Sociology of Culture and Subculture
Critically discuss Hebdige’s definition of Subculture in relation to a youth culture of your choice.
In order to explore the topic of youth subcultures, this essay will first of all outline Dick Hebdige’s classic definition of subculture as that resistant to and subversive of the dominant order. His analysis will be tested through a consideration of two texts of contemporary hiphop youth culture – Flo Rida’s ‘Right Round’ (2009) and Nicki Minaj’s ‘Your Love’ (2010). After considering shifts from the political origins of hiphop culture (Rose, 1994) to contemporary commercial global hiphop (Watkins, 2005), the two music videos will be used as examples in an analysis of key criticisms that have emerged of Hebdige’s assumptions and argument. These include a focus on how resistance has become an inherent part of capitalism (Jameson, 1999), on how identity is based on consumption (Dunn, 2008), and on methodological questions such as Hebdige’s failure to account for the voices of subcultures themselves (Muggleton, 2000) or other social factors (Hiq, 2006). Finally, it will be concluded that although Hebdige’s analysis has been useful within the field of subculture, the binary opposition he makes between culture and its subversion is not the best way to understand the contemporary fragmented fluid and performative nature of contemporary youth culture.
Dick Hebdige’s account of subcultures has become classic within discourses of sociology and cultural studies. It is based on the fundamental premise that subcultures act as a kind of resistance of the dominant order. Hebdige’s argument is based on the assumption that culture can be defined as lived expression of the dominant ideology (2002, pp.12-13). Ideology can be understood as what we take to be ‘natural’ or given within society at any one time, but which can actually be interpreted as working in the interests of specific power interests (Bailey and Gayle, 2003, p.56). To give an example, it could be argued that within contemporary capitalist society it is ‘normal’ to work for a company, helping that company to maximise its profit, boost the national economy and increase one’s own personal purchasing power. Someone doing this would not necessarily consider that they were expressing a belief but they would be involved in the lived expression of the assumptions of capitalist society, the dominant ideology of our time. If this captures Hebdige’s sense of ‘culture’, then his sense of ‘subculture’ can be best imagined by considering an alternative to it. Someone employing a punk lifestyle, for example, may choose to actively reject the assumptions of wealth accumulation inherent to capitalist ideology, preferring instead to find alternative modes of exchange, community and purpose. The figure of the punk, then, becomes an image for the type of definition Hebidge makes. Subculture, according to his argument, is a form of resistance to the dominant meanings given to things enforced and assumed within culture (2002, p.18). He assumes, then, that there is a dominant order, against which subculture is defined as an alternative style:
[Subculture is] a crime against the natural order, though in this case the deviation may seem slight indeed…but it ends in the construction of a style, in a gesture of defiance or contempt…It signals a Refusal. I would like to think this Refusal is worth making, that the smiles and sneers have some subversive value. (2002, p.3)
Hebdige makes a lot of assumptions in this basic definition. Subculture is framed as a ‘crime’ suggesting that it is transgressive, breaking the laws of what is established and expected within society. This fits neatly with much media representation of youth culture. Framed as something that cannot be understood from within the perspectives and definitions of mainstream culture, youth culture becomes ‘criminal’ in the sense of a break from the norms. Media outcry against ‘hoodies’ provides a contemporary example with reports such as Mail (2007) associating the wearing of hooded clothes with deviant and threatening ‘yob’ behaviour. Hebdige’s focus on the ‘slight’ nature of deviation is also interesting. It is not necessarily the case that one has to abandon mainstream culture completely in order to be defined as ‘subcultural’ but any tiny deviation can, for Hebdige act as a sign of resistance. Two other important elements to be drawn from his analysis are the relation of subculture to style and the subversive power of refusal. Firstly, and importantly, he sees deviation from the norm as the way to define the construction of a ‘style’. The youths on the picture accompanying the Mail (2007) article create a ‘style’ through the simple covering of their faces, challenging the expectations of openness to scrutiny inherent to lived relations to dominant culture. Secondly, and equally vitally, Hebdige frames this as an active refusal of dominant culture and gives this refusal some value. It is not merely a meaningless gesture but an active production of a subcultural stance, which subverts the dominant order, no matter how subtly. In his argument (p.3) such small expressions of style may well be an expression of the lack of power in society, but at the same time they still have a kind of power through the act of their expression
Turning again to the image, one of the youths is wearing a 50 Cent hoody, expressing the historical stylistic connection between youth cultural identity and hiphop as a specific youth subculture. Hiphop has traditionally been understood, as Tricia Rose (1994) has argued as specifically connected to identities of race and class, an important mode of expression for inner-city black youths who are marginalised from mainstream modes of expression. She defines it, for example as “black cultural expression that prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America” (1994, p.2). While its origins lie in such politicised identities and expression, processes of commercialisation, appropriation, hybridity and global reach have led more recent critics to discuss hip hop in terms of its importance as a global youth culture, “young people of different colors, creeds and cultural ancestry have made hip hop an incredibly vital fountain of identity and creativity, expression and exploration, pleasure and politics” (Watkins, 2005, p.163). In order to explore the validity and legacies of Hebdige’s analysis, attention will now turn to the analysis of two contemporary texts of hiphop youth culture, music videos for Flo Rida’s ‘Right Round’ (2009) and Nicki Minaj’s ‘Your Love’ (2010). Flo Rida’s ‘Right Round’ (2009) draws on the traditions of hiphop discussed by Rose (1994) emphasising black masculine empowerment through visual and lyrical imagery of financial success. Its use of slang such as ‘homies’ and ‘shorties’ suggests the production of a discourse for youth subcultural identification, while its bright lights, strobe effects and rapid cuts go towards creating a visual aesthetic which also defines such a culture. Its representation of lifestyle is the now conventional ‘success narrative’ of a male in a club and traveling the world surrounded by scantily clad female singers and dancers. It glamorises guns through the Flo Rida logo and the accumulation of money through lines such as “time to get paid the maximum wage”. While such imagery and representations could be interpreted within the framework of a marginalised culture seeking a voice of expression, it lacks any of the anger or critical power that Rose locates as vital to hiphop culture. Its repeated imagery of guns and sex is intercut with product placements of telephones and designer clothes, suggesting that the video signifies not a rejection or refusal of dominant ideologies of capitalism, but simply the embracing of these ideologies to a point of excess, with no critical self-awareness. If the video could be seen as a text in defining a youth subculture, then there would be little to differentiate such a culture from the dominant culture other than an excessive relation to consumption and display of goods, and an attitude of entitlement to such pleasures. Reading it in relation to Hebdige’s analysis then, the culture it refuses is not capitalism but rather regulations on capitalism, producing a youth subculture of hyper-capitalist ‘smile and sneer’. Nicki Minaj’s (2010) video has similarities in terms of both imagery and aesthetic, employing rapid cuts and dramatic lighting detaching the singer from any background context. It replaces the macho aggression of Flo Rida, however with a more stereotypically ‘feminine’ ballad and mise-en-scene including drapes of flowing red velvet. The lyrical imagery of money is continued, “a couple hundred grand in a rubber band” but it is inflected with an ideology of female empowerment – not needing men in order to make money. While, on one hand, Minaj is objectified through lingering close-ups and fragmented shots of her body, on the other hand, she is a strong figure, showing her physical strength through a karate scene. The focus on sexual conquest in the Flo Rida song is replaced with a narrative told from a female perspective, focused on romantic love more than sex. The video then, while again offering no direct criticism of consumer capitalist culture does provide a double ‘sneer’, through the consumerist excesses it espouses and also the rejection of conventional masculine hiphop narratives.
Various criticisms can be made of Hebdige’s account of subcultures. One argument is that rather than providing resistance from dominant ideologies and culture, subcultures are commodified and absorbed into the same systems that they ostensibly set out to challenge. In order to rebel by buying a 50 Cent hoody, in other words, you have to buy the hoody, becoming part of the capitalist nature of exchange that structures dominant power relations. As Frederic Jameson has argued in his analysis of postmodernism, “even overtly political interventions…are all somehow secretly disarmed and reabsorbed by a system of which they themselves might well be considered a part, since they can achieve no distance from it” (1999, p.87). It can be seen here how Jameson’s analysis offers a different approach from Hebdige. While Hebdige assumes a critical distance between the resistant act of the subculture and the dominant norm of culture, Jameson proposes that within postmodernism such distinctions collapse, allowing no ‘refusal’ as ultimately one cannot refuse a system of which one is inevitably a part. Connected to this are analyses of how identities are formed through consumption. Dunn, for example (2008, p.161) argues that identity is formed through buying into constantly changing fashion and styles. ‘Style’ in this sense is not a resistant attitude but a pre-formed and categorised identity into which groups can fit if they buy the right items. Style, in this sense, is very much part of the dominant culture as much as an individual youth subcultural expression. In relation to the hiphop texts discussed here, it is clear that there is no critical distance between the youth subcultural identities produced and the dominant codes of capitalist exchange and consumption. There is a difference here from the punk examples that Jameson uses (1997, p.87) in that Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj do not necessarily aspire to political interventions into culture. The culture to emerge from the videos is part of the capitalist ‘norm’ yet it expresses no nostalgia for an autonomous critical position, preferring instead, as discussed, to produce an excessive image of consumerism rather than a critical one. Jameson’s analysis could have more impact on Minaj’s text. If her work is understood as a criticism of the masculine narratives of hiphop that repress expressions of femininity, then she is unavoidably entangled within these narratives, through for example her own highly sexualised visual representation.
Another criticism of Hebdige is highlighted by Muggleton (2000, p.3), suggesting that in his assigning of categories of resistance to subcultural groups, he fails to actually take into account the viewpoints of those involved in the youth subcultures themselves. Hebdige, in other words, imposes his notions of resistance and refusal onto groups without conducting research into how they see their own acts and behaviours. This is a valid criticism, which cannot really be supported or dismissed from textual analysis of the music videos as it would require more primary research. A look at the communities that form around the comments of the videos, however, seems to support Muggleton’s criticism in that those involved in the community do not define themselves in terms of resistance or defiance to dominant modes. A lot of discussion is from official record label sources, supporting Jameson’s point about the co-option of youth cultural identities into capitalist forms. A lot of the other comments centre around value judgements and issues of factual accuracy, which seems difficult to read in terms of Hebdige’s production of subcultural style. Adopting a similar approach, Huq (2006, p.10) has argued that Hebdige’s account “romanticizes resistance” in the sense that it ignores social factors and restrictions and other identities such as gender, which may problematise, restrict or make more complex identities. Hiphop has traditionally been associated with specific social contexts, not only in terms of race but also marginalisation from the mainstream of society. The excess lifestyle promoted as a form of youth subcultures in these texts could be interpreted as some form of resistance but it is certainly not something open to all. Again, such complexities are lacking from Hebdige’s assumptions.
Overall then, a general critique could be the binary that Hebdige makes between culture and subculture. He assumes that there exists a dominant culture against which resistance must be defined. Jameson criticises this in terms of the collapse of social norms that he associates with postmodernism (1999, p.87). It can also be criticised from the perspective of the homogenising tendency of ‘subculture’ as a category. Weinzerl and Muggleton (2003, p.3), for example, argue that contemporary youth subculture can be best understood in terms of “fragmentation, flux and fluidity” rather than a set of fixed subcultural identities such as ‘punk’, ‘goth’ or ‘raver’. Either from a theoretical perspective of the shifting nature of identity or from the more pragmatic approach suggested by Muggleton’s analysis above (2003, p3), it could be argued that youths today can shift easily between identities, moving and buying into different identities in different contexts without necessarily forming around groups seen as resistant or rebellious. Weinzerl and Muggleton argue, therefore that “the potential for style itself to resist appears largely lost” (p.5), suggesting that Hebdige’s account needs to be updated. Both of the texts discussed here make no claim for ‘authentic’ production of identity, situating themselves self-consciously instead within an intertextual continuum of reference and pastiche. Flo Rida’s song is based on a sampling of You Spin me Right Round by Dead or Alive, showing how contemporary hiphop culture can draw on and rework other youth subcultures such as rock. Nicki Minaj makes reference to Bruce Willis and Die Hard suggesting an awareness of 1980s popular culture, the ability to shift between different frames of reference and the rapid recycling of past styles inherent to contemporary globalised youth cultures.
So, it can be concluded that Hebdige’s account of subcultures has been very important within the field of sociology and subculture. It allows for a reading of subculture as a positive resistant form and of style as a subtle challenge to the dominant ideology. It has also led to many important criticisms. It can apply, to an extent to the hiphop texts that have been discussed here, but they also suggest a misfit between Hebdige’s assumptions and the realities of contemporary global youth culture. Hiphop youth culture today, against its origins discussed by Rose, seems largely composed of non self-aware excessive corporate commercialism, and this combined with money, sex and guns provides its ‘style’. This could be read in relation to Hebdige’s analysis but it also makes more sense as part of a critique of his ideas. Some of Jameson’s discussions of postmodernism were outlined, proposing that what may seem like political resistance is actually part of the system it sets out to challenge. This is also not an ideal framework within which to understand contemporary hiphop youth culture as, using the texts discussed here as examples, there seems little conscious political critique as part of the culture anyway. Huq’s critique that Hebdige does not account for social and other identity factors such as gender is relevant here. Minaj’s work is most impressive, not only as a stereotypical part of the global hiphop style but also as a self-critical text in terms of the representation of women within this culture. This is not unproblematic however, as she is still sexualised and objectified within her own discourse. Muggleton raised some important points, including the lack of voice given to the actual subcultures themselves in Hebdige’s ‘top-down’ theoretical assumptions. This could be developed further through the use of more primary research in the field. Ultimately the most persuasive critique of Hebdige is the inability to sustain the binary he creates between standard dominant culture and fixed subculture. Contemporary subcultures seem, as Weinzerl and Muggleton propose, to be more fluid and fragmented than coherent sites of resistance. This could be explored further again through primary research discussing the role of subcultural identity with youth groups today. It could also be explored further theoretically considering how contemporary subjectivities are produced and dismantled in relation to texts such as the music videos discussed here. Finally, Weinzerl and Muggleton (2003, p.3) propose that, although we can be critical of Hebdige, we do not need to abandon what is at stake in his theories entirely. They suggest directions for doing this including a focus on ‘performativity’ or how youth subcultures and identities are not necessarily pre-formed but come into being through the very act of people taking part in everyday rituals, and also the work of Maffesoli on urban tribes, based on the forming of communities through shared interests rather than through a domination / subversion relation. More work could also be done on analysis of texts of contemporary youth cultures. There has only been scope to look at two here but a consideration of more could provide a more complex and through vision of fragmentary, temporary and performative youth subculture today.
Bailey, G. and Gayle, N. (2003) Ideology: Structuring Identity in Contemporary Life. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Dunn, Robert G. (2008) Identifying Consumption: Subjects and Objects in a Consumer Society. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Flo Rida (2009) ‘Right Round’, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcCw1ggftuQ
Hebdige, D. (2002) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.
Hiq, R. (2006) Beyond Subculture: Pop, Youth and Identity in a Postcolonial World. London: Routledge.
Jameson, F. (1999) ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, in Docherty, T. (Ed.) Postmodernism: A Reader. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, pp.51-61.
Mail (2007) ‘Don’t call them ‘hoodie scum’, Mail Online, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-479001/Dont-hoodie-scum-police-tell-victim-complained-yobs.html, [accessed 30th March 2011].
Minaj, N. (2010) ‘Your Love, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSFyrrhKj1Q
Muggleton, D. (2000) Inside Subculture: The Postmodern meaning of Style. Oxford: Berg.
Rose, T. (1994) Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
Watkins, S.C. (2005) Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. Boston: Beacon.
Weinzerl, R. and Muggleton, D. (2003) ‘What is Post-subcultural studies anyway?’, in D.Muggleton and R.Weinzerl (eds.) The Post-subcultures Reader. Oxford: Berg, pp.3-26.