It used to be that if you liked a band or genre of music that was a bit outside the mainstream, you would have to put extra effort into sourcing the bits and pieces you needed to make your fandom complete- clothes, albums, posters etc.- they didn’t come easy. The merchandise, collectables and knick-knacks were the gold at the end of a sometimes rather frustrating rainbow which could involve anything from fan club membership; mammoth bus trips to far flung record stores and begging reluctant and bewildered parents to send away for mail-order randomness. For some that was part of the fun but is it a phenomenon that is actually becoming rarer?
When I was 14, it was before the proliferation of the internet (we did have internet but there were only about 8 websites and it took 3-4 hours to download one picture of a band) and therefore getting band merchandise (particularly if you liked punk music) was difficult and involved being very friendly with your local independent record shop owner who could source the stuff you wanted. A band hoodie I got for my 15th birthday was only obtained by my dad driving across the county following a wild goose chase of leads like some sort of voracious private detective. Each store he entered claimed not to have the desired item, but they could give vague directions to another vendor who might be able to help. And so it went on and on until finally after about 11 different shops across 5 towns he managed to find the Holy Grail of hooded garments.
Despite the months it could take to source one iron-on patch, it was well worth the time and effort spent. Finally obtaining that sought after item gave a sense of achievement; of authenticity and camaraderie. You had to put some leg work in if you wanted that Misfits badge- find out the cool places to shop; the friends with connections; agonise over which paraphernalia was worthy of your hard earned pocket money/wages because you couldn’t afford it all. It was work.
Now of course, things are completely different. Our position as consumers and fans has become intertwined- to be a fan IS to be a consumer to varying extents. Merchandise is a big money spinner for most art forms- music; TV and film. And as the sheer amount of tat we can buy has increased, our shopping methods and habits have been revolutionised. We no longer have to run around like loons trying to find a t-shirt; we don’t need to spend hours flipping through a box of vinyl in some charity shop looking for that specific Elvis Costello 7 inch we need and we certainly don’t need to queue up outside the local music venue on a rainy Monday morning for tickets when really we should be at school and/or sitting our GCSE Science exam (this happened to a friend of mine). In fact, now we can get our favourite musician’s ugly mugs on…..well, ugly mugs. And tote bags. And mouse mats. Most things in fact. And all can be ordered from the comfort of your own home. We no longer need to ‘make a day of it’ (as my Nan would say) by going to proper shops and interacting with people. Everything we want is just a click away.
If we do drag ourselves away from the screen and venture out to the shops, then we could still find some actual physical punk artefacts but the may not be in the small, independent shops of yesteryear. Over the years, various major fashion chains have been stocking their rails with everything from Ramones pyjamas to Sid Vicious t-shirts. It is commonplace now to find punk and rock icons emblazoned onto mass-produced vest tops and stashed amongst the Ugg boots and novelty lip gloss. Any teenager with a bit of pocket money can treat themselves to some pre-ripped jeans and go full rock chick.
So the question I want to pose is – is this really a bad thing? We live in a capitalist world and the staunch consumerism that surrounds us makes it inevitable that nothing will be left untouched by the mighty dollar. Where there’s fame, there’s a claim. Many people argue this is what led to the eventual demise of the original punk movement- that once punk became popular, the record companies moved in and commercialised everything, watered it down and destroyed the anarchic, DIY essence that made punk so revolutionary in the first place. And as mass consumerism raged triumphant through society during the 80s, we are now left living in a time where everything can be bought and sold.
Of course, it is not just our beloved punk rock icons whose visages have been sold down the river for a fast buck. Some (rather controversial) political figures have also fallen victim to ironic post -modernism to the point where you can grab a Mao-adorned sweatshirt or a Stalin babygrow for less than 15 quid. The biggest money maker of them all being Argentinian guerrilla fighter Che Guevera who adorns everything from bedspreads to umbrellas. I mean, there can’t be any real harm done if you see someone wearing a Metallica hoodie who clearly has no idea who they are (other than it being really irritating) but maybe, just maybe, wearing an image of someone like Stalin might be a bit tactless. You don’t see many people wearing ironic Hitler t-shirts but maybe that’s what coming next.
There are some positives to all this. It is now easier, faster and cheaper than ever to get the stuff you want. And why shouldn’t you? If you work long hours and your kid wants a My Chemical Romance bedspread or some-such, then it is useful to get it with the click of a mouse and delivered to your door. If you are not able-bodied and don’t find it easy (or even possible) to get to the shops to look for a Rage Against the Machine ashtray, why should you miss out? If you’re an independent artist making watercolour portraits of David Lee Roth then you might struggle to shift them if you don’t access the world wide web. And if a 13 year old Rihanna fan wants to spend her pocket money on a pink Sid Vicious PVC clutch bag because it’s cute, then who does that really impact? Surely the most disturbing aspect of our new anything goes, fast and cheap fashion is the underlying current of exploitation of the workers who make the garments. Compared to that fact, surely we agree there are bigger issues than whether someone has earned the right to own something with a David Bowie image on it?
The drawbacks of course are obvious. Do we want to be that society where everyone’s image and what that image represents is ready to be packaged up and sold back to the masses, regardless of whether it means anything or not? Isn’t this a way of completely destroying culture? By saturating the market with cheap knock offs and meaningless junk do we not just completely undermine the meaning of everything good and true? This new ultra-commercialism is propped up by exploitation and abuse- of workers; of customers; of society and of ideas and values. But…..I once bought a Joey Ramone bobblehead and it was pretty cool. So….swings and roundabouts.
There’s a lot to consider with this and I’m still not sure exactly where I stand so it would be great to hear all your thoughts- are we living in an empty vortex devoid of any philosophy or purpose? Or is there a stick up my arse just because I once saw Strokes t-shirt in Primark?
Either way, I’m off to have a coffee in my Nine Inch Nails mug whilst wearing Martin Luther King slippers.