Brand underground

You HAVE TO read the cover story of this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. “The Brand Underground” is the most fascinating analysis of the mainstream/subculture tensions of modern life that I have read in a while. Rob Walker has been writing about consumer culture for a while and he has a weekly column in the magazine, but this lenghtier piece is mind blowing.

Being part of brand underground has always seeemed to me to be a lot of work. I own a few T-shirts of the kind Rob Walker mentions–limited edition prints that are in themselves the subculture are not just a sidekick to a lifestyle. If I had to put one on everyday and live accordingly, I would probably go crazy.

The symbols and references and logos these minibrands create are usually said to “represent” a culture or lifestyle. But I found myself asking, What, exactly, did that culture or lifestyle consist of — aside from buying products that represent it?

Bobby did his best to clue me in. “It’s just the idea of trying to be rebellious,” he said. “Or trying to be a little bit anti, questioning government or your parents. Trying to do something different.” Those are familiar answers, and this is hardly the first time that vague rebelliousness has been translated into an aesthetic. The style and iconography of punk, like that of other “spectacular subcultures” (to use the phrase Dick Hebdige coined in “Subculture: The Meaning of Style”), arguably did more than music — let alone ideas — to fulfill one of the crucial functions of any underground: group identity. It just happens that in this instance the symbols, products and brands aren’t an adjunct to the subculture — they are the subculture.

Not all of us should should be trying to figure out what group/identity/subculture we’re promoting through our style, our clothing or our consumption of music and movies. But being conscious of this makes it easier for me to navigate the world. The danger is that some of these brand underground consumers don’t buy the ideas behind it; they don’t even care as long as it helps them climb the ladder of “cool.”

Here’s a T-shirt I got as a present a couple days ago. It’s from a Bucharest-based company called Paria Wear. It’s a vulgar T-shirt satirizing the vulgarity of Romania’s capital and pointing out the irony of being the victim of verbal and visual aggression to an imbecile driving a Dacia. But that’s my reading of it.

Paria Wear

So, what if I run into someone who wears it because it’s an alternative T-shirt to the ones that simply say “Fuck you?” Or because he simply wants to make it a conversation item at college parties? Then maybe you seek comfort in the idea that the makers of the T-shirt were more on your side of the fence than his. And you understand that printing the idea on a T-shirt might be the only way to make a little sense in all the chaos and noise we wear daily.

Refusing to be the fodder for someone else’s lifestyle-making machine because you are building your own still strikes me as a hollow victory. But maybe I’m just too old to get it. And I have to admit, the more time I spent with the minibrand entrepreneurs, the more I had to concede that what they have been up to is more complicated than simply imitating the culture they claim to be rebelling against. They believe what they are doing has meaning beyond simple commercial success. For them, there is something fully legitimate about taking the traditional sense of branding and reversing it: instead of dreaming up ideas to attach to products, they are starting with ideas and then dreaming up the products to express them.

3 Responses to “Brand underground”

  1. Excellent piece. I’m off to read the lengthier one which gave rise to your post.

    In my humble experience, the majority of such t-shirt purchasers aren’t necessarily those playing on satire or irony, but merely in fact people who wish to fantasize themselves as emulated the depicted scene.

    And then second most would be the cool for cool’s sake “because someone said this was cool” crowd. Followed by the satire -n- irony crowd; namely, the original designer, the printer, and you.

  2. Fascinating article. I think what we are getting at here is the difficulty of bucking the traditional capitalist system in a time when there exists no alternative option. I imagine that these sneaker and t-shirt “lifestyle” designers in an earlier time might have been communal/socialist types. Although the world is indeed not flat, it seems that the paradigm of capitalist consumerism is everywhere. If this has indeed become a universal truth, then such agitation perhaps is revolutionary.

    However, like the author, I’m left a bit empty. For my thesis I studied the subway graffiti artists 1970’s and 1980’s NYC. It seemed that it was the illegality of the act that made it so alluring. The rebellion had real consequences, such as jailtime, serious injury or even death.

    As I am pondering law school for myself, I had to chuckle at Ben and Bobby, who, although they had gotten into the T-shirt thing first year, ended up taking the bar, meaning that they had finished the standard 3 years of law school.

    Indeed, as this culture seems to revolve around cool-ness and exclusivity, I see little difference between it other more traditional deliniators thereof… But perhaps these kids are a more realistic follow up of our countercultural generation, realizing that in order to work for change, one has to understand the current system.

    Sure it’s all contradiction, and so is life, but perhaps my ultimate coldness here is that, even after their abstract material-cool successes, they still could only articulate that they wanted to say something.

    Still we’re listening.

  3. I found this piece fascinating. But in the end you see how contradicting it really is. It is kind of sad to think that most of these underground brands are created under good intentions. You know to make a statement about their lifestyle. But in the end, when they given the chance, may turn themselves into the very corporation they were rebelling against. I thought A-Ron summed it all up by stating, “My whole thing now is if you don’t sell out, you sell out on yourself…we’re here to do business.” That’s exactly what it is “business.” But good luck to those that at least try.

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