Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: T-shirts

Generation $

Beavers, birch bark and transmission towers: oh, the visions of Canada. When Douglas Coupland, who christened a generation with his 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, sought motifs for his new product line, he threw out all traditional emblems of the true North, strong and free. “They all seemed kind of corny,” he told the Toronto Star’s David Livingstone. “Mounties and moose—we just can’t do that anymore. It’s over.”

Instead, his ‘Roots x Douglas Coupland’ collection focuses on the exciting Marshall McLuhan era of the 1960’s. In a pretentious video on the Roots website (advertised, naturally, on facebook, a phenomenon McLuhan would have loved), Coupland makes the dubious claim that the period was the “moment in Canadian history…when we were the only country that had electricity and communication systems… We didn’t have politics, there was no Communism, no Imperialism… everyone said, ‘Wow, look what this TV set can do!”

So, out with the nostalgic summer camp symbols beloved by Michael Budman and Don Green, the two Americans who created a luxury retail empire based on their fond memories of Algonquin Park, and in with colour bars, circuit boards and satellites. The famous beaver survived, but re-imagined as a 3D outline in neon green and black.

While Coupland’s call to take “the vision of the future forward” is intriguing, there is nothing particularly forward-thinking about the resulting items. We’ve seen T-shirts with colour bars and computer graphics since the 1990’s. An intricate motherboard pattern cannot rescue exhausted leggings or keffiyeh scarves, both trendy since 2005. Roots is a high-end store with matching prices, and one might hope that they would move beyond fashion’s lowest common denominator of T-shirts and sweat pants. “Summer isn’t really a silhouette-creating season,” Coupland says, by way of excuse.

Coupland has even allowed his curvy signature to be spattered across tops, pants and bracelets as a logo. The author, whose Generation X characters dismissed paid-for experiences as inauthentic, has literally turned his name into a brand.

He first “unveiled” (otherwise known as “promoted”) the line at ideaCity in June, while singing the praises of the Roots leather factory (“the cleanest, best factory I’ve ever been in”), essentially turning Moses Znaimer’s ‘Meeting of the Minds’ into an advertisement.

Despite making his reputation on his anti-commercialist writing, he now sees no conflict and argues that the new generation of artists uses retail as a “mode of creative expression.” One wonders what the Douglas Coupland of 1991 would say about that.

Let’s hope there’s more to Canada’s future than transmission towers and commercial cross-overs.

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Oh. Canada.

Right, Canada Day!

Crap.

What to write about? You would think that I would, as somebody who recently lived in another country, be filled with nationalistic ideas, but no. I could write about foreigners’ opinions on Canada, if they had any. Or I could recount how I was the politically-correct one at my Dublin Starbucks, informing my co-workers that pulling up the sides of your eyes to signify ‘Chinese’ is not cool, and write yet another ‘multiculturalism and tolerance is deeply rooted in our national identity’ paean.

But those are tiring, and they pretend like Canada has never had any racial problems, and are lame.

I could write about coming home, my joyful feeling as the plane tilted slightly and I first saw the entire Toronto downtown illuminated, CN Tower and shimmering lights, and being back where every neighbourhood, almost every street, recalls a personal story, an aimless wander becoming a survey of my life.

But those are very Toronto, not Canada, and the rest of the country hates us, right?

So here’s a different tactic.

When I arrived at Pearson airport that December night, lugging two gigantic bags of clothing, books and the random relics of my European adventures, I had no idea where my life was going. I would look for a job after Christmas and start a few Ryerson courses, and that’s as far as I got. I had a few euros in my pocket and a habit of turning sentences that were declarative into questions by going up at the end (the only Irish influence on my voice, my brother discovered). But that was it. I lay awake at night worrying and wondering how someone who finished undergrad so passionate and excited ended up, at 24, with no direction.

Virginia Woolf wrote that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.”

Well, on or about February 2010 Max’s character changed.

If you had told me, when I was still jet-lagged, that my Ryerson courses would re-energize my writing, force me to practice and polish my voice and get me excited about posting a blog everyday and pursuing freelance writing, I wouldn’t have believed you.

The school is Canadian.

If you had told me, as I unpacked my grey and neon Penny’s t-shirts from Dublin, that I would get an internship at a fashion magazine within two months, and not just a fashion magazine, but an alternative feminist one, literally put together in a Parkdale attic by dedicated and fabulous volunteers, and that this internship would encourage my writing while reuniting me with my old love of fashion, I would have thought you were crazy.

This magazine, shipped all over the country and the world, is Canadian.

And, at twilight on New Years Day, as I lay on my bed in the dark, just broken up with by the guy I had started seeing, wondering how many more times this would happen, and angry at this dismal start to my year, you said,

‘Worry not: in a few months you will meet a man who will be the smartest, bravest and most heroic person you’ve ever known, and he will inspire you and change you and even ask you to write with him.’

I would have thought you sarcastic, and a bit of a bitch.

Having left his first country, he came to Canada, to be free.

Two thousand and ten has already made me a new person. And my life is fun again. Maybe too much fun, actually, as my latest credit card bill was equal to my last pay cheque.

I am saving up to go to India with Dervla.

After which, I will be happy to come home.

Yes ‘Tee’ Can!

The 2008 American election was a big deal for my family. Like many people around the world, we were transfixed by the personalities, the drama, the historical precedents broken and the opportunity to start anew after eight years of Bush. As a family of political junkies, with two newspapers daily, CNN constantly on the TV and my filling my parents in on what the blogosphere was saying, we were particularly obsessed. During the long primary process, my family’s support was evenly divided; my Mom, a dedicated feminist, supported Hillary Clinton, while my Dad and I favoured Barack Obama. This led to some light-hearted rows in which both candidates’ main spin lines would be repeated ad nauseum and my Grandmother, thinking we were all nuts, would attempt to change the channel to country music.

I want to put my Obama tee-shirt into context. When I finally bought it the summer before the election, I was not doing so out of any jump-on-the-bandwagon trendiness. This would not be a repeat of my misguided Che Guevara tee-shirt circa 2002. I had thought long and hard about my support for the senator from Illinois and as a Canadian ineligible to vote or even to donate money south of the border (my Dad looked into it), I wanted to show my support the best way I knew how: through fashion.

I went to Queen Street and had a tee-shirt made with a pixilated portrait of Obama smiling handsomely. Only when it was finished did I discover that the design was in white and was just barely visible on the light blue tee-shirt I had picked out. The iconic face only became recognizable on close inspection (something like the Shroud of Turin), but I came to appreciate that this would be an Obama tee-shirt no one else had. I wore it proudly, always aware that someone might start a fight with me, but confident that I could defend my candidate and tee-shirt choice.

The last weekend of summer, my family and I were half out the door for our cottage when I read online that John McCain had announced his running mate. “Who the heck is Sarah Palin?” I thought as I grabbed my backpack and headed down to the car. A week later, I reluctantly watched the Republican National Convention to get the scoop on Alaska’s governor for my parents who were still on Lake Simcoe. I watched Palin’s confrontational and sarcastic speech gape-mouthed. “She’s making fun of community organizers!” I cried to my Dad via cell phone. “She’s just… awful!” Eventually, I had to change the channel.

The very next day was my first at the University of Toronto. I knew many of my fellow grad students would want to impress by dressing smart but casual, in button up shirts and corduroy jackets. When I woke up, the “traditional Alaskan wind song” (as Tina Fey would later call it) of Palin’s voice was still seared into my brain, and in protest I grabbed my Obama tee-shirt. “On this day of all days,” I thought, “I am proud to wear this!” The backlash from my new peers, either for political reasons or because my political sincerity was undeniably nerdy, never materialized. Instead, some of the first friends I made in the program approached me because of the shirt and indulged me as I ranted about Palin’s speech the night before.

On election night, there was only one choice of what to wear, but weary of jinxing the outcome, I covered it up in a hoodie. (“Watching CNN will be insufferable if they don’t elect him,” I said. “If they don’t elect him, CNN gets turned off…forever,” my Dad replied ominously.) When they announced Obama’s win, early in the night but years in the waiting, I couldn’t believe it was all over. As my family opened sparkling wine, I added to my tee-shirt a button that said “Yes We Did.”

A year and a half later, the tee-shirt hangs in my closet, a memento of that exciting time. President Obama’s first year in office had its ups and downs, and while my support for him has never wavered, I don’t know when I will wear the tee-shirt again. Showing support for a candidate during an election is one thing; wearing a tee-shirt with the person who now heads the American government signifies something completely different. A tee-shirt supporting the president seems thuddingly uncool, even when the president is cool himself. Perhaps I will wear it again when he runs for re-election and I feel he needs my support again against whichever climate-change denier gets the Republican nomination. And if I keep the shirt long enough, it may accrue hipster status, like memorabilia with Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, although the diminishment of Obama into a camp relic would be depressing to any of us who got excited in 2008.

A friend recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C. and told me of tee-shirts being sold in the airport which said, “Don’t blame me, I voted for McCain-Palin.” “Oh my god!” I exclaimed, “I would totally wear one of those.” Then I felt the need to add, “As a joke, of course.” What a difference a year makes.