Imagine pouring your heart, mind and soul into an artistic talent, in this case, music. Taking years to learn a craft, and decades to master it, enduring everything from poverty and incessant rejection in the early stages of a career to the perils of fame, with the accompanying pressure of expectation. Imagine doing this in eras where the internet was more abstract concept than ever-present reality, when touring schedules and the travel therein made the itineraries of today seem luxurious by comparison.
After years of blood, sweat and tears this work pays off, and your art connects with hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions. The fruit of your toil enriches more lives than you could ever know, within your own spheres and beyond. The seeds it spills populate and flourish in the gardens of others, inspiring creativity and ingenuity tenfold as your direct influence now grows beyond your own creations, ever perpetuating through those of others. Your songs maybe save a life here or there, becoming the soundtrack to blossoming romances or crushing breakups, triumph or tragedy, and all manner of significant personal experiences. You connect with people in ways that perhaps even their closest loved ones can’t, and for this you sacrifice your own relationships, social life, and at a certain level of success, your privacy and the freedom therein. You awaken the hearts and minds of others, often at the cost of your own sleep.
You create a legacy, a body of work that requires a vulnerability, work ethic and courage that few are capable of, thus acquiring incredible growth and knowledge at a deep personal cost…
Then fast forward to the present time, and watch your intellectual property, in the form of merchandise, being blatantly stolen and repurposed by millionaire douchebags as the price is hiked up beyond any concept of real value, and marketed to the exact kind of people your music was a haven for escape from. A life’s work, and the impact it had on yours and that of others now demeaned for hip irony, or just simple trendy ignorance.
Imagine the imagery of your band being worn and marketed by people who don’t even know it’s a band, who mostly look down at your actual audience, and would likely hate your music if they ever even heard it. Worse yet, imagine not even getting a cut of the 80% markup on your IP, now sold in the kind of stores you’d rather see go out of business than sell ‘your’ merch. All this because some talentless, lazy sociopaths couldn’t come up with anything original, let alone put in the work required to actually learn a marketable skillset beyond blatant plagiarism.
The disrespect doesn’t end there – if anything, it’s even worse to the legitimate fanbase of your material. The same oft-maligned, frequently marginalized kids you used to be one of, for whom music was the closest they may get to spiritual communion, let alone a sense of belonging. For whom band apparel was an identifier of fellow travellers, a beacon of safety beyond the shark infested, sociopathic waters of a fickle, often abusive mainstream. One that in many cases has put too many of my fellow travellers in the hospital, others in therapy, and some in a morgue… If you think being liberal (or conservative) is hard now, try being a goth or punk kid in a redneck town in the 80’s, or rocking black metal t-shirts in the 90’s – practically an invitation to violence.
People forget that discrimination doesn’t just occur across cultural demographic lines – there are still many parts of the world where certain brands of alternative, dark and heavy music are illegal, and punished corporally as mandated by law. Even in many parts of the ‘liberal’ Western world, people dressing a certain way are targets for extreme violence and censure, and while the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 80’s and 90’s has mostly faded in modern culture, it still exists in far too many forms. People wearing metal or punk shirts ironically, or in ignorance of their true nature fail to realize that stylistic expression of taste in the wrong time and place can and has gotten far too many people maimed or even killed, and sometimes wrongly incarcerated.
The wearing of said apparel without knowledge of, or participation in it’s culture is profoundly disrespectful to those of us who’ve gone out in public expecting verbal or physical assault for simply being ourselves. Hell, that kind of thing used to earn ‘posers’ a beatdown back in the day from some of the more tribalistic metal and punk fans, and while I’m obviously not advocating violence based on clothing choices (which would be massively hypocritical), at least they were concerned with authenticity. It seems to be actively avoided by far too many these days.
Unlike certain other genres, metal, punk, and dark alternative have yet to be successfully gentrified for an extended period of time by a mainstream that has mostly run of ideas, and has been attempting to co-opt or even steal our imagery, iconography and intellectual property for the better part of two decades. Far too often clueless, tone deaf pop ‘singers’ throw up the horns (incorrectly of course), attempting to be ‘edgy’ like teaspoons pretending to be knives – their low effort counterparts in modern hip hop and r&b have also been guilty of donning the apparel of punk bands that rail against their commercial excess. There seems to be a desperate need in the top 40 crowd to suck up for credibility, despite rock being ‘dead’ and punk and metal being ‘irrelevant’. REAL relevance is remaining in the public consciousness, even at a cult level, for years and decades to come, not posing for likes while your 15 minutes of fame tick by (more like 7.5 now), and the trends that you embody disappear in less than half a decade.
As for those purchasing the shirts, they’re usually just pawns in an unwitting game. Kids young enough to not know the material or not care. Just aping behaviour in a metrics driven era that is more about assimilation and imitation than true artistic diversity. That’s not to say there aren’t brilliant new artists making new music, far from it. They just have to work even harder than their true contemporaries of yesteryear because the piracy and plagiarism of this millennium have devalued music both economically and culturally to the point where even basic vocal performance and competent lyricism are optional, and not in a punk or artful noise way.
What the mainstream fails to realize in this often unwitting attempt to gentrify and suck dry metal, punk and dark alt music is that these genres were built to last. Established long ago on foundations of working class oppression, sociopolitical angst and genuine catharsis, metal has survived countless attempts at sabotage by the media, the far right and even the music industry itself. It was ‘dying’ in the 90’s apparently, yet outlived it’s supposed successor. It was ‘dead’ in the 2010’s, yet emerged from the murky waters of music’s blandest decade intact, and attracts millions of lifelong fans who actually buy music and merch, attend concerts, and support the culture. In doing so, they establish a community that self-perpetuates and self-polices, while the top 40 assembly line churns out broken counterfeit toys for an infantilized mass market.
If you trace the roots of metal and rock back to their forerunner in the blues, that genre too is an expression of pain borne by racial and socioeconomic inequality, and personal injustice. Like metal, it was often considered ‘savage’ and undesirable, yet earned a level of credibility and influence that more ‘civilized’ sounds of the mainstream this century never approached – hardly surprising when their ‘talent’ is factory farmed from trap houses or the likes of American Idol.
Punk, so often flirted with and occasionally invaded by the mainstream, was built around a DIY spirit and mentality that simply can’t be killed. Sure, every decade or so it’s dabbled with and ‘repackaged’ to capitalize on suburban teen angst, but when the trends fade and tourist season ends, the locals stick around and pick up the trash left behind. They’ve seen it all before, and likely will again. It’s origins are in systemic disruption, class warfare and stylistic rebellion, none of which are disappearing anytime soon, and like metal tends to attract a core of dedicated lifers both in it’s performance and it’s patronage. True disruptor culture finds ways to survive.
Roughly every 15 years, the top 40 decides to raid goth culture once it has recycled and diluted more traditionally popular aesthetics and musical categories, and flirts with the darkside in often hilarious attempts at looking ‘fierce’. The looks that would have some folks mocked and possibly even beaten are co-opted by the same people that would have been dishing out the derision for them not so long ago. Women’s fashion and cosmetics get darker for a season or two while the men of the species fetishize their conception of the now-cliched ‘goth girlfriend’ without actually considering what dating a goth girl would entail – emotional depth, intelligence and sincerity usually, none of which are particularly consistent with mass market interests. The same pattern repeats with laughable predictability, and pop starlets desperately attempt to look edgy, while churning out atonal noise with lyrical content a preschooler could produce.
This all likely seems like a ‘get off my lawn’ rant, but the reality is I grew up expecting violence from the same kind of people that now, instead of trying to run us out of town, want to steal our clothes and sell them back to us at prices we can’t afford, in places that don’t really want anything to do with us. It gives me a slight inkling of how indigenous peoples might feel when seeing clueless white valley girls and frat boys adopting Native garb for Halloween costumes, and if that sounds offensive to you, so is being punched in the head while copping homophobic slurs or slut shaming, just for rocking dark makeup and fishnets. Or being accused of ritual sacrifice for rocking a metal t-shirt with a pentagram (both former and latter were weekly, even daily occurrences for me at 17). These things still happen to people by the way, just a bit less often. Hell, sometimes they even happen in people’s own homes. Unlike many of my peers, I’m lucky I wasn’t seriously injured or driven to self-harm or addiction as a result. I was basically a pacifist, until I was simply not given the choice to be anymore.
It’s bad enough that the mainstream openly exploits teenagers (often in borderline predatory fashion), and blatantly steals material musically and visually without any acknowledgement. It perpetuates a cruel process of building young celebrities up before tearing them down in the interests of metrics and headlines, resulting in addiction and other self-harming behaviours, but that’s a conversation for another time. The point is, we created our subcultural spaces, the original and only ‘safe spaces’ for many, to get away from the exact kind of people that now want to take our clothing, our clubs and our culture because they ran out of ideas, or out of room by appealing to the lowest common denominator, and thus overcrowding their dwellings.
We have lost most of our venues to covid, some of our artists too. Gentrification was nearly killing our subcultures beforehand and forcing them out of town long before that, to replace them with more of what we already have too much of – big box stores, and clubs where people listen to 30 second songs while handling their liquor poorly and treating others like shit. If you think moshpits look savage, or dancing at goth or punk bars looks crazy, just witness the drama, sexual harassment and accompanying violence of mainstream clubland in the Western world.
By all means ‘outsiders’ are welcome to come visit our houses, you may even wish to stay. If you act respectfully, you’re welcome to return. But wipe or remove your shoes so you don’t track your bullshit into our hallowed halls, and don’t try to steal our jackets on the way out. Our subcultures are built on authenticity, TRUE diversity and above all, respect – respect that. These places are historical monuments that will be there long after the trends of today are gone, like cheaply built overpriced condos turning into the slums of the future.