Murdering Subcultural Identity: the Commercialization of Alternative Rock
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Murdering Subcultural Identity: the Commercialization of Alternative Rock
Written for Dr. James West’s course
In 1991, Nirvana made its major label debut with
on DGC Records, a subsidiary
of Warner Bros., one of the Big Five in mainstream music, and suddenly a new music genre,
originally dubbed alternative for its distinction from mainstream music culture, became the most
popular music style of mainstream music culture. This signifies a diversion from traditional
alternative rock values, whose music was supposed to be the
to mainstream music culture
and which owes a collective debt to independent record labels and the Punk Rock inspired
Do-it-yourself, or DIY, production values within alternative music. Nirvana popularized a very
specific type of alternative rock known as Grunge which was defined by its distorted guitar,
contrasting song dynamics, and nihilistic lyrics. Within a few months of
countless other Grunge bands achieved mainstream commercial success by riding the coattails of
Nirvana’s success. Many early albums of these bands, like Pearl Jam’s major record label debut:
received sudden attention upon the commercialization of the Grunge subculture. Many bands were
accused of “selling-out” or jumping on the grunge band wagon, which were legitimate accusations
from their original fan base in some cases, such as with The Stone Temple Pilots, but the new
figurehead of Generation X, and the most recognizable face in Grunge at the time, Kurt Cobain,
took it to heart. The pressures of fame and criticism from pre-mainstream Nirvana fans eventually
lead to his suicide in April of 1994. 1994 saw the release of another album, though, whose release
would see similar acceptance into mainstream culture and criticism from the band’s pre-mainstream
fan base; Green Day’s
. This album represented something completely unheard of for Punk
Rock music, but very common in Grunge by this point. Punk Rock fans and bands, as an
underground music phenomenon, were accustomed to their bands producing their music through
record labels independent of mainstream culture, but
was produced by Reprise Records,
which is owned by Warner Bros., representing a major betrayal of classic Punk Rock values, which
were against any involvement with major record labels. This caused an emotional crisis for Green
Day’s lead singer, Billie Joe Armstrong, similar to the one experienced by Kurt Cobain, but Billie Joe
Armstrong coped with this in a way that Kurt Cobain could not. On a sociological level though, the
economic success of Green Day’s
represents something of even
greater significance. As an artifact of Punk Rock and Grunge culture respectively,
express the values of their individual culture, but because of their commercial success,
they became absorbed and accepted into mainstream culture indicating a dilution of the original
message, and causing a destruction of authenticity in the eyes of many fans who had been
committed to the music and culture of each band before they achieved any economic success
beyond their independent record label releases. The commodification of a subculture by mainstream
culture, such as with Grunge and Punk Rock, represents a corruption of the subculture’s solidarity,
and exposes the subculture to major forms of economic exploitation by dominant culture. This
proposition will be supported by closely examining the bands Nirvana and Green Day, focusing
particularly on what Sociologist Ryan Moore refers to as the “liquidation of subcultural capital”
(Moore 249). This proposition is explained most accurately through the use of a plethora of
terminology that must be explained before one can truly understand the struggles experienced by
Nirvana, Green Day, and many other musical innovators who became labeled as “sell-outs” upon
cooperating with major record labels, like Warner Bros., Sony Music, and EMI.
In his work
Ryan Moore proposes the concept of “subcultural capital”,
or characteristics of a subculture which may be exploited for economic gain, as a means of
explaining the economic value of a subculture. Moore suggest further intricacies to this concept,
especially within musically-defined cultures, based on authenticity, or one’s knowledge of and
adherence to cultural values, norms, and artifacts. In this way, authenticity operates as a stratifying
force within subcultures, effectively identifying the posers from the true members. This stratification
was unnecessary when Alternative Rock was an underground phenomenon, and seems to suggest an
exchange of features between mainstream culture and Alternative Rock culture. Moore also argues
the value of youth rebellion within what would be considered deviant subcultures, or even counter
cultures, such as Grunge and Punk Rock, and that this rebellion is commercialized along with the
culture, thus deflating the attraction an individual might feel in being part of such a deviant
subculture. Moore argues that this decrease in ability to provoke feelings of rebellion is part of the
reason that deviant subcultures and countercultures are commercialized by mainstream culture.
Other Sociologists, specifically Lauren Langman, propose that the economic exploitation of
deviance and rebellion by the dominant culture serves as a way of exposing the consumers within
capitalist societies to such ideas and acts as a modern form of the Renaissance-era carnival, which
Langman conceptualizes as an artificial production of what the individual will perceive as resistance
towards the oppressive forces they experience at the hands of the dominant culture (Langman 660).
Her argument is based on a Functionalistic approach towards rebellion and deviance, first proposed
in the sociological work of Emile Durkheim, which supports the idea that deviance of any kind,
illegal or legal, acts a sort of steam valve that is used to dissipate many of societies frustrations by
allowing the middle and lower class to perceive themselves as resisting the upper class, who they
interpret as their oppressors (Langman 660). Moore’s position is certainly closer to the viewpoint
that most members of the Pre-Mainstream Grunge and Punk Rock Cultures would agree with
though, and so, in the interest of examining the commercialization of a subculture from its
members’ point of view, one must accept Moore’s argument over that of Langman, despite the
ability of both views to explain certain sociological tendencies. In a way, this commercialization of a
subculture is frightening in its own right, because it means that, as a group, society has deemed it
acceptable to treat culture as a commodity and sell it as one would a used car.
As presented above, the concept of subcultural capital can be applied to interpreting the
sociological meaning of
’s absorption and acceptance into mainstream culture despite its
expression of deviant views, and how this economic exploitation ruined Nirvana’s subcultural
capital, but resulted in immense gain of economic capital, or monetary resources. By using
subcultural capital as a means of defining authenticity and status one can see the trade-off that
Nirvana made by signing with a major record label. This was seen by members of the Grunge and
Alternative Rock subcultures as a betrayal of the culture that helped to refine Nirvana’s talent and
whose support brought them to major economic success, as much as one can experience major
economic success in the realm of underground and DIY music, that is. This commercialization
dissipated Grunge’s subcultural capital into the mainstream music scene, which means that the
original fans could no longer see themselves as unique or identify themselves based upon their
subculture, which was now corrupted by individuals lacking authenticity. This means that the
intensity of the subculture was sacrificed, and left all previous members of the subculture to be
questioned by the newer fans who have not yet grasped the concept and importance of authenticity
in music subcultures.
At this point in Nirvana’s career, many pre-“sell-out” fans were criticizing them for their
actions, and Kurt Cobain, as the front-man of Nirvana and the unwilling figurehead of generation X,
began to feel the strain of it. The constant criticism from Nirvana’s original fan base caused Kurt
Cobain to hate his success, and lead to a worsening of his drug addiction, which mostly involved
heroin and benzodiazepines, the latter of which would be abused by Billie Joe Armstrong for similar
reasons. Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer and front man of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, in his
, described Kurt Cobain’s appearance when he first met him while on
tour, just after the release of
and suffering through the stress that comes from being
labeled as a “sell-out”. Kiedis said that “he looked torn up, off a hard bender” (287). Kiedis also
commented that Cobain’s “skin was bad, and he looked like he hadn’t slept for days,” (Kiedis and
Sloman 287). Anthony Kiedis’ saw Kurt Cobain at some of his worst that he had been at in his drug
addiction thus far, but also at the best that most would see him at over the next few years. A look of
being exhausted, apathetic, and slightly disheveled was typical of grunge music performances, so few
of Cobain’s fans were aware, just from looking at him, that anything was wrong. This was only the
beginning of a guilt inspired downward spiral, caused by Cobain’s depression and anxiety over being
labeled as a “sell-out” by his previous fans. This situation merely escalated though, until in April of
1994 he shot and killed himself. Kurt Cobain is quoted as saying, while describing his emotional
issues, that he “didn’t know how to deal with success”, and this success eventually killed him,
indirectly though (
). What really killed him was disdain from his previous fans, the
economic exploitation of a subculture that he had been deeply invested in, and in the end, an
identity struggle based around his desire to not be famous. In this way, the commercialization of a
subculture and the effects that such exploitation creates caused Kurt Cobain to look back upon his
life with shame. In a sense, Kurt Cobain’s death was the result of the commercialization of a
subculture, which shows how stressful such a thing can be and how much economic exploitation
can push a man down a dark road towards suicide.
offers a less depressing tale compared to that of Nirvana and its
unfortunate front man, Kurt Cobain. Green Day released
in February of 1994, only two
months before Kurt Cobain would take his own life. The release of
is very similar to
in the storm of mainstream acceptance and pre-
fan criticism that would quickly
ensue following its release. Punk Rock, in some ways, is a more interesting culture to observe than
Grunge due to its style changes following
, as well as many other changes that occurred
within Punk Rock culture, which, just like Grunge, went from being anti-mainstream music to being
extremely popular mainstream music after Green Day’s economic success. Green Day’s success was
further proliferated by the release of three singles on MTV, which included “Basketcase”,
“Longview”, and “When I Come Around”. This album is interesting because of its classification as
an artifact of mainstream culture, which usually implies an alignment of values with whatever culture
it belongs to, but instead
was heavy in Punk Rock sound and themes, which indicates a
strange occurrence that comes from the commercialization of a subculture. This commercialization,
however, liquidated the Punk Rock subculture and its subcultural capital, which can be seen in the
change of clothing style and hair style within Punk Rock, the solidarity that is broken through
commercialization, and the emotional crisis faced by Billie Joe Armstrong because of his mainstream
success and the destruction of his once unquestionable authenticity.
The clothing associated with Punk Rock changed completely once companies realized that
they could create a market for such goods. Previously, Punk Rock culture was adorned with a style
limited by one’s local thrift store or Salvation Army, but after
was released, companies like
Vans took advantage of the new comers. Vans and other companies, like Thrasher, began marketing
their products as strictly Punk in style, despite their skateboarding origins. Eventually they
capitalized upon this entirely by promoting a link between Punk Rock and skateboarding, which
allowed these skateboarding companies to essentially corner the market by advertising what some
critics refer to as a “rigidly defined” uniform (Myers 139). This resulted in deluded new comers,
which was most of Green Day’s current fan base, purchasing Vans, believing that it would
contribute to their authenticity, which did not matter as much now that Punk Rock had been
popularized. New comers to the Punk Rock scene also took to imitating the hairstyles of Green Day
members and other Punk Rock groups, but instead of the DIY methods of hairstyle that dominated
, new comers went to expensive hair salons with requests to look like Billie Joe
Armstrong. This also destroyed the once high-held Punk Rock value of individualism, which was
replaced quite readily by nothing but imitation and an all-together homogenous following, all with
the same Vans, the same studded belts, and the same “I want to look like Billie Joe Armstrong”
haircuts. Through clothing and hair style alone, one can notice the corruption caused by the
commercialization of Punk Rock culture, but this constant imitation lead to an even larger problem
for the original Punk Rock community: identity.
When thousands upon thousands of imitators began to show up to previously unknown,
underground venues, it became difficult for the original Punk Rock fans to identify one another.
Instead, everyone looked like a Punk Rock fan, but only a small portion would be able to name
Green Day’s albums released prior to
, which most new fans assumed was their first album
ever. There were clearly defined lines based upon knowledge, but the message of Punk Rock was
weakened by the sudden influx of weekend-only-punks. While this did not fully shatter the
connection between self-dubbed “true-Punk-Rockers”, it weakened the solidarity of experience and
the connection with others that was previously achieved at almost unknown venues. The concept of
“social capital” is often applied to such situations by Sociologists. “Social capital” is defined by
Sociologists as a resource based upon one’s close connection with others, as in Pre-
Rock culture, based on a common interest or goal, which united and utilized allows for a powerful
interdependence that can hold a group together (Korgen and White 87). The commercialization of
Punk Rock effectively destroyed the existing social capital by creating a less unified group of people,
due to the broad range of socioeconomic classes that now took an interest in Punk Rock, origin and
values became more diverse. This caused a level of seclusion for Punk Rock fans, who could no
longer identify with everyone interested in the music, thus corrupting Punk Rock culture’s solidarity.
This cannot compare to the toll that commercialization takes upon band members, however.
Billie Joe Armstrong, much like Kurt Cobain, struggled to accept his fame, would often find
himself emotionally worn out during tours, and received much criticism as a “sell-out” within Punk
Rock. Billie Joe, much like Kurt Cobain, chose to liquidate his subcultural capital for the sake of
acquiring economic capital. Though this was his choice, one cannot imagine that many would turn
down a multi-million dollar contract when previously they had to live a quasi-paycheck-to-paycheck
lifestyle. The financial stability offered by mainstream music culture is beyond tantalizing, but the
financial stability comes at a major cost. Armstrong found himself abusing alcohol and
benzodiazepines regularly as his career progress, and this eventually lead to an emotional breakdown
on stage followed by an extensive rehab program. This sort of emotional strain seems all too
common amongst bands who have allowed major record labels, and even clothing companies, to
commercialize their respective alternative music subculture.
One can easily see by the evidence above that the commercialization of a subculture is
damaging to all aspects and every member of the subculture. This is because, as shown through the
rise, plight, and consequences of Nirvana and Green Day signing with major record label,
commercialization of a subculture is immoral in the sense that it treats isolated cultures as a
commodity to be sold and utilized however one wishes. “Selling-out” also threatens the solidarity of
a subculture by complicating the social environment the subculture was built on. These social
complications even destroy the identity that one could previously find through involvement in such
deviant subcultures. Through the examples, explained in depth previously, one can easily see the
corrupting power of commercialization and absorption, of a subculture, into mainstream culture.
. Xplore, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
Kiedis, Anthony, and Larry Sloman.
. New York: Hyperion, 2005. Print.
Korgen, Kathleen Odell., and Jonathan M. White.
. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2011. Print.
"Kurt Cobain, The Rolling Stone Interview: Success Doesn't Suck."
. N.p., n.d. Web.
19 Nov. 2013.
127?page=2>. Langman, L. "Punk, Porn and Resistance: Carnivalization of the Body in Popular Culture."
56.4 (2008): 657-77. Print. Moore, Ryan. "Alternative to What? Subcultural Capital and the Commercialization of a Music
Scene." 26.3 (2005): 229-52. Print. Myers, Benjamin.
Langman, L. "Punk, Porn and Resistance: Carnivalization of the Body in Popular Culture."
56.4 (2008): 657-77. Print.
Moore, Ryan. "Alternative to What? Subcultural Capital and the Commercialization of a Music
26.3 (2005): 229-52. Print.
. New York:
Disinformation, 2006. Print.
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