Written by Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson)
“And I’m a Nikehead // I wear chains that excite the Feds” --NaS, "Halftime"
Gearhead. Metalhead. Even cokehead. The “-head” word has been applied to many interests over the years, both innocuous and illicit. It’s impossible to say exactly when the word “sneakerhead” entered the lexicon—Nas’s "Nikehead" reference on Illmatic was pretty early—but at this point it seems safe to assume that it’s here to stay. What’s so bad about that?
A lot, apparently. My esteemed colleague argued yesterday that the word itself should be stricken from the record, that its frequent misuse and misinterpretation means it should go the way of all slurs (er, not that any of those have actually gone away). This seems like an overreaction on all fronts. “Sneakerhead” is a simple term that requires no further explanation. If the word didn’t exist, we’d have to invent one just like it anyway. Seems easier to just keep it around.
What are the biggest complaints? That anyone can call themselves a sneakerhead? Good! There are no inherent qualifications to being a sneakerhead—no need to prove you have X number of pairs, or take a quiz (sample question: Which Air Jordan did Michael Jordan demand Nike change after the first colorway released?) or fill Instagram with more on-foot photos of the latest drops. Consider yourself a sneakerhead? Congratulations, you are one. Welcome to the team. Meet Hulk Hogan.
If the word 'sneakerhead' didn’t exist, we’d have to invent one just like it anyway.
As for the argument that the term sneakerhead implies caring about sneakers above all other things, that’s just ridiculous. Gearheads do more than drive cars, metalheads do more than listen to metal. Sneakerheads (well, most of them) do more than just wear and talk about sneakers. Heck, it’s entirely possible to be a sneakerhead and a gearhead at the same damn time. And even if they do care about sneakers above all else, so what? There are plenty of great jobs in sneakers these days. Beats mastering Grand Theft Auto—at least sneaker releases can involve going outside.
There is no question that the popularity of sneakers has exploded in recent years, but this is a good thing, right? Whether there’s a sneaker culture or not (that’s another debate entirely), there’s no denying that a huge subset of people are into sneakers. And that culture should be inclusionary, not exclusionary. Dismissing someone as “not a real sneakerhead” has the unsaid implication “and I would know because I am.” This is not a productive way to think. Who’s to say that another person doesn’t share their passion equally? For that matter, who’s to say that the person dismissed as a hypebeast doesn’t like a particular sneaker just as much as anyone else? The kid buying five consecutive “hyped” Jordan releases today could very well be the sneaker historian of the next generation. Everybody needs to start somewhere, and whether its copping retros or line-editing “Sole Provider,” all should be welcome.
And look, things done changed. Gone are the days when the sneaker subculture was a tiny minority of people searching old store basements for dusty gems and warily trading information via Japan-based messageboards. The insular world of Where'd You Get Those? has been overrun by bots, Twitter RSVPs and a booming re-sale market. Sneakers used to be a signifier, now they're a commodity. But does the mainstreamification (just made that word up, you're welcome) of sneakers diminish the subculture as a whole? It shouldn't.
In the end, “sneakerhead” is just a word, and not an inherently bad one at that. Can it be used in a derogatory fashion? Of course. But that alone doesn’t justify its banishment. (The fact that we use it in so many headlines can certainly be seen as an implicit endorsement.) And when delivered by the right person, it’s almost like being knighted. Is it overused? Of course. No one needs to see it on t-shirts or #hashtagged all over Instagram. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a perfectly acceptable self-identifier. I’m proud to use it. You should be, too.