Square to be Hip
Art by Blake Jones
[T]he machinery of consumerism depended on the allure of nonconformity.
- Thomas Frank, Harper’s, December 2013
You see them on the freeway, it don’t look like a lot of fun
But don’t you try to fight it, an idea whose time has come
- Huey Lewis and the News, “Hip to be Square”
Everything they say about normcore is true, all of it.
What’s that? You haven’t heard of normcore? The recent trend (or is it a parody of a trend?) where all the young “creative-types” in Brooklyn are dressing like suburban parents, like celebrities attempting to go incognito, like middle-American tourists, like a guidance counselor from 1982, like Jerry Seinfeld, like Houstonians, like Tina Fey, like smugglers trying to keep a low profile because they’re conveying contraband. Khakis, cargo shorts, “mom” or “dad” jeans, white running shoes, fleece jackets, fanny packs, baseball caps, and white socks with sandals.
Well, it’s happening. Maybe. In any case, since New York Magazine published the article “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion” on February 26, 2014, more than 1.5 million articles about it have appeared on the internet. The term was coined by a NY-based “trend forecasting collective” called K-Hole, in their trend report/conceptual art piece “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom”, which they presented at London’s world-renowned Serpentine Gallery on October 19th of last year.
More than 1.5 million articles in three months. Of those million articles, I would recommend four for sure: 1) K-Hole’s brilliantly playful primary text, 2) Fiona Duncan’s New York Magazine piece that brought it to national attention, 3) Thomas Frank’s and 4) R. Jay Magill, Jr.’s keen insights on Salon, and maybe 5) Alex Williams’s take in The New York Times.
Whether K-Hole’s piece was meant to be serious or cheeky, whether “normcore” is something real or a hoax or a just a ruse to sell $400 mom jeans, it has struck a nerve — even the ultra-fashionable French and Italians are writing about it. It is probably too soon to say, and I am willing to be wrong, but I have strong desire to read the ascendance of normcore as an early symptom of a profound change coming in our culture. Normcore could be pointing to the potential death of “cool.”
In his 1997 book The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Thomas Frank analyzes the history of advertising to illustrate how the concept of the counter-cultural, non-conformist, rule-breaking, rebel (“cool”) individual is at the heart of consumer culture. It has been since the 1960s, since the very birth of the counterculture.
“I don’t want to blend in and be indistinguishable,” goes the King Missile song. “I want to be a part of the different crowd, and assert my individuality along with the others who are different like me.”
“Cool” is a rejection of middle-class conformity, but the middle-class is disappearing. Words like “revolution” are much more likely to appear in contemporary business/marketing texts than in sociological or political contexts.
Magill’s Salon piece calls normcore the synthesis of irony and sincerity (or “snark vs smarm,” as Gawker editor Tom Scocca would have it). “[N]onconformity has finally run its course,” writes Magil, and 17 years after The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank’s recent Salon article affirms my suspicion. “This has the potential,” writes Frank, “if we are very, very lucky, to bring about the cultural-commercial Armageddon that some of us have wished for…a complete collapse of the imperium of cool.
But why now? Why is this the moment for the death of a concept which has been the very core of American mythology for over 50 years?
I would like to think that this decreased interest in superficial vestiges of individuality are somehow tied to the decline of American exceptionalism: the idea that the United States is singularly unique among nation states-that we are a “shining city on the hill,” a beacon for the oppressed, and Officer Friendly on the world stage.
The analogy that I am trying to force is that as the “rebel/cool” brand and the thrust of fashion, in general, bears some relation to “individual exceptionalism” (I am a special snowflake.), the emergence of this “uncool” trend (normcore) at a time when “American exceptionalism” appears to be on the descendent may be more than coincidental. Today’s youth can see very clearly that ours is not the only country with class mobility, economic opportunity, and democratic freedoms. In fact, some of those other countries provide their people education and healthcare on top of all that other stuff. We’re just another developed, first-world, representative democracy among many others like us. (This is where I, as a brown-skinned man, have to emphasize that I do not wish for the demise of the United States-I wish for my country to relax and cool its jets, literally, because this delusion of American Exceptionalism is destroying us.)
As Millennials look at their future prospects, at shrinking economic opportunities against a mountain of debt, at the only global military superpower mired in two wars that are bleeding it dead, I want to believe that the kids are thinking, “Wait a minute, my country is not as unique and singular as its mythology has always taught me, and maybe I am not a special snowflake, either. Maybe we are all just bumbling along as best we can and there’s better work to be done than strut around like a peacock to disguise the fact that I actually feel really insecure inside.”
That’s my theory, for now, at least.
POSTSCRIPT: I have had two painfully “hip” friends tell me recently that they have abandoned indie/underground music in favor of “pop” recently, and I think that bears some relation to the ascendance of normcore -whatever that is worth.
UPDATE: A scrub would be the quintessential #normcore.