So there I was, waiting for the bus to take me school. I almost didn't see it, the English writing on the back of the person in front of me. English is so ubiquitous on clothes here I don't even bother to read it any more, funny though it can be in a nonsensical way. But this was not nonsensical. This made a whole lot of sense. Here's what it said:
H.R. – Throat
Dr. Know – Guitar
Darryl – Bass
Earl – Drums
In case you don't know, this is the credits text from a Bad Brains album. And in case you don't know, Bad Brains are an incredibly influential black, Rastafarian hardcore punk band from D.C. who released albums in the early '80s. What is a twentysomething Korean out in the boonies doing with a Bad Brains shirt? What, indeed.
Here's the shirt.
It was put out by an American skateboard clothing company called Supreme a few years ago. The brand is popular in Japan, where it has more stores than in the US. Apparently it's also popular in Korea. I've noticed a lot of my students wearing the brand. Supreme is legit, and chooses bands and artists like Bad Brains and The Clash that it considers important for its clothes. The bands themselves often supply the artwork.
The choice of Bad Brains for a skateboard company is obvious. That it should be popular in rural Korea, where no one skates, let alone listens to early '80s hardcore punk, is not so obvious. And here's where the bizarre part of globalization comes in: the brand itself is popular, no matter what is on the shirt. A brand that specializes in repurposing classic album art and band logos as a kind of homage has become popular with people who have no idea who these bands are. It's like buying a painting—an expensive painting—because you like the frame.
For someone like me, who is familiar with Bad Brains, seeing a piece of their album replicated on the back of a T-shirt invokes a very specific reaction. But for the person who bought the shirt because of the brand? There is no reaction. To them, it's a sign that signifies nothing. It's just another part of the riot of meaningless English that swirls before them every day. I would have a hard time paying a premium price for what amounts to a fake Bad Brains shirt when I know I could get a cheaper version elsewhere. But to pay a lot of money for something that you don't even understand, with no emotional attachment to at all? That just boggles my mind.
Now if you'll excuse me I've just seen a cool shirt with Chinese characters on it that I want to buy.