about collaborations, must-cop listicles, and the importance of Dad sneakers, a few articles in the press aimed at fashion and streetwear actually tried to address something worthwhile, namely, what’s happening to today’s youth, specifically in the cultural space, and even more specifically as it relates to style. One was from Chris Wallace in the Business of Fashion, lamenting our shallow age of image-is-everything, lambasting millenials for using politically empowering potential of social media to build their personal “brands” and fake lives instead, and taking aim at contemporary youth culture icons, rightfully portraying them as shills for big business whose first order of the day is not cultural production but the selling of their image as tastemakers.

Even more relevant were two others, courtesy of Jian DeLeon at Highsnobiety and one by Jason Dyke at Hypebeast, questioning the cultural value of contemporary streetwear world after the disaster of ComplexCon, the consumer-facing sneaker fair, where selling and reselling was front and center. Chris Wallace is a Gen-Xer who has contributed to the Paris Review and is an editor at the Interview, and the Business of Fashion does try to promote quality Op-Ed content (disclaimer: I sometimes contribute to it), and so this article seemed par for the course. The Highsnobiety and Hypebeast articles were more surprising, considering that the majority of what they publish is stuff of the variety mentioned in the opening sentence here (disclaimer: I sometimes contribute to Highsnobiety).

In the piece titled “Where Does Street Culture Go After ComplexCon,” DeLeon decried the unadulterated rampant consumerism that permeated the fair. Gone were any pretensions that kids went there to find community and bond over things they found culturally relevant. Taking aim at Complex, where he used to work, and at Highsnobiety itself, DeLeon wrote, “…we are just as complicit as our peers in turning a genuine love for product into a marketing demographic all too eager to cop whatever next hot release we cover.” He went on, “We live in an era where everything that can be commodified probably has been.”

There is nothing new in what DeLeon was saying, except admirable self-awareness. Ditto the Hypebeast article, which also pointed out that they are part of the problem, though in the article the most relevant comment came not from the author, but from a brand strategist named Paul Ruffles, who wondered out loud as to why the streetwear world still deludes itself that buying sneakers is somehow done because it’s culturally important. “We’ve built up this self-perpetuating, aggressive and quite shallow ‘culture,’” he said, as if underscoring the fact that we live in a sad landscape where the former values of youth culture have been completely co-opted by corporations and dished back out to the masses in the service of profit maximization, and betrayed by the cultural icons and the cool kids themselves who now shill for big business.

The first order of the day is to define what those cultural values are, as the term youth culture gets thrown around quite a lot. It’s a broad concept and, like culture itself, it can be divided into two things – culture as custom and culture as a value system. The two have long been perniciously conflated, and I’ve always found it suspect when people defend culture as custom. To take an extreme example, genital mutilation of young girls may be culture as custom, but it is abhorrent as a value system.

Since the ‘60s (and some corners of the ‘50s), and all the way through the ‘90s at least, the value system of youth culture, alternatively called counterculture, was categorized by rebellion against the values of the bourgeoisie, continuing the bohemian tradition that has been previously reserved for small artistic enclaves of similarly minded adults (see: modernism). The bourgeois values were fiery summed up by Rage Against the Machine in 1992, “Compromise! Conformity! Assimilation! Submission! Ignorance! Hypocrisy! Brutality! The elite!” And, of course, the bourgeoisie’s rampant consumerism, acquisitiveness, and their tendency to define themselves by the things they own.

Youth culture, as all culture does, came accompanied with its own modes of cultural production, of which music was the preeminent one. Jazz ceded supremacy to rock as the music of the youth. We all know the legends – the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Woodstock, and so on. Of course the look of rebellion had to change as well, because it seemed important to signal one’s values visually. It took the Beatles only a handful of years to shed their suits like old snakeskin. By the process of emulation, the youth culture aesthetic spread high and wide. What you wore was of course paramount to how you viewed the world.

This process of emulating one’s music idols has been pretty much the story of how the young who wanted to participate in youth culture have dressed ever since, from punk to goth, from hair-rock to heavy metal, from alternative to hip-hop. The values that those music genres espoused were often reflected in the clothes, which often reflected the music that still carried the disillusionment with society at large, from the deliberate frumpiness of Nirvana to the oversized workwear of the ’90s hip-hop, and so on. These forms of music and these forms of aesthetic were mainstream enough to be on MTV and on the radio.

Fast-forward to today and let’s take a quick look at what type of music dominates the youth culture landscape and drives the modes of aesthetic expression and of consumption. Mostly, it’s hip-hop. One admittedly crude and simplified streak of the values this genre espouses is the good old Veblenian conspicuous consumption – bourgeois value par excellence. Much of it simply boils down to enumerating one’s possessions and name-checking brands.

Since the ‘60s, corporations have typically, though not always, been a step behind youth culture, trying to capitalize on its patterns of consumption, viewing the changing tastes of the young as just another marketing demographic shift. And youth culture has for the most part been trying to move away from it. But by now either it has run out of moves or, what seems more evident, has turned to welcome capitalism with not just open arms, but a bear hug. This story is not new. Plenty of hippies turned into yuppies and made good money by packaging their cultural values into packets of Celestial Seasonings tea. And the corporations got pretty damn good at recognizing that.

What seems particularly dispiriting today is not only the enthusiastic embrace of capitalist values, but the insistence that all previous youth culture icons were phonies, because they also got rich. The common defense of today’s crass pursuit of profit is “at least we are honest,” and it’s a flimsy one. The cat-and-mouse game of capitalists chasing youth culture is over and has been over in some of our cultural corners for a while. In 1987 Russell Simmons took the executives of Adidas to a Run-DMC concert to show them the power of hip-hop. The stuffy Germans were skeptical of aligning themselves with something as unwholesome as rap, until this happened, as described in a 1992 issue of Black Enterprise magazine, “At a crucial moment, while the rap group was performing the song [“My Adidas”], one of the members yelled out, ‘Okay, everybody in the house, rock your Adidas!’ – and three thousand pairs of sneakers shot in the air. The Adidas executives couldn’t reach for their checkbooks fast enough.” And they haven’t stopped reaching since.

Still, since the ‘60s and through the time I was growing up in the ‘90s, the worst thing a youth culture icon could be accused of was “selling out.” When Woodstock 2 happened in 1994, it was roundly ridiculed as a for-profit spectacle that was trying to capitalize on the counterculture memory, while trampling it into dust. The same year William S. Burroughs starred in a Nike commercial, and caught significant flack for it. When Courtney Love decided to hang her junky alternative star hat, and glammed herself up for the fashion shows front row, Naomi Klein called her “the biggest sellout of the decade.” It’s hard to imagine someone like Kurt Cobain producing a line of sneakers and not be accused of losing integrity. As a matter of fact Courtney Love was widely reviled when in 2008 she licensed Nirvana lyrics and Cobain’s drawings to Converse, making a pretty penny along the way.

2008 was only ten years ago. But who could accuse a music star today of selling out when the entire point of contemporary culture is to sell? Forget Warhol and his quip about business as best art – we still don’t know if he was being ironic, but today’s stars aren’t. Today, making money has become the coolest thing to do and the likes of Kanye West and Rihanna are celebrated for pushing product.

Still, few critics dare say anything critical. Why is that? Since the ’60s, one of the more pernicious offences against pop culture was to be called “elitist.” To be elitist was to overlook the merits of jazz, rock, and cinema. But the charge of elitism has been so hammered into our postmodernist brains as to render meaningful criticism today virtually impossible. As culture we have gone from elitism to poptimism, championing all kinds of shlock. The arc of cultural criticism has gone from Theodor Adorno obtusely lambasting jazz to the New Yorker heaping praise on the simplistic, formulaic music of Beyoncé, and Cathy Horyn benevolently writing up Rihanna’s Fenty Puma show in New York magazine, lest – heaven forbid! – they are deemed elitist, or unhip, or accused of “not getting it.” Surely, we have overshot the target somewhere along the line?

Today, it takes something really obnoxious for a star to do to get pushback, like the time Kanye West kept editors for hours in the sun during his show, only to treat them to a display of immense mediocrity of his Yeezy “collection.” Even then the end consumer couldn’t care less, as his sneakers continued to fly off the shelves. Forget any cultural pretensions – this is consumption for consumption’s sake.

To be sure, some mode of consumption was always a part of youth culture. You can hardly get away from consumption, not if you want to look a certain way and live a certain way. The modes of consumption have gradually changed since the ‘60s. Initially, emulating your favorite musician’s style was not all that easy – a lot of what they were was custom-made or modified, and some time had to happen before say what the Sisters of Mercy wore would end up at Hot Topic. It was easier to emulate hip-hop, as rappers adopted readily available athletic wear and workwear that their blue-collar fathers wore. It took Adidas only a few months to unveil its new line of Run-DMC sneakers after that ’87 concert.

What we have today is a hyper-charged version of the above – a treadmill of sneaker collaborations, lines of “fashion” peddled by music stars, a youth culture gold rush. Supreme, the urban youth culture poster-boy of a brand, is now valued at a billion dollars and co-owned by Carlyle, a private equity group.

Yes, buying cool clothes has always been a mode of consumption. But there were also certain values attached to it that went above mere consumption, no matter how naïve they may seem. And, yes, those values were actively co-opted and even more importantly, adopted, by corporations. “The most startling revelation to emerge from the Burroughs/Nike partnership is not that corporate America has overwhelmed its cultural foes or that Burroughs can somehow remain ‘subversive’ through it all, but the complete lack of dissonance between the two sides. Of course Burroughs is not ‘subversive,’ but neither has he ‘sold out’: His ravings are no longer appreciably different from the official folklore of American capitalism. What’s changed is not Burroughs, but business itself. As expertly as Burroughs once bayoneted American proprieties, as stridently as he once proclaimed himself beyond the laws of man and God, he is today a respected ideologue of the Information Age, occupying roughly the position in the pantheon of corporate-cultural thought once reserved strictly for Notre Dame football coaches and positive-thinking Methodist ministers. His inspirational writings are boardroom favorites, his dark nihilistic burpings the happy homilies of the new corporate faith,” wrote Thomas Frank in his essay “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent.” This should sound familiar to all of us inundated by the stories of “disruptive” entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, those other cultural heroes of our time.

And yet, the levels and modes of consumption by today’s youth is still somehow couched in cultural terms, and that’s what DeLeon questioned in his Highsnobiety piece. And I don’t buy the idea of “it’s always been like that; at least we are honest” for a second. There was a level of authenticity and connection to the values of youth culture in the work of Vivienne Westwood, Ann Demeulemeester, Jun Takahashi, and Takahiro Miyashita, even though they were also at the helm of successful businesses. What I see now in Yeezy, Fenty Puma, Supreme, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Off-White, and Vetements is mostly mercenary cynicism and self-defeating irony.

I have few illusions left on the efficacy of impact of youth culture on politics, or societal order, or the capitalist economy. But at least we used to show our dissatisfaction with those things, particularly at the rampant materialism and the acquisitiveness of the bourgeoisie. Today’s youth culture, especially its music, not just engages in it – it celebrates it. So, let’s do this – either let’s drop all pretensions that today’s modes of fashion and streetwear consumption are still connected to youth culture as a value system, or let’s admit that the original values of youth culture are dead and the term “youth culture” is in dire need of redefinition. If all that’s left to us is to call things by their own name, let’s at least do that. And maybe, just maybe, this could be the beginning of something worthwhile.

About the author

Eugene Rabkin

Eugene Rabkin is the founder of stylezeitgeist.com. He has contributed articles on fashion and culture to The Business of Fashion, Vogue Russia, Buro247, the Haaretz Daily Newspaper, and other publications. He has taught critical writing and fashion writing courses at Parsons the New School for Design.


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