Compliant me, defiant me

I have a friend who used to call me “Alternative Ann” back when we were in high school. I’m actually not sure why, because I’ve always seen myself as a compliant, wallflower sorta gal. Yet I’ve become aware over the last year or so that I actually possess a (frustrating and often ridiculous) contrary streak.

I hate hype, celebrities and the very concept of influencers.

I have little interest in watching whichever Netflix show you’re currently all raving about.

I say no to diamond engagement rings.

I have been known to play devil’s advocate – the worst part being that I often don’t even realise I’m doing it, I’m merely engaging with the issue by exploring other perspectives on it.

Photo credit: Rupert Britton.

My vague sense is that the name “Alternative Ann” had something to do with me listening to Matchbox Twenty, Linkin Park and Lifehouse which, back in the early noughties, were somehow classified as alternative rock. These days I’m not ashamed to say I dig Taylor Swift’s new stuff (apart from the swearing) and am currently obsessed with Justin Bieber’s Anyone and 5 Seconds of Summer’s Youngblood. It’s probably why my friend has since rebadged me “Mainstream Ann”.

There is probably truth in both these personas.

Recent nostalgia

Spotify was probably thinking of “Alternative Ann” when it decided to play me José González’s new song. He’s a Swedish singer-songwriter of Argentine heritage who writes in English. That fact alone makes me feel an affinity with him, being as I am, an Australian of Malaysian-Chinese heritage who speaks (and I suppose I could blog) in Spanish.

This latest track is González’s first song in six years and it also happens to be his first in Spanish. The day I heard it, I put it on repeat because it filled me with a wistfulness of the kind you want to soak yourself in for while.

El invento is a brief but ruminating, philosophical piece. It got me thinking that 2021 will mark six years since I was last in South America – since I “came home”.

It wasn’t just the song.

It was the conversation with a friend overseas, in which I was pleasantly surprised to find us speaking in Spanish. In which I was then not-so-pleasantly bemused to feel rusty, clunky, speaking in Spanish.

It was reconnecting online with a handful of contacts in Bolivia and Ecuador, praying for their needs.

It was realising it’s been so very long since the days I lived on that continent, spoke that language, breathed that mountain air. In fact, this month marks a full decade since I began this blog in the lead-up to moving to Ecuador. I’ve probably written more about coming home and being here than I have about going over and being there.

Just another bout of whatever the opposite of homesickness is. For a while, I wondered if I’d gone mainstream in more ways than my music choices.

Going mainstream

It’s funny how I received Alternative Ann as a compliment of sorts and Mainstream Ann as a friendly jibe. Alternative suggests you think for yourself and don’t let anyone else dictate your taste or decisions. Mainstream suggests you sold out, caved into marketing, became a sheep.

There is an unspoken moral superiority to being alternative. That’s why it’s socially acceptable to make fun of people (or yourself, as the case may be) who like Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and 5 Seconds of Summer.

I tend to think of embarking on an open-ended mission trip as an expression of Alternative Me. It was an act subversive to a certain societal pressure to follow the well-worn path of getting a steady job, earning enough to buy a home, getting married, having kids, etc, etc, etc.

Not me, I hope. Photo credit: Carson Arias.

And yet here I am, on that path to Etc – albeit a few years behind my peers. Alternative Me looks down on Mainstream Me.

The problem with Alternative, though, is that it defines itself by reference to what is Mainstream – that is, by the fact of being different to what is popular. That is its primary value. I’m not convinced it’s a good one: defining yourself by what you are not isn’t necessarily helpful or noble.

Then you have the Irony of the Hipster, where a style that began as alternative became so widespread it ended up being mainstream – and a mainstream joke at that.

Photo credit: Lucas Sankey.

It seems, then, that being alternative is not a sustainable option. There is no honour in swimming against the current for the sake of it.

What I believe is honourable is being willing to go against popular opinion for a reason. And perhaps, in the process, changing mainstream culture for good.

In fact, when you look at history, plenty of mainstream things began on the fringes. Jesus, science, rock ‘n’ roll, vegetarian diets and (maybe) Bitcoin are just a few examples.

Reframing the issue

Despite the negative connotations around the word, mainstream things are not by definition bad as a matter of taste or morals. I declare this every time I listen – with zero guilt – to Tay-Tay, the Biebs and 5SOS.

Whatever moniker my friend may attach to my name, I think I have always been and will always be part Mainstream Ann and part Alternative Ann. They are not mutually exclusive personas.

Perhaps it’s more helpful to think of the mainstream and the alternative being a natural ebb and flow, at both a societal and personal level. I like to think it might even be a helpful part of growth as I journey through life and make decisions about the kind of person I want to be.

There are things about my life now that might seem less alternative than they used to be, my taste in music and living in my passport country being just two examples. But lest I fall into autopilot, I still possess that contrary streak. I still find myself resisting comfort and conformity.

I don’t want to be alternative for the sake of being different or difficult. Nor do I want to be mainstream in order to fit in or make life easier for myself. At the end of the day, these are just labels that (occasionally) reflect my decisions. They don’t shape my decisions.

What I do desire – and which perhaps drives my alternative tendencies – is to do the things that are hard, because they have value. To strive for integrity, authenticity and faithfulness in all I do. To live intentionally and not on autopilot, whether it looks more contrary or more compliant at any given point.

Header image: Jessica Ticcozelli.

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