The 50th anniversary of England’s mod vs. rockers riots has inspired the current Mod Week here at Flavorwire, and as much as anything, the anniversary highlights a major difference between the musical subcultures of today and those of a couple of generations ago: that the fierce tribalism of the past seems to be absent from today’s cultural landscape. It’s hard to imagine #seapunks (if they still exist) and burners hurling deckchairs at one another, or pop-punk kiddies and goths having pitched battles over who gets to wear more guyliner. This, of course, is no bad thing — a riot is a riot, no matter whether it’s over politics or one’s preference for jazz over rock or Vespas over motorcycles. But still, it raises the question of why tribalism is in decline. Do kids these days care less about subculture? Or is it just that their allegiances manifest in different, less violent ways?
My gut feeling is that it’s a bit of both, but not for the reasons that Gen X types and boomers might expect. Much has been made of millennials’ alleged apathy and narcissism and blah blah blah — if you’re at all familiar with Flavorwire, you’ll know we don’t have a great deal of time for such generalizations. If there’s a difference between this generation and its predecessors, it’s not that today’s kids can’t be bothered with rioting because they’re too busy with their Playstations.
The key difference, I’d suggest, is that subcultures now are more numerous and less geographically based than they might have been in the past. As with many fundamental changes to our culture over the last couple of decades, you can link this back to the Internet — whereas once you’d associate almost solely with people in your town or neighborhood, the Internet gives you a far wider social circle. You can be on message boards and Tumblr and Twitter with people on the other side of the world who share your affection for a certain band or genre or aesthetic. You don’t have to hang with people who share your interests in person; indeed, you may very well be unable to.
This also means, curiously, that subcultures are more specialized than they used to be. If you look back to the 1960s, while to the general public the labels “mod” and “rocker” referred to monolithic, homogenous groups, in actuality they covered a pretty broad spectrum of tastes and ideas. One mod might prefer soul and another ska, but they were both grouped under the same label, and most likely saw themselves as part of a larger whole. This doesn’t happen so much these days; there’s pretty much inevitably going to be someone out there who shares your tastes, no matter how specialized or adventurous they are (see also: porn), so there’s less motivation to unify under a wide-ranging banner of people whose interests are sort of like yours. This means that instead of broad-ranging groups, the whole idea of subcultures these days is fragmented. With the fragmentation of culture comes the fragmentation of subculture, it seems. Instead of a couple of dominant subcultures, you have a million esoteric ones.
One side effect of what you might call subcultural homogeneity is a sort of binarization. Part of being in any sort of subculture is seeing yourself as part of something that doesn’t include the rest of the world; if there’s something that exists in active opposition to you, rather than the sort of passive opposition you meet from the world at large, then you have a pretty classic structuralist binary opposition. With it comes a temptation to define yourself as much in opposition to your rivals are as anything else. You can see this in gang culture, for instance, where the only functional differences between gangs are that A is not B, red is not blue; the difference between the limitless affiliated gangs in the US is that Bloods are not Crips, and vice versa. (Indeed, the very existence of the Bloods can be traced back to the Pirus in LA splitting from Crip affiliation; from the start, they’ve been defined in opposition to their eternal rivals.)
Amusingly (or depressingly, depending on your point of view), you can make a similar argument in relation to the major parties in plenty of two-party democracies these days; when the two parties are pretty much indistinguishable on substantive matters of policy, the difference starts to boil down to the fact that one isn’t the other. Take England’s “New” Labour party in the 2000s, for example, which largely abandoned the left-wing policies of its history and embraced a sort of post-Thatcherite Thatcherism; the result was that really the only difference between Labor and the Tories was that one party wore red ties and the other blue.
When you see yourself as part of a binary opposition, it’s natural that sooner or later you’ll come into conflict with the people on the other side of the equation. So it went, I expect, with mods and rockers. It needn’t be violent; anyone alive in the ’60s can probably tell you about the eternal Beatles-or-Stones debates, and for a while my generation divided along the lines of those who liked “techno” and those who didn’t. These debates never came to beachside riots, but there was definitely contempt from both sides of the fence for those on the other.
Such things still go on these days, of course. Even within a plurality of subcultures, there are going to be those whose tastes and tenets conflict. But I doubt we’ll ever see anything quite like the riots of 1964 again — and honestly, that’s a good thing. Because ultimately, all subcultures have more in common than they do in opposition. If you identify as part of a subculture, it’s probably because you don’t feel part of the mainstream — you’re alienated from the mainstream, you’re dissatisfied, you want to meet more people like you. If you’re laying into people who share that experience because they like different motorcycles, you’re missing the larger picture.