The Evolution of the Sub-Cultural Elite
by Yuzo Watanabe
because it's so true! editorial as appeared in issue #4, June '97
Ever since the arrival of internet newsgroups and the "alt.music.*" hierarchy, people have flocked to discuss their favorite genres of music. On alt.music.ska in particular, once upon a time there were great conversations regarding the state of the scene coexisting with arguments over who the hottest bands were. However, with the crest of the third wave reaching its veritable peak in the late 90's, much of the discussion has degenerated to heated debates of ska-core vs. trad-ska. One can browse the newsgroup on any given day and find a majority of the traffic to be concerned with arguments about how much No Doubt sucks and how the scene is being "ruined" by the influx of mallterna-teens donning checkered gear and patches.
Stylistic bickering aside, both segments of the population suffer from the aptly coined "one-minute rule", that is, the sole difference between one person belonging to the sub-cultural elite and another being a poser of the highest degree could be counted down to a mere minute of discovery time. Ska isn't the only sub-culture that suffers from a "ruder-than-thou" mentality; one can find the same people in punk, skinhead, and straight edge/hardcore genres as well, and merely replace "ruder" with the appropriate adjective (punker-than-thou, etc.). In fact, at risk of performing armchair sociology, this writer would posit that in most sub-cultures, there will always exist an incumbent "elite" that loves to complain and/or persecute new initiates threatening the status quo. History can show numerous examples -- Native Americans having to deal with the ineptitude of the Mayflower pilgrims, Romans feeding Christians to lions, and so on. This article was not written to solve these issues, but to merely try and call attention to them. Knowing that there is a top and a bottom to any sub-culture, one would probably like to know what the different stages one must climb through to join the "Sub-Cultural Elite". Using ska as the vehicle, this piece will guide the reader through the harrowing path and serve as a yardstick for one's own standing.
Stage 1: "Initiate"
Exposure to the medium and/or fashion of the subculture has occurred, giving a spark of interest that prompts the subject to find out more information. Many folks these days are being exposed to the wide world of ska via the ska-core masters of fandom MMB, No Doubt, DHC, Rancid, etc. -- thanks to the help of prominent videos on MTV coupled with hit tracks on local "Modern Rock" radio stations. Fortunately, the "other" side is also represented, albeit by some not-so-prominent videos on MTV like Let's Go Bowling's "Spy Market" and Stubborn All Stars' "Tin Spam". There is some attrition of people in this stage due to other sources of exposure (which naturally leads to other sub-cultures), and it is important to note that, at this stage, Initiates are the most naive and vulnerable to outside sources.
Stage 2: "Poser"
After finding enough superficial information (Fred Perrys, checkerboards, patches, suits, etc.) about the ska sub-culture, the subject now progresses to the Poser stage. Not having a full understanding of the rich history, Posers try to fit into the crowd by following the sub-culture fashion religiously. At this stage, they start to form a naive semi-elitist attitude toward Initiates in stage one. There is also a mild formation of admiration and hero-worship toward Scenesters (stage three) since the Sub-Cultural Elite (stage four) tend to remain low key. Posers will fawn endlessly over the name-dropping scenesters and be envious of all the band and label contacts that the upper echelon members have attained.
Stage 3: "Scenester"
Ska is life, plain and simple. People in this category have gone to great extents to show the outside world that as far as ska goes, they are it. Many become zine editors, radio DJs, record label managers, distributors, or even band members. Because of their positions of power, Scenesters with decent networking skills can amass large numbers of contacts among various ska bigwigs. Scenesters also love to name-drop to impress the plebes -- "Oh really? I was talking to Django the other day about Skinnerbox's new album..", "Yeah, I got Buck's home phone right here", or "I dont care if you work at Moon, I know Noah personally" are often snippets of conversation you'll hear coming from the mouths of these babes. An unfortunate side effect is that some Scenesters will shun all other genres of music and sub-cultures to try and remain "pure" to the scene, which inadvertently leads to some of the more obnoxious strains of "ska purist".
Stage 4: "Sub-Cultural Elite"
"Been there, done that" is the cry of the Sub-Cultural Elite (SCE). The average SCE has been listening to ska for a number of years, and is by now thoroughly sick and tired of various "ska-core vs. trad-ska", "sXe and ska", and "Gwen Stefani was a man" arguments and just wants to listen to the music and dance. Cynicism and bitterness abound, especially among the older set, although there are those that still have a naive sense of optimism in store for the future. Many are wistful for the good ol days, which can be 1989-1992, the Two-Tone era, or 60s Jamaica, depending on one's age and preference. The SCE also tend to keep a much lower key than their lower level counterparts, and generally look down upon status-seeking, name-dropping Scenesters. The elite are often disgusted at the Scenesters' petty attempts at vicarious fame through others, but at the same time are conscious that they were once the same way. Fashion is not nearly as important to the elite as the lower classes, and one can usually find them by looking for the most clueful looking person at a show that's not wearing a suit or checkered skirt.
Is there another level after the Sub-Cultural elite?
Is it better to be in one stage over another?
I dont fit into any of those stages, what gives?
These are questions which cannot be answered, and given the amorphous nature of underground sub-cultures, the classifications above are most likely inaccurate and outdated at the very start. One would hope there is an element of truth buried somewhere, and perhaps you, dear reader, know someone that fits in one of the above categories. Either way, this article is meant for entertainment and education, with a heavy emphasis on the former, and a very small hope for the latter.