Why Do Hipsters Grow Mullets?
February, 29, 2012. Socialitelife.com catches pop star Rihanna coming out of a seemingly posh London establishment. Seventeen photos of the "event" are posted online. Rihanna is wearing a faded denim shirt, an oversized trucker hat, studded white hot pants, tacky thigh-high leather boots, purple lipstick, dark sunglasses, three cheap-looking necklaces, and gilded hoop earrings. Under her left earring there's a neck tattoo with the words "rebelled fleur," written in the kind of cursive handwriting formerly associated with jail gangs. Her bleached, frizzy hair is kept in a haphazard ponytail, under which darker roots are not only shown, but flaunted. A tall man in a suit, perhaps a bodyguard, stands behind her at all times; fans stand in front. The caption by the photos reads, "Rihanna Goes White Trash Chic."
Picture this craziness. A Barbados-born singer is visiting London dressed like a poor-rural-American (or what some style advisor or clothing designer imagines poor rural Americans look like). The security guard (or friend) on the other hand, is wearing a blue suit. The fans are wearing regular clothes too. Only Rihanna, the star, looks "trailer park chic," "blue collar couture," or whatever. It's just fashion, sure, but thinking of this trend as a mere fashion style doesn't do justice to its wide reach. Fashion is the focal point, but poor-rural-America-inspired culture has already bled into areas like television, music, literature, interior design and even architecture. It's impossible to pinpoint the exact time when the trend went mainstream. It goes back to at least the early 2000s. As with many "edgy" trends, it probably started within a few creative clusters and then caught on with the wider public, until eventually, clothing corporations got hold of it and helped globalize it. Seeing kids today walking around the streets of Tokyo or Sao Paulo dressed as struggling rural Americans would be the most normal thing, even if they, as the Nirvana song goes, "know not what it means." Talking about Nirvana, the same happened with grunge in the 90s. Old jeans, boots and faded flannel shirts were the staple style of the Pacific Northwest working class, including alternative musicians and fans. After the local music scene became famous, the grunge look went global, even couture, before it finally faded away.
As the Rihanna photos show, the "white trash" look has already spread far beyond counter cultural clusters, so it can't last too much longer. For now, though, it's still around. This is an ad for what sounds like a wonderful club in Florida: "Redneck cool. Trailer-park fabulous. White-trash chic. Blue-collar vogue. Whatever you wish to call it, it is hip and it's fun with a downtown vibe. With great promotions and parties, live music, 32 huge TV's, a full delicious menu and a ton of cool people to meet every day, Whiskey Tango gives you something to do and a place to hang 7 days a week!" Whiskey Tango is code language, of course. Whiskey stands for white and Tango for trash. Going trashy is a commercially attractive model. In 2011, New Times Magazine voted Whiskey Tango "best bar" in Broward and Palm Beach.
Corporations also go nuts for seemingly authentic cultural trends. But when a corporation's branding apparatus grabs a hold of a cultural trend, it goes all out, while somehow staying seamless. Levi's 2010 "Go Forth" campaign, handled by famed advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, comes to mind. One TV ad shows working class youngsters walking around a struggling rural town. Fireworks go off as a rare wax cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading his poem "America" plays in the background. Yes, the real Walt Whitman reading from Leaves of Grass is featured in a Levi's ad with the sole purpose of bestowing authenticity upon a brand. Not only that, it was also a way to honor the brand's so-called birth right. "Shot on location in Braddock, the campaign features a dozen residents of diverse backgrounds dressed in Levi's® Work Wear Collection for fall," a Levi's press release said. "Work wear is Levi's® birth right."
Hinterland: "A region remote from urban areas; backcountry. A region situated beyond metropolitan centers of culture."
Stomachs are turned by the terrible living standards. But what warms up the heart? The raw poetry! Well, not really. Of course many of Rubin's images are beautiful. The most beautiful one is "Adam Waiting on His Mom to Come Home." Asleep on a stair's handle like some type of exotic bird perched on a branch, Adam's little soul is like a million miles away, floating above the front yard junk (and all the socio economic crap that junk entails). But even so, lyricism is not Vacationland's most salient feature. The idea of longing is. Not the subjects' longing. Polly with the "born to die" tattoos, Tracy with the cat, Rena and Everett under the Elvis poster, Laura Ann with her dad and rifle, and Ernie with his wheel, couldn't care less about you and me. We are the ones in a gallery staring at frozen frames of apparently worse off strangers. Vacationland can reflect back our own cultural longing. That's what's neat about it.
Take "Celebrating Christmas Night Out on the Frozen Bog." These four might not be the most successful or handsomest of men. They are ragged (really ragged, not "trailer trash chic" ragged) and quite possibly smelly and drunk. Two of them are drinking a brand of beer that's quite possibly not Stella Artois. The two on the left look utterly relaxed; the two on the right, fucking blissful. In their crazy abandon they look like wasted teenagers at a punk rock concert. Not too many urban or suburban men in their 50s or 60s (or any post-college age really) can pull this off. Many wish they could.
Then there's "Lucky Gets a Christmas Cut." The woman in the Santa hat might not be the best hairstylist in the world. And the wall art isn't precisely Gagosian Gallery material; well, you never know. The point is, this might not even be an actual hair salon. It's probably somebody's house. But three adults are engrossed in the action. It's just a haircut, but look at their faces. They may as well be watching the NBA finals. The man getting the haircut would be right to consider himself the most appreciated man alive. Plus, every person in that room knows each other's name and even what each one likes to have for dinner. You can almost see fraternity linking these people like a pink ribbon around a Christmas gift.
In "Hanging Deer" we learn that the man in the photo, or somebody in his circle, killed that poor animal. The deer could have, and should have, been spared. But if all cultural judgments are put aside, a silent vigor comes through. The vigor is not so much in the photo itself, but in its context. The story surrounding the photo is full of adventure, rituals, and a deep connection to the land. Also, there's a sense of real accomplishment. Real blood, real rifles, real killing. It's the opposite of, for instance, Facebook reality. There's no physical detachment in Vacationland's world. To be up by that dead deer, you need to trudge through the cold mud, get on your knees and pull that trigger. Then you need to drag the animal to the truck, drive it home and hang it from a branch. No password or browser will ever grant you access to that reality.
Why does Rihanna wear a trucker hat around London? Why is a Florida bar called Whiskey Tango? Why does a Levi's ad display shoddy Pennsylvanian houses? Why do hipsters grow mullets? The short answer: because terrorists don't attack trailer parks. The long answer: go take a look at the photographs.
essay copyright © 2012 Patricio Maya