Photo courtesy of Zeena Koda The mall was the communication mecca for any hot-blooded teenager growing up in New Jersey, USA. Whether you were exploring romantic pursuits, learning how to pull off petty thefts, gauging the viability of a poly-blend whore outfit with your equally inappropriately-aged friends, or getting ripped off malt liquor in the bathroom, the mall was the weekend jam. It was a hub of possibility for impressionable youth, and when you found a store that stimulated your bored, curious mind, you gravitated towards it. At thirteen, I discovered Hot Topic, immediately scooped up my first ball-chain necklace, and the rest is rock history. When I turned seventeen, I landed a job as a manager at the most ghetto Hot Topic possible (literally in a mall blocks away from the projects), beginning a six-year-long learning experience filled with a cast of unforgettable characters. Underground music will always gather a motley crew of aficionados, and at the time of my employment, the store was filled with degenerates obsessed with a wide variety of heavy and experimental music. The store was a cesspool of musicians, borderline creeps, talented headcases, deceptively sexy drama queens, and pseudo-artistic individuals. The staff itself was the ultimate recipe for hilarity and disaster: drug addicts, a norm, and conflicted souls who thought you gave a fuck when their work ethic was in question, all gainfully employed. There were multiple times someone would show up drunk, hungover, semi-medicated, or flat-out cunty and unwilling to work; a few times employees would peace out on their lunch break and never come back, or get so trashed on their break, I’d tell them to take the rest of the day off. My role fluctuated from patient manager to babysitter, depending on the day, but the one major perk to working at Hot Topic was that you got to pick your own daily soundtrack.
Mine would usually rotate between Trustkill Records bands, At The Gates, Deftones, and goth/industrial BS that I could 80s one-hand dance to. When emo/screamo hit the mainstream and bands like Dashboard Confessional overtook the band tee wall, my ears unwillingly got stuffed up with records I would have initially deemed as “pussy shit" (lthough I’m sure the emo kids on staff were sick of hearing Dave Mustaine sing about symphonies of destruction so the torture was mutual). Eventually I’d catch myself singing those very “bitch-ass” emo songs, and in some ways, my tenure at Hot Topic was an educational process in musical expansion. At the time I was the frontwoman of a local heavy band, so I got a chance to constantly promote our music and experience real rejection that helped put some hair on my labia.
Not a day would pass without hearing, “Dude, can you check out my band?” from some random customer. It was rarely anything impressive, but I would always give it a quick listen for fear they would return and harass me. Looking back, the ‘Topic was an amazing primer for what was to come at me during my career working in the music industry. Our creative ideas were openly sourced by corporate and the company was a free space to talk about new music, shows and scene gossip. In fact, I met an instrumental friend in my life working there who eventually helped get me my first internship in the industry; folding all those Ramones shirts actually paid off in the end!
There was a certain pulse to the company, a cultural music aspect that no other mall store could boast in the early 2000s. The “regulars” were a surprising mix of house mums, World of Warcraft playin’ dorks lingering over anime and gamer merch for hours at a time, washed up rockers, and Mexican dudes in LOVE with Iron Maiden and Metallica. I was always shocked by the quantity of people with nothing better to do with their day than to see what new items came into the store. Don’t you have some broads to bang instead of trolling the Tacking Back Sunday tees? How many pairs of Kik Wear pants do you really need to own? Customer sanity levels were always hard to gauge, and I got reprimanded once because I was listening to Rancid and an unfortunate stream of curses flowed out. I skipped the song immediately, but the salty broad who I'd offended was adamant on reporting me. All I could think was, “This is punk rock lady, loosen your panties because I’m sure you say worse to your husband on a daily basis.”
"Probably the only time I have ever been Employee of the Month." Photo courtesy of Zeena Koda I was foolishly tasked with hiring temporary employees for the holiday season. A daunting task, yes, but I highly looked forward to the prospect of hiring some new, hot tattooed boys every year. Most of my employees were musicians like myself, and I’d often engage them in intense, pointless musical debates. We’d discuss the embarrassments that came with playing music and how humbling it can be and dive into gossip about every employee. My band would play shows with other employees, and it was comforting to know that others around you were living through the struggle too. Sometimes musicians, personalities and celebrities of note would walk through our doors. Once the Degrassi Live Tour was set up close to our entrance, and tons of chicks were lined up at the crack of dawn, losing their minds. Had I known how far Wheelchair Jimmy AKA Drake would go, maybe I would have made the effort to give a fuck at the time, but for me, it was just another day, working at the mall. There were a few vivid fashion phases fueled by my surroundings there. While constantly swimming in a sea of Lip Service, Manic Panic, corsets and fairy glitter, you tend to make snap decisions. It was totally reasonable to sport bright red yarn braids and Frankenstein boots on a Tuesday. That’s sexy, right? I also gained a random, yet deep respect for Insane Clown Posse’s hold on the merch game. True ICP fans often swooped in decked out in Tripp pants, matching bandanas ,and the ubiquitous hatchet man logo hanging around their necks—real dedication to the Juggalo hustle. That logo is like a bat signal to the few, the proud, and the questionable, and fortunately for me, I saw them all.
"My coworkers and I in 2003." Photo courtesy of Zeena Koda
People would walk by the store and yell, “Freaks!” at us regularly, and it would crack me up. Those were different times in public perception. Unlike now, when anyone can dress like an asshole and pass it off as “unique and artistic,” those were times where you had to fight for your right to dress like a jerk. Fortunately, Hot Topic let you look however you wanted as long as you were making cash for them by selling that lifestyle. It was a perfect haven for touring musicians looking to work on off months, groupies seeking out scraps, and people with complex issues and no direction who needed a false sense of importance.
I can credit Hot Topic with introducing me to the music industry. It was the first place I could openly discuss music with other like-minded douchebags that also believed that one day, “The band is gonna make it, man.” It was a place where miscreants of all styles could congregate, and the store even created its very own genre of music: mall metal. I can name countless bands that would still be eating pork and beans if it weren’t for the distribution help of Hot Topic. When a company integrates so hard into the culture that it becomes the culture, you know it is the real fucking deal. For a generation of us, it was our Empire Records, and honestly, I loved every minute of it.