Arts & Culture Co-editor
The journey of musical genres from niche subculture to global phenomenon has become increasingly typical in the last semi century. The supremacy of commercialization in music, performed chiefly by modern titans like TikTok, Spotify, Youtube, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp, has become raveled with the rise of music acts—from basement gig or warehouse rave—to the monopoly of club dance floors and festival stages around the world. While digital media is appreciated for the opportunities it provides, it also raises critical questions about the preservation of the underground music culture’s creativity and authenticity in relation to the mainstream.
An underground culture frequently emerges as an expression against the pervasive “normality” of the mainstream culture. It embodies the form of an anthem for the culture and lifestyle of the downtrodden, the marginalized, the powerless—of any class of people who have something to protest against in society. For British Punk, the oppressor was the class system and the reaction stemmed from a general discontent that arose due to unemployment in an economic downturn in Britain. For Hip Hop in the U.S., it was the frustration of young urban Blacks and Latinos regarding poverty, racial discrimination, and disenfranchisement. Common life experiences are then at the core of the creation of a musical scene that aligns itself with community-bound cultural, creative, and ideological references that fashion a tight-knit community.
But once a subculture’s unique musical expression is exposed to the mainstream, its relevance seems to loom, mature, and expire at the whim of the intentions of commodification of the mainstream. At first, a culture takes on the meaning given to it by its members. Then, members purchase products (music and merch alike) which symbolize the culture’s meaning and, finally, the symbols of the culture are appropriated by mass producers to sell their products to mass audiences.
The unapologetic expression of music, which bypasses boundaries—artistic or legal—for the sake of genuine artistic creation, and the condemnation of this by authorities, often makes deviance related to its credo more alluring, especially for young people. But commercialization underwhelms this aspect of subversive music culture by applying financial pacification to dissolve the adversarial qualities of youth culture and dragging audiences into consumerism instead. By ridding music of its cultural sway within society, the mainstream reduces the subculture to a purely performative end by producing and controlling the culture’s creed within the mainstream’s agenda and, in the process, censoring its novelty and effectiveness. The mainstream allows itself to pick and choose elements of the subculture and make use of it in a strategic way (Travis Scott burger at McDonald’s, Lady Gaga as the creative director of Polaroid, etc.) that reflects its capitalist objectives.
Pressure from the music industry to maintain tried-and-true formulas that guarantee commercial success distracts artists’ creative vision with an input that is meaningless to the experimental sounds that help reinvigorate the musical genre’s scene. But once this is sacrificed, linchpins arise and thrive by impersonating subcultures which engenders replaceable forms of authentic expression to emerge and be displayed to a vast audience.
A current example of this is Olivia Rodrigo, a Disney channel youth star metamorphosed into a charting pop-punk singer. After the likes of Disney-made celebrities like Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Levato, Rodrigo is the fresh face assigned to act within the expected confines of mainstream’s vision of the trials and tribulations of early womanhood. Her sophomore album “GUTS” recycles early 00s grunge and pop-rock with a teen flick attitude and deflates the rebellious expression of punk at the service of the unprovoking musical output of mainstream music. The creative input and authenticity of her music is thus overridden by the imposition by the mainstream of an icon to produce a narrative for very personal and inescapable life experiences.
The polarization of music indeed pulls mainstream artists towards self-preservation at all costs and underground scenes towards gatekeeping to conserve its cultural sanctity. For listeners, the mainstream is overly sensitive of standings according to current standings, like the billboards top 100, perennial–yet subjective–standings like the Rolling Stones’ top 200‘s, and awards like the Grammys, Junos and People’s Choice Awards while the underground values aesthetic and genuine expression over all.
But are artists like Olivia Rodrigo to blame for this divide? After all, popularity remains an essential component in music. Fame is often an artist's vehicle to advance to a more respected and prominent standing within the culture as they gain a reputation as an able spokesperson within the musical community. As this process is very positive for the community, we cannot ascribe the issue to popularity. The issue rather lies in the customary framework in which popular acts are expected to place themselves to express their music to a broader audience. After all, a popular musical act can rarely remain at a vantage point in the industry without conforming to capitalistic practices like product placement, publicity and social media presence.