7. 10. 2021

English Version | Underground vs Mainstream: May I?

by Sara Andrade


No, you may not. As a rule, these movements are not permitted, arriving as deviants from the current culture. But, in any case, these movements don't really care about that permission either. They emerge, protesters, owners of themselves, clandestine, underground, until they infiltrate the more or less accepted intricacies of society. Which, with greater or lesser resistance, often ends up opening the door for them to come in and be very welcome. With permission to stay.

 Artwork de David Delruelle

"I think I have a kind of Tourette syndrome, in the sense that if I can't say something, it becomes very appealing to me to do so. You're in a rock band – what can't you talk about? God? Okay, Let's do it. You're supposed to write songs about sex and drugs. Yeah, but I'm not going to do it." What can be a more disruptive way to start a text about underground than with a quote from Bono instead of one of the ex-libris of that movement? A William S. Burroughs, a Jack Kerouac, even an Andy Warhol or Basquiat? After all, everyone has amazing quotes - there's one that I particularly like from Burroughs that says something like "in the United States, you have to behave deviantly or you'll die of boredom", which could also be used in some kind of parallelism with part of underground culture, but for kick-off reasons, let's give the stage to U2's frontman and touch a nerve here: subcultures and countercultures have generated, over the years, controversy in the context in which they operate, as well as fans fascinated by their message and marginal nature. They stray away from current norms, born from a niche not accepted by society at the time, but, in most cases, these cultural movements accumulate followers that they end up being absorbed by it (society), often in such a way that its underground side is lost in time to put them on the fast track of mainstream. And this can be so much more true in the 21st century. At a time when technology is accelerating this transition, is there still room for the niche? To the underground? In the era of cancel culture and political correctness, is there still room for manoeuver to go against the current? To be disruptive? Yes, but not in the sense of starting a text with a quote from Bono Vox, that's not disruptive at all, fyi. Disruption is something else.

It is, largely, what underground movements are known for. Challengers by nature, they call into question the status quo and deviate from the current norms in a kind of rebels with a cause "who stray a little from the norm, from dominant cultures, from hegemonic cultures, from those that have greater visibility", Ricardo Campos, researcher at CICS-Nova (Interdisciplinary Center for Social Sciences), explains to Vogue what it is to define the concept sociologically. "Therefore, the term underground refers precisely to an idea of ​​something that is underground, that is barely visible, that is more hidden, that is more marginal or peripheral, meaning, there are a series of adjectives here that we could use, in the end, to describe what subcultures and underground cultures are”. Subcultures and countercultures will perhaps be more self-explanatory synonyms than the foreign word – synonyms that subtly differ in their meaning, but still synonyms: “[underground] is a term I don't actually use much”, he clarifies. “And it can be used by some of my colleagues, but in fact, the one that I have used the most, because there is a current of research that has been working on these issues, is the concept of subcultures. That somehow come close to the idea of ​​underground. (…) Subcultures because they predict forms of expression that are more underground, more minority, more subaltern, and everything else, and therefore, in some way, may be associated with this idea of ​​underground", says the researcher, master in Sociology and postgraduate studies in Visual Anthropology. “The concept of countercultures is also a concept that is used, but which is associated with a particular historical period, namely the countercultures in the United States, in the 60s and 70s, while the concept of subcultures is more associated with a British movement that emerged in the 70s, for example, the punk movement, but not only. Therefore, concepts are sometimes associated with certain historical periods and currents of study and hence we can, in fact, use them as synonyms, although they have a more direct connection to certain currents of study or historical periods in which they are most discussed. But, once again: underground, subcultures, countercultures, they are all similar terms”, says Ricardo Campos. British history also tells us that, indeed, what is considered counterculture emerged in the mid-sixties and extended into the seventies. The bohemian underground was nothing new, with a low-key gay scene in the background and a community of artists that manifested itself without much fuss. Full employment allowed the growth of youth culture, but it was little for a youth who wanted to be more than a section in an established system: different places adopted different nicknames and underground, a term applied in New York and London, was a nickname generic to a community of like-minded individuals against the system and the war, and pro-rock'n'roll, most of whom had a common interest in recreational drugs. They saw peace, love, and sexual experimentation as more worthy of their attention than entering the established heterosexual and consumer lifestyle, even if they were not opposed to whoever chose to live it. The contrary was not so true: the middle classes at the time still felt they had the right to impose their values ​​on everyone else, which resulted in social conflict and, consequently, in the characterization of the movement as a counterculture.

It is in this sense of “against the culture” that the movement moves, or underground movements move, but not only that: the underground also has an activist vein, it has purpose, it is not counter just because. It's no wonder that underground is used to characterize various alternative cultures that consider themselves, or are considered by others, different from mainstream society and culture, and the term is used because there is a history of resistance under severe regimes where the underground concept was used to refer to the necessary secrecy of the resistence individuals. Ricardo Campos corroborates this activist trait of the term: “my opinion is that, in fact, there is a political dimension, so to speak, in everything that is underground or subcultural. Because we are talking about cultural, social groups, and social practices that are somehow either despised, or persecuted, or criminalized, or that have little visibility in the public sphere and, therefore, the dominant social actors (and here we can include political actors and authorities, for example), what they do – if we think of a set of subcultures or underground cultures – is often a persecution and criminalization of these movements. Let's think in the case of graffiti, which is a case I know well, or in the case of raves, for example… there is a set of social and cultural movements that have been cataloged as underground that were in fact despised, criticized and, in many ways, also criminalized. Even when they are not persecuted, what happens is that they somehow deviate from the dominant norm and the dominant practices and intend to do or produce something a little on the sidelines. And, therefore, they also have this political role of somehow confronting what the established powers are, but also the social norms and, from that point of view, I would say yes, there is a political dimension, in some cases even activist, that a set of practices seek so norms can be debated, can be questioned, somehow reformulated, inverted, and many of these movements are later associated with equally important social movements that circulate more in the political sphere. If we take the case of punk, for example, punk had a strong political side, right? The hippie movement too. If we take another case that I know very well, rap – and when rap appeared, it actually also had this more marginal, more peripheral dimension – rap is a strongly politicized instrument. And, therefore, we have here several examples in different fields, in different spheres, in which the political dimension is very present.”

The cultural aspects were key in this underground advocacy and the press was no different: the emergence of zines and underground press, namely in the London scene, which, in the sixties, armed itself with its own newspapers - such as the International Times, with renowned recruits from the academically praised literary world – and magazines, in addition to musical, artistic and lifestyle expression in general, is also part of this counterculture movement. The International Times, for example, started out as an arts journal and included theater reviews and interviews, but also covered taboo topics at the time: a gay column titled Elizabeth (homosexuality was still illegal, so there was a code name) and another on drugs where, writer and co-founder Barry Miles tells The Guardian in 2011, "we listed the price of weed in different cities and denounced plainclothes police. It didn't take long for us to be arrested”. Clandestine newspapers were produced mostly for idealistic reasons on a voluntary and unpaid basis, a little out of love for the job and the cause, a love that still exists today: not all artists want to exhibit in galleries, not all musicians want to sign for a great record label. Persecuted by the police and discriminated against by the majority, Elizabeth Nelson, in her book The British Counter-Culture, 1966-1973: A Study of the Underground Press (1989) points out this underground press as “the main repository of countercultural views, it served to hold the movement together and give it its identity”. In a way, it served as an aggregator of different cultural and thought strands, today a work that would most likely be carried out by social media. These, whose scrutiny is as swift as it is dangerous, whose mass judgment does not require the presentation of evidence, and whose dissemination makes it impossible to chew any food for the mind and soul that these movements in other times would allow. Can we still speak of counterculture in the Internet age, when a crowd can be mobilized in a matter of hours and any event, however underground it may be, is broadcast simultaneously around the world, in real time? Is it possible to have a counterculture when the culture itself is multifaceted? Ricardo Campos has no doubt about it: “I think it's perfectly possible [to still speak of underground]. This idea of ​​subculture, underground, counterculture, exists and will always exist. Because there have always been people and groups that needed to express themselves in a way that is contrary to what is dominant and hegemonic, for different reasons: either because of sexual options, or because they are part of an ethnic minority, or because they like and consume a type of music that it is not recognized as the dominant music, meaning, there are several variables here from a sociological, anthropological and everything else point of view, which lead to certain people coming together and forming niches. And it is in these niches that these underground cultural circuits are sometimes produced. And that will always exist. Now, what happens is that they are always in constant renewal. And in transformation.”

This transformation may take place more quickly in the technological and borderless age, but it has always existed: marginal movements have a tendency to meddle in society sooner or later. The truth is that contestation begets question, and question begets moving forward, often placing what was underground in the mainstream. How so? “I would say that there are several paths”, points out the researcher. “It depends a little bit on these subcultures that we're talking about and I would say that this move to the mainstream has happened in basically all these examples that I've given; somehow, this passage took place, and I think there are several phenomena here that are interconnected. On the one hand – and I have been studying this more from the point of view of linking these cultures with youth cultures – what happens is that a large part of these subcultures are in fact of a youth nature, they arise among young people and, with the time and the transition to the adult state, what was previously something peripheral and contested becomes something normal (let's think about the paradigmatic case of rock, right?). This is a process – it's the fact that, over time, those who were practitioners of these subcultures, who were somehow rejected by the powers and by an adult society, deep down, end up becoming something much more accepted. And then there is a question here that is also fundamental, which has to do with our own way of life: we live in a capitalist, consumerist society, and therefore this transition to the mainstream only happens if, somehow, these cultures produce merchandise, if they become merchandise – and in all the examples I've given, we find this to happen. Rap began to be practiced on the street, and from the moment the record industry took over, rap – rap and the hip-hop movement, in fact –, it spread across the planet. Graffiti, when it first appeared, was produced in a relatively rudimentary way and, nowadays, we have industries that produce cans specifically for graffiti. And there are many [graffiters] who have become artists and therefore sell their work, either in galleries or for the decoration of public space; from the moment these productions become merchandise, we are one step closer to making this more accessible to everyone and, what was niche, what was underground, did not circulate, or did not circulate for a crowd, from the moment it becomes a commodity, it becomes accessible. And it becomes a good that is marketable. Therefore, this is a fundamental step towards acquiring this status of mainstream – which in some cases is truly mainstream, in other cases it's not, but at least it becomes something more visible and more accepted”. This step happens because the system advances with the vanguard, with the novelty, and the new factor accompanies this deviation from norms: it is no wonder that big fashion brands look to streetwear to inspire themselves and forge partnerships; just as the advertising industry seeks ideas in the art world, and music sips from niche rhythms – in a way, the marginal effect has an ambivalent purpose, which is to both repudiate and attract. No wonder Frank Zappa, another unavoidable name of this movement, proclaimed that “the mainstream comes to you, but you're the one who has to go tp the underground”. What makes it so controversial is also its lure, slowly transforming its label from underground to mainstream (a term that, not randomly, we tend to associate with what is commercial): “in fact, one of the brands of capitalism and this consumer system that we have is the fact that we need to always innovate, to create merchandise (to create merchandise is to create new things). And creating new things is reinventing what already exists or often looking for what is less known, niche and on the suburbs”, attests Ricardo Campos. “Throughout our cultural history, this has been the case. The record industry, in order to reinvent itself, often needs to be inspired and look for artists who are niche, who are more underground, and speaking of the record industry is speaking of other types of cultural fields in which it is important to create new products. And cultural consumers themselves need this constant reinvention. In fact, these more underground, more peripheral, more marginal fields – and when I talk about marginals, I'm also talking about the symbolic point of view, but not only – sometimes have this power of attraction for the new. For what is unusual, for what is unexpected. For example, if we take the case of Brazil, when something arises in the favelas and which is unknown and which suddenly becomes viral and which becomes a new commodity; or what goes on, for example, in the suburbs of Lisbon and we have several musical examples, some of great success, that suddenly completely passed into the mainstream, and emerged on the periphery, linked to African cultures and hybrid cultures, like Buraka Som Sistema, and many others. If we take a paradigmatic example, such as Quinta do Mocho, which has been much talked about not only by the Urban Art Gallery, but by a group of young DJs who appeared at Quinta do Mocho and who became not only national, but international stars, what happens is that, in the field of culture and cultural industries – we are talking about an industry – not only new blood is needed, but new things. Because that's how the market works. And the culture market is not very different from the automobile market or any other market, you need new products. And these new products sometimes emerge where least expected and start with a smaller dimension and role, niche, minority, underground, and then move into the mainstream.”

The move to merchandise implies another aspect: the loss, even if only partly, of its inquisitory nature, a characteristic inherent to the concept of underground. This is not to say that it doesn't continue to have a message behind it, but it loses its countercultural force, because it becomes an accepted commodity: “my opinion is that, from the moment it becomes a commodity and saleable, it loses its political role. Because, deep down, it is already part of the system, it was absorbed by the system, and it is tradable”, agrees Campos. “I don't know if it loses completely, but to a great extent it loses that more disruptive role it had, regardless of whether these artists later on – we are talking about artists recognized by institutions and legitimized by them – have a more critical, more politicized discourse. Now, from the moment they are accepted by institutions, when they are legitimized as artists, and legitimized by the system, I think that, to a large extent, they actually lose the role they had when they worked in another sphere. In a sphere that was not recognized, which was more subdural, more underground… and this passage, from my point of view, in fact translates into this devaluation of the political and interventional role they had. And it essentially loses this disruptive capacity to confront the powers, to question the status quo, to go against what the current norms and rules are... because, deep down, this passage implies an acceptance of what is the norm, doesn't it? Which are the dominant and hegemonic circuits. Art galleries, the Art market, the role of institutions… somehow, it is to enter the system. While graffiti, in its core, is deeply anti-system. It doesn't ask for permission to paint, it's persecuted and criminalized, it doesn't have – far from it – an economic side, it's the antithesis, if you like, of the capitalist model. And to enter this system of Art is also to enter a capitalist system of Art”. Which is not to say that it is no longer possible to talk about underground – it will always exist. It is the fact that we live in a multifaceted society that has diluted its preponderance, multiplying niches and, therefore, further diminishing the visibility of a more cohesive movement that, albeit underground, proved to be dominant in relation to other niches. The underground doesn't die because underground is evolution and society is in constant evolution: “The underground is fundamental”, Ricardo Campos vehemently confirms. "That is, in any society, in any culture, there must always be contestation, there must be debate and there must somehow also be those actors who are available to go against what is the current norm, because only then society changes. And we can take huge examples of people who were historically considered either sick or marginal and who actually demonstrated that they were on the right side of history. Take, for example, the LGBTQ movement, the gay movement in the United States, and the way in which homosexuality was understood historically and the role these movements played – and which were underground, niche movements –, crucial in a series of transformations. Take, for example, the case of the black movement and civil rights, too, in the United States. If it wasn't for this role they played, nothing would have changed. In other words, for society to change, it is important that there are always these phenomena of contestation, activism, refusal of the norm, of questioning what the norm is, the status quo and the instituted powers. This, from a cultural point of view, from a political point of view, is fundamental. Therefore, any healthy society needs these groups to exist and coexist with what is the dominant society. Otherwise, we live in totalitarian societies, which strongly repress these groups and do not even consider the possibility that there are people who somehow go against or doubt what is the current and consensual norm.”

So there are still subcultures, right? Clearly. Just ask the authorities, who continue to infiltrate groups that, in our context, are often considered marginal – talk about environmentalism or Black Lives Matter or any other protest march. Student protests, animal rights groups, environmental activists and the anti-globalization movement, there is an underground ready to rise in any era, even – or, mainly – in the digital. Even in a politically (in)correct context, there is – perhaps even more vehemently – space for counterculture: “one of the characteristics of the underground is precisely that it does not care much for what is the mainstream and what is the dominant. Therefore, this issue that has been much discussed of cancel culture, the term politically correct, which is also a dubious term and which has been debated by different sides, I think it does not prevent - in fact, even in some way, it can favor - the appearance of more closed groups, more unspeakable, more underground”, analyzes Ricardo Campos. In fact, "even in the digital environment, it's very curious, because there are a number of niches, underground movements that we are not aware of and the digital, actually, favored this connection between people who otherwise would not meet, would not have the opportunity to meet to express, to speak, in some cases, of common problems and tastes. And, therefore, what exists, has always existed and continues to exist are these more subterranean movements, I have no doubts about that”, he adds. In a way, the system suppresses resistance with one hand, while pulling underground cultures to the surface with the other. Maybe it's a good time to go get Burroughs and one of his quotes (no opening space, so here's the leading role in closing the article): “despair is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who manage to leave everything they've always believed behind can yearn for an escape.” And despair like this has no time. In this sense, history repeats itself. And it will always be repeated. No need to ask permission.

Tranlated from the original on the Underground issue of Vogue Portufgal, published October 2021. 
Full story and credits on the print version.