Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pop Culture Musings: Alternative Cultures

It used to be that being part of an alternative subculture meant something. Today, anyone who's seen Ghost World can call themselves a punk and anyone who hasn't bathed in a few days and has a Hot Topic gift card can be a hipster. Like everything we know and love (Beatles and Stones songs, BDSM wear, homosexuality, etc.) it has fallen under the care of Corporations. Follow my blog and see how The Man(TM) decided to use hip and alternative subcultures to appeal to even the most well respected man about town.

Living Dead Dolls and Living Dead babies

What are they? Relatively small dolls you can buy in Hot Topic or Forbidden Planet that have pale clammy skin, demonic expressions, and axe wounds.

Why does corporate love them? To quote Bob Hoskins' character in Unleashed, "Get 'em young, and the possibilities are endless." For the preteen girl who loves Tim Burton and mutilating Barbie but is a little wary of throwing her out just yet--voila! She can transition from doll loving girlhood to cynical goth adolescent. Think of Living Dead Dolls as the equivalent of a Dora the Explorer training bra.

I must confess to a soft spot for these dolls. I was a dark child, though. Back when I used to pore over the American Girl catalog, I always wondered why Kristen's accessories didn't include a few teensy tiny coffins of the siblings that succumbed to dysentery (too much Oregon Trail, I guess).

Emily the Strange.

What is she? She's a stony faced Wednesday Addams doppleganger, who has been appearing on wallets, buttons, purses, t-shirts, and her own book for years now. In the punk tradition of insulting your audience, Emily is associated with stock phrases like "Get lost."

Why does corporate love her? Emily appeals to the little girl who once loved to collect everything everything Lisa Frank ever put her name on. Today, though, said preteen grows weary of her fuzzy pens and her array of unicorn notebooks. And even though she's still polite and would never dream of doing anything truly transgressive (like wearing an "Down with Homework" or "Up with Miniskirts" tee-shirt courtesy of Mad Magazine), Emily gives her a way to both buy into the system and quietly tell the world she's a Bad Seed...without actually hurting anyone's feelings.

In terms of marketing value, Emily the Strange is just as lucrative as Lisa Frank, if not more, because the age range goes from age twelve to eternity. (Plus, you save overhead costs by not having to produce colors other than black or red.)

For parents who still think Emily's a bit too much for their previously wholesome little girls, don't worry about it. In a few decades, they'll be slaves to yet another fad: collecting Anne Geddes portraits and sighing over Alexis's tendency to carry around an alligator and Aaden's wheat allergy.

Twilight themed make up. What is it? The same old song with the same meaning. Different packaging, though. Brands like DuWop Lip Venom and Volturi slapped a Twilight label on them. They have as much to do with vampires as Barbie and Hot Wheels have to do with McNuggets.

Why does corporate love it? It appeals to girls who are too old for dollies but consider themselves a little too cool to be caught dead reading Anne Rice. Twilight's cool, though.

These products serves two purposes. One, it gets a really shoddy lip plumper product that doesn't work out there.

Two, it appeals to the kind of teenage girl who rolled her eyes when her brother renamed himself Azrael and asked her if she wanted to hitchhike to the Meadowlands to see the Cure open for Bruce. I'm talking about the girl who owns a copy of the Sephora Ultimate Guide (autographed by Bobbi Brown), and who saw First Wives Club and immediately begged Daddy for collagen. Sure, next time she's at Barnes and Noble, she won't pick up a copy of The Fall of the House of Usher or Meat is Murder, but she probably will purchase a Twilight New Moon tote bag. And that's what counts.

Pin Up Girl Merchandise. What is it? Pin up art of the forties and fifties is now festooning all kinds of crap like wallets and mugs.

Why does corporate love it? It's easily marketed to the hipster girl in her late teens and early twenties who doesn't want to admit to herself that while she still buys into the beauty myth, she doesn't quite meet the gold standard. After all, not every girl can be a perfect size six with Pacific blue eyes. For the plus sized princess who doesn't quite fit into the tanned hard body ideal, pin ups appeal.

Sure, pin up girls were long legged, pneumatic beauties who only look big compared to say, Keira Knightly. But throw in some shrewd marketing and these girls will start spouting catch phrases like, "Back in the fifties, they appreciated voluptuous women--Marilyn was a size twelve" and "Pin ups girls were empowered!" (Kudos to the Mad Men producers for riding this tide.) And thus, the merchandising continues. I bet Alberto Vargas is wishing he'd branched out into lunch boxes, t-shirts, candy bar wrappers, and bed sheets.

If liking pin ups in general is greatly encouraged by the Powers That Be, liking Bettie Page is even better. Unlike Marilyn, she was a brunette, and nothing says depth and intellect like eschewing a blonde. Add to that the BDSM stuff and guys who see you sporting a Bettie t-shirt will think you're liberated and intellectual about sex.

Porn again. What is it? Many corporations have decided to use commercials that emulate the porn aesthetic. Think the, "We shot this in some forty year old bearded creep's basement and he ogled the girls and paid them cash" look.

Why does corporate love it? We're a generation whose anthem is The Internet is for Porn. Of course, everyone likes to think that they're beyond modesty. Corporations are hip to that, too. Many companies have decided that the new "edgy" is shooting ads that look like they're part of the porn subculture. So you get Calvin Klein ads that look like they're in recrooms who look like they're narrated by a creepy guy who's about a roofie away from turning off the camera and pulling a JonBenet Ramsey.

American Apparel CEO Dov Charney also pioneered the art of taking young underfed darlings, hiring the cinematographers from Fiona Apple's Criminal video, and photographing the bobby socked waifs in decor that John Holmes would find dated.

When you combine the girls who adore pin ups with the jaded "Knowing About Porn = Feminism" perspective and subtract a spine, you also get SuicideGirls, a site for girls who think that an ironic Prince tattoo make up for having ever read a single paragraph of Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, or Gloria Steinem. The models of the site get to post photos of themselves in addition to blogging/live journaling their thoughts for their fans. And yes, people really do care about your opinions about this year's Burning Man and the latest Killers' album. Really.

Tattoos. What is it? The age old phenomenon of body festooned art. Being covered from head to toe in tattoos meant you really were someone at the local Freak Show. It meant that the college boys who came to geek off chicken heads every summer, albino hunchbacked dwarf with no real talents, and the only moderately mustached lady all looked up to you.

Why does corporate love it? If you want to make a TV show about a hot "alterna" chick, and she's got ludicrously square opinions, how else can you make sure the audience knows she's non mainstream? The dyed pink hair only goes so far. That's right! Tattoos.

Today if you look like her, you don't get ostracism from the mainstream and all the hot dogs you can eat at Coney Island. Instead, you get your own TLC TV show and your very own make up line.

Arm Warmers. What are they? Socks with holes on both ends that you put on your arms. Usually they're striped with black and some other color.

Why does corporate love them? Once again, they're designed to appeal to the mainstream kid who wants to look emo but isn't prepared to make all the sacrifices. Want to cut yourself to feel something...but the only problem is that the tempo of your life is more Songs in the Key of Life than How Soon Is Now? Purchase some twenty dollar striped arm warmers and you won't even have to break out the safety razor to gain acceptance into the alternate subculture. You'll be fielding, "Is everything okay at home--wanna rap?" questions your Jeff Rosso esque guidance counselor in no time!

Plaid, polka dots, stripes. What are they? Fairly self explanatory. Judging by Hot Topic and the Hipster Handbook, alternakids love things with stripes and polka dots.

Why does corporate love it? They require very little work to manufacture. And they're great equalizer. Anyone from actual schoolgirls to Gap and Burberry aficionados can pick out a plaid skirt or a polka dotted bra--it's not as daunting as buying thick emo glasses (too thick is Hank Hill, too thin and you start to look like Rachel Leigh Cook--getting that right Elvis Costello/Buddy Holly vibe takes months if not years to perfect).

BDSM wear. What is it? A complex subculture of dominance and submissive relationships, psychology that probably can't be summed up succinctly. For our intents, it means whips, chains, thigh high boots, and corsets galore!,bruno,dayan,fashion,mlf,photography-f5966b731518460c4b55cdd554b002eb_m.jpg

Why does corporate love it? Once again, it's fashion, and that means the outside being more important than any silly little thoughts on the inside. Plus, it's an easy way to push the envelope. Think Madonna's Sex book, or Maggie Gyellenhaal's sassy ass in Secretary.

After all, when the world's most famous virgin wears a three hundred dollar leather daddy get up, you know it's gone Disney.

This post dedicated to all the poseurs (and poseuses) I went to college for four long years with.