Who raped the band T-shirt?

…the pervasive band t-shirt used to convey a sense of brotherhood, but today it seems to represent little more than pennies and pounds.

by Maria Kivimaa
The devastating fact that you can walk into any Topman and buy a Ramones t-shirt is not only sweetly ironic, but also bitter. The Ramones were one of world’s most influential punk bands and represented a movement, which has nothing in common with today’s high-street commercialism, but stood for everything against it. How, why and when did this travesty happen? Who raped the band t-shirt?

The story of band t-shirts started in the 60’s and 70’s when rock and metal music had its heyday. Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin equalled a lot of hair, leather, guitars and die-hard fans, who religiously supported their favourite acts, rebelled against previous generations, and showed it to the world by wearing the fittingly ugly merchandise.

A decade later came Sex Pistols and anarchy. Bands wore their own t-shirts on stage and again, for the frustrated young it was their way of giving the finger to society.

In the 90’s, if you spotted a teenager wearing a Nirvana shirt, you could be certain of their affection for the band and that at least inside they felt as much of an outsider as Kurt Cobain, the king of grunge and patron saint of all the eye-liner wearing outcasts in ripped jeans.

If you wore a band t-shirt, you were a fan. If you wore a tour t-shirt, you had been there, in the flesh, in the mud. It meant something.

Today, stroll down Brick Lane on a Sunday and you’re bound to spot a trendy kid wearing some sort of obscure Japanese electro band’s t-shirt, which they’ve never heard of, let alone the rest of us. Check out gossip magazines and witness Mischa Barton wearing a Bruce Springsteen, One Direction donning Nirvana or Jessica Simpson posing in Mötley Crue.

Now, it is of course possible that Mischa likes Bruce Springsteen. I’m roughly the same age and I definitely do. But it is clear that band t-shirts are not about music anymore; and they haven’t been for a long time. They have become mere fashion statements, vehicles of a different kind of self-expression from what they used to be; very different.

The true meaning of band t-shirts got lost somewhere in the process of dying subcultures. The young have stopped wanting to belong to a group; there’s nothing they need to unite against. The key today is individualism. Shall you wish to brand this ”movement” you could try the dated and dreaded h-word: hipster.

In this same process the way people express their personal style has changed from obvious uniforms and big b(r)ands to constructing your own style from different little pieces, to curating rather than representing: do-it-yourself, arts and crafts, uncool is the new cool, vintage. Ironically worn or random rock t-shirts fit in this equation beautifully.

The transformation has pissed some people off, mainly music snobs, and maybe rightfully so. I’d be slightly annoyed if I saw a clueless kid wearing a band that is truly under my skin and they couldn’t name three songs from them. But I try to forgive and forget and adjust; not as if I’m offended on behalf of war veterans because army jackets are in fashion either.

But let’s return to the actual crime scene - the high street.

When rock t-shirts became fashion items mainstream chain stores jumped in. And this is where things get a bit violent. The problem is that band t-shirts in high-street shops have absolutely no meaning; music or fashion wise. They are the most hollow item you could possibly buy, but unfortunately, with a band t-shirt you look like you are trying to say something - and therefore failing miserably.

If you really want to tell the world you like The Beatles (which anyway is like saying ”I like music”), make an effort to find some rare merchandise, show some real love. If you want to think of yourself as a part-time punk, then walking into Topman isn’t the thing to do. And no, you can’t buy grunge on Oxford Street either.

Profits and rights are an issue, too. The biggest bands are more like brands these days. By purchasing a Rolling Stones shirt from H&M you are just putting more money into Mick Jagger’s massive mouth, and considering their astronomically priced gig tickets, maybe you shouldn’t. The brothers Ramone are long gone, but if the commercialisation of the iconic logo and the image of their smiling heirs on their way to the bank are the only things keeping punk alive, I really hope it dies.

High-street band t-shirts are just another utterly pointless exchange of money between parties that are abusing an original and genuine piece of pop culture, and the by-product, for example, One Direction’s Zayn in his generic Nirvana t-shirt is looking like a retard. What would have Mr Cobain have thought of X-Factor, Zayn? Wait, who is actually raping who here: Zayn, Kurt or the t-shirt? Or Courtney?

Instead, I suggest the following: go see a small, up-and-coming independent band. If you like them, buy their t-shirt (any given indie band today has aesthetically at least more interesting if not more pleasing designs than the overused logo of The Ramones or The Beatles font). Wear it with pride and know that you have made a point, merchandise being an increasingly important source of almost non-existent income for small bands. Even Nirvana in their early days used to sell t-shirts just to get back home from tours.