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Mainstream is, generally, the common current of thought of the majority. However in the reality, the mainstream is far from cohesive; rather the concept is often considered a cultural construct. It is a term most often applied in the arts (i.e., music, literature, and performance). This includes:

  • something that is available to the general public;
  • something that has ties to corporate or commercial entities.

As such, the mainstream includes all popular culture, typically disseminated by mass media. The opposite of the mainstream are subcultures, countercultures, cult followings, underground cultures and (in fiction) genre. Additionally, mainstream is sometimes a codeword used for an actual ethnocentric or hegemonic subculture point of view, especially when delivered in a culture war speech. It is often used as a pejorative term. In the United Statesmarker, mainline churches are sometimes referred to synonymously as "mainstream."

Origin of use

The original meaning of "mainstream" is "the principal current of a river." Its use as a metaphorical reference to popular opinion or taste appeared at least as early as Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus in 1831, where he wrote in Chapter VII of "those main currents of what we call Opinion".

In film

Mainstream films can best be defined as commercial films that have a wide release and play in first run theatres (A movie theater that runs primarily mainstream film fare from the major film companies and distributors, during the initial release period of each film). Being sold at popular stores, or more typically, at general stores can also be an indicator. Hollywoodmarker movies are usually considered mainstream and blockbuster are also mainstream films. The boundary is vague. Mainstream suggests middle-of-the-road and implies commercial viability, sometimes implying that the commercial viability is tantamount to a loss of artistic creativity. The opposite of mainstream film may be experimental film, art film or cult film.

In literature

In literature, particularly in literary criticism, "mainstream" is used to designate traditional realistic or mimetic fiction, as opposed to genre fictions such as science fiction, romance novels and mysteries, as well as to experimental fiction.

In music

Mainstream music denotes music that is familiar and unthreatening to the masses, as for example popular music, pop music, middle of the road music, pop rap or soft rock; but it should be noted that older generations often have a well-founded dislike for the mainstream taste of the youth, and may not agree as to what is or is not mainstream. Mainstream jazz is generally seen as an evolution of be-bop, which was originally regarded as radical.

Opposing mainstream music is the music of subcultures. This exists in virtually all genres of music and is found commonly in punk rock, indie rock, alternative/underground hip hop, emo, anti-folk and Heavy Metal, among others. In the 1960s this music was exemplified by the music of the hippie counterculture. In more recent years alternative rock, such as the music of Nirvana, has managed to express musical nonconformity while still working within the confines of the mainstream music market.

Punk rock has distinguished itself from other non-mainstream genres by self-asserting an active anti-mainstream social movement that resists commercialism and corporate control. The punk subculture generally frowns upon major label bands that play punk music that disavows the DIY punk ethic, and views them as synonymous with mainstream music. Punk has lent this stringent DIY ethic to the indie rock that surfaced in the early 1990s underground. Several anti-corporate and not-for-profit forms of alternative protest have surfaced in the punk underground, such as self-made publications known as zines, where there is greater freedom to discuss controversial (usually far left) political issues such as discrimination, LGBT community issues, feminism, antitheism, and veganism. And though often viewed as a youthful expression of rebellion by the mainstream media, modern punk embodies a range of age groups who generally disagree with the perceived homogeneity of countercultural principals and it is not uncommon for middle-aged people to form punk houses and resistance movements in the face of what they view as the widespread, unfair exploitation of human and animal rights. This modern faction is dominantly voiced through the anarcho-punk and crust punk subcultures, in attempt to combat what is seen by those groups as a general devaluation of, and profitization from, life.

In sociology

Mainstream pressure, through actions such as peer pressure, can force individuals to conform to the mores of the group (e.g., an obedience to the mandates of the peer group). Some have stated that they see mainstream as the antithesis of individuality.

Gender mainstreaming

The difference of male and female, in the sense that we are distinguished as inconformant.


Mainstreaming is the practice of bringing disabled students and into the “mainstream” of student life. Mainstreamed students attend some classes with typical students and other classes with students that have similar disabilities. Mainstreaming represents a midpoint between full inclusion (all students spend all day in the regular classroom) and dedicated, self-contained classrooms or special schools (disabled students are isolated with other disabled students).


  1. Caldwell, John. "Faith in school: as mainstream churches continue to wrestle with homosexuality, some religious colleges are taking an increasingly welcoming attitude toward gay students,", The Advocate Sept 2, 2003
  2. Baer, Hans A. "Black Mainstream Churches; Emancipatory or Accommodative Responses to Racism and Social Stratification in American Society?" Review of Religious Research Vol. 30, No. 2 (Dec., 1988), pp. 162-176

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