Strange Boutique (April 2015) – How to make a subversive tote bag

For my April column in The Japan Times, I tacked the important issue of indie bands making tote bags.

The indie tote bag is an interesting phenomenon, serving any number of functions. One of them is to divide the old-school underground/alternative scene from the cosmopolitan indie/fashionista scene which – in an era where everyone listens to the same basic kinds of bands – it does in a way far more effective than mere music ever could. How long underground tradition can resist the branded tote bag’s irresistable march, however, who can say?

First of all, let’s be clear about one thing though: Yeah, I know they’re just bags.

Secondly, I should also be clear about another thing: No, of course they’re not just bags.

I don’t object to bands making money, although I don’t think that should be in any way a matter of importance to them. What I object to in the article is the “boutiquing” of indie culture – the turning of the alternative into a miniaturised facsimile to the same homogenising capitalism that made the alternative necessary in the first place. This is a conflict or discourse between art and commercialism that has been going on since the dawn of pop, and however it manifests itself it ain’t going away.

On a personal aesthetic level though, there’s something else that bugs me about tote bags, in a way that t-shirts don’t, and which goes beyond the simple fact that t-shirts are established but tote bags are relative newcomers. There’s something pleasingly direct in the way a t-shirt dominates your ensemble and blares its message rudely and front-on, whereas the tote bag embodies the coyness and lack of conviction that characterises so much contemporary indie culture. You can have a Black Sabbath t-shirt, but a Black Sabbath tote bag only works either by adopting it as an ironic statement or by divorcing the band’s meaning from its superficial signifiers.

That’s not to say that no one should make tote bags. City Pop and post-Shibuya-kei bands already exist in a realm of commercialised faux-artisanal aestheticism, so there’s nothing there for the bags to to undermine in the first place. Other people get away with it thanks to their own particucular characteristics or creative virtues.

A bag. From Umez.

(Making tote bags, however, can be very expensive in Japan.)

Umez make tote bags, and they get away with it partly because their design sense is good and partly because as a band they carry their position on the fringes of the indie/fashionista scene with such awkward, occasionally brutal originality. They should have tote bags because they’re in the tote bag scene, but at the same time, they challenge the musical and creative boundaries of what a tote bag band can be.

Another side is the branding aspect of it. When I was in Nagasaki this past spring, I saw a girl from a band selling home made jewelry and accessories at a gig. I bought a brooch from her for my wife and very nice it was too. These weren’t band-related products that she was attempting to leverage as part of the band’s branding – they were simply imaginative, attractive pieces of design and craftsmanship that she made.

The way the article is framed raises the possibility, partly facetiously, of a “subversive tote bag”, and while the idea made me laugh, it also increasingly felt like a challenge. With that in mind, I came up with two possible approaches towards bringing out the radical potential in tote bags.

The first was to consider how the tote bag’s form and function differs from the blunt weapon of the sloganeering t-shirt. Hanging coyly at the side, a tote bag attracts attention in a different way, drawing your attention in sidelong, not requiring you to gawp directly at the wearer’s chest. A tote bag is a space for a more intricate message – one that would draw viewers in as they stand next to you on a train, or that would show people brief fragments as they pass you in a shop. You’d reach fewer people, but could perhaps affect those people more profoundly. A block of text or a design that offends, disturbs, challenges or confuses, even (or perhaps especially) in a fragmentary form could make the tote bag’s form work towards more subversive ends.

The other idea was to sell branded tote bags that are only available with a brick in them – perhaps even sewn into the body of the bag. You know, just in case you need to swing it at a cop. The sheer impracticality of it, both in terms of selling and wearing them, could neutralise the commercial nature of the bag and emphasise its radical purpose.

Naturally, I’m not going to start making tote bags now, and indeed, the tote bag-hating friends of mine I mention in the article actually responded with something like rage when I even suggested these ideas, unwilling to buy into it even as a theoretical exercise. What I mean with all this, silly though it may be when pursued to this extreme, is that – much like when I talked about making music for advertising earlier on in the year – musicians should consider the relationship between their commercial activities and their art, and how the former affects the meaning or value of the latter.

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