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Bling Bling’s not Frontin’

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Bling’s not frontin’ what it isn’t. It is what it is: ostentatious chunks of jewelry– an affront to aging Perrier drinkers, Birkenstock hippies and other Woodstock pretenders just like me, though I honestly did go to Woodstock and now would sooner drink Pabst than bottled water.

Nevertheless, I learned the meaning of “frontin’” when one of my students used this example to explain it: “Why you frontin’ you like him when you don’t?” And, bang, I suddenly understood Bling too. Bling-Bling — no frontin’, just big gold. No lie, no fraud, no pretenders, no subtlety. So there it is: Bling-Bling is philosophy. In fact it’s Existentialism. Another student described it like this: “Bling-Bling is the Black reaction to White middle-class bad faith, or self deception.”

In other words “cultured” people deceive themselves when they pretend, their jewelry is an aesthetic statement when in fact if is the same thing as hanging money from their bodies. All jewelry is generally a fetishistic commodity, and Bling-Bling makes fun of this fetishism, while simultaneously engaging in it. The vast majority of jewelry is desired not for what it is, but for what it symbolizes. From a Marxist perspective, Bling, both White and Black, is a futile attempt to compensate ourselves for the sense of alienation created by capitalism. We wish we could work at what we love; instead we only work to buy stuff that never fully compensates us for our sense of alienation.

That is fundamentally what today’s column is about: bad faith, self-deception and degrees of falsehood. Or to be more precise, does it make sense to say there is such a thing as an honest pretender? And is an honest pretender in some way less despicable than a dishonest pretender? The answer of course is yes. Yes, a self-deceived pretender is worse than a merely cynical pretender. Perrier and over-priced organic food is no less Bling-Bling than a platinum dollar sign, with the one exception, the whole food consumer is frontin’ love of nature when it is really no more than White man’s Bling-Bling.

If I pretend and I admit to myself I’m pretending, at least someone actually knows the truth, me. But if I pretend and I start by convincing myself I am not pretending then nobody knows the truth, and I can feel just fine about my manipulations. “Some Perrier perhaps to save the environment? Oh my, that awful W!” So my sense is this: all lies of pretence are an attempt to reduce the autonomy of the people to whom we lie. If I pretend to be something I am not, I actually am attempting to manipulate a false belief about me in someone else. I am inhibiting their ability to make a clear decision about me by leading them on, lying in a sense. So, we should avoid deceptive pretending. But if, for whatever reason, one nevertheless feels compelled to pretend, at least be an honest pretender. Don’t lie to yourself about frontin’. Wear your organic celery around your neck; be proud of being an alienated consumer of White-man’s Bling.
Edited: LH

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About carmine

  • The first three or four paragraphs were really interesting and thoughtful – nice job. I feel like you sort of lost direction in the last paragraph. I understand your point (I think), but it feels like it gets a bit convoluted by your wording.

  • carmine

    Thank you for the editorial advice.

  • Dr. Carmine, I confess my pet peeve with crossover words like bling and frontin. I understand that you’re trying to relate to your students, but it just makes you sound silly to read, especially your title.

    I suggest further reading on the topic of crossovers (and the resistance to using them), in a dictionary of sorts by Geneva Smitherman, found here

    As for the post’s meaning, I do agree that materialism, whether acknowledging it or not, is still an elegant waste of resources. But hey, it is America after all.

  • So wait, let me see if I have understood this. Those of us who eat organic foods (and we come in all hues, BTW) for reasons of health or use “green” products for the purpose of being ecologically responsible are pretenders showing off their vast stores of wealth? Can’t wait to tell my friends at the food co-op…

  • Making personal choices for reasons of conscience is one thing. Turning those personal choices into condescension, ostentatiousness, self-righteousness, or self-promotion somehow seems less virtuous to me.

    Better yet… do what you do and ignore the gasbags who have nothing better to do than criticize. Live life.

    [Note: I am not accusing anyone on this thread of anything! These are observations of a general nature. So for fuck’s sake, let us all pretty please avoid petty flame wars]

  • DJRad: Flames? I thought BC ran on steam heat. 😉

    But criticized or not, most people will do what they want anyway, because let’s face that most personal choices are not governed as much as by conscience as they are by self-indulgence.

  • “Making personal choices for reasons of conscience is one thing. Turning those personal choices into condescension, ostentatiousness, self-righteousness, or self-promotion somehow seems less virtuous to me.”

    I definitely agree with that.

  • carmine

    I never actually cross over. “Bling” and “frontin” are words I hear and have merely tried to make sense of in English I understand. Frankfurt’s essay is about how bullshit is, by and large, the same thing as frontin. In both cases someone pretends to know something in order to draw attention to himself rather than the subject he doesn’t really understand as well as he pretends. Frankfurt ends the book with the wonderful comment that sensitivity is bullshit, since the attempt to be sensitive is in fact giving subjective feelings more significance than objective knowledge. He too seems to argue that a world where tolerance has slipped into raw liberal relativism is a world with lots of bullshit flying around. This is exactly the idea that got Socrates killed too. Don’t tell the sensitive people, they are full of bullshit when they don’t know what the …. they are talking about. They will kill you for it. Being nice and sensitive is itself a kind of frontin, a very very white variety. In word it’s bullshit.

  • Carmine, I think I was mainly referring to your title and first couple of sentences. But as long as you acknowledge the crossing over of the two slang terms is all bullshit, then I’m in agreement with you.

    I have yet to peep Frankfurt’s essay since I’ve heard contrasting reviews of it, but I can imagine the gist of it, since I already believe most things in this life/culture/reality are bullshit.

    I just wish that white culture was not always stealing phrases from black culture to try and appear as if they “get it”. That’s all. Good points though.

  • Eric Olsen

    love the philosophy stuff, a few thoughts: “bullshit” is almost meaninglessly vague as there are vast varieties and degrees of falsehood, and the Taoists would say there is no such thing as utter bullshit because even the most egregious lie reveals much.

    I find the point about simultaneously making fun of and celebrating something fascinating and much more prevalent than most people realize: revival of popular culture often begins ironically but evolves into celebration because the ironic stance takes too much effort to maintain

  • “Black” culture? Excuse me, but many people who define themselves thusly, erroneous though the terminology may be, don’t understand those words any more than anyone else and would never use them. How about “urban youth” culture? Or MTV hip-hop culture? Or something that is even close to being more accurate and fair? Because the phrase “black” culture is neither.

    “Being nice and sensitive is itself a kind of frontin, a very very white variety.”

    Excuse me, but what exactly are you saying here? Only people defined by the majority of society a certain way can be nice and sensitive? If you’re saying that being “nice and sensitive” is only part of “white” culture (as stupid a phrase as so-called “black” culture), well that would be bullshit too.

    [The above is meant to be spoken nicely and sensitively.]

  • This is one of the best headers I’ve read in a long time — great, hilarious job!

    Reminds me of a fantastic self-promo on MTV that shows, via animated skits — how slang terms go from exotic/bad-ass/ultra-hip to played out dead.

    I think “bling bling” was the example they used, actually. In the first bit, gangsta rap dudes said it, and by the last, a white grandma in a wheelchair was saying it to her cat.

  • Eric Olsen

    but it was a BAD cat

  • The worst…

    Best ?

  • Natalie, my apologies for the generalization, as I rushed to finish that post because I forgot it was time to catch my train. Anyway, yes, a more accurate assessment would be “urban youth” culture or “hip-hop lingo”.

    BUT…just so you know I wasn’t making things up, in the book Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner, the author Geneva Smitherman states that:

    “”Crossover” refers to a word/phrase in Black Talk that has moved beyond the African American context and is now in general use by European Americans. Some crossover words/phrases are linked to African languages and have become so common in American speech that most people are unaware of their origin.”

    Other previous crossovers terms include The Big Apple, bodacious, buzz, chill, da bomb, shout out… and so on.

    I just find all too often people using words like bling or frontin, and try to be clever or cute in saying them— but they’re not. That was my point. Hope that clears it up.

  • Dr. Carmine is my new favorite writer on this site, for sure. Great post.

    One question, though: How is bling-bling existentialism? Or did you mean it in the sense that bling-bling materialism epitomizes the bad faith that existentialism repudiates, an inauthentic response to anxiety and alienation?

    In terms of fashion, I think the cross-over of traditionally stodgy, white, upper-crust brands like Hilfiger and Burberry into hip hop culture are also examples of ironic blingin’. I think Jay-Z’s frontin when he comes out in an exquisite three-piece suite with a gold antique pocketwatch on a chain for interviews to show that he’s a mogul and retired from the rap game. To some degree, I think that’s honest pretending — I think they’re clowning on the dominant culture, playing the trickster (signifying by bullshittin’ when you don’t even know it) by wearing your clothes better than you do. I think Dr. Carmine has a point about the way in which urban culture has turned white materialism on its head and sold it back to the white mainstream, one of the more remarkable phenomena in the culture of capitalism today.

    The political question that troubles me, though, is the critique offered by leftist thinkers who deal with advertising, consumption, and marketing. Camp, kitsch, and cute are certainly valued in the various products we buy and employ as bling, as an ironic front to show that we somehow (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) get that we’re above the pop culture we consume. I think all the retro T-shirts and the market for old sneakers and geeky video game-related apparel is similarly ironic capitalist nostalgia. It’s also a reflection of the sort of market consensus that pop culture has reached a cul de sac where we don’t need to push boundaries and come up with new ideas and images to feed our attention spans, we have movie re-makes (Major-studio Hollywood is dead) and recycled music (rock is dead) and fashion to sell back to us what we’ve already bought and grown tired of. We’ve just forgotten we grew tired of it the first time, so we’re eager to run it through the mill again. The problem with all this fun, though, is that nostalgia is a reactionary impulse and even more so when we have nostalgic consumption patterns that largely distract us from the overall process of consumption that we become immersed in as well as the unique, specific problems of capitalism we encounter today (the environment, globalization, poverty, exploited labor, unemployment). It may be a mark of urban, upper-middle class cool to dress like a glam rocker from 1981 and pay $200 for a pair of old kicks, but does it really say anything damning about the culture to be hip in this way? In my mind, it doesn’t. There’s no political statement in the fashion of kitsch. It’s just more recycling of fashion without any reflection on our fetishism of those commodities (to follow Dr. Carmine down a Marxist path).

    There have been a few academic essays written on camp and kitsch that get way deeper into this than I can, some which argue that gay versions of camp have been decidedly political. I’m not really equipped to talk about those, but I’m referring here to more mainstream, less subversive examples of consumer irony that don’t involve counter-cultural performances of gender and sexuality.

    I don’t think you can buy your way out of materialism, which seems like an obvious enough statement, but isn’t when you think of post-modern advertising. Companies have now found it’s often more successful to make fun of the whole PROCESS of advertising or pitching in order to get your guard down and let you know they’re in on the joke too, how absurd it is that they want your money. I think an increasingly prominent theme of contemporary capitalism is the assumption that the hip consumer somehow transcends the process of consumption and that demonstrating the right consumption values makes you forward-thinking and progressive. Many astute critics, Thomas Frank especially but even conservative critics like David Brooks and others like Seabrook, have analyzed the ways in which the so-called counterculture has either been created, marketed and sold by, or co-opted by, business itself (depending on your point of view).

    “Shopping is rebellion” — that’s the unstated slogan of the era that we’re all buying into in shaping our identities, purchase by purchase. If you buy Pepsi, you’re punking out to the Ramones. If you buy Burger King, you’re privy to sarcastic jokes about big, fake shiny plastic mascots and weird bosses and office politics that everyone hates. Or if you’re into music, put on the big black boxy glasses, dress like a geek, work in advertising, and listen to Weezer — you can be just like Rivers Cuomo, hip, ironic, smart, cool but devoid of intellectual substance. Geek chic means that you can present yourself to the world as a kind of hip hipster who’s with it, the whole irony bathroom scene man, without having to be an intellectual who has any self-reflexive thought on why you choose this self-presentation. Or if you’re a pre-teen girl, you can buy all manner of pre-fabricated attitude without commitment, whether it’s the conformist uniform of Avril Lavigne mall punk fashion or the techno-Eastern cutesy Japanese junior high pop candy of Gwen Stefani. Or you can be emo, wigga, goth, outdoors hippie, extreme hardcore, the list goes on. The product, no matter how novel or “extreme,” doesn’t entail any personal or political meaning, just the hint of a wholly inauthentic “authenticity” within a consumer identity. These cultural brands are stripped and divorced from whatever subcultural social context they originated in. You have white kids in rural America or white flight suburbs who buy gangsta rap, drop N-bombs, and have never spent a minute talking to the black people on the poor side of town. You have millionaire stockbrokers who get really high and tailgate in stadium parking lots before Jimmy Buffet concerts, yet vote Republican and criticize drug use and crime in the inner city. You have suburban housewives who watch Will & Grace, laugh at the cheap gay jokes (we’re hip enough to be in the know and watch gay people who are our glowing caricatured friends from a distance), yet vote to deny gay marriage consistently.

    I think Dr. Carmine’s Whole Foods example is a good one because that corporation has always smacked of hypocrisy to me. This is a huge corporation that sells a mix of mass-produced, organic, high-priced items with the conventional groceries you could find anywhere else, some above-average quality baked and prepared foods, and jacks their prices way up while selling you the image of an environmentally conscious, Earth and laborer-friendly post-hippie suburban nirvana of food. The logo is a picture of some vaguely ethnic (or well-tanned), faceless laborer, indigenous straw hat pulled down low, in some no-doubt exotic locale plucking fresh vegetables in a rustic basket. It’s all BS. Whole Foods is a major corporation owned by shareholders that has no record of being any more fair in dealing with agricultural laborers from the Third World, environmentally safe agriculture, or the health of American consumers. Much like Starbucks (which has been written about by several excellent scholars), Whole Foods sells you the illusion of health and worldliness and makes you feel like you’re doing something positive, even political, by shopping from a major corporation.

    Maybe poor black folks immediately recognize the immense capacity for self-deception in white middle-class consumption patterns. But I think the more likely situation is that consumption is only superficially ironic and that it’s completely oblivious to politics, an excuse to avoid it altogether. “Ironic” shopping is more like “hey, that’s cute, let’s buy it” than it is real reflection on how and what we are being sold in consumer capitalism. I think materialism is as big a problem in the hood as it is in the leafy suburbs built on unjust social relationships and exploitation. When people talk of nihilism in modern life, I think dead-end consumption is the best example of this. Cornel West (who misses more often than he hits on these observations) characterizes drug dealers and hustlers in the inner city as dedicated nihilists — if the system is set up against me and white folks are making money off my back with no way out, why not get mine? Even beyond race, all other understandings of identity or all subcultures are now mediated and interpreted through some synergized pattern of bastardized products and stores. We age and graduate to different parts of the mall and keep up with different Joneses.

    Olsen: I think I disagree with your assessment of camp somewhat. I think irony isn’t difficult to maintain at all as a consumer. Irony is in fact all too easy a posture to maintain in consumer capitalism, because both the “celebration” and the irony are cheap and fleeting. There’s no struggle to maintain irony because presto, the irony about how silly the consumption of this product would be is gone as fast as the impulse to buy is activated. We go retro and enjoy bad pop culture from our past because it reminds us that the things that are important to us are memories of the products we once consumed — life is like a John Hughes movie, complete with a soundtrack and specific places and goods adhere to our nostalgic memories (even those bad movies and songs themselves). That’s why companies are even bringing back old retro, nostalgic commercials to remind you of those good old, halcyon days of consumption, while bringing them to today’s consumer — I’d like to buy the Double Mint Twins a Coke. Buying hair metal or those really ugly mustard yellow-and-brown Padres throwback jerseys isn’t that much of a celebration, since we never liked them that much to begin with, but they sure do show other people what good consumers we are (pop historians who’ve done our research at the mall, keeping apocryphal, even embarrassing moments in pop culture history alive). The joke and the novelty fades and we have no real emotional connection to those memories of pop culture, just a fuzzy, saccharine cotton-candy satisfaction in having remembered something intended to be disposable instantly. And the irony is so weak that it doesn’t strike us at all — we don’t see the irony in buying irony, for example. Post-modern capitalism is easier than ever and makes shopping easier, because we don’t have to feel guilty about having bad taste (it’s camp/kitsch/retro/geek chic) or about being conspicuously materialistic (blingin’). It’s hip and we’re all in on the joke once we get out our plastic and charge up some more clever T-shirts and buy some Jamba Juice at the food court.

    That is all.

  • A Muzacz

    Dr. Carmine wrote:
    “If I pretend to be something I am not, I actually am attempting to manipulate a false belief about me in someone else. I am inhibiting their ability to make a clear decision about me by leading them on, lying in a sense. So, we should avoid deceptive pretending.”

    At what point does the lengthy string of conscientious decisions stop being “pretending” and start being fact, part of who you are as opposed to (if we follow his logic) who you are pretending to be? Who is he to postulate that who we appear to be, at any given moment, is *not* who we are?

    It’s not deception, it’s crafting a life and a lifestyle, one choice at a time. He can spend his money on Pabst, I’ll spend mine on organic produce from a local farmer. Live and let live.

    Also, I second Ms. Davis’ remark that consumers of “whole foods” come in all colors. The statistical majority of organic consumers in America are Hispanic. http://www.ota.com/organic/mt/consumer.html

    And a last word — I believe Dr. Carmine was referring to the little w, little f “whole foods,” i.e., not the chain, oh lovely intelligent readers, but whole as in intact, organic or unprocessed.