On Internet Subcultures & PC Music (Part I): A Review

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Contact Info: I would love to hear from you if you have questions & comments or would like to draw upon & cite material from this post. My email address is e dot c dot k dot spencer at bham dot ac dot uk.


Here at Birmingham, we have access to the archives of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), which was founded in 1964 by Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart before going on to play a pivotal role in the development of British cultural studies prior to its closure in 2002. Although it is now nearly twenty years since the ‘end’ of the CCCS, its impact on the early phases of popular music studies is still emphasised in much undergraduate teaching, while the latest scholarly debates concerning music and cultural politics owe their very existence to the pathway carved out by Hall and CCCS research students such as Dick Hebdige. One term that music students are always taught to associate with the CCCS is ‘subculture’, a concept used to analyse post-war phenomena such as the mods as well as later developments including punk rock. Without wanting to spend too much time on ground that may be familiar to many readers, it is helpful to recall some of the ways in which these musical subcultures were discussed by CCCS figures. The key characteristic of the centre’s work is a focus on class and resistance from a Marxist and broadly structuralist perspective. Classic texts such as Resistance Through Rituals: Youth subcultures in post-war Britain (Hall & Jefferson 1975) are often viewed as being responsible for the rise of a homology model, whereby specific elements of musical style, language, or clothing are read as being symbolic representations of class conditions and sociality/subaltern solidarity contra Britain’s dominant culture at the time. Dick Hebdige’s analysis of punk in Subculture: The Meaning of Style (Hebdige 1979: 117) is known for its slightly more poststructuralist orientation, since he argues that punk used the swastika as a signifier that had been detached from the conventionally signified concept of Nazism. Of greater importance, however, is Hebdige’s characterisation of punk as a ‘spectacular’ subculture, potentially under the influence of Guy Debord (1967) and Situationist International. Remembering the Sex Pistols, for instance, one only has to think of Malcolm McLaren’s reputation for choreographing controversy, Sid Vicious covered in self-inflicted wounds while on stage, and Johnny Rotten’s nasal snarl of ‘anarchy in the UK’ while floating down the Thames during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee to understand why Hebdige’s emphasis on the spectacular event has been viewed as persuasive by many readers.

Before proceeding, it is also worth noting that derivatives of Birmingham-based subcultural theory remained influential in the early 1990s – work which is still frequently cited today even though the centre’s own publications from the 1970s are often ignored or criticised. An especially significant text from this period is Sarah Thornton’s Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (Thornton 1995), which introduced the Bourdieu-derived concept of ‘subcultural capital’ and contributed to nascent scholarly conversations about the (complicated and contested) cultural politics of electronic dance music and raves. Interestingly, Thornton included a rather prophetic vision in a section about promotional media:

Finally, mention should be made of a new micro-medium which has come to the fore since I completed my research but has implications for the future development of music cultures: the internet. Electronic mail is an obvious improvement on traditional ‘snail mailing’ lists in so far as it is faster, cheaper and potentially interactive. The mailing list of ‘UK-Dance’ set up by Stephen Hebditch in 1993 is used by a small number of organisers to publicise clubs, by a larger number of clubbers to discuss forthcoming events and to review releases for one another, and even by a few ex-clubbers to discuss aspects of rave culture other than going out. The discussions here have the same personal flavour as the fanzines, with many being about drugs or the practicalities of dance events (like the lack of available water or the repulsive state of the portable toilets).

                                                   (Thornton 1995: 150)

Thornton goes on to mention Brian Behlendorf and his San Francisco-based server for the electronic dance music site ‘hyperreal’, the archives of which we have been exploring as part of our research. Recently, however, we have started thinking about the notion of ‘internet subcultures’ and the conceptual history of this term within internet scholarship over the last twenty-five years. One of the aims of the project is to bring internet research into greater contact with music studies, and before embarking on a review of what this literature has to say about ‘subculture’ it is worth raising three initial questions:

1) When did the concept of ‘internet subcultures’ emerge in the field of internet research?
2) To what extent is the concept of ‘subculture’ theorised in this literature?
3) Is the notion of ‘subculture’ developed by internet researchers beyond its formulation in CCCS-derived British cultural studies, and if so how?

The early work on ‘cybersubcultures’

A significant chunk of the earliest work on internet subcultures can be found in the first edition of The Cybercultures Reader (Bell & Kennedy 2000). This section of the book (‘Cybersubcultures’) opens with an introduction by David Bell in which he begins by quoting Sarah Thornton’s 1997 definition of subculture: “groups of people who have something in common with each other (i.e. they share a problem, an interest, a practice) which distinguishes them in a significant way from the members of other social groups; the prefix ‘sub-’ here stands in for ‘subordinate, subaltern, or subterranean’” (in Bell & Kennedy 2000: 205). Bell then seeks to expand these perspectives to arrive at “a working definition of cybersubcultures” that encompasses two related strands: 1) subcultural formations that signal an expressive relationship to digital technology; 2) subcultural formations which make use of digital technology to further their particular project (ibid.). The first chapter proper (Weinstein & Weinstein 2000) engages with the first strand in a facetious (and quite amusing) manner by identifying various web user stereotypes. We are privy to the ‘new age cyber-hippie’, the ‘net defender’, the ‘Marxist theoretician’, the ‘net promoter’, the ‘net(-hype) hater’, and the ‘cyber-punk provo-geek techno-luddite’. The most remarkable facet of this parodic chapter is the manner in which it presents (cyber)subcultural categories with brazen essentialism – it is perhaps not so far removed from the early attempts of the CCCS to characterize ‘the skinheads’, ‘the mods’, and so on. There then follows a chapter by Susan Clerc (originally published in 1996) that brings questions of gender and media continuity/discontinuity to bear on ‘cybersubcultures’: whereas listservs are seen as not so distinct from the ‘older’ media of flyers and ‘zines (in a similar manner to Thornton), newsgroups are portrayed as dauntingly male spaces that are far removed from offline manifestations of fan groups. Clerc laments the depressingly regular appearance of ‘Big Tits’ threads in newsgroups, and with the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see that Clerc’s chapter identifies an early version of the androcentrism discussed by Whitney Phillips with reference to 4chan almost twenty years later (Phillips 2015).

The chapters by Thieme (2000) and Zickmund (2000) on UFO conspiracy theories and far-right hate speech respectively appear to fall within the second strand that Bell identifies in his introduction, but what is perhaps more interesting is the way that the web modulates the very nature of these subcultural formations. Thieme suggests that the multiple connections of the web create the sense of a perpetual present that undermines historical accuracy and truth. A great deal of emphasis is placed on ‘the virtual’ in order to account for the quasi-religious psychodynamics of the UFO cybersubculture: “without a point of reference, all information seems equal…in the virtual world, the appearance of reality becomes reality. Then you can buy and sell words, icons, symbols as if the menu is the meal” (Thieme 2000: 232-233). Thieme’s words here can themselves be heard as echoes of trending theoretical memes from the late 1990s, namely Baudrillardian simulation and McLuhan’s oft-quoted aphorism regarding medium-as-message. In a chapter that is less performative than that of Thieme, Zickmund (2000) is primarily concerned with the role that shared narratives, references, and circulated texts play in subsuming hate-filled individuals into radical groups on the web. She begins by invoking the Althusserian concept of ‘interpellation’ before going on to discuss how grand narrative structures (such as belief in the ‘Zionist Occupational Government’ or ZOG) contribute to subcultural affiliation. Already in these chapters – which seem terrifyingly familiar and prescient when read in the context of QAnon circa 2020 – one gets an impression of internet subcultures being theorised as inter-psychological phenomena centred on ideas rather than being approached through the lens of a Durkheim-derived emphasis on demographics or a CCCS-derived emphasis on class and resistance.

On the other hand, the last two chapters in the ‘cybersubcultures’ section draw attention to continuities between net-native cultural pursuits and earlier movements that precede the 1990s take-up of the web. Ross (2000) considers various ways in which late 1980s hacking culture intersects with, reflects, and departs from 1960s countercultural currents in a similar manner to the historical connections made by Turner (2006). Some of his analysis can be heard to contribute to recurrent debates concerning a subcultural homology model:

If cultural studies of this sort have proved anything, it is that the often symbolic, not wholly articulate, expressivity of a youth culture can seldom be translated directly into an articulate political philosophy. The significance of these cultures lies in their embryonic or protopolitical languages and technologies of opposition to dominant or parent systems of rules. If hackers lack a ‘cause’, then they are certainly not the first youth culture to be characterized in this dismissive way: the left in particular has suffered from the lack of a cultural politics capable of recognising the power of cultural expressions that do not wear a mature political commitment on their sleeves.

                                    (Ross 2000: 260, original emphasis)

Punk could be heard as a silent presence in these lines, and Terranova’s (2000) chapter offers an impression of various ‘zines, manifestos, and rhetorical tropes (such as post-humanism) that contribute to the phenomenon known as cyberpunk – something that is simultaneously reminiscent of the subculture described by Hebdige (1979) and yet profoundly incompatible with it. Critically, ‘style’ in this case does not take the form of body piercings, guitar riffs, and clothing so much as theoretical flights of fancy typed out in a frenzied state of futuristic ecstasy at a computer keyboard: the ‘Extropian Manifesto’ that Terranova discusses is especially revealing in this regard (Terranova 2000: 273). Her case studies offer a taste of a cybersubcultural imaginary that is theory-based and yet sensationalist and irrational: post-human “fictions” facilitate “collective mobilization in the form of electronic activism against imperialist projects of colonization” (Terranova 2000: 277). Yet this reading of web-based activism/resistance is also counterbalanced by an awareness of cybersubcultural porousness and precarity. Terranova quotes Mark Dery in order to stress that her case studies are “subcultural practices” that offer “a precognitive glimpse of mainstream culture a few years from now, when ever greater numbers of Americans will be part-time residents in virtual communities” (in Terranova 2000: 276). Overall, Terranova is both sceptical and hopeful of the web’s political potential as she writes about various Usenet groups in 1996 (the date of the original publication), and cyberpunk appears as a sort of peculiar inversion of the punk with which Hebdige and others were concerned at the end of the 1970s. Whereas Johnny Rotten shrieked about ‘no future’, cyberpunk and subsequent 1990s phenomena were concerned with future everything, to use the name of the electronic music/ideas festival started by Drew Hemment that continues to run in Manchester to this day.

Some Slipperiness

Notwithstanding the use of the term ‘cybersubculture’ in the aforementioned volume, it must be stressed that the notion of subculture had also fallen out of fashion by the early to mid-2000s. I do not intend to rehearse the classic critiques and exchanges involving figures such as Andy Bennett and David Hesmondhalgh from this period, suffice to say that other terms such as neo-tribe, scene, and genre rose to prominence within the context of popular music studies (e.g. Bennett 1999; Hesmondhalgh 2005). What might be more interesting to those already familiar with these debates is the way in which the term subculture is retained and yet becomes something slippery in contemporaneous internet research, the first example of which overlaps with music studies. In a chapter exploring Japanoise’s relationship with the internet, Caspary and Manzenreiter (2003) begin by expressing some frustrations with Bell:

If it is the case that technology changes a subculture, does this transformation amount to the birth of a ‘cybersubcultre?’ David Bell’s working definition of cybersubcultures as social formations that either signal “an expressive relationship to digital technology…or make use of it to further their particular project” is too wide because it lacks a clear guideline that distinguishes a subcultural from a mainstream cybercultural formation. For the purposes of our study, this somewhat blurred category will be confined to social formations whose members pursue a non-commercial, subcultural project that is essentially dependent on communication technology for its existence.

                                      (Caspary & Manzenreiter 2003: 63)

By the end of their chapter, ‘(cyber)subculture’ starts to be intermittently replaced with the notion of ‘cybercommunities’ during closing reflections on the anonymous and less embodied nature of computer-mediated communication (CMC). Strikingly, Caspary and Manzenreiter (2003: 71) conclude that the net has actually contributed to looser social ties and “the fragmentation” of Japanoise. This trend is cast as the result of the way in which CMC encourages “self-promotion and self-presentation” over true solidarity (ibid.). Their case studies highlight the explicit and conscious positioning of the self through engagements with the web, something which demonstrates that ‘networking’ is often defined by ulterior motives of acquisition. This subtle turn towards the individual web user (at the end of what might seem like a long-forgotten chapter in an obscure collection) is revealing and of great consequence. We have here an impression of web surfing as an existentialist rather than a necessarily social activity – one in which users make use of both technology and other users on their own terms for the sake of identity formation. Without wanting to forget Bennett’s (1999) relevant notion of ‘lifestyle’ here and Hesmondhalgh’s (2005) critique thereof, it is worth noting that the net-native scenario Caspary and Manzenreiter touch upon is also haunted by Zygmunt Bauman’s (2000) notion of ‘cloakroom communities’. In crude terms, individuals may well leave their ‘real life’ identities at the door when entering web-based cultural collectives: online engagement can be a way of exploring and experimenting with alternative versions of selfhood. From this perspective, choice, sampling, and ‘disembodiment’ are wont to replace a CCCS-derived emphasis on subcultural habitus as the unchanging essence of one’s being.

Similar sentiments arrive early on in a chapter by Kahn and Kellner (2003) in the Post-subcultures Reader titled ‘Internet Subcultures and Oppositional Politics’. After briefly mentioning Hebdige (1979) directly, the authors highlight a complex set of factors that give them reason to use the term ‘post-subcultures’ intermittently:

Traditional forms of culture and politics are being resurrected, imploded into and combined with entirely new cultural and political modes in a global media culture that is becoming increasingly dominated by the corporate forces of science, technology, and capital. To speak of post-subcultures, then, is to recognize that the emerging subcultures are taking place in a world that is saturated with proliferating technologies, media, and cultural awareness. Post-subcultures are constructed in new cultural spaces and with innovative forms, entering into novel global configurations by technological advances such as the Internet and multimedia which help produce alternative forms of culture and political activism…In this fashion, subcultures associated with the Internet are involved in the revolutionary circulation and democratization of information and culture. In as much as this material is also part of the media-process by which people come to identify and define themselves, the emergent mediated post-subcultures are also involved in the attempt to allow people the freedom to re-define and construct themselves around the kind of alternative cultural forms, experiences, and practices which radical deployments of the Internet afford.

                                             (Kahn & Kellner 2003: 1-2)

Though reductive, it is possible to hear two major themes in these lines and the remainder of the chapter that form a dialectical tension. On the one hand, Kahn and Kellner seem to want to hold on to the political dimension(s) of web activity as libertarian resistance to hegemonic structures (corporate bureaucracies that hearken back to mid-twentieth century conceptions of a military-industrial complex). Their perspectives on hacking are reminiscent of the chapter by Ross (2000), while their case study of protests in Seattle against the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting foregrounds the use of the internet for political mobilization in quite literal terms. Yet they also air doubts regarding the issue of whether such political phenomena can be defined as properly subcultural – their use of the opaquer term ‘group’ is perhaps revealing: “many post-subcultures of the Internet can be seen as dissolving classical cultural and political boundaries that appear too rigid and ideological for Net life. Still, groups also exist that have clearly defined political orientations” (Kahn & Kellner 2003: 2). On the other hand, the authors acknowledge the significance of content consumption, identity construction, and the freedom to move between different subcultural/post-subcultural/group formations via the web. Though they try to foreground ‘radical deployments of the Internet’, this trend comes across as remarkably neoliberal and mainstream with the benefit of hindsight. Nowadays, the term ‘group’ is not easily divorced from its association with Facebook, while ‘post-subcultures’ in the 2010s and early 2020s might well constitute nothing other than subreddits. In both cases, Kahn and Kellner’s image of opposition to dominant corporations (as constitutive others) seems like a sort of broken and long-forgotten dream, especially to those of us who are too young to remember such fin-de-siècle or ‘long 1990s’ sentiments with clarity.

A more illustrative example of the millennial turn towards individuals as multiplicities can be found in an article on ‘sadomasochist subculture’ by Palandri and Green (2000) in the journal Cyberpsychology & Behaviour. The authors explore various chatrooms devoted to cybersex and interview anonymised participants. What emerges is a fascinating account of a subculture that is far removed from Hebdige’s emphasis on ‘the spectacular’ since it often involves secrecy. Consider the following interview response from ‘Marian’, a 45-year-old woman from the US Bible Belt region:

I would never say the things I say in VL [virtual life] to another living soul in RL [real life]! I never cuss in RL, never, the very worse I would say is damnation…in VL I can use extreme language and I love it…I have a position in my community: girl scouts, the church council, a member of the parents’ association – I protect my privacy totally – I would be finished if it ever got out that I am that other person. [Yet] it fulfils me, makes me feel wanted and sexy, I can be who I really would like to be in my fantasies on the net.

                                        (in Palandri & Green 2000: 634)

Palandri and Green’s paper is a representative example of what might be termed the ‘second life’ paradigm of early internet scholarship (to use the name of the virtual environment established in 2003). The disciplinary orientation of this work shifts from cultural studies or sociology towards psychology, with the net cast as an enabler of disinhibited behaviour and a source of catharsis or self-actualisation (cf. Suler 2004). Moreover, the ‘sub-’ in ‘subculture’ here takes on more psychoanalytic connotations, with ‘the virtual’ depicted as something that plugs into or rewires the individual subconsciouses of multiple chatroom users. Zooming out, then, one might surmise that the ‘second life’ paradigm of internet research offers a significant recalibration of CCCS-derived subcultural theory that might be construed as simultaneously naïve and evocative. The opposition or ‘resistance’ at play in this case does not operate as a division between a cultural mainstream and subcultural underground but rather between the online and offline lives of Western netizens. Looking back on this literature in 2021, however, some nagging questions come to mind: is it still possible to argue for an online/offline polarity? And what does more recent work have to say on the subject of ‘internet subcultures’?

A bird’s-eye (re)view

If one takes a slightly more systematic or ‘bird’s-eye’ view of the literature, it becomes apparent that the internet has been seen to facilitate and encourage new kinds of subcultural deviance. An ever-growing body of work comes into focus that is perhaps more influenced by and aligned with Howard Becker and the Chicago school of sociology than with Hall and Hebdige inter alia in Birmingham. The Palandri and Green paper discussed in the previous section comes to seem like a point de capiton for wider internet research on sex and sexuality vis-à-vis deviance, which was by far the most prevalent theme to emerge upon review (Adams-Santos 2020; Bernal 2016; Belvins & Holt 2009; Denney & Tewksbury 2013; Deshotels & Forsyth 2020; Doering 2008, 2009; Fortin, Paquette, & Dupont 2018; Frederick & Perrone 2014; Hawkinson & Zamboni 2014; Ho, Pan, & Taylor 2017; Zamboni & Madero 2018). Revealingly, the journal Deviant Behaviour appears to be a key location for work on a broader range of internet-mediated subcultural practices, from digital piracy to drug use (Aleksandrovna, Vladimirovna, & Alekseevna 2017; Cooper & Harrison 2001; Copes & Williams 2007; Gibson 1999; Griffiths & Frobish 2013; Holt 2010; Holt & Copes 2010; Holt, Freilich & Chermak 2017a, 2017b; Raitanen & Oksanen 2018; Rosino & Linders 2015; Steinmetz & Tunnell 2013). Especially extreme examples of internet subcultures are surveyed in work on suicide and self-harm (Naito 2007; Adler & Adler 2008) and paedophilia (Corriveau 2010; Holt et al. 2020; Holt, Belvins & Burkert 2010; Prichard, Watters, & Spiranovic 2011). Having introduced this line of inquiry, however, it should also be mentioned that the status of paedophilia as subcultural is questioned at the end of the monograph by Jenks (2004) on the intellectual history of the theoretical term:

What about the new folk devils, paedophiles, do they constitute a new subculture? Do they communicate on the Internet, do they have meetings, a shared language, a symbolic repertoire, a whole way of life or are they bank clerks, accountants, civil servants, fathers, citizens, athletes, and members of the Labour party as well? Do we understand their dark inclinations better by expelling them from anything we claim to share or do we see better for placing them on a spectrum with our own behaviour and asking what it is about the ‘society’ that we all live in that enables and motivates their particular form of conduct?

                                                      (Jenks 2004: 145)

In a similar manner to Bennett (1999) and Hesmondhalgh (2005), Jenks (2004: 145) concludes that the concept of subculture “has run its course” and he seeks to recover a more Durkheimian, holistic conception of society. This is something worth returning to, perhaps, but for now it must be stressed that within internet research, far-right, racist, and white supremacist hate speech has indeed been conceived of in subcultural terms (Back, Keith & Solomos 1998; Barlai 2013; Holt, Freilich, & Chermak 2020; Jeffries 2018; Vysotsky & McCarthy 2017). Despite the prevalence of internet scholarship on deviance and extreme or extremist subcultural formations, there are some studies that are more compatible with the Birmingham paradigm nonetheless, especially work on straightedge (Mullaney 2012; Reia 2014; Williams & Copes 2005; Williams 2006; Wilson & Atkinson 2005) and emo (Chernoff & Widdicombe 2015; Phillipov 2010; Seganti & Smahel 2011) as net-native subcultural formations. More broadly, there is a great deal of internet research that foregrounds shared meanings, beliefs, interests, or ideologies in relatively discrete – but not necessarily discreet – online spaces, from ‘free-skiing subculture’ to Furry fandom (Dankova & Dubrovskaya 2018; Gilchrist & Ravenscroft 2008; Hautakangas 2015; Kozinets 2001; Literat & van den Berg 2019; Ragusa & Ward 2016; Roberts et al. 2015; Vucurovic 2016; Wilson 2008; Woermann 2012; Xiao & Stanyer 2017).

It is possible to imagine the intermittent use of the term ‘subculture’ in this literature being a source of frustration for Jenks and others, but the unapologetic thesis of King (2007) is that we need to prioritise shared meaning and interests of this kind over societal demographics if we are to study and understand ‘internet subcultures’ with rigour. This may seem like an attractive and perspicacious approach on an initial impression, but it becomes problematic if we acknowledge, for instance, the (toxic) masculinity of the social web and work that builds upon the early observations of Clerc (2000) in this regard. Recent research has investigated the subcultural dynamics of the so-called ‘incels’ (‘involuntary celibates’), for example (Kruger 2019, in press; O’Malley, Holt, & Holt 2020). This unrelenting problem of demographic rigidity versus looser multiplicity also underscores articles in the internet research journal First Monday that explicitly engage with Hebdige’s legacy in contrasting ways (Ebare 2004; Lamont 2019; see also Seganti & Smahel 2011). The recent First Monday article by Whyte (2020) on /r/The_Donald as a fringe, cult-like subreddit that stops critical thought is an especially valuable recent contribution, and in my own work (Spencer 2020) I have focussed on the role of the track Centipede by Knife Party in configuring the groupthink of /r/The_Donald during ‘The Great Meme War’ (2015-2016). However, it must be stressed that on balance, all of the difficulties which cling on to the term ‘subculture’ continue to haunt internet research that uses the term in a seemingly appropriate and justifiable way. To put it directly, the sheer baggage of ‘subculture’ can still seem like a burden or a stumbling block. One last example is illustrative: through examinations of Anonymous and homosocial shitposting on 4chan, Phillips (2013, 2015) recuperates an emphasis on ‘the spectacular’ (contra the ‘second life’ paradigm mentioned previously) and she emphasises the symbiotic relationship between subcultural trolling and mainstream media by recalling the work of Cohen (1972) on moral panics. But this is not a straightforward case of things coming full circle, as Phillips’s ambivalent attitude towards the notoriously slippery term reveals. Her qualifications and concerns deserve a great deal of attention among popular music scholars as well as internet researchers, hence the long quotation to end this review:

The problem is the word “subculture” itself, which posits a singular, monolithic culture under whose umbrella smaller subsidiary cultures are said to emerge. As sociologies Andy Bennet and Keith Kahn-Harris note [Bennett & Kahn-Harris 2004], culture is already fragmented before the imposition of subcultural categories – thus calling into question the basic coherence of the term “subculture” (how can something be “sub-“ of that which isn’t itself singular?).

Although I readily concede this point, I have chosen to use “subcultural trolling” (as opposed to “trolling culture” or simply “trolling”) with caution, for the sake of clarity. First, it is helpful to differentiate self-identifying trolls engaged in highly stylized lulz-based trolling from other forms of antagonistic online behaviour, which may or may not also be called trolling. My research is focussed on the first category of troll, which subcultural trolling helps me communicate quickly and easily.

Second, given trolls’ simultaneously symbiotic and exploitative relationship to mainstream culture, particularly in the context of corporate media, it seems appropriate to frame trolling as fundamentally subsidiary. By “mainstream” here, I am not gesturing toward some singular universal culture, but rather the tropes and ideologies born of capitalism and supported by the entertainment industries. The corporate mainstream, in other words, which asserts itself as natural, necessary, and monolithic despite the diversity and fragmentation of concomitant culture(s). Trolling, as I have described it, easily qualifies as “sub” to this culture, even if the overarching concept of culture is much more complicated.

                                                 (Phillips 2015: 20-21)

Do musical subcultures still exist? The case of PC Music and appleguil.de

The first part of the heading for these closing remarks comes from an Oxford exam question set by Toby Young for his Final Honours School course ‘Scenes & Subcultures’. When I used it as an essay question in my own tutorial teaching a few years ago, most of my students decided to opt for an elaborate “no” due to the continuing influence of Hesmondhalgh (2005). Although he is at pains to stress that we should not aim to find a new master-concept to replace subculture, Hesmondhalgh (2005) offers ‘genre’ as a more productive alternative. Significantly, genre theory has indeed enjoyed something of a renaissance within music studies in recent years (Born & Haworth 2018; Brackett 2016; Haworth 2016). However, one of the benefits of reviewing internet research is that it reinvigorates theoretical debates by foregrounding some alternative connotations of the term subculture. A case study is now needed in order to consider whether it might be appropriate to redeploy the concept in particular instances.

Part II of this blog discussion will consider the case of the PC Music label and the Discord server appleguil.de (‘Apple Guild’), which ran from 27th August – 23rd September 2020 to support the release of A. G. Cook’s album Apple. Cook’s PC Music label and its related artists are commonly associated with the net-native (and recently coined) genre of ‘hyperpop’. But to echo one of Hesmondhalgh’s points, the circulation of this vernacular term (principally via Spotify) should not necessarily determine scholarly assessments of the phenomenon. The Welcome Page for appleguil.de is shown below as a screenshot, and I want to end this post with some cliff-hanger questions to be addressed in Part II (‘A Reappraisal’):

  • How helpful is the ‘hyperpop’ genre descriptor in understanding the PC Music phenomenon?
  • Is the PC Music label better understood as a ‘scene’?
  • How might the emphases on meme repertoires, shared meanings, and inter-psychological relationality in the ‘internet subcultures’ literature support critical analysis of PC Music?
  • Is there a political dimension to PC Music? Is there even a clue in the name, as it were? Can the CCCS’s controversial emphasis on politics be recuperated and recalibrated?
  • Contra Hesmondhalgh (2005), is there a need to dwell upon the generational aspects of PC Music vis-à-vis youth movements?
  • Should the term ‘subculture’ be redeployed in the case of PC Music or does this phenomenon encourage a new term woven with new theoretical threads?

This image shows the Welcome Page for the Discord server appleguil.de ('Apple Guild').


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