Making Sense of the Mainstream

The mainstream is a value-laden category that frequently derives its meaning in association with its multiple corollaries such as counter-culture, subculture, underground, indie, folk, alternative, experimental and avant-garde. In this lesson, we problematise our perceptions of mainstream culture and examine characteristics pejoratively associated with the term including popularity, standardisation, commercial appeal and a perceived lack of ‘authenticity’.

Commonly, mainstream refers to the ideas, attitudes, or activities that are shared by most people and regarded as normal or conventional. But mainstream connotes something more than an accepted norm. An example of mainstream in this sense would be mainstream medicine, education or science. In other words, the discourses, theories and methods regarded as ‘best practice’ by these institutions.

As creative practitioners and consumers, is mainstream always a model for best practice? Or is it an attribution and/or judgement of cultural value?

That’s so mainstream…

Have you ever caught yourself saying the phrase, “that’s so mainstream”? And if you have uttered these words, was it because you were criticising the value of a piece of culture or possibly the tastes of someone else? If the answer is yes, have you ever stopped to define the specific qualities, characteristics or criteria by which you have come to make this aesthetic judgement?

Quite possibly, if you tried to do this, your definition might incorporate some of the words or ideas below.

The Mainstream and its Antitheses

The above list of words largely works to define the conventions of mainstream taste and the consumers of mainstream cultural artefacts.

In last week’s lecture on aesthetics, we learnt that aesthetics deal with the value judgements we give to art and culture. Generally, when we tag an artefact of popular culture as ‘mainstream’ we are diminishing its aesthetic value and in turn exercising judgment of the individuals or social groups that consume these artefacts.

Is this value judgement positive or negative? If you think it’s negative, why is it that we so often use the term ‘mainstream’ as a kind of insult?

If, something can be too mainstream as the memes above would suggest, can it also not be mainstream enough?

And to extend upon the first question, can you identify any set of consistent attributes in film, games, music, literature, animation etc. that distinguish mainstream culture from its antitheses? Obviously, the term has meaning but knowing why or how something might qualify as mainstream is not always so straightforward.

Begin by making a list of cultural artefacts that you consider as mainstream and another list of cultural artefacts that you think constitute one of the following categories.

● Subculture
● Counter-culture
● Alternative
● Folk
● Underground
● Indie
● Authentic
● Original
● Experimental
● Avant-garde

Read through the following vignettes and make a note of your thoughts on each prior to your tutorial.

Mainstream = mindless mass consumption

“A true zombie is nothing more than an unconscious being apathetically and lifelessly lumbering across the planet buying and consuming everything in its path, unsatisfied, unfulfilled, anxious and unstill.” – Judith Froemming

There is a distinct connection between what we refer to as mass culture, popular culture and the mainstream. At a basic level, we can say that mass culture refers primarily to processes and technologies of cultural production and distribution, i.e. mass media’s role in our enculturation, whereby the population is saturated with content via television, radio, advertisement and the internet to such an extent that they take up these values and tastes as their own.

Thus, mainstream becomes a euphemism for a highly contagious form of culture (like the catchy pop song or Hollywood blockbuster) that infects the weak-minded consumer hordes. Mainstream culture thus becomes a means of manipulation and easy distraction.

The contemporary zombie largely reflects contemporary fears of loss of individuality and the excesses of consumer capitalism.

Mainstream = formulaic, fabricated and fake.

Common characteristics we associate with the cultural mainstream include popularity, standardisation, commercial appeal and a perceived lack of ‘authenticity’.

Rather, the mainstream is a value-laden category that frequently – and problematically – derives its meaning in association with its multiple corollaries such as counter-culture, subculture, underground, indie, folk, alternative, experimental and avant-garde.

When situated in binary opposition to the politically resistant stylized rituals of a potent subculture, the mainstream garners negative connotations, unhelpfully implying a lax association with an inauthentic, commercialized, normative and depoliticized form of cultural hegemony.

For a nebulous term like mainstream to function critically … , we must first acknowledge that the – or rather, a – mainstream is always an historically situated, contingent and contested term, limited by the binary structuration of the mainstream vis-à-vis its subcultural ‘other’.

Taylor, J. (2013). Lesbian musicalities, queer strains and celesbian pop: The poetics and polemics of women-loving-women in mainstream popular music. In S. Baker, A. Bennett & J. Taylor (Eds.), Redefining mainstream popular music (pp.39–49). New York: Routledge.

The mainstream alternative.

While this is essentially a contradiction in terms, it is nonetheless a reasonable description of the albums featured here. But what is the ‘mainstream alternative’? Is it an acceptable form of alternativeness or the point at which a logic of subcultural style becomes intelligible to a mainstream audience?

Try and come up with a descriptive definition of a mainstream alternative sound given what you know about the musical styles of the albums pictured.

‘Authentically’ mainstream?

This sounds like a contradiction in terms, but let’s just say that it wasn’t. What do you think it might mean to be authentically mainstream? What happens when our quest for individuation and cultural distinction (remember Bourdieu) becomes mainstream and being part of a cultural alternative is the new mainstream? Is this just postmodernism eating its own tail or a new cultural turn?

When cultural resistance is demonstrated through a process of rejecting rituals of distinction is it possible that we might understand this as a stylised critique of postmodernity and cultural fragmentation?

Take a look at the images purported to be anti-mainstream in the article linked below. Can you identify the symbolic “gesture of rebellion again mainstream norms” supposedly showcased in the images?

But how does something become mainstream?

The graphic below represents the flow of cultural styles. As suggested, the mainstream borrows from subcultural expression. Subcultures, in turn, reimagine these style in more subversive ways and the cycle of reinvention and re-appropriation continues.

This information model was created for an academic presentation on the theory of Dick Hebdige’s book Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). It illustrates the constant cycle of subcultures that are born out of mainstream trends; they are eventually reintegrated back into this mainstream, which in turn triggers the creation of a new alternative culture. See


The process of mainstreaming…

In the case study below, we will examine this process of cultural borrowing, reinvention and saturation in relation to one of the biggest pop icons in the world and the original source of culture that inspired a popular style of dance in the early 1990s.

The pop star is Madonna, the dance style is know as voguing but do you know where it originated from? Watch and read on then apply what you have learnt to the contemporary cultural example provided.

Voguing emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s in the ball culture of New York City and the African American, Latino, gay and transgender communities. It was later appropriated by Madonna and became a mainstream success.


What are your thoughts on this?

Do people with privilege need to consider the ethical implications of ‘borrowing’ from minority cultures who have less power than they do? Why?

More recently, we’ve seen another subculture—the Sapeurs from the Congo— also at risk of similar exploitation.

Brazzaville, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, doesn’t seem like the obvious hub for a trailblazing sartorial subculture. Just like the African-American Ball culture in 1980s New York who were challenged by poverty, the AIDS epidemic, and social prejudice due to gender and/or sexual difference, these people are challenged every day. Just to survive in the face of grinding poverty. So one might assume that matching your shoes with your tie isn’t exactly high on everyone’s agenda. And yet, quietly and persistently, a fascinating cultural movement has been bubbling like an undercurrent in this pocket of the world for over a century.

In subcultural theory, this phenomena is called ‘resistance through ritual’, or ‘survival through style’ (see Hall and Jefferson, 1976). Below is a Guinnes beer commercial and short documentary on this subculture followed by a music video by Solange Knowles featuring the Sapeurs.

Is this any different to Madonna’s profiteering from Vogue?


Don’t forget that you need to complete this week’s reading. Read it here.
Huber, A. (2013). Mainstream as metaphor: Imagining dominant culture. In A. Bennett, S. `Baker & J. Taylor (Eds). Redefining Mainstream Popular Music (pp.3-13). London: Routledge.


Finally, here is the related CIU 211 Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest board for you to explore. This is a great place to look for ideas if you have chosen this topic for your dialectic inquiry.

1 thought on “Making Sense of the Mainstream”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *