As I stood among the crowd of 40 or so patrons gathered to watch the Canadian band Women at The Casbah the other night, I began nodding my head and ever-so-slightly moving my feet to their intricate guitar patterns.
When I looked up to observe the actions of my fellow attendees, I realized that nearly half of them were doing the same.
Don't get me wrong—I'm under no illusion that I've somehow carved out a unique corner of the “show-going 20-something awkwardly displaying musical enjoyment” market and these other similarly outfitted characters were somehow encroaching on my turf.
It was more that the situation caused me to reflect on the—perhaps imagined—concept of individualism that followers of certain subcultures tend to share.
Earlier in the week, one of my best friends from out of town paid me a suprise visit. Our encounters often end in a living room at 2 a.m. talking about what the hell we're doing with our lives, as well as other ephemera. This situation was no different.
We'd just seen The Social Network and were discussing the claim that there are more people with geniuslevel IQs in China than the entire population of the United States. There are around 1.3 billion people in China and 310 million in the U.S., and whether genius IQ is determined by standard deviation, an IQ over 140 or an IQ over 180, there is no way that statement is valid.
However, I'd say that having a genius IQ is a unique quality, and if there are millions of people on the other side of the planet with that level of intelligence, it's safe to say that fact trivializes whatever we regard to be unique in our own little circles.
In a way, this makes the idea of a subculture seem quaint and outdated. And now that technology has bridged that gap (see: Facebook and Skype) and we can literally face our counterparts across the world, there lies the ultimately depressing prospect that we might not be as outstanding as we once thought.
As our conversation turned to the topic of confidence—and how it affects one's outlook on their surroundings—my buddy had the following to offer: “In college, I was in my element. It was easier to socialize, especially with girls, because I was in my own comfortable little world and I felt like I was special. But ever since I graduated, it shot way down, because I realized, ‘Oh yeah, I'm just another guy with a degree—no big deal.'” For some, I'm sure immersing themselves in a sub culture is equivalent to my friend's experience in college; a microcosm can be created where people feel unique. This isn't to say it's bad—in fact, it's probably healthy and gives people a sense of purpose and community they might not otherwise take comfort in on their own.
But I would argue that as subcultures become increasingly more assimilated into the mainstream, they cease to function as the lifeblood for individual expression. Hence the restrictive head-nodding, foot-tapping trance you'll see at most shows featuring “underground” bands these days—virtually all of the audience (myself included) is too self-conscious to stand out from the pack, although, ironically, we might pride ourselves on some notion of cleverness and uniqueness.
However, a few days earlier, I did see something encouraging while watching squealing San Francisco punk duo Mi Ami at Tin Can Ale House. They had stripped down during the past year from a guitar-bass-drums three-piece to two guys playing what was essentially acid house with a spastic vocalist. The bar had mostly cleared out after the two acts.
Among the dozen or so people remaining, I felt like I was participating in something special. Shit, some guy even had a dance party of one over in the corner. Of course, it was only after the group pedantically claimed, “We're a dance band.”
And that feeling of uniqueness quickly subsided when I realized there were probably a dozen kids in Japan at the same time having a small dance party, too. My confidence would probably be shattered if I didn't already know better.