“Go Forth”: The post-industrial landscape, blue jeans, and the power of aesthetic politics

Five years ago, no one had heard of the Allegheny County borough of Braddock, PA — a decaying steel-town suburb of Pittsburgh; population: 2,900. Since then, the town’s mayor, John Fetterman, has put Braddock on the map.

Clearly an unusual politician, it is his appearance that distinguishes Fetterman — known locally as Mayor John. Looming large with a bic-shaved head and a bushy beard, the mayor looks the rough-neck type. Even more unorthodox, however, is his vision for the post-industrial wasteland that Braddock has become.

Braddock, PA Mayor John Fetterman

This vision is laid out in a full-on profile in Rolling Stone from May, 2009. Highly charged with aesthetic reverence, Fetterman imagines the unique beauty of urban decay an asset rather than a hindrance — poverty, and its associated infrastructural negligence, as cultural heritage. He invites devout communitarian artists and intellectuals to move to Braddock and contribute to its revitalization. The frontier awaits, he seems to say, and the limit is only as far as your imagination can stretch. Go forth, Fetterman dares you.

As does the Levi’s® brand. Using Fetterman’s vision for Braddock, Levi Strauss has launched its “Go Forth”/”Ready to Work” marketing campaign. At least two commercials have been released, both in conjunction with Levi’s non-profit efforts in the town of Braddock.

“As it takes some radical steps to reverse its decay, Braddock is the muse for Levi’s® new Ready to Work campaign, which will feature the people of Braddock doing real work in their town.” [http://www.levistrauss.com/blogs/braddock-pa-15104]

To contribute to the real change in Braddock, the Levi’s® brand is committed to funding the refurbishment of Braddock’s community center, a focal point of the town and their youth-based programming.   Additionally, Levi’s® is supporting Braddock’s urban farm which supplies produce to local area residents at reduced costs”. [http://www.levistrauss.com/blogs/braddock-pa-15104]

Is there anything particularly shocking about this, about Levi’s using Braddock as its muse in these strange, short vignettes? No, not really. And it’s not novel that a corporation like Levi’s might develop a humanitarian or philanthropic profile to match a commercial campaign.

What is worthy of discussion, however, is the power that aestheticization can lend to political projects — and the legitimation that grassroots politics can afford corporations. Levi’s paints a gorgeous picture of Fetterman’s vision for Braddock’s rehabilitation; in turn, Fetterman lends his progressive, DIY stylings to the corporate totem, the Levi’s brand. It is a symbiotic (mutually parasitic?) relationship.

But at stake in Braddock is nothing short of its future. The question is, does rebuilding Braddock — or any other town like it, for that matter — require a Manifest Destiny for young, urban farmers or guerrilla architects and city planners, who have the creativity to see past the decay? Or is it a matter of individual-level commitment, of bolstering that bootstraps sentiment of the frontier? The answers to these questions are embedded in those commercials, and they are designed to tug at the heartstrings of their intended audience.

Though such tugging does come with a cost.

A good friend of mine, who has contributed a great deal to the transformation of New Orleans into an ecologically-minded and -savvy city, recently saw the “Ready to Work” commercial during the previews before a film. He found the commercial particularly disturbing,

because it was the first commercial I’ve seen that was clearly marketed towards people like me — literate, educated, globally traveled and socially responsible. And I was also wearing Levi’s.

At Ad Age, one ad industry critic argues a similar case — that the images put forth by Levi’s are “too romantic” for its target audience, people like my friend. The argument is that, for our generation, overly romantic ads, meant to tug at your heartstrings, are too obvious: that they make the targeted audience feel too… targeted. Ultimately, the Ad Age critic argues, today’s viewers require a degree of self-referentiality and irony (“the postmodern”) in ads — otherwise they know that they’re being manipulated.

It is a question of how savvy the marketing campaign imagines its audience to be. The Ad Age guy goes on:

Who knows? Maybe potential Levi’s customers will view all this high-flown, can-do-spirit stuff and be tricked into thinking that the unabashed romance of the appeal is flipping the bird at the smart-asses who think they can trick people into thinking they aren’t being tricked.

All I know is that this is no coincidence. The ad’s job is to aestheticize Fetterman’s hands-on, Americorps-esque, DIY politics. In Mayor John’s words: “Hipsters aren’t going to make it in Braddock. We’re irony-free out here.” So too is the ad’s aesthetic: irony-free, straight-forward, beautiful.

Of course, the issue with the aestheticization of politics is its aptitude for the apolitical. DIY imagineering for the future of Braddock is good recourse only because the government, gutted of any remnant of social democracy over the past 40 years, is unable to reverse the war it has waged on labor and the poor started by Reagan, let alone the effects of the dissipation of fictitious financial capital whose bubble it sponsored.

Furthermore, corporate sponsorship of grassroots coalitions is only capable of — as I believe we might see with Levi’s — strengthening the corporations to the detriment, once again, of the workforce. Let us not forget that Levi’s has borrowed Fetterman’s program to sell blue jeans.

Finally, the small poverty-ridden and post-industrial towns that populate the rust belt and rural America, these are not — no matter how convincing or inspiring the commercials prove to be — they are not blank canvasses for dedicated creative class youth, as the ad campaign’s neo-dustbowl aesthetic and frontier sentiment might proffer.

Bless Fetterman and his fellow practitioners for their dedication, but personally, I’m not ready to sacrifice my politics for the vegan cowboy, individualist aesthetic that Levi’s has to offer. And it’s not because the ad isn’t ironic enough for me.

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