This paper will look at what is considered a theoretical basis for current youth culture, analysing in particular the work of Sarah Thornton among others, to determine if the data for this study, secured through a single interview with an established clubber, can provide evidence that the clubbers do exist as a youth subculture. After an extensive discussion of Thornton’s theories in particular the conclusion of this research will show that London Clubbers do form a distinct subculture within the larger “youth” dynamic and Londoners overall.
Sarah Thornton (1995) described “club culture” as a subculture that involved youths who frequented raves and dance clubs from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. She noted in her work that the previous two decades has seen the evolution of a number of youth subcultures, arising from a rebellion against the political and social framework of a capitalist nation. Some of these more evident subcultures included the mods, skinheads, and punk-rockers (punks). The dominating identifying marks of these subcultures included the way the members dressed, acted, their taste in music and their drug preferences. Social theorists of the day claimed that the youths were showing a resistance against capitalism itself rather than more social factors such as parental control, educational hierarchy and authority and the law.
Thornton (1995) wrote in her study that during the 1980s and 1990s it became more difficult to identify individual subcultures among young people. There were a number of new and different trends that impacted clothing, socialising and drug usage for the youth during this time, making any clear ideation of a dominant sub culture virtually impossible. Thornton felt that these uprisings were more influenced by music and fashion trends rather than any political ideology.
Wilson (2002) based his Canadian study on the club culture model that came out of Britain. At the time of his research there was very little empirical research conducted on what was known as the “rave sub-culture” in Canada. Wilson identified this group of young Canadians as “a middle class culture of youth renowned for amphetamine drug use; an interest in computer generated music known as ‘Techno’ and attendance at all night rave dance parties” (Wilson, 2002, 373).
The evidence of the Canadian version of the club subculture was identified initially by media reports on the exploits of youths who seemed determined to shorten their life span by fuelling their all night dance parties with speed and similar drugs (Blanchfield, 1996). The original model for this particular subculture was based on previous research conducted in the American cities of New York, Chicago and Detroit in the 1970s and in Britain among the nightclub venues of London, Birmingham and Liverpool during the same time period (Brake, 1985).
The British clubbers have been the subject of some notable studies that distinguished them more as a subculture rather than a passing teenage trend. Redhead (1997) and Reynolds (1997) both viewed the subgroup as “late century – pro technology, pleasure seeking, subtly resistant and/or non-oppositional” but as this differed from traditional definitions as indicated by Thornton (1995) above there was some dispute as to whether or not the club culture as such was categorically different enough from other groups identified through clothes and music tastes alone. The main issue within the definition was centralised around the concept of “resistance” and the fact that many other quasi sub-cultural youth groups such as the punks and skinheads operated more on the fringe of mainstream society in contrast to clubbers, which were more “mainstream” in many ways. For example many of the clubbers were slightly older than in other groups; they were often gainfully employed and they functioned enough as individuals to party in public clubs and venues rather than private or hidden venues (for more details see Hall and Jefferson, 1976 compared with Tanner, 1996).
The two key schools of thought of the rave subculture in Britain stem from McRobbie (1987) and Redhead (1997). McRobbie’s (1987) views are considered optimistic about the youth in the 1990s; those individuals who are seeking simple pleasures as a “symbolic escape from the social tensions of their times” (Wilson, 2002, 375). McRobbie wrote later that if “we deconstruct the notion of resistance by removing its metapolitical status…and reinsert it at a more mundane micrological level of everyday practices…then it becomes possible to see the sustaining, publicizing and extending of the subcultural enterprise” (1994, 162).
Redhead (1997) on the other hand was a lot more pessimistic. He claimed that the youth culture itself was characterized by a “loss of meaning” that was caused in part by the lack of shock value unusual clothing and behaviour tastes seemed to garner from mainstream “oldies”. In fact in 1990 Redhead claimed that “because shock is now mundane, redundant and unoriginal and nostalgia was permeating the current youth of the time” that the very end of youth culture was in evident because of the lack of resistance he felt existed between the club subculture and mainstream society and youth (Redhead, 1990). Another researcher, Muggleton, (2000) went even further and claimed that the club subculture could not be defined as a subculture because the philosophy of the individuals involved had dissolved the distinctions between mainstream society and prominent Marxist theories that underlined many of the youth subcultures of the 1970s and 1980s.
Given this apparent discord among theorists the main focus of this study will be as to whether or not the London Clubbing scene and the people that frequent it can be considered resistant to mainstream society, thereby cementing the definition of sub cultures as it pertains to the clubbing youths.
To study this issue of resistance an interview was taken with a well-known “Clubber” who agreed to talk to me provided his identity was kept confidential. Charlie* had been a member of the London clubber scene for more than five years and he was the first to admit that he was considered an “oldie” among many of the core group of clubbers that moved around London. In his early 20’s Charlie said that it was harder now for him to “party the way I used to”. I asked whether or not this might have been because of the drug use that pervades the clubbing scene. Charlie admitted to using amphetamines and Ecstasy – “how else could I stay awake all night and still get to work by ten am the next day” he laughed. He did note in passing that his drug use now was heavier than it had been when he first entered the clubbing scene, but “that’s because I got heavier and the drugs have less effect than they did.” Given that Charlie was of slim stature I considered this statement more of an excuse rather than a valid reason for drug taking.
When I asked Charlie “why” clubbers act the way they do, his first response was to say “why not?” When he understood that I wasn’t trying to belittle him in any way but was genuinely curious he thought about it a bit more. “You know” he said, “how many other places can you go where virtually everyone around you is your friend; drugs are plentiful, the music is so loud you can’t hear yourself think and you don’t have to think about anything at all? Can you imagine a better form of escapism?”
I then asked Charlie about the concept of “resistance” and again I had made him laugh. “Who is there to be resistant too? The police or noise control? Oldies? If we were making a statement as a group then the only thing we would be saying is ‘what is wrong with a little party’”? But what about political resistance? After explaining to Charlie what I meant about a form of political resistance he had trouble answering the query. From Charlie’s comments there was an immediate element of resistance to mainstream society in that the members of the group, when in party mode, were reluctant to stop, but political resistance in the sense described by Thornton where new ideas for society were created and implemented was not as evident. Charlie mentioned that, whether it was openly acknowledged or not participation in the club culture was limited and finite. Sooner or later the young people grew up – they had families and careers and they left the club culture behind. A few participants died through drug overdoses, but this was not as common as the media made out, but as a rule the timelessness and escapism evident among the culture faithful was perhaps more vehement because time eventually made membership in this subculture impossible.
Thornton’s (1995) work perhaps provides at first glance the most effective subcultural model to use when discussing the London clubbers. She describes a subculture as a group that is based on shared interests or tastes, most commonly in clothes or music. She claims that there is a slim difference between subcultural groups and artistic or pop groups, but that the main problem with current subcultures like clubbing was not that they were resistant to the mainstream, but that they wanted to remain distinctly different in an environment where individuality was accepted. She claims that the one thing a subculture had to avoid was to work in conjunction with the media, but if this relationship was established the subculture ceased to exist.
Her later discussion noted about clubbers in particular that “…[they] are fundamentally about fantasy, where play and work do not intersect…” and went on to say “It is rude to puncture the bubble of an institution where fantasies of identity are a key pleasure” (Thornton, 1995, 91).
Thornton (1995) outlined three main classifications that are traditionally used to consider mainstream versus alternative groups in traditional subculture theory:
- Dominant culture, bourgeois ideology vs. subculture, deviant guard
- Mass culture and commercial ideology vs. student culture, educated vanguard, and
- Dominant culture, bourgeois ideology vs. student culture, educated vanguard.
While these classifications seem self evident Thornton (1995) disputes their effectiveness when considering a group like the London clubbers. She believes that clubbers are more of a mainstream group that have been nurtured by the media into a ‘quasi subculture” that is typified more by the drugs the youths use and the venues they use rather than any philosophy of resistance or rebelling against the norm. Thornton (1995) believes that youth subcultures do not become a subculture until the media portrays them as such, and that this generally only happens when one aspect of the youth behaviour appears against the mainstream. She cites drug usage as the most popular media tool that is used to identify subcultures that before this particular recognition did not exist with any political sense. She wrote,
“While subcultural studies have tended to argue that youth subcultures are subversive until the very moment they are represented by the mass media…it is argued that these kinds of taste cultures (not to be confused with activist organizations) become politically relevant only when they are framed as such. In other words, derogatory media coverage is not the verdict but the essence of their resistance” (Thornton, 1995, 137).
It would be very hard to distance media commentary with subcultural definition as most aspects of our lives, mainstream or alternative, are influenced by various forms of media. This would lead the researcher to suggest that any form of subculture, particularly among adolescents, could only be identified and defined by the media exposure they garner as they interact with mainstream society. Club culture is inexplicably linked with a drug culture, and particular tastes in music which would tend to support Thornton’s (1995) ideas that clubbers are more a “taste culture” than a subculture.
Thinking back to my interview with Charlie this researcher did wonder whether Thornton was strictly accurate. Thornton’s (1995) ideas about club culture operating as a buffer against getting old, not in a chronological sense, but in a staid and socially acceptable sense, does make sense. Charlie’s comments about the sheer escapism of a night in a club would suggest that these people are not thinking, as they take their drugs and blow out their ears with loud music, of their jobs, or their need to conform to a socially acceptable model of existence.
But Thornton’s ideas about mainstream society, totally relevant in the mid 1990s, may not have the same impact on our mainstream society today. As a society we are much more open to new ideas, non-conformity, alternative lifestyles. Our family units have changed in that the two adults and two point five children are no longer the norm – a mainstream family is just as likely to consist of a single parent with any number of children, two same sex parents with children, and even extended and blended family units. The business environment has changed and now many young graduates are changing jobs every couple of years so as to move faster up the managerial chain. There is an emphasis on fast lives; attainment of financial security, and seeing young people playing as hard as they work is not an unusual sight.
But do these changes in the mainstream have any bearing on the concept of resistance against the norm? A subculture needs its own identity, but is that identity, as suggested by Thornton, devalued if it is framed in part by media interpretation of the groups’ activities. Can we as theorists totally discount the influence of the subcultural group on its members simply because they feature in the media, either positively or negatively, on a regular basis? This researchers’ discussion with Charlie suggested that there is a number of different individual factors that make up the clubber identity. Not only do these people like to visit the same places, dress in a similar fashion, enjoy the same loud music and take the same drugs, they have chosen this “club” for the want of a better word, because in a political or social sense it is a reflection of the needs of the individual. These needs are based on part on escapism, but there is also a sense of belonging that pervades the clubbers this researcher observed.
It can be argued that having the need to belong is in itself a form of resistance against the norm because it implies by sheer existence that some people (in this case mainstreamers) do not belong. Simply because the sense of belonging in this particular subculture is not based on gender, socio-economic status, culture, ethnicity or religious belief, does not imply that a sense of belonging is no less necessary, and can be considered in itself a form of elitism equal to any other form of youth culture evident in history.
So are our London clubbers a subculture, a taste culture, or simply a group of people out for a night on the town? The answer to that would lay in the perceptions of the reader. Thornton (1995) thinks that the clubbers are a taste culture rather than a subculture because of the groups’ rather inane (and almost ordinary) activities. Redhead (1997) and Muggleton (2000) don’t see clubbers as a subculture because they are not overtly politically or socially resistant to the mainstream. But after interviewing Charlie this researcher tends to disagree. The evidence presented in this paper shows that there are probably far more intangible elements that make up a subculture than has been considered in modern society. There is more to the London club scene that the needs of individuals to meet up, take drugs and party the night away. There is a sense of belonging that is as important to the youth of today, as in any other demographical grouping. And in this researchers opinion that it is this need to belong, and to escape life for just a short time, that does set the clubbers aside from their mainstream peers, to the point where they can be considered a subcultural group in London at least. It is just our definition of the term subculture itself could do with expanding to include the pervasion of media forms in context with the groups other activities.
Blanchfield, Mike. 1996 28 September. “Police Seize Potentially Fatal Drug – Versions of Ecstasy Found in Ottawa,” Ottawa Citizen, p. C1.
Brake, Michael. 1985. Comparative Youth Cultures. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Hall, Stuart and Tony Jefferson, (editors). 1976. Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Sub-Cultures in Post-War Britain. London: Hutchison
McRobbie, Angela. 1987. “Settling Accounts with Subcultures: A Feminist Critique.” In Bennett, T. Martin, G. Mercer, C. & J. Woollacott. (editors), Culture, Ideology and Social Process. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd.
McRobbie, Angela. 1994. Postmodernism and Popular Culture. London: Routledge.
Muggleton, David. 2000. Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style. New York, NY: Berg.
Redhead, Steve. 1990. End of the Century Party: Youth and Pop Towards 2000. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Redhead Steve. 1997. Subcultures to Club cultures: An Introduction to Popular Cultural Studies. Maiden, MA: Blackwell.
Reynolds, Simon. 1997. “Rave Culture: Living Dream or Living Death.” In S. Redhead, D. Wynne &J. O’Connor (editors), The Club Cultures Reader: Readings in Popular Cultural Studies. Maiden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
Tanner, Julian. 1996. Teenage Troubles: Youth and Deviance in Canada. Toronto, ON: Nelson Canada.
Thornton, Sarah. 1996. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press
Wilson, Brian. 2002. The Canadian Rave Scene and Five Theses on Youth Resistance. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 27:3: 373+.
Cite This Essay
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below: