Books

Iconic America by Tommy Hilfiger, George Lois

Erik Hinton

Iconic America is just another routine in cataloging. Or it could be maintaining a robust sociological critique with attractive subtlety. We'll probably never know for sure.


Iconic America

Publisher: Universe
Subtitle: A Roller-Coaster Ride through the Eye-Popping Panorama of American Pop Culture
Author: George Lois
Price: $60.00
Display Artist: Tommy Hilfiger, George Lois
Length: 350
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0789315734
US publication date: 2007-11
Amazon

I'm torn on my assessment of this beautifully matte behemoth. Every virtue I find in this book may be accidental and every positive element treads a razors edge, threatening at any moment to slip off into the hackneyed or the dull. On one hand, this book may be read as a cultural ontology, wielding the elements of America's composition as tools for this very analysis. In this regard, the book is a phenomenal success, maintaining a robust sociological critique with attractive subtlety.

However, it is this very discreetness that begs the question, “Am I reading too much into the text?” Although I am making no effort to award authorial intent undue attention, I feel it is important to distinguish affection for a text from affection for one's own analytic prowess. Perhaps Iconic America is just a pretty picture book, as vacant as the manufactured symbols which comprise its 300-some pages. Of course, its probably a little of both.

The format is simple. Every page has one to four gorgeously printed images of icons from America's history, each accompanied by a pithy headline and a few sentences detailing the icon's genesis and effect. The juxtaposition of the icons rarely accomplishes more than cleverness. “Oh Barbie and a coke. Similar shapes, I get it. James Brown and Marlon Brando? Godfathers...cute.” The snippets of exegesis attached to each icon are not poorly written and generally aim for a nice balance of essential information and little known factoid. However, these extended captions are more comment than commentary, avoiding anything more than a sub textual hint at what the icons' status as such says about the country that elevated them to their immediate recognizability.

After having read through about a thousand of these text boxes I was ready to dismiss Iconic America as just another routine in cataloging rather than anything notable or progressive and smart. It was not until I put the book on my shelf and its gold foil title stared back at me for a day or two that I chanced upon a key element that I may have missed (read: until I could cook up a justification for this beautiful volume). Is Iconic America referring to the part of America that is iconic or does it label America as fundamentally built on the icon? It is entirely possible that this linguistic ambiguity holds the key to this books true message and purpose. The former reading of the title is indisputably the most obvious one as its plain composition is appropriate for such an overwhelmingly methodologically indexical book. The latter is just as plausible. Furthermore, the work's affinity for double entendre in its text supports a double reading of its title.

In the light of this new dimension of interpretation, the book suddenly becomes redrawn and profound, although original only in format (see the past four decades of postmodernism). By assuming the standard of exposing America's identity as thoroughly iconic, the pictures in Hilfiger's volume transform into the sundry foundations of the country.

Tracing iconography all the way back to our founding fathers, Iconic America illustrates the nation as little more than a collage of recognizable faces, advertisements, and manufactured goods all of which surpass their individual qualities in their status as an icon. Portraits of humanitarians and presidents are butted up next to comic book characters and product labels, none more ceremonious than the other. Such equalization suggests that in America we are orientated to Teddy Roosevelt and the teddy bear alike, not as man and toy but as icons both. Perhaps this is the native character of America, the homogenizing of a wide variety of content into empty images, more advertisement than record. The centerpiece of the book, appearing on the cover, in the pages, and as an attached bookmark is an Uncle Sam wearing jeans. Merchandising enmeshed with national identity, could there be a more apt mascot for this book?

In a way, Iconic America is a direct analogue of the country it purports to characterize. One is a country that transforms people and things into icons through its cultural attunement, the other is a book that does the same thing simply by labeling these elements as icons. Viewed as such, the debate over the book's intellectual worth becomes a debate over America's reduction to hollow symbols. Maybe Iconic America is just a record of the memorable pictures of America's history, and maybe the concept of America is but an amalgamation of icons, the prominence of which is more coincidence than composition.

However, perhaps Mr. Hilfiger wields cultural criticism as aptly as he does a textile and the book is a discreetly powerful assessment of America's iconic core. We will doubtfully ever have an answer and the two possibilities should not be thought of as mutually exclusive. I suppose I will just be left to wonder if Uncle Sam in denim is meant to be a national avatar or a cute nod to the fact that Mr. Hilfiger makes jeans.

Note: In addition to being a nice coffee table piece and a potential treatise on America, Iconic America will serve as a handy guide to possible Halloween costumes. A successful costume is one that is clever and easily recognizable. What better than the icons burnt into America's collective consciousness? Hmm, should I buy a gramophone and face paint and go as Nipper the RCA dog or polish up my sexy Santa suit for that Rockette get-up that would get some nods?

6

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image