The word “basic” was dead by the time Kreayshawn said it in 2011: “Gucci Gucci, Louis Louis, Fendi Fendi, Prada / Basic bitches wear that shit so I don’t even bother.” But in the word’s afterlife, “basic” has ceased to apply just to “basic bitches” and now affixes itself to all sorts of actions, objects and people. The term is so widely used to mean so many different things that the editors of Vox thought it was necessary to publish “a beginner’s guide to everyone’s favorite new insult.” However, the term is not new. It did not always mean what many people think it means today. And it is far from clear what the people who now use the word actually mean when they say it. I am not qualified to describe the word’s former meaning or tell the story of the word’s cooption by a largely white public mostly ignorant of the word’s former meaning, so I want to focus instead on the way the word is used today: as an implicit judgment of class and taste, and as a reflection of Americans’ reluctance to speak about class explicitly.

While Kreayshawn faded into internet obscurity, the term “basic bitch” refused to go away. The term moved from slang, to meme, and finally to think-pieces like the ones published by Jezebel, Vice, and, well, like this one. This past June, Jezebel published two pieces, one called “The United States of Basic Bitches: A Map and Field Guide” and the other, “The United States of Bros: A Map and Field Guide.” Though the “map and field guide” series has been helpful—how else would I know that the “Chicago Trixie Basic” can be identified by her love of David Yurman?—the Jezebel articles provide no working definition or explanation of the word. The people who use “basic” in conversation demonstrate the same tendency: ask someone what “basic” means, and they will invariably provide a description of a human being who purchases tickets to Lollapalooza, double mochaccinos, Banana Republic cardigans, boat-shoes, and North Face jackets. “Basic” is almost exclusively defined as someone who buys certain consumer goods, typically expensive (but not outlandishly so), recognizable version of ordinary objects.

The particular objects associated with the term reveal the judgments about class implicit in the term’s usage; they also reveal the socio-cultural backgrounds of those who have appropriated the word. The closest thing that approximates a definition in the Jezebel “field guides” is the charge that “basics” are infuriatingly and shamelessly ordinary. But clothes from Banana Republic and jackets from North Face are ordinary only for a particular class of people. Erin Gloria Ryan, writing for Jezebel, noted that people labeled with the term “hesitate to deviate from what’s comfortable despite the fact they can probably afford it.” Here, being “basic” refers to a lazy expression of privilege, like the way an expensive brunch is both a luxury (since you need the money to pay for it) and a sign that you weren’t motivated enough to wake up early and eat breakfast.

But while “basic” often aligns with indicators of privilege, it is distinct from indicators of high culture and the social distinction that comes with a certain kind of knowledge in cultural matters. Rachel Seville, in a Four-Pins article titled “Does Falling in Love Make You Basic,” wrote of Kanye West’s relationship with Kim Kardashian:

“Try as he might to dress her up in Givenchy and Celine, and blather as he may about what a worthy Vogue cover girl she is, Kanye knows that Kim is capital-B ‘basic,’ and if he wants to be with her, he’s got to go Basic too. Just like how sometimes you have to go to a T.G.I. Friday’s earnestly because your girlfriend likes their nachos, or how you’ll wear a totally lamezo sweater she bought you from Banana Republic.”

Implicit in Ryan and Seville’s descriptions of basicness is a hierarchy of socioeconomic status markers and a distinction between tax-bracket and taste. Kim Kardashian’s net worth is an estimated $65 million, but this was not always the case (her father was O.J. Simpson’s lawyer). Kim’s basicness comes from inability to wear those luxury labels correctly in a way that makes up for her life’s habits prior to entering into the taste-making class. She was not born into a socialite family from the get-go; she became a socialite. And that’s a crucial difference. She lacks the inherited knowledge of how to wear those luxury labels that would make her class expression seem genuine. Kanye West represents the other side of the spectrum. He makes no pretension of being born into an inherited tradition of high culture and luxury; he worked his way there, and that’s part of his narrative. He claims to be avant-garde, a creator of taste and trends, and the public recognizes and affirms his claim. Even the canonical indicators of basicness would not read as basic on Kanye West because his claims of exceptional cultural knowledge overshadows whatever socio-cultural mediocrity a sweater from Banana Republic might exemplify.

Here I’d like to make the disclaimer that all of this is fairly new to me, as a recovering crusty hippy who until arriving in Princeton bought clothes at the Burlington Coat Factory. I don’t know very much about Banana Republic other than that I once got a couple of really soft t-shirts off the clearance rack there. But what I do know is that basic, far from just being an insult, has come to encompass a set of specific judgments about class identity. A stylish person dressed tastefully but noticeably in the latest high fashion would never be called basic. There is a kind of effort displayed by keeping up with what is stylish, but mainly there’s the purely practical point that it takes a fair bit of disposable income to do so. In contrast, the hallmarks of basicness hardly seem to change. A trenta-sized frappucino will always be basic because it is an excessive indulgence in a product that is not quite a luxury.

With a few exceptions, people have not yet begun to ironically or even positively identify as “basic.” But it might be only a matter of time. Until then, the people who use “basic” in with its contemporary meaning would prefer not to be described as basic themselves. What people seem to find so unappealing, even infuriating about being basic is that it refers either to a lack of class aspiration or ambition or unsuccessful class aspirations, i.e. wanting to be “classy” but lacking the tastefulness to do so. The distinction between these two depends on which side of the socio-economic spectrum the people using the word fall. The examples of basicness that appear on sites like Jezebel are examples of unsophisticated, boring, and complacent people because the site’s readers tend to be educated and socially conscious people.

Still, the reluctance to define basic explicitly rather than through often-ambiguous class signifiers, the meanings of which depend on the reader’s own socio-cultural orientation, demonstrates a kind of reflexive anxiety about status. It is almost as if to call another person basic is to ask: “I’m not basic, am I?” It is an act of class comparison in which the actor hopes he or she lands on the preferred side of the class divide—a tentative apology for being ordinary.

Americans are famously squeamish when it comes to talking about class, preferring to believe that everyone is equal despite differences in income and wealth. This phenomenon isn’t new; there is a long American tradition of preferring to view the country as one without classes because there has never been American nobility. America is full of people, many of whom are poor and others who are very rich, who mostly identify as “middle class.” The notion of a broad middle class has impoverished the American vocabulary, giving rise to slippery terms like “upper-middle-class.” This is why Americans, uncomfortable using words like “poor” and “rich”, turn to other ways of describing, distinguishing, and defining class differences.

“Basic” was once used more than twenty years ago by the all-women R&B group Klymaxx to describe a female rival for a man’s affection. Now it’s used to denigrate the shamefully mediocre or the tasteless and gauche. But because the word does not explicitly reveal the claims about class and taste it refers to, it is symptomatic of Americans’ peculiar inability to openly discuss the reality that class matters and plays a role in the way people make judgments of cultural value. “Basic” is a cipher for a discussion about taste, class, and status that Americans are incapable of having in everyday life. And until that conversation happens, and Americans learn to discuss class identity and distinction explicitly, our understanding of the words we use to label others and the judgments they contain will, unfortunately, remain basic.

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