A Field Guide to the Musical Tribes of the 21st Century


Over the weekend, the Guardian published an opinion piece that asked the question, “Is tribalism in music dead?” The article was inspired by this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist, a suitably eclectic selection of 12 artists that ranged from King Creosote to Tinie Tempah to James Blake. It argues that the Internet has mitigated the once fiercely territorial tendencies of music nerds, and that these days we’re all totally happy to have Rihanna nestling next to Battles on our gym playlists. We’re not sure we really buy this idea — if anything, casual listeners might get exposed to a greater diversity of genres than they used to, but there will always be fans who are fiercely protective of “their” music and would be aghast at the idea of it ending up on the iPod of someone who just doesn’t get it, man. Join us as we indulge in some affectionate stereotyping of the tribes that still exist in the world of music. (And before you go crazy in the comments section, let’s just emphasize those last two words again: “affectionate stereotyping”.)


Characterized by: Long hair, black jeans, etc.

Often found: Headbanging

As we observed recently, metal fans are a breed apart. And, of course, there are myriad sub-genres within the world of metal — none of whom, we suspect, will be particularly amused with being lumped under one single heading. But if there’s one thing a black metal purist shares with a grindcore die-hard, it’s a singular dedication whatever genre that holds their affection. Metal isn’t something you dabble with; it’s a way of life. m/ m/

Hip-hop purists

Characterized by: Very baggy jeans, white singlet, Yankees hat

Often found: Shaking they damn heads

Rap’s always been big on credibility. The evolution of the genre over the years has slowly bred a tribe of hip-hop conservatives to whom the concept of “realness” is sacrosanct, and who long for the halcyon days of the 1980s and early ’90s. To these purists, anything that moves away from the old-school formula of a tongue-twisting rap over a sampled breakbeat is something that just ain’t keepin’ it real. You’ll know these types — they’re the ones who’ll argue passionately that Rakim is head and shoulders above any of today’s rappers, that Auto-Tune is “bullshit,” and that hip hop needs to take it back to the streets. And while we’re not usually fans of any sort of musical conservatism here at Flavorpill, listen to Gucci Mane or Soulja Boy and you have to admit… they do have a point.

Hardcore kids

Characterized by: Piercings, neck tattoos, startling youth

Often found: At all-ages shows, referring to the bands on stage by a complicated series of acronyms

One of the more interesting developments over the last decade has been the process by which hardcore has become the exclusive preserve of those in their teens. Punk has always attracted a youthful audience, of course, but even so, it’s kind of startling to go to one of these shows and realize you’re the only person there above the age of about 21. The denizens of this scene are fond of non-sequitur band names, shouting, and dyed fringes. (They’re often still referred to as “emos,” although doing so pretty much ensures the bedroom door being slammed in your face.)

Noise scene nerds

Characterized by: Cardigans, tinnitus

Often found: Drowning in a sea of feedback

There are people who take music seriously. There are people who take music very seriously. And then there are people who’ll sit and listen to feedback for hours on end, musing earnestly on its “color” and its “character.” The noise scene is a joyously nerdish place to be, a place where pretty much everyone you hang out with is in three bands and everyone turns up to everyone else’s show. Admittedly, you’ve got no money and you’ve had canned spaghetti for dinner the last three days running — but hey, Black Dice are playing tonight!


Characterized by: Faygo

Often found: In the suburbs, feeling alienated

Laugh all you like — but does your favorite band have an entire festival dedicated to it?

Jazz lovers

Characterized by: Tweed, use of the word “cat”

Often found: In the West Village, scat singing quietly to themselves

If The Mighty Boosh will be remembered for any one thing, it’s that it unleashed a long-overdue satire of jazz lovers in the form of Julian Barratt’s bumbling, tweed-clad Howard Moon. We’re not suggesting that all jazz fans are like this, of course — but if you’ve ever had your ear talked off at a party by someone comparing the relative virtues of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, you’ll admit that there’s at least a grain of truth in Moon’s character.

Psy-trance hippies

Characterized by: Hula hoops, dreadlocks, fire twirlers

Often found: On the beach as the sun goes down

These people are unique amongst today’s tribes in actually looking like a tribe (albeit one that’s stumbled across a cache of fluorescent paint that’s somehow fallen out of a plane into the jungle).

Reactionary baby boomers

Characterized by: Large bank accounts, mind-bogglingly expensive “hi-fi systems”

Often found: Arguing with anyone who says something nasty about The Beatles

If you’ve ever wondered who actually still buys CDs in 2011, look no further. This particular group of music fans is united by an underlying conviction that culture really did reach its high water mark at the end of the 1960s — just like Hunter S. Thomson described in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — and has been declining ever since. They’re the ones who’ll spend a small fortune on Beatles box sets, reminisce fondly about Woodstock, and talk earnestly about ’60s countercultural ideals (when they’re not checking on their stock portfolio, that is).


Characterized by: Black

Often found: Sitting quietly in the corner

Like metalheads, goths have been largely unchanged by passing years and passing trends. Much maligned and often misunderstood, they’ve been quietly occupying their corner of the musical world since the 1980s. It can’t be easy being a goth — the Tipper Gores of this world think you’re a Satanist, your friends’ parents regard you with palpable unease, and your wardrobe is awfully impractical during summer. And still, goths exist the world over. We once exchanged some emails with a very polite gentleman in Kolkata who called himself “The Dark Lord Morgoth.” Being a goth during the height of the monsoon? Now that‘s dedication.


Characterized by: A decade’s worth of Williamsburg stereotyping

Often found: Perpetuating a decade’s worth of Williamsburg stereotyping

We’re loath to include this here, because as far as we’re concerned, if “hipster” means anything at all these days, it’s more a stylistic designation than a musical one — generally, anyone who buys into hipster “culture,” such as it is, is too cool to actually admit to liking anything, musical or otherwise. But still, if you ask the average person to identify a musical subculture these days, the answer is likely to be “hipsters.” Dov Charney, you have a lot to answer for.