Discover more from Blackbird Spyplane
Salute a “good in any hood” garment!!
Hua Hsu on rocking a snorkel parka from ‘95 til infinity, vibey Oasis and Aphex Twin ephemera, how cool young people be dressing, and more
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— Jonah & Erin
Hua Hsu — I first came to know this king ages ago for his brilliant music criticism, which he still whips up, among other culture writing, as a New Yorker staff writer. You may also know him because he won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his fantastic memoir, Stay True — Blackbird Spyplane has won 2 Pulitzers so far (in the Sletter Excellence category), so when we congratulate him for this achievement it carries extra weight.
Stay True contains great beauty, deep insight and tremendous tragedy within its slender spine. It’s also a highly Spyplaney text to the degree that it grapples with what it means to define yourself significantly via the dope rare s**t you’re into ... That’s why we named it one of the year’s best books in The 2022 Spyplane Dobis Awards.
Stay True just came out in paperback, and that edition is already on the bestseller list. So the other day I (Jonah) hopped on the Spyphone with Hua for a wide-ranging conversation about what you can learn from collecting ‘90s press releases for Oasis, Nirvana and Aphex Twin; the multivalent charms of dripped-out vaguely racist Chinese figurines; and more dope rare s**t he’s into and why… !!
Blackbird Spyplane: You teach at Bard, which is where I went, and where the population of Mach 7+ swagger lords per capita in the student body is historically very high. Give us a Campus Sauce Report, please: What’s on the tee shirts, how big are the pants, what music are people listening to, and so on & so forth…?
Hua Hsu: “Oh man, I feel like I knew you’d ask this, but I don’t have the most informed view because I’ve only been there a semester. I will say, there was one year when I was teaching at Vassar when there were 3 kids we called “1865, 1965 and 1995,” because that’s the way each one dressed. Bard has a surprisingly high degree of 1985. That era when people would wear, like, a novelty t-shirt under a flannel — not in a grunge way, but in a casual, Hüsker Dü kind of way? Of course I’ve never seen any student wearing any actual Bard gear….”
Blackbird Spyplane: Back in your boy’s day you were definitely moving goofy if you were a Bard student rocking Bard logo s**t… That was regarded as unconscionable simping for the institution.
Hua Hsu: “Yeah, I think you could wear some now, though. As far as the pants I’ve seen students wearing, they’re generally sort of huge, which I’m into. There’s a fair amount of e-goth kind of stuff. As far as music, I’m not sure, but I do recall seeing a kid wearing an Alice Coltrane tee and another kid wearing a Mazzy Star tee. Oh and a lot of gauzy mesh clothing. But it’s the kind of thing where, when someone dresses in an aggressively normy way, I think it’s some avant-avant-garde s**t.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You just put out the paperback of your fantastic memoir, Stay True. One of the book’s themes is how you hashed out your identity as a teenager via a very carefully curated set of cultural references. We both grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the consumer culture went into grotesque yuppie overdrive and an entire industry of arcane / obscure / underground / “alternative” cultural production consolidated itself in response. We found ourselves trying to hash out who we were, and who we weren’t, in ways that were deeply tied up in questions of what we wore, the culture we loved and the culture we rejected. That’s a dynamic that feels very ‘90s in a way, but I don’t think it’s gone away, it just got hyper-granular thanks to the Internet…
Hua Hsu: “Did I send you this binder I have of ‘90s music press releases? A few years ago I started buying up old press kits from that time, because I was curious about how authentic my relationship to Oasis or Nirvana or Beck or 2Pac could have possibly been. And you go back and look at these press releases and realize, ‘Wow, they knew exactly how to market to me.’ You read the language and say, That’s what I thought I felt myself, but it turns out I actually just read some guy in Spin basically re-writing this press release. So it’s interesting to see these struggles and attempts to define oneself trickle down to how I remember that time. It’s intoxicating to feel like you’ve discovered out-of-the-way things, and when other people move in you feel, ‘I’ve got to move somewhere else.’ Some people eventually give that up, but other people say, ‘If pants are getting skinnier, I’m gonna go big.’”
Blackbird Spyplane: You sent over an artwork you own by the artist Charlie Mai. It’s a figurine of a kid wearing traditional Chinese garments, except Mai has turned the shirt into a Polo Ralph Lauren Snow Beach anorak, the shoes are Jordan XIs, and so on. What’s the story with this?
Hua Hsu: “Charlie is actually a Bard kid — he drove down to meet me when he was an undergrad and I was still teaching at Vassar, because he’d read some of my work. He was dressed unlike any kid I’d ever seen, wearing, like, a hockey jersey and hoop earrings.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Fire.
Hua Hsu: “He gave me this porcelain-coated railroad spike he’d made (below). I was like, This is incredible. A lot of Chinese diasporic artists use the same design, but he wasn’t aware of that commentary on Orientalism.
“So later he began this project where he’d go to antique shops, buy old, weird, vaguely racist figurines and paint them into little hypebeasts. In this one he happens to be reading Ornamentalism by Ann Cheng, which is this really important book about being turned into an object. The fact that Charlie had this vision for what it meant to reclaim these mass-produced disposable tchotchkes and make them into something hyper-commercial — I couldn’t tell whether it was a commentary on fashion or an embrace of it, but I thought they were really funny to look at. And the fact that I couldn’t exactly put my finger on the commentary was part of why I like it so much. Something that could be a banal critique of something — ‘What’s up with racist tropes?’ — it’s sort of that, but through this weird prism of hype culture. You could imagine the s**tty version, but this is done really well.
“If you wanted to be truly anti-capitalist about it, it’s about a fetish — I can’t deny that I like clothes, and that could be a weakness, but it’s part of who I am. And the ability to hold multiple feelings about the world in an object appeals to me.”
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Blackbird Spyplane: You also sent a painting by the NYC painter Leon Xu, who works in a very different register from Mai. I’ve only seen Xu’s work online, never in person, but it always looks very beautiful & warm.
Hua Hsu: “There’s something about the ephemeral nature of Leon’s paintings that has always spoken to me. There’s a fuzziness to it, I think maybe he uses an airbrush? The first paintings of his I ever saw were interiors of old Nissans or Toyotas. Having grown up in California, I spent so much of my life up to my 20s in cars, whether with my parents or driving around with friends, and he captures that feeling of being in motion, but in the stillness of the car. I felt I could hear and smell the interiors. I kind of instantly knew he was from California the way he painted, and it turns out he’s from San Francisco.
“He has a background in graffiti, too, and one time we were talking and I asked him, ‘Where do you see that past in your work?’ He talked about how he really loved when tags and pieces would get paint-rolled over, by like store-owners or whoever, but they could never paint the same exact shade as the wall, so you’d see these weird, cloud, ghost images. After a while he loved seeing those as much as the original pieces. I love that: That fascination with trying to capture the present, but the melancholy of knowing that when you represent the moment, the moment will pass. I told him he paints the way I want to write — with an appreciation of the moment, and an awareness that it will pass.”
Blackbird Spyplane: That fuzzy ghostliness reminds me of the classic Gerhard Richter photorealist squeegee paintings…
Hua Hsu: “It’s funny, I know Richter from the Daydream Nation cover, and I actually didn’t realize that was a painting for a long time. Leon’s work has that same quality of washed-out-but-realer-than-real-life to it. Like, it’s not HD, it’s how the present actually feels. Which is a much harder thing to represent.”
Blackbird Spyplane: OK finally, a concept we often hear about from readers is the Timeless Jawn — and you sent me a Spiewak N-3B (I think) parka you’ve been rocking since you copped it in 1995. You told me, “it’s been the thing that’s stayed through so many aesthetic/identity shifts — from the Pastels to Oasis to Black Moon, it’s always looked perfect to me.” Even among militaria, the snorkel jacket really feels like a rare, time-honored, “good in any hood” kind of garment…
Hua Hsu: “When you wrote about my book, you pointed out the whole notion that ‘being yourself’ is cool if you know what that means, but that it can be more interesting and more real to be other people — I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that’s what one is doing in their teens and twenties. I certainly was: I’d get raver pants, then say, OK now I’ll go to a rave, or I’d get a bumper sticker and then figure out if it was appropriate to ‘who I am.’ There were all these rough drafts of myself.
“In the ‘90s I became fascinated with the green military parka with the orange lining and furry collar — there was something about that combination I loved, and any magazine I picked up I’d see everyone wearing it, no matter what genre of music.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Right, like someone in Mobb Deep rocking it on one page, someone in Blur rocking it on another…
Hua Hsu: “Yeah totally. Men and women wearing it, too. It was something that bridged so much of what I loved. Like, both the Pastels and Mobb Deep could find this garment useful, and it seemed to go equally well with Timberlands or One Stars.
“There’s something about aesthetics of this coat that’s ironic, too, because I felt very protected in it, even if I was very shy. Like, posted up in the corner of some YCMA indie-rock show, the jacket could make this statement of presence for me, because it’s pretty bulky, but it also felt like armor. I felt like I could hide inside of it. I remember going to buy it on a bright sunny day in December at an army-navy surplus store on Stevens Creek in San Jose, and I was so psyched on getting it that I didn’t even try on all the sizes, and got it one size too big.
“So every year I say, I should get rid of this and get, you know, the replacement changes: maybe a tweed raglan overcoat, or a North Face puffer. But I can never get rid of it. It’s such a part of my memory of the past 28 years of my life. I don’t think I’ve ever washed it, either.”