The word mainstream is not good. It denotes average, lowest common denominator fluff. It is Saturday night television, burping out the same-old, same-old to a generation of numbskulls who think Strictly Come Dancing amounts to a shared cultural heritage.
Mainstream is to run with the herd, bask in the reflected glories and failures of the majority. It is easy to forget that people like Gandhi and Mandela, despite being as mainstream as they come, were once considered outsiders. This coincided with their best work – what did Mandela do after single-handedly setting the course of history straight, eh? Waved his hands a few times, allowed Rory Bremner to do impressions of questionable taste and sat in lots of wicker chairs. Hardly revolutionary.
Mainstream is settling down with 2.4 children in a suburban two-up, two-down in Chipstow, with magnolia wallpaper, an avocado-coloured bathroom, a row of scented candles on the mantelpiece and the feint screams of despair emanating from every person within its walls. It entails going to work in a hire purchase car which gives your lumber region a gentle massage and sitting in meetings where you say “let’s match our synergies” without giggling.
I am happy for you to apply the word mainstream to almost anything, with all its pejorative connotations intact. Let others be mainstream while I pretend I’m special or unique and not just a meaningless cyan-coloured dot in the earth’s vast laser inkjet-printed tapestry. However, what I categorically will not accept, to the point of getting all ‘second amendment’ about it, is the phrase ‘Mainstream Tea’.
Idly standing by the deli counter, I sauntered (in my head I sauntered, in reality I probably slouched miserably, like a poorly-structured soufflé falling apart in the tin) over to the tea bar in my local cafe, hoping to quench my thirst. At the front and centre of the fancy tea selections, surrounded by the decadent haze of Blueberry, Raspberry and Blackberry flavour, the citric glory of Lemon and Ginger as well as the earthy textures of Green Tea, was ‘Mainstream Tea’.
How dare they conflate the bounteous pleasure of reclining in an ornate chair with a steaming mug of good ol’ fashioned carpet sweepings, cannily disguised in a Teflon Toblerone, with the less loquacious activities of the common man! You can’t tar me with the same brush as the vacuous parade of bed knobs and broomsticks on shit small screen entertainment. I’m drinking tea, the cornerstone of our previously great empire, the thing we are most known for around the world, each damp brown leaf causing a patriotic swelling of stature. I’m not listening to fucking Coldplay.
The phenomenon is called hipsterification. Do you want to be seen as different and one-of-a-kind? Wanna feel part of a tribe or culture that will use you then thrown you away the second you join the bandwagon because the cause has gone mainstream? Then have some bloody Cranberry and Orange infusion you confused dolt, or you’ll be typecast as another cow in a shit-strewn field, mooing its way obediently to the abattoir to be killed in cold blood by that bloke off The One Show and Dermot O’Leary.
The ‘Mainstream Tea’ (I keep putting it in inverted commas because preserving them might keep it in linguistic jeopardy, whereas full capitalisation indicates frightening reality, like Middlesbrough or Donald Trump) is even packaged ironically. Just a white background and black letters on the front. It’s almost daring you to drink it. So I ripped the sachet, added the hot water, sploshed the milk and hastily despatched the packet in a nearby bin, looking nervously over my shoulder to see whether Ant & Dec were about to pop up and start talking about the new James Bond film.
If there was one thing that I thought might be preserved from hipsterification, it would be the humble British tea. Your Tetley’s, with yer Northern lass getting all homely on the adverts, or Typhoo (which has never made me go “oooh” – what do think they’re selling, a cup of tea or an aphrodisiac?), or Yorkshire Tea, with its idyllic Northern countryside, somewhat at odds with the Indian and Sri Lankan fields where the produce was actually grown.
But no, we have ourselves hipster Mainstream Tea, parading its filthy stench about my nostrils like a bearded Shoreditch arsehole enjoying mainstream sausage and mash with mainstream gravy and mainstream peas. We used to just call it food. Or drink. And we used to enjoy it. Without the pallid disguise of an authenticity dreamt up by advertising folk with no new ideas.