Exploring the Meaning of the Mainstream (or why Sharon and Tracy dance around their handbags)
Academics Accounts of the Cultural Organization of Youth
Academic writers on youth culture have relied on binary oppositions generated by us-versus-them social maps and using loaded terms like “mainstream” with academic arguments, depicting mainstream youth culture as an outpost of the “mass” or “dominant” culture.
Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) uses the mainstream to measure the youth’s “resistance through rituals” and subversion through style. The mainstream according to Hebdige is abstract and ahistorical. For example, comparing punk apparel to high street fashions and the anti-dancing to “conventional courtship patterns of the dancefloor” (Hebdige, 1979: 108) prevalent at provincial dancehalls. From my own personal memory, punks and “soul boys” initially wore similar cloths; plastic sandals, mohair jumpers etc. Both soul scenes, Northern Soul and the Southern “funk-orientated” Soul, revolve around dancing unconventionally to rare, old and imported African-American popular music.
Each reference to the mainstream is presented as a version of the bourgeoisie whose function is to be shocked. Subcultural youth are characterised as predominantly working class which is not a true reflection youth culture as a whole. Inconsistent fantasies of the mainstream are rampant in subcultural studies. Geoff Mungham’s article “Youth in Pursuit of itself” is research done at a provincial Mecca dancehall. Here he searches for the mundane, positioning the study as a counterbalance to sociology’s orientation towards the spectacular, emphasising conformity and conservatism. The dancing is described as a “Meccanization of the sexual impulse” (Mungham, 1976: 92).
Hebdige perceives his mainstream as bourgeois and the subcultural youth as an artistic vanguard. Whereas Mungham sees it as a stagnant “mass” and the “others” are creative and challenging.
Angela McRobbie maintains the binary opposition between the mainstream and “subcultural alternatives”, but suggests that dancing offers creative expression, control and resistance for girls and women in either space. Simon Frith contrasts the culture of middle class students and working class school leavers. The “sixth-form culture” of buying albums, listening to progressive rock and attending rock concerts, whereas the “lower-fifth-form culture” of buying singles listening to commercial music and going to discos (cf. Frith 1981a), outlines a distinction between rock and pop culture. Pop culture is both younger and predominantly female as well as being working class. Stephen Evans finds two distinct nightclub cultures, one commercial and the other alternative. The commercial culture is working class and mainstream and the alternative culture focuses on the latest development in dance music and are attended mainly by students.
There is a contradiction within subcultural studies where one positions the mainstream as a middle class, dominant culture while the other describes it as “mass” culture. However since the 1990s these dichotomies are challenged. Lawrence Grossberg asserts that subcultures and the mainstream have fluid boundaries and are indistinguishable and “the mass audience of pop, the mainstream of style, is the postmodern subculture” (Grossberg, 1987: 151). It is an appealing argument but Grossberg ignores the social significance of the concept of the mainstream to subcultures which is stronger in Britain. He pictures youth as a homogeneous mass.
The Social Logic of Subcultural Capital
Club culture is faddish and fragmented. Many clubbers constantly catalogue and classify youth cultures according to taste in music, forms of dance, kinds of ritual and styles of clothing. Although most clubbers struggle to classify their own crowd they are happy to identify a homogeneous crowd that they do not belong and locate the mainstream in the “chartpop disco” of the Mecca dancehall, a place where “Sharon and Tracy dance around their handbags”. This unhip crowd were denigrated for having indiscriminate music tastes and being amateurs in the art of clubbing, turning up with that uncool feminine appendage – the handbag.
At its height acid house was subject to extensive media coverage and ravers began to talk of a new mainstream, a second-wave of media-inspired acid house fans. When the culture came to be positioned as mainstream it was feminised. The coincided with the dominance of house and techno compilation albums bringing the music to the masses. The music even came to be called “handbag house”, danced to by “Techno Tracys” and raving Sharons, exhibiting the burlesque exaggerations of an imagined other. Techno Tracys and Acid Teds, like like yuppies or lager louts are more than euphemisms of social class, they reveal the cultural values and social world of hardcore ravers. These personifications of the mainstream have class connotations. Sharon and Tracy, rather than Camilla or Imogen, are trapped in their class and do not enjoy the classless autonomy of “hip” youth. The recurrent trope of the handbag is something associated with mature women, not a sartorial sign of youth culture but a symbol the shackles of the housewife.
Young people espouse a different “order of prestige symbols” as they cannot compete with adults for occupational status (Parsons, 1964: 94). The investment in leisure enables youth to reject being fixed socially. Youth culture is attractive to people well beyond their youth as it delays “social aging” enjoying a reprieve from necessity.
The differential earnings of young men and women contributes to the masculine bias of subcultural capital and the feminine representation of the mainstream. Girls go out dancing more than boys and generally start clubbing at a younger age and is the only out-of-home leisure activity that women do more often than men. Young men are more likely to attend a sporting event and the first choice for an evening out is the pub, whereas for women it’s a dance club. Women are more likely to identify their taste in music as pop and spend less time and money on music and more on clothes and cosmetics. Men regard the label “mainstream” as “unhip” whereas women understand it as “another way of saying popular music” (Christenson and Peterson, 1988: 298). Women tend to use music “in the service of secondary gratifications (eg to improve mood, feel less alone) and as general background activity”. The male use of music is “central and personal” whereas the female orientation to music is “instrumental and social” (Christensen and Peterson, 1988: 299).
The Sharon and Tracy image is a position statement made by subcultural youth about girls who are not culturally “one of the boys”. Subcultural capital seems to be the currency which legitimises unequal statuses. It has been argued that mass culture has been positioned as feminine by high cultural theorists and these views are replayed among youth cultures which devalues girls’ cultures as imitative and passive. The authentic culture is depicted gender-free or masculine, the prerogative of boys.
British youth have a habit of borrowing from African-American and Afro-Caribbean culture. Even the word “hip” derives from black “jive talk”. Subcultural capital is the linchpin of an alternative hierarchy where age, gender, sexuality, and race are employed to keep the determinations of class, income and occupation at bay. It reveals itself by its dislikes and and what it emphatically is not.
Participation versus Observation of Dance Crowds
The two methods that make up ethnography – participation and observation are often in conflict. By participating you adopt the views of the group and what it says, whereas by observing you give credence to what you see, subjectivism (participation) versus objectivism (subjectivism). Both modes of thought are too one-sided to describe the social world. The author during her research could not find a crowd that could be identified as typical, average or mainstream. Although she did observe the old and new mainstreams together in the same room where the music alternated between chart pop and house/techno. The practices and participants of the dance floor fluctuated with the shift in genres, from mostly female to totally male. To apply the label “mainstream” would denigrate this crowd. Ethnography is best suited to observing the diverse and particular. The mainstream is an abstraction of the general.
In 1992, Mecca realised that their branding policy was backfiring as they were intent that their brand would become generic. This branding presented them negatively as the mainstream. Mecca abandoned the unifying brands’ and renamed each of their venues individually (Mintel, 1992). However, Mecca dancehalls have been the home of spectacular subcultures. The Tottenham Mecca was a Teddy Boy hangout; the Blackpool Mecca was one of the main venues for Northern Soul and the Hammersmith Palais has hosted several Bhangra events.
The American author was baffled by British ideologies about the mainstream, especially as the clubbers who disparaged the mainstream admitted never visiting these clubs. Their knowledge of the mainstream crowd was mainly second-hand from the grapevine or media sources. The presume that this crowd see Top of the Pops as trend setting, as well as the late night programme The Hitman and Her which was shot on location at Mecca venues. Acid Teds and Techno Tracys would be denigrated as Sun readers.
The concept of the mainstream grows out of the media and lived culture. The consensus in North America is that the mainstream is a cluster of subcultures (cf. Crane 1986; Grossberg 1987; Straw 1991). The size and ethnic diversity as well as the proliferation of local, regional and niche media in the USA weaken the myth of the mainstream. Due to the predominantly white population and London as the centre for mass media in the UK, the mainstream is a more powerful idea.
Crowds are the building blocks of club cultures and unlike the “mass” they are local and splintered. Any analysis of youth culture needs to take into account the social groups to which they belong, and studies often loose sight of the social existence of youth cultures, focussing mainly on their clothes and consumer habits. The function of a disparaged “other” adds a sense of shared identity and community and this feeling of belonging can override social differences. The clubbers experience is not of conformity, but of spontaneous affinity, where the good clubs are full of familiar like-minded strangers. They describe the social character of the of their clubs as “mixed” and heterogeneous, unlike “other” crowds which are assumed as homogeneous. Most clubs have observable “master statuses”, so different clubs contextualise social differences in different ways, eg. sexual identity, racial or occupational identity unify the crowd. Although the New Romantic, “gender bending” clubs were sexually mixed, the axis along which crowds are mostly segregated is sexuality.
After sexuality, music is an important factor determining who congregated where. The genres of music is specified on flyers as is naming the DJs who is associated with certain types of music played. George Lewis explains, “we pretty much listen to, and enjoy, the same music that is listened to by other people we like or with whom we identify” (Lewis, 1992: 137). Aesthetic appreciation is passionate and aesthetic intolerance is violent because aural experiences take a firmer root that visual ones.
Door policies also regulate the crowd which usually involve age, gender and sexuality. For example mixed gender groups have a better chance of admission that an all male group. Discrimination against youth of African or Asian descent is not openly acknowledged and ratios of white and black patrons are carefully managed, usually by black bouncers using clothes as the alibi. A “no trainers” policy would exclude Nike wearing black youth. Door people put the finishing touches to the composition of the crowd and are key readers and makers of the “meaning of style”.
Clothing is a potent indicator of social aspiration and position, “the code language of status” (Wolfe, 1974: 23). “White collar” and “blue collar” are euphemisms for class, referring to handbags and white stilettos are euphemisms for a social group that lacks subcultural capital.
References to the mainstream sometimes signals the universalisation of the embodied social structure of a group. The binary thinking is linked with a series of value judgements, political associations and journalistic cliches.
Us v Them
Alternative – mainstream
Hip/cool – straight/square/naff
Independent – commercial
Authentic – false/phoney
Rebellious/radical – conformist/conservative
Specialist genre – pop
Insider knowledge – easily accessible information
Minority – majority
Heterogeneous – homogeneous
Youth – family
Classless – classed
Masculine culture – feminine culture
Popular ideologies about dance crowds are riddled with implies statuses and subcultural capitals. The clubber/raver ideologies offer alternatives rather than subvert the dominant culture as had previous subcultures. The mainstream is a powerful way to put youths in the big picture, imagine their social world, assert their cultural worth, claim their subcultural capital.