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21 August 2023
This month's topic: Dissident communitiesResident Editor: Pilar Cruz


Three Notes on Subculture

Bricolage, Style and Exile

On February 2, 1979, Anne Beverley found the lifeless body of her 21-year-old son, Simon John Ritchie, in the apartment he shared with his girlfriend in New York’s Greenwich Village. A heroin overdose, the coroner concluded. A few days later, a suicide note from Simon was made public in which he claimed to have sealed a death pact with his former partner, Nancy Spungen, stabbed to death four months earlier and of whose murder he was accused. In the note, he asked to be buried in his leather jacket, blue jeans, and motorcycle boots. Simon John Ritchie did not want to die as Simon John Ritchie, he wanted to die as Sid Vicious, his subcultural alter ego, his mythic “I”.

Leather jackets, jeans, and biker boots were around long before Sid Vicious, but the previous connotations of these garments were different, they meant something other than what Simon John Ritchie thought about them. It took a radical reformulation of their iconic values to insert them into the punk imaginary, to turn them into a style.

Essential in the subcultural construction of meanings, style responds to a process of fetishization of goods and attitudes that identify, distinguish and isolate. The adoption of a specific type of clothing, hairstyle, slang, or violence draws the dialectical line between “us” and “them.” Like a uniform or a flag, it manifests adherence to a group and creates opposites and enemies: police and thieves, rich and poor, hippies and skinheads. Also like uniforms and flags, subcultural style involves a “self-inflicted exile” (Hebdige, 2004: 15), a dramatic distancing from all that is “outside” its frame by means of an emblem. In the case of Sid Vicious, however, the demarcation is not supported by the invention of new icons, but rather by the idiosyncratic combination of pre-existing elements (leather jacket, jeans, motorcycle boots) and their symbolic resignification. This kind of pop detournement, this bricolage, according to the definition of Claude Lévi-Strauss (given that “[it] does not operate with raw materials but with already elaborated materials, with fragments of works, with leftovers and pieces”), allows the organization of mythological thought that confers identity to a subculture.

A Certain Glitch

Sid Vicious was the Other “I” of Simon John Ritchie because Sid Vicious could not replace Simon John Ritchie, just as subculture cannot replace hegemonic culture (hereinafter, Culture in capital letters), because its very existence depends on it. It is a wild fruit, a spontaneous resonance of its productions, the same ones that encourage the weaving together of the binding affinities of subcultural groups: music, fashion, comics, cinema.

Subculture externalizes the anxiety of a community in the face of insufficient hegemonic values to fully satisfy its desires. Thus, the character of a subcultural group is based on its degree of uprooting, on the degree of tension with the outside, with “them.” However, the tension is never resolved by an extreme break. Subculture is neither countercultural nor purposeful beyond the limits of the outside, because its essential base (Culture, the outside) enters into contradiction with the possibility of a beyond, an outside of the outside. Although subverted, subculture is signified by a consumption of merchandise similar to that of Culture, perceived as the only feasible way to approach “the resolution of tensions–that happiness by default” (Baudrillard).

Although not entirely, since academic performance and job learning are value-generating activities, in the second half of the 20th century youth established itself as an age group exempted from productive obligations. Adolescents had more leisure time than adults, a time without responsibilities and needs, understood as a space for free choice. But leisure is “a relative freedom” (Clarke, 1993), insofar as it conforms to a predefined structure, and the supposed autonomy of the set of decisions that give it meaning is restricted to the offer of available options. It is not just merchandise but also the spaces, hours of the day and even the relational behaviors between subjects that are limited and regulated. Within this simulacrum of youth leisure freedom, the simulacrum of subcultural subversion is articulated by the performativization of a certain disengagement.

The seductive power of a subculture exists precisely within the promise of this performance of otherness, in the opportunity to inhabit a reversible (one can ignore a subcultural group whenever one feels like it) and elastic (one can participate in different subcultures over time) imbalance. Even so, the slight dislocation of Culture that subculture implies carries with it a partially destabilizing capacity that should not be underestimated. By approaching the margin, a subcultural experience leaves a trace behind its existence, a trace of conscience that, if not revolutionary, is at least critical. It is a glitch, a non-permanent error in the system that, at the very least, reveals its imperfection.

A Different Kind of Tension

In Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), a decisive text in the consolidation of cultural study as an analytical discipline and a reference to youth subculture phenomena, Dick Hebdige institutionalized the idea of the direct relationship between subcultural self-organization and the concerns and aspirations of working-class youth (Webb, 2020), an idea that would influence later Marxist authors such as Phil Cohen and Stuart Hall. This theory, however, becomes invalid in the 21st century for various reasons.

In the first place, and assuming that the working class as historically defined continues to exist in the third millennium (after Francis Fukuyama’s so-called End of History, Tony Blair’s New Labor, and the emergence of the precariat as an inter-class social segment), the conceptualization of a stratified and singular sensibility, typical of the working class, is difficult to defend. The online circulation of the majority of already disembodied cultural goods and the quasi-free access to them has blurred the need to choosemarked by the economic obstacles that in the past facilitated the delimitation of subcultural spaces. Young people are no longer forced to choose one genre of music over another, one information source over another, one style over another, depending on their purchasing power, because all genres, all information and all styles are available for the price of a mobile phone and an internet connection.

Secondly, and in relation to the previous point, the differences in leisure activities between young people from different social backgrounds have become blurred due to the productive demand of the platforms where they spend their free time. Social networks treat their users as prosumers, both producers and consumers of content. Class is unimportant, for in the world of posts, tweets and stories, everyone is a leisure worker, and thus the quality of their entertainment depends on their creative work.

Third and last, and transcending the question of class, in the 21st century the notion of youth has undergone a fundamental modification, mostly because its opposite, adulthood, has disappeared. In a socioeconomic context submerged in permanent uncertainty and instability, where nothing (work, home, identity, affective relationships) is secure nor lasts forever, the accumulation of insecurities typical of adolescence has spread beyond the age boundaries of youth, thus destroying much of what it means to be an adult. It is difficult to discern between youthful elders and elderly youths, even within secular subcultures currently populated by a growing presence of biological adults.

As a result of such transformations, talking about youth subculture today would seem to require a comprehensive rethinking of subcultural ethos and its raison d’être. However, a look at the state of things through the appropriate contemporary filter allows us to see how, in reality, the “subcultural drive,” to put it that way, the tendency of some subjects to resist the attacks of Culture at certain levels of their production, that is, to performativize a certain disengagement, is analogous to that of the rockers of 1955, the mods of ‘63 and the punks of ‘76. The most noticeable difference lies in the replacement of the material style fetish with an abstract emblem. The stylistic insignia of new subcultures, such as the Culture they consume online, are immaterial and delocalized, and almost all are related to identity and gender, such as LGTBIQ+ youth groups and the way in which they project themselves and relate publicly, and, at the opposite pole, the increasingly influential misogynistic subcultures, such as incels, that populate the internet.


BAUDRILLARD, J. (2009). La sociedad de consumo. Sus mitos, sus estructuras.Madrid. Siglo XXI.
CLARKE, J. (2014). “Estilo”. En Stuart Hall y Tony Jefferson (Eds.), Rituales de resistencia. Subculturas juveniles en la Gran Bretaña de postguerra.Madrid. Traficantes de Sueños, pp 271-291.
HEBDIGE, D. (2004).Subcultura. El significado del estilo.Barcelona. Paidós.
LÉVI-STRAUSS, C. (1997). El pensamiento salvaje. Santafé de Bogota. Fondo de Cultura Económica.
WEBB, P. (2020). “Introduction”. En Keith Gildart et al. (Eds.), Hebdige and subculture in the Twenty-First Century: Through the subcultural lens.Londres. Palgrave Macmillan.

Oriol Rosell (Barcelona, 1972) is a teacher, member of the electronic punk band Dead Normal and creator of the podcast/blog Tácticas de Choque. Since 2018 he has been in charge of the section on non-fiction literature La Biblioteca Inflamable, in the programme Territori Clandestí on RTVE-Ràdio 4. In previous lives he has worked in cultural journalism, music production for dance, theatre and performance and curating, among other things. In 2024 he will publish “Un cortocircuito formidable”, an essay on the meanings of noise in pop music.
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