Brand Voyeurs and Culture Vampires

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Paul Ryan: A little dab'll do ya.
Paul Ryan: A little dab'll do ya. Credit: CNN

What do we mean by "pop culture?" It encompasses the broad range of social phenomena we consider to be cool and unifying. It's the connective tissue of society; our common language. The stuff that ties us to one another. Pop culture comprises fashion, food, art, language, music and even humor. It's the stuff that brings us together as a people.

But traditionally much of this stuff is the work of a small elite—comprising entertainment executives, brands and their agencies—peddling stuff in the hope of penetrating culture seemingly authentically. In the past they were the ones that greenlit movies like "Justice League" or placed cereal boxes on the set of some CBS primetime comedy. Today, this same elite operates slightly differently; hijacking your Instagram account, buying fake followers or paying Google to serve you content you never asked for. These people will be the first to tell you that they create culture. They will be the first to tell you that they, and only they, are the ones that know how.

But in 2017 pop culture was not the domain of the elite. Just look at the language of the day: "bae," "basic," "fuckboy," "swag," "ratchet," "yas queen," "bye felicia," "squad," "turnt up," "clap back." Sza, Jordan Peele, Laverne Cox, #BlackTwitter, #OscarsSoWhite. Want more proof? This year "on fleek" made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, twerking was a featured segment on "Good Morning America" and Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, "dabbed" on stage.

This stuff was not created by Hollywood studios or big brands. In 2017, the drivers of culture are often young, marginalized people. They are members of groups that historically have been forced out of the mainstream: people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, people on the fringes, economically, socially or politically. Yet despite this marginalization, these people are driving what is relevant and hip today. And they're doing it in fascinating ways.

The internet has created the perfect platform for these new makers to disrupt the chain of command. They're designing, workshopping and distributing culture through the niche corners of the internet. And brands can learn a lot. It's an organic, leaderless movement that is defining pop culture as we know it.

How? First, they create for the in-group. They design stuff for themselves and each other, and don't particularly care if it doesn't resonate with the masses. It's unapologetic, exclusive and private—an inside joke or conversation between friends that plays on the behaviors of the group. For example, GHE20G0TH1K is an art collective, DJ crew and aesthetic movement led by visionaries Shayne Oliver, Venus X and DJ Mike Q. They launched an underground party eight years ago that ushered in a new era of New York cool. Regular attendees included musicians and fashion leaders and queers and hood kids and tastemakers from all corners of the city. Like some next-gen Warhol Factory, the collective birthed trends that reverberated up into broader culture. But if you're outside the tribe, by the time you've heard of it the moment has already passed.

Second, they remix, reimagine and repurpose old pieces of culture for new consumption. That can be anything from taking a pre-existing image and adding text, parodying something in the mainstream for their own benefit, or repurposing an emoji for a new context. Suede the Remix God not only makes clips go viral, he's even reached the Billboard Hot 100 for a remix of the "Dr. Phil" clip "Cash Me Outside," which launched the career of 13-year-old Danielle Peskowitz Bregoli.

While remaining in the margins, these aesthetic innovators' point is to assert a perspective on the dominant culture and exercise a sense of self-determination. (See: Vine, which was a tremendous outlet for expression and community for young people of color.) (Also, RIP Vine.)

Brands and entertainment executives have been rendered passive by the emergence of these new makers. The irony being that while the entertainment and advertising industries fuss about diversity, the most prolific creators are already everywhere.

Alain Sylvain is founder and CEO of innovation and brand design consultancy Sylvain Labs

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