Subculture, Personal Identity and Individual Freedom

Back in my early teens, feeling rudderless and unbearably average, I began to gravitate towards the alternative music scene, in part obviously because I liked the sound of what little I had access to in my country village, but in part also because visually, the patched denim jackets, tattered jeans and brightly coloured hair of the handful of people I had seen occasionally around the nearest town intrigued and excited me. These were visual cues of an idea which began to take form; the new thought that I was in control of my own identity. That there was more to life than the cliques of high school, and that in taking control of my own appearance and interests in this way, I could stick a literal and metaphorical middle finger up at the shiny, popular crown who had, if not exactly made my life hell, at the very least made it unpleasant and uncomfortable.

In the space of months, I went from a plain, shy and awkward child, to an outspoken, rebellious and far more confident teenager. It’s not that I stopped caring what people thought, it’s just that I stopped wanting to be something that was not only out of my reach, but that was also, I realised, not even a particularly appealing prospect even if it had been. In many ways, it was about gaining a sense of control. I began to understand that certain things just really didn’t matter.

What got me thinking more about this recently was a casual chat where the subject of ‘being a goth’ was brought up. My denial of my goth-ness naturally led to amusement (because, of course, what is more goth than the denial of being goth?) Plus, y’know, look at me. I am clearly influenced by gothic subculture, if with a healthy smattering of other things. But in terms of my individual identity, I’m always reluctant to put a label on my lifestyle. How do I even begin to define the kaleidoscope of musical, artistic, visual and political influences that make up who I am? Why should I feel any need to? Why should anybody conform to a set list of what is and isn’t allowed?

I think subcultural groups, scenes based around art, music and other interests, are hugely valuable, and a massive help to anyone struggling to find likeminded people. But retaining a sense of personal identity within this group is equally important. Having a multitude of differing viewpoints, varied interests even beneath that umbrella, and the ability to freely make choices and decisions based on your own mental process rather than what you think will make people like you better, is equally – if not more- important.

I know people who go to the absolute extremes of what they think their particular subculture means, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. There’s nothing wrong with being switched on to your scene 24/7, if that’s truly what you want, and truly what you are. But so many of the people I have known who do that, you look behind the facade, and there’s nothing there. All they are is a textbook page, a fashion spread. There’s no substance, because their own personal identity has been long overshadowed by a character they started to play and forgot how to put away. They become a caricature, a cliched representation of something, and watching from here it just seems exhausting. Certainly it affects their personal lives and ability to relate to others on a personal level, because whilst you can certainly control your own behaviour and appearances, you cannot do the same for someone else, and to allow another person into a life so meticulously laid out means either shaping them to your own desires, or allowing them in behind that facade. Either way, it’s going to end up emotionally damaging for someone.

There’s defining your own identity, and there’s allowing it to be defined for you. If you are living by a set of rules laid out by anyone other than yourself, then surely you have buried your own identity, and it doesn’t matter if you’re stepping out of the house in a tracksuit and trainers, or black jeans and combat boots. If you feel that it is what you have to be, rather than what you want to be, it is not your own choice anymore.

Scenes should be defined by the individuals within them, not the other way around. That’s how subcultures develop and grow, how new ones spring forth. Maintaining a puritanical view and ruleset on what is and what isn’t allowed simply results in a stale social environment, and ultimately, the absolute death of that scene. There’s no progress without change, and no change when everybody continues doing the exact same things they have always done, thinking the same thoughts, agreeing on the same points.

In many ways, over the last twenty years, my interest in alternative culture has backflipped to the point where I no longer see it as an essential aspect of my life. I started out looking to fit in, looking for like minded people to interact with, and happily I found them. But I don’t feel the need any more to seek approval, to fit in with a crowd. I am certainly active within my chosen social scenes, but I don’t feel the overwhelming need to conform to them all the time. Like most people, I bring my own interests and individuality to the group, and I think that is the healthiest and liveliest outcome possible.