This was originally going to be a post on Tom's I Love Music
forum, but it wandered off topic and got long enough that I thought I'd put it here instead. The title of the thread I was posting to was "Subversives in Rock". Go contribute if you've got something to say on the matter...
To wander away from the topic of "rock" somewhat, I feel that generally "subversiveness" is less and less effective the more self-conscious and deliberate it is. Music that is "subversive" because it intransigently challenges the accepted norms of the status quo (ie. it is unfashionable) and is subsequently slagged off to no end but still survives and prospers, is more subversive to me than music which deliberately defines itself as subversive.
The problem is that self-conscious subversiveness is always judged on what it defines itself against, and thus derives most of its value from a (positive or negative) appreciation of the original article. Which can still be valuable in some ways, but is also a bit limiting. By deliberately subverting something you're in fact reacting to it, and thus adopting its principals, even if only to go against them. It formalises the rules for making the music as much as it breaks them, and thus a lot of music that's described as "subversive" is to me very predictable - when I hear the self-aggrandizing claims and pseudo-intellectual theories expounded by its creators I can generally guess to within a hair's breadth what the music will sound like, and what it's limitations are.
Tom, in his Singles of the 90s entry on 187 Lockdown's single "Gunman" talks about how in any dance music scene (though probably in any music scene at all) you have a period of purism which is fascinating, and then a period of commercial crossover which is exciting, and then a period of renewed period of purism which is emasculated and stale. Spot on. I'd argue one of the reasons the original purist period is so fascinating is that it's not "pure" in reaction to anything.
There was no detailed aesthetic guiding the creation of all those great initial house classics; the idea was simply to make dance music that worked. The fact that it was new and challenging made it subversive, but essentially the rulebook hadn't been written yet, so the subversiveness factor was largely a result of inspired mistakes - see the legendary tale of how the "acid" 303 Roland sound permeated through Chicago house by accident. What's so subversive about this music? The fact that it's breaking (unwritten) rules left right and centre with no discernible pattern or motivation. In essence, you can't predict where it will go. It's a random agent, an auto-catalyst. No wonder the status quo tend to initially dislike these new styles so much.
The exciting part about the crossover period is how this random agent temporarily unstables and alters the broader face of pop music. Going head to head with the status quo, it is now subversive in its stab at commercial legitimacy. Just like you could argue that the success of lifestyle programs are a (negative) subversive force on current television production, a lot of music in the top 20 is subversive because, rather than responding to the norm, it forces the norm to respond to it. A good example is UK Garage's pop ascendancy, which hasn't required the music to sacrifice its core ingredients and turn into the Spice Girls, but has inspired one Spice Girl at least to adapt to its presence and incorporate it into her representation of pop, albeit in a tokenistic, one-off sort of manner.
The third stage, that of renewed purism, is only subversive in that it takes on this now-accepted style and once more renders it inapproachable to the broader public. It's a self-conscious and reductionist shoring-up of the style's core values, which ultimately causes the music's destablising influence, its very subversiveness, to contract dramatically. The subversiveness only lasts for that short window period during which the purist manages to take the general public with him or her until they realise the error of their ways: the coffee shops who bought "Pre-Millenium Tension"; the MOR rock fans who bought "Kid A"; the toytown rave fans who bought "Terminator" etc. But this never lasts past that first mistaken purchase.
I suppose it might be difficult to pinpoint which scenes will reinvigorate themselves and regain their subversiveness (hardcore turning into jungle; speed garage turning into UK garage) and which will simply stagnate (pure techno; drum & bass). Perhaps significantly it's that if a scene turns unapproachable because it is first rejected by the public, as is the case for the first two, it won't acquire that fatal self-conscious self-definition and deliberate snootiness that we see with the latter examples.
Hmm, this has moved away from subversiveness a bit. I guess what I'm saying is that generally a self-consciously "oppositional" stance within music is not automatically something to be lauded. The whole problem might be the media's fault, which has grown so canny and adept at seizing upon "subversive" styles and legitimising them that it is impossible to not become self-conscious about it. What was once at odds with the accepted musical continuum rapidly becomes co-opted by it; but I think it's usually misguided to continually attempt to define oneself against that continuum, as really there's always someone somewhere who can fit you into it. The most amusical glitchscape will always be a potential canon entry for The Wire.