Down the phone, Fiona is explaining what a bling girl is to me. “Basically, you go out shopping for clothes or jewellery or beauty products,” she says, “then you make a video and show viewers on YouTube what you got. You go through the items one by one. I guess what people get out of them is not showing off, like, how much money you’ve got or anything, but lifestyle: you get to see how one person lives, what their taste is.”
If you’re minded to sneer at a subculture that involves making videos about your shopping, then Fiona has a pretty intriguing argument. “It’s not just about showing what you’ve got,” she says. “It’s a whole creative process behind the videos as well, which is what I enjoy about it. Choosing the right music, going from the filming to the editing. Sometimes I even storyboard things, because I want certain shots, how I can present different items and things like that.” Besides, she says, it’s a genuine community. She thinks a lot of girls “turn the camera on because it’s a way to talk to people without having to go outside and face their fears”. I know that was the case with me: I turned on my camera because I was at home and was really bored. And it helped with my confidence in a way. There’s this community where you can talk to like-minded people.
I’ve ended up talking to Fiona because these girls and their videos are currently a remarkably thing – It seems a worthwhile thing to do. You hardly need a degree in sociology; you just need a functioning pair of eyes and a camera thingy. When I arrived at secondary school, the fifth and sixth forms, where uniform requirements were relaxed, it looked like a mass of different tribes, all of them defined by the music they liked, all of them more or less wearing their tastes on their sleeves.
That may be my memory suggesting they were more numerous than in reality, simply because they looked so striking. I definitely remember one of them turning up on non-uniform day wearing a giant banana costume and Doc Martens. You didn’t have to be an expert in the finely nuanced semiotics of teenage dress codes to work out that the bloke with the vertiginous dyed quiff walking around dressed as a banana probably wasn’t cut from the same subcultural cloth as the bespectacled cardigan-wearer carrying a copy of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. And that was just my school. Beyond its gates, style magazines were always reporting on weirder, more arcane subcultures.
In 2014, however, the only real teenage cults visible to an outsider, displaying their allegiances by their manner of dress, seem to be metalheads and emos. The former feels like the most deathless youth movement of all, still recruiting new young converts long after being a mod or skinhead has become almost exclusively the province of the middle-aged. The latter seems to have co-opted elements of most of the other spectacular subcultures – goth, metal, punk and indie – under one catch-all term. In the mid-noughties, it even managed to provoke a flicker of old-fashioned folk devil outrage when a newspaper proclaimed it the Dangerous Cult Of Teen Suicide. But that’s about it.
But now there’s a rather grumpy “tsk-kids-today” theory that teenagers are now so satiated by the plethora of entertainment on offer that they don’t feel the need to rebel through dress or ritual – and a deeply depressing one that people are too worried about their futures in the current financial climate to be creative. Previously subcultures were consumers … they were sort of puppets – and were instead informed and controlled by a slightly older, university-educated generation.
But the most straightforward, prosaic theory is that, as with virtually every area of popular culture, it’s been radically altered by the advent of the internet: that we now live in a world where teenagers are more interested in constructing an identity online than they are in making an outward show of their allegiances and interests.
Once you start examining subcultures online, things become blurred and confusing, compounded by the fact that a lot of online subcultures seem to come cloaked in layers of knowing irony. In search of latter day youth subcultures, I’m pointed in various directions by various people, but I invariably can’t work out whether what I’m looking at is meant to be serious or a joke: never really a problem in the days when members of different youth cults were prepared to thump each other. There’s plenty of stuff that seems weird and striking and creative out there, but there’s something oddly self-conscious and non-committal about it: perhaps that’s the result of living in a world dominated by social media, where you’re under constant surveillance by your peers.