On the Predominance of Cupcakes as a Cultural Form

July 24th, 2012 § 79 comments

Crimson Velveteen CupcakesOne cannot help but observe the predominance of cupcakes in modern America. Why the cupcake, and why now, at this particular historical moment?

What the fuck is up with all the cupcakes?

Within five minutes of my home there are two bakeries specializing in cupcakes. Two bakeries two hundred yards from each other. They sell cupcakes, and that’s about it. Cupcakes.

Go to a kid’s birthday party and if you survive the bowling or the bouncy castle or the laser tag with the mewling mess of Other People’s Children shouting and screaming, you and your kid will be rewarded with a cupcake. No cake, maybe not even any candles. Cupcakes, that’s it.

Theoretically they come frosted or plain, but plain is such an outright disappointment to everyone, it’s almost embarrassing, so frosted it is. Topped with swirling piles of sugar and fat, the cupcakes come bearing equally saccharine names like Red Velvet Elvis and Cloud 9 and, no shitting you, Blueberry Bikini Buster.

My friends, my very smart friends in academia who study the latest trends in culture and technology, I have a question. You can talk about the spatial turn and the computational turn all you want, but can someone fucking explain the cupcake turn to me?

I have my own theory, and it goes like this: cupcakes match—and attempt to assuage—our cultural anxieties of the moment.

Cupcakes are models of…

AUSTERITY

It’s not a whole cake. It’s a miniature cake. A cake in a fucking cup. A cupcake is a model of modesty. And it’s the best kind of modesty, because it paradoxically suggests extravagance. Cupcakes are rich. And expensive. You could buy two dozen Twinkies for the price of a single caramel apple spice gourmet cupcake.

SERIALITY

By the very nature of their production, cupcakes are made in multiples. A 3×3 tray of 9 cupcakes or 4×4 tray of 16 cupcakes, it doesn’t matter. Cupcakes are serial cakes. Mass produced but conveying a sense of homestyle goodness. Cupcakes are the perfect homeopathic antidote for the industrially-produced food we mostly consume. Fordism never tasted so sickly sweet.

ARTISTRY

On the surface, gourmet cupcakes are artisanal desserts. For all their seriality, cupcakes still contain minute variations in flavor and toppings. Yet underneath, the base model remains the same. Cupcakes embody the postmodern ideal of the manufactured good that has been injected with artificial difference, in order to conjure a sense of individuality. Cupcakes are indie desserts. And like hipsters, cupcakes are pretty much all the same. Cupcake sprinkles and hipster scarves serve the same purpose, turning the plainly ordinary into the veiled ordinary.

HYBRIDITY

Ontologically speaking, just what the hell are cupcakes anyway? A cupcake’s not really a cake. A distant cousin to the muffin, maybe. Is it a pastry for the 21st century United States, a kind of American croissant, full of gooey American exceptionalism? The cupcake itself doesn’t even know what it is. It’s a hybrid form, a Frankencaken. But in a culture frightened by change, blurred borders, and boundary crossings, the cupcake makes all those scary things palatable. As long as it comes in little accordion-pleated paper cup.

Austerity, seriality, artistry, hybridity, that’s what cupcakes are all about. The perfect food for our post-industrial, indie vibe Great Recession. Enjoy them while they last.

Crimson Velveteen photograph courtesy of Flickr user Gina Guillotine / Creative Commons Licensed

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