PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


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

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?


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.