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Alternative culture is a type of culture that exists outside or on the fringes of mainstream or popular culture, usually under the domain of one or more subcultures. These subcultures may have little or nothing in common besides their relative obscurity, but cultural studies uses this common basis of obscurity to classify them as alternative cultures, or, taken as a whole, the alternative culture. Compare with the more politically charged term, counterculture.
The concept of an alternative culture
The concept of alternative culture is rooted in the development of new views of adolescence during the 1950s in Western Europe and North America. This development, in conjunction with the emergence of the teddy boy and the release of the US films The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), saw adolescents in North America and Western Europe collectively express a form of rebellion against the values of their parents and authority in general. The reasons for this rejection of traditional social codes and attitudes were usually personal, but were at the same time easier to define when asserted as part of a group.
The current understanding of alternative culture came about in the early 1990s, when strands of youth culture, counter culture, and various subcultures came together prompted by corporate influences. The high-profile exceptions to this have been hip hop culture and the Riot Grrrl movement. The recreational use of time by both women and people of color has been reported upon, but usually with disdain.
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A subculture is usually formed by young working class people in a small region or a single city in response to a generally felt lack of proper fulfillment by the options available to that particular social group. This disenchantment is in reference to a wide range of things, from acceptable codes of public behaviour to the likelihood of decent long-term employment. The result is a rapid evolution of an externally displayed attitude and an accompanying visual style (regarding art, dress, et cetera) and soundtrack. The factors that necessitate the creation of a subculture often forge the elements that make it unique and give it some form of cultural legacy in retrospect. For example, the hippie movement of the 1960s is remembered, although not exclusively, for its championing of the concept of "free love", which was a fairly successful attempt to break away from the perceived social frigidity of the previous two decades. Hip hop culture allowed poor African-Americans to express themselves creatively when they had minimal access to musical instruments and very little chance of having their work displayed in art galleries. It meant that the turntable, normally only used to play music produced by others, was used as an "instrument" in its own right and that public areas became substitute canvasses for a style of art known as wild style.
During the point that these subcultures enjoy their "peak", they are simultaneously the subject of much negative attention from the media. This is often due to objections to the subcultures' disregard for the legality of their activities, the physical appearance of their members, their anti-establishment and/or anti-consumerist values and their frequent indulgences in sex and drug use. (Not all these points apply to all subcultures, a good example being the fact that members of the "straight edge" hardcore punk scene are completely teetotal). However, it is this publicity which often drew more young people into each subculture, usually, but not always, because they were attracted by its apparent dissident nature.
There is often a period that is considered to be "pure" in terms of what defined each subculture in various ways. This is the point between the complete development of its unique characteristics - where it has an ideology, a style of dress, a new genre of music to call its own, et cetera - and the point where publicity has caused a large influx of new members into the community and various business interests have begun to co-opt its unique aspects. The grunge subculture (although according to its original members, it was not a culture as such, but rather a fan base for alternative rock) is a particularly interesting case, as its conception was to some extent deliberately self-conscious of the factors that could skew its original intents. Grunge was a regional off-shoot of DIY culture, which focused more on its members being cynical "slackers": an outlook publicly exemplified best by the band Dinosaur Jr - and, as the popular phrase was at the time, over-educated and under-paid. (A phrase which was lifted from Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991)). Although these were all myths that originated from the media, of which participants in the grunge scene treated with some suspicion. Still, in the wake of the massive success of the album Nevermind (also 1991) by Nirvana, the media and the marketing industry popularised and mass-marketed "grunge" clothes, music and such. However, the nature of the culture meant it resisted glamorisation and it was soon abandoned by the media in favor of Rap, leaving the grunge scene to wither as a result.
The current state of alternative culture
Due to subcultures of this nature being in a constant change, they often splinter off into niche groups. They often develop an "old school" crowd who tend to resist "polluting" elements and carry on as before until inevitably evolving themselves. An example is the UK's rave scene, which suffered very badly from tough legislation aimed at it in the mid-1990s (Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994), leading to its discreet continuance on a smaller scale, before manifesting itself again on the large scale in the form of the teknival, which retains many of the principles of the original acid house culture.
Alternative cultures around the world
South Africa has a long tradition of alternative culture. From the Creole fusion experience of the 17th and 18th centuries, to recent experiments in alternative living. A cross-over fusion between white punks and black ethnics in the eighties produced an innovative local culture articulated by magazines such as Vula, music such as eVoid and Via Afrika, and clubs such as The Indaba Project and The Base. Alternative "Afrikaners" existed in juxtaposition to the dominant mainstream polices of racial oppression, alongside anti-apartheid resistance to war by students and groups such as the End Conscription Campaign.
- The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't be Jammed, Heath, Joseph & Potter, Andrew, Harper Perennial, 2004, ISBN 1-84112-654-3
- The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Frank, Thomas, University of Chicago Press, 1998, ISBN 0-226-26012-7
- Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler, essay collection, WW Norton & Co, 1997, ISBN 0-393-31673-4