“Cultural appropriation” has been most often criticized in the context of economically advantaged white people adopting a style deeply rooted in the cultural traditions of economically disadvantaged non-white people. However, it also occurs in ways that affect the bottom lines of both major corporations and creatives, the latter working in areas that one would not think would be of interest to the mainstream.
Derek Rush (Compactor, Chthonic Streams) takes a look at fashion’s new passion for all things dirty and dangerous.
In September 2016, Marshstepper’s JS Aurelius (who is also in Destruction Unit and co-owner of the Ascetic House cassette label) discovered that his band’s designs had been closely copied by US clothing company Rocawear. The similarity goes beyond adopting an “indie” look as many companies have been doing for the past several years, no doubt to appeal to millennials who have come of age during a time when a DIY aesthetic is valued and trusted over slick graphics. It’s as though the original art was scanned in and a few words and elements changed. To Aurelius’ credit, the Marshstepper sweater on his website is labeled as “Inspired by Malcolm Garrett for TG”. Although it bears a slight resemblance in layout and aesthetics to an old Throbbing Gristle shirt, it is by no means a ripoff, and the homage has been acknowledged.
A few months prior, underground noise/techno label Posh Isolation posted a photo online of a shirt sold at H&M that bears a striking resemblance to the label’s logo. Less of an issue seems to have been made of this due to the somewhat generic nature of the image, but the similarity and the possibility of this having been an intentional lift- is definitely there. By now, dozens of articles have been floating around the edges of the mainstream about noise music and culture. Posh Isolation being one of the “hip names” among aficionados of noise and cassette/ analogue culture makes it more likely that they’ll turn up near the top of a lot of searches, especially if the searcher is looking for something on the fringes.
It’s standard practice in the fashion world to employ trends people to sniff out anything going on that might be “inspiration.” Images, text, even actual clothing is literally dissected, copied, pasted, and reverse-engineered, with very few changes, into what they hope is the Next Big Thing. When a “new season” hits, it’s merely a faded echo of something that already happened, anytime from 1 to 50 years prior, most likely first in an underground subculture.
In 2012, following the continued rise in posthumous popularity of post-punk band Joy Division, Disney produced a t-shirt of the cover of Unknown Pleasures. Disney turned the Unknown Pleasures album graphic into Mickey Mouse. This was at least called out on the website as being inspired by the band, but none of them were consulted about it. Whether to avoid any legal entanglements or because they realized the unsavory origin of the band’s name (related to Nazis and forced prostitution), the company withdrew the design.
Of course, the issue of intellectual property can get a bit tricky. The original image for the Joy Division cover was swiped out of a textbook by the band. Designer Peter Saville isolated and reversed it, and that’s about it. In a sense, they are just as guilty. However, Disney did not make a shirt of a page from a textbook; they made a t-shirt of an image associated by people with a much-revered band that was still selling t-shirts and racking up hits all over the internet. Rocawear did not pull a random drawing of a skull that was in line with their design aesthetic, they plundered nearly all the elements of a specific t-shirt and used it for their own t-shirt.
These are instances of direct plagiarism for financial gain. They secondarily use signifiers of “cool” and “edginess” to make a corporate brand seem more attractive to consumers.
Not all of these underground swipes are from a specific source, but instead focus on a genre. Barneys is selling a $1,265 hoodie that says “Vetements” (the name of the Parisian designers responsible) in an “unreadable black metal logo” font. While I can’t identify if the typography was taken from a single existing logo, it is a clear reference to a very controversial subculture. To make sure you know how kvlt this high-ticket item is, luxury fashion website ssense.com calls it the “Black ‘Total Fucking Darkness’ Hoodie” (though to my eye it looks stylistically more death metal).
Like many internally-codified cultural trends, the relatively unreadable metal band logo is meant as simultaneous badge of honor (“do you recognize this?”) and a method of scaring off, or at least keeping out people not deeply into the scene. This operates much the same way as slang for any number of subgroups, whether they define themselves by subculture, region, or race. It’s a complex series of tests and passwords, through which the have-nots prove themselves cannier than the haves by creating a language within a language designed to keep the latter out. By attempting to insert themselves into this secret club, the haves are not only stepping on the have-nots once again, they are profiting from the situation. They get to remain in their ivory towers while flaunting tattered rags imitating the paupers they look down upon.
This practice is hardly new. In 2005, Nike blatantly copied the iconic cover of the Minor Threat EP cover as well a second logotype, and echoed the “X” associated with straightedge culture represented by the band. Former frontman Ian McKaye was understandably furious, not only for the plagiarism, but the fact that Nike represents everything the lifelong hardcore punk stands against. Nike later issued an official apology and explanation, but in essence the damage was probably already done. The campaign was out, the average consumer had seen it. Perhaps some connected with the imagery and made the intended self-identification. Because they secretly want to feel like a rebel.
Corporations make it a habit of pushing a very narrow set of choices in front of consumers and telling them they are an individual, they are special, and that their selection of one watered-down option over another somehow legitimizes them as independent, thinking people. And yet they are being seduced into choosing to purchase mass-produced items made by indentured servant children living in near-squalor.
The irony is that in all likelihood, these same consumers hold hardcore punks, and any other “unusual”-looking or -sounding subcultural groups, in disdain. I’m reminded of a similar dichotomy in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, in which openly black-hating Italians bump Public Enemy loudly in their Jeeps. Imitation is not necessarily a form of flattery. Nor does it usually benefit those being imitated.
As we’ve seen with other underground, initially dangerous and rebellious movements, the music and culture becomes commodified, copied, and sold to the masses. Rock’n’roll is the furthest along example, with hip hop not far behind, and rave currently being revamped and marketed as EDM (Electronic Dance Music, surely one of the broadest and worst-named genres ever). So it’s especially odd when the beast turns its attentions to something as hell-bent on exclusivity and abrasiveness as noise and adjacent subgenres. Perhaps the “cool hunters” believe the more underground something is, the less likely the originators will notice they’ve been ripped off, or be able to fight back.
But more to the point, they are essentially looking to add “edginess” to their brand. On their website, clothing label Mishka excitedly gushes “For those who don’t know, Death in June is an intense and scary post-industrial/neo-folk music project that’s existed for decades now and pretty much created the genre of music that he exists within.” The fact that the clothing for sale is official gives them ultimate credibility to their customers who notice such things, and is still immaterial to those who don’t but think it’s edgy. At least in this case, the artist is making money from the situation (Death In June t-shirts probably being the most-bootlegged in industrial-and-related genres). Perhaps Douglas P. thought about the situation and decided for once to take care and control of the money.
The flip side of the coin is underground artists who parody major corporate designs. As with the concept of “reverse racism,” a huge difference is what each side is saying, and what they stand to gain. The artists are intentionally taking recognizable pieces of imagery and making changes to make a point, but very little profit, if any.
Deutsche Grammophon’s covers have the most instantly recognizable design in the classical music world, even to non-classical fans. Industrial band Laibach have made a career out of straight-faced mockery of both fascism and cultural trends. Their 1987 album Krst Pod Triglavom – Baptism is one of many to spoof the DG style. The bombast of classical music and opera serves as both target and method of attack. Fortunately, no one at DG seems to care about the parody.
The usual result of such minor infractions, if noticed by the company’s lawyers, is often a cease-and-desist letter. At the worst, it could become a huge lawsuit, as experienced by Negativland after the release of their EP U2. They and others considered the piece to be “fair use” of both artwork and sampling. It was not done due to lack of ideas, or to trick consumers into buying their work thinking it was by U2, but to use references to make their own statement. The Island Records lawyers disagreed, and they sued, forcing the band and their own label to withdraw the record and pay damages that amounted to more than the band had earned in their 14-year existence. Ironically, U2 went on to perform the ZooTV tour, which regularly pilfered and mashed up pieces of other works, enlisting the help of a different multimedia performance art group called Emergency Broadcast Network.
The harm alleged by corporate lawyers in these cases is practically non-existent. No major brand is truly harmed by a parody, especially not a benign one. Contrast that with the revenue generated by a well-connected national or multinational company by work lifted from underground artists. This is money made off them that they will never see, and in many cases, the artists affected would not choose to have their work associated with the larger entity.
The prognosis for this situation is as grim as a first-wave black metal band. As former Joy Division bassist Peter Hook remarked around the time of the Disney incident, “there isn’t really much we can do about it.” If this is true of one of the most successful artists of his era, it applies with even more finality to younger, less well-off artists. All any of us can do is keep being creative, try to be original, and hope that if the corporate media copy machine passes over us, we don’t get burned by the light.