Is Bling Still King?

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

I've been wondering about the future of urban car culture for some time. How can its adherents sustain interest in an automotive genre based almost entirely on big wheels, retrofitted TV's, new upholstery and presidential window tint? Extreme examples are still eye magnets, but they're beginning to seem a bit… limited. Sure, car nuts of all stripes are capable of endlessly obsessing over the smallest details– body colored engine braces, taillight covers, tire treads, miniscule horsepower upgrades, etc. But there's only so much you can do to make a car look like a pimpmobile. In general, and in specific, it's been done.

There are unmistakable signs that the urban car culture is weakening. Scan the formerly blingtastic celebrity car mags and you'll find that a lot of famous faces are leaving their supercars well enough alone. Whether this restraint reflects the celebs' assimilation into America's conservative elite, or a simple case of depreciation appreciation, it deprives street car culture of some its most distinguished proponents. As a celebrity-fuelled movement– unlike ground-up car cults like the Japanese tuner scene– the gangsta look loses momentum every time a Foxy Brown poses next to a stock Lamborghini or Bentley.

You can also clock the flagging interest in bling mods on TV. Funkmaster Flex once earned his living by creating extravagant wheel, ICE and fabric alterations for celebrities' contemporary SUV's. These days, his crew applies much of their transformative powers to older American metal, lightening the color palate away from ghetto-fabulous black, delving into the mechanical minutia and leaving the Playstation in the playroom. Some of the finished machines wouldn't look out of place at a muscle car concours.

MTV's "Pimp My Ride" has also abandoned hard core gangsta chic. A recent edition transformed an old VW bus into a clean, contemporary-looking surfer's wet dream. Considering the number of blingless gizmo grafts– built-in pool tables, pop-up signs, toasters, etc. — the producers could justifiably change the show's name to "Sharper Image my Ride". Urban car culture simply couldn't offer a large enough palate for TV's insatiable maw.

Music videos also reflect the fact that the spinner culture has spun out. The big guns have moved on; Rapper 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" features a stock Saleen S7. Granted, the soft core promotion showed the half-dollar dude sleeping in a black-hole-black 645Ci with wafer thin tires and aftermarket wheels, but it wasn't his dream ride. In any case, music videos now showcase exotic whips that were born wild, rather than made that way.

DUB is the exception that proves the rule. The magazine still soldiers away, resolutely Old School, preaching the gospel of mesh grills, suede headliners and 22" wheels (double Dubs). And why not? Bling's the thing that makes their cash register ring. The company is busy reaping the financial rewards of bringing branded black automotive culture to the, dare I say it, white masses. Predictable as it is in every detail, the DUB Edition™ Dodge Charger RT will be a sure-fire hit amongst mainstreamers, who trust the "experts'" taste and prefer fully warranted, turnkey bling.

Of course, OEM success is a sure sign that bling is a dead trend stunting. What good is looking like a gangsta if the yuppie next to you looks like one too? Lest we forget, automakers from Chrysler (300C, Charger) to Mercedes (CLS500) to GM (HHR) are selling more and more cars with built-in bling. The wilder the design, the greater the degree of pre-existing product "individuality", the lesser the need for ANY modification, urban or otherwise. It would be hard to imagine a DUB edition Chevrolet SSR.

Like the rest of the blingmeisters, DUB ain't dumb. They know their days are numbered. Hence, there's a subtle shift in the company's emphasis. The DUB edition Chrysler 300C package includes a sports exhaust and a power-boosting chromed air intake. Like the rest of the urban car culture, the magazine is searching for a way to take the bling ethos in a new direction.

Mind you, it's highly unlikely that performance is the new black. Despite the urban car culture's predilection for Ferraris, Lamborghinis, AMG Mercs and other high velocity metal, driving the cars fast is entirely beside the point. It's all about slow-speed status projection, or, to use the old-fashioned term, cruising. Which leaves the scene with… what? BIGGER wheels? MORE mini-TV's? Diamond-encrusted steering wheels? Sterling silver speedometers?

Well, yes. In the long run, urban car culture will either gradually disappear into the wider car scene, as the mainstream audience loses interest, or mutate into something new and extravagant. My money is on the latter. Now that minority buyers have found an automotive design language of their own, it's only a matter of time before they re-invent and re-invigorate it. The sheer bravado of bling, its irresistible energy, can not, WILL not be denied.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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