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  • Theoretical Tailspins: Reading “Alternative” Performance in Spin Magazine
  • Jim Finnegan

Media and commerce do not just cover but help construct music subcultures.... Subcultural capital is itself, in no small sense, a phenomenon of the media.

—Sarah Thornton, “Moral Panic, the Media and British Rave”

If you only talk to people who already agree with you, you are not a political organization. You’re a support group.

—Elizabeth Gilbert (Spin April 1995)

In the June 1995 issue of Details, Generation X was declared dead-on-arrival by the very author who had himself risen to instant fame only a few short years earlier with his first novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. And indeed in the years since Douglas Coupland’s Details pronouncement perhaps nothing has been assumed to be so thoroughly incorporated, so cliché, as the term Generation X. The common-sense consensus in both academic popular culture studies and subculture theory, as well as in the “alternative” youth culture industries themselves, is that Generation X is so passé, so universally un-hip, that even by remarking its passing one risks marking oneself as square beyond repair, like foolish white tourists who go to Harlem and speak nostalgically about the lost authenticity of the original 1920s Cotton Club. The word Generation X is deader than dead. Yet media images invoking the iconography of Generation X continue to proliferate in the youth culture industries, particularly in the pop music, television, fashion, and junk-food markets. With the now familiar mix of manic-paced MTV jump-cuts, a multicultural brew of post-punk haircuts, piercings and retro-seventies grunge styles, neon-streak color bursts, roller-blade grrrl-power “attitude,” and the requisite “cheese” of self-mocking irony, Pepsi’s 1997 “Generation Next” campaign typifies the current alternative youth marketing scene, except perhaps insofar as its slogan came dangerously too near speaking the signifier that dare not speak its name.

It is in this cultural climate of “alternative” simulacra, or a simulacra of alternativeness, that I want to take up theoretical issues surfaced by Spin magazine from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, as it sought to take avant-garde pop undergrounds and transform them, and itself, into post-avant-garde, alternative “overgrounds.” My theoretical goal is to make a first pass at “reading” Spin magazine in a Cultural Studies context, and in the process map the boundaries of Andreas Huyssen’s construction of the “post-avant-garde” as the hope of a political postmodernism. “Some hope!” you may be thinking. For many people with personal investments in youth subculture scenes Spin represents at best a laughable example of counterfeit “alternative” culture and at worst the very enemy of genuine subcultural resistance, the thing that threatens to rob a subculture scene of its essence of oppositionality.1 While I agree with much of this line of argument, I am equally suspicious of the knee-jerk refusal of any-and-everything “commercial” expressed by so many subculture members and theorists who seem to have forgotten that, as Stuart Hall reminds us, opposition to the current state of capitalist society and culture does not necessarily mean a blanket refusal of the reproductive power of the commodity and commodification (“Meaning”). Opposition to postmodern capitalism, Hall points out, does not mean refusing a priori the productive and cultural forces of mass society and mass culture. Oppositional culture, or revolutionary ideology, means critiquing current hegemonic discourses of modernity/postmodernity; it also means rethinking and reconfiguring the cultural-material forces of modernity/postmodernity at multiple local, national, and trans-national levels.

Perhaps what offends most about Spin is its brashness, its haughty prior claim to cosmopolitan cultural hippness. Spin magazine, like Andy Warhol’s Pop Art interventions a generation earlier, presumes to have already obliterated and transcended those traditional boundaries between mass-cult and high art, pop culture and progressive oppositional politics. And it does so despite the fact that the contradictions of capitalist production and distribution, which fuel the worlds of Pop and mass-cult, have only become more pronounced—despite, that is, Spin’s unlikely insistence that one can have a genuine cultural revolution and maintain a brand-name consumer lifestyle too.

Realizing the...

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