“Keep __________ Weird” keeps it exclusive: some history, examples, and issues with the phrase

I was fighting with an ex. The argument batted back and forth, it got annoying, it got less annoying, got more annoying again– and then finally cooled off.

“It’s just that when you say something like that, it can be weird.”
“Okay, yeah. Yeah. Wait, but do you actually mean weird?”

He didn’t. Gradually, ‘weird’ had become a catch-all in our lives for other stuff that was harder to say: mean, unfair, combative, stubborn, other adjectives that make this a shining dating profile intro. This was on my mind when friends from Purchase College kickstarted a campaign called “Keep Purch Weird.” The slogan is not Purchase-specific; “Keep _______ Weird” is a catchy, short, umbrella phrase for all that makes a place alternative from the norm. It’s been a rallying cry for Austin, Portland, Boulder, Mobile, Santa Cruz, Louisville, and other cities trying to protect an alternative identity. More history later.

tumblr_mm6u76RPIO1spktx5o3_1280As for Purchase, here’s a wonderful fact about the school: there is one elected position for a student to book small-ish musical acts, lectures, roller discos, film screenings and Zombie Proms each year. This position is great (I got to do it for two years). It has lots of thousands of dollars at its disposal. And, this is in addition to the major music festivals that happen at EveryCollege in EveryTown, EveryUSA. Increasingly, there has been administrative pressure to defund this program and the arts during a simultaneous upping of sports money and benefits for athletes. The answer in 2013 was Keep Purch Weird.

Seeing this solidarity gave me the warm fuzzies. It also gave me the colder, not-fuzzies. I found myself asking again: Wait, but do you actually mean weird? Purchase was founded by Nelson Rockefeller as one of the only public liberal arts universities in the region. There’s no question it was built as an alternative to the mainstream university options. But with an entire campus (or city, or neighborhood) of rich history, culture and happenings, I think the “Keep ________ Weird” slogan can actually be a mystified version of what you’re trying to fight for. This brought up a few questions:

1. Whose definition of weird are we talking about?
2. Does ‘weird’ become a euphemism for the weird of the few, which winds up benefitting…the few?
3. If this is really well-intentioned, but just misguided: is there some better, more inclusive slogan to rally behind?

LET’S EXPLORE!!

1. Whose definition of weird are we talking about?

It’s problematic from the get-go. Your weird is not everybody’s weird. Your weird might be exclusive of communities not in your neighborhood. Your weird could be a historic weird. Someone else’s weird could be a social weird.

Originally, it was Red Wassenich’s definition of Austin, Texas. After donating money to a very local, very alternative Austin radio station in 2000, Wassenich encouraged 91.7 KOOP FM to do their thing because “the show keeps Austin weird.” A shortened version of the phrase– “Keep Austin Weird” — was slapped onto thousands of bumper stickers by Red and his wife Karen Pavelka, and it took off. For Austin, this became a valuable organizing weapon while battling corporate development that inched into the city in the trail of Dell, Apple, and IBM. And it really worked. When Borders Books and Music (a big ‘ol chain) attempted to move in next to Waterloo Records and BookPeople (two independently owned stores) in early 2000, the stores made custom versions of the infectious bumper stickers and distributed over 22,000 of them. Triumphantly, the community mobilized and Borders bailed.

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Keeping it weird for Austin meant retaining their independent, locally-owned businesses. But the slogan quickly spiraled when Wassenich failed to patent it–leading to intense commodification by way of thousands of “Keep Austin Weird” shot glasses, t-shirts, onesies, and mugs made in China. The phrase started as a historic focus to preserve local economics, but has ballooned out to a hugely social phenomenon. Now, it’s super adaptable.

2. Does ‘weird’ become a euphemism for the weird of the few, which winds up benefitting…the few? 

At the top of this post I mention how “weird” becomes a catch-all, when we really mean to say something else. Our “weird” could be someone else’s “hip.” Gentrified. Inaccessible. Unaffordable. Divided. When these sentiments are clumsily coded into one catchy, all-consuming phrase, I’m reminded as usual of a line from one of my favorite writers, Adam Gnade:

“DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME…with bands that don’t write for you. (But beware of bands that sing about “us.” Their us is their us. I have my own us and so do you. See: “Universality and co-opted micro-culture/community as marketing strategy”.)”

In the case of Austin, retaining small business is synonymous with retaining local culture. What other social impacts get pushed aside by the phrase? When gentrification has been pushing communities out for decades, do they have any less weird to fight for? In a critique of Weird City, a book written about Austin weirdness by Joshua Long, Andrew Busch writes:

Long, for example, avoids analysis of gentrification on Austin’s east side, the historically African American and Latino neighborhoods, even though displacement has been acute there for a decade: he focuses instead on middle-class gentrification in predominantly white contemporary South Austin.

3. If this is really well-intentioned, but just misguided: is there some better, more inclusive slogan to rally behind?

Slogans are crucial. They create solidarity among masses of people who would either take a long time saying what they need to say, or who may never have taken up the cause at all. But while “weird” has such potential to be divisive between the “weirds” and the “weird-nots,” can we find better words for what we actually mean to say?

On their website, Keep Purch Weird did a nice job breaking down what they were actually fighting for: embracing campus, culture, art, music, performance. Their weird is social and historic, tying in the school’s rich liberal arts history with the future of funding. While I believe slogans are important, I think they can also work against us. They could mystify and stigmatize a cause into the pile of Dead Causes. Instead, what if we were transparent, simple, but specific: Keep Austin Local. Keep Purchase Dancing. Keep Portland Historic.

Or, you could forget all of this, ditch language in a pit, and go with this beautifully modified bumper sticker I biked past the other day:

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