Friday, January 19, 2007

Over the Counter Culture

Ok, it is now time for a shocking revelation that will shock nobody; I... am a consumer. I buy stuff. Lots of stuff. Lots of stuff I probably don't need. Movies, books, music, video games I don't have the time for anymore, and neatly packaged processed treats. I buy it all. As you can guess, this consumerist nature is often at odds with my anti-corporate, anti-establishment views, but it's something I've come to terms with.

Commercials rarely bother me, no matter how crass or obnoxious. I've even gotten past my disdain for when one of my favorite bands lets one of their songs onto a car ad(or even a steakhouse ad, in the case of Of Montreal, a band you all need to check out). In those cases, well, musicians need to make money, too, and aside from monster acts with constant top 40 rotation, they don't make a whole hell of a lot from their craft. When it comes to advertisements these days, I just ignore them. We all know they're trying to convince us to waste money on mostly unnecessary items, it's just what they do.

That said, there is still one place where I am loathe to shop, that fills me with disgust at the mere mention of it's name; Hot Topic.

I first came across this business about 6 years ago on a trip to Seattle, and at first I thought it was awesome, full of all sorts of things I couldn't find at home in Alaska. And then Alaska got a Hot Topic of it's own. Two of them, in fact. At first I paid it no mind, but slowly my attitude changed, and I'm not quite sure why. Maybe it was all the pre-fab nostalgia; t-shirts that were pre-faded and advertised pop-culture icons from my youth, all sold to 12 year-olds who weren't even alive at the time. Maybe it was the in-store music of that hollow, woe-is-me thrash and wail. Maybe it was the aggressive 'individuality' of every tattooed, pierced and spiky-haired teenager with bad skin behind the counter. Am I really that old?

It got so bad that I would avoid the store every time I went into the mall, avoiding even looking in the window. The last time I went in to the store I bought a Christmas gift for someone, and immediately left the store for another, put all my purchases into a new bag, and threw the Hot Topic bag into the trash. I was that embarrassed to be seen shopping there. It was then that I realized the source of my hatred for Hot Topic. It's consumerism hiding itself behind counter-culture. Counter Culture for people who don't want to think about culture. And it makes me sick. Almost physically ill, in fact.

I first noticed this trend when the movie Fight Club came out. Great movie, I saw it several times in the theatre(ah, to be young and have no obligations. these days I'm lucky to see one theatre movie a month, and I can never see the same movie twice during it's theatrical run). What came AFTER the movie was almost incomprehensible considering the subject matter of the film. After watching a direct attack on consumer culture, you can go out to the mall and buy posters, t-shirts, the soundtrack, soap, calenders, stickers, and hats with images from the film and nifty corporate logos in the corner. Like those old Mt. Dew ads that instructed you to ignore fancy ad campaigns and buy Mt. Dew! It's a way to express your individuality without standing out in a crowd, a way to rebel without pissing off your parents.

It's a pretty depressing trend, actually. After decades of counter culture leading the way and corporate America jumping on the train just as everyone else was switching tracks, they've finally found a way to get in front of the trends. It's not just the popular kids these days, but the outcasts are having culture sold to them. I'm not wearing rose-colored glasses here, art and commerce have been connected since... well... the advent of art, really. Anyone wearing a band or concert t-shirt is essentially a walking billboard. The difference here is that people always had a place to go when mainstream culture didn't speak to them, but now that place has been co-opted by mainstream culture.

There is hope, however, and there always is. Things do go in cycles, after all, and as the obscure is pushed into the mainstream, well, something else will be there to replace it. And, as loathe as I am to admit it, Myspace may be a great boon to pop culture. Viral marketing isn't just for big corporations these days, and the Internet is a great place to put your artistic intentions on display when you don't have a record deal or an exclusivity contract with Wal-Mart. Just do a quick scan of this blog site and you'll find HUNDREDS of people doing just that, or look through MySpace's music section and look at all the musicians who would normally be local bar bands but for the ability to get fans from around the world with only a few mouse clicks. Hey, it worked for Under The Influence Of Giants. With the popularity of their MySpace page they were given a record contract and recorded one of my favorite albums of 2006.

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