“Alt” over the ages: how Gen Z is redefining subculture

A deep dive into the murky waters of “Alt TikTok”

Girls cutting their hair into mullets, boys in French maid costumes, anime cosplayers and gothic eyeliner tutorials — it’s nearly impossible to imagine a place where all this content would live in harmony. Yet, they (almost) do on “Alternative TikTok.”

Initially, it could be difficult to understand how all these disparate creators could feel comfortable under the same label. Counterculture movements have been at each others’ necks time and time again (think mods vs. rockers or the phrase “never trust a hippie,” popular in early punk scenes). Yet, as it was back then, it is still evident now that there must be something gelling all these groups together.

Until recently, the label “alternative” was only used in the context of music, and even so, its origin and winding meanings have remained murky. When the phrase “alt rock” comes up, most people likely conjure images of bands from the 1990s and early 2000s popular with Generation X: Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, Pavement, Pixies, Yo La Tengo. However, the term “alternative rock” was coined in the 1980s to connote any music that did not fall under the purview of major record labels. This term took over the previously used “college rock” in the U.S. and “indie rock” in the U.K., to tag albums produced by independent labels that were popular on college radio stations. But, once Nirvana broke into the mainstream, the term alternative gained popularity as a catch-all.

While it’s unclear how the word “alt” showed up on TikTok with its current usage, the meaning is generally pretty consistent: alt TikTok sits in opposition to so-called “straight TikTok.” Straight TikTok is what you’ll be served when you first download the app: Charli D’Amelio, Hype House, and an onslaught of preppy teens doing dancing challenges. It’s the default, but honestly not very entertaining.

So then, “alt” in its current Gen Z usage is similar to its Gen X meaning — an umbrella term for all the subcultures standing in opposition to the norm. Though, it gets complicated, because now we aren’t just talking about music, we’re talking about people’s entire identities. The subcultures of Gen Z — E-Boys, VSCO Girls, cottagecore, and so on  — no longer base their identities around the music they listen to like the Emo and Grunge kids of yesteryear. Style has become the defining feature of these groups.

While style has always been instrumental to subculture, it’s telling how in our hyper-visual social media culture, it has become the driving force behind young people’s community-making.

That is not to say that style is without substance. In his widely influential book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, media theorist Dick Hebdige explains how subculture groups of the 1960s and ‘70s used style to further a political message. Hebdige posits that the clothes worn by subculture groups function as a form of political rebellion in their own right. Something as simple as the tailored suits worn by the Mods of the 1960s show a disregard for the symbolic power of the suit in mid-century Britain. When a subculture co-ops the dressing style of those in power, they tear down the boundaries between themselves and those in classes above them. Through this, people are forced to question why we give power to these seemingly trivial symbols. For the Mods, when you disregard the symbol of the suit, notions of power, class, and white-collar ideals come down with it.

Is that so different from subcultures today? Take Gen Z’s cottagecore for example, an aesthetic of flowy fabrics, rural vistas, home-made breads and hair scarves. Through these style cues, cottagecore rejects the hyper-materialistic, technologically-reliant modern world, instead searching for slow-paced, rustic alternatives.

With that, creators can gain lots of cultural cachet by emanating a particular “look,” as it’s a shorthand to express your inner politics and desires.

The Internet, and most recently TikTok, has become the springboard for young people’s counterculture or “alternative” movements. Due to its advanced algorithm that constantly curates content that’s meant for your tastes (even calling its feed the “For You” page), TikTok is able to create micro-communities of like-minded people. And the more you interact with these communities, the more you’re fed their content, thus further cementing your place.

While it’s easy for Millennials and even elder Gen Z to write off the teens who seem to form their identities around how many pocket chains they have or even doing that weird eye roll thing, it’s important to take a step back and realize that this is all completely precedented. Alternative subcultures will, barring major political crackdown, always exist and always be changing. It’ll just be interesting to see who the next group to be absorbed into the alternative umbrella will be.


Photo collage by  Kit Mergaert

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