Velvet Rebellion

Prologue

1. Sametová Revoluce. The Velvet Revolution (Czech: sametová revoluce) (November 16- December 29, 1989) refers to a non-violent revolution in Czechoslovakia that saw the overthrow of the Communist government. On November 17, 1989, riot police suppressed a peaceful student demonstration in Prague. That event sparked a series of popular demonstrations from November 19 to late December. By November 20 the number of peaceful protesters assembled in Prague had swelled from 200,000 the previous day to an estimated half-million. A two-hour general strike, involving all citizens of Czechoslovakia, was held on November 27.

2. Tucson, Arizona. We drove past a couple wearing 6″ black platform boots, some sort of zippered pants-like skirt or skirt-like pants, black trenchcoats, flowing black tresses and inked-out eyes, lurching to the bus stop or corner store in the blazing summer sun. The sidewalk was otherwise desolate and treeless: a mundane concrete desert. It didn’t matter which one was male or female. I asked my husband, “What’s up with all the goth-y people here?”

 I.
A Big-small City

Tucson is a mid-size city, not affluent. A little too big and not “cultured” enough to be called a college town. Like any other big-small American city, I would imagine artistically-inclined kids growing up here feel trapped in an unsophisticated society. Goth, a lifestyle that elevates music, art and fashion, offers a mode of connection with a larger artistic/cultural movement. And, one hopes, a sense of belonging. A sense of understanding and validation.

II.
Social Posturing

Trends are self-perpetuating. We are social creatures, even the goths who appear to wallow in misery and loneliness. Here, they are seen as the “cool,” artistic people, much like hipsters are in Austin. This starts in the adolescent years: say there’s a 6th or 7th grade kid who’s discovering he or she doesn’t fit in. Then, after summer, they come back to school all blacked-out and with a new, stronger sense of self. This happens every day in Austin, except the changelings are about 5-10 years older: young people arrive from across the country wearing American Apparel t-shirts and All-Stars; three months later they’ve latched on to giant sunglasses and neon.

In all trends/styles/communities, there is room for creativity and distinctions within the group, when you are part of it. But from an outsider’s perspective, everyone looks the same, the music sounds the same. I wonder if an outsider wrote this post on the Austin craigslist missed connections awhile back (paraphrased from memory):

m4w (Beauty Bar): You looked so hot in your skinny jeans, vintage shirt, pointy shoes and unusual haircut.

The description was lengthier and a bit more elaborate, but the tone was just as cutting. In Tucson, go to the craigslist musician category. Everyone wants to start a death metal/grindcore/punk band. To me, it all sounds the same. But then again, I can point out the subtleties between German trance and nu acid house, and why one is boring and the other is cool. For example, today I found a remix of Mondotek’s Alive (related to the TEPR remix of Yelle’s “A Cause des Garçons”) on an mp3 blog that primarily posted the type of *yawn* house played after 12am in Top 40 clubs.

The point is, here in Tucson, goth is a mainstream alternative lifestyle, like hipsterism is in Austin. For further analysis on this subject, I suggest Josh Aiello and Matthew Shultz’s brilliant A Field Guide To The Urban Hipster. It’s a bit dated (2003), certain groups have evolved, but it begs the question “How weird do you wanna be?” Are suburban soccer moms the Truly Weird? Are Nascar dads the Truly Weird? Are white male capitalist entreprenurs the Truly Weird? What about factory workers? How do they see themselves as a group? How do they see us? Today, the true artist (my definition: dedicated, driven, underground) no longer labors away in a decrepit urban warehouse or in the rustic elegance of a country barn, (s)he works out of his garage in a tract housing development or out of a corner of their living room in a nondescript apartment complex. Maybe the quality of their work isn’t that great, but that depends on what your definition of “good” and “quality” are.

III.
The Twilight Zone

I wish more research would be done on why, particularly in Mexican-American border regions, goth is the mainstream alternative, when in many other areas of the U.S., it died at the turn of the 21st century along with candy ravers. A few months ago, I watched a documentary about Latino hardcore Morrissey fans in the Los Angeles area called Is It Really So Strange? What could’ve been a great story shed little light on the reasons behind the obsession from this unexpected demographic because the narrator/producer was, like, the whitest, dryest most monotone guy. Ever. He just couldn’t connect with the people he was interviewing and not so much because he was not a part of their culture, but because he was just a walking social disaster. Naturally, his interview subjects were reticent about their fandom, which made for a total disappointment of a film.

I’ve asked my goth-leaning brother- and cousin-in-law about why they’re all into vampires and ornate silver crosses and black clothes. They grin and say, “I’m just in touch with the (or did they say my?)… Dark Side.” I’ve prodded further on one or two occasions: why? What’s so cool about the dark side? “Life is dark and pointless,” they intone. Nihlism. Emptiness. A daily drudgery between the next party or fuck, and even suffering and pain is a part of those experiences as you commiserate with your goth-y buddies.

But why Mexican-Americans? Is it a rebellion against the Old School ways of their families and elders? Is it a depressive facet of the ultra-complex experience of being bi-cultural (e.g. the Sad Clown)? Or, is it a rebellion against others of their own generation: the urban gangsters or the straight-edge traditional kids?

My husband and I say after we get south of San Antonio on IH-37 that we are entering The Twilight Zone. It’s a gradient that runs all the way to The Valley, growing stronger when we veer onto Hwy. 77 in Robstown, on through Raymondville and Harlingen, and finally coming to a delta in his family’s home of Brownsville, at the southernmost tip of Texas, the Mexican border; nothing beyond it but the mouth of the Rio Grande, endless flatlands, coastal marshes, and then the open Gulf. Everything “American” is tinged with Mexican culture and perspective. The clerks working in the chain stores in Sunrise Mall (warning: don’t go the the homepage, some really blaring Broadway-style music turns on) give you your total in Spanish before switching to English. The hot food focus in convenience stores is tacos and tamales, not hot dogs and fried chicken. And everything Mexican is infused with the crass commercialism of American society, creating a veneer of quaintness over the commercialism, or the crushing thumb of consumerism blunting what is unique and traditional.

IV.
Drug of Choice

César posed the goth question to his Tucson host when he came out to take a look around prior to our move. His tour guide said, “It’s because there’s a lot of meth around here.”

Let’s think about this. I’ve seen plenty of bleary-eyed redneck meth heads driving beat-up old pick-up trucks back in Texas, particularly in impoverished rural Colorado County where my mom commutes to teach middle school. The town’s water tower proclaims it’s “The White-Tailed Deer Capital of Texas” (read: hunting). My dad jokes that it should really say, “The White Trash Capital of Texas.”

So what does a style of dress have to do with a drug of choice? Not all hippies are potheads; not all potheads are hippies. Not all hipsters are cokeheads; not all cokeheads are hipsters. Not all crackwhores are urban; not urban females are crackwhores. Etc., etc.

Drugs are most certainly not a reason.

V.
Relative to… What?

This has inadvertently gone from a cultural sketch and self-analysis of my mild annoyance with goths. I personally thought they were more silly than anything else, like on Chris Kattan and Molly Shannon’s sketch “Goth Talk” on Saturday Night Live in the 1990’s.

A few weeks ago, I went to a dance party night at one of the cooler bars here in hopes of hearing something comforting, something familiar, something that reminded me of home: hipster blog music. But many people used it as an excuse to showcase their full-on fetishwear (and I use the term “on” loosely). I could barely stop staring as a girl in a light pink bikini top, matching hot pants, feather boa and Christmas pageant angel wings danced by herself till her friends got there: a dude sporting a kilt and mohawk and his girlfriend, fully stockinged and corseted. And they were, shall we say, not attractive in a conventional sense that would’ve made this display, um, nice to look at.

Now I find myself questioning my own style in clothes, taste in music, art and home décor, diction, inflection and body language as an outsider to the mainstream alternative lifestyle here. I wonder, what to non-hipsters think of hipsters in Austin? Do they look at our equally outlandish 80’s outfits with the same mild annoyance? The wrinkled nose? The curled lip?

One of the reasons I was not too keen on moving away from Austin was that I felt I’d found my place there. A place where many a nerdy, artsy, goofy-looking middle school pariahs could find community, a sense of belonging. A place to love and be loved. Maybe I would’ve grown tired of belonging eventually. “Once a rebel…” Or perhaps it was too late; I was sucked in. On the other hand, my husband had been rebelling against what he considers to be an oppressive atmosphere for a number of years, and I think his reasoning is the catalyst: our generation is not rebelling against the older generation like our parents did when they were young. That tie has already been broken. Our rebellion is against one another, our peers; but it is a Velvet Rebellion, an oxymoron. “Rebellion” implies hostility, anger, violence. Yet we do it through our clothes. It is soft, expressive, joyful – Velvet. Why? Are our differences with each other so negligible that they’re not worth fighting for? Have we grown so distant that we don’t know any other way to communicate? Do we not know how to fight? Are we afraid? Are we too selfish to abandon the system we are products of?

Epilogue

A newish writer-friend mused over drinks the other night, “I wonder when people are just going to rise up and say, ‘Fuck the system.’ ” I wondered to myself what he meant by “people.”

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