The following is an essay I wrote in graduate school on April 13, 2005 — exactly 6 years ago today. It is about the harmful dominance of faux-vintage and “retro” items in pop culture. I wrote it for a class called Construction of Taste, and it got an A. I was fairly proud of my A considering the class concerned the philosophy of aesthetics, and philosophy of any kind tends to baffle and irritate me very quickly. I spent much of this course being annoyed and using words like “bullshit” and “masturbatory.” Maybe you’ll use those same words here. I don’t think so, but it’s for you to judge.
I recently found this essay while straightening out my room. This is the kind of litter I have at home: half-decade-old academic papers. As I was straightening out, I flipped through the essay and remembered that at the time I was so proud of this I’d considered adapting it for publication elsewhere. I never got around to that until now, apparently.
A lot has changed in the pop culture since 2005 — some of those changes are prefigured here, actually. Other changes met my predictions and went far, far beyond my wildest nightmares. There’s a section toward the end that could be a massive new essay just by itself. Updating this essay’s references from ’05 to ’11 would be a huge chore, and might ruin the time-capsule quality this has for me, so I’m just going to hack out some of the references, punch up the language to make it less academickish, and footnote it with new information where I think it helps.
It’s very long, in 6 parts, but I hope it’s at least partially interesting. I still believe everything I said here, probably even more deeply now. I think even though this essay is itself a vintage piece it’s entirely relevant in 2011.
1. Changing jeans
There is an enlightening and entertaining essay yet to be written tracking the progress of American capitalism solely through the predominant style of pants.
This is not that essay, not entirely—and yet if I might be indulged, the sundry designs of jeans available during my lifetime might provide an illustrative example of postmodern America’s fascination with itself, of how producers and advertisers ransack our own past to sell it back to us refreshed as kitsch, itself masquerading as “vintage.”
All trends begin with the avant-garde, filter down to the elites and further down to the mainstream where people like you and I meet them—at which point, to separate themselves from the herd and maintain their status as heralds of What’s Cool, the avant-garde rejects the trend, reverses it, and the cycle begins again. I’m not so young that I can’t remember bellbottom pants, although by the time I came along in the late 1970s they had stopped being the uniform of hippies and self-described “freaks” and were becoming too mainstream to sustain public interest for much longer. So when I grew to awareness in the early 1980s, predominant jeans styles had changed drastically, so that the skin-tight thighs and swishing cuffs of Saturday Night Fever and Superfly had utterly reversed to a snug, tapered-leg shape with skin-tight cuffs, thanks to the avant-garde influence of punk rockers like The Ramones. Within a few years, as tighter jeans became more mainstream, the trend reached its maximum point: These tight cuffs would not be tapered enough—I recall family, friends, and even myself folding the excess fabric against our ankles and rolling it up to hold in place an unyielding, almost knotlike cuff. In the 1990s came a period of reversal back to wide cuffs where the pop culture avant-garde and elites (fashion types, celebrities, movie stars) spread their smirking, campy admiration of ’70s bellbottom jeans to anyone with a television set. Once again bellbottoms were hip. Now, bellbottom jeans (rechristened “flare” or “boot-cut” in an attempt to repackage the old as new) are becoming too common again, pedestrian, mainstream, masscult.
This is postmodern pop culture: a vicious, endlessly unproductive cycle of acquisition, boredom, nostalgia, and reacquisition.
Wearers of bellbottom jeans are not simply keeping their legs warm—they’re consciously quoting the past, wearing the jeans in a purposive response to the ’70s fashion and as a reaction against the ’80s fashion. Some day very soon, the same thing will happen to ’80s tight cuffs, given enough time to give them a patina of vintage quality, as well. And the pants trend will continue on, decade by decade, wide, narrow, wide, narrow, wide, narrow, as predictable as time itself.1
This is postmodern pop culture: a vicious, endlessly unproductive cycle of acquisition, boredom, nostalgia, and reacquisition.
Producers of pop culture commodities—clothes, popular art, furniture, entertainment—in their fever to sell products guaranteed to make money and be enjoyable, simply sell us what we already had. But now these things come with a veneer of authenticity and uniqueness in the form of “vintage.”
The faux-vintage phenomenon is more pervasive than you might expect—and more insidious. In America, we are the things we buy. What does that say about us, that our homes are full of old-fashioned wall sconces mass-produced and mass-marketed at Home Depot, faux-Edwardian drawer-pulls from Restoration Hardware, our closets full of retro fashions—all phonies? That we’re all distressed? That we’re all fake?
More than that—that we’re happy with fakes. Or, to be more accurate, postmodern consumer culture pretends to give us endless choice but has given us just one: be happy with fakes.
2. ‘Shopping is fun again’
Since its inception in the mid-1990s, clothing retailer Old Navy has thrived on faux-vintage style, not only in what it sells but how it sells it. Its advertisements’ styles hark back to the 1950s and ’60s, with bright, warm colors like orange and brown, gaudy fonts, and a sunny design sensibility that quotes simpler times with golly-gee naïveté. “Shopping is fun again!” is the company motto, as if the consumption of goods had at one time become a mirthless chore. Piped into its stores, for the enjoyment of shoppers from opening to closing, is mid- to late 1970s upbeat funk and soul mixed with occasional modern indie rock. Its TV commercials are intentionally campy, most featuring hammy non-actors and models frolicking on obviously cartoonish, vibrant sets and addressing the camera in a way that can only be described as “self-consciously unironic”—they reek of what Susan Sontag in “Notes on Camp” calls “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Narrator Gary Owens, the sublimely overmodulated voice of 1960s cult comedy show “Laugh-In,” interjects a bit of vintage verisimilitude in some commercials and in frequent in-store prerecorded announcements. Overt references to old films and TV shows are common, such as “The Jeffersons,” but more common are casual references to the idea of old films and TV shows, like ’60s-era beach movies. The effect is to surround you with things you know, or things you think you know, or things you think you should know, dipping you in a warm bath of nostalgia.
Featured prominently in the middle of almost any Old Navy store is its collection of “vintage” T-shirts. These are typically old-looking, with aged, cracking silkscreened logos on them for obscure bars or diners or travel destinations. “PANCHO’S SEAFOOD FIESTA” is one such T-shirt available on OldNavy.com, with a picture of a lobster wearing a sombrero and the legend, “BAJA, CA.” Another, with a cartoon of an Italian stereotype, reads, “STUFF YOUR FACE! AT JOEY PEPPERONI’S— BROOKLYN, NY.” Another, with a circus-style font and a strange-looking star-and-hand symbol: “THE IDOL HAND FORTUNE TELLER—SANTIAGO.”
Old Navy provides buyers with a quick, easy way to get the campy feeling you have when you wear a vintage campy T-shirt from a campy place, but without actually wearing a real vintage campy T-shirt from a real campy place. You can have a cheap imitation of an ironic experience.
None of these places actually exist. It’s unclear if they ever existed. But that latter point is irrelevant—consumers buy these shirts, mass-produced and mass-marketed at $10 to $13 each, at Old Navy, not at Pancho’s.2
At first blush, this particular faux-vintage market reeks of camp, an ironic appreciation for something earnest but in extravagantly awful taste. The Pancho’s T-shirt, for example, is designed with outrageous and slightly embarrassing Mexican stereotypes in mind—it’s in terrifically awful taste that was ostensibly intended for a serious purpose: to advertise a restaurant. But the restaurant isn’t real. The shirts are fakes—if camp appreciates anything about the object of its ironic affection, it’s the thing’s innocent authenticity.
These T-shirts are not camp but kitsch—a cheap copy of the real thing. Old Navy provides buyers with a quick, easy way to get the campy feeling you have when you wear a vintage campy T-shirt from a campy place, but without actually wearing a real vintage campy T-shirt from a real campy place. You can have a cheap imitation of an ironic experience. What’s the point? Where does genuineness exist in this commercial transaction?Anywhere?3
Walk further into an Old Navy store, and you will find a display of its Special Edition line of pants and shirts. Highlighting the Special Edition line are the jeans. (Yes, again—but if there’s a fashion constant in America it’s jeans.) Instead of a pure blue, these pants are darker, or lighter, with discolorations. Instead of noting the quality of the sewing, the Special Edition jeans champion their frayed hems and cuffs, permanent knee-wrinkles, torn belt loops, and overall crappiness.
“Rugged style, with no breaking-in required!” reads an ad online at OldNavy.com. “Unique wash layers subtle color over durable denim. Distressed hems and handcrafted abrasions create a thoroughly lived-in look.”
The “handcrafted abrasions” are, if one looks closely at several pairs of jeans (as I did at several visits to different Old Navy stores), nearly identical 1.5- to 2-inch scrapes in nearly the same spot on the left thigh. Although every color is supposed to be unique, there are several general varieties available, with names ranging from the obvious to the ridiculous: Light Rinse, Medium Wash, Dark Wash, Tart, Imperial, Tanglewood, Battery, and (my favorite) Destructed.
There is no camp element to the Special Edition jeans—just kitsch. For a mere $40 (a regular, un-Special pair costs $20 to $29), you can buy jeans that are pre-consumed as stylish, “unique,” “lived-in.” Instead of expending the time and effort needed to break in your jeans, Old Navy has done that already. Old Navy has made wearing your jeans even simpler.
Umberto Eco references this simplicity inherent in kitsch in “The Structure of Bad Taste”:
As an easily digestible substitute for art [or, any aesthetic experience], Kitsch is the ideal food for a lazy audience that wants to have access to beauty and enjoy it without having to make too much of an effort. … Kitsch is largely a petty bourgeois phenomenon, the cultural pretense of a public that believes it can enjoy an original representation of the world whereas in fact it can only appreciate a secondary imitation of the primary power of the images.
Eco is right in this case about the “petty bourgeois phenomenon.” Old Navy is a bourgeois store. Its clothes are simple, but they borrow stylemes from more expensive fashions; the company’s advertisements emphasize price and value. But in a reflection of the way the bourgeois class aspires to be aristocratic, this choice of “special” jeans aspires to be likedesigner jeans: cooler, attracted to anti-ostentation, yet more frivolous with money—down to the illogical price premium you have to pay for pants marred by dinginess and shreds.
The message these pseudo-vintage jeans communicate is that, by wearing them, you can achieve a quick, easy importance, can be as “special” as richer people; by zipping up these self-consciously dated and worn clothes, you can pretend to be older, more of a classic yourself—existing out of your own time. All that is as close as the nearest mall. Not bad for just $40.
3. Quilts and oars
“Buying social status through the convenience of beat-up objects” is not the Pottery Barn motto, but it should be. The Internet, catalog, and bricks-and-mortar retailer produces and sells fake vintage home furnishings indebted in style to the past but without pesky nuisances like the real passage of time to get in the way. And Pottery Barn doesn’t just transcend time; its furniture also takes consumers back to more rustic places—even if they were never there in the first place.
The Nantucket Buffet sells not so much a piece of kitchen furniture as the feeling of Nantucket: “The warm distressed finish of our buffet recalls New England farmhouse furnishings.” For a mere $599 and $100 in shipping, you can own what one imagines is probably a typical fixture of New England farmhouses. Never mind that people who live in actual New England farmhouses generally can’t afford such items—the point is to give people who live elsewhere (urban areas, primarily) a kitschy shortcut to the feeling of being rustic without putting in the effort of:
- moving to New England
- finding a farmhouse
- building your own furniture (or buying it cheaply on whatever meager salary farming in New England brings these days)
- distressing it through the age and the wear of fingers and bodies against wood in ordinary use
- letting the natural veneer crack in an appealing way (but not too much)
- and finally passing the furniture down for a few generations.
But the power of Pottery Barn can even eradicate that latter. Consider the Aris Pedestal Table: “Ours has a broad top, substantial turned base and a distressed finish that gives it the appeal of a family heirloom.” Or the Old World Map, which if it were real would be a rare treasure one might find in a great-grandparent’s attic: “Inspired by a vintage map from the 1800s, our geographically accurate version has an antique feel. … Included are 20 bronze tacks to mark the outposts you’ve been to or hope to visit.” Figure that—you can own a fake old map and mark the places you haven’t been. Or the Patchwork Block-Print Quilt and Boudoir Pillow, which takes something that actual rustic people normally make by hand, individually constructed out of old leftover fabric scraps, and mass-produces them at a price of several hundred dollars for busy rich people. What was once a necessity can be used as a frivolity: “The patchwork design features 12 different patterns that are block-printed by hand using traditional methods and materials. The randomly sized patches are stitched in patterns that change from square to square to accentuate the floral designs.” Whether each patch is truly randomly sized or only manufactured to give the illusion of randomness, the catalogue does not say.
What is more dangerous is the unspoken message: These are not only fake antiques, but they’re better than actual antiques.
The fake antiques for sale at Pottery Barn have the potential to fill homes with a purchased nobility. But besides elevating the social status of its buyers, Pottery Barn can give people a whole history that never occurred and set of hobbies they will never pursue. One of the most egregious examples of this is to be found in the Spring 2005 catalog: Pottery Barn catalogs feature glossy full-page photos of impressively decorated rooms, complete with knickknacks strewn about in a “lived-in” way, to give the impression that some upscale American couple has just wandered out of frame. In the corner of one such photo are two oars. They appear to be background props, like the books on the shelves or the hat hanging from the Farmhouse Peg Rack—until you realize the oars are for sale.
“Our wooden oars have the timeworn beauty once created only by years of exposure to sea and sun,” reads the description. “Their distressed finish is accented with hints of white and green for the look of antiques.” Not only are they pre-consumed as antique for your benefit, they’re a mere $39 each, or $69 for two. It just makes sense to have both, right?
You needn’t come from a seafaring family. You don’t even need to have ever seen water—because of these prefabricated relics, minor details like that are now irrelevant. People overseas are, at this moment, carving oars, painting them, and scraping the paint back off to give Americans the kitschy experience of being a longtime canoe enthusiast. Thus has Pottery Barn eradicated time, place, social class, and history.
If this consumption appears in any way democratic—leveling the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy for just a few hundred dollars—it isn’t. It’s a surface change. And like the phony T-shirts from Old Navy, the actual objects for consumption are unimportant. The message the seller communicates to the consumer is the actual purchase. Here, that message is, You can pretend come from noble lineage with lots of furniture to pass down from one generation to another. Like the postmodern person you are, you can buy an existence apart from this time.
What is more dangerous is the unspoken message: These are not only fake antiques, but they’re better than actual antiques. These are worn just so—no leaving the distressing to the persnickety ravages of nature, which can distress furniture and oars to the point of rot. Actual antiques take time and effort. These just take some money. They aren’t just new and old, but improved. As Umberto Eco writes in “Travels in Hyperreality,” regarding a trip to the Palace of the Living Arts in Los Angeles:
The Palace’s philosophy is not, “We are giving you the reproduction so that you will want the original,” but rather, “We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel any need for the original.”
But if there’s no need for the original, of what use is it? What purpose does uniqueness have, except to provide a template for endlessly copied and refined clones that purport to be “more real” than reality?
4. Closet classics
The Fender Frontline 2005 catalog contains the Fender guitar company’s entire line of instruments and amplifiers, including its “Time Machine Series.” These are a limited run of guitars and basses that are fabricated to look old and feel as if you’ve been playing them for years—when in fact they’re made fresh in a California factory, and you may not even have been born when they were alleged to have been built.
Like the Old Navy Special Edition jeans, you buy these guitars for their fictional history, borrowing that fake past to lend yourself a feeling of authenticity, or permanence, of dominance over time. And like any good fakes, their fraudulence has its own truth: “All are built to exacting specs of their respective vintages, including body contours and radii, neck shape, fingerboard radius, pickups and electronics. Original materials, tooling and production techniques are employed whenever possible to maintain the integrity of these instruments,” and I look askance at the use of the word “integrity” there. The price is generally around $2,000 for one of these guitars. A regular Fender that’s brand-new and honest about it (and which will play equally well) will run about $400.
Fender offers the Time Machine guitars in three different “trim levels,” so to speak: N.O.S., or New Old Stock; Closet Classic; and Relic®. Again note the imaginary history involved:
New Old Stock: As if the guitar was discovered in a warehouse after many years, never played, and showing no signs of age or wear. Closet Classic: A guitar collector’s dream! Imagine discovering a vintage guitar at a yard sale that’s been stashed in a closet … it’s worn a bit, yellowed with age, the finish is slightly checked with hairline finish cracks that are typical of an instrument that’s been exposed to years of humidity and temperature variations. Relic®:Super worn-in, like your favorite pair of jeans! [See?] Shows natural wear and tear from years of heavy use—nicks, scratches, worn finish, rusty hardware and aged plastic parts. Looks, feels and plays like it’s taken the punishment of many long nightclub hours.
The idea is to give consumers a taste of authenticity, repackaged and reconstituted for convenience’s sake. If they can’t afford or find an actual 1963 Fender Telecaster (which isn’t terribly different from a 2005 Fender Telecaster), then consumers can have a replica made to such exacting standards that distinction between reality and fake are rendered meaningless. Consumers can even request how authentic they’d like their forgery to be: with the bloom still on the rose or showing the marks of age.
This self-delusion is more painful when one considers Fender’s Artist Series line of guitars. These are instruments produced as replicas of guitars played by famous musicians. In the catalog, one can find the Muddy Waters Telecaster, the Stevie Ray Vaughan Stratocaster, Jaco Pastorius Jazz Bass, the Eric Clapton Stratocaster, Sting Precision Bass. “The [Robert] Cray signature Strat guitar captures Robert’s trademark tone and style. Outfitted with a vintage hard-tail bridge and the Custom Shop’s own Custom Vintage Strat pickups, this guitar is truly unique,” reads the ad copy, misusing both the terms “custom” and “unique.” And to negate the idea of custom work and uniqueness and capturing the personal essence of blues guitarist Robert Cray, the guitar is available in three different colors.4
What the Artist Series faux-vintage guitars offer is not merely an escape to a different time or place, but an escape from oneself. Most guitarists (by this I mean both professionals and hobbyists like myself) spend years finding their preferred sound and customizing their guitars to their specific needs, wants, and tastes. Rather than expend that energy and time, you can simply give up and become your favorite guitarist.
The distinction between the physicality of Rory Gallagher’s real guitar and the copy of Rory Gallagher’s guitar is essentially nil, down to the carefully-shaped flecks of paint rubbed off the wood. That means you, the apprentice, own the master’s tools.
As with all kitsch, there’s an element of reverence for the original—nobody would spend a few thousand dollars on the Mark Knopfler Stratocaster, let’s say, without being a die-hard fan of Mr. Knopfler—and a more worrisome element of surrender to sentimentality. Finding the right combination of neck size and pickup type you prefer can be costly and time-consuming, if you’re picky about it. Through the Artist Series, buyers can avoid having to discover their personal preferences entirely. The cost is a price premium (these guitars always have a price premium over the stock issue) and a surrender to Mark Knopfler’s personal preferences and the willing suppression of your own, should they ever appear, and so having to sound exactly like Mark Knopfler all the time; and you must be constantly reminded, when you pick it up and sees the printed signature on the headstock, that the guitar you own is a an exact duplicate of someone else’s famous guitar. But given the depths of some fans’ appreciation, this latter can seem less like slavish imitation and more like an extension of the common bond they feel with their favorite artist.
Nor should it be neglected that an Artist Series guitar has the potential to impart upon its owner feelings of connection and parity with the original artist. Therefore, if Fender says that all you have to do is buy a Rory Gallagher guitar and play it through x kind of amplifier to “nail his sound,” then by all rights after the purchase you must be as good a guitar player as Rory Gallagher is. Right? The distinction between the physicality of Rory Gallagher’s real guitar and the copy of Rory Gallagher’s guitar is essentially nil, down to the carefully-shaped flecks of paint rubbed off the wood. That means you, the apprentice, own the master’s tools. With this purchase, you can transcend your own level of accomplishment and your personality; you can go from being a hobbyist to a rock god. The implied lie of Artist Series guitars is that by owning the exact tool that an artist owns, you can vanquish the meritocracy that is artistic talent.
And yet by playing the guitar, the lie reveals itself. There is a disparity between Rory Gallagher and you. You are dressing up as Rory Gallagher, but you are not him. Because true personal artistic expression is probably the only unique thing left.
5. ‘Kojak’ is dead, long live ‘Kojak’
If the problems of faux antiquity were relegated solely to consumer items like furniture, clothes, and musical instruments, then perhaps living in a kitsch-dominated consumer culture might be tolerable. But kitschy vintage forgeries have leaked over to American consumer art, as well, setting the stage for a skewed sense of aesthetics in the art we enjoy as a respite from the daily grind of life in postmodern America. We encounter the plague of kitsch nearly everywhere in our regular lives, and even in our leisure when we try to escape.
Sitting down to a TV show or a film, you may encounter copies upon copies of something else available for your viewing pleasure. I’m not speaking of unoriginal material (although that’s not untrue, either), but literal copies.Remakes of films and television shows are, essentially, kitsch reproductions of old pop culture objects that entertainment producers have allowed to fade, gain an aura of legitimacy through distance or age, and repackaged for re-consumption.
So it is that America is treated to a new version of the 1970s TV detective show “Kojak,” swapping bald white actor Telly Savalas for bald black actor Ving Rhames. No one involved seems to remember much from the original “Kojak,” except for the title character’s fondness for lollipops and his trademark quip, “Who loves ya, baby?” But when the new “Kojak” is featured on television screens across America, it will arrive pre-consumed as an echo of a camp classic detective show, and will be consumed itself as kitsch. TV viewers (who have little enough work to do as it is) won’t even have to bother figuring out if the lead character has hair, or with what he’s orally fixated, or what trademark quip he’ll use every show. They’ll already know—because it’s “Kojak,” and it will be pretty much like the old “Kojak.” It’s a cop show pretty much like every other cop show, except in this one the cop is bald and likes lollipops. Therefore it’s “Kojak,” and therefore it’s familiar.
The NBC network also recently debuted “The Office,” a copy of theidentically titled hit British TV show that has been transplanted in setting to a nondescript office in suburban America. NBC is no stranger to blatant repackaging of the old as new—several years ago the network had great success with its asinine but apt slogan during the summer rerun series, “If you haven’t seen it before, it’s new to you!” It has sold this “new” show as kitsch to the American masses by constant reminder of the original’s cult status—so the unspoken message is that the new one is expected to earn the same cult status before even one episode is broadcast. Watching the new show is posited as a way of acquiring access to the original show’s cult status and its cachet as a classic without finding it on DVD collections and, more significantly, wading through those difficult British accents and that strangely formal British diction, unpacking those unfamiliar British references.5.
Their paternity is kitschy experimentation at best and commercial cynicism at worst.
Turning the TV off and relaxing with a good book often offers no respite from Kitschy fake antiques. A recent publishing phenomenon has been the appearance of books that tell the stories left unsaid in other works—a means for the publisher to rummage through the past and resell previously successful works of art, and for consumers to relive the experiences from their favorite books, or to experience an echo of the classics without actually reading them: call it Kitsch Lit.
In 2000, Sena Jeter Naslund published the novel Ahab’s Wife,which tells the story of the spouse of Capt. Ahab, who is busy in Moby-Dick hunting a large symbol of man’s ego. Other notable examples include Jack Maggs by Peter Carey, based on the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations. In 1990, Valerie Martin wrote the novel Mary Reilly, based on the life of a housekeeper in the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Author Gregory Maguire has made a name for himself as an adapter of myths and fairy tales into adult stories, including Wicked, the story of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, and Mirror, Mirror, based on Snow White. Arguably, Maguire’s novels and some of the others above achieve effects greater than the derisive moniker Kitsch Lit would presume, but it remains nonetheless that their paternity is kitschy experimentation at best and commercial cynicism at worst.6
What’s more, any number of novels have been written in recent years that even have paintings as their kitsch parentage; in particular Dutch master Johannes Vermeer spawned a mini-publishing phenomenon, so that in Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier gives us the back story of one of Vermeer’s most notable works, and in The Girl In Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland not only bases her Kitsch Lit novel on a Vermeer painting, but one that does not actually exist. So we’re full circle to Old Navy’s vintage T-shirts advertising fictional tourist traps. The Girl in Hyacinth Blue is based on a kitschy aura of a kitschy aura of Vermeer’s genius, a simulation of a copy, distilled into a mass-market paperback and dressed up as a rare and wonderful treat—I can give you access, says Vreeland’s book, not just to Vermeer’s work, but to paintings the art elites don’t even KNOW about. I can give you something MORE and something BETTER than you’ll find at any museum. Just buy me…and don’t leave the couch until I’m finished.
Doubtless, the mere lack of availability plays a large role in the persistence of pseudo-vintage items. There are only a limited number of items legitimately from the past that have survived in such condition that they can be appreciated today, and in some cases they’re in the hands of the elites. Furniture, for instance—who among us has an authentically worn set of early 20th century oars lying around? Who has a real 1959 Fender Esquire in playable condition, without a warped neck or bad wiring? Who has a pair of truly frayed and broken-in jeans from the mid-1970s that (a) still has its color and (b) still fits?
Kitsch vintage allows people who could never have access to these items a taste of what it might be like to own a real set of oars, a real Fender Esquire, a real pair of worn-out jeans. Itseems like a great democratizing experience—a way to disseminate these products and, more significantly, the feelings these products communicate to everyone. The reality is that it’s only the simulation of a democratizing experience. When one considers the price premium one has to pay for crap that’s intentionally dilapidated, it becomes apparent that kitsch vintage allows the purchase of previously unavailable products only to the extent that the bourgeoisie can afford them—not everyone.
Perhaps the most obvious reason why Kitsch vintage is so universal among recent pop culture is best stated by Eco in “The Structure of Bad Taste”:
Art is often much too complex for the average consumer, who has only so much time to devote to it. At best, he will be able to appreciate only its most obvious features, or to interpret it according to some formula, the pale ghost of a previous interpretation. So why not help him out by providing him with fragmentary stylemes that have proved particularly effective?
In a word, Eco is referring to laziness. A consumer wants a bureau that looks expensive and historic. The consumer may not even know why he wants a historic bureau. Old means nice, right? Old means fancy? Old means upscale? Pottery Barn, then, fills that consumer’s void quickly and painlessly, by selling him a brand-new bureau that some poor person overseas has purposely dented with a hammer and scraped with sandpaper to expose the bare wood, giving the flavor of historicity without actual historicity. Another consumer wants to play guitar exactly like Eric Clapton plays it, but isn’t willing to put in the hours and years and decades of practice necessary. So Fender sends him a catalog advertising the Eric Clapton Stratocaster, and when he holds it in his hands he and Eric Clapton are no different—they are working with the same tool. Still another consumer wants to be entertained with a new television show without the scary quality of the unknown that newness brings by its nature. So television networks bring him something he is already familiar with, but it looks slightly different. He feels as if he’s consuming something special and different, but, thank God, there is no hard work to be done.
The American brand of extreme capitalism does not allow consumers to be anything other than lazy in this manner. Advertising bombards consumers with new (whether actually new or fictionally new) products every day—people are constantly seeing kitsch refresh itself at the well of the avant-garde, are daily finding new products they must buy or lead unfulfilled lives, are always being chided to consume more and more different commodities every day. We simply have no time to consume a pair of jeans until it is worn to comfort, because by the time that happens they’ll be out of style. It’s distressing. And we can’t have that. We can’t give a new TV show more than two or three episodes to find its adoring audience, because there are new programs emerging and ”in development” every week, hundreds of television channels to choose from, tens of thousands of films that need to be seen, both new and old, the Internet, games—it’s simply easier for producers to find a new winner in a list of old winners, and for consumers mired in the illusion of too much choice to cling, stubborn and frightened, to what is familiar and comforting.
What I find most interesting about kitsch vintage is the sense of false nostalgia inherent in the consumption of these goods. Because the past is past, we have already invested it with meaning and significance. Not so with contemporary life—despite the efforts of television and print journalists to analyze (and pre-consume for our benefit) every second as it happens. Bombarded by evidence of the hollowness of postmodern existence, by wars fought without meaning, by politics growing more visibly corrupt by the day, by social mores becoming more fascistic as the corruption spreads, by an overwhelming amount of information linking the past to the present to the future so that linear time has no more significance, by revolting amounts of choice that on closer inspection look more and more like only one choice—we hide in the past. We surround ourselves with things from calmer times; or if they were turbulent, that’s all over with now. We understand the problems of people in the past, and have fixed them.
So it is that we romanticize the World War II era, a period that was hell for the people who lived through it—but what nice clothes! People sure don’t dress nice like that anymore, do they, with the hats and all? And the post-World War II era—we sure have learned our lesson from that sort of social repression! And it turns out they made some nifty furniture, too.7 And the 1960s and ’70s—we’ve distilled those turbulent decades full of assassination and social upheaval into a kind of shorthand about hippies and disco and Afro hairdos and “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Nothing terrible about those times in history can ever hurt us again—and we have access to all their cool stuff.
Most puzzling about postmodern nostalgia is how it works even if we’re nostalgic for a time and place we’ve never experienced. Cases in point are the Kitsch Lit novels I mentioned, all of them about times no one is alive to remember. Some of them, like Maguire’s novels, hark back to times and places no one could possibly remember, because they never really existed. The Vermeer books and Ahab’s Wife are even written in a fake, kitschy version of the prose style of their alleged time. Another example: much of Pottery Barn’s furniture collections are based on styles of the early 20th century—before the ages of many of the 40-something urbanites who furnish their townhouses and homes with its goods.
Ultra-capitalist consumer culture provides these faux-nostalgic products to satisfy a craving that consumers have, to escape to a more romantic time and place—a time and place, in fact, that we let ourselves believe is untouched by that same ultra-capitalist consumer culture. The means of escape is the same thing we’re escaping from. To free ourselves from consumer culture, we end up feeding it and increasing its hold. This is the most depressing facet of pseudo-vintage kitsch—its repackaged nostalgia lures consumers with the promise of a new kind of existence, and gives them instead an unrealistic simulation of uniqueness defined by cheap physical comfort, emotional distress, and constant unsatisfied longing. Buy these old things. Exist outside your own time, find yourself in an exotic place without leaving your living room, rise above your social status or go slumming at will without danger of physical or social harm, surround yourself with exactly the sort of familiar things that should give you comfort—or become someone else entirely. You aren’t good enough. Live in nostalgia. You can buy reality better than the real reality. You can buy meaning.¶
- This has, in fact, happened. As of 2011, modern jeans styles have rebelled once again from flaring cuffs to skin-tight cuffs — in fact, skin-tight all over. We’re talking sprayed-on tight, regardless of whether that looks good on you or not. It started, again, with the avant-garde, and the trend has now reached to everyday people you see on the street, mostly thanks to the influence of the Hipster subculture, whose adoration of vintage stuff from clothes to used bicycles to beer brands to old-style facial hair is legendary and possibly worth many more essay words. ↩
- There IS a place in Brooklyn called Joey Pepperoni, but it’s unclear if it’s meant to be the same place because the logo is entirely different. Also n.b. there’s a chain of Italian restaurants called Joey Pepperoni, but it’s also not the same logo. ↩
- Since 2005, Old Navy has largely toned down the kitschy feel of its advertising, and seems to have limited its line of broken-in graphic T-shirts advertising places that don’t actually exist. I wonder if that’s because they didn’t sell well, because Old Navy isn’t interested so much in the idea that the shirts make no sense — they only care if they SELL. Target also sells these. Just as odd are the more popular shirts they sell these days: T-shirts that advertise places and products that DO exist — using old, outdated logos for products that have largely left the public consciousness except in nostalgic form, like a shirt with a dated logo for 7-Up complete with the “Uncola” slogan from the 1980s, or a shirt with the Atari logo, a game system that no longer exists … the implication being that your shirt is really, really old when in fact it was made just recently, with a logo that was freshly applied and then worn away to give it the aroma of “oldness.” It reminds me of people who spend hours styling their hair in such a way that it looks as if they just rolled out of bed — the effort put in to achieve that falseness is fairly staggering, when in fact the easiest and most authentic thing to do if you want that effect is not to style your hair at all. ↩
- The same goes for Eric Clapton’s Artist Series model: three different color choices, which is odd considering any self-respecting Claptonian knows that Eric’s main guitar was “Blackie.” ↩
- First off: Between the time this essay was written and now, “The Office” (US) did not become a “cult hit.” It became a mainstream hit, mostly because it repackaged the original’s much more acerbic, depressing, edgy, and sometimes-horrifyingly-awkward format, making the characters a lot more likable, adding more jokes, and overall making the show a lot more conventional. It’s a great show, and has come into its own, but the fact remains that it’s still kitsch, directly derived from some other unique item, reformatted and tempered for mass public consumption. Second: At the time I wrote this, I had no way of anticipating how unbelievably insidious and widespread the phenomenon of cloned TV and film has become. Remakes and sequels were quite common at the time, and I confess I wish I’d expanded this section of the essay just a tad to address that, but it would have ballooned the length a bit too much. I shudder to think about now. The explosion of kitsch entertainment in recent years is fucking epic. Almost ALL popular mainstream entertainment now can be called kitsch — remakes, reboots, “reimaginings,” sequels, prequels, adaptations. Popular mainstream films are almost all based on something that’s been pre-sold, pre-digested, pre-consumed, to the point that mainstream blockbuster films based on original scripts pretty much are on the verge of NO LONGER EXISTING. N.b., this essay was written before “Hulk” (2003), already an adaptation of a comic book series and 1970s TV show, was itself remade as “The Incredible Hulk” (2008) — before the new “Knight Rider” and “Bionic Woman” and “Hawaii Five-O” — before “Spider-Man” was (a) taken off the screen to Broadway and (b) given to some other director to be remade as “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012) — before the reboot of “Superman Returns,” which tried self-consciously to mimic the style of the earlier films but which is now being rebooted AGAIN — before “The A-Team” movie — before “Transformers” and “Clash of the Titans” (2010) and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” — before every British reality TV program was ported over to the U.S. — before AT LEAST four films based on the idea of ordinary people dressing up like superheroes were released in recent years (“Super,” “Kick-Ass,” “Defendor,” “Special,” and I would technically count “Watchmen” in with this list) — before the UK then US “Life on Mars” — before “The Green Lantern” and “The Green Hornet” — before “Grindhouse” and “Scream 4” and “The Smurfs” — before “Thor,” “Captain America,” “Footloose” (2011), “Conan the Barbarian” (2011), “Arthur” (2011), “Red Dawn” (2011) — before the “Battlestar Galactica” remake, the “90210”and “Melrose Place” remakes, the “V” remake. Notice how the overwhelming majority of these seem to emerge from comic books. I theorize the multilayered, dense, continually-rebooted ethos of comic book production has a great deal to do why TV and film studios seem blithely willing to remake anything no matter how significant or insignificant, the way comic books seem to have 5 or 6 versions of The Flash or Batman running around all with different origins and histories and adventures, and how there are different flavors of “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” comics, and multiple “parallel universes” are typical, how various heroes have had their origins “ret-conned” once their current adventures began to contradict their histories. This is also probably why (a) I have never been able to stand reading comic books for more than 1 issue, and (b) why I’m sick to fucking death of comic book movies and don’t ever want to see another again if I can help it. ↩
- I was obviously never able to predict what happened with “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” also. ↩
- I’m thinking of the TV show “Mad Men” right now, a show whose production design is built around fetishizing styles and designs of the 1960s. ↩