Style

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Hot Topic

It was a guiding light, leading me through an assortment of options for my new, disgruntled identity.

Illustration by Esme

I am well aware that Hot Topic is an emporium of diluted subcultures where nothing is so fiercely independent that it can’t be commodified. The store’s motto is “Everything about the music,” but what they probably mean is “Selling music-inspired apparel to a mass market is really profitable!” But you know what? I don’t care. I love Hot Topic, and have since the first time I walked through its arched industrial doorway in high school and entered a magical place where feeling misunderstood, which was my jam at the time, was actually cool.

I grew up bouncing between my mom’s house in Los Angeles and my grandparents’ apartment in Queens, but right before I started high school, my family settled down in a tiny suburb of Ohio called Westervillfe. It was painfully boring there; I missed going to museums and the beach, and being around people who didn’t all look and dress exactly the same. I felt like a complete stranger among my new classmates—because I was. Most of them had grown up together. Soon enough, I found there were all sorts of unwritten rules that dictated everything from the type of car that was OK to drive (preferably a brand-new Audi) to the way you wore your hair (in a ponytail, sometimes with a ribbon in the school colors, maroon and gold). I strolled through the hallways wondering, WTF is Abercrombie & Fitch?

I made literally zero friends that first year. As the new girl, I was an easy target, and people mocked me for everything from my acne to one very traumatic accident involving my period, which I didn’t know was coming until it had seeped through to my cafeteria chair. Offering me a maxipad in public became kind of a running joke among some of the popular girls. I started to hate everybody, and I latched on to their outward appearances as a symbol of how terrible they were, not even realizing the obvious parallel between my attitude about them and theirs about me. In my teen-angst-riddled mind, their preppy, pastel-hued, homogenous clothing choices were expressions of their bland, homogenous psyches. At the time—this was 2000—I didn’t know there were blogs or internet communities where I could share my frustration with like-minded teenagers across the world. My parents were pretty strict, and I wasn’t allowed online, except occasionally for schoolwork. So I took my angst to the only hang-out spot available to a 15-year-old in Westerville: the mall.

I had never heard of Hot Topic before I saw that disobedient red font standing out among the sedate logos of all the other stores, daring me to walk through its sewer-pipe-style entrance.

Image via Twelve Oaks

I took up the challenge, and was immediately enchanted. First, there were the employees: to someone who couldn’t find even one other misfit at school to share my weirdness with, they were downright inspirational. I especially remember the manager, Jody, in all of her deathrock glory: artfully destroyed fishnet tights; platform boots with buckles numbering in the dozens; pin-thin, meticulously drawn on eyebrows. I aspired to dress—and live!—with that much creativity someday.

The next thing I noticed was the wall of officially licensed band tees that spanned genres from pop-punk to hip-hop to thrash metal, and they sold CDs and vinyl, too—it was literally a subculture supermarket, and in Westerville, that was nothing short of a miracle. Without internet access, it wasn’t easy for a sheltered suburban kid to discover a band like NOFX—I didn’t have an older sister to tell me about them, or an effortlessly cool friend, or a great local record store (I can’t even remember there being a record store, beyond Best Buy).

I was ecstatic about what I bought during that first excursion: a white button-up with a pre-attached red-and-black tie with safety pins in it. What did I know? I hadn’t even heard of thrifting, and anyway, I would never have thought to put those elements together myself. Hot Topic did the thinking for me, and I welcomed the help. The store was a guiding light, leading me through an assortment of options for my new, disgruntled identity.

Was I a punk? A week of listening to Punk-O-Rama: Vol. 6 quickly disabused me of that notion. Bad Religion’s “I Want to Conquer the World” is an objectively great song, but nothing about the music really resonated with me. (I loved compilation CDs—there was no better tool for figuring out what I liked.) Was I a metalhead? For a while, sure. I flipped through a magazine at the store—I can’t remember the name of it now, but it was like Tiger Beat for hard-rock enthusiasts, featuring interviews and pull-out photos of Otep and Korn. My late freshman/early sophomore years were spent plastering my bedroom walls with posters of Kittie and obsessively phoning Total Request Live to vote for “Falling Away From Me.” I wore giant band tees with wide-legged JNCO jeans, and a spiked necklace that I never took off, not even in the shower. During that period, the caustic rage of this music was my only solace from the loneliness and boredom I experienced in my school and my town; I headbanged alone in my room to “Paperdoll” and felt like Morgan Lander was speaking directly to me.

By junior year, though, not even lyrics like “Now her soul is dead / Now her body’s raw / WASH AWAY HER PAIN” could save me (nor, indeed, wash away my pain). My anger congealed into a dark depression, and even though by then I had a couple of friends at school and even a boyfriend, I struggled with self-loathing. My mom and I fought all the time. She didn’t approve of my wardrobe or my interests, and I suspected she might be reading my journal, which made me stop writing in it. Each day became just something to get through.

Maybe it sounds strange, but the only thing that made me feel better was finding a sartorial aesthetic that perfectly expressed my inner sadness. I figured if I was living with these feelings, I might as well revel in them. During my regular visits to Hot Topic, I was drawn to clothes that were comfortably confrontational, like Lip Service’s fishnet tops and corseted dresses and Tripp NYC’s bondage pants. I fell in love with a dress I wore to the homecoming dance—it was maroon with black lace, gesturing toward a romantic melancholy.

I didn’t realize that there was an entire cultural scene based on the kind of gloominess I was feeling—had been for decades, in fact. I don’t know how I came into possession of the Cure’s Disintegration—maybe I heard Marilyn Manson mention it in an interview, or found it among Hot Topic’s stash of Good Charlotte CDs, underneath the display of Joy Division T-shirts. But that album was exactly what I had been searching for. When Robert Smith desperately sang/shouted, “It’s easier for me to get closer to heaven / Than ever feel whole again,” I heard my intense longing for something in his voice. I immediately went to the record store in Columbus, of which Westerville is a suburb, to buy the Goth Box, which introduced me to bands like Christian Death and Alien Sex Fiend, and I grabbed hold of my new identity and ran with it. I wrote long poems on my LiveJournal, channeling my pain into gibberish that made sense only to me: “Tenderize the rarest bones and die / But let the grass grow where the flesh meets the sand.” I wore all black—black clothes, black nail polish, black eyeliner—and whenever I saw someone similarly attired we’d make eye contact for a split second, and it felt like a secret handshake, like I was less alone in the world.

When I turned 18, I started going to Outland, central Ohio’s biggest (only?) goth club, where I could dance all night to Sisters of Mercy, Queenadreena, New Order, Crüxshadows, and Adult, in a room full of poeple who looked and felt like I did. I had finally found a community. I made friends, I moved out of my parents’ house, and I felt less isolated and depressed.

Sometimes I’d run into Jody, the old Hot Topic manager, there. She remembered me from the store, and even though she probably knew I bought those clothes before I knew what they were trying to signify, I never felt like she judged me as a “poser.” Not everyone is savvy or self-assured enough, especially in high school, to know exactly who they want to be, nor how to be that person. I was, I don’t deny, an average suburban white kid looking for entry-level subversion, and Hot Topic supplied it. And for that I will be forever grateful. ♦

Meagan Fredette is a 27-year-old feminist style blogger at Latterstyle. She lives in Chicago and enjoys dreamy music, The X-Files, and riding her bike.

47 Comments

  • Aurora February 15th, 2013 7:35 PM

    Westerville, Ohio? ISN’T THAT WHERE HEATHERS WAS SET? AND YOU LIVED THERE??? OMG.

  • AnaRuiz February 15th, 2013 7:42 PM

    I don’t love Hot Topic, but this article makes me want to.

    anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

  • Suzy X. February 15th, 2013 7:47 PM

    Hello my life in 2003

    • Suzy X. February 15th, 2013 7:54 PM

      But actually for real I have an entire blog dedicated to my Hot Topic days. *shameless self-promo* http://8thgrademallgoth.tumblr.com/

      Back when loitering around the mall and shadowing the older Hot Topic staff was fun. Meagen, if you lived in Florida we probably would’ve been friends.

      • Meagan February 15th, 2013 8:02 PM

        OH MY GOD THIS TUMBLR I CAN’T DEALLLL. relating on a Deep Personal Level SO HARD to ALL OF THIS. we would have been besties!

      • litchick February 15th, 2013 9:00 PM

        Suzy, your tumblr is awesome!

      • FlaG February 16th, 2013 2:41 AM

        Can’t stop reading. Can relate so much.

    • Ms.O February 15th, 2013 8:02 PM

      I can totally imagine that being your life.

  • Hannah February 15th, 2013 7:59 PM

    My Hot Topic had a freaking manager just like that, with blue and purple dreds, and cool clothes, and piercings. She was like a god 5 years ago.

  • Tyler February 15th, 2013 8:05 PM

    Still one of my favorite stores!

  • Ana February 15th, 2013 8:08 PM

    I remember my first time going into Hot Topic when i was in 5th grade. Oohh memories :)

  • SpencerBowie February 15th, 2013 8:39 PM

    So, this was wonderful! It’s so nice to read something so positive about Hot Topic! When ours came here to the small town of Tupelo, MS, I was thrilled! We already had a Spencer’s Gifts and HT went in right across from it. It was 2005, I was 15. That first trip inside I spent all of my birthday money and bought my first pair of Vans! I still have them, in fact I still have pretty much EVERYTHING from back then. My Tripp stuff never leaves my wardrobe.

    I loved the staff too. So much time of mine was spent in there yapping for hours with them about the punk/new wave bands I was into. I loved their semi-wisdom about it all and their confidence.

    We also had a Abercrombie and Fitch. I hated that store. Shopping there was a complete status symbol in my school. I am so proud to say that in its time here, (they moved out a year or two ago), I never went inside. I’m proud of that fact because the employees would come in and destroy the displays at HT. It was like a war on the weird kids. Of corse it ended, and no my dear rookie A&F wearers, not everyone who shops there is evil or ingorant. I understand that A&F is to one kid what HT was and is to me. A safe haven.

    Loved this article! Again, I’m glad to see positive tude’s and feels about HT. I’ll probably head there tomorrow at some point and maybe buy a Sex Pistols, Regular Show, or David Bowie shirt. Or just hang. We’ll see.

    :)

  • AliceinWonderland February 15th, 2013 8:46 PM

    I simultaneously cringe and am drawn to Hot Topic by this article….

  • taste test February 15th, 2013 8:58 PM

    I enjoy this. I spent most of my life silently trashing Hot Topic for not being Really Punk whenever it came up, but a lot of my friends adore it. and then last year they dragged me into one. I wasn’t thrilled, but I didn’t want to be a killjoy, so I didn’t complain. and while I followed them around, I was like “shit. there is actually some cool stuff here.” also I got into a conversation about crystal castles with the guy working the register, who was very chill. so I decided to stop being so judgy about the place that day. it’s not that bad.

  • raggedyanarchy February 15th, 2013 9:06 PM

    Aww my friends and I went through a Hot Topic phase in like sixth and seventh grade. I sometimes wander into the store for a thing of purple manic panic or a Paramore tee every once in a while, although I don’t go to the mall often anymore.

  • Lillypod February 15th, 2013 9:33 PM

    when I was 15 my friend’s mum wouldn’t let her come to the mall with me, “Because of the Goths”. It was Tampa, Florida so I think Hot Topic was to blame.

  • AmyL February 15th, 2013 9:53 PM

    I love Hot Topic and have basically been waiting for this article for my entire life.

    http://intergalactic-dragons.blogspot.com

  • mr.darcy February 15th, 2013 10:07 PM

    Does anyone remember Goth Goose?

  • i-like-autumn February 15th, 2013 10:29 PM

    I only ever went into Hot Topic once, didn’t like it, wasn’t my scene. Although ALL of my friends (from 8th grade) shopped there. I never understood how much they had loved it until now. Thanks for sharing!!!

    Autumn
    http://www.i-like-autumn.tumblr.com

  • morganosaur February 15th, 2013 11:17 PM

    Hot Topic is great, especially for finding shirts, pins, wallets… (in my case a Star Wars shirt, a Sailor Moon shirt, tons of pins under $0.99, and a Batman wallet!)

    And the staff is freakin’ awesome! They are all so cool and hilarious and chill and I deeply want to work there at some point.

  • goo February 15th, 2013 11:24 PM

    This is wonderful. As a fellow suburban Ohio gal, I too was enchanted by Hot Topic as a teen. Thanks for the excellent (and nostalgic) read. Also- how have I never heard of Outland?!

    • Meagan February 16th, 2013 12:49 AM

      you MUST GO, though i understand that the location has moved around. worth it though!

  • FlaG February 16th, 2013 2:17 AM

    I spent HOURS on the Hot Topic website during my so-called ‘study periods’ when I was at school (early- to mid-200s), lusting after their goth things. And the boots. And those bondage pants. I still have a mission to acquire a pair of bondage pants.

  • Cactus Woman February 16th, 2013 2:54 AM

    Funny…I just went to Hot Topic today at the local mall (yikes!) and got some purple clip-on hair extensions (they were buy one, get one half off!). I rarely ever go to the mall, but when I do, I always make sure to stop in there in case they have something cool on sale.

  • Pen Elope February 16th, 2013 4:10 AM

    Wow, this sounds like a store I would’ve loved back in 2000/2001. I have never seen Hot Topic or anything similar in my country though. Back in the days we would hear rumours about dowtown shoe stores having Doc Martens and Chucks, but they did not always have them. There was one store to buy a Kufiya (THE signature piece for the slightly left-wing oriented alternative youth), one ridiculously expensive second hand store and an equally expensive catalogue that charged a lot for cargo. Basically we were treasure hunters baed on H&M.
    Speaking of which, I have seen Doc Martens rip offs at H&M a few weeks ago. And a part of me thought “Nah, this is too easy, those poor kids are missing out on that shopping high we got whenever we obtained something rare back in the days.

    I feel like granny in her rocking chair telling stories of the olden days…have another piece of cake, my darlings, will you?

  • Ree February 16th, 2013 4:17 AM

    Sometimes I’m so gutted that I live in England. We need a shop like that here!

  • Mary the freak February 16th, 2013 6:06 AM

    amazing article. like, omg. I really loved reading this.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • paige.xo February 16th, 2013 6:51 AM

    we don’t even have hot topic where i live, but im still super sad that i never had a goth phase. i was pastel popular and into boyz and taylor swift when i was in eighth grade. twilight and avril lavinge where the closest i got to anything that wasn’t pink or glittery.
    :((

  • Lauritzen February 16th, 2013 10:15 AM

    Is this article sponsored by Hot Topic?
    I understand if it is, you guys have to make money somehow, I just think your readers should know its an ad.

    • Anaheed February 16th, 2013 12:04 PM

      No, it is not. We never do sponsored anything without making it very clear that that is what it is.

  • Sorcha M February 16th, 2013 11:24 AM

    This is so relevantish. There isn’t Hot Topic in the UK but when I was 12-13 I listened exclusively to music that I don’t think I even liked then- it was purely to get people to stay away from me. Like Bring Me The Horizon. Ugh. And I used to aspire to be a scene kid because I wanted to belong to something, anything. The popular kids hated me so the typical outsider route seemed the way to go. I still have a fascination with subcultures and the last time I went to America, Hot Topic enchanted me too. There’s a shop near where I live similar and I still frequent it to talk to the metalhead manager, who remembers my pop-punk screamo days fondly. This has been an essay.

  • quirkflower February 16th, 2013 2:28 PM

    Westerville! That’s like 10 minutes from my town! Suburban Ohio girls unite!

  • Amy Rose February 16th, 2013 5:21 PM

    Loved and related deeply to this.

  • redheadjess February 16th, 2013 6:22 PM

    Brilliant post. <3
    http://derangedcat.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Bananaskid February 16th, 2013 7:56 PM

    All of my friends are like totally obsessed with Hot Topic. It sounds cool.

  • EqualDemise731 February 17th, 2013 12:37 AM

    I rememeber when I was a preteen my mom would never let me into Hot Topic, instead she would take me into what ever girly store that esisted hoping i would beg for a skin tight shirt that said ‘daddy’s girl’. At least she slowly started to accept me when I was 14 though, slowly though.

  • sequoia February 17th, 2013 3:44 PM

    ugh yes yes
    i miss my shitty 5th-6th grade hot topic days

  • Mini Penny Blog February 17th, 2013 3:55 PM

    I grew up just south of Columbus (and then lived there for about six years). I love this read — Hot Topic was a thing for my youth as well, which later turned into Columbus record stores and Outland.

    I then moved to Chicago… are we the same person?…

    • Meagan February 18th, 2013 12:25 PM

      woah crazy! chicago feels like a natural evolution from columbus, in a lot of ways.

  • oh...hi cindy February 17th, 2013 4:21 PM

    UGH this is great, i so know this feel. Hot Topic was a savior for loner kids everywhere, i feel like i grew up in there. I gave away all my pleated Tripp skirts a couple years ago and it was so sad.

  • GIJO907 February 17th, 2013 4:25 PM

    Well I’m glad my adolescence wasn’t the only one (exactly) like this. Write/Right on.

  • sully-bean February 17th, 2013 6:46 PM

    I was literally so annoyed by the lack of Hot Topic in my life when I was going through my misunderstood phase a few years ago. Like, seriously. I would have given all my eyeliner and possibly my left arm for one in my town. As it was, I had to get by loitering around the My Chemical Romance section in HMV, hoping someone would compliment my fingerless gloves. Sigh.
    This article was awesome! I can totally relate.
    Also, Westerville, Ohio? CAN SOMEONE SAY BLAINE ANDERSON? I freaked out, LOL. Cool place. :) Thanks rookie!

    • Startrish February 17th, 2013 11:48 PM

      My god, about the Warblers, I was thinking the exact same thing! Also, though the nearest Hot Topic is 2 towns away from me, I love it and go every chance I can!

  • YouFreaky February 18th, 2013 12:47 PM

    I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio and I remember being so excited when my best friend got her drivers license. That meant we could drive for way longer than it was worth to go see Voltaire at Outland in Columbus or go to the west side of Cleveland to dance at The Chamber. I remember seeing all the girls in cat eye liner and PVC Hot Topic dresses who were old enough to drink and thinking, “This is glamor and sophistication!”

  • inkwell February 20th, 2013 5:46 AM

    Man, does this article bring back memories. In my town there was a short-lived goth store that made custom corsets, sold high-end goth gear and just general trinkets (dragon candelabres, pentagram pill jars, little things like that). I used to spend all my “study periods” in school either talking the ears off the gorgeous goth woman who worked there, or the kind deathrocker who worked in the second-hand record store. I had shoulder-length hair dyed black and generally looked rather daft, but the length was good because it hid the black dye stains.
    (also, I hope I’m not intruding here, considering I’m a guy reading this site)

    To all of you going through this right now, I can recommend Tumblr. Lots of friendly goths, lots of music recommendations, and generally a community to make you feel less alone. Oh yeah, and try to buy the blue-black permanent hair dye, the blue washes out really quickly and gives you pure black instead of regular black which washes out and gives you ugly brownish hair.

  • TamponAngel February 20th, 2013 5:05 PM

    Yes I totally relate to this. My freshman year if high school was a totally embarrassing transition year. I went from trying super hard to please everyone by wearing Abercrombie and Fitch to being really pissed off at everyone. I live in a really small town in upstate new York so for a while i thought I lived in my own personal hell. I started dressing like a scene kid: neon suspenders, sex pistols shirts, and converse. All thanks to hot topic. then the Internet happened and I was like oh ok now I get it.

  • plushy1222 March 28th, 2013 1:09 AM

    I love your personal story! It’s inspiring. I have the same issues in high school now as we speak..not feeling a sense of belonging to anywhere, but by reading this, it made me want to go out and look for someplace where I would belong. By the way, I live in Chicago too! GO CHICAGO!!!!!!!