• What is Commodification
  • Consumerism: Subcultures vs. Countercultures
  • Punk and Hot Topic
  • Hip Hop
  • Music Festivals
  • Queer Culture
  • Scholarship

What is Commodification?

The process of commodification depicted by a cartoon showing the stages of evolution from a primate to a man to a barcode.

Transformation of man from monkey to human to barcode.

Pop culture, advertisements, mainstream, and capital. These are all aspects of commodification—the act of taking something’s original form and commercializing it, turning it into an object of trade and capital. Commodification is socially constructed and involves businesses taking things such as identity and language and turning aspects of them into a service or good (Bhasin 2016). Commodification plays a large role in how society views subcultures and deviance. This is one of the main reasons why the study of commodification is a critical part of subcultural study.

One of the first studies of commodification was by sociologist Karl Marx who viewed commodification as “expropriating the means of production from much of the population in order to create a supply of laborers who must labor in order to purchase, and consumers unable to produce for their direct use” (Butsch 217). Capitalists force workers to sell their labor, producing things for sale that may have little meaning to the laborer, and robbing the worker of their creativity. Marx’s definition of commodification focuses on its impact on capital and the economy, but since his time it has become so much more than that. Because of increased exposure to market and mainstream norms, commodification has become an “assess[ment] on human value and worth,” resulting in a set expectation of individuals. (Greaves et. al 61).

Two sociological processes intertwined with commodification are:

  • Diffusion
  • Defusion

Both diffusion and defusion are ways that identities and cultures are wiped of their individual meanings and commercialized through the market for everyone to ‘enjoy’ similarly.

An oreo with 6 layers of frosting, each layer a color of the rainbow, together resembling the gay pride flag between two Oreo cookies.

Oreo leaned into the gay community with their Pride Oreo advertisement in 2012.

Diffusion is the process of spreading styles, ideas, values, and norms into a wider society (Haenfler Lecture 2017). Once the market focuses on an object or identity to commodify, it starts the process of advertising and promoting that thing to the public. From advertising on television, to stores printing posters and t-shirts, and even through social media, businesses start the process of commodification. However, it is the consumers who have to accept that object or identity for the process to be successful. The process of interaction, such as sharing a punk song on the radio with a friend or seeing an advertisement that uses hip hop, is important to the spread of commodification, as without it, commodified materials would be unable to spread and develop meanings in society (Fine et. al 1979).

Defusion is the process of depoliticizing or ‘watering down’ the values, meanings, ideals, and subversive potential of a group (Haenfler Lecture 2017). Businesses use defusion to alter the meanings of and commodify things that may not have been originally accepted by the public. In doing this, they are able to present certain ‘enjoyable’ parts of identities and leave out other aspects, constructing the identity or item to be more marketable.

Commodification evokes strong opinions; some think that it kills creativity, replacing it with predictable, pre-packaged ‘garbage’. This opinion follows the concept of something being ‘mainstream’. The identities and styles that are dominant in society, often identified with being normal, make up the mainstream. The act of mainstreaming creates a power structure in society and encourages people to follow ‘norms’ to be considered in the loop (Domhoff 2007). On the other hand, some people believe that commodification and mainstreaming is beneficial to society and encourages new ideas to spread. For example, Beyoncé uses her mainstream success to promote feminist and racially empowering ideals to a wide audience. Understanding the process of commodification is important when it comes to recognizing the role it has on subcultures and deviance.

The Commodification of Subcultures

By now you know that a subculture is a group of people bonded together by a common interest and the desire to resist some part of society. One might think that because subcultures try to resist society that they would be the last groups to be commodified.

Merchandise booth at a concert showing many t-shirts on a wall, with people gathering around the fenced off area with the seller inside. The banner at the top of the booth says "Band shirts and festival merchandise"

Merchandise booth at a concert with items on display to purchase including t-shirts.

However, businesses actually try to market to subcultures to expand their audience and target subcultures for inspiration of new trends to appropriate. For example, at one point in history people considered hippies a resistant subculture, but they were eventually commodified and marketed to society, thereby becoming mainstream. One of the reasons that subcultures are so commodifiable is because businesses see resistance as profitable and therefore use their “built up cultural and political resistance [to] serve as a basis for economic mobilization” (Heller 489). The process of commodifying subcultures is interesting because the same resistance that subcultures use to stray from society is turned around by businesses to make them marketable.

Subcultures exist to stand out and resist society, so it is not a surprise that commodification puts subcultures exactly in the place they don’t want to be. It is one thing for subcultures themselves to participate in commodity exchange when they sell t-shirts or records at concerts, but this in itself is an issue of authenticity. There is a distinction of authenticity which may be the degree of which others perceive commodification, such as buying a t-shirt from a punk band concert you attended is  much more authentic than buying a punk t-shirt from Hot Topic. Commodification begins with the mass media building up a certain subculture, advertising it in different forms of media and retail, and attempting to gain attention from a wide audience. When a subculture becomes commodified their societal resistance is mainstreamed, and if everyone began to practice that resistance then it is no longer a subcultural resistance to a larger society. Most subcultures view commodification as a negative aspect on their image because “the consumption of subculture can lead to a decrease in meaning as more people consume it” (Sayers 2012). Commodification takes away subcultural capital and turns it into actual capital (Thornton 1995).

A problem with commodification of subcultures is the commodifier’s attempt to defuse the culture and misinform the audience about it. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate process by the commodifier, but because of their sole focus on positive marketing, misinforming the audience and defusion of the subculture tends to be a result. Because of the desire to gain profit from commodification, some subcultures are much more commodifiable than others. We want to take ideas from queer culture, be in hip hop culture, yet have nothing to do with Juggalo culture.

Queer culture is commodified through zines and TV shows and punk subculture is commodified through retail such as Hot Topic. In the process of commodifying, businesses focus on positive aspects of subcultures that they can advertise to teens. In the early 2000s, Hot Topic commercialized Juggalos by selling their symbolic soda, Faygo, but in 2011 when Juggalos were labeled a gang by the FBI all positive aspects of their subculture vanished from the media (Steinberg 164). Now that Juggalos had a gang label they were no longer a subculture that businesses wanted to market to teens (Linnemann 2016). There is no denying that different subcultures are commodified and treated differently.

Advertising, the media, and retail are all a part of the process of commodification’s implementation. Because of consumers’ desire to make things mainstream, the process of commodification is undeniable in most aspects. Mainstream styles and ideas fluctuate, bringing a variety of certain identities and subcultures into the spotlight for various amounts of time. Take a look at the related tabs to learn more about the commodification of subcultures.

 

Consumerism: Subcultures vs. Countercultures

The ringing in of the modern hipster in the late 1990s painted an image of flannels, thick rimmed glasses, beards with flowers woven in them, beanies, craft beer, mustaches, and colored hair. For a moment in time, mainstream culture mocked and satirized the hipster, until it became the new trend everyone was getting in on. Originally meant to be countercultural in its intentionally “comfortable and natural” look, it soon became mainstream, magazines raving about “hobo chic” looks popularized by celebrities like the Olsen twins and Miley Cyrus. Hipsters didn’t necessarily strive to be a subculture — they never identified as a group; instead, they were individuals striving to be unique, different, and countercultural (Lanham 13). People frequently mock hipsters as people who do whatever it takes to be different, even if that means maintaining their condescending demeanor “by knowing mainstream society hasn’t heard of their favorite band and by sporting overpriced Urban Outfitters skinny jeans” (Suesse & Lopez 1). The difference between subcultures and countercultures here is the commercial and consumerist intentionality held by countercultures that is not nearly as prevalent in subcultures.

Graphic shows "The Evolution of the Hipster" from 2010-2015 showing white men and women in various outfits. 2010 is "The Cruelty-Free Vegan" and shows a man wearing a "KALE" shirt with a tote bag of produce. 2011 is "The Colorful Crafter" and shows a woman sitting on a stool wearing overalls, Birkenstocks, and a sunhat with a tape measure around her neck. 2012 is "The Chic Traveler" and shows a woman taking a selfie with her iPhone with two cameras hanging around her neck. 2013 is "The Festival Flower Girl" and has a woman with a shawl around her elbows and is wearing strappy sandals, a flowy white dress, and a flower crown. 2014 is "The Lumbersexual" with a heavily bearded man wearing a flannel, khakis, leather boots, and a tattooed forearm. Lastly, 2015 shows "The Coffee Shop Sophisticate" and depicts a man wearing business casual clothes sitting, drinking out of a mug and reading a book.

Hipsters’ style has evolved, changing based on what is cool and countercultural at each time.

In “The search for authenticity, ” Lauren Alfrey explains the difference between counterculture and subculture: intention. She states that the “‘otherness’ of countercultures is symbolic; countercultures cultivate difference through intentional acts of distinction while subcultures may experience marginalization through religious or cultural uniqueness” (Alfrey 4). To a certain extent, subculture participants want to be different; the difference is, they don’t want to be social outcasts — their subcultural participation is often a product of their ostracism. In a counterculture, and specifically the hipster counterculture, being different and unique is the buy-in. Amanda Nordby observes that hipsters do not self-identify but rather are seen as a group because of their similar styles in her piece, “What is the hipster?”, declaring that “hipsters will never admit to being hipsters because putting a label on oneself foils endeavors to be different” (Nordby 53).

3 people stand with vintage but clean-cut suit outfits on holding cameras. They are wearing bright colors or eccentric jewelry.

Hipsters don’t like to be labeled as hipsters.

The subculture itself is based in style and consumption, which is followed through blogs and websites, most intensely by those with “high hipster taste” (Alfrey 9). Hipsterism is knowingly consumerist; it acknowledges what is popular and what sells, and utilizes that information to build out a palatable but unique style, resistant to mainstream fashion norms. Alfrey’s idea of a material subculture aligns very closely with prior definitions of counterculture: “Hipsters [have a] material subculture often symbolized by objects or styles appropriated from past eras, meant to appear ironic or novel with contemporary application” (Alfrey 6). The different styles and attributes of hipster culture are easily adopted, as usually their uniqueness is still largely seen as cool. Corporations have caught on: “Clothing retailers such as Urban Outfitters, American Apparel, and Free People have thrived since recognizing the counterculture as a marketable brand and adopted knockoff hipster trends as their standard merchandise” (Nordby 52).

Graphic shows a man whose beard has been matted into a bowl shape and is shoveling ramen noodles from it into his mouth using chopsticks. He looks up in a way that could mean he sees his actions as ironic.

“Peak hipster”: man eats sriracha flavored ramen out of his beard bowl.

Hipsterism and counterculture’s commodification and commercialization is quite distinct from how subcultures are commodified and commercialized, because hipsterism is defined by being different through consumption. In a 2008 Forbes article, author Lauren Sherman argues that hipsterism is “currently more powerful than any previous counterculture” (Sherman 4)  because of its large following, hinting at the idea that an embracing of consumption and a cultural subversion through that action could be the next step for culturally resistant movements.

 

Punk and Hot Topic

What is the subculture?

The punk subculture, also known as the do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) subculture originated in the 1970s as a movement for teens seeking “an alternative lifestyle divergent from the norms of society” (Moran 58). Punk’s subcultural roots were mainly working class, white males who strove to resist society’s norms. They are often involved in heavy substance use, and “live by the motto “No Future”, celebrating rather than lamenting the world’s decline” (Haenfler 412). Punk music is known to be loud and imposing, with lyrics that talk about rebellion and angst. Punk is not a subculture where an outsider may find it difficult to identify someone involved — rather, punk style aspires to stand out, often succeeding with their attire of unique hairdos, makeup, and dark clothing. The punk subculture consists of many commodifiable aspects which businesses can (and do) market.

Group of people in the punk subculture posing for a picture. They are all sporting mohawks and look to be happy. They are wearing leather jackets with studs, and one of them has a lip piercing. The image is in black and white and one person is throwing up a "rock on" sign and another a "peace" sign with their hands.

Group of people in the punk subculture posing for a picture with mohawk hair styles and band t-shirts.

Why is it commodified?

Punk is one of the most commodified subcultures because “early punks were too dependent on music and fashion as modes for expression; these proved to be easy targets for corporate cooptation” (Clark 2003). The punk subculture is so insistent on staying out of the mainstream that they tend to change an aspect of their style whenever they are commodified, yet, time and time again they wind up an easy target for marketing. Hot Topic is a notable commodifer of the punk subculture, but it doesn’t end there. Music markets and social media are additionally eager to get their share of punk marketing. As a result of this array of commodifiers, punk, punk styles, music, and identity are not safe from the mainstream.

How is it commodified?

Have you heard of Green Day? What about Blink 182? These are both examples of punk bands that started off small, but over time have been commodified and commercialized, becoming so popular that almost anyone in the US recognizes their names. Thus, the first example of punk commodification is through the music scene. Green Day formed in 1986 and played at small punk venues for small groups of fans. It wasn’t until 1994 that a major record label picked them up and helped distribute their name and new album to thousands more people (Crain 1997). All it takes is recognition from a business for the commodification process to start, and for Blink 182 and Green Day, that is exactly what happened. Blink 182 became so popular after its commodification that songs by other groups, such as “Closer” by the Chainsmokers, reference their name. Some people argue that commodification is a good thing for bands because it helps them grow. Many other people stick to the belief that punk is supposed to be resistant to mainstream society, and by commodifying punk bands, they no longer fully represent their original resistance (Clark 2003).

The front of the retail store Hot Topic. Hot Topic is written in kind of creepy red text and the entrance to the store is a dark archway. In the indow is a show with a skull on it, and the inside looks dark and boasting with merchandise.

The front of the store Hot Topic. Clearly depicting the dark vibe and entrance to the store.

Hot Topic, a retail store founded in 1988 (shortly before punk became “mainstream”), plays a sizeable role in the commodification of punk subculture. Hot Topic sells a variety of accessories and clothing which often cater to the punk style. Styles crafted from punk style such as suspenders, hair accessories, and large belts make up a large sector of their clothing section. Some people see this as a good thing because they don’t have to spend unnecessary time putting their punk outfit together, but others say Hot Topic shoppers aren’t authentic, and that “true goth punk or emo kids make most of the own clothes and accessories” (Steinberg 177). Hot Topic strives to base itself on and keep up with “alternative” music and fashion. When one walks into Hot Topic they are greeted with a dark atmosphere, crowded floor, and loud punk or metal music (Steinberg 1997). Hot Topic contradicts the resistance of subcultures because it gives customers the power to purchase items relating to groups that are resistant to being marketed. Hot Topic recognizes that “marketing the material objects associated with subcultural identity and individuality [is] out of context [with] the internalization and values associated with the aesthetic” and tries to avoid discourse by only focusing on specific subgroups for a limited number of months (Steinberg 172). Although their efforts to be seen as authentic are strong, many subculturists continue to look down upon Hot Topic.

Music labels and Hot Topic are just two avenues of punk subculture’s commodification. Through the years, this commodification has caused punk to lose authority over their resistance because their styles and values are becoming mainstreamed. Although punk strives to stay away from the mainstream by changing themselves constantly, they are continuously pulled back in.

Hip Hop

What is the subculture?

“In the 20-plus years since it emerged in inner-city New York as an alternative to violence and a way to escape harsh urban realities, hip-hop has become a worldwide musical and cultural force.” Katina R. Stapleton, “From the margins to mainstream: the political power of hip-hop.”

Hip hop is a cultural and political voice of resistance for today’s youth that actively calls out and condemns injustice across the board, originating with voices and stories from people of color, that has since flowed into mainstream culture. . Hip hop subculture contains rap, MCing, DJing, breaking, graffiti writing, knowledge, beatboxing, hip hop fashion, and slang—and as of July 2017, hip hop is the most consumed genre of music in the United States (McIntyre 2017). In M. Elizabeth Blair’s “Commercialization of the Rap Music Youth Subculture, ” she expresses the fear of commercialization of music because, to some, it “means a shift from active musical production to passive consumption, the decline of cultural traditions and community” (Blair 1993).

The image says "the real hip hop" and the letters of "hip hop" are filled with images of valued hip hop artists or groups like Wu Tang Clan, RUN DMC, and Notorious B.I.G. The "i" in "hip hop" is a microphone shape, and the "o" is a record or CD shape.

90’s hip hop was considered real and authentic, as resisting struggle was a large focus of hip hop’s message at the time (and still is).

UCLA: The Center for Mental Health in Schools’ report, “About Hip Hop Youth Subculture”, explains the contradictions of hip hop subculture with the mainstream hold it has taken:

“As an art form, the musical style incorporating rhythmic and/or rhyming speech is seen as having a widespread and lasting influence. As an economic engine, Hip Hop ‘represents a multi-billion dollar industry that influences everything from automotive design and fashion to prime time television programming, collegiate and professional sports, mass media marketing, and Madison Avenue advertising’ (Taylor and Taylor, 2005). Ironically, the commercial interest in Hip Hop has led to targeting expensive products to those who cannot afford them, and the quest for the products has been associated with illegal behavior.” (Adelman & Taylor 2)

Being the most popular music genre in the country would mean that hip hop has already been inherently commercialized, but this report suggests that with the commercialization of hip hop came the ostracization and demonization of the culture’s originations: working class, urban

communities of color. However, the adoption and arguable appropriation of hip hop culture by the mainstream is what sticks out. How could something so intentionally subversive, so purposefully resistant to white, wealthy, corporate, militarized America be infiltrated and profited off of by white, wealthy, corporate, militarized America?

Why is it commodified?

“But if hip-hop is ‘by the ghetto, for the ghetto’, how is the community changed by the fact that it is being played on college campuses across the nation and in the homes of suburban whites? When hip-hop style is being used to sell movies, breath mints, sodas, make-up, fast food, alcohol, clothing, shoes and various other products, one knows that this is a valid concern (Blair, 1993).” Katina R. Stapleton, “From the margins to mainstream: the political power of hip-hop

The mainstream obsession with hip hop culture is fascinating in some senses and obvious in others — on one hand, hip hop was not created for (white, Western, corporate) consumption and actively resists aspects of the United States in ways that are considered deviant, but on the other hand, there has been a constant obsession with black culture and entertainment provided by black people for the enjoyment of whites. Capitalist America saw a profitable industry which people of various backgrounds and identities enjoy, and commodified it. It’s what’s cool—it’s expressive, sonically pleasing, and temptingly deviant.

How is it commodified?

“There is nothing wrong with one community learning the cultural forms produced by another, if it respects their specific shapes and meanings. There is something horribly wrong with a dominant community repeatedly co-opting the cultural forms of oppressed communities, stripping them of their vitality and form, the heritage of their creators and then popularizing them. The result is bleach pepsi culture masquerading as the real thing. This is what threatens to dilute the real feeling and attitude of hip hop preventing its genuine forms the freedom to fully develop. The expression of Black people is transformed when it is repackaged without any evidence remaining of the Black historical experience.” Tony Van Der Meer, The Rap Attack

Drake is pictured in a Sprite ad with the slogan "Obey your thirst?" He is seen here next to cans of Sprite that are marketed with his (very profitable) lyrics including "Started from the bottom" and "Know yourself, know your worth".

Drake is pictured next to cans of Sprite that are marketed with his (very profitable) lyrics.

The taking of hip hop’s expressive elements of lived experience to be commodified and sold by corporate America is perfectly explained by Marx’s concept of alienation, “when something human is taken from us and is returned in the form of a commodity” (Blair 1993). Hip hop’s defusion in this process is especially problematic because it waters down already largely silenced voices and negates the full extent and emotionality and experience of class struggles and racial oppression. Blair states that “evidence indicates that rap music has moved into the third stage of Gottdiener’s model, in which a subcultural trend is sanitized by the producers of the mass culture” (Blair 1993). Mark Gottdiener visualized the production and control of ideological meanings as operating in three separate stages, the last two of which explain how hip hop is commodified. In the second stage, users modify objects of mass consumption to express their own or their subculture’s own individuality, traditions, or symbols. The product of this modification is known as a transfunctionalized object. In the third stage, the producers of mass culture capitalize on that product and produce and market it as a mass commodity (Blair 1993). The transfunctionalization of hip hop happens through a collection of samples and blending of styles that all come together in the art form.

Hip hop has been “sanitized by the producers of the mass culture” in two ways: first, corporations and record labels may attempt to dilute the messaging of hip hop for fear of retaliation without an understanding that retaliation and resistance is often the point; second, the use of hip hop culture to market things from dolls to cereal to cars uses the attractive parts of the culture for their own personal gain, while disregarding or misusing the important narratives of the culture and songs. Not only does this distorted regurgitation of hip hop discredit and dilute the resistant root of hip hop culture, but it additionally enforces mass culture’s denigration of hip hop in its true form. Blair perfectly concludes her examination of the commercialization of hip hop: “This is the most unfortunate outcome for a subculture in which many young people hoped that rap would be a ‘way out’ or disadvantaged youth and a chance that others might listen to what they have to say” (Blair 1993).

Music Festivals

What is the subculture?

When one thinks of The Summer Music Festival, the image comes to mind of a subculture where, instead of slaving away at a summer job, kids escape to a world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Through commodification of this subculture, advertising and corporate sponsorships have replaced the image of “free love”. However, “What has caused the modern destruction of the countercultural festival—and, by extension, the systematic degradation of the modern counterculture movement—is not so much dubious police raids or overpriced tickets, but the fact that modern festival-goers genuinely believe they are taking part in something countercultural while they are in fact participating in the mainstream” (Delistraty 2014).

Why is it commodified?

Music festivals are not subcultural in the contemporary context, they are the late capitalist version of paying to adopt subcultural experience, values, and belonging. People want to engage in this seemingly rebellious experience. Music festivals are way to gain social capital through spending capital, i.e. paying $200 to participate in “dangerous” behavior and see X musical group. Because one is able to use the economic tools at their disposal they can participate performatively in the hippie role: “The hipster is able to play the role of the bohemian while simultaneously wielding the resources of the bourgeois” (Delistraty 2014). However, this bohemian role is not just created by the presentation of self but of adherence to the music festival brand. Marketing teams, brands, and an influx of commercial sponsors curate the experience.

An attempted music festival curation was Woodstock ‘99, which was created to celebrate and emulate 30 years of the ‘peace, love, and rock and roll’ of the original Woodstock, the pinnacle of subcultural expression through the music festival. However, despite the money and effort put into it, the festival ended in fire, violence, and sexual assault.

Despite the potential for failure, like Woodstock ‘99, the market opportunity of music festivals is too big to miss. Brands can cash in on the economic value of youthful rebellion as long as implementation is highly curated and controlled.

Thousands of people cheer and dance for DJ Bassnectar at Coachella. The image is from the perspective behind the DJ, and shows Bassnectar with his hands raised about his computer and soundboard as he dances and looks into a very large crowd in Coachella's (notable) Sahara tent where most EDM acts perform. The audience is showered in yellow and pink light below the tent's dark atrium. The crowd reaches far back in the tent and possibly beyond.

Thousands of people cheer and dance for DJ Bassnectar at Coachella

How is it commodified?

The summer music festival has transitioned from subcultural to mainstream through commodification and branding.

For example, Coachella has a near perfect brand exemplified by their cohesive online presence, and how the festival-goers fashion matches this brand — and how Coachella has influenced ‘summer fashion’ as a whole. Not only are Instagram feeds saturated with Week One looks from celebrities, but the music festival even partnered with H&M to create the “H&M <3’s Coachella” collection.

However, music festivals not only foster music festival/brand interaction but the personal/brand connection. A music festival attendee has physical engagement with brands: sampling products, signing up for email lists, taking branded photos and putting them on social media. It gets pretty elaborate, for example at Governor’s Ball NYC music festival “Subway’s tasting area was situated in a massive shaded and air-conditioned “Green Room” that featured a DJ, temporary tattoos, and a photobooth. Citibank offered an exclusive viewing platform for Citibank cardholders. In addition to the Bacardi-branded stage, Bacardi staged a “backyard party” with specialty cocktails, shade structures with comfy chairs, “palm-tree periscopes,” and “pop-up” performances” (Jacobs 2017). In this sense, engaging with brands and consumerism becomes just as important as the free-spirit-ness and musical appreciation aspects of the music festival.

People at Burning Man pose in front of a spray-painted car. They surrounded by people, all dressed differently. The two people in the foreground are dressed lightly for the warm weather. They are wearing shorts and tank tops. One person is sporting a floppy blue hat. They are both smiling.

People in scantily clad ‘festival clothing’ stand outside in the desert at Burning Man. Behind them a spray painted car protrudes as one of the many art installations common at the festival.

Unlike other music festivals that identify and interact with commodification through branding, Burning Man lists “decommodification” as a tenant of their principles. They state: “Our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising” (Burning Man). However, Burning Man’s hypocrisy is evident when examining the census data and makeup of those who attend the festival. Despite its egalitarian principles, the truth is that those who spend the most money on the festival have the most autonomy. “Burning Man’s ticket price hints at the shift in demographics. In 1994, tickets were $35, which ballooned to $390 in 2015 — or 16 times the rate of inflation” (Spencer 2017). And as ticket prices soar and those making $100,000 or more nearly doubled in the past ten years (Burning Man Census), it’s easy to see how Burning Man’s commodification of the music festival has lead to exclusionary co-optation of subculture.

The music festival in the contemporary setting is far from its historical connection to subcultures. What identifies music festivals now is not their opportunity to be commercialized but the commercialization itself.

 

Queer Subculture

What is the subculture?

Queer culture or queer subculture includes the belief and practice of gender and sexuality expression as one sees fit. It refers to the community of people whose gender and/or sexuality beliefs or performances do not fit into the hegemony. By its very nature, queer existence is revolutionary, deviant, and subcultural.

Why is it commodified?

Many people and advertisers alike believed in tapping into gold mine that is the LGBT community through advertising. What do queer people like? What do they want to or not want to consume? First, it is understood that in order to receive the capital of LGBT people, a company should not position itself to be against the very existence of LGBT people. “Gay men and lesbian consumers are increasingly representing a desired target audience for brands seeking to build brand loyalty in an under-tapped market. The existing literature on marketing to gay men and lesbians suggests that brands targeting this market should position themselves as gay-friendly” (Um 2010). Not only do companies in the 20th and 21st century position themselves as ‘gay-friendly’ (as they should), but also have representation of queer people in their advertisements.

The acknowledgement of the queer community is arguably not only proactive for the companies that advertise in that they gain capital, but also for the queer community itself. “Media depictions of gay men as possessing flawless tastes and stylish homes have been deemed as “positive stereotypes” that may counteract negativity toward gay men” (Sunny Tsai 2010).

2015 Pride Parade in San Francisco featuring the sponsorship of Apple. All of the people marching are holding up small rainbow pride flags and wearing white shirts with a minimal Apple logo in the center of them. Some people have their mouths open as if they're chanting or singing, others are just walking. The crowd is massive and defocuses into a sea of rainbow flags.

2015 Pride Parade in San Francisco featuring the sponsorship of Apple.

However, as hinted at in this quote, often these representations can be grossly simplified.

Businesses view queer people and straight people as consumers and, although commercialization of the LGBT community may help them be integrated into the mainstream, the purpose of queer culture’s commodification by brands is ultimately to gain capital from the most people as possible.

 

How is it commodified?

One of the first examples of the commercialization of the queer community is the first commercial, created by IKEA, to use gay people to promote their brand in 1994. Going forward, in 2017, companies and corporations frequently use gay people and a gay-friendly nature to promote their brands.

The reality television show, ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ featured 5 gay men who one each episode would give advice and makeover a straight guy so he could get the girl. The show, originally aired on Bravo, won the Emmy for outstanding reality program in 2004. This is an example of questionable commodification: the show gave a positive spin on the ‘usefulness’ of the LGBT community but the concept of making money off LGBT people to give straight men makeovers and help them get dates is a little strange. Some sources critique not only the concept of the show but the name for using the word ‘queer,’ Jung explains in their piece 5 Tips for Netflix’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy Reboot –“This isn’t just semantic. Queerness, as a term and identity, operates much more elusively: It’s fugitive and punk whereas gayness is easily commodified and reproduced… It’s hard to know what, exactly, was queer about a show that’s so firmly entrenched in an urban, gay, white male sensibility.” (Jung 2017). The show was and may continue to be, as Netflix will be rebooting ‘Queer Eye’, a visible but stereotyped representation and commercialization of queer people.

While consuming these commodifications of queer culture, Yarma Velazquez Vargas asks in her book, “A Queer Eye for Capitalism”, “1) In what way is the program sustaining structures of power and the corporate capitalist media system to promote consumerism? 2) What is the role of advertising in negotiation of identity? (Velazquez Vargas 2010)”. These questions are important in critically engaging with representations and commercializations of the queer community and identity.

The relationship between the promotion of consumerism and representation of LGBT identity especially comes into play with ‘queerbaiting’. ‘Queerbaiting’ originally refers to the writing of a fictional character to hint at homosexuality or queerness while never actually making this situation happen. The term now can colloquially refer to someone who appropriates queer style, language, or culture to hint at these homosexual undertones but is not actually gay. Queerbaiting in both senses does it exactly what the word would suggest: it caters to and attempts to lure in queer audiences with false hints of representation and no intention of actually providing those actions on-screen or in real life. On the interpersonal level this may gain someone personal cultural and subcultural capital. Additionally, on the more macro level of media, this pandering the queer community earns actual capital.

The representation and commodification of queer culture alone does not correlate to acceptance of LGBT people, but instead is expressive their ‘usefulness’ in producing and consuming capital. “Intensified marketing of (queer) images is less indicative of a growing acceptance of homosexuality than of capitalism appropriations of gay styles to mainstream audiences” (Hennessy 1994).

NOTABLE SCHOLARSHIP

What is Commodification?: 

Domhoff, William G. C. “Wright Mills, Power Structure Research, and the Failures of Mainstream Political Science.” New Political Science 29th Edition (2007): 97-114.

Heller, Monica. “Globalization, The New Economy, and the Commodification of Language and Identity” Journal of Sociolinguistics (2003): 473-492.

Consumerism: Subcultures v. Countercultures:

Nordby, Amanda. “What is the Hipster?.” Spectrum: 25th Edition! (2013): 52-64.

Alfrey, Lauren M. The search for authenticity: How hipsters transformed from a local subculture to a global consumption collective. Georgetown University, 2010.

Punk:

Clark, Dylan. “The Death and Life of Punk, The Last Subculture,” The Post-Subcultures Reader. Oxford, (2003): 223-36.

Hanks, Sarah. “Selling Subculture: An Examination of Hot Topic,” Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood. (1997): 155-190. 

Hip Hop:

Blair, M. Elizabeth. “Commercialization of the rap music youth subculture.” The Journal of Popular Culture 27.3 (1993): 21-33.

Stapleton, Katina R. “From the margins to mainstream: the political power of hip-hop.” Media, culture & society 20.2 (1998): 219-234.

Queer Culture:

Guidotto, Nadia. 2006. “Cashing In On Queers: From Liberation to Commodification.”

Jung, E. Alex. 2017. “5 Tips for Netflix’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy Reboot.

Sunny Tsai, Wan-Hsiu. 2010. Assimilating the Queers: Representations of Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexual, and Transgender People in Mainstream Advertising.”

Community ?”

Um, Nam-Hyun. 2010. Seeking the holy grail through gay and lesbian consumers: An exploratory content analysis of ads with gay/lesbian-specific content.

More Reading:

Hennessy, Rosemary. 1994. “Queer Visibility in Commodity Culture.”

Velazquez Vargas, Yarma. 2010. “A Queer Eye for Capitalism: The Commodification of

Sexuality in US Television.

First Gay (IKEA) Commercial

Music Festivals:

Delistraty, Cody C. 2014. “Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream.”

Spencer, Keith. 2017. “The Data Behind the Gentrification of Burning Man.”

Deval, D.L., Beaulieu-Prevost, D., Heller, S.M., and 2016 Census Lab. 2017. “Black Rock City Census: 2013-2016 Population Analysis. ”

Spencer, Keith. 2015. “Why the Rich Love Burning Man.”

Perralla, Tori. 2017. “More Than A Tent: A Case Study on Live Brand Experiences at Coachella Music Festival.

Jacobs, Harrison. 2017. “An Unlikely Industry Has Found a ‘Genius’ Way to Advertise to Millennials.

Cummings, Joanne. 2015. “Selling the Indie Scene. Music Festivals, Neo-Tribes, and Brand

Communities. ”

More Reading:

Brooks, David. 2001. “Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.” Carol Mann Agency. 2012. “Bonnaroo: What, Which This. That. The Other.”