PARTY OUT OF BOUNDS
First impressions are everything; from how you wear your hair, to the logo on your tee shirt, like it or not, you are giving off all sorts of visual cues. For instance, if you put on a Supreme hat, then all of the sudden you are telling a kind of story. Simple, strong, stark, and to the point. Perfectly branded.
Our cultural codes have been digitized and easily massed produced, leaning on the twisted psychological game of unannounced product drops and influencer marketing to make up for their dreary superficiality. Their power lies in their ability to communicate these brand stories, and the goal is to play on inclusivity while fooling the new youth into believing these manufactured stories are theirs. It's an inversion of the concept of self expression, yet branding, while personal or corporate, has become the only language we speak.
But before there were Yeezy’s, #MYCALVINS, or the Balmain Army, the cultural codes were less purposefully organized. Meaning, the way people knew who you were, what you stood for, where you came from and where you might go, was told through the codes of a different system, though a system nonetheless.
Youth culture used to have an analog method of sharing and following, and the signaling was not done through the ubiquitous, but rather, the obscure. In other words, being in the know itself was a signal. Whether it was a concert t-shirt, an album cover, a sticker on a skateboard, a pin on a backpack, or how you wore your collar, these visual signals were more aloof, and the game was to possess the most knowledge about the things least known. Where now we have brands, once we had bands.
In his new piece, Charles Moss describes how in the late ’70’s, back in the days when state colleges were still free, there were countrywide campus clashes between the alternative culture of misfit creative kids and those who believed in fraternity animal house values. Eventually, “liking bands such as The Replacements, Guadalcanal Diary, Camper Van Beethoven, They Might Be Giants and Galaxie 500 was a way to reject the mainstream.”
And as Moss describes, in the once unheard of town of Athens, Georgia, this embrace of self expression turned into a 1977 Valentine's Day Party, that shall we say, was a bit out of bounds; that fateful night, when a group of these very same misfit kids, in their crazy wigs and makeup, raised their voices and shouted out to the world, we, too are here. “It was a way to flip off the conservative frat boy and sorority girl image that permeated college campuses and alienated students in Reagan’s America, much the same way punk and new wave did in the late ’70's after Kent State and Nixon’s resignation.”
The B-52’s were representative of those trapped in a college world that was dominated by Greek life with frat boys shotgunning beers and themed parties full of “tennis hoes and golf pros.” So it’s no wonder that those who didn’t fit into the strict, preppy confines of Greek life needed to find their own scene.
“It was these last few restless years of the Me Decade, way before the nerds started getting their revenge, that paved the way for the power of the '80’s alternative music scene. It took a bunch of misfits and art kids sprinkled across American college campuses, mixed with a shared love of all things DIY to create the kind of art and music they themselves were inspired by. And just like that, Alternative Culture was born.” Read The Deadbeat Club
With our continuing cultural battle raging on all around us and the seriousness of the results of our looking away for far too long, the legacy of the power of legacies and the paradox of the patriarchy has brought us to a serious impasse. We, as a society, must face this down. But for now, the ongoing American frat party itself has stepped way out of bounds. Not everyone accepts the rules of preppy life, which is okay, and more than very welcomed right about now. Just like the B-52’s described, a lot of us just want to hang out and dance. It's just a bit harder to tell which side you’re on when everyone is all of the sudden wearing the same damn hat.
When it comes to understanding the cultural codes we use in our lives, it helps, of course, to have a guide book. So in terms of the status quo in the era of Reagan and his moralistic, elitist, and hypocritical value system, that guide was the infamous and hysterically funny, The Official Preppy Handbook.
Published in 1980, it was meant as a parody, which as always, resonates today as hardly funny at all. It was a step by step guide to a privileged life as defined by the mantra greed is good and an embrace of boarding school aesthetics and country club rules and regulations. It described what to wear, what to read, the correct schools, names, and ambitions that would be everyone's key to success, whether or not you were to the manor born.
It celebrated the final triumph of the well-off conservative aesthetic over the counterculture, after two decades of wrangling with its ’60’s revolutionary roots and its Me Decade ’70’s let-it-all-hang-out nihilism. It was as if the Preppy ethos, with its well defined role placement and devotion to the system, stamped out any questioning, anything that wasn’t establishment. It was designed to keep dirty societal truths buried under L.L. Bean catalogues and summer reading lists.
According to co-author Jonathan Roberts, “The subversive idea behind it was if you can reveal all of the secret systems and totems by which a portion of society keeps its elite status, you kind of pull the rug out from under them.” Except the rug is still beneath us all. And it’s not funny anymore. We are haunted everyday by what we decided as a society to accept, and are currently facing down the reality of what happens when when the hierarchy is challenged. We might just need a new handbook.