“Alt” Through The Ages: How Generation Z Is Redefining The Subculture
A deep dive into the troubled waters of “Alt TikTok”
Girls chopping their hair into mules, boys in French maid costumes, anime cosplayers, and gothic eyeliner tutorials – it’s nearly impossible to imagine a place where all of this content would live in harmony. However, they (almost) do it on “Alternative TikTok”.
Initially, it might be difficult to understand how all of these disparate designers could feel at ease under the same label. Counterculture movements have repeatedly been on the necks of others (think mods against rockers or phrasing “Never trust a hippie,” popular in early punk scenes). Yet, as was the case then, it is still evident now that there must be Something gelling all these groups together.
Until recently, the label “alternative” was only used in the context of music, and even so, its origin and sinuous meanings have remained obscure. When the phrase “alt rock” pops up, most people are probably conjuring up images of bands from the 1990s and early 2000s popular with Gen X: Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, Pavement, Pixies, Yo La Tengo. However, the term “alternative rock” was invented in the 1980s to designate any music that did not fall under the jurisdiction of the majors. This term echoed “college rock” previously used in the United States and “indie rock” in the United Kingdom, to label albums produced by independent labels that were popular on college radio stations. But, once Nirvana entered the mainstream, the term alternative gained popularity as a catch-all.
While it is not known how the word “alt” appeared on TikTok with its current use, the meaning is generally quite consistent: alt TikTok is opposed to the so-called “pure TikTok”. Straight TikTok is what you will be served when you download the app for the first time: Charli D’Amelio, Hype House, and an attack of preppy teenagers doing dance challenges. This is the default, but honestly not very entertaining.
So then, “alt” in its current Gen Z use is similar to its Gen X meaning – an umbrella term for all subcultures that oppose the norm. However, it gets complicated, because now we are not just talking about music, we are talking about the whole identity of people. Gen Z subcultures – E-Boys, VSCO Girls, cottagecore, etc. – no longer base their identity on the music they listen to like the Emo and Grunge children of yesteryear. Style has become the defining characteristic of these groups.
While style has always been a big part of the subculture, it tells the story of how, in our hyper-visual social media culture, it became the engine of youthful community creation.
This doesn’t mean that the style is without substance. In his very influential book, Sub-culture: the meaning of style, media theorist Dick hebdige explains how the subculture groups of the 60s and 70s used the style to promote a political message. Hebdige postulates that the clothing worn by subculture groups functions as a form of political rebellion in its own right. Something as simple as the bespoke suits worn by the Mods 1960s show a contempt for the symbolic power of costume in mid-century Britain. When a subculture cooperates with the dress style of those in power, they break down the boundaries between themselves and those of the classes above them. Because of this, people are forced to wonder why we empower these seemingly insignificant symbols. For Mods, when you disregard the costume symbol, notions of power, class, and white-collar ideals come with it.
Is it so different from today’s subcultures? Take Generation Z cottagecore for example, an aesthetic of flowing fabrics, rural landscapes, homemade breads and hair scarves. Thanks to these style cues, cottagecore rejects the hyper-materialistic and technologically dependent modern world, seeking instead rustic, slow-paced alternatives.
With this, designers can gain a lot of cultural cachet by emanating a particular “look”, as it is a shorthand for expressing your inner politics and desires.
The Internet, and more recently TikTok, has become the springboard for youth counter-culture or “alternative” movements. Due to its advancement algorithm constantly curating content to suit your tastes (even calling its feed the “For You” page), TikTok is able to create micro-communities of like-minded people. And the more you interact with these communities, the more you are nourished by their content, thus strengthening your place.
While it’s easy for millennials and even older gen zs to write off teens who seem to form their identities around how many pocket chains they have or even do this weird roll my eyes thing, it’s important to take a step back and realize that this is all completely previous. Alternative subcultures, barring major political repression, will always exist and always change. It will just be interesting to see who will be the next group to integrate into the Alternative Umbrella.
Photo collage by Kit Mergaert