A Message to You
Subcultures are great. You gotta get
tattoos while you're still sure you'll like whatever you're
into right now for the rest of your life. That 40 year old
goth guy who still comes to all the parties? He's cool right?
He sure didn't sell out.
Subcultures are helplessly tied to
youth. It's fairly obvious, but the need to experiment with
and loudly proclaim alliegence to various identites usually
dies down by the time you've actually found your own.
As they go, I used to think the mod
subculture was the lamest, because it was the only one that
had no guts behind it. Usually you dress a certain way and
that represents some deeper set of beliefs. With mods, you
dress that way and that's the entire thing; it represents
that you like dressing that way. Now though I think that's
the coolest one. It's the only one that can possibly recognize
subtlety. You're sixteen, and to rebel, you dress impeccably.
But adults can still tell, you're not right.
There is also the subtle distinction
between a subculture and foreign culture. If you're really
into say, Japanese culture and punk, you can treat your approach
to them more or less the same while living in the US. The
only difference with the foreign culture is, there is an entire
country where it's not obscure; it's how everyone is. You
can actually go visit the land of your favorite subculture.
I have mixed feelings about the legitimate
study, research, and teaching of subcultures. I saw a guy
come in my building with a bunch of vinyl and I said "Oh
you've been on a spree?" and he said, "No I teach
a class." There was a Smiths record on top so I don't
know what he was trying to teach people, but for me, half
the fun was going out to shows and stores, discovering and
putting things together for myself. What makes a subculture
real and cool is that people are out there participating in
it. On the other hand I thought "Shit if that guy's teaching
a class on records, why not me?" It's a fine line is
all, between being interested in and participating in a subculture,
between researching and appreciating it and over-intellectualizing
and ruining it.
My subculture was ska. Over maybe seven
years and half as many bands ska went from something I had
to explain to something I had to apologize for. Still, I have
no regrets. Being sixteen at the peak of grunge's popularity,
discovering music that was fast and fun, yet obscure and in
direct contrast to what was popular, I was indeed ska'd for
life. And, like any good subculture, it made no sense! It's
this absurdly happy music, that skinheads love! What are skinheads,
crazy? But it pointed the way to so much more. Maybe you bought
Fishbone, the Mighty Mighty BossTones, the Specials, then
someone said, "Shit my friend, you must hear the Skatalites.
And did you know Bob Marley originally played ska?" So
you heard that stuff and all of the sudden you're a pussy
hair away from listening to "world music," because
music from the early 60's in Jamaica, sounds like music from
the early 60's in Jamaica. But it's great. The shit about
guns and rude boys is pretty dumb (although not as dumb as
when suburban white people did it 30 years
later), but the love songs are precious. And just one step
beyond all that is Mongo Santamaria, Lee Dorsey, the Impressions,
Stax -- it's enough to make you glad you weren't born in the
sixties, because you can figure all this out better with the
benefit of hindsight.
Ska was, for me, inextricably tied
to youth. Of course a genre in and of itself isn't good or
bad, bands are good or bad. And as more and more bad ska bands
sprang up, more and more people deduced that ska sucked. The
bands I was in benefitted when ska flirted with popularity,
and suffered when it was beat back to the dorky kids' table.
Lesson learned: don't participate in "movements,"
much less "revivals." It was not until I got older
and oh so much wiser that I realized just how uncanny the
timing was: ska and my youth died not with a bang, but with
a fart from a flat trombone.
Edgar Barrington is co-founder of The Modernist.
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