We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
Metal is cool. Not actual metal music — even 40 years later, it’s still too earnestly weird, or weirdly earnest — but the aesthetics. This is not the metal of long hair and excessive makeup. It’s the tattered jeans, ripped shirts, and aggressive graphics that were once the providence of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, subversive subculture made into tour merch for fans with triple-digit-priced concert tickets.
This week, in New York City, Future opened his own “FutureHive” pop-up shop featuring a number of t-shirts, hoodies, caps, a few limited edition leather bags, as well as a few shirts from the Future-approved high-end streetwear brand Cease and Desist. Hanging on the walls were art installations showing inspiration from his most recent album, EVOL, including a number of 3-D models of the album art and numerous photo portraits. Much of Future’s merch edged closer to the post–Virgil Abloh style of streetwear: excessive proportions and maximalist graphics constrained to false minimalism. But there there was one shirt that caught my eye.
It was simple — black and printed with Future’s name — but the font chosen wasn’t riffing on a 1980s metal band. Instead, the typeface was paying homage to the classic 1990s video game Doom, one of the earliest first-person shooting games. In it, a space marine is shooting through the forces of hell that have risen. The game was before my time, but the basic mechanics influenced so many games I grew up playing. Even as a person who’s not currently big on video games, I’ve spent a number of mornings watching videos from the game’s latest iteration. Well over two decades old, the game’s typography remained so memorable that, apparently, the style has spread beyond the confines of video-game box art and trade convention shirts.
This was a shrewd typological choice. The bold red and orange font fits the particular rock star aesthetic of the moment, but without a specific callback to bands either real or fictional. Instead, it’s more of aesthetics by osmosis — the creators of Doom were pulling from their own metal influences when they designed the game, and worked with some of the most key members of the genre. That logo was created by Heavy Metal magazine illustrator Don Ivan Punchatz, and the Doom sequel, Quake, featured music by Trent Reznor, king of heavy nihilistic music.
In the last three years, we’ve seen a wide range of metal-influenced music merch: In 2013, Kanye West’s Yeezus tour merch nodded to Metallica’s classic font and other 1980s thrash metal bands, and his gothic-twinged merch recalled early Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, even as it showed the hallmarks of his frequent collaborator, Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy. This year, Justin Bieber’s tour merch was designed by the brand Fear of God’s Jerry Lorenzo, showing reflections of the same hard-rock roots. Zayn Malik hired the original cover art illustrator of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, Mark Wilkinson, to design for his tour.
Beyond tour merch, earlier this year Vlone (the label created by A$AP Bari and A$AP Rocky) released a collection of hoodies, shirts, and shredded denim jeans that spawned tattered memories from 1970s punk rock and 1980s heavy metal. Urban Outfitters has had this trend trickle down twice with a treasure trove of faux-vintage band shirts, then more recently prominently displaying and selling a Metallica Ride the Lightning–era hoodie made by cheap band merch stalwart, Galdin. If all the cool kids are wearing faux-vintage metal shirts, then why not buy a real faux-vintage metal hoodie of an actual brand?
That particular trend, along with pop-up shops based around tour merch, appears to be reaching a saturation point. Justin Bieber’s tour merch had a pop-up shop not only at NYC cool kid hangout V-Files, but also at luxury retailer Barneys. The hype around tour merch is so feverish that when Drake revealed his own merch, I was palpably relieved that the rapper hadn’t put any overarching theme to it. It was just a bunch of a shirts, hoodies, etc. that should please fans without causing a riot.
The conscious choice not to feed this beast is one route, but I prefer what the Doom-referencing shirt accomplished: encouraging fans to flex their minds to connect the aesthetic dots. It’s easy to get a sense when trends are over, but this single Future tee is a small left turn on a trend that’s hit the end of the road.
Check out more from the year in music, culture, politics, and style in Signal & Noise 2016.