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The Politics of Fashion

Naomi pointed me the way to this excellent piece by Thursday/United Nations’ Geoff Rickly on the MTV Headbanger’s Blog site on my previous post, and it got me thinking about the impact of fashion on culture. Rickly astutely notes the power of the image, and in doing so recalls Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” Rickly is quite correct in his assertion to use McLuhan as an intellectual pinpoint to the decline of political action – or simply plain action – in punk and underground culture. But McLuhan doesn’t sum up the concept of said decline like Daniel Boorstin managed to with his book on American culture – The Image. In the book, Boorstin points towards not only the great power that images have over us, but how they can sometimes distract from the real events and meaning behind said image. In our ability to reproduce certain images, the reproduction often overshadows the thing that made the original such an endearing event in human existence in the first place. You can buy a postcard of the Mona Lisa or download it online just about anywhere, but it doesn’t compare to seeing the lightly-cracked brush-strokes in real life. But, more importantly, when an image is so readily available through commerce, the idea of flying to a foreign country, waiting in massive lines, and paying out of your rear end to see a painting you might not even care for (especially if you aren’t into art) may actually end up diminishing any positive experience with the original image – forget events that went into making it such an emotionally arresting work. The same can be said for folks who enjoy wearing Che Guevara t-shirts; the image is well known, arresting, and connected to connotations of rebellion, and the $15 for the shirt and look of cool is immediately accessible versus the time one would spend in researching Guevara’s political ideas and the true concepts behind his face. It’s a very concept that is rooted in American culture; the democracy of information versus the time and effort needed to be fully aware of the information you are ingesting.

Daniel Boorstin

Daniel Boorstin

These concepts are fully drawn into the world of music and its revolutionary/underground/political backgrounds. Rickly points towards Fugazi as a beacon of light in the music-as-action argument; what Rickly fails to mention in the article is that Fugazi never submitted themselves to any easily-replicable image. Among the many ideas that are thrown into Instrument – the excellent Jem Cohen documentary on Fugazi – is their consistent battle with trying to portray an accurate portrait of themselves. The media have such a way of forcing individuals into boxes that there’s no wonder the members of Fugazi did away with the mainstream press; providing an easy-to-swallow image makes the important messages that Fugazi was creating, well, lost in the medium. Most folks may not know a lick about the band, but those individuals who have the forthright to find out about their music and enjoy it will get the full-blast (aurally and idealistically) of the band’s concept.

Fugazi in action… literally (from Instrument):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdQNeB7Gdbo]

In music, nothing makes or breaks a band like fashion. It’s the easiest thing to digest when learning about new bands – it takes minutes to listen to a song, but a handful of seconds to stare at a picture and determine if its aesthetically pleasing and cool. Fashion has made certain acts desirable and its also driven cultures and bands to the bitter ground. Take a look at grunge; all it took was for one word – “flannel” – to encompass an entire lifestyle of poor-as-hell artists in the Northwests and a handful of years later grunge was “played out.” As Rickly mentioned, hipsterdom is on the brink of destruction, and that’s mostly because of the easy-to-replicate image of cool. The reasoning behind the wears that artists involved in the indie scene is completely lost on all those who use clothing as a cache for cool – likewise, the need to separate oneself from the mainstream through fashion gets blurred in the culture of consumerism. How non-conformist is something purchased from Urban Outfitters? How neo-conformists is it when you can’t even recognize why an item of clothing is “revolutionary”? The easiest example of this widespread impact of the image of cool and how its deteriorated true subversion of the norm is the newfound fashion statement in the indie world; the kafia. Sure it looks cool, trendy, and yes, different. But how many American teens and twenty-somethings can actually connect with the Palestinian plight that the kafia represents? Moreover, how many people can actually recognize that as the antecedent?

hipster cool

hipster cool

Fashion is not lost in the realm of emo; not a day goes by that the idea of black-clad teens with weird haircuts boxes emo into a seemingly inescapable definition. And it seems like something new and more-or-less negative gets added to the mix; makeup was nowhere to be found five years ago when emo was first getting popular. And yet, despite all the doom and gloom that fashion can force on a once-forceful, active underground culture, I still have faith in some, if not all, of emo and indie (especially when the two are still so hard for people to define). And it has nothing to do with fashion. It has to do with history. Although America is still known as a “young” country, seemingly without a past, certain aspects of our culture go against those stereotypes, and in America, we love our home-brewed history (sometimes too much in the guise of nostalgia). But it’s always good to look back in an attempt to move forward. Geoff Rickly does just that with his piece for Headbanger’s Blog; he takes a concept of revolution and forces it right in the face of the individuals he is more or less critiquing, and using a major source of information (MTV) to do so. And while a movement becomes mainstream, images no doubt takeover, and certain ideas may be lost in translation, I come with the belief that making certain information available to those who normally wouldn’t be aware of its existence is a good thing. Rickly has always managed to articulately and effectively state why it was good that Thursday signed to a major label despite being so independent-minded, and opening up their audience to new people who may not have been aware of the importance of action is certainly a positive choice and change in my book. While one can assume that a large portion of today’s sub-standard pop-punk may not heed Rickly’s advice, I’d prefer to think positively. Because somewhere out there, some earnest fan of Rickly’s has always been a fan of taking some form of action in their everyday life, and they’ll read Rickly’s article and be inspired. Because you can’t always wait for change to happen – you have to enact it yourself.

A little bit of (music) news:

*The New York Times has a great piece on the crossover success of Gym Class Heroes.

*The Beastie Boys’ MCA is working in his own independent film company.

*iTunes Version 8 has a program called Genius which supposedly links one song to others like it in your library, as well as ones that may be purchased from the iTunes music store. Sounds like iTunes merely links songs other listeners have purchased online rather than songs that share similar compositions/aesthetics.

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1 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Naomi #
    1

    I wonder if, in order for emo and indie music to survive, it’s going to be necessary for the popularity of the genre, or at least the “cool factor” of the genre to die out. People who’ve adopted emo\indie\hipster culture through their clothing and style choices aren’t necessarily less valid as elements of the culture, but they definitely encounter it on a much shallower level.

    I don’t think every emo fan has to be a diehard worshipping at the altar of Fugazi and Sunny Day Real Estate (though they’re both excellent bands and more people should listen to their music), but I think it’s the superficial fans who listen to Metro Station and Cute is What We Aim For, wear pink and white checked keffiyahs and call themselves punk who give emo a bad name. And that sucks for those of us who really love the music, and the political roots of the genre.

    “Because somewhere out there, some earnest fan of Rickly’s has always been a fan of taking some form of action in their everyday life, and they’ll read Rickly’s article and be inspired. Because you can’t always wait for change to happen – you have to enact it yourself.”

    If you haven’t already, check out Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky.


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