Thursday, March 30, 2023

Wearing Band T-Shirts of Bands You Don’t Know

guest post by Nick Riggle

A recent trend has teens and twenty somethings wearing band t-shirts of bands they don’t know. You can know that they don’t know the band because you can ask them: Are you a fan of AC/DC, Nirvana, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, The Doors, Slayer, Led Zeppelin? They will respond with breathtaking nonchalance: Huh? Oh, this shirt?

They wear it for the look.

Could the look be flattering? For Millennials, and most certainly for Gen-X, there might be no clearer example of a negative volitional necessity that generates the unthinkable. Thou shalt not wear a band t-shirt if thou knowest not the band. No thought is so bold, so unafraid of rejection, as to cross the Millennial and Gen-X mind.

But to them it’s edgy. It’s street. It’s rock n roll. It’s Kendall Jenner.


Who knows where it started (perhaps Ghesquière for Balenciaga in 2012), but everyone knows that Jenner slays. Long an influencer in the glammed-up band t-shirt game (along with her sisters), Jenner has been spotted wearing, among others, Metallica, Kiss, AC/DC, ZZ Top, and Led Zeppelin shirts, but when it comes to concerts she favors Harry Styles, Taylor Swift, and Fleetwood Mac. Philosophers have wondered whether you should be consistent in your personal aesthetics. Jenner seems unconcerned. When the metal band Slayer’s guitarist Gary Holt wore a t-shirt that read “Kill the Kardashians” on the band’s farewell tour in 2019, Jenner responded with classic Kardashian shade. She rocked a Slayer shirt that said “RIP” and (probably) helped bump the legacy band’s merch sales up to 10 million dollars that year.


Is it wrong to wear band t-shirts of bands you don’t know? In one sense it is obviously a mistake. I find it useful here to think about the groundbreaking theory of aesthetic value that Dominic McIver Lopes develops in his 2018 book Being for Beauty. Lopes argues that aesthetic value is metaphysically tied to the rules and norms of specific aesthetic practices. Your aesthetic reasons for acting one way rather than another when it comes to e.g. pulling an espresso shot are tied to the specific norms and achievements of the practice of pulling espresso. In the practice of band fandom that produces and distributes band t-shirts, one of the rules is crystal clear: wear a band shirt only if you love the band. If you wear one without knowing the band, then you’re not very good at the practice. You are not responding to the reasons the practice generates.

But Lopes’s theory allows for a single non-aesthetic property (or set of such) to ground different aesthetic properties in different practices. Different practices have different ‘profiles’, mapping different movements, shapes, colors, images, and so on onto different aesthetic values. The same contours and colors that are lively in minimalism are subdued abstract expressionism; the same sequence of movements that is beautiful in tap dance is awkward in ballet; a few perfect poetry verses make for a few terrible rap verses.

Maybe Kendall Jenner (and whoever else) established a new aesthetic practice of wearing band shirts as a non-fan. Wearing the shirt will potentially have different aesthetic values in each practice. Wearing one as a fan is metal, dark, unruly. As a non-fan it is edgy, indie, street, and…Kardashianesque.


There are many aesthetic practices that cast the products of another aesthetic practice in a new role. In bad cases it is ignorant cultural appropriation. In good cases it is brilliant fusion or avant-garde innovation. Even with billionaire influencers involved, wearing band t-shirts of bands you don’t know seems less like Ikea selling “jerk chicken” (bad) or sushirritos (good) and more like Jim Stark, the rebel without a cause, the jobless teen wearing work boots. Some aesthetic practices are freeloaders. Some other practice imbues the band shirt, the boots, the jeans with meaning. Outsiders detect that meaning, are somehow attracted to it, they latch onto and repurpose it without contributing to the original practice. In a sense they have to repurpose it because they don’t really know what it is. But it seems cool or interesting or irresistible and so whatever they do with it is unlikely to be the aesthetically right thing according to the practice. But being moved and inspired in this way is just part of what it is to aesthetically value something—it is to want to imitate it, incorporate it into your life, make it yours and share it with others. And in a sense they are not wrong: Band t-shirts are obviously cool.


If wearing band t-shirts of bands you don’t know is a new aesthetic practice, then there is ignorance on each side. From the fan’s point of view, the Kendall Jenner imitators are brazenly ignorant and disrespectful, flippantly adopting a mere ‘look’ by exploiting something deeply personal. From the Jenner point of view, the fans are at best overly protective, at worst plain pretentious. It’s just a t-shirt, after all, and look how dope it looks with jeans, heels, and the right jewelry!

But these freeloader practices are sure sources of confusion and letdown. Fan shirts are a quick path to aesthetic community. As a fan, you might get excited to see the youth—or perhaps billionaire influencers—in your fan club. You give a knowing nod to the unusually cool-looking person wearing an ‘80s Megadeath shirt and they return a cold stare. You say what a proper fan might say: Endgame was surprisingly good huh? To which they respond: Oh, the shirt? I don’t really know this band, I just like how it looks.

If the aesthetic goods in the non-fan’s practice piggyback on the goods in the fan’s practice, then surely the fan is owed something: Deference? Recognition? Respect? This suggests a rule that structures aesthetic practices in general: aesthetic freeloaders should orbit and defer to their source practice; they should not spin away in an attempt to create their own orbit.

What could justify this rule? It’s not that bad to ignorantly wear band t-shirts—it just kind of sucks—so the idea that it’s morally wrong seems off. And if specific aesthetic practices are practical worlds unto themselves, then it’s not immediately obvious what resources Lopes’s theory has to make good on the wrongness. But here is a thought: the aesthetic value of band t-shirts lies in the way they promote aesthetic community. They anchor individuality, express it to others, and occasion community. The t-shirt freeloader misunderstands the aesthetic value of their clothes. Doing so is apt to produce confusion and missed connection, and so some deference to the aesthetic goods of a source practice is called for.

When the right deference, recognition, or respect is not forthcoming, one might be tempted to respond with contempt at the failure of aesthetic connection, at the disrespect for the norms of a good practice. But just beyond the confusion and let down is a social opening—an opportunity for these different individuals to bond. The failure of communication is an opportunity for enlightenment: “Well you should check out Rust in Peace. “Tornado of Souls” is my favorite song.” That might take a little extra swagger on the part of the true fan. All the more reason to do it. Boldly opening up can create a bridge between worlds, and venturing into each other’s different aesthetic worlds can both expand and refine our own.

Bridges go both ways. As it turns out, Gary Holt’s encounter with the Kardashians made him a lot more Kardashianesque. Although he wore the “Kill the Kardashians” shirt because he wanted to “kill their careers”, they seem to have rubbed off on him. He now sells a lot of those t-shirts online and has expanded his collection of merch to include a range of anti-Kardashian graphics and products. A bona fide influencer.

One of my brothers is a deep player in the niche sneaker world. Like, Pizza Hut branded Reebok Pumps deep. And he got me a pair of niche sneakers that I wear now and then. I barely understand what I own. My main relationship with the shoes is that they are by far the most comfortable pair I have ever worn. So I rock them gladly, and almost every time I do some stranger comments: Nice kicks; dope shoes; fire *whatup headnod*. I happily reap the communal benefits of a practice I don’t understand.

The older I get, the more I get used to being ignored in public. Increasingly rare is the lovely random encounter, sparked by whatever, lighting up the day. Maybe I’ll buy half a dozen random band t-shirts, wear them around town, and see who I meet.

[image source]


chinaphil said...

This is a lovely post, and made me laugh out loud.

It made me think this, though: yes, distinct levels of appropriated stuff exist everywhere (Chinese tattoos on people who don't speak/read Chinese is a classic example). And the collision between the different levels is interesting, early on. (There used to be a great blog mocking those tattoos called Hanzi Smatter; your Kardasian/Slayer encounter.) But after a while, people settle into the idea that these different approaches to the same content exist, and after that, the different communities don't really have to bother each other any more. (Chinese people who spend more than a week in the USA get bored with laughing at the ignorant tattoos, and just move on.) Thereafter, the connection becomes a bit of a dead zone. It becomes uncool to laugh at the tats; it would be uncool to either (a) try to forge a connection with someone because of what's on their t-shirt (when that connection just isn't there) or (b) to get annoyed because the t-shirt wearer relates to the logo in a different way from you.
So I think I'm saying... buy a band t-shirt because you love the band. Or buy a band t-shirt because it looks cool and you know how to style it. But trying to exist making connections in the middle seems to me to be... not a thing.

Quill Kukla said...

I think this explains the phenomenon well. It is also one of my favorite things there is.

Howard said...

Art theory is over my head. I have a mild case of aphantasia. Why would people's identity be grounded in consumerism, in what band they like or what shirt they wear? Sure it's a game, but perhaps this is linked to how modern youth culture has stretched well into adulthood and people don't grow up.
Perhaps people see politics as a game too, as a matter of taste or as a sport and not as a serious pursuit.
I'd say did devotees of AC DC really like their music, did they really get it? This isn't about art, but identity and getting an identity on the cheap, sans effort.
Just to play devil's advocate

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While waiting for Eric to complete his tour of duty: "Nous" posted...It appears that Professor Jiang’s book is one of the few philosophy titles recognized in the history of the Levenson Prize since its inception in 1987.

Here’s a description of the book:

This book rewrites the story of classical Chinese philosophy, which has always been considered the single most creative and vibrant chapter in the history of Chinese philosophy. Works attributed to Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, Han Feizi and many others represent the very origins of moral and political thinking in China. As testimony to their enduring stature, in recent decades many Chinese intellectuals, and even leading politicians, have turned to those classics, especially Confucian texts, for alternative or complementary sources of moral authority and political legitimacy. Therefore, philosophical inquiries into core normative values embedded in those classical texts are crucial to the ongoing scholarly discussion about China as China turns more culturally inward. It can also contribute to the spirited contemporary debate about the nature of philosophical reasoning, especially in the non-Western traditions.

This book offers a new narrative and interpretative framework about the origins of moral-political philosophy that tracks how the three normative values, humaneness, justice, and personal freedom, were formulated, reformulated, and contested by early Chinese philosophers in their effort to negotiate the relationship among three distinct domains, the personal, the familial, and the political. Such efforts took place as those thinkers were reimagining a new moral-political order, debating its guiding norms, and exploring possible sources within the context of an evolving understanding of Heaven and its relationship with the humans. Tao Jiang argues that the competing visions in that debate can be characterized as a contestation between partialist humaneness and impartialist justice as the guiding norm for the newly imagined moral-political order, with the Confucians, the Mohists, the Laoists, and the so-called fajia thinkers being the major participants, constituting the mainstream philosophical project during this period. Thinkers lined up differently along the justice-humaneness spectrum with earlier ones maintaining some continuity between the two normative values (or at least trying to accommodate both to some extent) while later ones leaning more toward their exclusivity in the political/public domain. Zhuangzi and the Zhuangists were the outliers of the mainstream moral-political debate who rejected the very parameter of humaneness versus justice in that discourse. They were a lone voice advocating personal freedom, but the Zhuangist expressions of freedom were self-restricted to the margins of the political world and the interiority of one’s heartmind. Such a take can shed new light on how the Zhuangist approach to personal freedom would profoundly impact the development of this idea in pre-modern Chinese political and intellectual history.