How much did you pay for your identity?
There's a magazine that you can find at any Barnes & Noble,
Borders, or similar bookstore. It's called The Fader.1 It
looks cool. It's a member of the Independent Press Association,
an organization that, according to their Web site, " . . .
promotes and supports independent publications committed to social
justice and a free press."2 Recent
issues of The Fader featured the White Stripes and the Strokes
on the cover. Past issues featured Beck, Roni Size, Outkast, Finley
Quaye, Björk, and Bob Marley. The magazine has published pieces
on cool things – extreme bike construction and an article
titled "The Commodification of Xicano Culture." It seems
socially conscious. Recent articles focused on the Zapatistas,
AIDS in Africa, and environmental racism. That's good, right? It's
diverse. It's progressive. And it's published by a marketing firm
called Cornerstone Promotion,3 which
just so happens to represent Roni Size, Outkast, Finley Quaye,
and the Strokes.
It's easy to find this out. Compare The Fader's masthead to Cornerstone's
staff. The names are all the same. The contact addresses and phone
numbers are identical. And Anthony Holland, assistant publisher
of The Fader and vice president of Cornerstone, is the administrative,
technical, and billing contact for both domain names.4 Cornerstone's
site lists The Fader as one of its lifestyle clients and as one
of Cornerstone's friends.
It's really quite a brilliant strategy. Cornerstone bills its
promotions clients for publicity. It sells ad space in what amounts
to a catalog for its clients and then sells the product to consumers
who think they're buying a magazine. Unless you poke around Cornerstone's
site and start reading The Fader's masthead, it's unlikely that
you'll ever learn otherwise. And it's really quite simple: people
who read The Fader are reading content that can't even pretend
to be objective. Frankly, The Fader's readers would find more objectivity
in a press release. At least you know where a press release comes
However, this story doesn't begin with The Fader. It begins in
the 1980s. It begins in a suburb of San Diego called El Cajon,
a city best known for producing crystal meth and Lester Bangs,
and it begins, for lack of a better place to start, with a store
called Gamma Gamma.
Gamma Gamma is all but forgotten now. It has
been gone for so many years that I don't remember when it closed.
It occupied a storefront on Main Street that now houses a kid's
furniture store. It was part of a small regional chain that sold
things to goths and punks: Manic Panic hair dye, fishnets, studded
belts, Doc Martens. You get the idea. It had a small but loyal
clientele. It was a place where people could buy unique clothes
and know that they weren't likely to see the same garment on
someone else. It reflected the local flavor and the style of the
smaller communities where the stores were located. Most greater
metropolitan regions had a store like Gamma Gamma; perhaps you
shopped at yours. Maybe yours still exists. Mine doesn't. Many
have been gone for years and replaced by national chains in malls
that offer no regional variety. They offer the same mass-marketed
styles for consumption across the country with no individuality
and nothing to reflect the local character. And that is where this story
In 1979, Dick Hebdige published a book called Subculture: The
Meaning of Style, a detailed and insightful study of what fashion
means to subcultures and how style communicates. In 1979, it was
far too early for Hebdige to write authoritatively about punk,
a style that had only recently come to attention, but he was able
to observe the common characteristics of other subcultures (most
notably mods, skins, and teds) and the role fashion played. Fashion
communicated the differences between the wearer and the viewer
visually; it provided a system of signs that told a story; it revealed,
at a fundamental level, who the wearer was.5
More than 20 years ago, Hebdige observed that subcultural style
could be incorporated into the larger culture, noting that the
fashion pages may publicize the clothes while editorials may attack
the movement. Hebdige further argued that the media plays a key
role in rehabilitating these styles; that the dominant culture
(that is, the mainstream, whatever it may be) is able to incorporate
the subculture by converting the subculture's style to a mass-produced
object (say, a tee shirt), among other methods.6 Hebdige
put it most clearly when he noted that "The creation and diffusion
of new styles is inextricably bound up with the process of production,
publicity and packing which must inevitably lead to the diffusion
of the subculture's subversive power."7 Loosely
translated, you can invent all the new styles you like, no matter
how offensive they may be. Those styles will eventually be mass-produced
and sold back to you at a tidy profit. And this is where Hot Topic
"Hot Topic, Inc. is a mall-based specialty retailer of music-licensed
and music-influenced apparel, accessories and gift items for young
men and women, principally between the ages of 12 and 22. Music-licensed
merchandise includes T-shirts, hats, posters, stickers, patches,
postcards, books, CDs, videos and other items. Music-influenced
merchandise includes woven and knit tops, skirts, pants, shorts,
jackets, shoes, costume jewelry, body jewelry, sunglasses, cosmetics
and gift items. ... Hot Topic also maintains a Web site, www.hottopic.com,
through which it markets its Hot Topic stores, store concept and
sells certain of its merchandise."8
There is a shopping mall in El Cajon called Parkway Plaza. Rather,
its proper name is Westfield Shoppingtown Parkway Plaza. It used
to be a regional mall. Now it's owned by a multinational corporation
that develops, builds and manages a $12.4 billion portfolio of
malls.9 Of course, Westfield's corporate
site prattles on about a distinctive branding strategy that results
in tarting malls up as "shoppingtowns," but maybe I don't
want to experience a cohesive shopping environment manufactured
by a company with a global reputation for quality service. At any
rate, several Westfield properties in San Diego provide a home
to Hot Topic and Parkway Plaza is one of them.
Hot Topic shouldn't be new to anyone. These stores have been around
for several years. The Market Guide description (the italicized
passage above) provides a better description of these stores than
I ever could. It's clear – investors don't have time to read
fluff. They need to know the bare bones details. Hot Topic's 10-K
filing does quite a nice job of summarizing those details. As of
February 3, 2001, Hot Topic operated 274 stores in 45 states,10 and
business at those stores is booming. Year-end revenue for the fiscal
year ending February 2, 2002, was $336.1 million. The average projection
for FY 2003 revenue is $430 million (with average sales growth
of about 27 percent per quarter for this year). Reputable securities
firms such as Robertson Stephens, Bank of America Securities, and
Bear Stearns all recommend taking a position in the stock. Eleven
brokers cover HOTT; of those, five consider it a strong buy and
five others consider it to be merely a buy. 11
These numbers point to only one conclusion — there's money
to be made in selling rebellion (especially if it's packaged and
marketed in a consistent way).
And then there's Spencer Gifts, 12 a
Universal Studios company, 13 which
also finds a home at Parkway Plaza. Spencer Gifts has been around
forever, selling novelty items of various flavors -— clothes,
gag gifts, shot glasses. Spencer's Web site intelligently approaches
its target markets. It groups inexpensive furniture and clocks
under "Dorm Room." It gathers wizard and dragon statues,
among other medieval-themed knick-knacks, under "Enchanted
Forest." And so forth. Spencer Gifts is a great place to find
pentagram jewelry, lava lamps, and Hawaiian shirts decorated with
pot leaves. But how rebellious or radical can it be when Vivendi
Universal owns the store and sells that Hawaiian shirt for $39.99?
Fundamentally, there's nothing wrong with rebellion. The problem
with Hot Topic and Spencer Gifts' vision of resistance is that
it's sanctioned by corporations which in turn profit from that
resistance. In addition, while regional stores (such as Gamma Gamma)
emphasize diversity of expression, Hot Topic and Spencer Gifts
depends on a lack of diversity. They depend on offering the same
products everywhere. So let's think of rebellion like an ecosystem.
Any biologist can tell you what happens to an ecosystem that lacks
diversity, regardless of why it lacks diversity — that ecosystem
There's really no difference between one Hot Topic and another,
no difference between one Spencer's and another, and there isn't
much difference between Hot Topic and Spencer Gifts. If you wander
into any Hot Topic, you'll see the same types of tattoos and piercings
on the employees and the same merchandise on the walls. The Slipknot
shirt is the same shirt that the Hot Topic across town sells. Hot
Topic sells Clash and CBGB tee shirts for some reason but I'm not
sure that their average customer is old enough to remember the
Clash or know why CBGB is important.14
I realize as I'm sitting in one of Parkway Plaza's courtyards
that the stores have all blurred together and the indistinguishable
malls have all been branded so effectively that I can't tell them
apart either. This is merely consumption in a vacuum with no sense
of place. I feel like I'm underwater here; I hear a hollow, echoing
voice ask me if I need assistance. I ask the person in the Westfield
Red15 blazer where I might be able
to find something that isn't contrived or fabricated to seem outrageous
to bored suburban teenagers who affect their carefully constructed
rebellious pose. I ask them where, for lack of a better term, I
might be able to find something real.
"Anyway, I completely digress. The point is, I went to UCLA
to hear and meet Michael Moore, which I did. I got there nice and
early, to ensure that I had a seat, and sat in line reading 'Trust
Us, We're Experts.' I felt so subversive, standing there in my OBEY
tee shirt, wearing a backpack filled with controversial books, waiting
to hear this guy who so many überconservatives hate."16
Wil Wheaton, who you might know better as Wesley Crusher from Star
Trek fame, has a Web log. 17 He writes
in it nearly every day. He wrote the above passage some months ago.18 Wil
seems like a very nice guy; he leans to the left and seems fairly
politically active, but these lines from his Web log illustrate part
of the problem with modern rebellion: it's about wearing the right
shirt and reading the right book. It's really no different than getting
past the velvet rope because you're sporting Manolo Blahniks or a
Welcome to the culture industry.
It's possible to think of culture as art, literature, and music.
It's more realistic to think of culture as the commercial messages
that surround us. It's more accurate to think of culture as the machinery
hidden behind the gleaming façade of commerce. It's more honest
to think of culture as the process that makes you desire things.
The culture industry is, simply put, every commercial message you've
ever received, whether it's an ad, an alligator on a polo shirt,
or a signature on a pair of jeans. And until you recognize its symptoms – such
as people buying a tee shirt with a logo on it, effectively paying
to become an advertisement – you can't get out of it.
This may be hard to swallow. After all, you're different, right?
Maybe you ignore marketing or don't believe ads. Maybe you think
you're beyond the reach of commercial messages. Maybe you keep your
mental environment pure. And maybe that doesn't even matter anymore.
After all, the culture industry provides something for everyone.20 It
not only provides for how different you are, it emphasizes and encourages
that difference. The culture industry wants you to know that you're
an individual, that you are unique, that you are a snowflake.21 It
will create products that speak to who you are, that will accentuate
your differences, and it will make sure that those objects fall within
your price range.
There is a profound difference between culture and the culture industry.
The culture industry segments and divides people into groups for
easier marketing and sales; culture struggles against this process.
As Theodor Adorno notes, "Culture, in the true sense, did not
simply accommodate itself to human beings; but it always simultaneously
raised a protest against the petrified relations under which they
lived."22 What are these relations?
Class distinctions. Cliques. Popularity. Anything based on a label,
a brand, or a commodity — in short, anything produced (whether
directly or as a byproduct) by the culture industry — is a
petrified relation that strangles everyone it touches. And the culture
industry enforces these petrified relations with an iron will. It
depends on their continued existence.
Perhaps Kalle Lasn expressed this more clearly when he wrote, "Our
stories, once passed from one generation to the next by parents,
neighbors and teachers, are now told by distant corporations with
'something to sell as well as to tell.' Brands, products, fashions,
celebrities, entertainments' — the spectacles that surround
the production of culture — are our culture now. Our role is
mostly to listen and watch — and then, based on what we have
heard and seen, to buy."23
Yet in the early 1990s, thousands of young women realized that the
culture industry wasn't speaking to them or their concerns and they
reacted by making their own music and their own zines. Rather than
accepting the culture industry's products, they created culture.
It was a spontaneous outburst of creativity that occurred outside
the culture industry's systems; because the women refused to talk
about it, the culture industry could only accommodate the most superficial
So, riot grrrl morphed into girl power which in turn gave birth
to the Spice Girls which then became glittering slogans on baby
tees at J.C. Penney. The culture industry appropriated the rebellion
of bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, wrapped it up in a cute,
easily marketable package, and sold it to the masses in the young
teens department without ever explaining where it came from or
what it meant to the people who most needed to know. While the cultural
revolution that bands such as Fifth Column and Huggy Bear advanced
still exists and is every bit as relevant today, the culture industry pushed
it aside — in favor of printed shirts.
Whither Rebel Culture? Or, the Closing of the Frontier
"Rebellion makes no sense without repression; we must remain
forever convinced of capitalism's fundamental hostility to pleasure
in order to consume capitalism's rebel products as avidly as we do."24
By now, it should be obvious that the culture industry recognizes no limits
or boundaries and that profit is its only guide. Stores owned by major corporations
can sell whatever makes money with impunity ––nothing threatens
the system.25 No amount of Rage Against the Machine
albums will bring the culture industry down; instead, the culture industry
profits from Rage Against the Machine and grows stronger.26
It's hard to imagine a rebellion that can't be marketed or that
the culture industry won't pander to. In fact, the culture industry
is able to absorb trends more quickly and the time it needs to assimilate
a trend is decreasing. Styles that were radical only a year or two
ago — such as piercings and tribal tattoos –– are
now seen in ads. And so we move on, breaking new ground and setting
out for new frontiers only to find that there are no frontiers left
to explore. We rebel in different ways and the culture industry always
follows, documenting our ink, scars, and clothing.
Our revolution has been branded. It will not be televised. It will
be marketed by street teams. We will feel cool because the people
who sell it to us seem hip. We are unlikely to notice the inflated
price because we will feel edgy or alternative. We will feel as though
our consumption somehow confers outsider status, that it makes us
somehow different from people who shop at The Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch.
We will feel that we — are snowflakes. And we will be wrong.
am not treading new ground. These observations are not revolutionary.
In fact, by now they should be common sense. It's quite clear at
this point that revolution lies in the ability to accessorize.
And I'm just waiting for Tommy Hilfiger to come out with a Black
Bloc line of clothing.
How do I know this? Because I was a ghost writer for a recent edition
of the leading advertising textbook, a book which tells enterprising,
earnest, and greedy young college students how to sell things to
you. Because I've done marketing work for companies that want to
turn you into a lifelong customer who can't live without their brand.
Because I've written ads and designed images that pollute your mental
And because I'm not that different from you.
Soul Rebel Sound
So here I am at the end of the story. I want to bring things back
to Gamma Gamma somehow, to complete the circle, but Gamma Gamma is
long gone. I'm left standing here, staring at a kid's furniture store
and wondering what it means to rebel when the method of rebellion
that a large number of kids choose merely lines the pockets of major
corporations. I'm left wondering what significance, if any, such
a rebellion has.
I can't shake the sneaking suspicion that rebelling in these common
ways — buying a Dead Kennedy's tee shirt at Hot Topic, for
example28 — is meaningless, that
the only meaningful rebellion occurs between the ears, not between
the changing rooms and cash register. Then I think about some of
the kids I know. I just got email from Henry today; he's talking
about taking his principal to court so that he can wear his mohawk
up. Jen is still fighting with her school district over the curriculum;
she's graduating early to get to college that much sooner. And suddenly,
things don't seem so bad.
After all, maybe Tommy Hilfiger will put his name on a designer
brick. So what if he does? It will still be going through a window,
and maybe, if justice smiles that day, through the window of the
store that sold it.
Adorno, Theodor W. The Culture Industry. 1991. London: Routledge,
Frank, Thomas C., and Weiland, Matt, eds. Commodify Your Dissent. New York:
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1997.
Frank, Thomas C. The Conquest of Cool. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press,
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. 1979. London: Routledge, 1989.
Horkheimer, Max, and Adorno, Theodor W. Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1944. New
York: Continuum, 2000.
Klein, Naomi. No Logo. New York: Picador USA, 1999.
Lasn, Kalle. Culture Jam. New York: Quill, 2000.
1 - http://www.thefader.com
4 - The easiest way to get registrant information for a domain name – and
this is something that anyone can do – is to visit any Web
site that will let you do a– "whois" lookup (I used networksolutions.com).
For thefader.com, Mr. Holland listed his company as Cornerstone.
For Cornerstone, he listed it as Tangerine Music.
5 - "The tensions between dominant and subordinate groups can
be found reflected in the surfaces of subculture – in the styles
made up of mundane objects which have a double meaning. On the one
hand, they warn the ‘straight' world in advance of a sinister
presence' – the presence of difference – and draw down
upon themselves vague suspicions, uneasy laughter, ‘white and
dumb rages.' On the other hand, for those who erect them into icons,
who use them as words or curses, these objects become signs of forbidden
identity, sources of value." (Hebdige 3)
6 - Hebdige also identifies labeling and redefining as methods to
bring the subculture back into the dominant culture. If the mainstream
chooses to transform a subculture into a spectacle – Hebdige
uses the example of soccer hooligans – then labeling applies
as commentators call football fans "animals." By so doing,
the mainstream effectively ostracizes the subculture permanently.
By redefining the subculture, the mainstream can then bring it back
into the fold — and profit from it.
7 - Hebdige 95
8 - Hot
9 - Westfield has announced the acquisition of 22 more malls, representing
an increase of their portfolio value to $15.3 billion. It is also
worth noting that almost all of Westfield's malls in San Diego were
acquired from TrizecHahn, a company divesting retail centers to focus
on office space. TrizecHahn was originally founded by the principals
behind Barrick Corporation, one of the world's leading gold producers,
who then purchased Clark, the fourth largest independent oil refining
company, in 1988.
10 - This is nearly double the number of stores that Hot Topic was
operating at the end of 1998.
11 - Information current as of 4/21/2002.
12 - http://www.spencergifts.com/
13 - As a member of the Universal Studios family, this means that
Spencer Gifts is a part of the Vivendi Universal conglomerate, which
also includes DGC, Canal+, Decca Records, MP3.com, and Universal
Studios. Vivendi is also active in utilities, construction, and communications
ventures – specifically music (Limp Bizkit, Nine Inch Nails,
U2), film (E.T., A Beautiful Mind), pay-TV, telecommunications, and
Internet properties. Taking it further down the rabbit hole, Vivendi
Environnement is a 63 percent effectively owned subsidiary of Vivendi
Universal and is the world leader in environmental services with
operations in over 100 countries and a focus on water, waste management,
energy, and transportation.
14 - In this example, the signs (i.e. the Clash, CBGB) are effectively
divorced from meaning; people wear them because they signify an abstract
concept called "punk," not because they have any personal
connection to the band or the club.
15 - If this isn't a color yet, it probably will be. Look for it
in the new Pantone swatch book.
16 - Wil
17 - http://www.wilwheaton.net/
18 - Oddly enough, Moore was in San Diego around the same time.
Moore claims that he was nearly arrested because some police officers
asked him, at 11 PM, to leave the premises of the school where he
was appearing. The story behind that request is that a couple of
custodians had to clean the building and didn't want to work all
night. This somehow became a near arrest.
19 - Please keep in mind that I'm not attacking Wil or anyone else
mentioned in this article. I'm merely noting that a Shepard Fairey
shirt and a copy of Trust Us, We're Experts do not a rebellion make.
20 - "Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films,
or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not
so much on subject matter as on classifying, organizing, and labeling
consumers. Something is provided for all so that none may escape;
the distinctions are emphasized and extended." (Horkheimer and
21 - Cf. Tyler Durden, "Fight Club."
22 - Adorno 100.
23 - Lasn xiii.
24 - Frank and Weiland 35.
25 - Frank and Weiland 36.
26 - It's worth noting that the participation of bands such as Rage
Against the Machine effectively legitimizes the culture industry;
by releasing records via this system, the band essentially supports
the culture industry while helping to build still more barricades
to protect it from attack, regardless of their political intent.
Intent, in this case, is irrelevant. The effects only make the culture
industry stronger in tangible (monetary) and intangible (the perception
of being radical, street credibility) ways.
27 - "We were born to do much more than sit around and feed
the doom / With one hand clutching dollars / And the other clutching
wounds." – One Time Angels
28 - If it weren't questionable to buy a tee shirt of a band that
hasn't existed in more than 15 years, it's certainly questionable
to wear a DKs shirt in light of the recent events between Jello Biafra
and the other band members – what, pray tell, is the message
that the shirt's wearer is trying to send? That they support greed?