Hebdige – Subculture: The Meaning of Style

In Week 6 of our course, we studied subcultures through the lens of Dick Hebdige. Hebdige’s book Subculture: The Meaning of Style specifically explores the punk subculture. Part One of this book studies the youth movements in Great Britain that have influenced this subculture.

In the summer of 1976, Britain had a strangely hot summer that led to a sort of apocalyptic state. Change was coming. Punk grew out of this, “combining elements which had originally belonged to completely different epochs.” (26) Two differing cultures, reggae and working class youth culture, influenced the punk movement greatly. One cannot understand punk without first studying these.

First, what is reggae? Its music “moves to… ponderous and moody rhythms.” (31) It draws from a people’s journey from Africa, from slavery to freedom. These people, Rastafarians, combine their knowledge of Black Africa with the white man’s Bible. A Rastafarian refuses to deny his history, while seeing his exile as a form of grandeur. On the street, one can identify this subculture through such styling as dreads, “khaki camouflage” (36), and ganja. Suddenly, this alienated group, young West Indian men, had a community.

The working class youth in Britain consisted of three subcultures: hipsters, beatniks, and teddy boys. Hipsters defined themselves in relation to black youth: usually lower-class but cerebral, and looking for grandeur in their ghetto. Beatniks, on the other hand, saw black as noble savage. These boys were often middle-class, looking to escape their existence for exotic places. So although different, these subcultures were both created in relation to black identification. The teddy boy did the same. He, combining black rhythm and blues and Edwardian style, was ironically quite xenophobic, often fighting immigrants.

Hebdige also briefly talks about mods, skinheads, and glam rockers. By the 1960’s in Britain, race relations had started to cool and the mod culture was formed. Mods sought to emulate West Indian style, having an emotional affinity for black culture. Skinheads were formed in contrast to these mods. This “aggressively proletarian, puritanical and chauvinist” (55) group explored the downward spiral of social mobility. Reggae, once appealing to skinheads, started dealing with more and more black issues, which drove them away.

Segregation between white and black culture again began in Britain. Glam rock formed as an escape, but did not hold very much significance. Punk, finally, formed because of the “widening gap between artist and audience.” (63) It formed as an addition to glam rock, shedding its ornate style. Punk wanted to express their alienation, as Rastafarians had once before. They were aliens and thus, anarchy had to happen. There were more tangible means of appropriation from reggae too. Punk hair was fastened after dreads and some punks were Ethiopian colors. Ultimately Hebdige explains that punk is a “dialectic between black and white cultures,” (70) between reggae and teddy boys and glam rock.

Class Discussion 3/3:

In class, we first talked about some preliminary concepts that Hebdige speaks about in the second part of his book to help us better understand this idea of a subculture. Subcultures expose the arbitrary nature of life’s codes. People deviate from the norm in subcultures, breaking away from normative ideas. Subcultures can challenge the naturalness of class and gender. For example, punk’s clothing is androgynous. Specifically, we spoke about “spectacular subcultures.” These express forbidden content in forbidden forms. Spectacular subcultures are literally making a spectacle of themselves. Punk was a visual cacophony, both with their music and the way they dressed. There was a perfect fit between the ideology of this subculture and the way it presented itself, known as homology. Punks were a literal expression of resisting norms, with such clothing as pins. Also, through appropriating the Rastafarian subculture, punks were participating in bricolage. This is taking things from other cultures and making it your own.

Later in class, we watched the film Filth and the Fury, about the rise of the band the Sex Pistols. It showed the chaotic scenes around London during the time of the Sex Pistols. There was a huge juxtaposition between lower and upper classes, showcasing scenes of rioting alongside rich people dancing at parties. During this time, “the Sex Pistols should have happened and it did.” We then discussed how subcultures attract certain people at certain moments in time. Usually, it’s the young because teens have more time and opportunities to do things and in the case of punk, the moment was a challenge to the British order. Punks were responding to the idea that there was no better future than the one they were experiencing.

Part Two Reading Summary:

As Hebdige begins part two he discusses the relationship of the spectacular subcultures previously discussed in part one relationship to each other as well as the other cultural groups (parents, teachers, police, etc) against which they are often defined.

Many narratives fail to look at these spectacular youth subcultures as a consequence of the larger social, economic, political and historical context from which they arise.  Subcultures have a vital function in that they call attention to the significance of class and power relations that are consistently neglected and underestimate (75).  A big focus turns to the way in which styles of youth subcultures vividly express their deviant ideologies.  Most subcultures have a distinct correspondence between their style and other aspects called homology.  A good example of this would be raw and grotesque punk style that corresponds with the angst and frustration of the culture.  Punks are attributed to translating ‘Britain’s decline’ into tangible and visible terms through heir style and aesthetic (87).  Punks, along with other spectacular subcultures utilize bricolage to create meaning with style (1022).  By taking many objects and placing them together they displace the original meaning of the objects and create a new meaning.  Reappropriation of the meaning and uses of these commodities challenges the existing social order.

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These subcultures try to call attention to the issues of society which they deem important by creating a spectacle of the issues and themselves: they do so by expressing forbidden contents in forbidden forms (91).

In part six Hebdige describes the process that spectacular subcultures go through as they interact with mainstream mass media (92-99).  This was also a big talking point in class.

1. First the subculture catches the media’s attention – often for stylistic innovations and variation.  This variation gives shock value.

2. Secondly this stylistic deviance begins to be translated as a social deviance.  Moral panic ensues because this deviance is seen as a social problem and threat to dominant ideology.

3. After this shock factor and moral panic fades the subculture goes through a process of ideological reappropriation.  The media does this by commodifying the subculture.  In commodifying the subculture the stylistic aspects become static objects to be bought and sold.  When this happens subcultural objects and stylistic deviances lose deeper meaning they once held.

4. Finally after ideological reappropriation and commodification the subcultural ideology is watered down and the once deviant behavior is relabeled in a safe way.

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Hebdige describes subcultures and their style as a form of resistance to the ruling ideology.  This resistance is most often symbolically represented through style.  Subcultural styles are usefully regarded as “mutations and extensions of existing codes rather than as the ‘pure’ expression of creative drives, and above all they should be seen as meaningful mutations” (130).  Much of a subculture’s value as a cultural object lies in the modification and resistance to codes that otherwise seem like common sense.  Although he deems subcultural deviance important the conclusion ends rather pessimistically noting that subcultures always fail to completely destroy the system they are resisting.  “Its impossible that subcultural styles like prison graffiti merely pay tribute to the place in which they were produced” (136).

Subcultures are imprisoned in the consumer culture they deviate from because commodities from consumerism are the only resources they possess to wage ideological warfare.  Prison graffiti and subcultural style both show deviation from the authority that oppresses them, but neither break down or destroy or escape the prison in which they are detained.

Class Discussion 3/5:

We began class by going over the vocabulary discussed previously such as bricolage and homology.  We also began to discuss how spectacular subcultures often mark themselves as being significant and worth noting through their style.  Every style is expressive and holds meaning, but spectacular styles exert themselves as a significant style worth noting.  We also noted the invisibility of black influence on punk style, why were there so few punks of African descent in the media?  Why is the reggae influence often ignored or forgotten when speaking of the subculture?

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We also discussed how youth is often seen as a time of rebellion.  Young people are often seen as having a lot of free time to find themselves, a certain amount of disposable income, and freedom from many responsibilities of adults.  Young people are constantly oppressed by various authority such as parents and teachers thus they try to rebel and express autonomy in any way they can: subcultures often provide them with the control they are missing in other aspects of life.

Referring to the conclusion it’s important to acknowledge that removing deeper meanings and commodifying subcultures is quite easy for mainstream media because subcultures inescapably exist in the commodity culture they came from.  Because subcultures create meaning and identity through existing commodities they do not step outside the cycle of consumerism.  In the end just as easy as the subcultures use bricolage to change the meaning of commodities, those commodities are again packaged and translated back to cater to the mainstream.

We ended class by choosing a contemporary subculture and describing several aspects of our chosen subcultures style, ideology, attitude, and resistance to mainstream culture.  Audrey and I chose “normcore” a new style growing in popularity that tries to resist fashion and commodity culture through wearing overtly bland clothing.  The questions asked us to discuss the subculture’s style and what makes it distinct, the subculture’s consistency between style and beliefs, and its relationship to mainstream and commercial entities.  Although we didn’t have time to discuss in class we imagine that all subcultures regardless of how different all come back to this idea of being imprisoned in the consumer culture they try to rebel against.

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In the end Hebdige has a pessimistic view on the long-term effects and power of subcultural style to truly affect dominant ideology, but as discussed in class this is in no way the only perspective on the matter.

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