Much Ado About Normcore

kathleen french
Mar 21, 2014 · 15 min read

“Youth isn’t freedom in any political sense. It’s an emancipation from boredom.”


When Fiona Duncan first published “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion” in New York Magazine, I, and virtually everyone online, seemed more inclined to find ways to manipulate the name of this supposed aesthetic concept in the service of terrible Twitter jokes. It’s the kind of piece that demands such a reaction, because it taps into the notion of a particular movement, and ‘movements’ in our notoriously apathetic age are a low hanging fruit.

It was only after reading K-HOLE’s October 2013 brief YOUTH MODE: A REPORT ON FREEDOM and Duncan’s interview with the founders in Bullett that I considered it might be worth taking Normcore a bit more seriously since it positions itself as far more than a fashion trend, but a philosophical theory—a lifestyle. Christopher Glazek posted a public Facebook commentary (linked to by K-HOLE on Twitter: “Confused about #normcore? let @seeglazek set u straight”) that took Duncan’s NYMag article to task for reducing a “profound and illuminating concept,” into something “pedestrian and regressive.” Duncan chalked this up to the nature of NYMag’s The Cut as a fashion magazine—that there was an inevitable dilution of complex ideas as drafts continued, though she ultimately settled on running the piece because its reductive blankness, “pantomimed the project in that it would make these ideas accessible to a large audience, allow for discussion to follow.”

Yet, save Glazek’s post and the comments that ensued, Normcore has been mostly dismissed as something akin to farce—fashionable types simply trying to give a name to something that is ultimately empty. Or it’s been embraced as something superficial, purely related to fashion. Sure, there was an immediate explosion of trend pieces that tried to pinpoint Normcore idols—visual representations of this abstract concept—but few have attempted to explore the precise meaning of Normcore within a techno-social context. Those at K-HOLE have come out and said the press got it all wrong; the ubiquitous pictures of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David are missing the point. Glazek argued,

It doesn’t really make sense to identify Normcore as a fashion trend—the point of normcore is that you could dress like a NASCAR mascot for a big race and then switch to raver ware for a long druggy night at the club. It’s about infinitely flexible, sunny appropriation.

So, if it’s not just about wearing nineties Gap clothes then what on earth is Normcore? Does it actually matter at all? More importantly—if it does—what are its ethical and cultural implications?

It’s best, as with most attempts at clarification, to start at the beginning.

K-HOLE self-identifies as a “trend forecasting group.” It is based out of New York City, and consists of five founding members: Greg Fong, Sean Monahan, Chris Sherron, Emily Segal, and Dena Yago. Empirically, it’s had more of a link to the art world than the runways. Its Twitter following is a little under 3,000; though, this is its first substantial exposure to the ‘mainstream.’ It releases PDF trend forecasts that mimic the corporate keynotes of the present day. YOUTH MODE is a forty page document that continues this tradition, co-opting the strategic branding diction of commercialism, and using it to introduce Normcore, along with the three other poles it’s reacting against: Mass Indie, Alternative, and Acting Basic. It even provides a handy chart.

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A primer, if you will:

Mass Indie: Everything has become about celebrating difference, to the point where there’s an anxiety that we’re running out of differences to capitalize on. As YOUTH MODE puts it, Mass Indie is “like someone yelled ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater the day Kurt Cobain died and everyone tried to find a different exit. Mass Indie is what happens 45 minutes later. Tired of fighting to squeeze out the doors, everyone decides to stay in the theater. Panic subsides into ambivalence.” Yet, there’s a precarious balance in Mass Indie between capitalizing on difference and sameness, a “mastery of difference,” that is taking place. By mastering difference, Mass Indie succeeds in “neutralizing threats” to identity by simply covering all of the bases.

Alternative: This distinguishes itself from Mass Indie for its “preoccupation with evading sameness.” Whereas Mass Indie celebrates difference, Alternative simply wants to eschew recognizable markers of identification. K-HOLE sets up problem scenarios in YOUTH MODE, one of which is “Isolation: You’re so special nobody knows what you’re talking about.” To be Alternative is to be alienated, your preoccupation with confounding supersedes your ability to connect with others.

Acting Basic: Glazek accused Duncan’s article of reducing Normcore to Acting Basic, a not entirely novel concept, but perhaps an unfamiliar term for a familiar phenomenon. As hipsterdom segwayed into Mass Indie, many chose to reject difference and paradoxically embrace normalcy. “The most different thing to do is reject being different all together,” YOUTH MODE says. What distinguishes Acting Basic from Normcore is authenticity, which K-HOLE locates in progress and differentiation, which only succeeds in producing “a feeling of trappedness.” When you boil it down, Acting Basic and Mass Indie are just two sides of the same coin. “It’s still based on difference. Sameness is not mastered, only approached.”

Normcore: Authenticity be damned—Normcore is about post-authenticity and adaptability, a radical flexibility. It isn’t about creating exclusive pockets of belonging. It’s recognizing that “normal” doesn’t exist. It’s a deliberate moving away from cool that emphatically reiterates the necessity of difference and “opts into sameness” in a post-authentic way. “Instead of appropriating an aestheticized version of the mainstream, it just cops to the situation at hand.” K-HOLE defines it as:







Glazek suggests the true icon of Normcore is James Franco. Monahan said on Huffington Post Live that the New York Normcore idols are Seinfeld, Louis C.K. and Steve Jobs. But if this isn’t all just about dressing like some cultural figure—if it’s a personality, “a lifestyle trajectory,” as Monahan claims—what does this mean for actually being-in-the-world? Does it lead to freedom and peace, as K-HOLE promises in YOUTH MODE? And at what cost?

At the heart of Normcore is an argument for radical subjectivity. It echoes of the Deleuzian spirit of rhizomatic discourse, the never-ending process of “becoming.” Acting Basic is a conscious denial of difference in favor of sameness, whereas Normcore is a blankness by virtue of its radical fluidity. This gives Normcore a kind of schizophrenic quality, particularly since we’re not just talking about a “fashion movement,” but, to quote Monahan again, a way to “try to find these niches where you can have these strange interactions with people you wouldn’t necessarily interact with.” At the heart of Normcore is a denial of causality—the idea that one is freely but randomly choosing to adopt an aspect of culture into their personal aesthetic. In our current landscape we’re constantly trying to seek out new ways to connect with others, or maybe return to a connectivity that doesn’t require a computer screen. Freewheeling appropriation, though, which Normcore inherently celebrates, denies the fact that appropriation has a real-world impact. It makes relationality a pure and abstract thing and connectivity as an idea within Normcore becomes ephemeral in the sense that choices of style, affect, and art are made without due consideration, without regard for the broader context. This divorces the “lifestyle” with accountability.

Adaptable appropriation is validated within Normcore on the subject’s whim, on his genuine interest in a particular style perhaps, but there’s no established framework for evaluating how the potential implications of appropriation-as-means-of-oppression exist both ethically and economically when adopting Normcore as a “lifestyle trajectory.” If one is to take Normcore seriously as a theory, then it has to be followed to its logical conclusion and that is one of rampant cultural appropriation. One need only attend a trendy party in New York City to see white people in tracksuits or with a full head of cornrows, and it’s these kinds of stylistic choices that Normcore not only justifies but celebrates as radical adaptability—but 99% of the people at the party are white, so what’s being adapted to? Even the language of Normcore is appropriative: the term “Acting Basic” has roots in Black and queer culture, e.g. “basic bitch.”

Glazek followed up his post by writing, “The prototypical normcore gesture is white people pretending to be black; the contemporary update is straight people pretending to be gay. Normcore is about #experimenting…One of the things I find refreshing about #normcore is that it’s simultaneously queer-ish and post-identity politics. Its spiritual grandfather is minstrelsy, but IDGAF.” The problem is Normcore relies on this DGAF attitude to exist, and you should GAF. The post-minstrel heritage is a problematic one because it enforces the notion that it’s not just original to co-opt the styles of minorities, the working class, subcultures—it’s positive, it’s freeing. Minstrelsy is more than co-opting, though, it’s also parody; so, in matters of cultural appropriation not only are community cultures being hijacked, but they’re being re-contextualized without acknowledging their original foundations. And yet, Normcore attempts to side step this reality by claiming a perspective that is post-authenticity and post-identity politics, without ever flushing out what that means. It would be irresponsible to claim we live in a society that is really post-anything; so, if a proposed (and currently viral) lifestyle is dependent on this criterion, it is essential to understand how Normcore rationalizes itself to lay claim to such a socio-political landscape. Post-authenticity seems to insinuate post-sincerity, which clashes with the drive for connection that justifies Normcore for K-HOLE. Or it’s an authenticity of identity: I’m not actually queer, but I’m taking from the culture, which links into the problem of claiming to be post-identity politics. Both post-authenticity and post-identity politics suggest not an ignorance of race, class, gender, and sexuality but a willful amnesia. Perhaps it’s possible to live without sincerity—if that’s the definition of post-authenticity—but obliterating history isn’t so tenable.

If I, as a white woman, were to walk outside wearing a FUBU jacket, a clothing company which has historically been marketed towards the Black American populace, people’s instinctive impulse in simply observing will be that I am either mocking Black culture or attempting to make some kind of ironic statement. I won’t be wearing a sign that says: This is me adapting! This is me experimenting! Let’s connect! In YOUTH MODE, K-HOLE claims, “Normcore capitalizes on the possibility of misinterpretation as an opportunity for connection—not as a threat to authenticity.” Perhaps this act would open up the possibility for a kind of “connection,” but it would not be based on a liberating act that “co-opts into sameness.” In fact, “the possibility of misinterpretation,” is entirely reliant on Difference, which exposes a giant fissure central to the supposed logic of Normcore. What kinds of misinterpretation might go so far as to open up a means of communication but stylistic or behavioral choices that specifically co-opt from minority and/or marginalized cultures? Is it more likely that I would be “misinterpreted” if I went outside as a white person wearing a FUBU jacket or if a member of any race went out in the very Seinfeld-esque attire that has come to (wrongly) define Normcore? The answer is the former, and that’s a testament to the fact that we do not live in a post-racial or post-identity politics society. It’s also a testament to the insidious white-as-normal, white-as-non-threatening aspect of Normcore. The connectivity that Normcore seeks is contingent upon those who live and operate outside of their four poles of youth drawn out on the graph. Those who adopt Normcore, then, are provocateurs, not peaceful, radical adapters.

K-HOLE tweeted on March 5th, “Ppl are cranky because #normcore points out that they thought the logic that excluded them also empowered them.” The idea behind this is that embracing sameness without irony—doing so in a manner that is “post-authentic,” and “adaptable”—is freeing. What precisely is the exclusivity that is targeted here? The exclusivity of belonging to a certain cultural group? Of not belonging? If the logic behind Normcore is that the means of exclusion are identical with the means of empowerment, then that logic is circular. Exclusivity is premised on keeping certain groups or individuals out of the fold—generally in service of advancement, status, power. It’s the reason why secret societies still exist from Skull & Bones at Yale to the Wall Street fraternity Kappa Beta Phi. Empowerment, however, is not an inherently generalized term—its scope can be just as limited to ten as it could be to ten thousand. Empowerment via exclusivity is, perhaps, one of the most salient ways to garner capital (whether it’s fiscal, cultural, or political) in society. By K-HOLE’s own flawed logic, Normcore folds in on itself as precisely as limiting as any other trend to power/empowerment because it falls prey to the empirical truth that there are, and will always be, hierarchies of influence. What this means, in reality, is that individuals of privilege who adopt Normcore as a “lifestyle trajectory” can utilize this elaborate theory to justify cherry picking from other “excluded” cultures with impunity.

One of the most disastrous flaws of Normcore is that it denies a definition of “normal:” it claims it’s an empty signifier. In recognizing the meaninglessness of “normal,” our deliberate blankness makes us shifting signifiers as well. There is a freedom to that idea. Screw difference! We’re running out of options and we’re tired of sticking our necks out. Let’s all just agree to roll with whatever comes our way and not judge. If that’s all Normcore is then it’s nothing new, it’s just not giving a fuck. Closer examination of the theory, though, reveals a glaring issue at the center of Normcore’s refusal to define “normal.” Sean Monahan said on Huffington Post Live, “Normcore is a desire to be blank…it’s about being situationally appropriate…Maybe in a downtown scene it makes sense to rock a Seinfeld look because that is sort of the blank look of New York—the person from everywhere, the tourist—but that doesn’t mean that’s what everyone’s Normcore persuasion is.” What Monahan fails to parse out is why the New York tourist is default Seinfeld, Louis C.K., Steve Jobs—why it is that blandly styled, white, intelligent, privileged men define the wandering, downtown tourist. If these are K-HOLE’s idols of downtown New York Normcore, then their claim that normal doesn’t exist requires re-examination, particularly given the fact that the most visible kind of Normcore in recent press is a blankness that is literally white and male. If Monahan was adhering to notions of radical fluidity in service of an acknowledged sameness inherent in belonging to the world, then “the person from everywhere,” simply cannot be defined. Instead, Normcore unravels as a whitewashed theory, a perspective that is not adaptable or situational, but necessarily fixed from a view of white (male) privilege.

But let’s suppose it’s more than that and project all of this onto James Franco. (I’m sure he won’t mind). Franco’s artistic allegiances seem to shift so frequently with the zeitgeist that it’s damn near impossible to pin him down to one project. One minute he’s pursuing simultaneous MFA degrees, teaching at Yale, the other he’s directing and starring in As I Lay Dying, publishing a poetry chapbook, playing Alien—a character who blatantly co-opts hip-hop/gangster culture in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. On face, it appears Franco is emblematic of Normcore’s radical fluctuation, particularly with respect to appropriation. Yet, using Franco as an example takes Normcore from the willfully—if not blissfully—ignorant to the deliberately performative. Even when weighing in the criticism that he’s playing an elaborate joke on us, he’s doing whatever he wants, he’s still not absolved of the fact that his actions are performed on the world stage. His experimentation with form and medium do not lack causality; they adapt, but in the service of recognition, accolades, and profit—and this exposes another major flaw in Normcore. Franco is not “copping to the situation at hand,” but opening every potentially lucrative door in a career that requires performance and exhibition. Deliberate performativity doesn’t jive with Normcore’s logic, which sounds counter-intuitive because how can one go from being a NASCAR mascot at a race to a rave in full garb without performing certain identities? The logical flaw here is the calculus of decision-making. Radical adaptability and being situationally appropriate sound nice in a vacuum, but these styles have to be studied, purchased, and enacted.

If Normcore promises peace by virtue of not having to think so much about what you’re wearing then the kind of radical adaptability they’re celebrating ignores economic and social realities. YOUTH MODE claims, “Normcore knows your consumer choices aren’t irrelevant, they’re just temporary. People compromise, people are inconsistent. Making one choice today and a conflicting choice tomorrow doesn’t make you a hypocrite.” Radical adaptability, though, requires a particular kind of restraint in making sure you’re correctly adapting to the “situation at hand.” You can’t very well be the mascot at the NASCAR race without purchasing the suit. Erving Goffman covered all of this in 1959 with his seminal work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman argued that as individuals we function as social actors with the agency to choose how we present ourselves in front of a given audience (e.g. adaptability). Goffman claimed the goal in these presentations is making sure that within each presentation for its specific audience, the social actors keep face—there are no cracks in the façade—they remain legible given the agreed upon rules of social and cultural engagement. If “Normcore seeks the freedom that comes with non-exclusivity [and] finds liberation in being nothing special…[realizing] that adaptability leads to belonging,” then it’s failing to recognize the sociological realities of the inherently performative self—that belonging is only coherent when it fits to the situation’s terms, and this is not a liberating proposal—it’s decisive.

But, back to Franco. He describes himself as the “selfie king” in his New York Times editorial, “The Meanings of the Selfie.” He notes that the celebrity selfie garners more attention, and “Attention is power. And if you are someone people are interested in, then the selfie provides something powerful, from the most privileged perspective possible.” For those of us who aren’t famous, “a selfie might make everything clear in an instant. Selfies are tools of communication more than marks of vanity (but yes, they can be a little vain).” It’s this “but,” that’s the kicker, the realistic death-knell at the philosophical heart of Normcore: in giving an account of ourselves—and yes, the selfie counts nowadays—the performative calculus is always there, with the selfie maybe it’s the lighting, the place, the time, etc. There is—at base—a desire to be acknowledged, validated, even celebrated—but this celebration differs from the kind Normcore demands because it is not in service of “being nothing special,” it’s in being culturally legible. If Normcore claims it is “post-authenticity,” then it must also justify being post-performative, post-reception, post-caring. At that point, it might as well just go post-human, post-reality.

It is then Normcore’s view of Freedom that comes into question. The very name of their pseudo-manifesto is “A REPORT ON FREDOM.” The creators of K-HOLE in Duncan’s interview for Bullett concede they don’t have a static definition of Freedom; it’s shifting, which is actually in line with the concept of Normcore as constant, radical flux. The truth of their definition via their logic, though, is that Freedom becomes the paradox of radical denial/embracing a socio-political vacuum while shamelessly co-opting whatever is around. Freedom, though, is ultimately as empty a signifier as Normal. Slavoj Zizek writes in The Ticklish Subject:

The Universal is empty, yet precisely as such always-already filled in, that is, Hegemonized by some contingent particular content that acts as its stand in—in short, each Universal is the battleground on which the multitude of particular contents fight for hegemony…no content of the Universal…could be effectively neutral…All positive content of the Universal is the contingent result of hegemonic struggle—in itself, the Universal is absolutely empty.

The irony of Freedom’s constant shifting as a non-definition for K-HOLE is that’s precisely its definition. Yet, as with all empty Universals, the battle of particulars have their temporary victors. It is not radical blankness, but ultimately a hegemonic idea of Radical Blankness that will come to define Normcore’s version of Freedom. This, in effect, collapses the four poles from the diagram onto themselves. Difference ends up being the only concept that remains. Appropriation without consideration will become its own brand of Difference as quickly as the beards of Williamsburg can grow in the fraternities of rural Oklahoma. And how can blankness retain empathy when, at its core, there is an inescapable emptiness which, contrary to what K-HOLE claims about Normcore’s capacity to breed connectivity, in fact breeds a necessary ambivalence to context? Blind cultural appropriation actually suggests a lack of empathy in failing to recognize the implications of the styles you’ve adopted.

It seems like, really, Normcore is like someone yelling Riot! in a museum and amidst the chaos everyone loots the gift shop—not the galleries.

Everybody’s tired. That’s what I ultimately make of Normcore. 2014 rolled around, and I thought oh man, we’re going to have to keep tweeting aren’t we? Monahan said, “There’s an exhaustion from trying to be different from everyone else, and a certain level of pointlessness.” We check in on our e-mails, our Likes, Retweets, who is Following who, and this is just before getting out of bed to face the day. It makes sense that all this work to distinguish ourselves might be for naught—perhaps it’s true—but identifying with the fatigue of postmodernity doesn’t foreclose the need to be cognizant of how the ways in which we are told to live (whether we ascribe to them or not) ignore the realities that aren’t, and never will be, pointless.

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