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The dark allure of cursed clothes — and hijacking them toward blessedness
Welcome to Blackbird Spyplane.
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— Jonah & Erin
Here at Blackbird Spyplane we’re an on-the-record pro-kindvibes sletter. When I talked to Spyfriend Gabby Paiella of GQ last year for a piece she wrote about clothes that embody “good vibes,” I spun up an off-the-cuff kindvibes manifesto, arguing that when you measure vibes in terms of kindness — which implies a social relationship — you realize it’s not just about keeping your own vibes good in a bubble, but also about observing and trying your best to honor a soul-enriching obligation to other people’s vibes too.
How this ethos connects to BBSP isn’t always direct, but Erin and I have an obvious affection for clothes and other things that radiate kindvibed energy — old animal-rights artifacts; quasi-elegiac Y2K-era “Earth Day” jawns; bootleg 2020 Bernie merch; and pieces that feel kindvibed in an embodied sense, i.e. a lovely handknit Auntwave balaclava crafted with palpable love, or some dope natural-dyed fleece the making of which involved no Gaia-harming toxic chemicals; etc., etc.
And yet: We do gotta admit that life contains darkness, pain, malevolence and suffering, and that sometimes clothes become gnarly indexes of semiotic and material strife.
Since we’re the No. 1 Source Across All Media for “Unbeatable Jawn Contemplation,” today we’re going to leave the warm & sunny embrace of kindvibed jawns to gaze instead into the fascinatingly murky abyss, more relevant today than ever… of “BLACKPILLED SWAG.”
Blackpilled Swag is, on its most fundamental level, about attempts to rock & otherwise engage with — rather than simply recoil from — Harshed-Out, F**ked-Up and generally Cursed Jawns. We are talking about an ever-expanding category of grim, grody talismans that often feel bad to think about, but which we don’t want to straight-up ignore, either, on some “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” s**t…
Yes, some jawns feel so cursed that their unrockability is all but non-negotiable — too much blackpilling required, not enough room for swag. I don’t think any of the “beautiful & blessed” members of Spy Nation are trying to rock, like, a Waffen-SS anorak or whatever, no matter how wavy its “pizza camo” pattern is. Ditto a pair of old-a** Levi’s that say “WHITE LABOR ONLY” on the tags, no matter how dope the fade.
But in the past several years we’ve become accustomed to running “moral number crunches” on clothes whose f**ked-up-ness feels more ambiguous. Was New Balance pro-Trump and therefore unrockable (2016)? Were Fred Perry shirts the tarnished property of the alt-right (2017)? Was the pro-Kaepernick Nike by logical extension anti-police, and were good Americans therefore obliged to set fire to their Monarch IVs on Facebook in protest (2018)? Were Balenciaga jawns revealed as totems of the Satanist fashion wing of the Global Pedophile Elite (2022)? If you still own Yeezy clothes here in 2023, are you supposed to toss them in the garbage for fear of aligning yourself with an unwell man who said mad wild antisemitic s**t? Is that how a boxy-cut heavyweight hoodie works??
We see these same kinds of questions recirculate, from liberals & conservatives alike, because clothes are among other things a symbolic language, and at this point the mainstream American conception of “political action” has been denuded & reduced almost entirely to the realm of symbolic displays — posting the right opinion, retweeting the right dunk, buying the right thing and then posting about how you refuse to buy the wrong thing (in hopes you’ll get some retweets).
Blackpilled Swag grows from this soil, reflecting a mounting frustration with the nagging sense that these symbolic debates do not actually serve justice, but are in fact sideshows: fundamentally theatrical exercises that — while they touch on legitimately enraging issues, and while they might even produce “scalps” (fractional quarterly revenue dips for corporations, threatened livelihoods and ruined reputations for individuals) — don’t actually do much to materially improve people’s lives, redress entrenched inequality, or otherwise “make the world a better place.” The real business of world-shaping, we correctly sense, is happening elsewhere, among wack powers operating far above our pay grades who are more than happy to let us squabble over SYMBOLIC CRUMBS!!
Meanwhile, the culture tells us over and over that our political power as individuals is almost fully coterminous with our consumer choices — co-opted and weakened, that is, to the depressing degree that “F**k It Nothing Matters” Nihilism might start to feel like the least-crazymaking position available…
So how might Blackpilled Swag manifest in that context? Take the example of a Mach 3+ clothes-rocker who is angry and depressed about climate change, but — beholding the vast capitalist machinery whose continued existence (and near-total capture of legislators and regulators) guarantees that climate change will continue unabated — gets tired of fretting in the margins about how best to “cop virtuously,” says, “F**k it,” and decides to rock a piece of sick-yet-heavily-cursed Shell merch, or some other piece of Rapacious Extractive Globo-Demon Gear…
I have in mind here a cool and morally aware Spyfriend like Lawrence Schlossman of Throwing Fits, who last year took to rocking a very-dope-yet-patently-cursed Mobil Pegasus-logo cap (above middle right) that he got while visiting his in-laws in Texas oil country. [UPDATE: Larry informs me that was a *different* oil-industry cap than the one pictured — the point stands but we regret the error!!] I also have myself in mind, because during our trip to Japan last fall I saw dude top left rocking that truly fire-yet-cursed Shell sweatshirt and promptly did an eBay search to dig up yet more specimens.
I haven’t copped any of them (not my style, not yet anyway) but I also haven’t stopped thinking about them, because as “jawn texts” these and other cursed garments can be complexly fascinating — and, on some “heighten the contradictions” s**t, darkly alluring.
Ditto a cursed banger from, like, Dole or Michelin. Despite being grody mega-plantation corpo-colonialists who, like the oil companies, have visited untold misery, exploitation and degradation upon the environment, indigenous populations, and the global poor writ large, these companies also have inarguably tight logos that have been thoroughly interwoven into the Western visual vernacular, in all its grotesque beauty…
They are logos, in other words, that are on a deep & irreducible level cursed, and yet they can nonetheless be abstracted — partially, anyway — into a kind of rockable Cursed Kitsch.
You can see a straightforward version of this abstraction in the love for Real & Made-Up Corporate Grifter Kitsch. This is a sub-category of Cursed Jawn that includes merch for Fictional Cursed Companies like Waystar Royco (Succession), Pierpoint & Co. (Industry), and, in a very tight throwback deep-cut, the Monsanto proxy U-North (Michael Clayton). It also includes coveted scammer talismans promoting Actual Cursed Companies, like Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities backpacks, Enron tees, Theranos fleeces, Bear Stearns caps, Lehman Brothers totes, Goldman Sachs sweatshirts, etc.
Now, a Madoff bag or Bear Stearns cap could read as the metaphorical decapitated head of a vanquished villain: A trophy, that is, taken in victory against “bad guys” who got their “comeuppance,” which makes the jawn in question feel “safe” to rock. But wearing a jawn that promotes, like, Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan Chase — companies whose executives do f**ked-up s**t as a matter of course, only to be “punished” with enormous bonuses & jobs in presidential cabinets — is a more ambiguous and provocative gesture…
Because, to be clear, exploring Blackpilled Swag doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a fatalist doomer. Wearing a Cursed Jawn with a Goldman Sachs logo might represent an act of Jokerfied nihilism or edgelord trolling, but it could also reflect an impulse toward satirical gallows humor (“LOL I’m repping for these devils who do not care if I live or die, unless my death would be profitable for them, in which case they definitely want me to die”), or maybe a fraught recognition of one’s own blinkered complicity in a sick & twisted economic system.
Whichever way you slice it, I could easily see a “cool Dimes Square kid” rocking a tight Monsanto strapback soon after this sletter drops. Real talk, I’ve got half a mind to cop this Monsanto cap in particular, which I gotta say slaps darkly !!
My journey into contemplating Blackpilled Swag started with tobacco-company merch. The subject came up during last week’s wonderful interview with (the very kindvibed) Mac DeMarco, who collects tobacco curios — a.k.a. Cursed Fire Poison-Merchant Memorabilia — from the non-valor-stealing P.O.V. of a longtime smoker who once wrote a beautiful “ode” to the Canadian dart brand Viceroy, then quit during the pandemic and went through horrible nicotine withdrawal in Utah’s high desert.
Mac told me that “with ‘Ode to Viceroy’ it was me poking fun at, like, ‘I’m writing a love song about these things giving me lung cancer with every puff.’” He expressed a similar ambivalence when it came to tobacco merch: “To me it doesn’t represent the act of smoking so much as, like, a classic American value.”
There’s clearly something to that. Joe Camel is a genius, cynical, funny, evil, ridiculous, iconic American creation, all at the same time. It takes nothing away from that to also acknowledge that the denim shirt above right (coppable on eBay here and here in medium; here and here in large; and here and here in XL, haha) is undeniably ill. Vice versa, the shirt’s illness cannot and does not erase the fact that Joe Camel is h*lla cursed…
What that highlights is another case where the Blackpilled Swag mindset reflects a prankish- or critical-minded impulse to resist, reclaim and redeploy the Cursed Jawn in question. Effective strategies when it comes to that kind of “semiotic resistance” vary, though. In the ‘90s there was a vogue for cringe parody jawns (e.g., “Joe Chemo” Joe Camel send-up tees that were pretty gnarly in their own right) and other Adbusters type s**t that tended to come off as too stridently corny to work.
Maybe other throwback counter-cultural gestures are riper for revisiting. If I copped that Monsanto cap above and wrote “F**K” or even “FIREBOMB” in black Sharpie over the company’s name, on my crust-punk eco-terror flow, it could actually go pretty hard??
Or maybe it’s most effective to just assert ownership over the cursed symbol by leaving it intact and letting context freak it for you. Especially in a case like Monsanto — the kind of company that would prefer to do its nasty, world-worsening s**t without anyone knowing its name — straightforwardly rocking a logo jawn that probably originated as an insider giveaway can be a counterintuitively blessed, “sunlight is the best disinfectant”-type gesture.
“Letting context freak it” is sort of what we had in mind when we named this masterpiece e-mail magazine Blackbird Spyplane, paying earnest homage to my favorite plane from when I was a kid: a beautiful piece of design that emerged from the cursed depths of Cold War-era U.S. weapons proliferation / defense-industry bloat.
There’s a whole raft of Military Industrial Deep State Death Conglomerate Kitsch available at resale — like the CRAZY Lockheed Martin Skunk Works letterman jacket above right. I actually think that jacket’s patent dopeness might make it more difficult to rock in a way that would read as remotely critical: It might simply look too intelligibly “cool” to allow for any kind of oblique-angled intervention, whereas the Raytheon-branded Columbia Performance Fishing Gear shirt top left (on eBay in a size L here) feels goofier, and therefore riper for “reclamation”…. Or you might find a wild Gulf War era bootleg Bart Simpson tee where Bart’s a roided-up tactical operator choking out (or pissing on, JFC) a racist caricature of Saddam Hussein, and decide to rock it on some, “D*mn, this country is profoundly f**ked-up,” energy.
Underlying the entire topic of Blackpilled Swag is the impulse to transgress for transgression’s sake. A textbook example is proto-blackpilled punks in the ‘70s, whose only real ideology was “f**k everything,” wearing swastikas onstage. Again, all signs and symbols are negotiable to a degree, but some feel more steadfastly f**ked than others: I remember reading about a Canadian artist named ManWoman who tried to “rehabilitate” the swastika and turn it (back) into a sacred symbol of peace and love, painting a bunch of “nice” swastikas in the process — a curious, well-meaning project that was for obvious reasons a nonstarter.
We shouldn’t dismiss the transgressive impulse out of hand as “mere” trolling. It can manifest in nasty, dumb & puerile ways, but transgression in itself is a keystone of all kinds of cool avant-garde activity: At its best, transgression shakes things up and helps keep brains from getting too smooth.
The thing is that semiotic slipperiness can feel scary — we don’t want dark symbols, and the darkness they represent, to become “acceptable” and “normalized.” But that same slipperiness can feel liberatory, too, and open up new imaginative horizons. Hate speech gets reclaimed and rewired by its onetime targets. The word “based” was coined by the blessed Bay Area rapper Lil B as a term of let-your-freak-flag-fly inclusiveness, then it became synonymous with alt-right anti-wokeness, and then young “post-leftists” began using it, shifting and bending its meaning in ways that remain in flux…
Whether you are interested in doing that meaning-bending yourself, through what you wear, is another question. Some jawns are so foul that the wisest move might be to give them a little appreciative shudder and then keep it pushing.
Driving head-on into the contradictions, though, while not without its challenges, can be compelling. Last fall a buddy of mine — who possibly thinks about this kind of s**t even more than I do — sent me the above eBay listing for a very popping yet very dark-energy-adjacent vintage Miramax strapback. Soon afterward he copped it and, gradually, started rocking it.
He knows he’s flirting with the third rail here. Wearing a hat like this will necessarily get a rise out of people in a way that isn’t exactly the same as trying to “own the libs” but does have some overlap. His basic contention, though, is that tons of people worked on Miramax movies besides Harvey Weinstein, and many of those movies were history-of-cinema-definingly great. He rejects the implication that Weinstein’s heinousness puts a permanent hex on a jawn commemorating all that work. And he rejects the idea that this cap can only be read, by default, as an endorsement (this would be true psycho s**t!!) of Weinstein.
“I don’t think an article of clothing can be inherently cursed,” he told me. “I think there’s something to why you wear the piece. Your intention. It’s a great logo and I’m a fan of the films. My intention is to save it from the darkness.”
And maybe that’s the most-blessed way to conceptualize Blackpilled Swag and to situate it, however trickily, within a kindvibed project: Approach it like you are “Swag Orpheus,” descending into h*ll not to get trapped there forever, but to rescue “Jawn Eurydice.” Leading with love, hope, and a spirit of fellowship — and not looking back till everyone’s in the sunshine.
P🎨E🎨A🎨C🎨E🎨 — Jonah & Erin
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