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June 12th, 2006

Bob Marley’s Big Boy

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

When I was in Tokyo in 1996, I observed a strange thing: massive amounts of used clothing were being imported to be sold in second-hand stores. The one requirement seemed to be that the clothes bore some reference to America’s past, and the more obscure, the better. More than just being obscure though, the items in highest demand were t-shirts with intimate references to a life passed eating apple pie and playing baseball.

Algoma, WI - Swim Team 1983

Hardy, Kansas - Boy Scout Troop 162

Numerous Funny-Named-Race to cure high profile disease sponsored by a bunch of banks and sports bars t-shirts.

Bob's Big BoyUpon further inspection, I found a complete history of American pop-culture imported and reassembled in the shops and on the youth around Tokyo. There were crowds who dressed strictly in the 50’s greaser style (Japanese hair makes a perfect pompadour with enough pomade). Playing guitar and being in a band were on the top of everyone who’s anyone’s to do list. Icons like Bob of Bob’s Big Boy with his burger held high could be found in the keyed glass cabinets of a shop’s most prized possessions. (After bankruptcy in America, Bob has reopened and is now holding his burger high in guess where?) If they never had greasers, didn’t eat at Bob’s and definitely weren’t on the Algoma swim team, why did they want all this crap?

The answer is the same as it is in Bangkok: the current instalment of mid-nineties Tokyo. The youth are exposed to western pop-culture through a global media machine that evaporates every local custom in its path. MTV Asia awards were in Bangkok this year. I’m sure the marketing executives at MTV know where the best place is to focus their cathode ray gun. What it was to be a cool young kid from Bangkok (or Tokyo circa 1990) is something I can’t answer. Why? Because it was never on MTV. American pop-culture has been on a mission to cover the Earth well before Bob put on his very first pair of checkered overalls in 1936.

It seems that as soon as a place is wealthy enough to have a TV in the living room, the countdown begins. These kids, who are now wealthy enough to sit around at home and watch the boob-tube after school, are rewarded with the King’s Golden Buffet of western pop-culture options. Options like 60’s hippy, 70’s classic rocker, underground punk, reggae mon and 80’s metal head.

Like a Halloween store, hair is a major part of the costume. Hair is like the barometer of fashionable youth. You can tell by how much work they put in to their hairdo just how important it is to be cool. Locks for Love may have a bright future ahead of itself considering how much hair growth is going on in Bangkok.

Like a younger sibling, Bangkok rummages through the closet of now fashionably more independent and confident Tokyo. There are markets in Bangkok with loads used All Star and Vans shoes. How could a place so new to the scene have so much used stuff? They don’t. It’s all hand-me-downs from Tokyo’s all-you-can-eat-America days. It’s not from America that’s for sure. I began to get suspicious when I could find nothing above a size 9. And thanks to the numerous resale t-shirt shops, guess who’s now proud to have played little league baseball for The Pennsylvania Wildcats?

What goes with hair like playing guitar? Like Bangkok’s older brother Tokyo, who was in that really cool cover band, it’s soo hip to play guitar. Playing guitar is like a driver’s license to be hip. Once you have chosen a fashion genre, you buy a guitar and get to work learning to play the music that goes with it. Just like Tokyo ten years ago, when you find a gathering of young people, you will find it crammed with bands. The strange thing is that they all stick to the music of their fashion genre. You can find yourself walking through the park listening to Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Blondie at the same time.

The youth of America are guilty of the same fad-subscription behavior, heck, they invented it. What makes Bangkok so interesting is comparing it to the Bangkok I visited ten years ago. Whereas America has been an endless progression of fashions being served up as a reaction to the prior fad, Bangkok is one of the many places that are going to make the pop-culture leap in a single generation thanks to satellites, cell phones, the internet and TV. This media chef serves up the choices to the hungry viewer while they’re hot: you can be a greaser or a ghetto rapper right now. No need to wait a generation.

To a world of young people who are no longer destined to be farmers and fishermen, America is Barbie and its genres are her outfits. As long as you have a TV, you have a personal fashion consultant who is going to work their ass off for you.