I know there was some kind of election or something last night, but the Wall Street Journal hasn’t let itself become distracted from the real big news, a choice that will have truly palpable ramifications: Jay-Z’s annointment of a successor to Cristal in the great hip-hop champagne coronation.
In his new video, Jay-Z waves away a bottle of Cristal while seated at a Monte Carlo card table, then nods in approval as the server presents a gleaming gold bottle of Armand de Brignac with a raised-pewter logo in the shape of the ace of spades.
In case you haven’t been following this, the article gives the relevant background—the makers of Cristal disdained the high-profile free advertising rappers were giving the brand, reckoning it was hurting more than helping with the company’s preferred demographic—rich white elitists, i.e. the ones who probably actually buy the bottles rather than mime the name of the stuff along with the rappers they listen to. So the brand is shopping for customers, trying to protect its brand image for those who bring in the revenue, racist overtones be damned.
This created an opportunity for a new brand—and I mean new; Armand de Brignac is just a made-up name apprropriated from a romance novel (“it sounded kind of noble”) and stuck on bottles of what is essentially Clos du Moulin—to proudly seize the hip-hop mantle. But this is likely a more delicate operation than it seems: the attraction of a brand like Cristal is presumably the deliance of the sense of social exclusion it has long symbolized. By this logic, the more Cristal becomes upset by rappers boasting about drinking it, the more potent those boasts should be—you don’t want us drinking your precious wine? Try and stop us. Cash is king. But perhaps that particular resentment war is one Jay-Z no longer feels the need to fight—perhaps hip-hop is moving beyond the need to hijack established stauts symbols to make a play for cultural capital. Confident in having established his credibility Jay-Z can move foward to dictating the shape of markets, can manufacture his own brands (as performers are increasingly doing with apparel lines) rather than storming the barracades of others. This brand of champagne, with no heritage or history, will essentially become Jay-Z’s personal brand, and its sales are a referendum on his marketing heft.
But part of the cachet of an expensive champagne brand would be lost if it were clear that Jay-Z had out and out manufactured it—there’s still the yearning of the long disenfranchised for retroactive legitimation, the desire to seem plugged in to a larger tradition, of finding acceptance on the already established terms, of winning the game that was rigged against you on their terms. Hence the tentative, roundabout arrangements the article details that mask the nature of this strategy shift: the surprised vintner, the perplexed distributors, the denials of any product placement deals, the red herring evocation of how much Jay-Z purportedly likes the way this wine tastes. (One shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this all has nothing to do with taste and everything to do with Jay-Z flexing his marketing muscles. I’d be surprised if he touched teh stuff outside of his videos.) This all serves to prove that there is still brand value in phony French sounding names (a glass of Chateau Luzerne, anyone?) In all, it’s just another example of the never-ending dialectic between emergant and established cultures and classes which constantly shifts the terms separating classes and the symbols which demarcate the boundaries.