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Hed Kandi: An Aesthetic of Aspiration or a Just a Dirty Fantasy?

Is an amalgamation of Patrick Nagel's quintessentially 80s take on minimalist glamour and the wank fantasies brought back to Bracknell by a teenage boy after a family holiday to the Costa Brava ever a good thing?

by Josh Baines
24 September 2015, 3:05pm

To think about dance music, and the culture that surrounds it, as a totality is, well, a total fallacy. Every microgenre, from Baltimore club to big beat, drill'n'bass to dub-techno, has its own codes and conventions. These codes — usually applied by insiders as demarcations of generic and social difference before being 'accepted' and referred to by those outside of the source of origin — cover record covers and club flyers, records themselves and what actually goes on in clubs. We, rightly or wrongly, have schematic reactions to an aesthetic, be it visual or aural, that we use as the basis of a kind of social-projection: that record sleeve means the record sounds like this which means the people who like it act like that.

I could try and wind through an argument worthy of a poorly performing first year student reading art history but the simple point, made simply, is that we judge everything by it's cover and, largely, we can't help doing so. Everything, literally everything from matchsticks to toothbrushes, rubbers to condoms, has seen itself aestheticized, turned from a purpose made object into an object of desire and vice versa, over and over again. We are visual creatures, trained from birth to assess everything — despite being told not to — in terms of how it looks. The look, the gaze, is the most important tool of judgement we possess. Clunky generalizations over. Let's get specific. Let's look at something maligned and reviled, something unashamedly and unabashedly visual. Let's look at Hed Kandi.

Founded around the turn of the millennium by Jazz FM affiliate Mark Doyle, Hed Kandi specialises, I think, in the kind of terminally uncool soulfully jazzy, jazzily soulful wine bar house that screams brown shoes and stonewash jeans, unbuttoned shirts and wooden-beaded bracelets, the kind of "laidback beats" that reek of sandalwood and assumed sophistication. I say, "think", there because I've never voluntarily sat down with potential classics like A Taste of Kandi 2013 or Serve Chilled: Electronic Summer, never knowingly run a nice hot, Radox-y bath to the possibly seminal Stereo Sushi 8, never started a night on the tiles with a bottle of rosé and a run through the 2009 edition of Kandi Lounge. Why? Why have I denied myself these pleasures? Why have I not spent sweltering summer afternoons elegantly slunk into a wicker chair in some Balearic bar, watching beautiful bronzed bodies cavort on white sands fringed with azure blue seas, light breezes flapping round cocktails while The Mix: World Series: Ibiza floats blissfully out of concealed speaker, only gently alerting me to it's presence when totally necessary? Why? Have you ever fucking seen a Hed Kandi front cover? That's why.

The visual aesthetic — an amalgamation of Patrick Nagel's quintessentially 80s take on minimalist glamour and the wank fantasies brought back to Bracknell by a teenage boy after a family holiday to the Costa Brava — is one of beguilingly mindless aspiration. Compilation after compilation is adorned with image after image of imagined femininity, the kind of fantastic — in the remote from reality sense — female that codes as a subservient cipher for projected male-focused heteronormative fantasy — in the grubbily real sense.

The world that Hed Kandi's created and propagates — and it's important to bear in mind that the label (co-opted by Ministry of Sound since 2006) has shifted over five million units worldwide since their inception in the dark days of post-Blair, pre-Big Brother Britain so we're pretty much talking about a veritable empire here — is one where everyone's impossibly done up, one where every night is a glitzy romp round marinas and down promenades, a world where champagne emits from every tap and every meal comes with a side order of caviar or whatever it is the wealthy tuck into in this age of austerity. Tinned spaghetti like the rest of us, presumably.

And that's what makes them so interesting as both aesthetic and cultural objects (if the two are able to be held un-entwined). You'd have to assume the the average Hed Kandi consumer, and the club culture consumer at large, isn't swanning about saddled with Swarovski jewellery. The sense of blatant aspiration that runs through the brand is hugely intriguing. When we think of club culture as an idea, we think of communality and inclusivity. The club should, in theory, be a space of acceptance. As impossible as that might be to action in reality — and it's very easy to write about a perfect world where everything that should happen is immediately achievable without any ramifications or difficulties — Hed Kandi seems to, seems to, go completely against that kind of idealism.

Their website is awash with the kind of features that position an imagined lifestyle of unfettered luxury as something easily attainable if only one splurges on compilation CDs and tickets to the kind of club nights that feature live saxophonists and bottle service. That kind of ostentatious luxuriousness does exist, for sure, but it's so at odds with how most of us access clubbing that it becomes this utterly alien, utterly compelling monument to cash-flashing. They even emblazoned Monarch planes with a long legged avatar for christ's sake.

There's also the issue of their presentation of femininity. This is where the 'lol, Hed Kandi, ha ha, who buys that stuff' routine gets a bit shifty. Firstly, there's the fact that Hed Kandi exclusively use images of 'sexy' women to shift their product. Secondly, there's the fact that these sexy 'women' are drawings. Thirdly, there's the fact that THESE ARE DRAWINGS OF SEXY WOMAN THAT ARE DRAWN SPECIFICALLY TO SELL CDS BECAUSE APPARENTLY PEOPLE ARE MORE LIKELY TO BUY A CHILL OUT COMPILATION IF IT COMES EMBLAZONED WITH DRAWINGS OF SEXY CARTOON WOMEN DOING SEXY CARTOON THINGS. LOOK AT THIS SEXY CARTOON WOMAN DJING! THESE SEXY CARTOON WOMEN ARE PEEKING COQUETTISHLY OVER THEIR SHOULDERS! THAT SEXY CARTOON WOMAN ON A MOUSEMAT IS HOLDING A SURFBOARD AND LOOKING OVER HER SHOULDER!

It's the kind of overtly sexual imagery that's so overt in its attempt to seduce that it actually repulses, or at least sends the viewer into a state of sexual-ennui and a place where arousal seems about as likely as finding true love on Tinder.

The sheer ballsiness of this, coupled with the explicit desire to create a lifestyle that's one of beachy opulence and carefully curated clubby bacchanalia, is oddly...admirable? Not in the sense that diving into an icy lake to save a dog is admirable, nor in the way that not commenting on a friend's very recent and very noticeable weight gain is, but admirable in a "this is so pigheaded and repetitious and self-unaware that it's actually insane" way.

Which actually isn't that admirable when you think about it. The CDs day is well and truly dead — and you could argue the the CD died the day Woolworths — stopped stocking the UK top 40 — so the Hed Kandi brand isn't as pervasive as it once was. What the sight of these intentionally unreal ciphers of an imagined femininity did to the minds of hundreds of thousands of teenage boys doesn't bear thinking about. You could look at them as harmless relics of a bygone age, could argue that there's nothing wrong with cartoons of sexy women plastered on the covers of really boring poolside house compilations, but to do that is to do the world a disservice. To do that is to willingly engage in and propogate the myth of the woman as the unspeaking vessel for male heterosexual desire. It's 2015. We're beyond that now, surely?

Hed Kandi then: a brand that wants to be an aspiration and ends up as nothing more than a dirty holiday wank.

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