How Post Malone Dressed His Way Into America’s Sick Heart
Since there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, you may as well consume while looking sad about it.
Photograph by Noam Galai for Getty Images.
If it feels like Post Malone has been in the news more than normal, it’s because he has. The day after he received the VMA for “Song of the Year” at August 20th’s Best Practices for Gen Z Marketing Symposium, his private Gulfstream blew two of its tires and circled around New Jersey for a while before making an emergency landing. Everyone was fine, except the people racking their overtaxed brains, asking themselves why this should be among the top trending stories on a Tuesday afternoon when the sitting U.S. president’s former campaign manager was being convicted on eight counts of financial fraud and his former personal lawyer was folding like a soft-shouldered summer-weight Brioni jacket.
Is Post Malone cool? In July, Vogue asked, in the way I imagine Vogue asks all these kinds of epistemological questions (wailing from the top of the Manhattan Bridge while clutching a Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat), “Is Post Malone Menswear’s Most Underrated Star?” The objective answer to each of these questions is no, but based on recent attention, it’s harder to be sure.
In an intergenerational display of sleazebag goodwill, the VMA’s final number featured Malone, wearing a suit printed with drippy acid smiley faces, performing a medley with Aerosmith. The set piece was ostensibly meant to highlight Malone’s song “Rockstar,” in which he croons, “Ayy, I’ve been fuckin’ hoes and poppin’ pillies / Man, I feel just like a rockstar,” by pairing him with some bonafide rockstars of yesteryear. It called back to the moment, in the ’80s, when Run-DMC resurrected Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” an unprecedented transference of hip hop and rock n’ roll, genres which, at that time, had an antagonistic relationship. Perhaps Aerosmith’s appearance with Post Malone, who is ostensibly a rapper but whose music splices trap’s low end ooze with grunge rock’s emotive tendencies, was meant to echo that synergistic moment. Instead, it was bizarre and discordant. As the credits rolled over Steven Tyler and Malone trading licks and making bird faces at each other, one wondered who this was all meant for.
Malone’s music skirts the soft border of tackiness. His breakout song, “White Iverson,” in which he raps about already being as successful as the NBA icon Allen Iverson while wearing his hair in something aping Iverson’s signature braids, should be offensive, but it’s mostly an innocuous anthem to feeling yourself. His stage name, like Donald Glover’s, comes from an online rap-name generator, a neat way of signaling that it’s nice if this music thing goes anywhere, but it was just a gag if it doesn’t. That pose, which gestures at humility while saying something about the randomness of the human condition, resonates with Malone’s fans, who think he’s like Kierkegaard or something.
I’m old enough to remember a time, roughly three months ago, when white rappers in general and Post Malone in particular were a punchline, or at least held in suspicion. Malone is a slightly more discursive Macklemore, the choice for those who found Macklemore too earnest, but he is still closer to Macklemore than Method Man.
I’m also old enough to remember when celebrities waited until they were around long enough for their will to be run into the ground by an unforgiving society, and start dressing accordingly. Justin Bieber and Shia LaBeouf are lodestars here: squeaky clean white boys with Teen Beat haircuts who wanted to make it very clear they had seen the full horror of the celebrity machine and didn’t like it, and did so by showing up in rat tails and wispy facial hair and disposable hotel slippers, and formless t-shirts that looked like they were declined by a Salvation Army twice. Malone represents a constriction of that time line, in which you can burst into the public consciousness and immediately chop your hair into psycho baby bangs and get a section of barbed wire tattooed under your hairline. To look at an image of Post Malone is to feel your nostrils flare with the scent of stale Bud Light and spent Camels. (In a master stroke of brand partnerships, Malone is actually a Bud Light spokesman.)
If nothing else, Malone’s look is distinctive. He combines the insouciance of the seniors who would skip Calc II to do donuts in their ’97 Camrys with the social detachment of going a third day without bathing. Lately, he’s performed in things like custom Nudie Cohn-style suits, short-sleeve numbers of thick black and white stripes that made him look like Beetlejuice took an IT job, or honky-tonk yellow mustard getups embroidered with snakes and barbed wire. In fairness, these are very cool, but of course tour fashion is not real clothing; Malone’s Americana pastiche is the product of the high profile stylist Catherine Hahn. His personal style is likely closer to how the Los Angeles Times found him in 2016, “at his rented mansion in Encino having woken around 4 p.m…wearing Hello Kitty pajama pants.” It’s the exact kind of faux-combative clothing that wearers think splits the difference between world-weariness and self-confidence, but like novelty holiday sweaters, actually does neither.
The irony—and Malone’s look is a near blinding embrace of irony—is that it takes a lot of money to look this bad. What young pop stars have realized, apparently en masse, is that disaffectedness sells. The scuzzy arms race between Malone, Bieber, and Pete Davidson to demonstrate who cares less about his public image has captivated fashion media this summer. The act may look convincing—we can marvel at the audacity of these men’s willingness to look like unstable drifters—but it’s still Saint Laurent boots on their feet and Gucci shirts on their backs.
Rockstars have always struck an anti-conformist pose. Wearing a leather jacket in the city was once a high key form of aggression—as big of a middle finger to accepted taste as there was—and that wasn’t that long ago! Now you have to get a cattle skull tattooed on your larynx to prove you’re not The Man. The refusenik style choices of these male celebrities is the latest form of resisting a bland sameness, even as that style codifies its own rules. Where there was once streetwear, now there are conglomerate simulacra and synergistic collaborations. Where there was once normcore, the last major fad in dressing like you were fed up with everything, now there’s Balenciaga. Youth culture has long been co-opted by high fashion conglomerates, which in turn get regurgitated by fast fashion chain brands. How should the young and disaffected but still inordinately wealthy telegraph their displeasure with the system now? Since there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, you may as well consume while looking sad about it.
Scanning the crowd at the VMAs this year, it becomes clear that youth culture has bought into a certain aesthetic—namely, looking unemployable. The ratio of face tattoos was the night’s best joke, but it’s the artists with inked punims that are laughing. It’s hard to imagine Post Malone’s success were he a clean-cut alumnus of Princeton named Chad who wears Top-Siders and critter ties, even on the weekends. The music is incidental; the aesthetic is the product.