A recent article by Tom Whyman suggested that the cutesy hipster cupcake is a register of gentrification, infantilisation and fascism. I do not completely agree with all parts of his argument but the article points to many facets of late capitalist desire that I would like to say a few words about. In particular, I want to explore how contemporary consumerism does not reflect a desire for newness, change, revolution or a generational identity but an addiction to the past. This is a thought that has been central for a couple of thinkers, most notably Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds. It is not, for me, an addiction to an actual past but quite the contrary. It is an addiction to a fictional, fantastic past that never existed. It is an addiction that pacifies (precisely what I will describe later) and comforts. It is desire driven by a loss – but not the loss of a history or culture, these modes of product are coloured in by the consumer and marketing departments – of the present and any hope of a different future. For me, the cupcake is one of many registers of there being no tangible present identity or political potency let alone any hope for these in the near future.
Whyman states how: “(t)he cupcake is vintagey and twee. It invokes a sense of wholesomeness and nostalgia, albeit for a past never experienced, a more perfect past, just as vintage-style clothing harks back to an idealized image of the 1920s through 60s that never existed.” He calls this infantilisation. For Whyman infantilisation is “looking back to a perfect past that never existed is nothing if not the pained howl of a child who never wanted to be forced to grow up, and the cupcake and its associates market themselves by catering to these never-never-land adults’ tastes.” But of course, as Whyman is clear to point out, this is not a form of behaving as a child; children constantly seek, discover, test and learn about new possibilities. It is exactly these qualities that the cupcake shows do not exist for many young adults. Thus, the cupcake is a register of how many adults have never, at least politically and culturally, sought or discovered new possibilities of living. Not because people are apathetic but because now there is no comprehension of anything new or potential out there. The cupcake points to how, for many, there is nothing new over the horizon, it is impossible, unimaginable, and so looking back and fictionalizing a fantastic history to fetishize is the only other option. Under late capitalism desire is routed back into vague simulacra of nonexistent pasts. The consumer is governed by warped and fractured memories, ficciones/fissions. Kaleidoscopic images of rose tinted retro-fetishism are dizzying, enticing and reassuring, easy to fall for – as they say: its all done with mirrors… The distinction here is subtle, the cupcake is not a symbol of how no one ever grew up, it is a symbol of how people grew into Peter Pan dreamers. The cupcake is an avatar not for childishness or the past but for an adult imagination that seeks comfort in a history of its own fantastic making. Peter Pan did not stop growing up; he did not-never grow up. He grew up and retreated into an escapist fantasy called Neverland; a world that never ever existed in the first place. It is this fantasy that governs contemporary aesthetics.
The relationship of the body to the cupcake is confirmation of this. As Whyman asserts, children have the sticky fingers and dirtied clothes of adventure – of seeking out new experiences and worlds of potential. The cupcake circumvents this corporeal aspect discovery and substitutes it with a “cold and uniform neatness” – a hopeless void for change that comes to be filled with the fantasy of a past that never was. Of course, messy cakes are not the answer, but it follows the very nature of access to Neverland: flight. The contemporary “child without sticky fingers” neglects the body and its cumbersome efforts of discovery in favour of a more fantastic and de-corporealised flight of escape into fantasy. This is echoed on the racks and aisles of fast-fashion non-spaces of today. Costumes are offered; a plethora of stenciled rock or film aesthetics (void of creativity) can be donned in lieu of anything new. In comparison to the previously creative cultural threads of mods, rockers, teddy-boys, hip-hop and grunge that whilst taking up some silhouettes of previous cultures re-appropriated the garments for new beliefs and hopes, the attire of today is little more than costume with no political or cultural significance outside of the fuzzy memory of the time they reference. Of course, fashion has always been referential to some degree, but contemporary offerings are notably divorced from contemporary cultures and politics. Apart from Hedi Slimane’s brief insistence of confronting the body with impossible lines and silhouettes the majority of fashion is a toned down array of The Village People’s wardrobe – referencing stereotypical cultural aesthetics that everyone has a vague memory of, a memory with which they can buy into and project a fantasy.
Amy Pettifer’s recent review of Sky Ferreira’sNight Time, My Time pointed to exactly the same symptom of the future being unimaginable and a flight into vague memory cultivations of fantasy being offered instead. The album is a passionate exercise in memory; it is an infinite game of nods and references that leave a void for ones fantasy and a chasm where the pop star should usually reside as the focus of desire. In Night Time, My Time all the desires of the listener are re-routed into fleeting memories of past pop. In this sense the album “embraces post-millennial life as the cultural black hole that it is (…) (a)lmost every chord and cadence pulls at your sonic muscle-memory”. However, Pettifer is quick to point out that Ferreira’s trick is not to allow the retroactivated fantasy of the listener any consistent purchase but rather to constantly shift and evade any ground for convincing nostalgia. In contradistinction to the wholesale fantasy satisfaction of Duffy or Amy Winehouse, Ferreira’s cracked kaleidoscope of memories attempts to impress that fantasy is just that, and outside of that there is little else. As Pettifer astutely observes: “Ferreira has swiftly come to terms with the fact that being a pop artist now is less about being a vessel for someone else's ideas and rather a case of being a walking time capsule” Ferreira shows that she is merely a vessel for others fantasies rather than performing convincing fantasy. The dream channeled by the likes of Duffy, Winehouse and countless others is rendered lucid by Ferreira. Night Time, My Time is a lucid dream whereby the dreamer knows they are dreaming. It is this deconstruction of nostalgic fantasy that Pettifer suggests “is hopefully the sound of Ferreira climbing inside the commercial machine and wryly dismantling it from within.” Infused throughout the album is the subtle glimmering negation: It’s only a dream; it’s only a dream… It is this sentiment that ought to be iced on top of every cupcake.