You have nothing to lose but your stylish ball chain
By Damon Krane
Monday, November 18, 2002
The Post: weekly column (Athens, Ohio)
(Also published in December 2000 by the now-defunct Akron, Ohio-based music webzine Bettawreckonize)
I’m sure you’ve noticed the tidal wave of thick, black-framed “emo” glasses and riveted indie rock belts that recently washed up on the otherwise khaki and hemp shores of Athens. Whatever you think of the music itself, there’s no denying that indie rock fashion is “in” like a pair of fake faded jeans.
But look out! A backlash is right behind it, as denim-clad rockers are pejoratively dubbed as “Belts and Glasses” and surly scenesters scurry about, brandishing their obscure knowledge of this or that band in a desperate effort to discern posers from true believers.
I like The Strokes and The White Stripes, but that’s not the point. By the time you read this column, its subject matter may already be yesterday’s news. But don’t let that stop you from recognizing a pattern that transcends the specific music and fashion in question. Call it “Nirvana all over again” – or even “Elvis Presley all over again,” if you’d like. We’d still be talking about how the symbols of a dissident subculture get turned into tools for maintaining capitalism.
Although to a lesser degree than its more politicized, rowdy cousin, punk rock, indie rock still grew up in an attempt to put music before profit. Sure, some of the label owners were just plucky entrepreneurs exploiting under-the-radar, niche markets. And sure, some of the bands probably just couldn’t get signed to major labels. Still, many involved in the rise of indie rock used the situation ti put out dissident messages at prices far below what they could have charged for their albums. Quite often the lyrics explicitly conveyed the politics. But the associated styles of music came to express the values behind this do-it-yourself, anti-consumerist counterculture even when the lyrics and liner notes didn’t.
The associated fashion had a parallel political significance: Poor people had no choice but to shop in thrift stores and keep wearing faded old jeans. When more affluent people chose to do these things, it was a symbolic protest against having to wear Abercrombie to be cool, against consumerist materialism and economic inequality. But then the styles became cool themselves – not just more widely appreciated, but also routes to social status, friendship and romantic relationships: things we humans tend to desire even more than good music.
If to desire something is to be insecure, then some level of insecurity is a reoccurring, if not constant, part of life. But in a capitalist economy, which depends on ever-expanding markets to maintain a very uneven distribution of wealth and power, the insecurity of some becomes the job security of others. Just as beauty magazines are devise dto make people feel ugly, capitalism in general tends to produce firefighters who double as arsonists. Thus by changing fashion, corporate giants continually rearrange the obstacle course of consumption that stands between us and our desires, lining their pockets with the fruits of human insecurity. Indie rock style provided something new to sell to people who had already purchased last year’s path to social acceptance. Thus our cultural expressions of rebellion were taken over by those we were rebelling against, stitched by ultra-exploited child laborers overseas, and put on racks at the mall. How could this have happened?
Easy. First of all, capitalist enterprises monopolize the means of mass communication. In this country, more than half of the media is owned by six transnational corporations, and a much greater percentage is owned by for-profit businesses, all of which in turn are predominantly, if not totally, funded by advertisers. In a society as large and complex as ours, no one can compete with these business’ ability to define what’s cool to their advantage.
Still skeptical? Check out the Web site of a youth marketing company profiled in the PBS documentary “The Merchants of Cool,” Look-Look.com. Look-Look makes money be sending its photographers to youth hangouts in order to capture emerging styles on film. Their photos are then compiled in the company’s database, which fashion designers eager to find a replacement for last year’s line pay look-look tens of thousands of dollars to access.
Imagine: after a hard day of watching most of the wealth created by your labor disappear into your employer’s pockets, you’re relaxing at the ar with your ironically stylish mesh-back hat. Suddenly someone from Look-Look dashes in, snaps your picture, and corporations make millions by ripping off your style and robbing it of its meaning. What do you do? Do you rebel by adopting new symbols of resistance to mass-marketed culture? If so, you’re just providing Look-Look with its next photo-op.
Perhaps those of us looking to express our opposition to capitalist culture ought to rethink the emphasis we’ve been placing on symbols whose social meaning we ultimately don’t control – from studded belts and faded jeans to A’s with circles around them. Edward Said once said that the only way to ground yourself is with a political cause – not a political button, t-shirt, patch or genre of music. Hot Topic can (and actually does) sell “Anarchy” brand cologne (interestingly, it doesn’t smell like a homeless crust-punk), but Hot Topic can’t sell anarchism. Symbols are transient. Causes endure. And, as always, actions speak louder than belts.
[Editors note, 2/6/13 – Before becoming a journalist and organizer, the author himself was an indie rocker… or at least a rocker of some sort… while in high school. He also had a bad adolescent attempt at a mustache. Here he is kickin’ out the jams with his former band, Earwig Fiend, at Pittsburgh’s infamous and hopefully long-ago-condemned club, The Electric Banana, circa 1995.]