Let us begin, as we so often do, by acknowledging that the term "basic bitch" has been expertly Columbused by white people. In 1984, the R&B group Klymaxx had a hit Billboard single with "Meeting In The Ladies Room," where one of the ladies sings about a basic woman who is trying to get up on her man. But rapper Kreayshawn's 2010 single "Gucci Gucci" is probably the main reason we're all talking about basic today. The song was a massive hit and the music video went viral, amassing three million views in the first few weeks.
In "Gucci Gucci," Kreayshawn put her own spin on the expression by changing Klymaxx's "basic woman" to "basic bitch," as to better fit the lexicon of 2010. However, the meaning of the term stayed the same here, because Kreayshawn, having grown up in black neighborhoods in Oakland, actually knew what it meant.
Being basic just means that you aren't that dope. A basic woman or a basic bitch blindly follows trends and isn't an individual. You may dress nicely and have expensive things, but when it comes down to it, you just ain't that fly.
In the song, Kreayshawn raps: "Gucci Gucci, Louis Louis, Fendi Fendi, Prada/Basic bitches wear that shit so I don't even bother."
Even in this formulation, it's not that merely having a Louis Vuitton handbag makes you basic. It's thinking that having a closet full of luxury brands necessarily makes you better or more fashionable that makes you basic. It's trying too hard that makes you basic. And of course, Columbusing other people's slang is the most try-hard move of all.
As white people got ahold of the term "basic," they warped the term into true distortion, rendering it an overworked shell of its essential meaning. Basic went from being a fairly generic insult to somehow specifically referencing white girls who like Uggs and leggings and horribly flavored lattes.
With that shift, many people (mostly white) have unnecessarily intellectualized the term; frankly, this is because they don't really understand it. Being basic isn't about race or class. It's not about being jealous or hating women. It is, and always has been, about coolness. It's about your steeze or lack thereof.
Despite what listicles and New York Magazine tell you, there is not a set list of characteristics or possessions that make you basic. Rihanna could become the official spokesperson for Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes and nobody would think of her as basic. You know why? Because Rihanna does what she wants and what she thinks is cool and doesn't give a damn about anybody else. She's dope because she thinks she's dope.
You know what is cool and very un-basic? Liking what you like and thinking what you think and not giving a fuck what anybody else has to say about it.
On Tuesday,BuzzFeed's Anne Helen Petersen published a very involved piece titled "'Basic' Is Just Another Word For Class Anxiety." Respectfully, I must say: Anne, girl, you're overthinking this.
That's how "basic" is used today: as a means for people anxious about their position within both the purchasing and cultural currency to denigrate the purchasing and cultural habits of others.
It's really not that deep. I've called things and people (men included) basic and I am not at all anxious about my cultural currency. I do what the hell I want to do without regard for what random-ass people think about it. It is because I have this agency and awareness that I call things basic in the first place.
(There is additional Columbusing at work here, of course. Thinking of basic in this way necessarily erases all the people [of color] who continue to use the word correctly, in terms of slang, and instead suggests that the way all these panicked white girls are using it is the true definition.)
Anyway. When someone calls you basic, all they're saying is: I think that the stuff you like is lame and I don't really like you. And it's not because they have latent doubts about how they fit into the cultural quilt of the world. It is because they simply do not like the same shit that you like.
I used to live in Harlem, one of the epicenters for black culture in America. I routinely heard teenagers in my neighborhood refer to things as basic. Perhaps they were sometimes referring to the hordes of gentrifiers invading their neighborhood with North Face jackets and $20 sushi rolls, but they also used it to describe their peers or a certain type of sneaker.
Those kids are the ones creating the trends that the rest of the world will be following in six months. Suggesting that they're looking down on something they think is wack because they're insecure about their "cultural currency" is not only an insult to their sensibilities but entirely blind to the way popular culture is cultivated in our country.
Petersen goes on to suggest that taste—which we can understand to be the opposite of basicness—is a privilege.
Unique taste — and the capacity to avoid the basic — is a privilege. A privilege of location (usually urban), of education (exposure to other cultures and locales), and of parentage (who would introduce and exalt other tastes).
Forget for a minute that we when talk about these so-called basic bitches, these leggingsy white girls, we are talking about a group of people who are privileged in almost every possible way. We can forget that for a second in the interest of asserting this: in the year 2014, Petersen's argument doesn't hold water because the internet exists. The notion that you have to be urban and educated to have good taste is absurd.
Furthermore, with the internet or without it, plenty of creative, interesting people have come out of suburbs or small towns. Many non-basics have evolved their unique steeze outside this framework of worldly, culturally-focused education. Having respectable taste is a privilege of the best kind, because it's not one you can pin on someone's location or education level. Having good taste is a talent in the same way that being a good singer or an excellent painter is a talent. You either have it or you don't.
If you will allow me to get very, very real for a minute: this hysteria over basic is really just a bunch of privileged white girls caring too much about what other people think.
Truly, has there ever been a whiter problem than worrying about your level of basicness? If that's the shit you like, then that's the shit you like. Going on and on about navigating this self-constructed maze—how you're basic but you don't care and you're totally going to own it, or how no one's actually basic because it's impossible to be basic the way white girls mean it because late-capitalism is complicated—sure doesn't make it seem like you don't care, or that basic's not a real thing. (It's a real thing.)
Peterson then makes the reach of reaches. Like Noreen Malone, she equates calling a woman basic with an act of transformative misogyny:
To call someone "basic" is to look into the abyss of continually flattening capitalist dystopia and, instead of articulating and interrogating the fear, transform it into casual misogyny.
DEAR GOD. You are witnessing, my friends, a panicked, existential crisis of the middle class white woman. To restate: it's really not that deep. Things change. $5 coffees and $200 Ugg boots used to be enviable, and now they're not. Petersen is correct in saying that we "declare our individuality via our capacity to consume differently." It's true: we all have things we think are cool. But it's no grand mystery that American culture has moved on from lattes, or that teenagers would rather be that cool chick on Tumblr than the girl with five pairs of Lululemon yoga pants.
So what are those who make fun of basics actually frightened of? Of being basic, sure, but that's just another way of being scared of conformity.
Preferring nonconformity is not the same thing as being existentially afraid of the basic. The only true fear that can be roused up by the idea of basic is the fear of being basic yourself.
Nevertheless, Petersen goes on to suggest that "basic panic" is a way of "cloak[ing] concern over the flattening of American consumer and mediated culture." But American consumer culture is not being flattened. The opposite is happening: it's exploding outwards, too quickly for some people to pick up, and maybe because they're paying too much attention to the peculiar idea that "basic" is more meaningful than it is. As I see it, "casual misogyny" is a serious assertion, and best applied to discussions over things more important than why rich ladies are freaking out over a term that they're using improperly in the first damn place.
Petersen is an academic, and coming from an academic's perspective. But let's say: outside the framework of sociology, in the world where basic was created, it is a fact that to care so much about what other people think about the food other people eat or the winter boots other people buy—white, female or otherwise—is profoundly lame. The obsession with defining and intellectualizing basic has, in and of itself, become basic.
Look at Beyoncé and her new bangs. She was roundly mocked when she debuted this new look. However, she and those bangs doubled down and soldiered on. Now, they are thriving.
I suggest all basic bitches try to do the same. Drink your stupid lattes, wear your damn leggings, let other people call you and others basic. And calm the hell down. Remember Columbus. Know this territory was never yours to begin with.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.