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How Much Did You Pay For Your Identity?: The Big Business Of Selling Individuality To Kids

By Scott Puckett (Reprinted from Clamor Magazine)

There's a magazine that you can find at any Barnes & Noble, Borders or similar bookstore. It's called The Fader.(1) It looks cool. It's a member of the Independent Press Association, an organization that, according to their Web site, "promotes and supports independent publications committed to social justice and a free press."(2) One of The Fader's recent issues featured The White Stripes on the cover. Past issues featured Beck. Outkast. Roni Size. Bjork. Bob Marley. The magazine has published pieces on cool things - extreme bike construction. An article on "The Commodification Of Xicano Culture." It seems socially conscious - recent articles focused on the Zapatistas, AIDS in Africa and environmental racism. That's good, right? It's diverse. It's progressive. And it's published by a marketing firm called Cornerstone Promotion,(3) which just so happens to represent ... Roni Size. Finley Quaye (another featured artist). Outkast. The Strokes (another band featured on the cover).

It's easy to find this out. Compare The Fader's masthead to Cornerstone's staff. The names are all the same. The contact addresses and phone numbers are identical. And Anthony Holland, assistant publisher of The Fader and vice president of Cornerstone, is the administrative, technical and billing contact for both domain names.(4) Cornerstone's site lists The Fader as one of its lifestyle clients and as one of Cornerstone's friends.

It's really quite a brilliant strategy. Cornerstone bills its promotions clients for publicity. It sells ad space in what amounts to a catalog for its clients and then sells the product to consumers who think they're buying a magazine. Unless you poke around Cornerstone's site and start reading The Fader's masthead, it's unlikely that you'll ever learn otherwise. And it's really quite simple: people who read The Fader are reading content that can't even pretend to be objective. Frankly, The Fader's readers would find more objectivity in a press release. At least you know where a press release comes from.

However, this story doesn't begin with The Fader. It begins in the 1980s. It begins in a suburb of San Diego called El Cajon, a city best known for producing crystal meth and Lester Bangs, and it begins, for lack of a better place to start, with a store called Gamma Gamma.

Gamma Gamma is all but forgotten now. It has been gone for so many years that I don't remember when it closed. It occupied a storefront on Main Street that now houses a kid's furniture store. It was part of a small regional chain that sold things to goths and punks - Manic Panic hair dye, fishnets, studded belts, Doc Martens. You get the idea. It had a small but loyal clientele. It was a small hub of alternative culture before anyone had called this culture alternative. It was a place where people could buy unique clothes and know that they weren't likely to see the same garment on someone else. It reflected the local flavor and the style of the smaller communities where the stores were located. Most greater metropolitan regions had stores like Gamma Gamma; perhaps you shopped at yours. Maybe yours still exist. Mine don't. They've been gone for years and replaced by national chains in malls that offer no regional variety. They offer the same mass-marketed styles for consumption across the country with no individuality and nothing to reflect the local character. And that is where this story begins.

In 1979, Dick Hebdige published a book called "Subculture: The Meaning Of Style," a detailed and insightful study of what fashion means to subcultures and how style communicates. In 1979, it was far too early for Hebdige to write authoritatively about punk, a style which had only recently come to attention, but he was able to observe the common characteristics of other subcultures (most notably mods, skins and teds) and the role fashion played. Fashion communicated the differences between the wearer and the viewer visually; it provided a system of signs that told a story - they revealed, at a fundamental level, who the wearer was.(5)

More than 20 years ago, Hebdige observed that subcultural style could be incorporated into the larger culture, noting that the fashion pages may publicize the clothes while editorials may attack the movement. Hebdige further argued that the media plays a key role in rehabilitating these styles; that the dominant culture (that is, the mainstream, whatever it may be) is able to incorporate the subculture by converting the subculture's style to a mass-produced object (say, a t-shirt), among other methods.(6) Hebdige put it most clearly when he noted that "the creation and diffusion of new styles is inextricably bound up with the process of production, publicity and packing which must inevitably lead to the defusion of the subculture's subversive power."(7) Loosely translated, you can invent all the new styles you like, no matter how offensive they may be. Those styles will eventually be mass produced and sold back to you at a tidy profit. And this is where Hot Topic comes in.

Apocalypse Mall

"Hot Topic, Inc. is a mall-based specialty retailer of music-licensed and music-influenced apparel, accessories and gift items for young men and women, principally between the ages of 12 and 22. Music-licensed merchandise includes T-shirts, hats, posters, stickers, patches, postcards, books, CDs, videos and other items. Music-influenced merchandise includes woven and knit tops, skirts, pants, shorts, jackets, shoes, costume jewelry, body jewelry, sunglasses, cosmetics and gift items. ... Hot Topic also maintains a Web site, www.hottopic.com, through which it markets its Hot Topic stores, store concept and sells certain of its merchandise."(8)

There is a shopping mall in El Cajon called Parkway Plaza. Rather, its proper name is Westfield Shoppingtown Parkway Plaza. It used to be a regional mall. Now it's owned by a multinational corporation that develops, builds and manages a $12.4 billion portfolio of ... malls.(9) Of course, Westfield's corporate site prattles on about a distinctive branding strategy that results in tarting malls up as "shoppingtowns," but maybe I don't want to experience a cohesive shopping environment manufactured by a company with a global reputation for quality service. At any rate, several Westfield properties in San Diego provide a home to Hot Topic and Parkway Plaza is one of them.

Hot Topic shouldn't be new to anyone. These stores have been around for several years. The Market Guide description (the italicized passage above) provides a better description of these stores than I ever could. It's clear - investors don't have time to read fluff. They need to know the bare bones details. Hot Topic's 10-K filing does quite a nice job of summarizing those details. As of February 3, 2001, Hot Topic operated 274 stores in 45 states,(10) and business at those stores is booming. Year-end revenue for the fiscal year that ended on February 2, 2002, was $336.1 million. The average projection for FY 2003 revenue is $430 million (with average sales growth of about 27% per quarter for this year). Reputable securities firms such as Robertson Stephens, Bank of America Securities and Bear Sterns all recommend taking a position in the stock. Eleven brokers cover HOTT; of those, 5 consider it a strong buy. 5 consider it to be merely a buy.(11)

These numbers point to only one conclusion - there's money to be made in selling rebellion (especially if it's packaged and marketed in a consistent way).

And then there's Spencer Gifts,(12) a Universal Studios company,(13) which also finds a home at Parkway Plaza. Spencer Gifts has been around forever, selling novelty items of various flavors - clothes, gag gifts, shot glasses. Spencer's Web site intelligently approaches its target markets - it groups inexpensive furniture and clocks under "Dorm Room." It gathers wizard and dragon statues, among other medieval-themed knick knacks, under "Enchanted Forest." And so forth. Spencer Gifts is a great place to find pentagram jewelry, lava lamps and Hawaiian shirts decorated with pot leaves, but how rebellious or radical can it be when Vivendi Universal owns the store and sells that Hawaiian shirt for $39.99?

Fundamentally, there's nothing wrong with rebellion. The problem with Hot Topic and Spencer Gifts' vision of resistance is that it's sanctioned by corporations which in turn profit from that resistance. In addition, while regional stores (such as Gamma Gamma) emphasize diversity of expression, Hot Topic and Spencer Gifts depend on a lack of diversity. They depend on offering the same products everywhere. So let's think of rebellion like an ecosystem - any biologist can tell you what happens to an ecosystem that lacks diversity, regardless of why it lacks diversity ... that ecosystem dies.

There's really no difference between one Hot Topic and another, no difference between one Spencer's and another, and there isn't much difference between Hot Topic and Spencer Gifts. If you wander into any Hot Topic, you'll see the same types of tattoos and piercings on the employees and the same merchandise on the walls. The Slipknot shirt is the same shirt that the Hot Topic across town sells. Hot Topic sells Clash and CBGB t-shirts for some reason but I'm not sure that their average customer is old enough to remember the Clash or know why CBGB is important.(14)

I realize as I'm sitting in one of Parkway Plaza's courtyards that the stores have all blurred together and the indistinguishable malls have all been branded so effectively that I can't tell them apart either. This is merely consumption in a vacuum with no sense of place. I feel like I'm underwater here; I hear a hollow, echoing voice ask me if I need assistance. I ask the person in the Westfield Red(15) blazer where I might be able to find something that isn't contrived or planned out to seem outrageous to bored suburban teenagers who affect their carefully constructed rebellious pose. I ask them where, for lack of a better term, I might be able to find something real.

Manufacturing Desire

"Anyway, I completely digress. The point is, I went to UCLA to hear and meet Michael Moore, which I did. I got there nice and early, to ensure that I had a seat, and sat in line reading 'Trust Us, We're Experts.' I felt so subversive, standing there in my OBEY T-shirt, wearing a backpack filled with controversial books, waiting to hear this guy who so many uberconservatives hate."(16)

Wil Wheaton, who you might know better as Wesley Crusher from Star Trek fame, has a Web log.(17) He writes in it nearly every day. He wrote the above passage some months ago.(18) Wil seems like a very nice guy; he leans to the left and seems fairly politically active, but these lines from his Web log illustrate part of the problem with modern rebellion: it's about wearing the right shirt and reading the right book. It's really no different than getting past the velvet rope because you're sporting Manolo Blahniks or a Prada bag.(19)

Welcome to the culture industry.

It's possible to think of culture as art, literature and music - it's more realistic to think of culture as the commercial messages that surround us. It's more accurate to think of culture as the machinery hidden behind the gleaming facade of commerce. It's more honest to think of culture as the process that makes you desire things. The culture industry is, simply put, every commercial message you've ever received, whether it's an ad, an alligator on a polo shirt or a signature on a pair of jeans. And until you recognize its symptoms - such as people buying a t-shirt with a logo on it, effectively paying to become an advertisement - you can't get out of it.

This may be hard to swallow. After all, you're different, right? Maybe you ignore marketing or don't believe ads; maybe you think you're beyond the reach of commercial messages. Maybe you keep your mental environment pure. And maybe that doesn't even matter anymore. After all, the culture industry provides something for everyone.(20) It not only provides for how different you are, it emphasizes that difference and encourages it. The culture industry wants you to know that you're an individual, that you are unique, that you are a snowflake.(21) It will create products that speak to who you are, that will accentuate your differences and it will make sure that those objects fall within your price range.

There is a profound difference between culture and the culture industry. The culture industry segments and divides people into groups for easier marketing and sales; culture struggles against this process. As Theodor Adorno notes, "Culture, in the true sense, did not simply accommodate itself to human beings; but it always simultaneously raised a protest against the petrified relations under which they lived."(22) What are these relations? Class distinctions. Cliques. Popularity. Anything based on a label, a brand or a commodity - in short, anything produced (whether directly or as a byproduct) by the culture industry - is a petrified relation that strangles everyone it touches. And the culture industry enforces these petrified relations with an iron will. It depends on their continued existence.

Perhaps Kalle Lasn put it in better terms when he wrote, "Our stories, once passed from one generation to the next by parents, neighbors and teachers, are now told by distant corporations with 'something to sell as well as to tell.' Brands, products, fashions, celebrities, entertainments - the spectacles that surround the production of culture - are our culture now. Our role is mostly to listen and watch - and then, based on what we have heard and seen, to buy."(23)

Yet in the early 1990s, thousands of young women realized that the culture industry wasn't speaking to them or their concerns and they reacted by making their own music and their own zines. Rather than accepting the culture industry's products, they created culture. It was a spontaneous outburst of creativity that occurred outside the culture industry's systems; because the women refused to talk about it, the culture industry could only accommodate the most superficial ideas.

So ... riot grrrl morphed into girl power which in turn gave birth to the Spice Girls which then became glittering slogans on baby tees at J.C. Penney. The culture industry effectively divorced bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile from their creation, then took this rebellion, wrapped it up in a cute, easily marketable package and sold it to the masses in the young teens department without ever explaining where it came from or what it meant to the people who most needed to know. While the cultural revolution that bands such as Fifth Column and Huggy Bear advanced still exists and is every bit as relevant today, the culture industry pushed it aside ... in favor of printed shirts.

Whither Rebel Culture? Or, The Closing Of The Frontier.

"Rebellion makes no sense without repression; we must remain forever convinced of capitalism's fundamental hostility to pleasure in order to consume capitalism's rebel products as avidly as we do."(24)

By now, it should be obvious that the culture industry recognizes no limits or boundaries and that profit is its only guide. Stores owned by major corporations can sell whatever makes money with impunity - nothing threatens the system.(25) No amount of Rage Against The Machine albums will bring the culture industry down; instead, the culture industry profits from Rage Against The Machine and grows stronger.(26)

It's hard to imagine a rebellion that can't be marketed ... or that the culture industry won't pander to. In fact, the culture industry is able to absorb trends more quickly ... and the time it needs to assimilate a trend is decreasing. Styles that were radical only a year or two ago - piercings, tribal tattoos, etc. - are now ads. And so we move on, breaking new ground and setting out for new frontiers ... only to find that there are no frontiers left to explore. We rebel in different ways and the culture industry always follows, documenting our ink, scars, clothes ...

Our revolution has been branded. It will not be televised. It will be marketed by street teams. We will feel cool because the people who sell it to us seem hip. We are unlikely to notice the inflated price because we will feel edgy or alternative. We will feel as though our consumption somehow confers outsider status, that it makes us somehow different from people who shop at The Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch, that we are snowflakes. And we will be wrong.

I am not treading new ground. These observations are not revolutionary. In fact, by now they should be common sense. It's quite clear at this point that revolution lies in the ability to accessorize. And I'm just waiting for Tommy Hilfiger to come out with a Black Bloc line of clothing.

How do I know this? Because I'm a freelancer who was a ghost writer for a recent edition of the leading advertising textbook, a book which tells enterprising, earnest and greedy young college students how to sell things to you. Because I've done marketing work for companies that want to turn you into a lifelong customer who can't live without their brand. Because I've written ads and designed images that pollute your mental environment.

And because I'm not that different from you.

Soul Rebel Sound(27)

So here I am at the end of the story. I want to bring things back to Gamma Gamma somehow, to complete the circle, but Gamma Gamma is long gone. I'm left standing here, staring at a kid's furniture store and wondering what it means to rebel when the method of rebellion that a large number of kids choose merely lines the pockets of major corporations. I'm left wondering what significance, if any, such a rebellion has.

I can't shake the sneaking suspicion that rebelling in these common ways - buying a Dead Kennedys(28) t-shirt at Hot Topic, for example - is meaningless, that the only meaningful rebellion occurs between the ears ... not between the changing rooms and cash register. Then I think about some of the kids I know - I just got email from Henry today; he's talking about taking his principal to court so that he can wear his mohawk up. Jen is still fighting with her school district over the curriculum; she's graduating early to get to college that much sooner. And suddenly, things don't seem so bad.

After all, maybe Tommy Hilfiger will put his name on a designer brick. So what if he does? It will still be going through a window ... and maybe, if Justice smiles that day, through the window of the store that sold it.


Adorno, Theodor W. The Culture Industry. 1991. London: Routledge, 2001.
Frank, Thomas C., and Weiland, Matt, eds. Commodify Your Dissent. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1997.
Frank, Thomas C. The Conquest Of Cool. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1997.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning Of Style. 1979. London: Routledge, 1989.
Horkheimer, Max, and Adorno, Theodor W. Dialectic Of Enlightenment. 1944. New York: Continuum, 2000.
Klein, Naomi. No Logo. New York: Picador USA, 1999.
Lasn, Kalle. Culture Jam. New York: Quill, 2000.


  1. http://www.thefader.com
  2. http://www.indypress.org
  3. http://www.cornerstonedigital.com
  4. The easiest way to get registrant information for a domain name - and this is something that anyone can do - is to visit any Web site that will let you do a whois lookup (I used networksolutions.com). For thefader.com, Mr. Holland listed his company as Cornerstone. For Cornerstone, he listed it as Tangerine Music.
  5. "The tensions between dominant and subordinate groups can be found reflected in the surfaces of subculture - in the styles made up of mundane objects which have a double meaning. On the one hand, they warn the 'straight' world in advance of a sinister presence - the presence of difference - and draw down upon themselves vague suspicions, uneasy laughter, 'white and dumb rages.' On the other hand, for those who erect them into icons, who use them as words or curses, these objects become signs of forbidden identity, sources of value." (Hebdige 3)
  6. Hebdige also identifies labeling and redefining as methods to bring the subculture back into the dominant culture. If the mainstream chooses to transform a subculture into a spectacle - Hebdige uses the example of soccer hooligans - then labeling applies as commentators call football fans "animals." By so doing, the mainstream effectively ostracizes the subculture permanently. By redefining the subculture, the mainstream can then bring it back into the fold - and profit from it.
  7. Hebdige 95
  8. Hot Topic stock
  9. Westfield has announced the acquisition of 22 more malls, representing an increase of their portfolio value to $15.3 billion. It is also worth noting that almost all of Westfield's malls in San Diego were acquired from TrizecHahn, a company which is divesting retail centers to focus on office space. TrizecHahn was originally founded by the principals behind Barrick Corporation, one of the world's leading gold producers, who then purchased Clark, the fourth largest independent oil refining company, in 1988.
  10. This is nearly double the number of stores that Hot Topic was operating at the end of 1998.
  11. Information current as of 4/21/2002.
  12. http://www.spencergifts.com/
  13. As a member of the Universal Studios family, this means that Spencer Gifts is a part of the Vivendi Universal conglomerate, which also includes DGC, Canal+, Decca Records, MP3.com and Universal Studios. Vivendi is also active in utilities, construction and communications ventures - specifically music (Limp Bizkit, Nine Inch Nails, U2), film ("E.T.," "A Beautiful Mind"), pay-TV, telecommunications and Internet properties. Taking it further down the rabbit hole, Vivendi Environnement is a 63% effectively owned subsidiary of Vivendi Universal and is the world leader in environmental services with operations in over 100 countries and a focus on water, waste management, energy and transportation.
  14. In this example, the signs (i.e. the Clash, CBGB) are effectively divorced from meaning; people wear them because they signify an abstract concept called "punk," not because they have any personal connection to the band or the club.
  15. If this isn't a color yet, it probably will be. Look for it in the new Pantone swatch book.
  16. Wil Wheaton
  17. http://www.wilwheaton.net/
  18. Oddly enough, Moore was in San Diego around the same time. Moore claims that he was nearly arrested because some police officers asked him - at 11 p.m. - to leave the premises of the school where he was appearing. The story behind that request is that a couple of custodians had to clean the building and didn't want to work all night. This somehow became a near arrest.
  19. Please keep in mind that I'm not attacking Wil or anyone else mentioned in this article. I'm merely noting that a Shepard Fairey shirt and a copy of "Trust Us, We're Experts" do not a rebellion make.
  20. "Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organizing, and labeling consumers. Something is provided for all so that none may escape; the distinctions are emphasized and extended." (Horkheimer and Adorno 123)
  21. Cf. Tyler Durden, "Fight Club."
  22. Adorno 100.
  23. Lasn xiii.
  24. Frank and Weiland 35.
  25. Frank and Weiland 36.
  26. It's worth noting that the participation of bands such as Rage Against the Machine effectively legitimizes the culture industry; by releasing records via this system, the band essentially supports the culture industry while helping to build still more barricades to protect it from attack, regardless of their political intent. Intent, in this case, is irrelevant. The effects only make the culture industry stronger in tangible (monetary) and intangible (the perception of being radical, street credibility) ways.
  27. "We were born to do much more than sit around and feed the doom / With one hand clutching dollars / And the other clutching wounds." - One Time Angels
  28. If it weren't questionable to buy a t-shirt of a band that hasn't existed in more than 15 years, it's certainly questionable to wear a DKs shirt in light of the recent events between Jello Biafra and the other band members - what, pray tell, is the message that the shirt's wearer is trying to send? That they support greed?

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 26, 2008