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What the band t-shirt debate really says about our culture


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The debate raging about band t-shirts and who should wear them is a bit of a non issue( I mean who really cares who wears what, people can wear what they like) but it does highlight something interesting and, potentially, worrying about how our culture is developing.

I am 35 and band t-shirts have been part of my uniform since first hearing Nirvana on a copied cassette tape from a friend older neighbour. These garments were (and are to many people) more than ‘fashion’, more than liking the design. They were a simple expression of my tastes, values and an identifier for other people who liked the same things.

Overtime I have owned shirts from Sonic Youth, Pixies, Beastie Boys, Ash, The Flaming Lips, Wu Tang Clan, Radiohead and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – each one bought to show my love for the band and invite others to approach me about that music.

Wearing a Slayer t-shirt showed a love of metal, and a belonging to a sub-culture that was different to the mainstream of fashion, music or thought. It said very particular things about you as a person and set you in a tribe. A tribe that would go to Monsters of Rock festival (or Download since the early 2000s), talk for hours about who is better Metallica or Megadeth, mosh the night away in dark sweaty rock clubs all along with those who identified with you.

You see, that Slayer t-shirt wasn’t a simple fashion statement it was part of a way of life – it meant something more than a fleeting expression of style.

The fact that TopShop sells a Slayer t-shirt on the high street, in itself is not an issue, but the sentiment behind it and what it says about our relationship with culture and sub-cultures is worrying.

Speaking to the Guardian recently the company’s head of design epitomised this lurch to no-care-for-culture stating that their highly popular AC/DC shirt “epitomise that cool, laid-back, effortless look. They have become something of a wardrobe staple for the Topshop girl.”

The article also spoke to shoppers in London who echoed this fashion over culture ideal. 17-year-old Nicole Green adorned with a Guns N’ Roses t-shirt said she has “heard of the band but couldn’t tell you any of their songs”. Her four band t-shirts are part “a new era indie look”, for her she gets them if they are “on trend.”

Forget that ‘indie’ is an important cultural, societal and political movement for lots of people and has given the UK some of its best art, or the fact GnR is not an ‘indie’ band. This is a look, nothing more nothing less.

Of course if someone wears a band t-shirt simply because they like the design, that’s cool. What is sad is where with that shirt you used to get music you loved, live music experiences, like-minded friends with a shared love and an identity, now you JUST get a t-shirt.

I do find it strange that someone would publicly endorse music they haven’t heard, or don’t even like. I didn’t vote Tory, I don’t have affiliation to their policies and I am opposed to them in almost every way. So I wouldn’t wear a ‘VOTE TORY’ t-shirt just because I liked the design – for me it’s the same principle.

This mass market for playing the ‘rock chick’ (or rocker) illustrates a move - in the era of fleeting interactions, of memes and ‘followers’ – to a quick-fire homogeny, where ideas, ideals and artistry is less important as the quick satisfaction of being ‘on trend’.

Musically, it’s helped to result in a pop chart packed with tunes created to be loved briefly and then forgotten. To not care is the new ‘cool’. This is more and more creating a situation where the mass of exceptional bands, not part of the glossy pop aesthetic, struggle to break it big and make a living from their art.

While bands like Slayer are still going and still part of their sub-culture, this careless adoption from wider society with no nod to who they are, what they stand for or their art, devalues what they are.

When music and the culture it comes from becomes nothing more than a commodity and a fashion accessory everyone loses out. These artists are important! I hope that in this debate that is not forgotten.

By all means wear the t-shirt you want but don’t disrespect what it means to others.

For some it’s not fashion, its life. 

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