Over the past several decades we have seen multiple iterations of anti-establishment counterculture from the hippies to the punks and so on, each reacting to or growing out of the last. However, since the turn of the new century, it has gotten increasingly hard to see the remnants of the beliefs of the original counterculture in its new iterations. LA punk’s anti-consumerist anti-mainstream ideals have long since been replaced by the Emo Scene of the 2000s, who not only appropriated mainstream imagery but also were known for fashion emerging from shopping at chain stores you could find at any mall. Has our society since moved past the days of true anti-consumerist counter-culture? What has caused such a change?
The shift from LA punk to emo is especially surprising since emo is a direct descendant of its 70s counterpart. As Los Angeles punk and its angry, anti-consumerist, and anti-establishment ideology started to move east, it found itself split. The anger that the culture was based on made many of its get-togethers end in fights, police intervention, and often attracted skinheads and other highly politicized, hyper-masculine participants with lots of repressed rage. This caused the culture to be extremely alienating to those outside of it as well as to some inside of it. By the time the movement hit Washington, D.C., a series of bands decided to split off from the original group. Their music focused more on emotions and less on the establishment and politics. They were more interested in social alienation rather than a societal one and focused more on teenage angst and romantic relationships. This new form of punk became known as emocore punk as the old more aggressive version became hardcore punk.
The emocore punk movement slowly became more and more of its own subculture through the 90s, becoming known solely as emo. Emo culture, however, did not fully take form until the turn of the century as it took on a very different shape as well as gained a much larger and more significant following, to the point that it could have even been considered a “mainstream subculture” at the beginning of the 2000s. This iteration of the culture took its roots of punk but appropriated a lot, if not a majority, of its iconography from other subcultures of the 90s. They took some of the grunge and the slightly longer hair of indie-rock. They took quite heavily from goth as well as their punk roots; heavily leaning towards black with occasional neon accents, skull iconography, and stripes. Emos often sported dyed hair, eyeliner for both men and women, and an overall androgynous look. They also were known for incorporating pop iconography into their outfits, which was an acceptance of the mainstream that its predecessors would have never dreamed of.
So what led to this major change in the culture and this incorporation of the mainstream that would have been unheard of years before? Two events shook the country leading to a major increase in patriotism and fear of those who are different. The Columbine High School Shooting took place on April 20th, 1999 leaving 20+ wounded and 13 dead. It was a national tragedy and the first of its kind. It put a spotlight on mental health as well as increasing fear of those who might be expressing it differently. Those who were outwardly different were now met with fear that they too could become similar monsters. Teen goths whose parents were once supportive were no longer met with the acceptance of their self-expression that they once were. Emos also being a largely teenage subculture were met with similar responses so mainstream-ification and leaning more into consumer culture allowed them to tread the line between subculture and mainstream acceptance.
Only a little more than two years later the 9/11 attacks just further ingrained patriotism and fear of those who are different into the country as a whole. Not only were subcultures seen as something different to be feared at this point but also being anti-establishment and non-conformist made you extremely unpatriotic in a time where the country was healing. It is in many ways similar to the Red Scare of the 1950s causing the country to try and appear as cookie cutter and “normal” as possible as to not appear un-American, but now there is a national tragedy that has taken place on American soil that you have to reckon with as well.
Due to all of this emo found a way to neither go against the mainstream culture nor society but rather found a way to express different values within them. So, instead of following the deviant route of their predecessors they rather try to find “collective individuality” within their society. Through this, they are much more comfortable with consumerism than the punks of the past. They have taken the lack of politics of the emocore punks and have taken it all the way to removing politics entirely. The subculture is far more interested in expressing themselves and achieving a specific look rather than where they are getting it from. So, when teenage emos are looking for clothing that can accurately express themselves and their culture and they are able to find it all easily at Hot Topic, a store that was established to cater to that exact audience, they will buy it no questions asked because it is a self-statement rather than a political one.
So does emos adapting to the world this way mean that we will never see true authentic punks ever again? It is safe to say that it may be a good long while before we can ever truly see an anti-establishment movement again and it will have to be in a drastically different form. Not only are we as a country still healing from the tragedies that made the emos into what they are today but the country itself is becoming increasingly more politicized as each day passes. Political radicalism is no longer radical. “The Left” and “The Right” are moving farther and farther apart and it feels as if there is no room for a middle. Half of the country was vocally and excruciatingly against the American president from 2017-2021 if literally half the population is a part of it can it be counted as radical or counterculture? Then after that, some select people from the other side of it performed an insurrection on the capital to try and stop the transfer of power. Is that counterculture because it is a smaller population? But hasn’t that been a part of the culture of the past four years? All of this begs the question; who determines the culture? The leader and chief of the country? The adults? Does that make the young people counterculture by default? The young people? What’s trending on Twitter? Are the niches of content on TikTok subcultures or are they mainstream since they are popular on TikTok?
In the time and place, we are in counterculture feels to be all of us. We may be mainstream to us but we are counter to them and while the internet puts us in conversation with them it more often creates echo chambers and increased politicization. Can countercultures exist ever again? Maybe very far down the line. For now, we are all subcultures of the mainstream, very similar to how emo was. Subcultures that are much more focused on self-expression and self-identification than with bringing down the system because it is becoming increasingly clear that in many ways most of us want to bring down the system. We are all a part of subcultures that catch steam on the internet and become mainstream. Is that so bad? Everyone trying to express themselves and questioning the system in which they live. I don’t think so.