Berlin & The Failure of Anti-Mainstream Culture

Berlin & The Failure of Anti-Mainstream Culture

In this post, I would like to talk about anti-mainstream culture and show that sometimes it can go wrong. But I better start at the beginning, because while this post will eventually discuss the general idea of “Post anti-mainstream” it will just as much talk about Berlin.

Berlin – A City Where The Different Is Cool

“Berlin’s anti mainstream culture “tries” so hard to distinguish itself from the mainstream that it has just become the other side of the same coin.”

Berlin is a tough cookie, it is not easy to crack and get to the bottom of it and of its people. Being a tourist here will only show you the surface. Many choose to see the historic sites, the famous museums, and specific nightlife activities that cater for tourists. All of these can be interesting on their own, but they have little to do with the buzzing lifestyle locals enjoy here. The separation of worlds is so deep that a tourist can be completely oblivious to the nature of Berlin if he doesn’t manage to find a crack in the touristic facade. Take Mitte for example, the tourist-beloved city center – It has basically become a tourist and business zone. Most locals will avoid living or even hanging out in the area to the best of their ability. Fortunately enough, moving here I had plenty of time to explore and over analyze the social environment, and I have discovered some beautiful and ugly aspects of the culture that the city promotes.

Berlin is famous for its anti-mainstream culture, and for a good reason as I have never seen anywhere like this. There are many good sides to it, and while none of them are unique, the virtues (and vices) of Berlin are so widespread and so extreme that they make the city one of a kind. In Berlin, you can generally be whoever you want. Berlin “accepts” (almost) all kind of people. Whether you are a nerd or a hipster Berlin will “accept” you. Whether you are straight, gay, queer, religious, atheist, Italian, Israeli, or German, Berlin will “accept” you. There are many exceptions to this rule, but as a whole, the people of the city are more acceptive and tolerant than in most places, in fact, the more peculiar and different you are, you are more welcome in this city.

“Being a real Hipster is being a Paradox – it means to not acknowledge yourself as one.”

Berliners are also very open minded toward different forms of relationships. Open relationships and polyamory are common. In fact, many avoid definition altogether and just “let things be natural”, whatever that means for them. People tend to be liberal towards sexual relationship as well, and it seems the women are close to stand on equal grounds with men with regard to sexuality. Clothing, at least to the untrained eye, is something nobody really cares about. It seems that the fashion police has lost hope in this city. And although this is sore to the eye, it is beautiful that people put less emphasis on looks and more emphasis on much more important virtues.

This brings me to my favorite thing about Berlin. In Berlin one of the sexiest things is intelligence. People just appreciate it. People enjoy deep talks about philosophical issues, politics or art. If you are a musician, DJ or an artist, or even just like to deeply listen to music and analyze movies many people will find interest in you. The plain, the boring, and the looks-reliant people have no place in Berlin. I remember using dating apps for the first time here. I was astounded to see how different the women are here, how they portray themselves and what do they care about. So many women (probably men as well, but I wouldn’t know) has a story, a passion about something, something substantial. But this is really just a mirror image of the entire culture. It’s a culture of intelligence, of queerness, of the unconventional, of deep conversations and of art.

The Anti-Mainstream Culture

For the reasons I mentioned above, I love Berlin. But a deeper look will also show the darker side of this culture. And here It will start to get philosophical. So what is this anti-mainstream culture all about really? Well, first we need to understand what the mainstream culture is. The mainstream culture is the social standard accepted by the mass. In order to be an integrated part of society, one needs to adhere to this mainstream culture standard. Straying too far from the standard and repercussions in the form of rejection from society are at risk. Commonly, straying too far means a disconnection from many public affairs as a result of lacking common values and interests. Taken to the extreme straying too far might mean fewer opportunities, losing some friends, harder time finding a partner, maybe a person like that will lose his family approval of him, or he might even lose the job he wanted because they look for mainstream presentable people. People might call him in names, or talk bad about him.

There is a reason why mainstream is mainstream. There is always a driving force behind mainstream. This could be a person or group with strong values and vision, but commonly it can also be an elite group trying to keep their status and interests in high regard, or a group that shapes a standard for profit rather than for values. These driving forces make sure the easily accessible public domain is ruled by one (or few) social standard. That means that if one walks down the street, he is likely to see the same kind of establishments, hear the same kind of music. When talking to people one will hear the same ideas. Commercials will often suggest products that serve the same sort of life style and so on. In short, it is impossible to miss, and it is hard to completely escape participation in mainstream culture while living in a well-structured society. All of this is important because while every sub culture can be pretentious of its self-value and reject foreigners to their values and interests, when this happens within mainstream culture an irregular person loses his ability to live contently within a major part of the public domain.

Some sub cultures are neither mainstream nor anti-mainstream, they are simply a group that follows a different social standard and provides a domain for people with common identity to be content in. Other sub cultures are formed out of spite to mainstream, to what they perceive as shallow or no values and to the “herd” that follows blindly. They despise the vain pretentiousness, and the way they way mainstream rejects irregularities.  Their narrative is in direct dialog with mainstream, and much of their social standing is basically a response. These sub cultures are anti mainstream.

There are two senses that anti-mainstream culture can be understood: the alternative approach, or the anarchist approach. First, it can be understood as an alternative culture – a culture that rejects the idea of a main standard in favor of alternative social standards. In this approach no standard is encouraged in particular, instead, a diversity of standards is encouraged. The different standards allow individuals to explore different standards and adopt one or more without fear of social rejection. In contrast to the alternative approach that accepts the idea of social standards, the anarchist way to interpret “anti-mainstream” is to reject the idea of social standards altogether and just let people be. Without the need to conform, people will develop their individuality according to their own views outside the scope of any social constraints. No small feat, as it is hard to grasp how one can grow outside the scope of any social standard nowadays, but one can put his best effort. It is worth to note that these two interpretations might be conceptually mutually exclusive, but by practice, the anti-mainstream culture exhibits both on different occurrences.

By theory, the anti-mainstream culture movement is leading a noble change in society. But did the movement succeed in applying the theory to society? Well, yes and no.

The Hipster

Let’s examine for a moment one of the most famous products of the anti-mainstream movement – The Hipster. In a nutshell, for those who are not familiar, a Hipster is a person that rejects mainstream trends and arguably follows the latest and different trends that are outside of the mainstream culture. Their fashion, their music taste, their slang, all are often peculiar. Their ideology is usually rejecting current state affairs or economy. They adore people you never heard of, and you get the idea. Basically, the Hipster is the embodiment of the anti-mainstream movement – in theory.

In practice, most Hipsters become what they hate the most – they have become a brand. Nowadays if you ask the average Joe what is a Hipster, Joe is most likely to describe a Hipster by his full grown beard and a pair of big nerdy glasses. Their music taste is not uniform but still, tends to be around the electronic sphere, or maybe some light indie music. When most people say Hipster they have an image of how that person looks, and that is a problem, because it’s a brand. But not only is it a brand, but it seems that it is kind of a mainstream thing being a Hipster nowadays.

If the above description is a sort of a descriptive definition, then we have at hand a very different image of what a hipster really is. I would say the “Hipster brand” is a cheap imitation of what a Hipster should be like. Being a real Hipster is being a Paradox – it means to not acknowledge yourself as one. The moment one acknowledges he is a Hipster he is already attributing a social standard to himself, and this fails to be anti-mainstream in both senses that I mentioned. It fails in the alternative sense since being a hipster has been branded and got to be quite mainstream in many aspects. And it fails in the anarchist sense because all socials standards are to be abolished, and he is attributing one to himself.

On a side note, as I have shown, the term Hipster is nowadays overloaded with two definitions, one is a brand, and the other is the protagonist of the anti-mainstream culture. Unfortunately, the branded version is now so deeply attached to the term that for most people it is the first thing that comes up to mind upon hearing the term. I would suggest abandoning the term “Hipster” for “real hipsters”. Instead, the protagonists of anti-mainstream can simply be called “Alternative”.

Where Berlin Fails At Being Alternative

In Berlin, the failure of the anti-mainstream culture is evident in many layers. Let’s take fashion for example. In Berlin, the mainstream fashion is mocked and despised. A fancy suit, high heels or a gown will only get you rejected to the entrance of the trendy bars and clubs. Instead, you should supposedly wear what you want, and let me tell you, people do. As far as my fashion sense go, looking like a homeless is the trendiest trend. Well, either that or wearing all dark melancholic clothes. But that’s the thing, it’s not that there is no fashion, it is just different, the most different it can be from the mainstream fashion. Berlin’s anti mainstream  culture “tries” so hard to distinguish itself from the mainstream that it has just become the other side of the same coin. People still judge people by their fashion the same way like anywhere else, it is just a different fashion that they judge.

“Kreuzberg remains rude”, one of the most happening districts in Berlin.

Further examples are abundant and have a similar pattern. Getting into the best clubs is not about money or looks here. Being rich, beautiful, successful and well-dressed will get you nowhere. Again, it is actually about showing you are “alternative”, and by alternative I mean some few specific kinds of “alternative”. So, if one is into Fetish or enjoys being a naked in public this could be of great help.  In some other places, being the melancholic dark Berliner is the way to go. Brands upon brands all the same. And let me tell you, Berlin rejection rate into clubs is the highest I have ever seen. In order to keep the atmosphere, the way they want, they reject more than half of the people based on how they look, how they act, and their general vibe. And they are not even embarrassed by this selection, they are being upfront about it. In Berghain, one of the most famous clubs of Berlin if not the world, “I’m sorry, you are not getting into the club” is the only spoken words you’ll constantly hear in a line full of dead silent people dressed in black and separated to small groups. And all of this is just in order to satisfy Berlin’s “I’m cool” brand, which is very different than the normal interpretation of “cool”. Still, the concept of what “cool” is, is just the same as any other main culture. If you are cool, we like you, if you are not, well, you’re not getting inside the club.

There are many more examples but I will wrap it up with one last example. In most places of the world, foreigners are curious subjects, because they are different. Probably they have different values, different story, they look different and so on. In Berlin, if you don’t speak German, some locals will treat you with the outsider treatment, which is basically they want nothing to do with you, you are not a real Berliner for them. Don’t get me wrong, learning the local language is important, and there are plenty of welcoming Germans, but there are enough to make you wonder what are they being protective of when Berlin is all about accepting people the way they are.

So in many ways, I would say that Berlin is not an anti-mainstream culture at all, as it follows the same behavior and principles of a mainstream culture. Berlin’s mainstream culture is just different from other places. Is it a failure of the anti-mainstream culture? Definitely yes. Did the movement accomplish nothing? Well no.

So my argument, to put simply, is that Berlin’s anti-mainstream tries so hard to distance itself from mainstream that it just ended up being a different kind of mainstream, but what I did not try to discuss is whether it is a better kind of mainstream. Berlin definitely has some strong points for its alternative mainstream culture which shares much of the general spirit of Berlin. The rare qualities that Berlin’s culture cultivates may very well be a basis for a higher form of mainstream culture. In Berlin, real alternative people can feel at home. Intelligence is a virtue. Holding true to my previous remarks, it is still more acceptive and tolerant as a whole than most places. Clubs and bars, while being atrociously selective of their customers, care about the atmosphere more than they care about profit. The number of small venues and scenes is sometimes astounding. It is a peculiar city and like any other place, the good comes with the bad. It is not what many people portray it to be, but it is definitely unique.

Whether the anti-mainstream culture can do any better than Berlin did? time will tell. Personally, I doubt it. It is in human nature to conform. Some people grow out of it, but they are usually a small percentage of the population. The majority of people search for big brands so that their identity will be socially valued. It is a natural cycle for every alternative trend to be branded. In turn, the masses start to adopt the brand. Give it enough time and the masses adoption becomes a majority. And when that happens that alternative trend has just become mainstream.

4 thoughts on “Berlin & The Failure of Anti-Mainstream Culture

  1. >The separation of worlds is so deep that a tourist can be completely oblivious to the nature of Berlin if he doesn’t manage to find a crack in the touristic facade.

    Very true. Yet the author failed to find those cracks. He put Hipster and Berghain at the core of Berlin, which are just a minor scene of elitist hedonists. There is so much more to Berlin than that, and equating this life style to all of Berlin with sentences like

    > Berlin is trying so hard to be anti-mainstream, that it became a different kind of mainstream

    Is just narrow minded.

    Paragraphs starting with

    > Further examples are abundant


    >There are many more examples but I will wrap it up

    Claim to support his view with an abundance of examples. But still simply ride on this small exclusive black fashion police group that no one (except maybe tourists like him) wants to associate with.

    Berlin has so much more interesting history and music culture than what has become “cool” or “hip” within the past 5-10 years.

    All in all a very bad, unrepresentative and misleading article

    1. Hey David,
      Thanks for sharing your opinion.

      My article is concentrated on the current mainstream of Berlin, not the entire Berlin. I did my best to say Berlin has many sub cultures that are neither mainstream nor anti-mainstream. But these are not the subject of discussion in the article. You did bring up one sentence that truly requires an amendment though. Thanks for that.

      Your critique is one that I do get from some Berliners though. To take it further, some say that what I consider to be mainstream is actually not the mainstream, and I fail to see the real mainstream. Alternatively, maybe that Berlin is successful at having no mainstream at all and is actually just a composition of numerous sub cultures.

      The debate over this critique can take a while, fortunately for my position, you made my job short within your last comment. within that comment, you acknowledged the existence of mainstream and attributed it to a certain cultural group. You said “Berlin has so much more interesting history and music culture than what has become “cool” or “hip” within the past 5-10 years”. First, I agree. And second, “cool” and “hip” in the context of a culture are references to the fulfillment of a social standard. Applying it to Berlin, you are now talking about mainstream (otherwise you just generalize, and I assume that wasn’t your intention). And this is exactly what my article is about, about what has become “cool” or “hip” within the past 5-10 years. It is not meant to be a generalization of the entire Berlin.

  2. A very interesting analysis of Berline by a stranger. I would like to hear more from you about the art and the communication in Berlin. I mean about theatre cinema, music, literature, television, journalism etc and also about morality values as honesty etc what about economic values, banks, money, politics and politicians etc. Thanks Gabi

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