Imagine seeing a T-shirt that captures your attention for no apparent reason. You are sure you don’t know what the words and symbolism mean, but you also feel like you should know. Those of us who have had the pleasure of seeing such T-shirts have experienced the juxtaposition of well-known obscurity.
Any one of the CBGB T-shirts from Nerd Kung Fu provide a perfect example. People who already know what CBGB is feel good about themselves for wearing T-shirts that make them part of a semi-exclusive club. Meanwhile, the clueless see a CBGB T-shirt and feel like there is something vaguely familiar about the imagery they should know more about.
The juxtaposition of well-known obscurity lies in two seemingly opposite principles. The first principle dictates that the topic or subject at hand is known among a large enough group of people to give it some sort of societal stature. The other principal dictates just the opposite: not enough people know about it to propel it to mainstream cognizance.
The CBGB Club
CBGB was a small Manhattan nightclub first opened in 1973 by the legendary Hilly Krystal to showcase his favorite music. The CBGB acronym stands for ‘country, bluegrass, and blues’. Underneath the acronym on the nightclub’s canopy sign was another acronym: OMFUG. It stood for ‘other music for uplifting gormandizers’, a reference to people who consume music as much as, or more than, they consumed food.
Though Krystal’s original intent was clear, it didn’t take long for the club to become a hotspot for the cutting-edge music of the day. CBGB began hosting acoustic rock, experimental music, and punk. The club eventually started welcoming goth, industrial, and dark wave bands.
CBGB became well known for helping to launch the careers of groups like Blondie and the Ramones. By the 1980s it had left most of its country and bluegrass roots behind to become New York’s home for hard-core punk.
Both Known and Unknown
Music critics, publishers, and aficionados are very familiar with the CBGB name. Some of the biggest names in music can recite the entire history of the club from start to finish. And yet outside of that particular scene, CBGB is still widely unknown. That is what’s most fascinating about this icon of American music.
How a club like CBGB can be so well known in music circles but largely unknown elsewhere is a juxtaposition. Even among people living in Manhattan and the rest of New York’s boroughs, CBGB was not a well-known entity during its heyday. It was the hot spot for fans of punk rock and other forms of alternative music, but virtually nonexistent to everyone else.
The same is true in 2020. A core group of people will recognize a CBGB T-shirt a mile away. They see the two acronyms and know exactly what they mean. T-shirts that feature images of the club’s facade are instantly recognized by the storefront window and canopy.
A person who knows nothing about the punk rock scene might see that same T-shirt and scratch his head. He might spend the rest of the day wondering what ‘CBGB’ and ‘OMFUG’ mean. And he will drive himself crazy believing that he is the only one who remain ignorant.
Such is the juxtaposition of well-known obscurity. If you are well-known to a large group but still obscure to an even larger one, you are in that no man’s land of being neither a nobody nor a superstar. Perhaps the best you can do is hope someone is selling T-shirts with your likeness decades after you’re gone.