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Radical Banality: The Materiality of Sameness

Much of KHOLE's work revolves around the redefinition of youth culture (image from KHOLE)

Much of K-HOLE’s work revolves around the redefinition of youth culture (image from K-HOLE)

A host of fashion gurus, marketing mavens, and subcultural theorists have long championed spectacular stylistic distinction as a politically empowering and self-affirming force.  These observers define style as an aesthetic and material expression of selfhood that confirms our uniqueness and displays our links to circles of like-minded people.  This month, though, New York magazine’s Fiona Duncan was the latest observer mystified by the emergence of sameness:  that is, instead of seeking out distinguishing style and visibly discernible brands, many consumers instead appear to be embracing the plain and non-descript, trooping off to secure the innocuous jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers hawked at the likes of Old Navy and Abercrombie and Fitch.  Instead of looking to the red carpet for our fashion cues and monitoring the elite for material standards, at least some of us appear to be parroting Jerry Seinfeld’s garb and venturing to Costco for household material tips.

Archaeologists and style-makers alike tend to assume that personal and group identities will inevitably be marked off by visible difference, making style a visual code that somewhat theatrically displays our singular identities.  Stylistic distinction certainly has not been read its death rites, but aesthetic and behavioral uniformity can no longer be reduced simply to disempowering assimilation.  The archaeological question is how stylistic homogeneity and the appearance of banality may have radical political implications and not simply reflect the sheep being led to consumer culture’s slaughter. Read the rest of this entry

Marketing Youth Revolt

A Hot Topic wall of shirts

A Hot Topic wall of shirts

Much of the apprehension once sparked by youth culture has now been reduced to consumer theatre: any suburban teen or 20-something can don punk, goth, or hippie style supplied by chain stores that sell pre-torn jeans, mass-produced tie-dye shirts, or black nail polish.  Youth culture may once have referred to a generationally distinct experience, but today it is shorthand for a marketing demographic, a consumer identity that fancies creative and even rebellious personalities are confirmed in shopping.  The contemporary youth marketplace is populated with contrived “edginess” projected onto the likes of Iron Maiden shirts, cannabis earrings, and shotgun shell shot glasses, but it is not clear that those trinkets or shows of stylistic resistance pose any significant threat to the established order of things.

Post-war youth experience has been distinguished by a progressively persistent marketplace appeal to boomers and successive waves of Gen X-Y-and-Z’s that has aspired to sell youth resistant aesthetics.  On the one hand, mass-produced commodities tend to reduce genuine subversiveness to aesthetics or reproduce reactionary politics behind the guise of ironic humor.  Bands pilfered from history become an aesthetic “look”; racy promiscuity clumsily poses as independent morality; and drug allusions paint drug consumption simply as a pleasure pathologized by elder ideologues.

On the other hand, though, youth culture is a rich terrain of digital spaces, musical tastes, sexualities, and materiality that ideologues rush to manage yet can never predict or control.  The caricature of a homogeneous youth culture bound by birthdays ignores the diversity of contemporary experiences and the degree to which youth consumers acknowledge the patent absurdity of consumer culture. The wall of sex, drug, and rock shirts at mall stores may be less about public generational revolt than they are soliloquys: consumers clad in Pink Floyd shirts imagine and find pleasure in their perceived creativity and its violation of bourgeois normality. Read the rest of this entry