Friday, July 17, 2009

Hot Topic (2003)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, JULY 17 - This originally ran in Punk Planet 57, late 2003.


In this economic landscape of cratered dreams and blasted asses, it is easy to overlook that there are still a lot of people making a lot of money. Not far from my house, a blimp-shaped advertising balloon hovers ominously over a stretch of interstate, reading STORE CLOSING and looking like a giant rubber bomb in mid-descent. But the strip malls grazed by its death shadow remain flush with business. People tighten belts and adjust expectations. Some prosper in the midst of drought. Even during the Great Depression, select businesses made good money.

This recession, the big winner is Hot Topic. Yes, that Hot Topic. The same company that sells Tank Girl shirts and Total Chaos posters and Atari wristbands is known as HOTT on Nasdaq and currently holds the # 12 spot on Forbes’ Top 200 small businesses list. In May, the chain posted explosive gains, their sales up 26% from just the end of last year. When I quizzed several friends on exactly how much money they thought could be baked into a twenty-six-percent-pie chart wedge, most supposed in the low seven figures. And most seemed to go into physical shock when I told them that the company just cracked the hundred million dollar sales mark this spring. That’s per quarter, folks, not annual. I’m not sure if I myself believe it. $100,000,000 is the kind of cash nations give each other to rebuild infrastructure. How did it get this far? It was strange enough, in 1999, watching footage of the Seattle protests with the realization that crusty punks had pulled the last great switcheroo of the millennium, transforming themselves from stereotypes of the past into agents of the future. Now comes the twin revelation that poseurs have gone from a special interest group to a major economic force in just one decade. Poof! But how?

“Unless you've got a teenager or stockbroker in the house,” wrote a San Francisco Chronicle analyst two years ago, “you probably haven't heard about Hot Topic.” Yet there is a third group well versed in the chain; bewildered Gen X’ers. Who among us doesn’t remember the solemn oath of our 15 year old selves, to never treat those younger with the same disdain shown us? And - be honest here - who among us aging whales hasn’t encountered that moment of unexpected disgust seeing some surly kid in combat boots walk past with a Hot Topic bag tucked under one arm? The slick ubiquity of these stores stomps and poops over all prior notions of tolerance. There are Hot Topics in Anchorage, Grand Forks and Kahului. A Puerto Rican Hot Topic will be among the 70 stores the company will be opening in 2003. My hometown Albany, NY mall arrested a man earlier this year for wearing a peace t-shirt, but that’s not nearly as strange to me as the existence of a Hot Topic outlet elsewhere in that very same mall.

I should clarify here that I like Hot Topic. The chain is a first rate reminder that I am living in the future. Cars have finally begun to sprout the humps and TV screens of the Jetsons Age. Bank tellers have purple hair and curse like sailors. Everyone is on the phone with everyone else, even in public bathrooms. Clumsy voice recognition systems may cause momentary hilarity, but we are burdened with the knowledge that the machines will always triumph. HT’s ascendancy seems to complete the circuit started with that defining moment, already seven years ago, when I stepped into a skate shop in North Carolina. The punky kids behind the counter rolled their eyes at my adult intrusion, telepathically instant messaging each other snide comments. In the great sweep of history, I had become the poseur. My spellbinding but unsolicited tales of yesteryear’s bands might as well have been bird migration statistics.

Hot Topic’s website makes veiled references to the war on shrink (inventory shrinkage). Presumably shrink is a major foe from all sides when one deals in teens. But there is nothing of the war on irony. Everything is face value with this crowd. No attempts are made to shield the patrons from the raw business plan…. three mouse clicks will bring the online shopper from “What’s Your Scene?” to Investor Relations. And no attempts are made to dress up or dumb down what the store is. There’s no for-the-kids posturing. The 1970’s style reflected in certain T-shirts is more of the linear and cold “I’m With Stupid” fashion than the gentle, witty self-deprecation of Mad Magazine. Although I know of people who shop (and even work) at Hot Topic as an ironic statement, the employees who front the public face of the company seem to have been carefully screened for sarcasm. The company’s spin off chain, Torrid, sells “plus sized women’s apparel” for teenagers, part of the store’s rather stern but hazily avowed mission to cater to outsiders. The Hot Topic models - fleshy girls with dark, multicolored hair and heavily penciled eyebrows – pose with a certain wariness, advertising not just that they detect and deflect society’s bullshit with one mighty, weary glare but also, more disturbingly, that they easily detect my bullshit, peering into a core of my character, poking their slim fingers into my flabby gut. “Hey,” I yell at the computer screen, “I’m on your side! I’m one of you! Just in disguise!”

Within eyeshot of the STORE CLOSING balloon, local Montclair Plaza holds the very first Hot Topic store. I’d last visited the place in October 2001, in that weird week when emails were being forwarded of an impending Al Quada attack on shopping malls (the chain itself proved itself impervious to even Sept 11th… their 4th quarter 2001 sales showed only the slightest of dips, a result of nervous parents willing to pay heavily for any sort of normality for their kids). On some unremembered errand, I grew scared of all suspicious shoppers and sought refuge in the silliest store I could find. I paid a visit to this place last week, finding it quieter than I’d remembered. A strange heavy cherry smell permeated the place. A man with a stroller took up most of the center aisle. There was no shrink to be seen, no withering stares. I didn’t recognize many of the band names. I sneezed, loud, but no one rolled their eyes. A man in an actual tie dyed peace shirt walked in and did not get arrested. No story here.