The Social Media Subculture Centred on Living in the Past

With TikTok now becoming people’s lockdown boredom eradicator and favourite pastime over the last year, Instagram has still managed to hold its own as a social media melting pot with roughly one billion users. It’s stood proud, tall and unmoved like a vast, ancient oak tree filled with little branches and diversions off into the eccentric, weird and wonderful. From the fitness side of Instagram to the cleaning side, there seems to be a community within a social media district for everyone. What started off as a photo-sharing app has become a colossal billion-user hub for some money-making factions. Some are a little less known but a lot more fascinating: Meet the social media subculture that’s centred on living in the past. 

Thousands of those users make up a little subculture on Instagram’s outskirts known as the ‘60s/70s community’ or ‘60s/70s revival’, using hashtags such as ‘60s’ and ‘70s’ to connect with other users exploring that mid-century neck of the woods. The ‘60s’ hashtag alone has 4.3 million user posts attributed to it.

Photo Credit: Alex Mason, Source: @a1exandra.rose on Instagram

Suppose you were to explore these hashtags on Instagram. You’ll not only be shown pictures of Bowie, Sharon Tate and the Beatles, but you’ll also be blitzed with white go-go boots, vibrant colours and a real feeling that you’ve wandered into an old archive of unknown authentic models from the time, but be fooled not. These are active modern accounts that are entirely based on the retro and vintage aesthetic of years that, more than likely, their grandmother’s would have lived through. 

So, already you may be thinking “how did a few decades from the past turn into a little subsection of the social media world?”. Well, this is a relatively new subculture of Instagram that has only formed within the last 6 years. Yet it is peaking now more than ever. Speaking to Alexandra Rose, a 21-year-old musician and Law student from the West Midlands, she reveals how she found her way into the community: “I have always been a lover and collector of 60s vintage fashion, music and memorabilia etc. and wanted to meet likeminded people out there who enjoyed the style and movement that I’m so heavily invested in.”

Alexandra then goes onto discuss the impact of a simple hashtag: “I saw others using the hashtag 60s and wanted to be part of their scene. I didn’t know how big it was until a month in I discovered so many accounts of likeminded people. People were very friendly, supportive and welcoming.” 

Many community members admit that their own political compass aligns with that of the 60s and 70s thus it has become a massive part of why so many people have grown to love this space. It’s almost as if Instagram is a new, modern medium of political self-expression and liberal thinking, becoming a powerful tool intertwined within the relationship between music, fashion and politics. Alexandra goes on to explain this: 

“I think the thing that’s so fascinating about the 60s was that it was a melting pot of new wave thinking. The whole movement developed not only because of innovators in music and fashion but also as a product of politics, women’s liberation, challenging class barriers, civil rights, lgbtq+ recognition, the pill, drugs etc.— every aspect and social norm changed in that time which is why I love its freshness so much. It’s all interlinked. It still has a long way to go, but the 60s marked the start of the revolution into liberal thinking.” 

20-year-old German Romance Languages and Literature major and active participant in the community since 2015, Selina, agrees with this by saying: 

“My political views are very leftist because there is so much injustice in the world—which I’m trying to change by protesting and helping out with election campaigns in my city. I really admire the hippie movement of the 60s and also the punk scene of the 70s so much because back then, the people weren’t as afraid of the consequences when they spoke their opinion on things that had to change.”

Just like in most tangible subcultures, this digital one has its very own icons. Users who are at the top of the social media hierarchy with thousands of followers. These are followers who become inspired by and mimic their content whilst communicating with others that do the same, thus creating a community. For this subculture, two of the biggest icons in the field are 24-year-old YouTube and Instagram star Devyn Crimson and 28-year-old fashion model Storm Calysta. Both of which are credited for their pioneering in the social media 60s/70s revival and known as the reason for why many people became so involved. 

Photo Credit: Devyn Crimson, Source: @devyncrimson on Instagram

Alyssa, who is 18-years-old and a high school senior from Canada, expresses her reasons for joining the community: “I always wanted to be an ‘influencer’ in the community. I started as most people did by following Devyn Crimson and branching off from there.” Selina also states that Devyn was one of her main inspirations, and from watching her YouTube channel, she decided to dip her toes into the community.

Devyn Crimson, who has an impressive 77k followers on Instagram and an even more impressive 101k subscribers on Youtube, explains how there was an already ‘vintage scene’ on Instagram in 2012, however under established it was in comparison to now: “There was already definitely something there when I joined, meaning following other vintage inspired creatives and posting my own vintage inspired photos. I was a sophomore in high school.”

Another icon in the community and mother of two with over 11k followers, Leah Horrocks, 29, (@70smomma) shared a similar experience as one of the ‘OG’s’ like Devyn, stating: “I made my account back in 2012. I’m not sure when the ‘vintage community’ started but I was in it from the very start. I’m one of the originals here.”

Devyn and Leah’s experiences are also similar in discovering and distinguishing their taste in music and fashion and how this developed online, sharing their love for creativity, colours and of course, bell bottoms.

Devyn reveals in our interview of when she began to notice her platform taking off: “Even at just 1k followers or so, which came kind of early for me for being a kid in small town Wisconsin, I was taken aback at the idea of anyone being interested in my life,” she continues, “…I really noticed it had the potential to be more than a hobby at least was when I was 19, working a job I hated for very little money. I really tried to put more energy into online stuff to see where it would take me.”

“I loved talking to people online, sharing life and creating art for others. I just want to be happy I have always said. Whatever I am doing, I just want to be happy doing it.”

Texas-based model, Storm Calysta who has almost a 55k following on Instagram, was happy to comment on both the growth of her audience and the growth of the community in general: 

 “I noticed a big jump in my audience growth during 2015 when I started doing modelling gigs and began sharing those photos to my Instagram. At the time, Instagram was still primarily a place to post cats and food pictures; very few people were doing the 60s/70s style revival at the time. People were intrigued when they stumbled upon my profile, thus resulting in my audience growing about 10k in a month.”

However, both Storm and others within the community claim that since the subculture’s growth, it has become infiltrated with lack of inclusion and over-saturation to the point that the roots on which the subculture has grown off of have been forgotten: “A big part of me misses it being more of a smaller niche because I feel like it’s a little oversaturated right now to the point where the history of the music, style and culture is being misconstrued from it’s highly important origins.” 

High school senior Alyssa is actually no longer a part of the community as of 2020 due to what she reports is because of a multitude of reasons but mainly racism and elitism: “The teenage mod group really made/makes me uncomfortable. Excluding minorities from the conversation and having this snootiness and arrogance about them. I won’t name names, but when I check up on them, they’re the same. You’re 16 and have 10k on Instagram; you’re not Beyoncé. Plus, whenever they got called out on fatphobia, they were really fake and defensive, which didn’t sit right.” 

This is to be expected in a community that has surged so quickly in such a short number of years. The larger a community, the more differences in opinion and before you know it, the foundations of the community have been buried under the ashes of hostile outside infiltration. This is why Alexandra Rose says that she prefers to not have idols within this subculture as, like many, she may run the risk of feeling inadequate if she too harshly compares herself to others.

The negative sides to social media are endless and have been widely debated for as long as it has existed. It’s important to remember that it’s not exclusive to just one sector either. A certain debate that keeps reappearing in modern culture is how social media acts as an escapism from reality, but what if that is mixed with a completely different decade? Is this an even further escape from reality…and is this a bad thing?

Leah Horrocks (@70smomma) spoke on whether she believes that the 60s/70s to some people is merely just a nice Instagram aesthetic or it’s truly a form of escapism from reality: “I think both. You never know if someone’s Instagram page is a true reflection of how someone actually lives their life, but I think a lot of times it is. Even if they are scared to dress vintage in the “real world”, Instagram gives them that space to show off how they really want to look/dress. A place to show off creativity.”  

In our interview, Leah also spoke of how she can be negatively perceived by others as a big name within the community: “I’m sure you have seen I’m pretty controversial on here. Some people love me and others hate me, but it’s all good. I share about real topics that others tend to shy away from because it’s not the norm. I’m one of THE only ones in the community sharing the stuff I do and I’m okay with that.”

Speaking of the controversy surrounding her personal choices relating to covid vaccines, Leah continues: “I’ve been called some crazy things on here…conspiracy theorist, anti-vaxxer, dangerous, selfish. I know that I’m not any of those things but those are labels they like to give because they don’t get it. I keep fighting my fight and the ones who want to stick around, totally can. I’m so super grateful for my followers/anyone who supports me.”

Devyn spoke of her own experience within the social media subculture stating that: “The online space has been a very welcoming and kind place for me. Naturally, in any large group of people you’ll find someone who has a strange distaste for you, but that’s just life isn’t it? Only recently has anyone ever really tried to hurt me (not physically, though I did have a stalker early on).”

She elaborates by saying: “As the community grows, I am happy to see more representation of the diverse people that make up this community because really anyone who has a love for vintage is in the community as far as I’m concerned and that stretches to all walks of life. It’s beautiful to see it all come together.”

Finally, Devyn expresses how much the community has had on her life: “I really don’t know where I would be, what I would be doing if I hadn’t found this place. I found my career path through the community, my friends, my band. It really fuelled my love for the 60s & 70s knowing I wasn’t alone in my interests. So who knows if I would have even met my fiancé, moved to Chicago, gotten any modelling opportunities. I could never say ‘thank you’ enough to truly express my gratitude.” 

The benefits of becoming so involved in an ever-growing subculture for those at the top are the modelling gigs, the brand sponsors and making an income from a hobby that inspires others. However, there is likely to be a few rotten apples in such a large community whereby the community’s soul and purpose become lost for those who follow, especially on Instagram. The core becomes lost under the surmounting pressures of how many followers they have and why they don’t look like their idols. Selina talks about the importance of holding true to the liberal values on which the community was built: “I think the spirit of the time is what makes people drawn to these decades. Back then, children were just children and didn’t focus on growing up fast or wanting to be popular.” Maybe it’s high time the 60s/70s subculture come together to centre on its own past roots and the ideals it was founded upon rather than getting caught up in the infiltration of the social media platforms’ popularity and monetary success. To avoid hypocrisy and sad irony, there needs to be a closer look at the decades before and the reasons why it became such a vast digital hub full of like-minded people for a more inclusive and progressive future.

Music and Politics: An Abiding Affair

In dimmed lighting with vodka and coke in hand, a friend and I sat a few feet from each other staring at the beautifully curved 4k tele perched on his wall. From YouTube’s autoplay, a 2014 chart-topper classic filled the speakers with a haunting gospel harmony, while a blazing fire furnished the screen. “I think this song is great,” he said taking a swig from his Stella as I interrupted with a vicious nod. We were but a few minutes into the video when I began to notice the furrow of his brow growing heavier with each chord and at around the 2 and a half minute mark, he mumbled, “great song, but terrible video.” That’s when I knew he didn’t really like the song, he liked the tune. The message was something he couldn’t hear. But for me it was deafening.

‘Take Me to Church’ is not just a chart-topping hit for renowned Irish singer-songwriter, Hozier, but an extended metaphor shrouded in religious and political imagery. Speaking of the accompanying music video in an interview with Gigwise, Hozier described it as: “an indictment of institutions that undermine humanity.”

Now, maybe for my friend, music never really dove as deep as the message of ‘Take Me to Church’ but, for me, art had always been the quintessential platform for expressing the unity of humanity (and the lack thereof). As I developed more of my individuality, the more music spoke to me — truly spoke to me — and became less about a good melody, or a steady beat and more about the message, the themes and how these are only augmented by its melodic features.

Music taste and political beliefs share an essential trait in common: they are subjective for the individual and, therefore, they have existed in partnership for as long as humans knew how to pick up an instrument and for as long as human nature allowed us to both harmonise and dispute, and so formed a perpetually unbreakable affair— for better and for worse. This is a marriage that far surpasses their Ruby Jubilee, since records of songs written with political intent have been documented as far back as the days of Ancient Egypt.

“Music is political no matter what,” Hozier said in an interview with Q on CBC and argued that politics is viewed as having many negative connotations, “If something concerns the experience of people— it concerns some political dimension.”

I spoke with Felix and the Sunsets, a band inspired by the 60s and 70s, to what extent do they agree with Hozier’s statement, frontman Felix said:

“I strongly agree, I think that it’s near impossible to separate the two from each other. Even if you tried to make something above or outside politics (like an instrumental abstract bit of music) the stylistic choices you make are going to be influenced by your background and experiences, which are all shaped by politics.”

Take, for instance, what we describe today as ‘Rock’ — the history of this genre is alive with political influences yet most importantly, the entire foundations and journey of the genre is a political one in itself. It is a genre of historical appropriation; a great musical injustice to its founding forerunners that birthed it. Performed by white men, targeted at white men.

To understand the historical background of Rock as a genre, it’s firstly important to look at the roots of this robust, untamed tree. Rock was not always a stand alone standing stone like it is today, in fact, this rock could do a lot more— Roll. Rock and Roll was a term popular within the Blues and R&B community before it ever became a genre in the early 50s. Even before that, in the early 20th century within the Black community, as slang for both partying and an implication of sex —which as you can imagine, would not go down too well with a conservative society.

Deriving from rhythm and blues music of the 1940s— which itself was a branch of earlier blues, boogie woogie and swing music (all black founded and dominated)— Rock and Roll by the 50s had affirmed its position as a recognisable musical genre from the Music Journalists who would often review black artists’ music as ‘making you want to rock and roll’.  Particularly after Alan Freed—a radio host in 1951— began referring to songs as ‘Rock and Roll’ on the mainstream radio. By that point the sexual connotations had been dampened, thus forming a new genre.

In 2018, Hozier released a historically significant EP named ‘Nina Cried Power’ whose name is credited to Black soul singer and civil rights activist, Nina Simone. In this EP, he executes effectively something that white artists associated with the genre don’t often do: not only does he appreciate the roots of his own music —by mentioning Black musicians such as Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown— but also was joined by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and civil rights activist: Mavis Staples. A powerful, political move in a powerfully political song, who seeks not to appropriate but to acknowledge and not in ignorance but in homage. “It’s a thank you note to the spirit of protest,” Hozier told Billboard regarding ‘Nina Cried Power’. A thank you note that not only extended to the Black musicians who “cried power”, but also to the white musicians who used their art and platform to cry power for the powerless. “Solidarity costs nothing,” he affirms in the same interview.

Amongst the most politically fascinating and influential of the white artists mentioned in the song was folk and beatnik icon — Bob Dylan, whose entire discography not only progresses, but transcends into what author Mike Marqusee describes as a deeper kind of political radicalism: individualism.

Bob Dylan began as an awkward and skinny, big-haired and frail-looking boy that sat strumming his guitar in a Greenwich Village Coffeehouse in 1961. His instrument competing with the chatter and bustle of East Coast voices, while he continued telling stories on his guitar and seldom caring who believed them, just like the blues greats he admired before him. He was merely another straw in the haystack amidst an ongoing folk revival and just another folk singer in a growing political region, suffocated by beatnik and bohemian culture.

That was, until, a charming, soft acoustic song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ —whose tune was from an anti-slavery song ‘No More Auction Block’ that dated back to the United States Civil War— turned a then 22 year old Dylan into a household name.

Unlike other protest songs of the time from artists such as Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ was not a musical representation of any particular incident but rather a series of open-ended questions posed to the listener, to gage the direction of their own political compass. “How many years can people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” Dylan—though constantly reinventing himself—never failed to provoke intense speculation, especially in a society that is always searching for the deeper meanings.

One thing about Dylan that is for certain is that his musical relationship with politics was never that elementary— it was clarity ensuing vagueness and linear before it was abstract yet despite it all, his relationship with politics never really ceased to exist regardless of the claims of the masses. It just changed because Dylan changed.

Dylan’s greatest protest songs were written in a short span of 20 months from 1962 to 1964 and nothing quite voiced the youth of the 60s than his generational anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.  A song that affirmed its position as a warning to senators and congressmen that in order to survive the maverick times of 1960s America, then they must succumb to its progressions or die trying to fight it. 

Most (if not all) of Dylan’s protest songs around this time were shrouded in political influences from days gone by such as the beat anarchists of the 50s as well as the radical wobblies, with traditional folk themes such as poverty, racism, social injustices and war. As a folk singer, your guitar and your pen are your comrades in the ongoing social political war, but Dylan was more than that as he breathed a new life into the air of protest — he spoke to people and people listened.

‘The Times They Are-A Changin’’ voiced a generation. The youth of America was rising, taking back a future that they believed rightfully belonged to them and not a future that belonged to violence, uncertainty and war, as well as the continuous fight for civil rights in which Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill for soon after.

In an interview with Dylan for 20/20 in 1985, journalist Bob Brown said: “I think a lot of people were inspired to get involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement as a result of having listened to you and your songs,” to which a stern-faced, mysterious looking Dylan replied: “It’s hard to say what causes anything to happen—I don’t know if a song can really do that. It might. I don’t know”.

It was not that Dylan never understood the power of his affiliation with politics, it was more the need to focus inwards on the self rather than outwards for the people, that his musical heart so desired and in mid 1964, he confirmed this as he told critic Nat Hentoff: “I don’t want to write for people anymore—you know, be a spokesman”. It was at this point that he began writing songs that involved personal relationships like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and truly, was looking inward, believing that people on the outside, should define their own terms by doing the same.

However, his music never really had a break from politics like most critics would suggest and no matter how hard Dylan tried to escape the “isms”, he may have succeeded with all but one: Individualism.

His transgression from acoustic to electric was a whole, blatant (possibly unintentional) political statement in itself, separating those who favoured tradition from those who advocated for change. However; if Hozier’s ‘music is political no matter what’ affirmation can be taken to be true, then even when Bob Dylan was undergoing a personal reflection, his relationship with politics persisted. Why? Because, though writing about individual experience, it was relatable for people who themselves are individuals, rather than a group of people with certain beliefs. It concerned human experience and still, perhaps incidentally, spoke to people and still—people listened.

In 1965, Dylan, though never officially admitting it, made what critics describe as his “return” to politics after the release of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, referring to the violence inflicted on civil rights protestors by police but it should be argued though returning to protest songs, he never abandoned politics. It’s important to note that one can exist without the presence of the other. Politics can exist without protest songs, but protest songs cannot exist without politics. 

There is also something to be said about Dylan’s music constantly staying relevant despite many older songs falling victim to time, which the same can be said for music and politics as a whole. Not only do they never part, but they stay relevant, surviving the chaos of the modern world as timeless entities and we would not be listening to the music of days gone by if we didn’t see the reflection of old messages on our contemporary society. Times are forever changin’ and so is the relationship between music and politics— but never dying.

A quintessential example of how politics and music’s relationship is constantly evolving with the times comes from three-piece band Felix and the Sunsets as they talk about their EP ‘This Will Change’, whose lead single of the same name was heavily inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in Glasgow, 2020. Frontman Felix describes politics as being a very important part of their work: “It’s really informed a lot of what I want to talk about in our songs. But I try to combine it with a lot of other influences to tell new stories.”

Felix then goes on to describe his political objective for writing the samba rhythm, Santana-esque track which has close to 2,000 plays on Spotify:

“My intention for ‘This Will Change’ was that the song would encourage people protesting and making their voices heard. Songs can be galvanising and I’ve always been drawn to that in music. The first verse describes the injustice of another extra-judicial killing of another black man by American police, and that the current lack of repercussions will change. The second verse describes the protests and the people who will force the change.”

After asking whether Felix finds it important for musicians to be inspired by or to include politics in their work and why, he responded:

“Personally yes, I am much more interested in artists who engage with real social issues. I don’t really respect artists who shy away from important issues, as they could be using their voice and art to encourage positive improvements in people’s lives and society. I don’t think every song should have to be political but I just think it’s a let down for rich artists to not amplify good causes.”
Too much of anything can make you sick and the same goes for music and politics. Though inextricably interlinked, there’s a lot to be said for subtleties and allowing room for listener interpretation. Felix spoke of hoping to keep on writing songs that have a political message but relayed an essential point:

“I hope to keep blending it with stories and doing it in a hopefully surprising and inventive way. If a song just smacks you in the face as all politics or slogans without something extra then I think the artist has probably failed. It’s important to me as I think everyone who is aware of suffering and injustice should try to tip the scales towards improvement with their words and actions.”

That being said, Felix still believes that it is his duty as a musician and all other artists-alike to use their platform and art to spread political awareness:

“I think that good art will always amplify values of the artists. When a group try to be unpolitical then they are by extension choosing to side with a status quo which is letting people down massively.”

The tumultuous, diverse and constantly changing but never parting relationship of music and politics, sometimes sticking out like a sore thumb or masked under your ears like a chameleon — love it or loathe it, its not going anywhere according to Felix: “As long as there are differences in people and cultures, there will be music that reflects the differences.”

So, maybe when I discovered my own sense of individualism, the messages of music did speak to me on a deeper level and perhaps Hozier was a spokesperson for my own political beliefs residing inside. However; one thing is certain amidst all the uncertainty, there is always at least three active contributors in the relationship between music and politics and the third is you, the listener and consumer. There is no doubt that without the listener, the relationship would survive but it would do just and only that. Without me and you, it would seize to thrive.

Inevitably, you can choose to be on one of two sides of the music and politics coin: to listen and acknowledge with vodka and coke in hand or swig back the Stella and enjoy the tune, whichever you choose, it’s evident that the relationship will always prevail.