Following up our recent look at Normcore, we examine five other youth subcultures whose inception can be traced back purely to the internet.
Perhaps the most universal claim made about the internet is its ability to transmit cultural congruence. Unlike the pre-millennial era, nowadays we have a platform through which people can create, share and voice common interests (no matter how eccentric or niche), entirely free from the traditional constraints of location, demographic or distance.
As the image-sharing capabilities of the web have improved, some of the most noteworthy subcultural movements of recent years have been pushed into the limelight. Often driven by a vanguard community of individuals keen to fetishize specific elements of art, music, fashion and popular culture – notoriously through social media platforms like Tumblr and Facebook – these fledgling collectives frequently find themselves snowballing into a full-blown force majeure by a trend-obsessed society ever-hungry to be fed the “hottest new thing.”
Taking a look at the genesis (and exodus) of five internet-generated subcultures of the modern era, we look at how they first gained traction, what came to define them, and what lead many of them to disappear off the trend radar altogether.
So you’ve arrived at an undisclosed (likely illegal) Brooklyn venue that you discovered while eavesdropping on a group of recording music majors at an NYU cafeteria. Struggling against a billowing nimbus of stage smoke that consumes the space’s minimal square meter count, your retinas wrestle with the strobing lights of a crudely-edited video montage of obscure, color-inverted ’80s Italian horror films. The lineup includes †‡†, oOoOO, ∆AIMON, and a handful of other Google-confounding names, and emanating from a makeshift stage come sounds of smothered synthesizer droning, Codeine-gurgled lyrics and hellish Top 40 pop samplings. The recurring DJ uniform, meanwhile, appears to be an assortment of oversized hooded sweatshirts, tattered V-neck tees, ankh and pentagram necklaces, and limbs embellished with a variety of occult and Egyptological symbol tattoos…
Once the initial rush of bewilderment subsides, you return home to scour the blogosphere for a definition of this cavernous new aesthetic. After scrambling through several obscure forums and subreddits for a label (drag, zombie rave and rape gaze were a few preliminary tags, mercifully discarded), you discover the cyber realm consensus has settled on “witch house.” The term came thanks to artist Travis Egedy (commonly known by stage name Pictureplane), who jokingly described his musical style in such a way back in 2009. But what started as an online joke quickly spiraled into a Tumblr-fueled internet frenzy, where cryptic band names, hazy chopped-and-screwed remixes and esoteric collage art surfaced en masse to form a unified whole.
Soon, everywhere from Pitchfork to The New York Times began weighing in on the macabre new subgenre, and Givenchy even featured a track by de-facto witch house poster-band SALEM during their Spring/Summer 2011 runway show. Though it’s perhaps glib to discredit the authenticity of th0se artists whose experimentation with dark, genre-bounding soundscapes ultimately resulted in such a niche aesthetic, “witch house” eventually morphed into a clichéd pop culture meme, widely appropriated and lampooned by music writers, hipster trend followers and bedroom producers seeking to cash in on its popularity.
It’s often been noted that subcultural trends are more likely to magnetize public attraction when linked to a captivating origin myth, and in the case of #seapunk, this myth can be traced back to a bizarre 5 a.m. tweet by DJ and touchscreen-happy Twitter maverick Lil Internet. Early one morning, Internet tweeted news of a dream he had where he wore a “Seapunk leather jacket with barnacles where the studs used to be.” Soon afterwards, a small sect of Twitter users who were in on the joke began ping-ponging the hashtag around the social media platform, which then developed into a private Facebook group, which led to a record label, which eventually crashed into the imaginations of the blog-savvy cyber youth.
Back then, a cursory click of the #seapunk hashtag would shower computer screens with ’90s 16-bit aquatic video game GIFs, mops of turquoise Manic Panic dye jobs, and retro-futuristic 3D collage art featuring floating dolphins and chrome-metallic geometric shapes. This “rave-in-Atlantis” aesthetic crashed into the cyber sphere with all the force of a leviathan, leaving it to seep out between the cracks of its Netscape aquarium and wash up on shore IRL.
By late 2011, seapunk had acquired niche ubiquity. As a microcosmic music genre emerged, seapunk-billed parties began popping up in urban hubs like New York, Chicago and LA, with trend forecasters hinting at the oceanic style’s arrival in the mainstream. Meanwhile, the fashion industry dipped its well-manicured hand into the seapunk pond as brands like Proenza Schouler and Versace began incorporating elements of the subculture into their own campaigns and designs. Perhaps the most notable appropriation, however, came as myriad pop musicians shoehorned the movement’s trippy, nautical aesthetic into their own performances and music videos (see Rihanna’ s 2012 SNL gig or Azealia Banks’s “Atlantis”). What started as a joke that fed off of its own fantasy morphed into a trend toyed with by top-tier mainstream pop audiences, only to then fade away as the green hair dye began to wash down the drain.
Once seapunk beached onto the shores of pop culture mainland and evaporated into the ether, it was only a matter of time before a more evolved heir took its place. Creeping curiously out of a succession of blogs and Last FM tag clouds, “vaporwave” soon became the next micro-genre to pique the interests of the world’s trend zealots. This was partially due to a heavy post-internet aesthetic not entirely dissimilar to that of its aquatic predecessor, but owing more to the diversity and ambiguity of its attitude and message.
Coined from the word “vaporware” – a term used by tech companies to describe publicly announced soft- or hardware that never actually materializes – the subgenre typically relied on the clichéd sonic ephemera of the ’80s and ’90s (think elevator music, late-night infomercials, “call waiting” soundtracks, etc.), incorporating elements of yuppie culture and New Age music as a means to parody hyper-capitalism while simultaneously fetishizing many of its artifacts. As such, vaporwave has been described as everything from “post-elevator music” to “corporate smooth jazz Windows 95 pop,” with its chopped-and-screwed layering and spacey hyper-glassine sound highlighting a sense of soulless techno-corporatism. (Listen here if you can’t quite get your head around that.)
Accompanying visuals often included glitch art, Renaissance sculptures, ’90s web design, palm trees, virtual model home blueprints and Japanese lettering that, when amalgamated, formed a mystical, cyberpunk-inspired realm defined by futurist acceleration and capitulation to a globally commercialized Tomorrowland. Often denounced for its enigmatic political agenda and sonic rigidity, many have since claimed that vaporwave was over even before it began. However, contrary to this notion, the micro-genre appears to have gained increasing momentum within the blogosphere since its post-seapunk emergence a few years ago – a fact made apparent by an active subreddit page and recent influx of Bandcamp downloads from anonymous entities lurking on the internet.
Place ’90s grunge through a Tumblr-powered centrifuge, sift and bake the remaining dregs in an Easy-Bake Oven, sprinkle on some ennui, and out comes its contemporary, pastel-hued, Lolita-baiting counterpart – otherwise known as “soft grunge.”
A millennial’s appropriation of the original musical subculture, what’s perhaps most ironic about soft grunge is its almost diametric opposition to the ideologies of its Gen X predecessor, trading the anti-image and angst for vanity and disinterest. Originating in 2010 (what is perhaps Tumblr’s golden year), the satirical style was at once both an iconoclastic reaction to the past and a nostalgic ode to the childhood of its audience, clashing band T-shirts and Doc Martens with flower headbands and ombré hairstyles in one idiosyncratic mix of influences.
While the idolatry of original grunge and alt rock is commonplace in the soft grunge community, knowledge and genuine interest in any of these bands is thin on the ground. Often championed by alterna-pop “cool girl” singers of the contemporary blog era – Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX and Lana Del Rey all being good examples – the style has since been commercialized by trend-conscious entities like Urban Outfitters and UNIF as a response to the popularity of hipster irony (the nucleus of soft grunge) and music festival culture. To this day, Coachella and SXSW are still the mecca for blogger subcultures and “alleged” indie music fanatics, and soft grunge owes a lot to their continued success.
The latest subcultural trend to be seized upon by the fad-thirsty masses – landing second place in the most Googled fashion trends of 2014, no less – is one whose meaning and origin has been so modified and misconstrued that its creators could easily give up the fight out of sheer exhaustion.
With a genesis that dates back to a Facebook page created in 2013 by video artist Chris Cantino and Portland-based musicians Mike Grabarek and Jeremy Scott (no, not that Jeremy Scott), “Health Goth” was first formed purely as an aesthetic curation of images that were meant to “[reference] evolution and relate it back to subcultures, things like bio-enhancement technology, anti-aging medication, and how it all feeds into this ideal of ‘pursuing perfection’.”
Frequent themes of the page were BDSM, sterile net art graphics, visions of cyborg-like physical idealism, and monochromatic technical sportswear, with interests in trans-humanism and accelerationist theory driving the overall credo. Running contrary to the original health goth agenda, however, is the widely misappropriated notion of “gymming for goths,” which has been frequently credited to a rival website launched by Chicago-based producer and party promoter Johnny Love. According to health goth’s actual founders, Love cashed in on their aesthetic (via branded apparel and a “Health Goth Fitness Bible”) once it started to gain traction, spawning the idea that many attribute to the name today.
Now parodied, plagiarized and plucked from its cyber-generated petri dish by mainstream media outlets, health goth has gone from being a niche community of abstract art enthusiasts to a full-blown fashion trend. Everything from muscle-bound gym heads donning head-to-toe Rick Owens at Planet Fitness, to Alexander Wang’s H&M collaboration, to an inverted Nike Swoosh began appearing under the #HealthGoth hashtag. Even OG health goth pioneers were being summoned by the head honchos at adidas’s Portland HQ to consult about the look. Though still retaining a pulse in the current trend circuit, like many of its social media-fueled forerunners it will only be a matter of time before health goth’s momentum wanes and its mesh-lined bionic suit begins to stagnate.
And then, just like all those that came before it, this “hottest new trend” will find itself consigned to the depths of a desktop “inspo” folder, while eager eyes and index fingers search elsewhere for new ideas.