Eeny Meeny Miny Emo: How Counter Culture Became Consumer Culture

Posted: September 15, 2009 in Culture

Forty years ago, my mother was a flower child. She put daisy rings in her hair, went to protest rallies, and (according to some sources) smoked a lot of hash. Now, she wears flower print dresses, votes NDP and has given up any real hope that the world will change for the better. But, if you look for it, the flower child is still there.

Twenty five years ago, John Hughes made a movie called the Breakfast Club. It laid out and explored exaggerated versions of the archetypes that high school society is broken into. It also happened to be funny as hell and became an instant classic. Now, John Hughes is dead and every time I go see a teen comedy, it seems like I’m watching watered down versions of The Jock, The Popular Girl, The Geek, The Loser etc. The seeds of the past are blatantly present here, so much so it’s become glaringly obvious that Hollywood is just raping the good will a generation had towards what should have been seen as a warning about the homogenization of youth culture.

Ten years ago, I was a skater. I skipped school to hang out with my friends in the Byward Market, tried and failed (mostly) to look cool on a skateboard, died my hair blonde, wore t-shirts with pictures of 80’s cartoon characters on them, and, while smoking a lot of hash, had pseudo intellectual conversations with other skaters about how we were living in the best of times and the world didn’t really need any changing. And then I went to the occasional protest rally anyway. Now, I wouldn’t be caught dead on a skateboard, I have one kid and another one on the way; who I vote for changes election to election with who I believe will fuck me over the least and I daily piss off people in my personal life by not sitting down, shutting up and just accepting the world the way it is. In short, when I woke up and realized that we really weren’t living in the best of times and that the world is not a fundamentally benign and Julian loving place, I didn’t just slip into the suburban coma that had been pre-arranged for me from my teen years and the lack of choices I’d made back then; I got really really mad instead.

Last week, I was playing World of Warcraft and, while being killed for the fifth time by some kind of Orc thing that looked kind of like Dick Cheney, but pretty, I noticed a conversation in the chat box at the bottom of my screen. Here is a brief, and slightly exaggerated, recap of that conversation.

(And here I wish I had a font that dripped blood to fully convey the idiocy of all the parties involved.)
Whinydouche190564: Are there any intelligent Emo people to talk to on here?
Condescendingdick4e: Snort. Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Whinydouche190564: I just like talking to other Emos. You don’t have to be mean.
Absolutebastard2300: Awwww, are you going to go cut your wrists now?
Whinydouche190564: No! Not all Emos do that!
Absolutebastard2300: Yes they do.
Condescendingdick4e: No, no I’m with Whinydouche, if they all slashed their wrists there’d be a lot less of them, and there are like ten crying across the street from me right now.
Whinydouche190564: Okay, I do cut myself. But it’s not a cry for help! Every time I do it I hope I bleed out and die!
Absolutebastard2300: Um, I was just joking? You know there are support groups for that, right?
Whinydouche190564: I know, I’ve been to all of them. I just hate life too much I guess.
Condescendingdick4e: Why?
Absolutebastard2300: Fuck!! Don’t encourage him!
Whinydouche190564: Emos, to me! Slayeth these hapless bitches. Eth.

And it just kind of degenerated from there .

After I’d wiped all the foam from my lips (From laughing until my spleen ruptured.
I’m not really that mean spirited, but come on!)I sat back and started asking questions.
1) What’s so great about other Emos that you would specifically seek out only their conversation?
2) What do Emos stand for as a subculture?
3) What does any subculture stand for now?
4) What the fuck is an Emo?!?!

Ninety years ago, the concept of the teenager didn’t exist yet. There was no, “youth culture.” If you were over the age of six and you had all your limbs, you went and worked in a factory somewhere and, hopefully, your reproductive bits didn’t fall off until after you’d impregnated someone and provided your part of the industrial fodder for the next decade. This isn’t going to turn into a sociology lesson but, somewhere along the way, someone decided it was a shitty idea for kids to have to work, so public schools were created to prepare them for the same work later. Later on, war broke out somewhere overseas (and occasionally in areas that were technically part of North America but still aren’t considered so for the purposes of promotions and contests) and a generation of women were left behind to raise children and, you know, run shit until the men got home. Which the men eventually did, promptly making a LOT more children, and also creating suburbia and mass bussing and the military industrial complex. And stuff.

Amidst all that chaos and social upheaval the first real generation of teenagers grew up and decided that everything their parents had stood for was utter and complete bullshit. So they got high and plotted the end of Western Civilization. To be fair, this was not the birth of inter-generational warfare; since the ancient Greeks we’ve seen examples throughout history of one generation hating the one to come after it. But. It was the first time that the generational divide created two distinct cultures. And the younger culture wanted nothing more than to shit on, destroy and generally absent themselves from the mistakes their parents had made. This was the birth of counterculture.

But, like anything full of sound and fury, it ultimately fizzled out and came to signify nothing. The warriors of the counterculture became the entitled inheritants of their parent’s world, complete with the traditional trappings that came with it. Republicanism, suburbs, golf, etc.

The idea of the counterculture however, took firm root. Each subsequent generation of teenagers splintered into their own slices of rebellion. Bell bottoms and tie dye bled into disco and metal heads; the beatnik renaissance came and went; jean jackets and tapered jeans hung around for a decade and then faded to black under a tide of plaid shirts and dirt. On and on it went; grungies, skaters, rappers, wiggers, ravers, poseurs, punks, Goths, Club kids, the bisexual uprising. Each one clearly defined and identifiable by clothes, music, and the cacophonic symphony of, “You can’t tell me what to wear/how to thing/who to fuck, I’m me! And you have to take it! So there!”

But who are you?

I knew it ten years ago; when I identified as a skater it always seemed kind of empty. What was I rebelling against? Why was that me? Why, oh why, was my self image completely reliant on wheeling around town on a piece of wood nailed to rickety wheels?

Visible counterculture hasn’t really been about anything almost since it began; our civilization doesn’t really tolerate counterpoint except as cute novelty and, eventually, we all learn this and trot along happily to our graves with only photographs of ourselves in forty inch bottom pants as reminders that we once craved individuality. What was born out of the sixties was a need to be different, at all costs, from everyone around us. Except for those who were the same kind of different. Because loners are creepy. Instead of a distinct culture being born, what transpired was the creation of a marketing niche; selling to the trends. Skate shops opened and closed; the average life span of a musical fad is about three days and the Gap has built an empire on the backs of everyone who won’t take a side. Emos, it turns out, define themselves by being really sad about everything, all the time, and listening to Good Charlotte, a band that skull fucked the image of punk by adding Gucci watches to the mix. They’ve also brought back tapered jeans, a sin for which they should all be sterilized forthwith.

But all of that is just talking about visible counterculture, which is just another way of saying clueless rebels in uniforms, all goose stepping to the beats played for them by Britney Spears and the writers of The Secret. There is still a real subculture; made by people who didn’t go back to sleep after the sixties. There are books, movies, music, poems, political movements; all alive and well and screaming that there is a different way to live from what we’ve been raised on, that you don’t have to settle for just being your pair of jeans and the contents of your ipod.

Ten years ago a movie called Fight Club came out. It was arguably the best movie that came out that year and was completely snubbed by the Oscars. In it, a man named Tyler Durden, before ending Western Civilization as we know it, said the truest words I’d ever heard; they changed my life and are probably the essence of counter culture distilled. He said:

“You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.”
Somewhere in the mix, in all the chaos and social upheaval, we’ve unlearned Tyler’s lesson, and that’s why I now have to deal with whiny Emo kids threatening to kill themselves on an MMORPG. But I don’t really blame them; it’s hard to care about life when you don’t know what you’re living for.

Dear Emo kid;

Watch Fight Club. Read some books that aren’t on a best seller list. Hell, just read. Form some opinions. Try talking to people who aren’t Emo. Try to realize the simple truth that, when everyone’s rebelling, you’re not a rebel anymore. And then go out and talk to people.

But for the love of god, please change into pants that fit first. Nobody’s going to listen to you if you look like an idiot.



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