Professor Julian Yates- ENGL 300
Musical Shoes: Signs of the Times
Everything... can be a myth... Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things.
-Roland Barthes, Myth Today
In his Myth Today, Roland Barthes describes myth as a kind of speech, but clarifies that myth is “by no means confined to oral speech.” He mentions photography, cinema, sport, and others, each of them different kinds of speech, but all of them linked by the myths that are created around them. Later, Barthes states that, “even objects will become speech, if they mean something.” Myth is sneaky, though, in that it is not definable (as a sign) by either the suggestive vocal, visual, or material component of speech (or signifier), or by the meaning implied by the speech (or signified). This is because “any material can arbitrarily be endowed with meaning.”
One type of speech which has become the producer of increasingly short-lived myth-like objects is fashion, especially the constantly changing and pop-influenced trends of the past several decades. One object, one speech (one myth? -that is yet to be seen) produced within the scope of fashion, which has survived the past eight decades by the constant shift in what it signified, is the Chuck Taylor Converse All-star sneaker.
My favorite pair of shoes through middle school and high school was a pair of black, hightop Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars. I was not alone. During the 90s these cheap, canvas shoes were the ultimate in cool for teenagers, along with Doc Marten boots. The reason that I (and most of my friends) wore these shoes was that they were the shoes of choice for the musical pantheon of our day- the “grunge” heroes of Seattle. In an ironically humorous twist, the reason that the Seattle scene wore these shoes had more to do with their financial situation (before grunge hit it big, most of these musicians were working several jobs just to pay the rent in their moldy little Seattle apartments), and with the rainy and wet weather in Seattle than with what was cool; when groups like Green River, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden started making music, 80’s glam-rock was still at the top of its game. The nation’s high-schoolers had no concept of this, any more than they realized that those same musicians wore flannels because they came from logging country, or that they wore long underwear under their t-shirts because “it’s fucking cold here!” (1)
Nonetheless, “Chucks” became a huge trend in the 90s, and as such became signifiers of an entire mindset, one we teens were unable to define, but still in some way aware of. In the same way that the grunge bands were stripping popular rock back to its roots, turning away from the big-hair, leather pants and flying-finger guitar solos of the 80s to the t-shirt and jeans, scraggly-haired guitar-riff and punk-beat style of the early 70s, “cool” turned overnight from eyeliner and hairspray to shredded jeans and Chucks.
Rock-and-roll, by nature, attempts to overturn the system governing it (that being repeating patterns of harmonic chords in a 4/4 or 12/8 time structure), constantly strains to stretch the envelope of the blues and folk music which gave birth to it. Rock-and-roll is a creature (and therefore a signifier) of change, and when fashions are based on this mentality of rebellion, they become signifiers of change as well. When rock stagnates, it ceases to become rock, and becomes “pop,” which by degrees becomes increasingly trite, and is eventually overturned by the next “rock” movement. Fashions based on the stagnation of pop music become signifiers of stagnation, and are doomed to die with the pop set they signify. The uniform glam look and synthesized sound of the (supposedly) wide range of musical acts in the 80s led inevitably to their amazingly sudden downfall in 1991 at the hands of a blue-eyed auto mechanic’s son from Aberdeen, Washington- Kurt Cobain. In the 1990s, this sense change could be seen in many forms in this country: underground art and literature “’zines” took a huge leap forward, especially notable and directly related to the grunge explosion would be the formation and success of independent music labels like SubPop, SST and C/Z records; the 80’s socialite cocaine frenzy became the introverted self-torture of heroin; politically, change could be seen in the election in 1992 of the first Democratic president in twelve years. Grunge, as a product of change, was bad for big business, though, because it emphasized this return to basics, to the essentials, to an inexpensive way of life.
This had happened before, and Chuck Taylors had been there.
The “Chuck Taylor” model of converse shoes was first produced in 1921. Chuck Taylor was a basketball player who was hired by Converse to help improve the designs of their basketball shoes. His ideas were implemented, and the shoe became immensely popular, first during the second world war, and also in basketball circles. In the mid 1950’s, the company designed a short-top version of the shoe for more civilian use. It is important to note, however, that the Chuck Taylor design in and of itself was not a symbol of change. It was a simple shoe marketed to an established demographic. By the mid 1970s though, companies like Reebok, Nike, and Puma had stolen most of the basketball market. It was at this time, however, that Converse got an unsuspected boost from an unlikely arena- one that would change the myth of Chucks from then on.
The late 1970s punk scene, both in England and in the United States, practically adopted Chucks as their official shoe. Along with their spiked hair, safety-pinned pants and leather jackets, bands like The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and The Germs all wore Chucks. This continued into the 80s with bands like The Clash, Black Flag, and The Dead Kennedeys all sporting blasted-looking Chuck Taylors. Chucks at that time represented a rejection of mainstream culture, and didn’t become a major market until grunge, because punk was, by its nature, difficult to market to the popular culture.
It wasn’t until Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit video was released in 1991, turning the rock world on its hair-sprayed head, that Chucks truly came to the forefront of popular culture. The Chuck Taylor could be considered the first visible signifier of change for the 1990s. The Smells Like Teen Spirit video opens with a shot of a pair of Chucks. This video has again and again been cited (incorrectly, but consistantly) as the catalyst for the shift from 80s music to 90s music, and by opening that video with an image of a pair of Chucks, Nirvana instantly associated themselves with the punk groups of the previous twenty years- and to the rebellion which those groups represented.
By the time I strapped on my first pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars, all of this had already happened. I had no knowledge of any of the history of the All-Star. In fact it wasn’t until after Kurt Cobain died- and I had been wearing Chucks for several years- that I became seriously interested in grunge music. I just knew that they were cheap, comfortable shoes that were extremely popular and that I could doodle on them without looking like a total goon. In fact, because Chucks signified rejection of established behaviors, doing something like doodling on them only strengthened the myth of them. I believe that most of the kids my age, even the ones who were listening to grunge at the time, didn’t think they were wearing Chucks because Cobain wore them, and in fact, they would probably have denied the idea vehemently. The fact remains, however, that sales of Chuck Taylor All-Stars doubled between the years 1990 and 1993. Such a defined increase can only be seen as a response to a massive cultural stimulus, and most people are far more likely to think of a punk or grunge band than of basketball when seeing a pair of “Chucks.” In very much the same way that (in his Mythologies) Barthes’ roses are ‘passionified,’ Chucks are shoes that have become ‘rockified.’ There is nothing romantic about a rose in its own right, and there is nothing rock-ish about Chucks. Both rock-and-roll and Chucks existed before the connection was made between them, but Chucks now embody the sign “rockified shoe.”
Following the unexpected explosion of Chucks in response to the grunge revolution, other shoe companies began directing products at micro-cultures based around musical movements. One shoe that had a contemporary (although less extreme) popularity explosion was the Adidas shell-top hightop, following hip-hop group Run DMC’s song (and video) My Adidas in 1986. The same shoe would have a similar explosion ten years later in the heavy metal scene following the 1996 release of KoRn’s song A.D.I.D.A.S. (which actually stood for “all day I dream about sex”) and the band’s favoritism of the shell-top sneaker. Several similarly “rap-rock” oriented bands followed KoRn’s lead, and by the late 1990s, some people were actually referring to KoRn, Limp Bizkit, Incubus, and others as “Adidas Rock.” So Adidas shell-tops went from “rap-ified shoes” to “metalified shoes” in a decade.
Also beginning in the mid-90s, the Van’s shoe company, which for decades had made a lowtop sneaker comparable to the Converse All-Star, had been popular among the surfing and skating worlds, and eventually became popular in the grunge era among the “skate rat” culture. In 1995, Van’s became the first shoe company to sponsor an entire concert tour- the Van’s Warped Tour, which in the past ten years has featured dozens of punk, ska, “emo” and hardcore rock bands, all of them fully equipped with Van’s sneakers. Major bands involved in this tour included PLOW United (which later became Rancid), Green Day, the Bouncing Souls, Skaface and Mustard Plug. Thus a new sign: “punkified shoes."
These days, pop idols can be seen peddling all sorts of clothing, including shoes. A current Reebok add features rapper Jay-Z in a suit against a background of graffitied tenement housing with the phrase “I am what I am” in the foreground. The image does not even show the man’s feet. This decade has introduced us to the total selling-out of musicianship to corporations, to the extreme point in which it is no longer necessary to advertise the product, as long as there is a famous face to go with the brand logo. Instead of “music-ified products,” we now have “productified musicians.”
It is interesting to note, however, that until recently, it was necessary for a catalyst to exist previous to marketing for a musical genre to effect a clothing style. The companies involved could market their product to a specific group, but it was necessary for a larger-than-life persona, an icon of that group, to already have shown a favoring of the product in question. Only in the last few years have musicians been so for-sale that a company can approach them to advertise a product before that person has shown any inkling of a liking for that product. In this new scenario, the fault (if it can be called that) lies not with the companies, or even with the marketing reps for those companies, who are doing nothing wrong (or rather, nothing any more wrong than they have ever done), but on the shoulders of these new musicians, who have become nothing more than walking, talking billboards themselves. They are conscious of their own myth, and use that to further their pop careers.
So although all shoes can be read as a text, linking each shoe to a purpose, style, trend, or situation (for example: work boot : physical labor :: flip-flop : beach, summer), there are a few shoes which can be read in such a way that they represent a specific time, place, or way of thinking. In the case of the Chuck Taylor, a shoe can be read as representative of multiple times and places, but my Chucks, with duct-tape across the top of one, holes in the toes, and ancient ball-point scribbles around the soles, are descriptive of a very specific time and place, a way of thinking. A young and vibrant feeling that maybe our generation would get it right, whatever it was. After all, hadn’t we thrown off the trappings and glittering facade of the decade before us? Hadn’t we gotten back to basics? We’d survived another round of robber-baron oil war-tyrant presidents and things were looking good! I was in a punk band, but we were a different punk band. Everyone I knew was doing something different. We were going to change things. The fact that we all wore the same cheaply-made-in-China shoes and read the same books and listened to the same music didn’t mean we were all thinking the same way, did it? No! Our generation was going to fix things! We were going to set things right!
How did this generation of antiestablishment idealists somehow grow up and elect Bush? I don’t know. How did a symbol as linked to rock/pop culture as Chuck Taylors have to go into hiding (as it has) in order to survive the popminded culture that exists today? Our symbols of change have disappeared, but I do not believe they are gone forever. Maybe if I ever feel idealistic again, I’ll put those Chucks back on. Until then, they’ll have to sit in the back of my closet with my long-johns, my Doc Martens, my flannels, my ripped-up jeans....
(1) Interview with Ledge Morrisette (of the Monomen), HYPE! Republic Pictures/SubPop Records