Once, when someone asked me — seriously — about how to turn around the decline of the music industry, I made the joke, “Well, they haven’t figured out how to download a T-shirt yet.” Like with most jokes, there was some truth in it. Merchandising has become a larger piece of the financial pie for new bands whose physical album sales are declining and who are forced to monetize their live performances and press flesh. Working bands have to treat tours as political campaigns essentially, and branding a willing torso is the best viral marketing for many. As a fan buying their shirt, you are telling the world “I was there! I have a very specific taste that I want to be identified with.” It’s a more obvious sign of fandom than the unobtrusive white earbud mainline of modern listening, a micro-curation of your body and headspace.
Recently, a whole spate of band logos have been “recycled” and placed in new commercial contexts. In December, Forever 21 announced its “Kurt Cobain Flipper shirt,” a shirt design using the logo of the cult Bay Area punk band. Part of the goof was Forever 21’s website description attributing the design to Cobain rather than recognizing it as Flipper’s logo. It did not help matters that Rolling Stone writer Colleen Nika’s first posting missed this fact as well, even implying that Courtney Love would sue Forever 21 since this design was Cobain’s intellectual property.
It finally came to light that members of Flipper were receiving a fee from the shirt vendor Worn Free, so the issue became more one of odd taste and cluelessness on the part of Forever 21, a chain that has been on the receiving end of lawsuits about its labor practices and for “borrowing” from other designs.
Just when that story seemed to die down, in January some clever person in the art department of Disney’s magic kingdom created a design combining Mickey Mouse’s infamous silhouette with the cover artwork of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. The wholesome Disney corporation pulled the shirt off the site when they learned that Joy Division’s Ian Curtis famously committed suicide. It makes one wonder who approved this copycat in the first place. Former members of Joy Division claimed to have no knowledge or approval of the Disney shirt. Bassist Peter Hook, who is on the outs with his New Order bandmates, told Rolling Stone “it’s an odd situation we find ourselves in as Joy Division and New Order, because when we originally started out, we didn’t believe in self-promotion of any kind — we never got involved with merchandise …. We’ve always been one of the most bootlegged bands in history, particularly Joy Division. But it’s a hell of a compliment to be bootlegged by someone like Disney.”
The story of corporations ripping off small artists is not new, but it’s become a lot more incendiary — and a lot of that has to with the pace at which T-shirt designs go viral. So-called “retweet” and meme culture doesn’t really draw lines between opprobrium and endorsement. In both the Forever 21 and Disney cases, people who would never set foot in either store became unwitting promoters of the design, because they helped spread it on the Internet. And if you believe the old adage that “any publicity is good publicity,” then a snarky blog post or message board comment can amount to a free commercial. The Mickey Mouse Unknown Pleasures is clever as a parody, and if anything it taints Disney more than it damages Joy Division merely by exposing the band to an unsuspecting audience.
When I first saw the Mickey Mouse Unknown Pleasures design, I was reminded of a design by Chris Wright sold by Bristol designers African Apparel, which takes the pulsar image and adds a cartoon erection. The African Apparel line has many music reference pisstakes, including a shirt emblazoned with Jimi Hendrix’s image that misidentifies him as “Bob Marley.” I wrote to Cedric Barada, African Apparel’s owner, to get his opinion on Disney appropriating the Joy Division album cover. “Disney got no relation whatsoever with Joy Division or independent music,” he wrote. “They probably hired a graphic designer asking ‘we need to target the young trendy professional’ and they came up with that design or some shit like that.” It’s a cynical view, even though Barada is tinkering with the same image that Disney was. But when you think about it, Joy Division didn’t “own” its album cover art, either — the band pilfered that image from an astronomy book.
The latest punch line in the Disney saga is a bit of Banksy-style parody (what some would call “shopdropping”). Someone made shirts combining a Mickey Mouse head with a logo from the English punk band Crass, and placed a stack of them inside a Disney store alongside Goofy and Donald swag. I tried my hand at it, too, by photoshopping Flounder from The Little Mermaid onto a Flipper shirt, and reposting it on Facebook. Then I did another cut-and-paste job, placing a Mickey Mouse head atop an image of a Bauhaus album cover. That’s certainly less mercenary than a big corporation stealing from the little guy. Nonetheless, there was something discomfiting about seeing a cookie-cutter cartoon over something that, at its genesis, was supposed to be dark and antagonistic. But maybe there was never anything “authentic” or inherently subversive about these images in the first place.