That dead guy you’re wearing across your chest, do you know who he is?
My stomach was twisting, my vision became blurry and my brow started to bead with sweat when the thing entered my field of vision.
I had walked into Forever 21, or Bluenotes, or something in that category of fashion store at the mall. I was looking for a pair of cheap, black flats for work, when the thing stopped me dead in my tracks.
It was a white crop-top. Normally, that wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary in such a store, but upon further inspection, it was something truly horrifying. There, right in front of me, was an image of Kurt Cobain surrounded with flowers, guitar in hand. The letters “COBAIN” were plastered in green across the front.
I stood there, stunned. For perhaps the first time in 24 years, I had no words.
Some background on why I was feeling so rattled: I was that angsty teen who helped her guy friends dye their hair the same deep red that Cobain donned for a while. I was the one listening to Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and all those grungy bands religiously whenever I got the chance. Their indifference and disgust for popular culture and the mainstream really spoke to me at the time, and it still does today, but in a different way.
Nirvana’s music was built on being a dirty misfit and societal reject. Cobain and company relished on living on the outskirts of society and when the fame and mainstream notoriety of Nirvana became too much for Cobain to bear. Well, we all know how that story ended.
All I could think was, “What in the actual fuck am I looking at?” This exact thing was everything that Cobain loathed. A mainstream fashion store was profiting from his image.
Do the girls buying and wearing the top even know Nirvana, or what they represented? Maybe. Or maybe they just know Kurt’s name. But anyone who understood his music wouldn’t even entertain the idea of wearing that skimpy crop-top with his name across it.
When people promote bands they don’t actually know, weird and awkward stuff happens. For instance, a coworker and I were chatting after a shift and I noticed that she was wearing a Nirvana tank top. I was stoked, because I didn’t peg her as a fan and excitedly I exclaimed, “Yes! Nice shirt!”
A few seconds of thick, uncomfortable silence followed.
She replied, “Oh… I actually don’t know them, I just liked the shirt.”
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t hide my prominent frown, raised eyebrow and crushing disappointment.
Full disclosure time: I own about 20 or 30 band t-shirts. Roughly 75 per cent of those were purchased at a show. Some shirts are from my favourites, the classic titans of rock like Rush, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
However, some of those shirts are from smaller bands that are just starting out. I will never buy their band merchandise just to have it. The music has to speak to me, reach me. If it does, I feel compelled to buy some merch to support them. In a tiny way, I believe I’m helping them in their journey of chasing their dream. If another fan were to approach me about my shirt, there’d be no question we could have a discussion about the band.
Hold on though. Before you write me off as that pretentious, know-it-all music fan, I feel this way about any band or artist. Why should some cheap clothing store, or anyone other than the artist or band, for that matter, profit from their image? Too often I see commercial goods stamped with the work of Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, and Da Vinci.
Amidst my ranting, my point (yes, I do have one, somewhere), is a simple question: should the lifelong toil and hard work of a deceased artist be whittled down to a cheap t-shirt, worn by someone in the name of fashion?
Should the legacy of an artist be whitewashed and transformed into profit for whomever their estate now benefits?
It’s gross and I hate it. It’s capitalism at its worst.