I would've had no idea that college students had returned to campus over the past week, except for the fact that I suddenly started seeing a lot of alt-girls at the thrift stores again for the first time in awhile. That was confirmed going down the main drag through campus, where I hardly saw any such types over the summer.
This goes to show how fragmented society has become, when the most popular "sub-culture" cannot even sustain itself throughout the year, even in an urban environment. It crucially depends on a large group of student transplants piling in during the university school year.
This is the first time for such fragmentation, and is the complete opposite of earlier bona fide sub-cultures like punks, goths, '90s alternative, and scene kids. They were so ubiquitous they had names like "mall goth," and their music labeled "pop" punk -- they and their culture were unavoidable.
It's not just a youth thing, that's part of all sub-cultures. Why are they only visible during the university school year, as if there aren't tons of 18-22 year-olds in the city during the summer?
And why is it only that college-student age range? All earlier sub-cultures had high school members, and they don't go away during the summer. Yet I haven't seen high-school alt-girls for most of the year, and the ones I saw earlier may have actually been freshmen in college.
Ditto for the 20-somethings who are older than college kids. As if there were no 24 year-olds in the punk, goth, grunge, or scene scenes? They don't go away during the summer. Yet you don't see them taking part in sub-cultures either.
What's different about college students is that they're drawn from all over, and concentrated in one place. So all of these alt-girls who suddenly appeared as though they were a cohesive crowd, are actually just lone individuals from their small towns or more likely suburbs.
They're the one girl in the whole area code who's holding onto the practice of sub-cultural behavior. They have no one else in their organic, rooted environments to take part in the scene with, so they rely on moving to a college town to find others like them.
However, even there it doesn't take root as a community, since that would entail a sub-cultural presence in the post-college-kid demographic. But these things just don't exist outside of the college student population. So although they can find some like-minded individuals to hang out with during their college years, they realize that it isn't a real community, and they give up on it during their mid-to-late 20s. This is not merely "aging out" of a scene, which in all bona fide sub-cultures never happened until at least someone's 30s, and was mainly due to trying to get married and raise children.
Rather, the current pattern is due to a collapse in trust, where no one wants to join a collective anymore. You can dabble in being an alt-girl for a few years, but you don't grow close-knit to the other ones, so there's very little holding you all together once the college years are over. It has no social glue, and quickly falls apart. Also, there are no boys in the scene, so it does not support dating, courtship, and eventually pairing off. There can be no community without both sexes.
Really the only commonality among the alt-girls is outward presentation (clothing, hair, etc.). This gets the sub-cultural formation backwards -- the outward badges are supposed to come after an existing social bond has been formed, and it signals who belongs to that group. Now they form a group purely based on common fashion, but that does not require any social bond to exist. They're simply all fans of the same pop culture signals -- Doc Martens, Twin Peaks, center-parted hair, and so on.
If the alt-girls themselves are invisible outside of college towns during the school year, then their broader cultural presence is even more of a void. For bona fide sub-cultures, there were not only the mall goth people, but mall goth music, mall goth movies, and the like. Whether you knew it by name or not, you heard pop-punk and emo music all throughout the 2000s, including outside of the mall environments where they congregated.
In 2021, what music immediately comes to mind when you spot the rare alt-girl IRL? Oh, she must have posters of... who, exactly, on her wall? And she must listen to... what's-her-name? on a loop. Niche artists do not define a sub-culture, singly or collectively. Those are just copes for try-hards who belong to no sub-culture.
You didn't have to be a punk to have heard the Clash in the '70s, a goth to have heard the Cure in the '80s, a grunger to have heard Nirvana (or worn the signature flannel shirt) in the '90s, or a scene kid to have heard Fall Out Boy in the 2000s.
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Looking back, it seems like the 2010s were already a period of stagnation for sub-cultures, likely caused by the fraying of trust in a stable society in the wake of the 2008 recession that most people never recovered from (unless you had a line of credit with the central bank, i.e. QE). The economy being blown up for good cannot have had any other outcome on trust in the system.
Still, there was the embryonic form of the alt-girl / e-girl / art ho by the late 2010s, who you could identify by the revival of baggy clothes, center-parted hair, sad-girl vibes, and Billie Eilish fandom (the last example of a sub-culture's icon who was widely known outside of the sub-culture itself, although throw in Benee's break-out hit "Supalonely" as well).
That stagnation carried over into 2020, when I remember seeing alt-girls all over the place, and viral videos from TikTok made by and about them. That took a nose-dive after the Democrats stole the 2020 election and installed Biden by late January. It's not due per se to whether the Democrats or Republicans hold office, but the deeper annihilation of trust that it caused. It was not an obscure political event either -- it began unfolding on election night itself, with the whole world paying attention, and continued for months until inauguration.
Belonging to a sub-culture requires a minimal amount of interpersonal trust and societal stability -- when it switches to anarchic naked power struggles, and every man for himself, then collectiveness is over, whether sub-cultural or normie.
The cold take is that sub-cultures require a strong political order because they need an authoritarian Other against which to rebel, a worthy fuckin' adversary in an anti-Establishment war. But you can rebel against The Man as an isolated individual, so this view does not explain the collective aspect of sub-cultures. And besides, several major sub-cultures were not against society writ large, as part of a politicized or anti-authoritarian counter-culture. Beatniks were more of a dropout sub-culture, not one that was confrontational to the centers of power. Ditto for metalheads, grunge, and emo / scene kids. They were instead defined against other cultural groups, i.e. normies.
They need a strong cohesive trusting society because in an anarchic individualist society, no collectives are possible, whether sub-cultural or normie. Actual sub-cultures knew this, overtly or intuitively, and did not try to blow up society -- they just wanted to assert their independence from or superiority over other cultural, not political, groups (the normies).
Now that the Democrats have blown up trust and cohesion at the highest levels by stealing elections in broad daylight, with no consequences afterward, that basic requirement for sub-cultures has evaporated rapidly since Biden took office.
That is just as visible -- or rather, invisible -- in the production of pop culture, which ground to a halt after inauguration. There's no new pop music in 2021, other than Olivia Rodrigo (and "Driver's License" came out while Trump was still president). The radio, retail stores, etc., refuse to play what little new music might be getting made, and will be stuck in the 2010s forever.
The breakdown of cultural production affects the would-be sub-cultures in another way -- since they define themselves against the normies, they have nothing to define themselves against when the normies themselves have no clear culture. It's not just sub-cultures that are breaking down, but cultural cohesion in general, including mainstream / normie culture.
So there's another pathway from the stolen election to collapsed sub-cultures: the destruction of institutional trust made it impossible to make new mainstream culture, which has deprived the would-be sub-cultures of the Other to define themselves against. From "no new pop music" to "no new sub-cultural music". Especially at the collective level -- I don't care if someone somewhere is making new music, if it isn't leading to the formation of new scenes, crowds, and collectives.
There is no way out of this downward spiral. The economy was blown up for good back in 2008, and the political order was destroyed in 2020. We're in for disintegration for most of this century, and that means the conditions for a strong, healthy, cohesive culture among normies are out the window -- and with that, the formation of sub-cultures as well. Every part of the culture is going to melt down into individual tastes consumed in isolation, perhaps re-branded and glorified as "kinks" in a coping attempt to sound sub-cultural.
The most we can do now to connect with others about culture is to try to preserve what has already been made, before the anarchy arrived, so that it can survive for distant future generations when the anarchy has receded. The Roman Dark Age was caused by a breakdown in their political order, and so will ours. Any cultural rebirth will likely take place outside the crumbling American Empire, in a newly expanding empire (none of which are on the horizon).