The underground as the new mainstream

Introducing music as the center of youth counterculture

Robert Showah
Opinion Editor

It was the mainstream music industry’s biggest night, the 53rd annual Grammy Awards.

Everyone arrived either at the Staples Center in Los Angeles or at their television sets with expectations. Even the press and league of superficial blonde women who host those entertainment shows had expectations. So entrenched within their own bubble, these people would have scoffed at the idea that an artist with whom the establishment was not familiar could win the evening’s largest honor.

Yet that is what happened when Arcade Fire became the first artist on an independent record label to win Album of the Year.

Last semester, I wrote a column about the new youth subculture that has rapidly developed over the past five years and how it is defined largely by a rebirth of the hipster subculture that boomed in the 1960s. This time I want to take that same conversation and apply it to how “the underground” – or the world of indie music, art, fashion and culture – is becoming the new mainstream and how we all will deal with it.

It is difficult to say that this subculture has not made a huge impact. Arcade Fire’s humble and perfectly anticlimactic acceptance speech indicated not only their genuine love of music, but their reluctance to embrace a reward that is seen by their listeners as meaningless. This was demonstrated perhaps when Win Butler, Arcade Fire frontman, carelessly placed his Grammy on top of an amp just before beginning another song.

Arcade Fire’s victory is another crack in the glass ceiling, a small indication and reminder of the times we now live in. It reminds us that the youth of today are not the same as they were 15 or even 10 years ago and that a shift in youth subculture is gaining momentum rapidly. The problem lies in how members of the mainstream and members of the underground are adapting to this change: of which the music industry lies at the center as the biggest influence in youth culture.

If the mainstream represents music for profit and the underground represents music for pleasure, then the mainstream has been dealing with this youth subculture shift since the beginning of the decade when Napster allowed everyone to share music for free.

Soon after, the underground started to shake when indie artists started appearing on more iPods and venue schedules. Those artists would almost inevitably reach the threshold where they would be branded “sell-outs” for gaining mass followings.

These challenges both sides have faced, and continue to face, have now only been exacerbated. How so? Because of the social-networking, file-sharing and telecommunications boom, music is easier to access through various means at cheaper prices relative to 12 years ago. This has made the mainstream far more vigorous in their attempts to turn a profit. One way they’ve been able to do that is by introducing artists with different sounds, like Lady Gaga, who would have never existed in the mainstream 10 years ago and is a star today because of the youth subculture’s championing of unconventionalism.

While the underground is gaining more followers by promoting a healthier music environment that encourages people to listen to music as an art rather than as a popularity contest or profit goal, it has conversely and perhaps inadvertently turned many of its listeners into pretentious assholes.

The more mainstream exposure certain indie bands receive, the more angered members of the underground turn to even more obscure artists to get their fix. This ultimately gets to the point where members of a subculture, which once seemed to promote the idea of accepting people for who they are, instead become overtly superficial and paranoid about how everyone is trying to be exactly like them.

Everyone within the underground will have to come to terms with the fact that nobody was born the way the youth act today. Everyone made the choice to wear flannel, grow beards and listen to Arcade Fire because it is all a trend that gets into some people’s heads more than others. Within the last five years, we’ve milked irony for all its worth. Now, it almost doesn’t mean anything.

While I am no fan of the sweeping and condescending generalizations professors make in the classroom, one whom I’ve had said, half-kidding, “You all think you are different, but you all dress the same, talk the same, listen to the same music. You’re being different together.”

As long as we all continue to be different together, we’ll end up more or less the same – stuck in the middle of a trend that will inevitably end in a totally different place than where it began.

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