In August of 2020 Levi’s Vintage Clothing imprint announced their Fall/Winter 2020 capsule would be based on the aesthetics of indie bands from 1980s Louisville. The advertising rhetoric declares Louisville was an important site for proto-grunge, a musical movement which helped pave the way for the grunge revolution which would occur in Washington during the 90s.
The advertising hinges on Levi’s products being the chosen uniform of these immensely important and fiercely independent, though largely unknown, Kentucky artists. This advertising campaign, as well as the products the campaign is meant to promote, demonstrates how the idea of ‘the underground’ has been completely absorbed by mass culture and turned into a vague and powerless symbol in the spectacle of society. Consumers are only interested in recreating the aesthetics of ‘the underground,’ not in the material created in those off-site cultural niches, and the ability to engage in these recreations is limited to the affluent.
By continually co-opting the aesthetics of subcultures which oppose or undermine it, hegemonic culture has been able to inoculate the public against the substance of those movements. Now, by preemptively assimilating an obscure subculture and upselling access to it the culture industry is beginning to assimilate youth subculture as a concept.
The advertising rhetoric in the Levi’s vintage campaign is made up of stretched truths and self-serving spins. Nothing in the advertising is technically false, but none of it is exactly true. The connections between the music scene in 1980s Louisville and grunge are not as concrete as the ads make them out to be. The ads say that Louisville’s independent bands’ music, “became the driving influence of ’90s post-rock — paving the way for Seattle’s transformative grunge scene,” and that this clothing line would be “a tribute to the ’80s Louisville underground music scene that inspired grunge.”
The city was the site of a tremendous amount of musical innovation and experimentation during that time, but the direct connection between the explosion of grunge that would take place in Seattle and the experimentation going on in Louisville is not nearly as concrete as that advertising language makes it seem. This is not a case of inadequate research or of a controversial historical opinion, but a case of corporate myth making.
The advertising rhetoric makes it seem like all of the bands contributing to the unique musical moment in Louisville were made up of teenagers. While the decision to make up a musical movement requires some unpacking, the decision making behind this half-truth is clear: if teens are the target market the marketing should target teens. Levi’s advertising takes a particularly narrative tone when introducing the demographic information of the bands and says, “…deep within the teenage bedrooms of Louisville, Kentucky, a new sound was taking shape. Teenagers were emerging from the local punk and hardcore scenes and forming bands. What they shared was an unorthodox songwriting approach and an uncompromising attitude.”
The ads also mention these bands’ “unwillingness to compromise” and “their place in music history as true underground originals.” The advertising functions as a corporate myth. The story told by Levi’s is that in 80s’ Louisville there was an important musical movement led by uniquely subversive and innovative teenagers whose “uniform of choice was a pair of classic ’80s Levi’s® 501® Jeans mixed with strong graphic elements and DIY attitude.” This myth is meant to add to the associations teenage customers have with Levi’s products. Levi’s products will make you, the consumer, a teenager, musically talented or not, just like the mythic teens of 80s’ Louisville who paved the way for Kurt Kobain.
The advertising hinges on a few key factors, and it is in the advertising’s handling of those factors where it is most transparently false. The most important elements of this ad campaign are that there was an important musical movement in 1980s Louisville that is largely unknown today, that the movement was led by teenagers, that those teenagers’ unwillingness to compromise is what kept them from going mainstream, that the music they made led to the creation of grunge (an easily recognized subversive movement which at this point has been completely assimilated into mass culture), and that the people in those bands wore Levi’s products on purpose.
None of those statements are false and in a vacuum it is difficult to know what the unadulterated truth is. Luckily, in 2014 Lance Bangs, a prominent music video and commercial director, released the documentary Breadcrumb Trail. This documentary covered the story of the band Slint, arguably the most important band to come out of Louisville in the 80s. The documentary has interviews with the members of the band, other important musicians who were performing in Louisville at the time, nationally recognized artists like James Murphy and Ian MacKaye, and pioneering producers such as Steve Albini. The story of 1980s Louisville as told through the lens of Slint doesn’t coalesce with the narrative of Levi’s advertising.
Breadcrumb Trail paints a much less organized picture of Louisville in the 80s than Levi’s advertising. The documentary depicts a place where young people were simply having fun and experimenting more than it does any kind of organized movement. The documentary shows how, although there was a large youth presence, the music scene in the city was not run by teens. The documentary also demonstrates that there were labels and producers in and around the Louisville scene that supported the various post-rock sounds that indie bands were making, as well as concurrent bands working in those subgenres who were extremely nationally successful, so the lack of notoriety for what was happening in Louisville in the 80s is not because of youthful passion or an unwavering commitment to change or a resistance to the establishment as the Levi’s campaign suggests.
Slint and other bands were actively looking for distribution from labels and prominent producers to record and release their music with. The music didn’t go mainstream because the musical experiments in Louisville were short-lived. Slint broke up before their seminal album was even released, and other iconic Louisville indie bands like No Fun, Bastro, Crain, and Squirrel Bait couldn’t stay together for very long either. The problem with teenagers being some of your region’s most influential musicians is that eventually they move out of their parents’ homes to go to college, as was the case with the members’ of Slint and David Grubbs of Bastro, or out into the world in general.
As far as the grunge connection is concerned, 80s Louisville has more to do with math rock than grunge. Steve Albini produced more of the Louisville bands than anyone else. Albini is a pioneer in math rock and there was a mutual exchange of influence between him and the bands in Louisville. The music coming out of Louisville in the 80s has as much to do with grunge as any other post rock of the 80s, but far less than bands like Black Flag or Pixies, the Australian proto-grunge scene, and the various indie bands in and around Washington that influenced each other in the relatively musically isolated city of Seattle. As for what the musicians in Louisville wore, it’s difficult to say what was worn on purpose and what was laid out for them by their moms in the morning.
There are clear contradictions between the mythic Louiville created by the Levi’s Corporation and the real Louisville of the 1980s. There are no shortage of more established subcultures with more recognition and more cultural significance than 1980s Louisville. This is where the broader implications of this advertising campaign become clear. The Nirvana shirts sold at stores like Hot Topic have functionally assimilated the grunge subculture and brought both the aesthetics and substance of that movement into the fold of mainstream culture. That framework holds up with The Black Panthers, the Chicago ballroom subculture, and every other subaltern group as well. Those are all specific assimilations, the co-opting of specific groups with identifiably subversive goals.
This Levi’s campaign shows an evolution in the assimilatory powers of the culture industry and an advancement in the spectacle’s ability to keep people in a dream world. By fabricating a subculture in order to co-opt it this ad campaign absorbs the general idea of ‘the underground’ and ‘indie’ into dominant cultural aesthetics and values. It is not a reactionary measure against a threat, but a preemptive effort to control all symbols and indoctrinate the youth.
The Levi’s ad campaign doesn’t mention a single band by name. Mentioning any of the bands would be pointless as none of them are part of mainstream culture. However, many of the promotional photos used in the ad campaign recreate photos of and album covers from the music scene in Louisville in the 80s but substitute clothing from the 2020 F/W line. These almost perfect recreations of the original images become the original images for all but a few people, re-writing the history of the aesthetic to include Levi’s.
Without mentioning any bands the Levi’s advertisements become the only receptacle of information for this movement for anyone who doesn’t go out of their way to research what was happening in Louisville in the 80s, and the Levi’s products become the only identifiable elements of the movement. Even if some people do research the place and the period, there isn’t much to read as it isn’t the subject of much scholarship or even general record keeping. Subculture as a concept is more in vogue than ever before, and the Levi’s Vintage line’s advertising campaign shows how this mass cultural desire to resist mass culture somewhat paradoxically only serves to strengthen mass culture.
The price tags of these products are high. Over $100 for a tee shirt, several hundred dollars for a light fleece jacket, and over $200 for those 501 jeans. These are not the articles of clothing that would have been worn by indie musicians, or that could be worn by indie musicians today. By linking the concept of subculture to expensive consumer products the culture industry places subculture solely in the hands of the higher socioeconomic classes. This both commodifies and stifles rebellion.
Those who can afford these articles of clothing have to be in a position of privilege and a position of compliance with the capitalist system which perpetuates much of the culture industry’s hegemony. The more subcultural aesthetics are brought into mass culture, and the more expensive those aesthetics become, the less accessible they are to the masses, the more divorced they become from the substance they were originally linked to, and the less they and other symbols like them are able to affect change against mass culture.
The Levi’s Vintage Clothing F/W 2020 ad campaign demonstrates a major infrastructural advancement in the culture industry. For a long time dominant culture has assimilated subcultural movements that oppose it after they begin to become popular in order to nullify those movements. The inoculation of dominant culture against subculture has historically been reactionary. This ad campaign demonstrates a preemptive assimilation and the culture industry’s view of history as malleable to its own purposes. A subculture that was not popular during its time was resurrected, edited, and brought into mainstream culture before it could have any meaningful resurgence or retroactive subversive impact on society. This corporate cultural myth making targeted the youth market and perverted a previous youth culture to do so. This inextricably links the desire to rebel and to be independent with the accrual of capital and material for a generation of young people. The absorption of subculture as a concept, rather than specific subcultures as they arise, by mass culture is extremely dangerous because it further indoctrinates the youth into the hegemony of the culture industry and inoculates them against symbols which could wake them from the dream state.