Lost in the Mush: What the Travis Scott Burger, $235 Underwear, and a 20 Year Old Anime Monograph Can Teach Us About Ourselves
If you’re vaguely into hip-hop music — or you waste as much time on your phone as I do — then you’ve probably heard of the McDonald’s Travis Scott burger by now. Or the Travis Scott Meal, I guess, which is the official name. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then the ad here can get you up to speed and establish the context pretty well for what I want to talk about here.
So, McDonald’s and Travis Scott have a brand tie in-that’s very openly a meal you can already get yourself, but now with Scott’s name on it. It’s super silly, and that’s part of the reason I’m writing this. But on a more abstract level, underneath all of the memes and the absurdity, I think there’s actually something really interesting going on with the product. McDonald’s marketing strategy feels like it’s working in a unique way that resembles “merch” or contemporary fashion branding. This is notable in it’s own right, but I also believe it showcases a new kind of relationship between our culture and the products it consumes — one that we can understand with help from, of all things, a twenty year old book about anime by a Japanese writer named Hiroki Azuma
Going back to the product, at first glance, what’s at work doesn’t seem too different from a regular celebrity endorsement. The trusted image, the cultural capital, of the celeb is used to give credibility to whatever claim the product is selling itself on. We see this kind of thing all the time, and increasingly so with hip-hop artists. Snoop Dogg sells that Tweed weed; Dr. Dre used to use Beats headphones because they’re scientifically tuned for modern music production or whatever.
But here’s the thing. Travis Scott, up until now I guess, has had nothing ever to do with McDonald’s. I might be wrong, but I don’t think I can even recall a song of his that mentions it. And, in the same vein, the Travis Scott Meal is not making any claim about itself that Travis is present to convince us of. There’s doubly no reason for the two entities here to be associated in an ad, and yet it’s still happening.
It’s still happening, and importantly for us, it’s happening very openly, intentionally. Neither McDonald’s nor Travis is justifying their association, because it’s working arbitrarily on purpose. The promotion is structured to engage with consumers on a purely cultural basis. The novelty we’re intended to be attracted to isn’t anything about the food itself, but the hybrid symbolic product of two familiar signs — Travis Scott and McDonald’s. In other words, if we independently enjoy Travis Scott and McDonald’s, we’re being asked to engage with the Travis Scott meal on this alone.
This a really weird way of selling a hamburger, but it’s not entirely cutting edge. In fact — and this is probably a bit intentional, now that I think about it — I would say it’s borrowing a great deal from contemporary high-end fashion marketing.
A lot of what’s big with dumb rich-people clothing right now is something called “logomania.” A hoodie, or underwear or whatever gets a designer’s name printed on it, and then trades as a product based openly just on this. The actual physical qualities of the clothing are kind of ignored in favour of the spirit of the designer that is being embodied in them. And, although this is a popular criticism of fashion marketing, it’s recognized on both the productive and consumptive ends. Customers are ideally buying the product consciously as a cultural experience.
This process of value based on symbolic recognition is almost beat-for-beat what the Travis burger is striving for. And although, we could think “Neat!” and end here, I think a fast-food company lapsing into this kind of marketing has broader causes and implications that are worth exploring. We can start with this by looking at a book from 2001 called Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals.
Database Animals, by Hiroki Azuma, is specifically a critique of 1980’s-90’s Japanese nerd culture, the kind of thing you might be familiar with if you’ve read anything by/on Takashi Murakami. The theory Azuma uses to make this critique, though, which he calls “database consumption” is general enough to be transferable and, I think, really relevant to what we’ve been discussing here.
Azuma starts his definition of database consumption by establishing that we are living through a “post-modern” era, as opposed to the “modern” one he characterizes as having passed. He notes that, in this lapsed modern era, the way we as a society interacted with our culture was through “narrative” consumption. A simple way of understanding this is that there were large “narratives” or “truths” to which it was sort of agreed everybody subscribed. Cultural items, including brands and their products, were by extension ways to access and engage with these narratives.
A modern “Travis Scott Burger” would be the traditional celebrity endorsement I mentioned earlier. A personality coming together purposely with a product to pitch us a claim, a truth.
Database consumption, on the other hand, represents trends towards individualism and media abundance that have occurred since the modern era Azuma describes. In database consumption, there are no narratives, but rather a massive, flat cultural “database” filled with discrete “entries” of cultural knowledge. Engaging with culture in Azuma’s post-modernism, then, means arranging any number of these entries into a hybrid product that lets consumers engage on their own terms with the parts of the database they find resonant. There are infinite ways to do this, and thus infinite individual “narratives,” all never more than arrangements of the same database, meaningful only in context.
Database Animals being focused on Japan, Azuma exemplifies this with specific-features-first anime-girl design, and calls the feeling of resonance moe, but it’s easy for us to take it out of this context because it maps perfectly onto the discussion we’ve been having so far.
Thinking like Azuma, we can easily see the database consumption underlying logo-mania and McDonald’s attempt to embody it in fast-food. A regular pair of underwear with the Vetements logo on it is the designer’s database entry manifest, and an opportunity for buyers to engage with it directly. The Travis Scott Meal is a narrative arranged from the entries for McDonald’s and Scott intended to produce a kind of fast-food moe, for a target audience. A cultural event built from scratch with curated parts.
But Azuma was talking about entertainment in Database Animals, something inherently fluid and creative and well suited to database consumption. What does it mean that we can now account for our engagement with clothing and, even farther down the hierarchy of needs, food this way?
This is an open discussion, and it can likely be taken any number of ways. What I would argue, though, is that, in addition to the post-modern trends Azuma identifies, the global north has reached a state of material abundance and uniformity that allows us to engage with the majority of our products in a primarily cultural way, as if they were entertainment. When it’s possible to get a relatively similar fast-food meal anywhere for relatively the same price, trying to argue that one hegemonic brand’s products will have a material edge over the other becomes a bit inefficient. Moving to the symbolic level and creating a Travis-style niche narrative for the public to database-consume becomes a viable option. Like the branded product once separated itself form the pure commodity, the “database” product now fully embraces the brand and separates itself from the physical product almost entirely.
This represents a deep split between the material and cultural levels of how we engage with our products. On the cultural side of this split, though, it feels like a mushing-together, like the “flatness” Azuma pointed out underlying his subject. If we spend most of our time consuming, and the symbols that usually structure this consumption are divorced from their products, this structure almost goes away. We are left, as a society, with a massive, flat, formless mass of a popular culture that serves no real organizing function but to blindly sell.
So the Travis Scott Meal is fun and silly, and probably pretty good. But all of this absurdity, I believe, stems from it representing a new type of marketing that cares little, if at all, about the actual products it is trying to sell. This marketing bears great similarities to contemporary fashion and works on the idea of “database consumption” identified by Hiroki Azuma in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. It works by combining entries in a post-modern cultural “database” in order to produce a hybrid symbolic product with which customers are intended to resonate. The fact that a theory developed to explain Japanese cartoons can now account for our consumption of food and clothing, though, points towards a set of material conditions in the global north that allows us to treat all our products as primarily cultural entities, like entertainment. When this happens, though, our popular culture stops serving an organizational function and becomes like Azuma’s database: something vast and formless that modulates itself constantly, but can never be anything or hold any independent meaning.
Maybe this is a good thing. The “animal” in Azuma’s title refers to his belief that database-consuming humans are like animals living in harmony with their environment. As wealth inequality worsens, though, and our material conditions follow suit, it’s hard to see the harmony in a culture of free-floating symbols that have wilfully given up their real-world roots.