I consume the works of several unpopular and obscure subcultures. The type of works which are seldom part of mainstream and if and when some works from that subculture become mainstream, these bodies of work are usually inane and watered-down crap and hardly representative for that subculture.
Science fiction is one. Heavy metal / death metal is another. Once programming ActionScript and Adobe Flash and Adobe Flex is another.
My writing moves within a hardly visible subculture within an already obscure subculture. I write ‘literary SF’ dominated by characters who are anything but heteronormative and in which I consistently assume that our current cultural and social reality is: a poor and barren ground, very one-sided and (very) poorly constructed.
This post deconstructs aspects of visibility, voice and “moving in invisible cultures”. I will use four music videos for illustration (play / listen to them. It is OK if you don’t like them. That is part of the illustration.)
The bottom line is: “whatever you do, do what you want to do instead of trying to please the majority – unless what you want to do is exactly to please that majority”.
And when you do it, do it as good as you can. Poorly created material has a very short shelf-time. The higher the quality of your work, the longer it will be remembered and appreciated.
When parts of a sub-culture reaches mainstream, this is where (the quality of) your body of work can make a difference in your own position in all this. Either in fame and money or in finding new people and a bigger group of like-minded people.
Striving for excellence / getting attention from the ones in power
Rochita Loenen Ruiz wrote the following in her column for Strange Horizons:
It is a good thing to strive for excellence. It is a good thing to strive to be innovative and to write because you have something to say. But the truth of the matter is this: no matter the excellence of a work, if it doesn’t come to the attention of those people who have power, the work will sink into oblivion.
In my reading experience this specific part touched the elements of: “being heard” and “being seen (by those in power)” and the frustration of remaining unnoticed when you do not represent or echo the voice of the majority. And this is the main reason I quote this specific part out of its original context.
(The column also speaks about forms of activism and the chain of people voicing the same message through generations, each creating small changes on the way. This post does not go into that aspect of “being heard”.)
What defines success?
Success is relative. For one person it might be “an audience of millions” for another it might be: “to do my own thing, have a small group of people like me liking it and supporting me and make some new friends in the process”, to: “to make my parents understand my real feelings”.
The worst thing you can do
The worst thing you can do in your work is trying to please others, unless that very pleasing is in the core of your being and your body of work.
Sometimes following your own path includes and leads to invisibility for a long while. Especially when you are the only one or when it seems you are the only one.
People in general will not like it, will not be interested, might even be apalled by it. Showing certain parts of yourself in those works might even lead to people turning their back tou you “as they never expected you to be that kind of person”.
It all comes with producing art and content and voicing statements which are not “widely accepted”..
Interlude: four examples
Europe: the final countdown
This was called “Hard rock”. In this genre you also had (the more palatable and more interesting bands) Whitesnake, Foreigner and Toto.
That stuff bored me by the time I had turned 16. And I started listening to this once I moved passed Metallica and Megadeath at that time.
Pestilence: Consuming impulse
(Let’s not forget the awesome works of bands like Nuclear Assault and Death.)
While I do not really dislike Pink (I like her voice and this is a very nice song), I rather go for someone/something like:
Otep: My confession
Otep takes things several steps further than Pink does. Sure Pink uses electric guitars, but Otep really rocks it.
“Please understand me”
Mainstream culture is mostly shaped by those who understood the popularity game at school. You have people and stuff you include and promote and people and stuff you exclude, mock and ignore.
From one point of view (the ones excluded or mocked) that mainstream culture can be harmful, hurtful and even deadly (as in: triggering stuff that can lead to suicide).
On thing Mainstream will hardly do is open its mind and heart to try and understand anything not part of it and anything not playing by its same rules.
“Please love me”
Another thing mainstream will not do out of its own is love you for whatever you are, unless you strike some specific note that triggers something with the people defining the core elements of that mainstream. Rap is one example of the fruits of a sub culture that hit mainstream in the early 1990’s.
SF movies like the recent “Star Trek” are another example of this.
For mainstream to love and embrace you, means you have to do and be something exceptional. Or that you dilute your work and make it vibrate with that mainstream culture. In most cases factors that do NOT do that are:
- Quality — Forget about quality. Mainstream likes well-produced work, but it does not have to be of high quality.
- Originality — Same. Anything original is something that requires a bit of re-wiring of the mind itself. Original work is (and original people are) a bit quirky. Weird. Strange. Mainstream likes to repackage and recycle the same over and over again.
- Challenging — You do not challenge the mainstream or people who follow that mainstream. If you do, you need to carefully hide or defuse your challenge. “You all suck, but you are also adorable and cute little kittens/puppies/monsters”.
“Make me part of you”
Take Otep, in the examples above. Were you able to finish the video? Did you like the music? The lyrics?
What about Pink?
Who made you crinch? 80% chances are that Otep made you crinch and Pink you (kind of) were able to listen to.
Both Pink and Otep made deliberate choices in their career. Both became succesful in their own field. Both represent the top (of female performers) in their own field.
People who like Otep will probably consider the music of Pink to be of some boring type of easy listening you might occasionally play when there is nothing better around. People who like Pink will probably think Otep is some fucked-up broad doing nothing more than some screaming and belting of aggressive stuff in her songs.
Both can be considered: “rebellious woman”
Pink hit mainstream. Otep did not.
Otep would probably not have been at ease in the role Pink is playing. Otherwise she would have chosen another style than she does now.
Pink probably earns a shitload more of money than Otep does.
Will it make you happy?
To ask the mainstream culture to: “Make me part of you” is to follow many rules this mainstream has set as it evolved. The question is: will it make you happy doing so?
In general I found mainstream culture:
- Does not like to be critisized — Stay calm. Do not pose your opinion. Follow the flow. Do not resist or speak against what other people think is “the truth”.
- Does not like to be challenged — Obey the rules. Do what others are doing. Do not stand out.
- Does not like change — All should stay as is. If anything changes, it should look or behave much like the old did. Some changes are ok, but it should not deviate too much.
Convincing a mainstream culture to move differently is like trying to move mountains. And even when you are able to move that mountain, many people inside that mainstream culture will actively try to move that mountain back where it was.
Why tiny shifts are important / mainstream is changeable
Mainstream culture can be changed. And usually real break throughs happen by changes in the minds of the opinion makers. The popular guys and girls who are adored by (almost) everyone and who (almost) everyone dreams to be or become if and when they had the possibilities, the time and/or the money.
In most cases this change is a compromise. Like Elvis Presley singing watered down and white-washed blues songs. And in most cases the original works who caused those changes remain obscure to many but the ones who live(d) and breathe(d) that subculture.
The tiny shifts they create are, however, immensely important. Trough Elvis, Europa and other watered-down derivates you are at least able to discover something close to your real taste exists and they help you to find the directions to find incredible and insanely talented artists and voices.
While it might be a shame or crime that those more original voices are not mainstream, at least they can be found via trails of pebbles and breadcrumbs.
Another aspect is that these more popular bodies of work usually trigger certain artists to dig deeper into the genre and “fix” the issues they have while adding something of value to that mainstream or sub-mainstream as well.
The melodic aspect of the music of a band like Europe is rediculous as is, but also the key to their commercial success. When and if I take those aspects (heavy metal guitars and a commercial melodic line) and twist it into a different angle, I might be able to produce something that is not obscure like a band like Pestilence and still true to my need for something more heavy and substantial in my own body of work.
So where are you? When your work is not part of mainstream, are you aware of the why? The how? Your own position in this?
Are you more like Europe or Pink, or more like Pestilence and Otep? Or are you like Otep dreaming to be like Pink?
To be part of a subculture with (sometimes) strong and vocal content means you sacrifice the possibilities for a real and major breakthrough to a huge audience like Pink or Justin Bieber has.
On the other side, that very same subculture allows you to create what you want, what you think is relevant, what you love. And without asking too much sacrifices in your integrity or in the way you voice or shape your work.
Reaching your audience
To reach your audience will take the same amount of work in any case. People are people and both in mainstream and subculture they expect you to come to them. To make yourself be visible. To join specific outlets and show up.
In 99.9% of all cases, this is done by hard work. In 0.001% of all cases this is through a lucky break where some influentual person picks up a specific talent and gives that person the one in a million lucky break and short-cut to success.
Refusing to be a victim
When you complain, which position do you take? And are you taking action, or do you remain a salon-table activist?
In general, when you speak up against the current norm, some people will automatically assume you perceive yourself to be a victim, as “if you would not be a victim of something, why would you complain to begin with?”
The idea that things can change and that human action can lead to that change is almost like an alien concept to people who see others as “victims”.
Furthermore: the concept of “victim” is a very easy trap. Complain enough, get disappointed enough times and you might even tempted to consider yourself to be one. “I have tried so hard to change things and I came to the conclusion that I indeed am a victim of the established situation.”
As said: victimhood is a trap. One that stands ready just around the corner. Once you fall into that (and not climb out of it as soon as you can) you indeed have become a victim, complaining “why o why are things not happening the way I like to?” without any action to change your own position or situation in this.
Work, build, experiment, collaborate, move
The only way to get where you want to is to work. To build. To experiment. To collaborate. To move from A to B and from B to C.
Excellence (the importance of)
Whether your work is created for a very specific audience (Otep, Pestilence) or a broad audience (Pink, Europe), excellence is incredibly relevant.
Regardless of how genius a body of work might bee in its components, if and when it is badly produced, it will have only a very short shelf-life.
Taking music as an example again: when you are looking for new stuff that better fits your specific taste, you will start consuming everything and anything that even comes close.
If your first encounter with that (new) play field is in a place of scarcity, (and when we take food as a metaphor) even a burned steak tastes lovely. The moment, however, more work becomes available, the more you will start to discriminate. “Awesome work” with the quality of a demo-tape recorded on a memo-recorder in a basement will soon move to “listen to it maybe, later, another time”.
Excellence (as in: no guarantees for anything)
Excellent work, however, is no guarantee for a break through. Nor is it a guarantee for recognition (as an artist). To break through you need a lot more than excellent work.
- Visibility — You need to be out there. Your work needs to be visible. You need to publish and be seen in places where your specific target audience comes
- A support group — You need people who pick you up, who listen to you, read you, view your work, like what you are doing and creating.
- A body of work — One song, one story, one painting is not enough. You need an album, a novel, a series of short stories, a range of drawings and paintings.
- The right moment and the right place — To really break through you need to understand how to work with opportunities and possibilities.