October 2nd, 2006.
Last Thursday night, Starlight Ballroom in the Lower East Side, our 21 year-old guy is wearing the new Diesels. The Thanaz. Sure, the back of his knees are nasty and sweaty from the bike ride over (he got the Bianchi frame from some pawn store for $120 – seriously), and the mousse that’s keeping his asymmetric bangs carefully plastered to his skull is dripping into his mouth, but there’s got to be some sort of trade-off for credible indie super-hipness. It’s probably in the guide book. So anyway, the fresh baile funk dance punk shredcore trio from North London are halfway through their ragged set when he sees her. The leggings are what got his attention at first: bright red and white, running all the way up to that black micro post-feminist skirt with the cyber-punk-grrrl patch where her right asscheek would be. But it was the buttons that really got him: three of them, lined up in a neat row upon her camo-headphone print messenger bag. The first one: green, ninjatunes. A way down hip hop label. On the other end: Morrissey, “Viva la Hate” era. That’s sort of by obligation, but still…quality. In the middle, however, a total thrower: “Drop needles, Not bombs!” She’s into knitting too? This is too rad…
Buttons have been in existence since, well, people shed robes in exchange for trousers, during what may have been known as “The Great Separation of Jacket and Pants 647 AD. Perhaps even before that. But the indie button is a very different story. It combines the 60s inspired art school influences of Pop and Dada with iconic elements of youthful rebellion such as punk, feminism and anarchism. Throw in a liberal dash of po-mo (post-modern) irony with the cute subtlety of two dollar upward-mobility-angsty tastes, and the indie button (“iButton” if you will) is at this stage a fully entrenched staple of the discriminating urban hipster diet, nestled cosily in handfuls on the dresser next to the “I’m Gay, Ask me how” shirt and old Yeah Yeah Yeahs ticket stubs. But how long will the button, and indie pop culture for that matter, remain cutting edge and relevant? Will it eventually go the way of Hot Topic economics, down slicked tunnels leading into the annals of ephemeral pop culture trashiness? Or, alternatively, does the button point the way to the birth of an enduring, independent culture capable of rejecting the watering down of mass-niche market consumerism and, as has remained a constant question for the indie faithful: can it remain true to artistic integrity and expression?
It was with such questions in mind that I descended last weekend upon Crafty Bastards, DC’s only “indie” crafts fair. It fell on a pleasant Fall day in Adams Morgan, where Marvin Gaye blasted from turntables and crowds strained to observe b-boys cartwheel. The crowd was largely young, trendy, and discerning. In 2006, that means going heavy on the aviator glasses, slouchey boots, and naturally, lots and lots of buttons. As I wondered the stalls, I wondered how much further all of this could really go; in fact, there was little ‘traditional’ craft on display at all, but rather a slew of plastic buttons, rings, bags, and clothes.
The button-makers at Crafty Bastards were much like the indie button makers I’ve encountered at similar events: young, clever, fashionable and articulate white women whose appearance suggests well-read, pop-culture quipping personas. Through casual conversation, I found that several had attended art school and been making buttons since their middle school days, while some held neither formal art training or more than a few months’ experience.
Their buttons offered a good synopsis of the themes and attitude currently framing the conversation of their generation. As with any of its other incarnations, the indie button spans an unsurprisingly broad cross-section. Upon further inspection, however, a handful of recurring motifs become prominent. The most traditional (or ‘safe’) of any aspiring buttonista’s collection are her music buttons, sporting favorite band members and logos of the indie rock institution, both classic and current. Perennial favorites include early punk and mod heroes like Lou Reed and Paul Weller, and current (many might say unfortunate) well-represented groups from recent derivations such as emo and neo-prog. Extending naturally and often directly out from music, one generally encounters the political: ranging from anti-corporate to pro-gay marriage, but practically universally liberal. One strand of indie kids—the anarchist punk batallion—particularly enjoy wearing their politics on their sleeves, as rally cries like “Insert anarchist slogan here” affirm in a most direct fashion. Feminism remains an extremely popular theme amongst the female half; not atypically, this involves a stereotypical housemother from a 1950s magazine with an unexpected piece of separate text stuck across her image, spouting lines such as “Phone sex is so outdated” or “Can you say ‘sleeping on the couch tonight?’”
“The point is to give voice to these women, who may have not had a voice in their original [depictions,]” explained one button maker from Mischief Shop.
Other buttons at the fair invoked more innocent times. Jenifer from Sprout studio, an elementary school teacher, took pictures from children’s books about to be thrown out from her school’s library in San Francisco and recycled them into cute, Enid Blyton-esque buttons, equally suitable on a first grader’s dotted frock as that of a Boston art student. One was even of Curious George!
The same selection featured a popular botanical collection of fine plant sketches. When asked whether she was interested in sustainable ecology, Jenifer told me that indeed, she was, but that that “wasn’t really the point.” More important, it seemed, was her commitment, like all of the other crafties at Crafty, to creating only one-of-a-kind, organic work.
Despite button-makers’ earnest striving to create unique work, it is very rare to find original drawings or art within the indie button oeuvre. At its core, the button is a thoroughly modern artform, drawing inspiration from the Pop and Dada movements, which recycled images and text from advertising and entertainment mediums, and infused them with new, often subversive meanings. In the case of buttons, this largely involves outdated magazine articles and books. Through their “recycle and recreate” philosophy, it occurred to me that button makers are similar to many of the musicians they might listen to. Having reached a stage at which creating entirely new sounds within contemporary rock music has become a formidable task, critical and artistic trends have reoriented their efforts towards the pastiche-honoring yet still unique combination of sounds. The pretense for such “re-packaging” is that truly original sounds or images are almost too difficult to come by or bother creating.
The majority of images used at this stage in the indie button evolution are culled from a very particular period, including the stiff, outdated images of the mid-20th Century…the sort that originated during the blissful, pre-sweatshop-busting campaign days of American consumerism. This is done almost exclusively in jest, with irony and kitsch the major preening-tool through which it seems they were selected. I asked one button lady about how she chose particular images, taken from an old dictionary.
“Well, there’s a fair bit of grab ass in some of the boy scout pictures,” she quipped, referring to the apparent homoeroticism her buttons illuminate.
“That’s too funny,” commented a browsing button-purchaser. Such irony-laced, insinuating high-context comedy, which pokes fun at itself as much as at others, is another essential piece of elite indie discourse.
The current generation of mid-20 through early-30-somethings who prescribe to this Radiohead-era indie subculture are often the children of blue-state baby boomers, and subsequently, one might infer, thoroughly secular. Removing the traditional spiritual and classicist American bedrock from the equation, their art thus focuses on the themes with which their generation grew up in the 80s identifying with: social liberalism, disgust at Reagonomic values and the working stiffs they poked fun at, rock rebellion, and, of course, pop culture. The fetishizing and subsequent commodification of this most particular of music and fashion eras, has been solidified in recent years by the music channel VH1, whose tongue-in-cheek “I Love the 80s” programs and rash of contrived culture-jabbing, failed-celebrities-cum-failing-comedians, has in turn spurred a new mass market for ironic t-shirts and thrift store devotees. Slogans such as “Jesus is my homeboy,” “Jersey girls aint trash (Trash gets picked up),” and “Stop Stalin, Start Russian” have, quite bizarrely, become the light-hearted earmarks of a generation which at face value could be seen as a mySpace-obsessing cohort of apathetic consumers; smarmy, nihilistic vagabonds to those with little to go on but face value.
Of course this, like most assumptions, would be rash and oversimplifying in the most demeaning way. Ours is in actuality a generation of over-achievers, of 50s-aping careerists. It just happens to be that some of us are compelled and able to temper such ambitious economic compulsions with healthy (sometimes perhaps extreme) levels of satire and irony. The post-industrial, mass middle-class society our parents built has provided ample resources, as well as an education system which encourages critical analysis. The humor drawn from our buttons frowns upon the traditionally blinded, “Yes-man” mentality, whilst remaining in tow with traditional American values of hard work and earned merit. This newly carved space, which allows for corporate-ladder scaling that actually embraces the sexy and dark, is manifesting itself in the ascendancy of potty-mouthed, sexualized post-feminist journalism from the likes of former-Wonkette, now Time reporter Ana Marie Cox and other Gawker-stylized blog pioneers. It redefines masculinity through the mainstreaming of the Metrosexual meme, and through reading habits which can finally combine the ambition and technological savvy of Harvard Business Review or Wired with the unabashed mindlessness of People. It’s the bourgeois and the bohemian; the classically kitschy with the giftedly technological.
How this generation’s meta-critical smarts might match up with the more traditional work ethic and business drive of the new-India and China generation of dreamers remains to be seen. But we are who we are, and whether our parents’ look upon this as the great decline or most fortunate peak of human civilization. If nothing else, this indie generation’s worldview and aesthetic habits offer testament as to just how far the consumer society can travel. Or, more specifically, how far the humble button has already gone.