Saturday, February 12, 2005

The incorporation of bling watches

Since 2003 I have been researching urban music cultures in Australia. Last year I became interested in how hip-hop fashion diffuses into everyday street style. The bling watch is a great example of this.

Several aspects of the bling-bling phenomenon interest me. First, is it an aesthetic, a communication tool, an affect, a politics, or a combination of all four? Of course, I think it's the latter. It's relatively easy to trace the aesthetic of bling - the 'look' of large, chunky jewellery in gold, platinum and diamonds, over-the-top designer clothes and consumption of luxury goods. I also have an analytical framework to describe the ways bling communicates between the wearer and others, and the way it affects the body's posture, gesture and use of space. Under the affect umbrella I examine how it makes you feel rich and glamorous.

The politics of bling are tangentially related to my earlier post on careless luxe. Most academic writing on hip-hop style couches bling as both a spectacular black resistance to white notions of 'taste' and exclusivity, and as an unfortunate indication of hip-hop's incorporation. There is considerable racial and sexual power in the idea of hip-hop stars appropriating to excess all those patrician luxury brands, as epitomised by the figure of the iced-out pimp in his Bentley, mansion or yacht, surrounded by hos scantily clad in designer outfits. As Jay-Z playfully raps in "I Just Wanna Love You (Give It To Me"):
What do you say, me, you and your Clovey glasses
Go somewhere private where we can discuss fashion
Like, Prada blouse, Gucci bra
Filth marked jeans, take that off
Yet, by displaying their wealth, hip-hop stars also show how far they are from the realities of African-American life. They are deemed 'played out' and no longer 'keepin' it real'. I am painting this discourse of authenticity/incorporation in deliberately broad brushstrokes. But all I will say about that now is that it's quite myopic and not particularly useful for my purposes.

At the Kelis concert at the Metro in Melbourne last year, I was so excited by some of the iced-out fashions sported by the crowd and by Kelis herself. This is quite an unfortunate photo of Kelis, but it does show off her jewellery. Note in particular that she's wearing mismatched earrings: two diamond-encrusted hoop earrings in her right ear, and a dangly silver thing in the left.

But I was particularly struck at the time by her bling watch, because you can buy almost identical watches at Paint'n'Powder, a perfumery in the Royal Arcade that sells hard-to-find French perfumes and makeup, and tizzy, old-fashioned jewellery and accessories like silk scarves, sunglasses, brooches and tiaras. Everything in there is very expensive - I had been eyeing off a watch very similar to Kelis' for months, but it cost $200-odd.

More recently, I've been noticing cheap knockoffs of bling watches in Asian-import teenwear chain stores like Deborah K and 7 Angels. But today I was flicking through some junk mail and was astounded to see that the bling watch has received the ultimate accolade as a completely incorporated product - it's being sold to suburban mums across the nation at Target.

Perhaps the most challenging thing for me is tracing how bling, specifically a hip-hop discourse, leaps across into non-hip-hop aesthetics this way. I think the cross-generational properties of the bling watch give the lie to arguments of American cultural imperialisation - more crudely, the 'monkey-see, monkey-do' theory that Australian kiddies copy their style from the constant media parade of posturing rappers.

I think more in-depth analysis of the affective and communicative properties of bling might help to explain the popularity of the bling watch.

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