My friends and I were drinking heavily. This can lead to fierce bouts of nostalgia. Like you do when you get drunk and nostalgic, we started listening to music. When you're looking for the soundtrack to a nostalgia-fest, you look for shared experiences. In the age of the post-Pitchfork Internet, there aren't that many universal musical memories. Even fans of the same genre don't necessarily love the same artists. In adulthood, music discussion is so often about differences. Kendrick or Chance? First Aid Kit or Haim? No two musical palates are alike.
To find something we could all feel drunken emotions about, we reached deep into our musical history, back to high school. What remained of the night was spent screaming along to Weezer and Jimmy Eat World, slurring through the rapid fire pace of Outkast and Missy. Even though we had grown up all over the country, in high school, we had listened to the same music. And we still knew all the words.
After nights like this, I can't help but wonder what my younger self would think if I told him that there were kids in every high school in the country listening to the same music, kids who thought of themselves as individuals, just like me.
And these kids also shopped at Hot Topic.
Hot Topic was built for the teen who can't wait to tell you how different they are from the other kids shopping at Hot Topic. The store caters to entry level participants in so many subcultures. Ten years ago, it was punk, emo, goth, hip-hop, pop punk, nü-metal, metal, ska, and another dozen sub-genres I'm sure I'm forgetting. The store is still doing it today. At the 2015 version of Hop Topic, there's a lot more hip-hop than there was back then and EDM has taken over for emo as the primary expression of suburban teen angst. But don't worry, you can still buy the exact same Sublime, Nirvana, or Led Zepplin shirt you bought when you were fourteen. And the cooler-than-thou seventeen year-olds working there are still ready to sell them. Despite the changing culture, Hot Topic remains true to its mission: create a big tent for every teen who feels like they don't fit in.
Hot Topic is still doing well today. In 2009, they reported revenue of $761 million. In 2012, the brand launched Blackheart Lingerie, a chain of stores that has evolved into a female-focused, erotically-tinged companion store. In 2013, Hot Topic was bought out by Talbot's parent company, Sycamore Partners, for a half-billion dollars. Despite an Internet that allows teens to dive into subcultures in the time it takes to type a Google search, Hot Topic still holds the same place it held in our country's malls ten years ago. With its mall-brand accessibility, Hot Topic overtakes Urban Outfitters as the suburban gateway drug to American counterculture.
How could this store still be necessary in 2015? Now, if a kid hears about a band, they can have their album, buy their t-shirt, and get tickets to see them at a festival in minutes. If you realize you like punk, you can pour through music from artist after artist until your discover that post-math-afro-electro-punk is most to your taste. Why do kids today need Hot Topic? Why buy your RiFF RaFF, Better Call Saul, or "I Am Groot" tees from the mall when you have more options straight from the source? While Hot Topic sells one RiFF RAFF T-shirt, the man himself sells over a dozen, and offers iPhone cases and sandals to go with them.
You might think that the cultural floodgates that high-speed Internet opens would allow you do away with gatekeepers like Hot Topic. It turns out teens want gatekeepers. Recently, I wrote about Abercrombie & Fitch and their Aryan farm girl/extreme sports enthusiast/homecoming queen demographic the store cultivated. In the shopping malls of America, teens have two choices, the same two choices they've had for decades now: You can either attempt to conform to the strict, bland perfection of Abercrombie (or American Eagle or Aeropostale or whatever "A" store pops up tomorrow) or you can celebrate your otherness and head to Hot Topic (or Urban Outfitters or American Apparel). Back in the early 2000s when I was making this choice, I couldn't see that these were two sides of the same coin, vital to each others' success. There is no Hot Topic without Abercrombie. There is no Urban Outfitters without American Eagle. The relationship is symbiotic.
Hot Topic was built for the teen who can't wait to tell you how different they are from the other kids shopping at Hot Topic.
Of these two retail strategies—the inclusive one practiced by Hot Topic and the exclusive one championed by Abercrombie—Hot Topic's has to be the harder job. When catering to Alphas, whatever items your store sells will be accepted as cool. Not too long ago, teenage girls were gleefully wearing sweatpants with "BITCH" written on the butt in rhinestones. No matter how ridiculous the item, if cool kids are wearing it, it must be cool.
When you court the counterculture, you have a trickier task. You have to safeguard your authenticity. If you don't monitor emerging bands, movies, and styles for the exact moment they cross into mainstream consciousness, you risk getting in too late. In 2001, you had to have a Sum 41 shirt for sale as soon as they released "Fat Lip," and you had to get their shirts out of the store before the kids realized there wasn't going to any other Sum 41 material that matters after "Fat Lip." It makes sense that Hot Topic dabbles in so many subgenres. Just when the youth reject one band as sell-outs, the whack-a-mole of youth culture produces two new bands whose T-shirts can be sold in their place.
Riding this wave of authenticity is essential to Hot Topic's birthright as the anti-Abercrombie. Teens who want to be different want to be different together. I didn't buy that Weezer shirt in eighth grade in hopes of being the only kid in school who had one. I bought it as way of throwing up a flag, in hopes that maybe someone else would have one too. Maybe we would both understand what is really cool at the precise moment in a way that parents, teachers, and popular kids could never hope to. Even in an age where thirteen year-olds from Iowa can stream Die Antwoord music videos between shifts on their parents' farm, this is still a vital social commodity.
Teens don't think it's strange that this store and its rebellious image is tucked neatly between Auntie Anne's Pretzels and Pottery Barn. Back in the day, it never occurred to us to question why kids who liked Marilyn Manson, Metallica, and Modest Mouse were all shopping in harmony, all checking out the girl with the red hair and the tongue ring behind the cash register. It all felt authentic. Even if the only bar Hot Topic had to clear was "more authentic than Pacific Sunwear," it passed the test with flying colors. We weren't dumb then. We knew that the store was making bank selling the same thirty T-shirts at every mall in the country. Today's teens aren't dumb either; they know the same thing. It doesn't matter. All that mattered, and all that matters, is that Hot Topic gives teens a place to be different together.
Here's hoping that in 2025, the next generation of twentysomethings will be able to drunkenly scream along to RiFF RAFF, Sam Smith, and 5 Seconds of Summer in nostalgic solidarity, remembering the day they bought their T-shirts from the pierced, jaded cashier at Hot Topic.