Urban Outfitters and Titus Andronicus: Authenticity in the Age of Aestheticism

The “bohemian” has been divided into aesthetic and ideology.  My generation—individuals born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s—has been named generation Y, millennials, generation “me,” or more recently, generation self(ie).  Whatever you call us, we’re categorized as highly individualistic to a point of fault.  Whether or not I find these descriptions consistent with my experience, the chance to be ahead of the curve for the low-low-price of your (often wealthy) parents’ money isn’t a hard sell. Urban Outfitters Chief Executive Officer Richard Hayne describes the demographic of customers as “upscale homeless,” in the “life stage of 18-26,” with a “slight degree of angst.”  His statements and those of other executives were collected in a listicle comparing the reported lives of the customers at Anthropologie, Free People, and (of course) Urban, three of the company’s major stores.

The “life stage” the CEO references is one of vulnerability, a time in which young adults are likely entering either college or the workforce.  The demographic sounds relatively bohemian: young people, likely experiencing the pressures of adulthood after years of limited responsibility paired with a newfound freedom, but with the financial security of coming from a middle to upper-middle class family.  The term “upscale homeless” also caters to the bohemian ideal, a financially stable vagabond; the life and aesthetic of the starving artist without actually starving.  What this brand of bohemianism or “boho chic” lacks are the driving causes found in historically bohemian circles.  The aesthetic has been (very successfully) commodified and sold to young adults with a hint of angst.  However, their audience is apparently not so full of angst that they are unable to reconcile the company’s ethically questionable (to put it lightly) business practices.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean to suggest that the patrons of Urban Outfitters lack moral compasses; the options for ethical consumption in late capitalism are highly limited, due to a lack of transparency in the business practices of large corporations such as Walmart, H&M, Tyson, Monsanto, and a litany of others that by their very nature eliminate the individual artisan-entrepreneur, not to mention the necessarily hierarchical and alienating nature of capitalism. I digress.

The hip, chic “bohemia” has been hollowed of its political underpinnings.

Bohemia is historically marked with revolutionary ideological hubs (see Mabel Dodge, see Greenwich Village, see Paris).  Bohemia is queer, in that it aligns with queer theory and its rejection of the priorities or values of the time.  Queerness is not simply the rejection of  norms, but also the introduction of alternatives to issues presented as one-sided.  The communities of like-minded artists no longer exclusively gather in parlors or coffee shops, but rather in DIY music venues that support the genres of punk, post-punk, punk rock, and other various iterations.

Bohemia has historically been appropriated; much of historical bohemia has sprouted from the the rejection of the bourgeois life by the privileged (see Arthur Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein, Kerouac, etc.).  While there is inherent privilege in creating the punk genres, the subject matter of the music utilizes the privilege of the groups as a platform of institutional criticism.  What makes these groups bohemian in the truest sense of the word is that their convictions expose themselves through their art; most importantly, they are primarily artists.

One of the most influential albums in my (admittedly limited, but expanding) musical career is also one of the most political albums I have encountered: The Monitor by Titus Andronicus.  At the risk of raving over the four-year-old album that sent the New Jersey punk rock band into relative stardom—it’s beautiful.  The Monitor is a Civil War concept album that addresses the Edward-Said-inspired othering in conflict, escapism, mental illness, conceptualizations of freedom, ideas of “productivity” in society, and the complicated nature of patriotism, with a concerned and critical lens akin to that of James Baldwin when he says, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

The album begins with an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address titled The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.  Lincoln speaks to the dangers of slavery and the corruption the federal government could incur as a result of its continued existence.  The excerpt culminates with the line “if destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we will live forever or die by suicide.” The song, titled “A More Perfect Union,” introduces the overarching narrative of The Monitor: a parallel between the American Civil War and the life of Patrick Stickles, the lead singer of the group, particularly his struggle with depression in his transition from the New York/Jersey area to Massachusetts.

The album addresses mental illness most directly in No Future Part III: Escape From No Future.  The song describes the medication involved in treating mental illness–both self-prescribed and that which waits for him at the local pharmacy–and swells with the singular repeating phrase “you will always be a loser.”  If we return to queer theory, discussed heavily in Lee Edelman’s No Future, linked above, mental illness presents an alternative to the social construction of sanity, the strictly defined borders of ‘normal’ or ‘productive’ human consciousness.  In my experience, mental illness is often perceived as destructive to my productivity and perceived functionality as a member of society.  The embrace of this queerness, the alternative nature of one’s consciousness, and the permanence and reality one’s condition is validated in the final subordinate clause of the song, “and that’s okay.”

Three songs, “Titus Andronicus Forever, “Four Score and Seven,” “And Ever,” are most heavily critical of the binary oppositional nature of conflict.  Immediately following “A More Perfect Union, Titus Andronicus” is a song of few words, “the enemy is everywhere,” repeated ad nauseum, “nobody seems to be worried or care, the enemy is everywhere.”  The song concludes with an excerpt from a letter penned by Abraham Lincoln, saying “I am now the most miserable man living.  If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth.”  Juxtaposed with the othering of oneself from one’s surroundings, and identifying the other as the enemy, the context is clear.  “Four Score and Seven” opens with the phrase “this is a war we can’t win, after ten thousand years, it’s still us against them.”  and builds with the repetition of the phrase “it’s still us against them” and lyrically concludes with “and they’re winning.”  The song expresses the frustration and futility of the binary-oppositional “us vs them” mentality.  “And Ever,” a continuance or conclusion to “Titus Andronicus Forever,” repeats almost the same lyrics, with “I’m worthless and weak, oh I’m sick and I’m scared and the enemy is everywhere.”  This incarnation has more instrumental variation, this time with keyboard and a blaring horns section.  The concluding excerpt from Lincoln’s first inaugural address is as follows:

“I am loathe to close.  We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break the bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory stretching from battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the union when again touched, for surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The final and longest song, clocking in at just over fourteen minutes, is titled “The Battle of Hampton Roads.”  This is one you’re gonna have to listen to in order to follow me here, folks.  The song addresses a coming of age in a culture in which certain ideas are ingrained at a young age, reflected in the lines “the things I used to love I have come to reject, the things I used to hate I have learned to accept,” and later, through a more critical lens:

“Solidarity is going to give a lot less than it’ll take, is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped? Is there a boy in this town that’s not exploding with hate? Is there a human alive that can look themselves without winking, or saying what they mean without drinking, or believe in something without thinking ‘what if somebody doesn’t approve?’ is there a soul on this earth that isn’t too frightened to move?

This stanza addresses rape culture, the toxicity of socialized masculinity, the ingrained notion of apathy, and the subsequent need to imbibe or intoxicate oneself in order to speak genuinely. Titus Andronicus has addressed these highly political issues concisely and paired them with soaring and compelling musicality.

The modern genre of punk-rock encompasses the privilege, the artistry, and the underground spirit of Bohemians.  The leaders are children of the bourgeois, educated, white, male artists critiquing society and imbibing as a way of life.  Though the bohemian aesthetic has been commodified and commercialized, the lifestyle and attitudes have manifested themselves in the DIY punk rock scene.


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