Today, I was scouring stores near and far in search of one thing: a knit hat. I got bangs recently and bangs are a lot of work. Sometimes, I can’t deal with the hair choices I’ve made. So I require a hat. But no one would sell me a cute yet sensible knit hat. Oh, they had floppy fedoras and southwestern-inspired find-yourself-in-the-Sedona hats for days. But no one, no one, had a single goddamn plain old knit hat, perhaps with a bit of slouch.
Only one store had my back, the store that had my back in high school until I eschewed it for more hipsterly pursuits: Hot Topic.
We’ve all mocked Hot Topic. When images of Jared Leto’s Joker were first released, Hot Topic was our go-to joke. As pumpkin spice lattes and yoga pants are the lazy jokes of your basic white 20-something, Hot Topic is the lazy joke of the youthful outsider.
It’s strange that we’d joke about that. Maybe we joked about it because it was a little too real.
When you’re on the outside, maybe just steps or even miles or galaxies from the bubble of cool in high school, reactions are varied but similar. We can try to squeeze into that bubble in whatever way we can, or we rebel. Sometimes a combination of the two. Sometimes all of the above at different times over the four years that make up the high school experience.
Most of us pretended we didn’t care. But we did. We cared a lot. Even if we didn’t want the bubble, we wanted one thing above all else: to be accepted.
When I decided I wasn’t going to be the type of accepted I wanted to be, I turned to Hot Topic. Not pink hair, dog collars and Misfits shirts Hot Topic, but Morrissey pins on my jean jacket with a ripped up Lollapallooza shirt Hot Topic. Blue eyeliner, sometimes with a matching dose of that colored hair mascara that existed in the early aughts. Hot Topic is where I discovered The Gossip, The Donnas, bands that would within years come to larger fame and were assuredly already there in circles that were that-other-kind-of-cool that I also didn’t fit with. Because even the uncool mock the different kinds of uncool for being a different kind of uncool than their own favored uncool.
There were always scenes. There were always cliques. Everyone had a space. I just wanted acceptance. On my terms. And when I couldn’t find that in my high school, there was another pin I could put on my jacket. Another Gossip song.
Eventually I went to college, to an artsy school at the peak of early 2000s American Apparel lamé pants skinny jeans hipsterdom. My jean jacket with my pins suddenly felt like a costume. It was mine, it was real and I loved it. But I thought I’d look like I was trying to look like everyone else. I’d be accepted, but not on my terms.
So I wore Abercrombie and Fitch. I wore trucker hats. I put my jean jacket in the closet. I chose to rebel.
It was the lamest, most expensive kind of rebellion, and it’s really embarrassing to talk about, because when I eventually found my people, that’s how they met me, and it’s not like “the real me” dressed so differently that it was starkly noticeable when I stopped (sorry, college Courtney—the difference between A&F and Urban Outfitters is less than you’d hope). But they accepted me and accept me, on my terms, the way I always wanted.
Since then, I’ve dressed like me, and looked like me. I’ve found my people in various circles over time, most belovedly right here at Pajiba. And when I went into Hot Topic today, I ran my fingers over those pins. I chose an LGBT equality one and of course Morrissey—my original long since disappeared. I bought a TARDIS cardigan and a knit hat. I could have bought a hundred more things.
I wish I’d been able to be myself when I had this kind of place that made me feel like myself is OK. And I’m glad it’s still here today when I need to remind myself of that same thing.
So thanks, Hot Topic. From the ones outside the bubble.