Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Pendulum That is Mainstream Counter Culture

Any time a stable culture is established, there's bound to be some form of counter culture to go with it. While most true counter cultures remain stable and unknown by the public at large, there has always been a (excuse the somewhat oxymoronic phrase here) mainstream counter culture as well, usually centered around a certain genre of music. A lot of people have written these off as fads that kids in their teens and early twenties go through to blow off steam, and I whole-heartedly agree, but what I would disagree on is that these cultures are completely unrelated. By noticing certain trends in these cultures, I think that there's somewhat of a pendulum effect taking place. That is, each culture is almost the polar opposite of the one before it. I'm going to start in the 80's simply because I don't know very much about the music of the decades before it, but I'm willing to bet the same arguments hold true.

Hair Metal

Twisted Sister - I Wanna Rock
Note: Explicit stage banter

The 80s have always held the reputation of being big, loud, and excessive, and it's corresponding fad is no exception. As you can see, there was a lot of show to go along with the band's music. Besides the hair, which bands can thank for the genre's namesake, brightly colored spandex and explosive pyrotechnics were the norm. Concerts were high energy affairs, complete with members running every which way around the stage and shouting at their audiences, in between songs about booze, sex and rock and roll.


Nirvana - Jesus Don't Want Me For a Sunbeam

In Seattle, Washington, in the late 80s, bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains were forming. Then, in 1991, Nirvana's 'Nevermind' album came out, lead by the single 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' and grunge was officially thrust into the mainstream, with Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain unwillingly placed in the captains' seat. Perhaps the most noticeable swing of the pendulum, grunge truly was everything hair metal wasn't. Gone was the flash of their performance, instead you merely had a group of guys playing on stage. No explosions, no props, no costumes. Sure, people will point to torn jeans, flannel shirts and poor hygiene as the "uniform" of grunge, but that wasn't a conscious choice, it was just what these guys wore. The lyrics had also undergone a significant change, however, unlike most other counter cultures, there was no set lyrical themes from band to band, although drugs and despair tended to pop up pretty frequently. The stage banter had also been radically toned down, as the rock star screaming had been replaced with calm dialogue, often cracking jokes with the crowd.

Nu Metal

Mudvayne - Death Blooms

Note: Explicit lyrics/stage banter
In the mid 1990s, grunge was winding down. Like hair metal before it, the scene had become so flooded that the genre had become a mere parody, and it was time for something new to take its place. That something was nu-metal. Arguably pioneered by the band, Korn, one of the most popular bands in the genre, it was also known for bands such as Slipknot, Linkin Park and Mudvayne. The low key approach that grunge took was replaced by the same high energy, visual based approach that hair metal took, except nu metal was much darker, often taking the stage in horror themed get-ups, complete with masks and face paint, and the fans followed suit, popularizing the 'goth' style. Long or spiked hair, extremely baggy pants, trenchcoats, light makeup (all of which was black), adorned ninety five percent of crowds at any given show. The music itself had become extremely aggressive. Riffs made almost entirely of power chords were the norm, and complimented the vocal approach, which were now a mix of both clean and harsh (a guttural roar that most non-fans simply call 'screaming') styles, perfectly. Most lyrics stemmed from relationships gone awry, with anger being the most common emotion. Even songs not explicitly about relationships were mostly angry.


My Chemical Romance - Helena

About the time I graduated high school, nu metal was already being phased out, and emo was taking hold. This shift might be the smallest swing of the pendulum yet, however, it's still noticeable. At first glance, fashion hasn't changed too much, black is still the dominant color, but it has taken on more of a feminine/vaudeville theme to it. Indeed, most guys in the emo scene started wearing girls clothes and heavy makeup. The true pendulum swing comes in the music. While anger, the heart of nu metal, is an emotion that can rally a person into action, albeit possibly irrationally, the opposite would be despair, which is a crippling emotion. Songs were devoted to the misery of freshly broken hearts, the depression that results in individuals locking themselves away in their rooms feeling nobody understands their pain. Likewise, the aggression and "screaming" in the music was replaced with an almost wailing vocal approach, which suited the lyrical content quite well, and on stage performances have been radically calmed from the organized chaos that made up nu metal concerts. An interesting thing about the emo culture is that while the argument could be made that each genre had shifted back and forth from left to right, this is the first time it had gone to this extreme. Indeed, emo tends to be extremely liberal, especially in its views of homosexuality and militarism.

So what does the future hold? Well, I'm guessing that there will be a return to a more aggressive lyrical themes. Songs about relationships will no longer be about heartbreak; but will they return to the anger of nu metal or the sexual conquest themes of the 80s? Maybe it will go a less extreme route and simply be about the recovery itself. Rock group Three Days Grace already has quite a songs about moving on after failed relationships. This would be my best hypothesis, especially since it lines up with my prediction for the future culture's fashion. Considering such a heavy emphasis has been put on fashion for the last two swings, I'm predicting that an almost grunge-esque non-fashion will accompany it. As it turns out, about the time I'm guessing this next swing makes it big, my youngest brother will be right about that age; guess I found my guinea pig.

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