Counterculture and Democracy
Jay Michaelson
January, 2002


Are there any new countercultures in America? Plenty of the old ones survive – there are hippies still tooling around the country in RV’s, neo-hippies (and plenty of poseurs) at jam band concerts and festivals like Rainbow and Burning Man; old school punks undergoing a bit of a revival in the last year in particular, new school punks of every stripe going to underground shows at little bars across the country; hip-hoppers, techno-heads, gearheads, geeks, ravers, Greens – countercultures in general are doing quite well, thank you, enabled by the Internet and thriving in the midst of our “national unity.”

But anything new?

To distinguish a counterculture from, well, anything else, we need a few short definitions – or at least, salient features that generally indicate the presence of a real, live counterculture. First, a counterculture should be more than just a taste in music or clothes – it should be a culture, complete with language, style, ideology (or the explicit rejection thereof), identity-definers, and mores of social interaction. If you imagine a rave kid or someone into hip-hop, these features are clear. There are ways to identify the ‘reality’ of a membership in a counter-culture, as contrasted with the poseurs who assume the style for some reason or other but are still members of the majority culture at heart; their style and speech seem “weird” to outsiders. Counterculture is community – through these bonds of culture, drop-outs from the mainstream find communities, families, bonds.

Second, as the word implies, a counterculture must in some way exist in an oppositional stance relative to the majority culture. Sometimes this opposition is overt (hippie radicals in the 60s, anarchist punks in the 80s) and sometimes covert (ravers who claim to just want to be left alone). This is why members of countercultures resent their culture being “co-opted.” When rock & rollers are selling Pepsi, they’ve “sold out,” lost the vitality that comes from refusing to stand for commercialism and materialism. Of course, it’s possible to revel in the intrinsic sell-out quality of big time rock and roll (viz. U2's "ironic phase," which lasted from around 1993-2000), or to claim to subvert the dominant paradigm from inside (e.g. hip hop stars in Gap ads). But such moves are already post-countercultural; they’re interesting mixtures of counterculture and majority culture, a fusion.

So, with this featurelist in mind, are there any ‘pure’ countercultures that have arisen within, oh, the last five years?

I was talking this over with a couple of friends recently, one of whom works for a major media outlet. He answered the question immediately: Christian Rock. And he was right. Here are kids dropping out of the mainstream, professing a particular ideology, listening to a certain kind of music, wearing particular clothes and other identity-signifiers (WWJD paraphernalia, among others), and changing the boundaries of language, behavior, personal identity, and sexual behavior. Despite being an ever-growing culture, the mainstream pays no attention to it – you won't often see a P.O.D. album reviewed in Rolling Stone. The kids who go to these shows and chat in the chatrooms are aware of themselves as distinct from popular culture, and what they perceive to be its shallow, sinful, materialistic, and degenerate values.

This has happened before. The self-consciously countercultural Christians seem to echo the Jesus People of the early 1970s, who explicitly modeled themselves on the hippies, staging large gatherings, carrying posters, proclaiming themselves a ‘movement.’ To some degree, they also model the post-Clinton-acquittal Christian Right itself, many of whose leaders, faced with the embrace of a professed adulterer by an overwhelming majority of the American population, despaired of mainstream politics and advocated “dropping out”: home schooling, alternative communities, etc. And to a debatable extent, today’s Christian revivalists echo the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, if not the Christian utopian communities that sometimes grew up in their wake.

But these historical progenitors do not void the newness of the Christian rock crowd, just as ravers don’t really reduce to hippies. Doubtless, they provide inspiration – unlike the various techno subcultures, this is not a culture that seeks to Make It New. But there is much that is new in the Christian counterculture – an appropriation of mainstream culture’s music, fashion, and rhetoric, all transmuted into the counterculture, and yet a simultaneous, and self-conscious, understanding of themselves as oppositional to the dominant culture’s values. The Christian counterculture’s codes and behaviors are community-builders, forging bonds between people disillusioned with the mainstream. And as some of them like to point out, Jesus started a counterculture too.

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