Spotlight on: OBEY

Fall Out Boy, circa 2001
Fall Out Boy, circa 2001

I first listened to Fall Out Boy over a decade ago and fell in love with their stripped back, raw ‘four guys in a garage’ sound. I saw them play a couple of times in rundown venues in Newcastle and Scotland. At the latter, Pete Wentz hung upside down from a piece of scaffolding before falling on top of me, and we screamed the lyrics to Saturday into his microphone. If I was to see them now, should they ever end their hiatus, it would probably be in an arena. They would play newer songs that feature trumpets, orchestras and, just occasionally, guest vocals from Lil Wayne. Bouncers and bodyguards would probably make sure that Pete Wentz and I were never less than 100 feet apart.

Fall Out Boyband
Fall Out Boyband

I feel the same about Fall Out Boy that I do about Obey. A few years ago, before every Tom, Dick and Harry Styles-alike thought pairing an Obey cap with Nike Blazers and a Topman hoodie meant they had #swag, the brand enjoyed a stint as one of the de facto choices of underground streetwear. I still like Fall Out Boy, and I still like Obey, but there’s no doubt that mainstream success has resulted in both becoming sophisticated and refined, almost beyond recognition.

shep fairey obey propaganda sell out

I’ve been wanting to write something about Obey for a while, and I was spurred into doing so by this statement from its creator, Shep Fairey -


I’ve been hearing some cries of “SELLOUT!” over the various products for sale. Anyone who has not taken on a project of this ambition and complexity or owned their own business is really in no position to be judgmental. However, people are judgmental by nature, so here is what I have to say: The uncompromised experiment is definitely not over. Because the campaign exists in harmony with, not contrary to, conspicuous consumption (the giant project could not exist within a social climate that was not susceptible to consumption catalyzed by image repetition).

The Giant campaign simply pokes fun at the process by teasing the consumer with propaganda for a product which is merely more propaganda for the campaign; very reflexive,.. the propaganda and the product are the same. The ultimate success of giant is commercial embrace because this demonstrates that the unaware consumer, as opposed to the hipster in on the joke, has been subversively indoctrinated. I’m trying to achieve as large scale a coup as possible with an absurd icon that should never have made it this far. Only if the campaign reaches a level of visibility and interaction that exceeds the underground “cool” ceiling will it have a chance to make a profound statement about the societal tendency to jump on the bandwagon. The dialogue the project can start about the process of imagery absorption is the most important aspect; this dialogue is most meaningful if the giant campaign becomes pervasive enough to become a trend psychology driven feeding frenzy like some silly crap such as the Rubik’s cube or the Spice Girls.

Backlash is an unavoidable side-effect. Anyway, I put all the profits back into more stickers and posters for the street, because that is my love, not money. People have different reasons for liking GIANT and I can understand people not wanting to see it leave the underground niche it has enjoyed for so many years. All I can say is that even in the commercial applications of OBEY/GIANT I am attempting to retain the rebellious spirit of the street project (every t-shirt comes with a mini-stencil and manifesto).
Shepard Fairey

shep fairey obey retrospective

Coming from an academic background, with a focus on subversion, I’m fascinated by Fairey’s statement. It recalls Andy Warhol’s argument that ‘being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and business is the best art.’ Fairey and Warhol both make a good point – one need only look as far as songs by Rick Ross or television shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians (but plz don’t make me) to see that wealth and celebrity lifestyles are not only perpetuated by, but in some cases actively created by the notable expenditure of that wealth. Let me elaborate…

Countless hip hop moguls have made it to the top by rapping about the holy trinity of bitches, money and bling, even though it’s doubtful that they’ve ever seen much of the second or third. Similarly, according to what felt like a million newspaper articles, magazine spreads and blog posts, Kim Kardashian’s wedding to Kris Humphries reportedly cost $10 million. However, because of the publicity associated with the wedding, much of the spread came for free…that is, the publicity that was due to the exorbitant cost of the day. Vicious circle, much? The whole thing reminds me of an old joke -

Jack, a smart businessman, talks to his son:
Jack: I want you to marry a girl of my choice
Son : “I will choose my own bride!”
Jack: “But the girl is Bill Gates’s daughter.”
Son : “Well, in that case…”

Next, Jack approaches Bill Gates:
Jack: “I have a husband for your daughter.”
Bill Gates: “But my daughter is too young to marry!”
Jack: “But this young man is a vice-president of the World Bank.”
Bill Gates: “Ah, in that case…”

Finally, Jack goes to see the president of the World Bank:
Jack: “I have a young man to be recommended as a vice-president. “
President: “But I already have more vice- presidents than I need!”
Jack: ”But this young man is Bill Gates’s son-in-law.”
President: “Ah, in that case…”

shep fairey love grenade

During my MA, we spent countless seminars debating whether or not Andy Warhol’s whole career was an exercise in irony, whether he had sold out or whether it was a case of ‘all of the above’. We never reached a conclusion. I foresee that the same thing will happen to Shep Fairey and because of this, among other things, I see Fairey as a new Warhol. I have no doubt that some of the skateboarders who grew up repping Fairey when he was starting his Giant project feel kinda down about the whole thing, but I’m also sure that they spend much of their time making tapes (or Youtube videos, I guess) to catch the attention of potential sponsors. You can have the most powerful and interesting message in the world, but if you never leave the basement to tell the masses it’s arguably just a waste. There’s a reason everyone broke the first rule of Fight Club.

Since designing the Obama HOPE poster, Fairey has appeared on The Simpsons and The Colbert Report, and designed the cover for TIME Magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year issue. Obey Propaganda Co clothing is now being sold in Urban Outfitters. Andre the Giant is still dead.

Obey has a posse Andre the Giant

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