On Vintage Fetishism And Rustic Analog Appeal: From Urban Outfitters To Bon Iver

by Thomas Brett

While waiting for some take out food I dashed into the clothing store Urban Outfitters to have a look around. Founded in Philadelphia in 1970, Urban Outfitters specializes in hipster aesthetics–specifically, making clothes that look vintage and of an older era. Originally a single store in lower Manhattan, the company now has retail outlets in 38 states as well as in Europe, bringing the out-of-date-and-therefore-cool look to the suburban masses everywhere. As I walked around I passed racks of t-shirts that were replicas of ones from the 1970s and 80s depicting cartoon images of boomboxes and turntables, Mr. T, the Star Wars and Atari logos, and so on. This is the kind of clothing which, if you grew up in the 70s or 80s like I did, you might have actually worn. Even if you didn’t, the iconography of these brands and personalities still resonates deeply (I have fond memories of the audio and video game technology in particular). This resonance triggers a nostalgia (nostalgia is Urban Outfitter’s fashion currency) for the past and you find yourself thinking: “That time was pretty cool wasn’t it?” Of course, back in the day, the stuff wasn’t vintage, it was just youth fashion or leading edge technology. This all reminds me of my fashionable sister exhorting me in the 1980s to explore the real vintage/second-hand clothing stores to search for real old stuff–like plaid shorts. (Which I did find and I did wear. Thanks MEB–but that’s for another forum!)

***

Urban Outfitters also sells vintage-style technology. By the front door of the store I spotted the Lomokino 35mm movie camera, a new machine designed to look and function like the 35mm cameras of old.  Who, you ask, would use this when we have cell phones that ably do the job?  I don’t know, but here it is:

I also saw the Music Hall USB-1, a turntable with a USB wire to connect to your computer. What would I do with such a machine? For one thing, if I were a vinyl collector I could dub those vinyl sounds off the vinyl and into a hard drive. So maybe this old-new technology could be useful:

Finally, I saw a small and carefully chosen selection of recent-ish recordings re-released on vinyl. Even in our digital era it’s not unusual for musicians to release limited vinyl editions of their work. DJs like vinyl for its supposed superior sound quality, and some non-electronic musicians who release music on vinyl think the format is cool because that’s how all recorded music once existed (which is a kind of vinyl/analog fetishism if you ask me). And why does Urban Outfitters sell vinyl? Maybe because, like the Atari t-shirts downstairs, vinyl signifies the past.

One album that I recognized on the rack because I listened to it a few years ago was Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) (see lower right hand corner in photo).

Iver (Justin Vernon) is an indie folk-rock musician who famously recorded For Emma by himself in a Wisconsin country cabin over the course of a three-month retreat (he was recovering from a relationship plus a bout of mononucleosis) using very low tech (vintage, really) means: an acoustic guitar, some drums, an amp and a mic, and an old computer. Here’s Iver: “I had a very light set-up, a basic small recording set-up: a Shure SM57 and an old Silvertone guitar. I had my brother drop off his old drums… some other small things–things I would make or find lying around.”

Iver’s overdubbed vocals are imperfect, ragged and rustic, his foot stomping percussion gritty and ad hoc, and his guitars noticeably out of tune. The sound conjures a timeless, worn, and definitely vintage aesthetic. Here is Iver’s song “Skinny Love””: