Saturday, November 07, 2009

On Concert T-Shirts

Growing up in the state of Wisconsin, I have seen many versions and many permutations of Green Bay Packer apparel. I've seen T-shirts that commemorate Brett Favre (going as far back as the 1993 "Favrecandoit" Fahrvergnugen spoof) and T-shirts that mock Brett Favre (the recent "We'll never forget you Brent"). I've seen T-shirts that celebrate a single regular season game (such as the 1989 shirt that read "After further review, the Bears still suck"). I used to own a "Nitschke never wore an earring" sweatshirt. My wife currently owns a pink A.J. Hawk jersey. And of course, going back to the Super Bowl years, there were any number of "champion" T-shirts (I once possessed a "1995 NFC Central Division Champion" sweatshirt). But one thing I've never seen is a Packer shirt with a schedule on the back.

The very idea of such a shirt may seem ridiculous, but for some reason, it wasn't considered ridiculous when pretty much every major touring rock band of the 1980s put out a T-shirt with their schedule on the back. And actually, as a kid, I remember being fascinated with these tour itineraries. Unfortunately, because they were not sold in retail outlets, my only opportunity to read them involved surreptitiously snooping around behind people's backs (literally). And to make matters worse, the type of people who would wear Def Leppard concert T-shirts in the 1980s were the type of people most likely to intimidate a little kid. (And they were also the type of people likely to have hair long enough to obscure the first couple of dates).

To be clear, I couldn't have cared less about the front of the T-shirt; I had no concept of the finer distinctions between Motley Crue and Poison. My interest at the time was entirely in the geographical aspect of the shirt. I was fascinated to see how the band moved across the country. And I was always thrilled to see a local city (Milwaukee or Madison, or sometimes both) listed among the more foreign locales. This was somehow a personal validation-- the fact that I lived in some proximity to a city that could get listed on the back of a T-shirt that was sold throughout the nation was a boon to my self-esteem.

But as I got older and more cynical, my fascination with these shirts turned to bemusement. I wondered why the fans of a particular band would want to advertise a list of concerts that, save for probably one of them, they didn't attend. Why should a fan care that the band that they saw in Madison on July 9th had happened to play Topeka on July 27th? And why would they care to such a degree that they would want to impart that information to anyone happening to sit behind them in algebra?

But I think this all sounds more ridiculous now than it was then. Today, any fan of any entity (be it a rock band, a movie, or a breed of dog) can go on-line and commune with fans of that same entity, without regard for geographical limitations. But we forget so quickly that it wasn't always like that. Before the Internet, the concert T-shirt was pretty much all there was to unify a fandom. (Unless the fandom was already geographic in nature, which explains why there was no such thing as a T-shirt that listed the Packers 1986 schedule).

But the concert T-shirt fulfilled another need, too. Fans, particular young fans of the pre-Internet era, often had a paradoxical desire. They wanted to be part of something bigger, to feel like the band they were giving their affection to had a cultural relevance. But they also wanted to be unique--it was no good if everyone else was into the same thing they were. The concert T-shirt allowed them to have it both ways. The rarity of the shirt (again, it was not sold in stores) allowed one to possess an artifact that validated one's sense of individuality. Yet the list of cities on the back reinforced that the wearer was a link in a powerful chain, that fans across the nation or the world were united in their adulation.

Yet this phenomena is by now a thing of the past. It has become a cliche that technology has "shrunk the world." It has also shrunk the market for certain products, the concert T-shirt among them. And this is apropos, since most of the shirts themselves, printed on cheap cotton, probably shrunk years ago.


Blogger The Hungary Traveler said...

As a kid I was also fascinated by the geographical nature of the concert tour on the backs of t-shirts (In fact, I still am drawn to tour locations listed on band websites).
Whenever a band played Alpine Valley and listed East Troy, WI on the shirt, I felt a bit like the owner of exclusive knowledge, wondering how many people around the nation knew that "East Troy" essentially meant Southeastern Wisconsin. That knowledge then led me to wonder about other obscure locations listed on the shirt and whether there were people in those places thinking the same thing about people like me.

12:12 AM  
Anonymous Tim said...

Here's my take:

Concert t-shirts are essentially just a souvenir of a singular experience. They proved you were there. The concert schedule on the back of shirts -- as opposed to one-sided band shirts -- was simply shorthand that you are a big enough fan to see them live.

So why did it include every city of the tour on the back? Because it would be impractical and costly for the producers to create separate shirts for each concert. But an entire list of tour dates was generic enough to cover all the stops on the tour yet specific enough to satisfy fans in each city. This provided the validation fans sought to pay a crazy amount of money for a coveted concert t-shirt.

This business model proved so lucrative that The Grateful Dead -- who famously encouraged and rewarded bootlegs of their music -- hired security to crack down on counterfeit merchandise at their concerts. That's where the real money came from.

It still works today, too:

12:15 AM  
Blogger Joe Dorn said...

I always felt an endearing nature about those shirts too. One of the best memories of that particular phenomena involves none other than me, Tim, Tom Nies and some others. We traveled from BD to the Marcus Ampitheater to witness Metallica tear it up (I think it was the Load tour). I bought a shirt, along with Tom and possibly Tim that had dates on the back for the sole reason of bragging rights. I remember there being cooler designs on other shirts, but the appeal of the "Milwaukee" on the back of that shirt usurped any asthetic qualities.

I now find myself finding show-specific posters (Sufjan Stevens, The Swell Season, This American Life) to collect. Is this less nerdy or more nerdy?

7:15 AM  
Anonymous Tim said...

I ALMOST brought up that story, myself, Joe! I bought a Days of the New shirt there myself. It was something ridiculous like $35, but worth every penny.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Ben's Blog said...

My favorite thing to check out while staring at the hair metal fan in front of me in line at the DMV (or wherever) is to notice idiosyncrasies in the location order. Sometimes a band might play Arizona, then Minnesota, then Texas, then California. Wouldn't it be more efficient to drive the bus from California to Arizona to Texas etc.?

I personally am a collector of concert T-shirts, whenever I go to a concert that I "dig", gotta get the shirt (except for Metallica, which I regret).

11:43 PM  
Blogger Teecycle Tim said...

Did you see this one?

2:43 PM  

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