Ever since the earliest witches invented spreading mud on your chest and putting a bone in your hair, style has been used to delineate one cultural group from another. I’m assuming. I actually haven’t researched this part at all. In fact, forget history.

Just think about high school.

Different groups of people present themselves differently. Style is, generally, a way of defining one’s individuality while simultaneously declaring an allegiance to some kind of socio-cultural group. A letterman jacket is less a jacket than it is a tribal marking. Well, OK. It’s still totally a jacket. But it means a lot more than a jacket. Unless that jacket is a Members Only jacket. Regardless, I’m getting off message.

The point is, different groups differentiate themselves using style and aesthetic. This is fine, but it becomes troubling in certain cases, especially in terms of the counter culture. When an aesthetic shows up as part of a movement against or away from the establishment, the modern response is to absorb the style, which serves to weaken the impact of any statement made by the movement within its chosen aesthetic. Hot Topic has destroyed the credibility of the mohawk.

This isn’t new. It happened with hippies. Hell, it was once used to good effect against the KKK*. There are articles about it all over the place. Without bothering to check, I bet if you Google Merchants of Cool, you’ll find an article about it. No matter how outlandish or abrasive you think you’re being, it will take a team of marketers a few months top to find a version of your aesthetic they can sell. That is, if it’s even noteworthy enough to be worth selling.

What choices are you left with?

You could intentionally marginalize yourself. This is possible by setting up your aesthetic as parody of the mainstream, making the medium the message, or simply avoiding anything recognizable as cool (e.g. Adbusters, Crust Punks, KillAllTheWhiteMan). While elements of the aesthetics taken can be adopted, the overall effect lets the originator hold on to a certain level of permanent distance from the mainstream. Of course, the side effect of intentionally narrowing your audience is that you wind up preaching to the choir. And that’s fine, the choir needs someone to preach to them, but you’re certainly not getting a lot done in any direct way.

You can (and go ahead and consider this my official recommendation) affect the aesthetic of authority, but maintain the message of dissent. I’m not espousing the notion that to change something, you have to become a part of it, because while that might work sometimes, it’s not true. What I’m saying is, by adopting the appearance and outward demeanor of those working for the perpetuation of the mainstream, you make it impossible for your ideals to be boiled down into a fashion fit for a sidebar in Seventeen. Because authority isn’t cool. There’s nothing to you but your message, so there’s nothing to co-opt, except the message itself. Which is, you know, the intent. In terms of pictures made with the Simpsons Movie Character Generator:
Who is more likely to get a law changed

  • This guy
    My rebellion means nothing!
  • or this guy?
    Being lame is effective.

Being lame is a very effective way of being heard. KillAllTheWhiteMan officially recommends you wear a suit (or at least a button up shirt and tie) to your next punk show or political rally.

The final option is to have no aesthetic, or at least none permanently. Take aspects of both of the above, and more. Usurp the image of authority, but throw it off slightly, then next time do something entirely original, then a parody of the norm, then retro, but always moving, always changing. This recommendation is in honor of Sam de Groot, and those few others who can pull this off, exhausting as it is. The only real drawbacks are that you have to be totally brilliant, and it’s awfully hard to develop a community around an aesthetic of constant reinvention and even harder to sustain.

I want to clarify (far too late, but I need a conclusion) that this isn’t some kind of manifesto, just a series of observations brought on by frustration with the way counter-culture seems to intentionally ghetto-ize itself, as if the most effective way to change the world is ignore it, or cut yourself off. It simply isn’t. All you’re doing is making sure you’re incapable of making the change you want to see. If you’re interested in subverting the dominant paradigm, my recommendation is that you dress up like the dominant paradigm and sneak into the party.

*A reporter went undercover with the KKK and delivered all the codes and secret handshakes to the creaters of the Adventures of Superman radio show. They set up the bad guys as thinly veiled versions of the klan, and kids across the U.S. started using the klan’s secret passwords while playing cops and robbers, and klan membership plummeted because it was totally not cool anymore. This story is awesome.