Machine Gun Kelly Beauty Is Here
And so too is my subsequent headache.
Surprise: Machine Gun Kelly is launching a beauty brand. It’s called UN/DN LAQR and it sells
little bottles of liquified plastic polymers nail polish. It’s available starting tomorrow, but as a pre-launch special, it’s giving me a headache today!
Longtime readers can probably guess what I’m about to say: The celebrities need to be stopped. But briefly, let’s explore why Machine Gun Kelly specifically needs to be stopped.
First of all, individualism is not dying. Thanks to American individualism, people are dying. We need collectivism, MGK!
Second of all, while things like nail polish, makeup, and hair dye are certainly valid forms of self-expression, self-expression is not a purely aesthetic thing, and at present, the market offers plenty of tools for aesthetic self-expression. Humans more urgently need expansion around the idea of self-expression — beyond physical beauty, beyond products. (After all, your self is not just your skin or your face or the slabs of keratin that sprout forth from your fingertips. Your self is your spirit, your beliefs, your values, your passions, your purpose.) More than nail polish, we need self-expression through activism, through writing, through building, through music, through painting, through nature, through play, through love, through service, through communication, through connecting with others! The fact that we’ve been collectively and culturally conditioned to associate “self-expression” with the buying and applying of beauty products is diminishing our ability to actually exercise expression, I’d argue. We’re out here wearing purple lipstick and patterned nail polish, convinced we’re leaving our marks on the world — meanwhile, the world is melting, flooding, catching fire. The ocean is overflowing with exfoliating microbeads. The forests are felled for palm oil. The air is polluted with plastic particles. The people are suffering. The economy is thriving. What kind of mark are we leaving?
Of course, there are approximately one million caveats here. Aesthetic self-expression is an inherent human longing. It’s important. It’s fulfilling. It can be joyful. It can be political. It can create change. Also, one can simultaneously enjoy surface-level beauty and explore the self more deeply. But just because these things can be true does not mean these are the primary ways in which tools of beauty are currently being used. Today, the primary uses of beauty products are consumerism, conformity, and complacency. And by insisting that the above caveats be included in every critique of beauty culture — so as not to offend anyone, so as to protect the sacredness of our 10-step skincare routines! — we allow that consumerism, conformity, and complacency to flourish. We have to critique these tools precisely to preserve their power. Without critique, their worst and most widespread applications go unchecked.
And anyway, Machine Gun Kelly doesn’t really see nail polish as a portal to empowerment. He admits his fingertips are more ad space than art.
Speaking to Allure about his eye-catching and click-driving nail designs, the musician said, “I was like the longer [the nail] is, the louder the opinions are going to be, so make it as long as you possibly can, and throw some chains on it to make it even more clanky. I was doing it to make ‘his nails’ a constant headline knowing that we had UN/DN coming out, knowing that we had a product that revolved around what the headlines kept pointing out about me. This is something that you associate with me subconsciously because whether you hate it or love it, for about a year and a half or two years, it's been ‘MGK’s nails.’” (Emphasis mine.)
This is not self-expression! Folks, this is a marketing stunt. As Allure mentions, “It's unusual, even novel to hear him pull back the curtain on his publicity strategy.”
The Business of Fashion announcement additionally mentions that UN/DN wants to challenge gender norms in the nail care space. That is a very worthy and necessary cause. There are two things for MGK to note here, though:
Many existing cosmetic companies also address this cause, and if it’s truly something that’s near and dear to Machine Gun Kelly’s heart, the most effective and sustainable way to support this cause would be to offer advice, infrastructure, investment, or an audience to an already-established brand (especially considering the fact that, as with most beauty products, it is not the material item but the immaterial marketing that is gendered and requires re-tooling).
Societal beauty standards reflect the society that produces them. It’s well and good to promote gender equality through beauty products… but the standard of beauty can only truly and fundamentally change if society changes. (Think about it this way: Until Black Americans are not three and a half times more likely to die from police violence than white Americans, whiteness will continue to be the beauty ideal. Until our value is no longer measured by our economic optimization and productivity, perfection will continue to be the beauty ideal.) Machine Gun Kelly could do more meaningful work in terms of breaking the gender binary by partnering with an organization that advocates for political, social, financial, and economic equality of all genders.
As consumers, we have to get it out of our heads that celebrity beauty brands exist to challenge gender norms, or to expand beauty standards, or to support mental health, or to save the planet. (Although those, again, are all worthy and necessary causes that should and must be championed without a capitalist product tie-in!! Please read more about that here.)
They exist for one reason: Because celebrities make money off them.
I’d have less of a headache if MGK just said that instead of trotting out a trite line about “individualism.”
*EDIT: As I cited and linked, the MGK quote about “individualism” and “self-expression” is sourced from Rachel Strugatz’s reporting for Business of Fashion. Her article provides an excellent overview of the culture of celebrity beauty brands that surely influenced the launch of UN/DN, as well as commentary on how MGK’s highly-publicized relationship with Megan Fox fuels the beauty brand buzz. As I mention in the paragraph directly preceding that quote, of course MGK’s brand fits into the wider trend of celebrity beauty. I’ve already written about this phenomenon at length for this newsletter here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, and for Fashionista.com in 2019 here — which is why I did not feel the need to include further commentary on that aspect of the story from the BoF article (or from my own previous reporting on the subject, for that matter). I do not mean to “gloss over” this aspect or create an alternative “narrative” — I simply think this aspect has been tread to death, so much so that it’s implied in any coverage of celebrity beauty. We all know they’re launching brands en masse. Instead, with this particular piece, I wanted to focus in on MGK and UN/DN and search for larger takeaways that I hadn’t covered in my previous analysis of other celebrity beauty brands. “Self-expression” was an area of concentration only because MGK himself cited “self-expression” as a motivation for the brand launch. Naturally, this critique applies to other beauty brands and beauty products that utilize this marketing term, too, which I imagine is obvious. In no way are the quotes from Business of Fashion or Allure meant to critique these publications and their coverage of UN/DN LAQR — and actually, the narrative of the former significantly overlaps with the narrative of this piece, both concluding that celebrity beauty brands are primarily cash-grabs — rather, they are meant to critique Machine Gun Kelly and UN/DN LAQR! That should be very clear. All quotes and mentions pulled from these publications merely function as sources for my own individual analysis on the topic. As with any linked article, clicking through to the original source — which I hope you do! — will provide more information and context.