Oh, Hot Topic. Ye of the tattooed and lip-pierced employees, of the Happy Bunny stickers, the extensive selection of glitter-emblem baby tees, and the S&M–lite gag gifts for teens. A space where shoegazer, Juggalo, goth, Dashboard Confessional emo-kid, and occasional creepy old band guy alike could come to mingle and mix and revel in their outsider status at the mall. Whence misunderstood kids (backpacks full of clothing and Taking Back Sunday band merch) could return to their suburban prisons high on the heady scent of pleather, cheap incense, and food-court honey-bourbon chicken, secure in the knowledge that they were different from the sheeple flocking to Gap and Limited Too.
As we get older, though, and pack away the glittery, flame-patterned uniform of yore, a niggling worry persists: Perhaps Hot Topic was not a salon for free-thinking rebels and budding iconoclasts, but a vaguely goth version of Spencer’s Gifts? Did we go there because we bore the sacred mark of the Other, or because Gap was too far away from the Orange Julius and didn’t have the same liberal embrace of loitering? Think about it. The truth hurts as much as an accidental puncture wound from a spiky choker.
Fortunately, Noisey just published an essay by Zeena Koda, a former Hot Topic employee who worked there during the store’s boom time, and it confirms our most earnest teen beliefs. Despite the fact that she kind of sounds like your adult friend who still discusses summer camp with a disturbing fondness and frequency, she insists that Hot Topic was cool, guys, just as cool as our 15-year-old minds wanted — nay, needed — it to be.
Hot Topic attracted real music fans. Koda, herself the front woman of a “local heavy band,” writes of the frequent appearance of Juggalo teens. This is questionable evidence, but there are few fans who follow bands as loyally as a Juggalo follows Insane Clown Posse. The store was also a magnet for tortured people with “complex issues,” which is why they had to listen to a lot of Taking Back Sunday and stuff:
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.
Other mall patrons called them “freaks,” but they didn’t care, because in their hearts, they knew Hot Topic was really, truly punk as fuck.