“The mainstream comes at you, but you have to go underground.” – Frank Zappa

In order to fully comprehend the term underground, we must begin with a working definition of what it is part of mainstream culture. From there, we will be able to contrast the two elements. Mainstream concepts are those which are perceived as being the ‘norm’ or commonly accepted, whereas the term 'underground' can portray a different meaning to all of us.

To support or be part of an underground network indicates a rejection of commonalities and mainstream notions; such a definition can also be associated with the music industry. During Italy’s early 1900s, musicians worked to create music alongside the ever-growing technological industry, determined to change the ways that music was made and distributed. Yet, if we think back to the early 1900s, we know that much of the music created was not recorded until much later. It became a mainstream idea when the notion of incorporating technology and music came to play, rather than what the Futurists had created as an underground, lesser known concept. Their determination to progress the manner in which music was created and shared, and their resistance against conservative and common ideas about music shifted the entire music industry forever. However, it would be foolish to believe there existed no resistance movements of any kind before this time. Not just art, but social. Not just social, but political. Not just political, but religious. Resistance is resistance, in any shape or form.

The term was commonly used during the era of World War II, where resistance movements to ruling regimes would literally meet in underground, secret locations. Later, the term kept its literal meaning during the period of prohibition in the United States. Bars and jazz clubs struggled against their own government to continue to serve alcohol to patrons. These activities were generally carried out in the basements of salons or theatres, thus making them both figuratively and literally ‘underground’. This was an act of rebellion towards the common law. Today, however, the sale and consumption of alcohol is legal and bars are no longer considered to be part of the underground, as they have been accepted by and large by the general population. Thus, we cannot look at one activity or entity in particular and claim it is ‘underground’. Underground is about the context and acceptance; nothing more and nothing less.

The examples used above can easily be compared to the music industry. Music that is not widely accepted or known by others may be considered as “underground”. However, it is difficult to know how many people listen to a particular style of music, especially in an increasingly globalized world. Perhaps your favourite artist is not so popular in your own town or country, but elsewhere may be considered common and ‘mainstream’. It has become evident that the music industry has had trouble using the term, or fear that what they once perceived to be underground has lost its means to be labeled under such category. This may be true, since bringing something into the mainstream means that it has become widely accepted, and a commonality.

Perhaps in ten years from now, your idea of underground music will become the mainstream, and a new wave of underground ideas will swipe the old ones away. The underground is dynamic and ever changing, only time will be able to judge what can and can’t be classified as ‘underground’. Underground ideas are not purely rooted in music and trenches, or bars and jazz clubs; the history is much deeper than that, with great social, political, and religious connotations. We can determine what is underground only by contrasting it against what is mainstream during our own times and place.

Zeina Samy