In his 2018 skit on Supreme, Hasan Minaj, the patron comic of hype culture, said, "Without objects that make me stand out, what am I? Then I just have to be myself, and that's terrifying, because I am insecure and I need things to make me feel better about myself." In a couple of sentences, he deftly drilled to the core of the fuccboi psyche: a deep-seated insecurity about one's own worth and an equally deep-seated desire to prove that worth to others.
Both the clinical and the cultural term for this state is Narcissism.
Narcissism is often confused with egotism or mere selfishness, but while it may contain elements of both, it's driven not by an outsized sense of self-respect but by self-loathing, which leads to inexorable desire and strife for approval from others. "It's a very insecure personality, and all the stuff on the outside - the grandiosity, the arrogance, the entitlement - is a suit of armor to buttress a weak interior core, because on the subconscious level narcissists think that others will see that they are not all that," Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a best-selling author and an expert on narcissism, told me.
Narcissism is nothing new, but the level of narcissism on display in our culture is unprecedented - Dr. Ramani calls it the disease of our time. In his prophetic 1979 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism, the sociologist Christopher Lasch dissected a milieu of mass media that gave more and more coverage to celebrities, narcissistic role models whose behavior was increasingly beginning to be condoned, excused, and explained away. He blamed the rise of the narcissistic personality on "proliferation of images" and "the cult of consumption," among other things. Fast-forward to 2020, and 1979 looks positively quaint in the age of social media, for there is no bigger driving engine of narcissism than social media platforms such as Instagram.
In the decade since its launch, much has been said about how Instagram has democratized media, but it simultaneously open-sourced Narcissism that was formerly reserved for a celebrity elite. Today, with the rise of Gen Z, this tendency reaches another dimension on TikTok. “Everybody on the app has some form of narcissism,” TikTokker Liv Huffman told Highsnobiety in our special zine about the platform’s stars. “You kind of have to in order to put yourself on the Internet like that.”
Having unleashed the technological means of disseminating narcissism with the one hand, contemporary culture has continued to manufacture models for narcissistic behavior in ever increasing numbers with the other. Contemporary pop music is filled to the brim with rappers whose lyrics are all about the display of their possessions. What began as a legitimate hip-hop lyrical device for expressing a sense of pride in lifting oneself up by attaining markers of American success previously possessed only by its white ruling class, has by now devolved into an exhibitionist trope. And just like the generations before them, today’s youth seeks to emulate the behavior of their favorite musicians. Every middle-schooler knows what it means to "flex" and there is no shortage of eleven-year-olds begging their mommies for the next pair of Travis Scott Dunks.
Hype culture is uniquely positioned to tap into the narcissistic world order by creating artificial scarcity and equating the possession of limited edition goods with self-worth. Conspicuous consumption is the defining consumer behavior of the day, but underneath its hood purrs the motor of narcissism turbocharged by a culture that has given us Donald Trump and Kanye West, two narcissists par excellence. Both are incredibly insecure and both - despite being on top of the world - constantly crave adulation and approval of others (West's narcissism may be further complicated by his alleged bipolar disorder). And both are aided and abetted by their respective fan bases that readily forgive their transgressions thereby enabling them further. Perhaps it's no coincidence that hip-hop fans seem to be especially tolerant towards narcissistic behavior of musicians, even when it's misogynistic or generally sadistic.
Before you roll your eyes at my perceived alarmism that Grailed is poisoning the minds of a generation, consider that in this state of affairs no one is innocent. Study after study shows that despite economic progress and general increase in quality of life, members of contemporary society feel more and more unhappy. Other studies show that social media, Instagram in particular, have a negative effect on self-esteem that stems from the permeating feeling of anxiety and envy. Simply put, you can flex all you want, but there will always be someone with a bigger flex. And once you are on the hype treadmill, its very nature makes it hard to get off.
"In [the hype] world narcissists festoon themselves with the latest sneakers, or the latest streetwear, and in that moment they are safe. But then that moment when the world is telling you that you are great, which for the narcissist is better than drugs, is gone and you continue chasing the high," said Dr. Ramani. On top of this, the culture of narcissism makes one feel inadequate for not owning something. "The entire way fashion is marketed is that if you don't have that latest something, you are lacking," continued Dr. Ramani.
Likes don't make you happy. Not only that, it increasingly seems that possessions in themselves don't make you happy either, as evidenced by rampant reselling in the streetwear world. Hypebeasts no longer seem to be able to experience the gratifying sense of ownership that comes with purchasing something meaningful and actually keeping it. Resell culture itself is a product of narcissism, because each sale subsidizes the next purchase and creates the social media illusion that one owns more than one actually does. This practice strips the product down only to being fodder for a fit pic, and essentially creates a short-term rental culture driven by Instagram and Stockx. As Lasch put it, late capitalism “subordinates possession itself to appearance and measures exchange value as a commodity’s capacity to confer prestige - the illusion of prosperity and well-being.”
The antidote to narcissism is authenticity, which is a deeper sense of self that provides an anchoring of one's character that doesn’t change with trends. In matters of taste, authenticity also furnishes one with a clear sense of style. Authenticity forms over time through a series of experiences and experimentations, which is why we probably see the new fashion fans bought forth by hype culture getting younger and younger.
As productive conversations about mental health grow, so too are we now coming to terms with how we as a society are less and less happy. Narcissism has a large role to play here. As our sense of self-gratification keeps on infinitely expanding, our capacity to form lasting, meaningful relationships with other humans is degrading. The millennial marketing world’s incessant calls to “live your best life” are misguided in pegging our sense of self-worth to wrong types of rewards, fleeting and material. Underneath all the talk about inspiration, community, and culture sits a basic set of transactional relationships, whose real message is not "love yourself," but "treat yourself."
When Covid-19 hit, some predicted a return to a more substantive world, in which our collective narcissistic drive would be diminished. In fact, in a study done by Highsnobiety in the wake of the shelter in place orders, the readers interviewed overwhelmingly denounced their interest in logos and other markers of conspicuous consumption, instead claiming a newfound interest in minimalism and quality-oriented purchase decisions. Two-thirds of those polled that they actively felt bad about flexing outwardly with their purchases during a time when millions were tightening their belts.
However, long-term this could be more wishful thinking rather than a real change, and we continue to see the same pre-Covid behavior with each hyped release. Less than two weeks ago the new Off-White x Jordan drop caused yet another mad dash. The Atlanta streetwear store Wish received over 60,000 hits to its website within the first couple of seconds after the 10 a.m. scheduled release. Its website crashed, as did the websites of Nike and Off-White. “We would’ve needed servers the size of Coca-Cola’s to handle that much traffic,” said Wish’s representative.
We often talk about streetwear in terms of "the culture." But in the last decade this term went from describing subcultural movements and their values to excusing run-of-the-mill consumerist behavior. Brands, many of which are the ones screaming loudest about "the culture," don't mind this state of affairs at all because it propels the hype bullet train, enriching them along the way. The thing is, happy people are not good for the system. Dr. Ramani sums it up best: "Capitalism would fall apart tomorrow if everyone on the planet was secure in themselves."