Youth culture


One of my ‘bosses’ (he’ll probably shudder when he reads that) is fond of referring to someone’s particular interest zone-cum-skill set as “your sweet spot.” Kinky, huh? Recently, he’s been luring me ever deeper into a few projects at Idea Couture Inc. with the temptation, “Morgan, this is really your sweet spot.” As someone who based his start-up partly on hiring an eclectic group of creatives, he definitely knows the value of drawing projects into our space (he’d definitely shudder if I called it an ‘office’), giving them a custom makeover and then harnessing the right person to lead them into development with the Charles Darwin treatment.

In the rapidly evolving and prototyping realm of Interaction, Innovation and Incubation (and the design, research, experience, interaction, strategy etc. etc. that bind its molecules), you might say that the sweet spot is akin to – if not the inspirational core of – the ‘creative type’ banter currently making the rounds in the current cultural cocktail party that bloggers in this sphere are attending to refashion the future of branding, advertising, stragegy, yadda yadda yadda.

In fact, I’d say the sweet spot (and you’ve got to be able to conjure something from your interests and passions, not just ramble on about them after hitting the Volcano for the night) is so important it should be part of every job hiring. Imagine Sweet Spot being the first section on your CV – not your x-amount of years in Experience Design or your grad studies in anthropology or the million dollar start-up you just sold off or that collection of Boy Scout badges gathering dust in a garbage bag somewhere in your basement. Instead, what are the passions and interests that drive you? That you’ll work double on?

Funny how, in your typical HR interview, interests and ‘hobbies’ are almost an after thought. Before starting at the space with the ‘boss’, I’d gone through a brief tour of duty searching for and courting other job offers. I have to thank him (and the other two ‘bosses’) for letting me into the space because I can’t imagine what a dark night of the soul it might have been had I been offered and/or taken those gigs where I would have been figuring out tribal cultures for the military  (yes, a Canadian spin on Human Terrain was a possibility), spying (whoops, I mean ‘researching’) on corporate execs for investors (very Human Terrain-ish), fighting the qualitative fight on  the quantitative battelfield and such. Imagine stealing fleeting moments in my cubicle penning odes to the sweet spot that might never have been.

To that end, a tribute to the sweet spot, a Top 5 if you will.

#1: TWEEN CULTURE

In my day I was into the Bay City Rollers, the Bee Gees, Earth Wind & Fire, Rush, Captain Stubing, Herve Villachez and Cher. I tell my daughter about the dark days of TV, when Sunday afternoons were limited to Davy & Goliath’s barely concealed Christian propaganda.

Today, Tween Culture is arguably so much more robust than it was in the 1970s that it has become the most powerful driving force in pop culture. Case in point: Miley above. Who’s one of the biggest selling artists today, if not the most ‘popular’? Her. Why? Lots of reasons.

First, Disney had to get its shit together after all that Princess crap it was coasting on through the 90s. They stumbled on (or strategized or hired the right person) a formula that has served them well across their spectrum of Suite Life, Corey In The House, Raven and so on: Neil Simon goes kid. That’s right – the recent Disney show formula isn’t a sitcom, it’s a Neil Simon play on TV for kids. Don’t believe me? Drop by your local high school for the year-end drama presentation and you’ll see.

Second, music. For all the pain & suffering the industry has gone through over the past few years, music is alive, well and thriving as the pop culture engine it has been since the Fab Four invaded North America. Hannah/Miley taps into that tween pop pleasure in a way that Britney Spears only imagined. The lip synching and singing to back-tracks isn’t my thing (us adults are too hooked on that authenticity thing), but given my own tween guilty pleasures of Donny & Marie I can let it slide.

And third? The Christian thing. Yup, it’s like Davy & Goliath are back to haunt me. It’s not big on the show (and the Hannah show is where’s it really at!), but every time Miley gets in front of a TV camera she never fails to thank the good Lord for all the shit he’s done for her.

Disclaimer: it’s one of my sweet spots because of my daughter’s age. Can’t wait for the teen years. Until then, thanks to the ‘boss’ for the first tweeny project.

#2: SEPARATIST VIOLENCE & ISLAMIC MILITANCY

Gotta love that segue, huh? Having written my MA thesis on the campaign against India waged by Kashmiri separatists and pre-Qaeda Islamic militants I’m still very much hooked on the theme. The photo above is, I believe, from a Hizbul Mujahideen web site. That’s an interest-work conversion right there, because the first time I was in Kashmir there was one working phone accessible to foreigners to call out of the state. The second time I was there it had been bombed. And the third time I didn’t even waste my time trying to call home. That HM has web sites calling for actions, posting photos of militants killed in battle etc. is a testament to the speed at which the technology I took for granted in the early 1990s has become accessible. That, and the fact that my friend can now call me from his cell phone up in the Himalayas from a village that had electricity 2 hours per day back then!

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your take on the client), this particular sweet spot likely won’t get flushed out in the work space.

#3: WINE

I still can’t really afford the super-good stuff, but I’m always willing to make budgetary room for something I can’t totally resist. I bought this Viognier in Vancouver while I was out doing a client ethnography. I walked into the shop, asked the clerk for something I couldn’t buy in Ontario, and this was one of my scores. Still haven’t had it yet, but it might make a great intro to the Oregon Pinot Gris my buddy Stanley brought me back from his third or fourth trip into Nike HQ.

Wine is, as I’m finding out, such a rich terroir for Interaction, Innovation and Incubation. This sweet spot is getting sweeter.

#4: DANCEHALL

I’m still waiting for the Miley Cyrus/Ninjaman combination on the “Cherry My Baby” riddim, but until then I’ll tribute this sweet spot for: being a favourite musical genre (less of a 45 buyer now, but still a fan); being a favourite performative genre (rich anthropological territory for understanding culture, language, gesture, membership, conflict etc.); and being a hotly contested cultural domain. Recent controversy revisited has once again positioned dancehall as violently homophobic. No dispute there. In addition to rampant  hyper-sexualization and a mythologizing of gun culture, Jamaican music of late (and much of past too, lest we forget) has been full of calls to bun down the batty man. Like much of the Rasta business, I don’t cater to this. But I will say that this latest spin on the ‘clash of civilizations’ theme that the media tends to fall back on when it’s too lazy to truly investigate a culture is, like Pad Anthony’s “Conference Table,” a great place to meet and discuss/debate ideas about cultural autonomy, expression, appropriateness etc. etc.

#5: ADVERTISING

Yes, I’ve heard the bells tolling for this industry across the blogzone, but I still can’t resist the call. I agree that so much is changing because of 2.0, TV’s cancer, the death of print; advertising is not only transforming right now but will continue to do so in order to deliver whatever it does to its clients (and, by the way, to pop culture – because it will always be relevant in whatever shape or form). To that end – and in typical 2.0 fashion – I’d like to suggest that while the interactive renegades, boutiques and start-ups poach all sorts of business from the lethargic monster firms, why can’t we do the same with the ad agencies?  Creative is as creative does, right?  Find somebody else to do your buying etc. But when brands with age-old presences are ready to have some real fun (and it can still be had on TV) at a slice of the usual agency cost and are ready to make themselves culturally relevant again, hit me up. I’ve got some sweet (spot) ideas

After 50-plus years of ripped jeans, leather jackets, funny haircuts, street slangs, covert parties, musical genres, spinning records, microphone fiends, loopy drugs and all the temporal, spatial, social, entrepreneurial, signifying and artistic intersections between them, youth culture has arrived in the mainstream like never before. At least, that’s what the youth culture pundits would have you believe.

First, an introduction: Hi, my name is Morgan and I’m a youth culture pundit. It all began in high school when a friend and I started a hardcore punk fanzine. Right away I was hooked on the rush of arcane knowledge (why Oxnard was a hot bed of skate punk), the hunt for obscure releases (those Polish tapes smuggled through the Iron Curtain), the bands and concerts (AOF at The Turning Point!), the us vs. them mentality (ie. all of you who wore alligator shirts and thought Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire” was hot in 1982), the global networks (viva la fanzine distribution underground!), the unspoken rules of the mosh pit (catch, don’t drop), the guest-list privileges (thanks Jill) and the swag that co-validated membership, like a free album in the mail each month from Touch & Go.

one-solution.jpg

Hardcore was only the beginning, my gateway drug to youth culture. There was the Canadian lifestyle magazine that started paying me to write about reggae and indy rock, the stint at a North American DJ magazine just as rap was hitting major labels and rave culture was peaking in England, a period of infiltrating the mainstream press with stories on Kingston’s finest, and a tour of duty as the Editor of a Canadian street style magazine for a friend I first met at a Slayer concert inside the legendary Larry’s Hideaway.

You’d think parenthood would get me clean, but no – between my daughter’s birth and her 3rd birthday I had amassed 7 crates of drum & bass, techno and house 12”s. That vinyl is part of a collection that has been ebbing and flowing through various genre tides for years. Much of it, including all the AOF, has been sold off at one time or another to finance a plane ticket, pay a bill or purchase a 2nd 1200 to play records that needed one. Some I miss. Others I don’t. It’s better they have a good home. I hope they have a good home, somewhere that someone will continue to play them with love. I’m okay with not having them because after a few decades spent living in a soliloquy of ‘music, music everywhere…’ I’m much less obsessed with the stuff of youth culture than its substance.

If you subscribe the view that youth culture is about ripped jeans, leather jackets, funny haircuts, street slangs, covert parties, loopy drugs and all those records spinning between AOF, Slayer, Gregory Isaacs, Mr. Fingers, Schoolly D and Lemon D & Dillinja, you’re hooked on the stuff, not the substance.

Behind the stuff is the substance: exciting, transgressive, secretive, dangerous, dodgey, rebellious, fun, transformative and more, youth culture is the social engine of art and play that drives the exploration of new identities, the creation of new activities in performance and leisure, the morphing of scenesters into new style entrepreneurs and the rejuvenation of a mainstream economy that thrives on – you guessed it – the new.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the most driving of all social engines in youth culture is music. Nor should it be news that after decades of young people fighting the power through rock & roll, disco, hip hop and rave culture, it was music that won youth culture’s archetypal battle vs. the mainstream. No, I don’t mean being legitimized by major label signings, house music plugging car ads or ‘bling’ making it into the dictionary. I mean the radical shift in how the social engine actually purrs: the digital downloading that followed the music industry’s shift from vinyl to CD as the first wave, that tsunami of transformation that turned the cultural landscape upside down so that the underground is now facing up. At least, that’s what the youth culture pundits are saying.

One of those pundits is Matt Mason, the author of The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism (Free Press). According to the sleeve notes, “Matt Mason is an award-winning writer, consultant, and entrepreneur based in New York City. He was the founding editor in chief (sic) of the underground fanzine RWD, which he helped grow into the U.K.’s number one urban music magazine and one of the world’s leading urban music websites.” He’s also got a link to the Vice Magazine crew, guys who live to take the piss out of spin like ‘number one’ and ‘leading’. Here’s Matt talking on the book….

I just finished my advance copy of Matt’s book, released by Free Press this week. Like Vice, I imagine that its effect on readers who haven’t been intimate with life in the mosh pit, at the blocko, on the dancefloor or any other ‘wild zone’ that youth culture has gestated over the years, will be one of profound out-of-the-loopedness. That is, if you’re a 40-something who spent their youth wearing Lacoste and listening to Vangelis, chances are you’ve missed the experiential meat & potatoes of Matt’s argument. But that’s okay. That’s what books and Bit Torrent are for, right?

Some of my favourite points from the book…

That punk, disco, reggae, hip hop and some forms of electronic music evolving from them (and other ‘wild zone’ practices like graffiti, pirate radio, sneaker pimping) fought the power, spoke for and created marginalized communities and expressed new creative juices through the remix/bricolage/pastiche process that Dick Hebdige wrote about in Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) and Cut ‘n’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music (1987). Matt describes these activities as ‘pirate’. I prefer subcultural (pirates are just one citizen of the subculture). Either way, those creative juices, most once underground, are now the ones flowing in the mainstream and influencing its many ebbs and tides.

That piracy is good for innovation. Thanks to the digital revolution and with many examples throughout the books, Matt details how consumers (read: youth) get what they want from so many sources, some of them grey or illegal, that ‘legit’ businesses are being forced to play catch up. Those that play catch up in the courts, according to Matt, are just innovation babies: “If suing customers for consuming pirate copies becomes central to a company or industry’s business model, then the truth is that that company or industry no longer has a competitive business model. A company’s or individual’s ability to make money should be based on their ability to innovate and create value, not file lawsuits.”

That businesses and brands will need to recognize that (and how) the pirate-youth culture model + digital revolution has carved out a growing customer space where success will be increasingly built on an Open-Source Platform. Central to that platform is what Matt refers to as The Four Pillars of Community (think: community as business portal rather than community as Benedict Anderson model): altruism (inspiring customers to want to be a part of your movement, letting them collaborate), reputation (letting customers create new status and identities from their collaborations), experience (letting customers gain and improve on new skills) and revenue (paying customers for their work to engage them further).

That we can all expect to be making our own products in the future thanks to Adrian Bowyer and his 3-D printing by the Replicating Rapid Prototyper. You can check out video of the RepRap on You Tube. It’s being hyped as a reproducing machine that Matt envisions as spitting out homemade Jordans in the future. Right now it looks more like a Mechano set gone berserk. But the idea, something we’re all familiar with from sci-fi, can’t be that far off, right? And when it arrives, will anyone care about the official Jordan 30 or will the streets have taken over and collectively dropped us up to the Jordan 300?

And that youth culture is bigger and badder than the co-opting forces that seek to harness its powers to sell stuff. Matt asks, “Is youth culture now just a relic of a past era, which marketing men and cool hunters have overfished to the point of extinction?” The short answer is no, an answer firmed up by the fact that ideas are now communicated between youth at light speed (vs. the mail days of fanzines).

Getting a read on the latest cool stuff is just a Google away. But the stuff is not the substance. To know the substance requires being there, doing that. The Pirate’s Dilemma does a fine job of taking you there and showing how that was done, even if it lacks the kind of analytical framework academic readers might crave. As for where to go from there, especially for business readers – that’s something Matt’s probably keeping in the silver lining of his pocket to break out for all his Lacoste-wearing, Vangelis-listening consultancy clients.