What does counterculture even mean in the South?
There’s so many competing ideas about who and what exemplifies Southern culture, it’s difficult to discuss in a meaningful what it means to resist it. This is important to explore, especially since I have named the entire blog after an effort to redefine the concept of being Southern by first negating it as a default.
One way to conceptualize counterculture is from the standpoint of social and political power. Given the race and class hegemony that has presided for centuries, counterculture would be exemplified by the social justice movements that rallied in the ’50s and ’60s. This idea dovetails conveniently with the narrative of the idealistic hippies and the “militant” Black activists, both products of this period who are, in the popular mind, the representatives of the American counterculture.
Another approach is to treat the South as more or less the same as the U.S. at large. From there, we could simply catalog the American subcultures and cliques that have proliferated in the past couple of generations: the goths, the punks, the Rastas, the tech geeks, and so on. Just about anyone under 50 can probably better relate to this “alternative reality,” if you will. We went to school with these kids, or we went through these phases ourselves. In some cases, these identities have stayed with us into adulthood.
What I’d like to concentrate on here, though, are the internal complications that these different groups face when they attempt to articulate their counterculture ideals. In particular, almost every counterculture ideology revolves around the idea that the status quo is inconsequential, irrelevant, and/or outdated.
Instead, what often happens is that these movements “doth protest too much.” (Yes, I know the subject-verb agreement is off, but I needed to reference the Shakespeare quote directly, so cut me some slack.) They become knee-jerky in their reactions to the mainstream, which has the unintended consequence of validating the status quo.
A simple example is the goth subculture. Many teens have embraced the trappings of goth subculture since the ’80s. To its credit, it has real staying power, which to me demonstrates how straightforward its grasp of counterculture is.
Goth culture is an obvious rejection of prevailing norms. The larger society embraces ideals of joy, happiness, and color. Goth subculture indulges melancholy, despair and an anti-color palette of black and blacker. Goth kids are drawn to the idea of establishing an identity separate from their parents and their cheery, normative ideals, yet they demonstrate this individuality by dressing and acting largely the same as each other and by acting deliberately opposite of those ideals.
To me, a more sophisticated and sincere rejection of mainstream society would consist of going completely off the grid, disregarding how happy or colorful the prevailing society is, and simply recalibrating the balance of these elements for oneself.
I am not saying, by any means, that people who consider themselves part of an alternative aesthetic or philosophy are misguided or mistaken. I admire kids who embrace these cliques with gusto, and I admire Americans who banded together in the hyper-normative culture of the 1950s and ’60s to put forth different ideas about how society can function.
What I do dispute, though, is that any of these groups “reject” mainstream culture. In their own way, they in fact validate mainstream culture by serving as the necessary yang to its yin. The very labels of “indie” and “alternative,” which remain popular in cultural circles, have no meaning at all outside of the existence of the establishment that they are independent of and alternative to.
This has been the foundation of my personal philosophy of inclusive mainstream-ism. I don’t mind that the mainstream embraces Taylor Swift, for instance. The fact that she’s ridiculously popular does not make her untalented or her songs inconsequential. Force-fed to us or not, she’s a good songwriter and worth listening to. This quality is independent of whether she’s labeled as “indie.”
Therefore, when I speak of being “unSouthern,” I don’t intend to advance the idea that everything Southern is bad. On the contrary, as I have noted in a prior post, I am more inclined to indict myself for rejecting my own Southernisms in the same knee-jerky way that alternative kids dismiss the preps. The goal is for unSouthern to evolve into postSouthern and then transSouthern–to recalibrate the traditional Southern ideals so that they don’t enable or promote any of the nasty -isms as they have in the past.
In the next post, I want to expand this idea of the status quo versus the alternative–to the touchy and timely topic of conspiracy theories.