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Forget The Band. Just Make The T-Shirt.

Posted by: Jon Fine on July 31, 2006

Rob Walker has an excellent piece in yesterday’s New York Times magazine, concerning what he calls the “brand underground”—a consumer counterculture as practiced by the sort of hipsters who once started bands, directed films, or became DJs. The main point of these guys, if I may oversimplify grotesquely, goes something like this: Don’t start the band. Just design the tshirt.

Or maybe this: Starting your own brand is a very good way right about now to avoid, you know, growing up and getting a real job.

Read the whole thing, but one smart statement comes up early in the piece:

There’s a new alternative, one that’s neatly summed up in a question that A-Ron has been asking himself lately: “How do I turn my lifestyle into a business?”

Another: If the dance between subculture and mainstream has always been more compromised than it appears and if every iteration of the bohemian idea is steadily more entrepreneurial than the last, then maybe a product-based counterculture is inevitable.

And: 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.

All of which makes me remember how weird it was around ten years ago, when I first started encountering tshirt with logos that referenced nothing—not a band, not a clothing line, nothing other than itself. I also remember how crazy it seemed when I first heard friends talking about how they just spent $50 or $75 on a simple silkscreened tshirt.

But it also makes me wish really badly that I’d bought more tshirts when I was in Daikanyama in May, so I have no idea where on the counterculture or consumer continuum all this leaves me.

But there’s little I can add to this discussion. Just read the piece.

Reader Comments


August 4, 2006 11:47 AM

This article sums up, in modern terms, all the problems I had with Baffler Tom Frank's confused "Conquest of Cool" book which attempted to say that the counter culture movement was corporatized. It was a series of straw men arguments that I didn't agree were true to postulate a theory that I definitely disagreed with.

The new product-based counter culture that is devoid of a band and devoid of an independent film is the harbinger of the new ipod entertainment world where ALL media art, from books to movies to music is devalued and accepted as free, easy to obtain, and not worth owning in a tangible media.

Part of me says that's all wrong, that music should inspire and a favorite band should be a part of a teenager's maturation, but another part of me recognizes my father (in his 80s) tied HIS teenage maturation to caring for his horse.


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