» HADOUKEN « if you wear “concert merchandise” you are the worst person in the world
There’s a scene in Paul Michael Glaser’s 1994 tour de force, The Air Up There, when our hero, assistant college basketball coach Jimmy Dolan (Kevin Bacon), is asked to scale the face of a mountain with a bum knee and no ropes, harnesses, spiked apparatuses or climbing gear of any kind. Why? In order to prove his worth to the Winabi, a fictitious African tribe that has produced a basketball prodigy by the name of Saleh, who is being heavily recruited by our guy Jimmy. After Mr. Dolan successfully completes a number of similar awe-inspiring tasks, his consecration is completed when the Winabi hold him down and split open a four inch segment of his belly in what ends up feeling like some sort of androgynous C-section meets circumcision ritual. Only then is he accepted as a member of the Winabi tribe.
Since the dawn of man, when the monolith was first discovered by those tool-wielding neanderthal half-breeds, human beings have proven time and again that they are a tribal species. Merriam-Webster defines “tribalism” as “loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group.” Political affiliations, religious sects, sports teams, charitable organizations, social clubs, collegiate Greek life, secret societies, Apple products, sub-reddits, Facebook groups, Twitter mentions, Myers-Briggs type indicators — we practically spend every waking hour identifying and advancing our tribal associations. The “strong negative feelings for people outside the group” part? What do you think spawned Meme Culture? Appreciation for the target? Hardly.
The proliferation of Internet tribal association has had a particularly profound effect on fashion. It’s not exactly a well kept secret that human beings are desperate to emulate the style of rockstars — you really think The Beatles are considered the most culturally influential musical act of the 20th century solely because of A Hard Day’s Night and Sgt. Peppers? — and with the incredible world-shrinking capabilities of the Internet it should also be pretty clear that fashion trends rooted in popular music have the ability to set the world ablaze. So what better way to tell the world “I get it, I’m relevant, I’m part of this tribe” than by posting a photo of oneself on Instagram rocking the same (or in most cases, a similar) concert tee of your “favorite” band (yeah, ok)? Trick question, there is no better way.
As with all “organic” fashion trends that originate off the runway, it takes some time for the influence to trickle down to the masses. Even Malcolm Gladwell, a great reporter but the sociological equivalent of a chiropractor, was able toprofit off this idea when he adapted his essay about the Hush Puppies phenomenon of the 1990s to launch his non-fiction career with his New York Times best selling book The Tipping Point. Rinse and repeat with the hundreds of trends that have hit the streets on the backs and feet of the downtown elite since the Hush Puppy phenomenon and you end up in the present with “concert merchandise.”
I put “concert merchandise” in quotes because the awful t-shirts and hoodies being sold at pop up shops and luxury department stores (barf) around the world at a 10–15x markup cannot truly be qualified as such. Why? Because true concert merchandise is acquired at a venue where said-artist performed a show that the wearer attended. Its cost is not merely represented by the (now-) ridiculous price tag associated with the item but also with the cost of admission to the show at which it was sold. What I’m trying to say is that concert merchandise was once a case-book study of authentictribal association among human beings. And if you were following closely, you could probably predict my next statement: this is no longer the case.
“Concert merchandise” (the kind that belongs inside quotation marks) has taken on a new form thanks in large part to ingenious celebrity entertainers and their many, many handlers. In line with Gladwell’s Hush Puppy analysis, as time passes, it becomes increasingly rare that one sees a downtown New York cool kid wearing the tattered Slayer and Iron Maiden t-shirts that kicked off the trend in the first place. That’s because there is inverse proportionality between those who started the trend and the trend gaining widespread appeal. In our example, by the time Urban Outfitters acquired the many licenses required to make its own bullshit “concert merchandise,” the cool kids were already long gone. And by the time Kanye and Co. started making their own derivatives thereof, the trend was perverted beyond recognition. Never forget: the money is in the masses, celebrity sells and Kanye will always win.
Which brings us to today: simply put, nothing screams “poser” as loudly as an “I Feel Like Pablo” t-shirt. Congratulations, you paid too much for something that will end up at the Salvation Army in a few months. You are now a part of the tribe. By jettisoning traditional fashion labels in favor of “concert merchandise” you have become a part of the ironic, vicious circle that is mass individualism — by virtue of sucking so much, you are awesome among your peers. And it’s only a matter of time before you’re on to the next one. But you’ll always be a full two steps behind the cool kids. Like I said, rinse and repeat.
But is any of this surprising? At a time where being “relevant” wins the day and where millennials have a legitimate fear of not being a part of the conversation, is it any surprise that fashion trends are dictated by the tabloid photos posted on Upscale Hype? Is it any surprise that Karmaloop founder Greg Selkoe and Paul Rudd launched celebrity shopping site Look Live? And is it any surprise that grown ass men (and women) are wearing graphic t-shirts of their “favorite” entertainers? It shouldn’t be. That’s because we are a tribal people, and we will remain so, especially when gaining admission to the tribe merely consists of buying an overpriced t-shirt.