A BAND T-shirt is one of the first things you can choose to mark out an identity. They say: “I’m 13 and into Nirvana, angry-sounding music created by an artist who died young that my parents consider a bad influence. Perfect. Now I fit in with millions of kids who have yellow smiley-face Nirvana shirts.”
Many of us have since grown into conventional lives a thousand light years from the rebellion and freedom of youth, wearing business shirts under fluorescent lights while we sit through a blur of meetings, but still the Beatles and Beach Boys come out on weekends. “The system doesn’t own my mind. This is who I really am, man. I still like music.” Sure you do.
This is how we send signals like, ‘I’m into Led Zeppelin II.’ Remember real music? There’s nothing like an original shirt that tells us you were at that ’85 Springsteen tour. Old, torn and faded. A washed-out relic immortalising the girl you were with when you bought it, a memento of the many parties and festivals you’ve worn it to since.
Those beat-up old shirts are potentially worth serious money to people who value vintage items. The online market is unsurprisingly crazy. Fancy a “Kurt Cobain Memorial Portrait Vintage Thrashed T-shirt” from 1995 for $1000? You can find originals from the Clash, Sonic Youth and every 1980s metal band with bids opening at $500.
Then there are people who just want to wear the retro cultural signifiers, without hearing any music. My friend once had a customer come into his record store asking if he had “any of those black Ram Ones T-shirts”. They meant the Ramones. To be fair, it’s a cool logo that was in fashion. Ramones shirt, ripped jeans, sunglasses and sneakers. Easy and timeless.
there are people who just want to wear the retro cultural signifiers, without hearing any music
But did you know there’s somewhere else you can buy Ram Ones T-shirts? The very place where the spirit of once-great bands goes to die. You’ll find them in department stores, priced from $5 to $15. Nirvana and the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, the Beatles and the Ramones piled in together with Nickelback shirts. They’re all bands, right?
The price of these mass-produced shirts confirms the distressing living conditions for the workers who made them. But here they are in great heaps, always with more XXXLs than any other size, like assorted snapshots of mass pop culture. Star Wars, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, The Avengers, Harley-Davidson, Superman, Coca-Cola and The Simpsons.
You won’t find any names in these piles that don’t have genuine world-conquering status. You need total saturation before your logo is ready to stand by itself. Absolutely removed from the music and reality of what made the band great in its time, and ready to be stamped out by a factory production line and sold to middle-aged dudes.
Nothing signifies that you’re getting older than your dad getting into the ‘retro revival’ of bands you were into in high school. I bought a Ramones shirt for $5.