The Gatekeeping We Do to Ourselves
In the late 80s and 90s, the concept of monoculture finally took its dying breath. Gone were the days when everyone knew the same things; instead, music and television and other forms of media split wildly, creating genres and sub-genres that were varied and intense. This was the birth of hundred-channel cable packages. The surge of micro-genre stalwarts getting major label play.
- “The Knowledge” — Janet Jackson
- “Pick Up Your Feelings” — Jazmine Sullivan
- “In Bloom (in the woods)” — Moses Sumney
- “I’m Afraid of Americans (V1-Edit)” — David Bowie
- “The Fox in the Snow” — Grandaddy
- “The Ice of Boston” — Dismemberment Plan
- “Thinking, That’s All” — Jimmy Eat World
- “In the Street” — Big Star
- “Jaded” — Operation Ivy
- ”Get Rid of That Girl” — The Donnas
- “Golden’” — Jill Scott
- “What “U” Waiting’ “4”?” — Jungle Brothers
- “Do My Thing” — Busta Rhymes
- “Sons of Gotham” — Talib Kweli & Diamond D
- “Sober” — Lorde
- “Mall Grab” — Abiding Citizen
- “Lola” — The Raincoats
- “The Kids Are Alright” — The Who
The world was preparing for the all-out chaos of Internet Culture, and subcultures were being drawn.
For me, as a child of the late 80s and 90s, the most fascinating of these subcultures was skateboarding. It had the best music, and it had the coolest clothes, and it had this incredible attitude — an ethos that felt absolute and protected while still being very nonchalant. From the outside, being a skateboarder means not caring about much of anything while still caring an awful lot about some very specific things.
I was fascinated, and I was completely afraid. The entire subculture felt impenetrable: the tools, the music, even the locations. Every skateboarder was a cool and tough kid who didn’t want me around, I assumed.
Over time, I inched closer. I lingered on the outside, even as I joined a punk band and started moving into a similarly exclusive subculture. But I still found it completely beyond my reach, a culture that felt so exclusive that I knew I’d never feel comfortable enough.
I was too self-conscious. Too afraid of doing it wrong. I was my own gatekeeper.
I stopped drinking 1,477 days ago, on December 13, 2017. It’s been just over four years.
I stopped drinking for a few reasons, but the biggest was that I could see the future. I could see some bad habits forming. I am a completionist by nature, and I rarely take half measures — good habits or bad. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right and with aplomb, even if that’s drinking every night for years. Surprisingly, it wasn’t hard, though I wish I could say it was — to give assurance to someone who’s actually struggling with this kind of addiction. I’m a lucky one — ridiculously lucky, honestly.
There were still fears. Not of relapse, or lingering health issues, but of societal impacts. Drinking was a way for me to erect a barrier, to lower my anxiety when talking with people. I could be a functioning human, who could have functional conversations, when I’d been drinking. I felt as though I needed that — I needed to break things down, to loosen the entire works. I had to get out of my own way, to get out of my own head.
Not just strangers, either. Friends. Friends since high school. Family members. I used drinking as a crutch, to allow myself to be myself. I was gatekeeping myself.
I was scared shitless to give that up. I didn’t think I’d have any friends anymore if I didn’t put myself in situations where I could drink and talk. What would I do with my hands? How would I answer “Why aren’t you drinking?” How would I pass the uncomfortable seconds?
You already know the answer: Turns out, I can just talk to people without issue. I worried and worried and then everything was perfectly fine. I had manufactured the problem myself, and eventually all I was missing was the joy of tasting new beers — a small sacrifice, honestly — until, over the past three years, the craft beer industry began taking non-alcoholic beer seriously.
It’s all psychology and mind-games, really. No one wants to feel left out, and building and supporting a subculture that still enjoys beer but does not want to drink alcohol has helped bridge the gap. More than that, I found that the awkwardness of being asked why I don’t drink has faded away.
It takes time to unlearn the arbitrary lines of demarcation — the rules and values of any scene — even if we drew those lines ourselves. It’s made a lot easier when views shift and change — when, say, an industry specifically begins to cater to those who might already feel on the outside. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, but I’ll consider it a tiny win if brands keep taking non-alcoholic beer seriously.
There’s a subset of punk culture focused on legitimacy — the idea that punk values aren’t a thing you can just claim on your own, and that those values are to be unwavering and fiercely protected. Your membership is subject to approval: you can’t just buy a sweatshirt at Hot Topic and consider yourself part of the movement, and any actions contrary to the movement can cause you to be kicked out.
This is the natural life of any scene, really. Movements and cultures grow until they are co-opted and watered down, with new factions splintering away in order to preserve some kind of original legitimacy.
In high school, I was an insecure dork who found a supportive group of friends along the edges of a countercultural small-city punk scene. As someone who considered themselves just on the outside, self-aware enough to realize there was a kind of inner circle, I envisioned a kind of secret cabal judging and vouching for new members and styles. I knew this wasn’t true — even central people within the scene used to joke about how many “punk points” something would garner.
Of course there wasn’t a cabal. The only thing keeping anyone from being in bands or being invited to shows was themselves. I wanted to push into that scene — to be a part of it, to be legit and very cool. I didn’t know what that meant then, and I don’t know what it means now, but that insecurity is what kept me from understanding that I was already there.
The truth is, no one thinks much about us when we’re not around. Often, they don’t think much when we are around.
This is not meant as a moment of self-pity or degraded self-esteem — it’s just that we often manufacture the opinions we think others have about us. The actual truth is that we’re all focused on making sure our own bodies and minds are functioning in a way that makes sense. We’re not constantly purposely counting other people’s mistakes or measuring other people’s motives. Instead, we’re usually just struggling within ourselves, in different ways.
The kids at the skatepark are doing their own thing. They feel just like we do. The kids on stage, seemingly overflowing with confidence, are trying as hard to fit in as anyone else. No one made a big deal when I stopped drinking. They are all just as self-conscious as I am.
These are all invented issues, in which we remove our own comfort in order to fuel an imaginary gatekeeper.
I recently heard the term “mall grab,” and so I did what any non-skateboarder would do: I went to Reddit to find a definition of “mall grab.”
It turns out it’s completely innocuous. It’s a way of holding your skateboard — by the trucks, backward. The term comes from kids at the mall who buy skateboards to look cool — they never ride them, only using them as a prop. It’s classic gatekeeping — an arbitrary rule imposed on newcomers. Yet, despite the definition, the comments section (in a surprise twist) was more welcoming. Mall grabs weren’t ideal for a few reasons, but they were also perfectly okay. In other words, who really cares?
Over the past few months, Isaac’s taken up skateboarding. I was nervous for him. I remembered how impenetrable the entire concept felt when I was a kid, and now there he is, mall grabbing his way into the skatepark.
But that’s not how it’s gone. The community is absolutely wonderful — a go-at-your-own-pace scene that is as solitary or helpful as you want it to be. Rather than trying to prove themselves to everyone else, these kids are just trying to prove it to themselves. They get tips from middle-aged vets. Middle school kids catch boards and help each other up. Everyone wants everyone to succeed. It has completely shattered my preconceived ideas of how skateboarding works. No one’s checking your ID or tallying up your experience. It’s totally and completely inclusive.
I know that this is idyllic. I know that there are toxic actors in every scene, in every sub-genre, in every community. That my kids — and me, too — we’ll all still be hurt, be shut out of something we hope to be a part of. Yet, there’s a tolerance I don’t think I ever knew could exist — there are options.
Blame the internet for a lot of things, and blame youth culture, and shake your fist at every cloud it if makes you feel better. Or, be happy, like I am, that the idea of scene purity sometimes gets to fly out the window. That leveling the entrance fee benefits the entire scene. That helping people through that self-doubt and insecurity makes for a stronger community.
Then, ride the wave. The kids are alright. And so am I.