On the t-shirt thing

The other week I drove past an elderly hippie. She was wandering down the middle of a busy round, carrying a bunch of flowers, wearing robes and a vacant gaze, completely oblivious to the passing cars. I thought to myself ‘yes…there’s one who has exited the arena of reality’. I found myself wondering where she was going in life. Maybe she was trying to open a shop that sells magic rocks, because Leeds is spiritually and physically lacking in shops that sell magic rocks. But she probably couldn’t get the start-up loan finalised, because her love of magic rocks had completely divorced her from the mental skills required to negotiate a bank loan.

Why I am wittering on about this poor woman? Because I knew when I saw her that her cultural preoccupations had completely barred her from participating in life. Whether that be a normal quiet life, or one that changes society for the better, or one that does anything at all to society. She had drifted so far from any standards of pragmatism that society had become entirely indifferent to her existence.

So I had a think about how to approach the t-shirt wearing thing, but I quickly realised it fell under a broader generational trend I like to call: WEB 2.0 RUINED EVERYTHING. Ok, it didn’t, but it sure seems to be around whenever stuff goes wrong. To elaborate, inter-generational conflict has been a common talking point both on the ground and in academia since the invention of the teenager. As one generation gets absorbed into the workforce, they shift from antagonists to the status quo, to apathetic, and eventually with middle age they find themselves defending it. So conventional wisdom goes.

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Our age is preoccupied with generational divides. Generation Y – born in the 1980s and early 1990s – are the first post-war generation to be poorer than their parents. Apparently they leave home later, remain in education for longer, and despite this still struggle to find gainful employment, save money, and aspire to home ownership. This has led to much analysis on Generation Y’s differing aspirations. They crave experience, shun material wealth, and face a pitched battle against global catastrophe.

But why is it that many commentators are still referring to them as a new phenomenon? Bearing in mind that older Generation Yers have been in the workforce and paying taxes for well over a decade now. I believe one answer lies in their persistent antagonism to the existing order. It goes far beyond a bit of youthful rebellion before full assimilation into the machine. The values and lifestyles of Generation Y are threatening to undermine the natural order of things. Stability, economic growth, all come at a terrible cost they are not prepared to pay.

Is this for real? Or is it a blip? After all, every generation likes to think that it’s living through times of great significance. It gives purpose to our lives. Believing that society’s mortality is timetabled with our own offers comfort to the godless.

So far, so trivial. Aside from the current political upheavals, the warped maturation of Generation Y has led to a proliferation of nauseating bittersweet humour. It has given rise to terminology that conflates a genuine impetuous to change the status quo….with dicking around cos you’re scared of the real world. ‘Adulting’ is now a verb, used to celebrate the completion of a basic task like paying a bill or painting a wall. But behind the apparently harmless memes is a more serious pathology. The line between demanding that the world be other than it is and demanding that the world be nothing less than exactly what you want it to be is blurring.

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It can even be sold back to you

Of course, legislating on the correct way to change the world is a bit beyond my remit. I could stand on my soapbox and declare that ending institutionalised discrimination is not the same as the right to dress like a tit. Or that increased representation in film requires more than celebrating a series of subpar yet diversely casted films (films that just happen to be directed by a conveyor belt of white guys). But the real stakes are much higher. What’s really at stake is WHEN SHOULD METALHEADS GROW UP AND STOP WEARING BAND T-SHIRTS EVERYDAY?!

In travelling back from Brutal Assault Festival we had an afternoon to kill in Prague before our flights home. We stopped off in a bar for a meal and some beers. After a while a solitary metalhead walked in and took the adjacent table. We glanced across and noted his t-shirt. The front print was a photograph of a man having bloody sex with the corpse of a decapitated woman, with all the bits and pieces clearly on display and all covered in blood. A photograph I will re-iterate. Despite many dirty looks from the other clientele, to my surprise the staff did not ask him to leave, and he was served a beer.

Now common wisdom holds that alternative dress is all well and good until it conflicts with common decency laws. Me and my friends collect metal t-shirts, some are silly, some are mildly offensive, some are non-descript. The point is that we know where the line is. But…we still wear them, and I for one will continue to wear them…as the default thing I wear. It’s part of my love of the music.

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I have no idea where the line is

So let’s go a step further back and ask…what is the love of this music? Not, ‘why do you like it?’ but rather…how serious is this love, and is it preventing you from…well, growing up? Is wearing band t-shirts (or *insert external expression of youth subculture here*) an important expression of my love for a neo-romantic, transcendental sonic philosophy, or is it a childish and pig-headed refusal to grow up and face the world? ‘Sure, have your metal, but it’s just a quaint little hobby on the side and not the defining aspect of your life…cos you realise that would be kind of pathetic right?’

Questioning whether a cultural pre-occupation prevents a person from ‘growing up’ starts from the premise that there is an ideal life to aspire to. For Generation Y this is not marriage, kids, and a house, this is living a life of experience, maybe one that betters the world we live in along the way. People that aspire to this life are not called adults because caring about moral causes is not what adults do. Adults buy things, own things, accumulate wealth, and spawn. Increasingly unattractive prospects for Generation Y, so to give themselves distance from these activities, they apply a veil of irony, and call it ‘adulting’. But adults don’t wake up one day and stop consuming culture, nor does it stop enriching and changing their lives in profound ways. So are we simply saying that classical music and Shakespeare are superior to Iron Maiden and Marvel? Or are we saying Iron Maiden is all well and good but don’t wear the shirt?

Let’s take the most famous case study in ‘adulting’ in popular culture as an example: Friends. Ross is generally considered the most cultural character, because he likes art and foreign cinema. The show implies that although this is more boring, it’s more mature than Chandler…who likes cartoons, Monica…who likes cooking, Rachel…who likes fashion, Joey…who likes sports, and Phoebe…who likes hippie stuff. Towards the finale of series five Ross delays joining the group in Las Vegas to visit a van Gogh exhibit. He spends the night prior studying in preparation. A teenager wears their cultural preferences on their person, an adult like Ross studies and goes to museums. His adult approved cultural interests compliment his positive characteristics; prudent, has a kid, financially responsible.

Let’s set aside a tedious discussion of the value of museums and theatre over gigs and cinemas, and instead take as a starting point an agreed fact: culture is fundamental to human existence. Different people express this in different ways. But these are not categorical differences, they are part of a spectrum. And I think there is a danger of letting people like this:

…or my offensive t-shirt wearing metalhead, ruin it for the rest of us. The pathology that has given rise to the ‘manchild’ is not a problem with the culture they participate in…it’s a problem with the people. It’s a problem with turning an uncritical eye on culture, and letting it completely distort life’s priorities.

At their best, alternative cultures enrich the soul, create communities of support, motivate people to be better versions of themselves, they make life worth living. At their worst they bar people from affecting any change at all, neutering us into crying over film trailers and vacantly carrying flowers down a busy main road.

There are many different lifestyles to be found along the vast spectrum that stretches between these two points. And somewhere in the middle is a metalhead wearing a band t-shirt cos he likes the band.

One thought on “On the t-shirt thing

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