On Objects: Shaun White’s Pants

I didn’t realize how much an object can project sexiness until I happened upon Shaun White’s pants. Contrary to how that might sound, the pants were in the unsexy location of a display case, in the Hard Rock–specifically, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, in 2011, which would very much like to be sexy but more comes off as cheaply luxurious, in a late 1990s way. The pants were American flag-printed denim, made famous by the instance when they were seemingly painted onto White’s body for a Rolling Stone cover that ran the month following his second gold medal win in the half-pipe, in the 2010 Olympics.  Their extreme tightness made the image of White wearing them more evocative of Mick Jagger, or at least the frontman for an 80s hair band, than a snowboarder.  While White’s flesh, chiseled in the high relief only possible for Olympic athletes, put most of the musicians that typically bare their chest on the publication to shame, the stream of lighter fluid flowing from his crotch onto a flaming snowboard was somewhat less flattering but still well-aligned with the truly reckless abandon that defines snowboarding and traditional rock and roll, alike.

I hadn’t seen all of the interviews on talk shows in the months leading up to the Olympics, about his pioneering of the double McTwist 1260, the red gash he earned on his cheek at the X-Games leading up to the Olympics while practicing it, or the interruptions in his otherwise rock star- level confidence that appeared when he awkwardly tried to respond as if he wasn’t a little bothered when show hosts continuously replayed the X-Games fall or feigned that the gash was actually a hickey. Until I experienced the pants, what I knew of White I had seen from a bar in Vancouver in 2010 –his final showdown on the half-pipe. Almost anyone can like watching the half-pipe competition because of the way it sandwiches the gymnastic-like elegance of flips and spins between the dramatically visible risk of two massive, severely edged walls of snow. White’s performance could captivate even the most casual spectator, not only since it was largely understood he would dominate the event, but because of the boundless sense of height he achieves after launching off the sides of the pipe, almost seeming to suspend time just long enough to unveil a smooth procession of choreography that always goes on longer than seems reasonable, based on what normal people know of gravity.

After doing some research in the wake of the pants encounter, I quickly learned that projecting a sense of the infinite wasn’t limited to White’s gold medal-winning tricks.  In 2010, everything about him seemed boundless. His strategy for recovering from the face-mangling fall at the X-Games was to get back to the top of the run as quickly as possible and immediately dive into the pipe again. When asked about how long he would continue to compete, he couldn’t think of a reason to stop in the forseeable future, since aging out is less of a concern for snowboarding than other Olympic sports. Comments about the unruliness of his hair simply compelled him to say he planned to grow it longer. Only really being of an age to appreciate music in the years following Kurt Cobain’s death, I missed living through the eras when musicians embodied the sense of an endless, rebellious youth that defined a major strand of sexiness in the 60s, 70s and 80s. During the highlights of those decades, being a rock star meant pouring relentless passion and masterful technique into your craft, in the sense of Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and Morrissey; this is the attractive version of reckless abandon embodied by tight pants. Now, without the outlet of actual, artistic music-making at their disposal, many of this moment’s music stars exert their rebellion in ways that are more depressing than anything else, as discussed by Lizzie Widdicombe last week, in relation to Justin Bieber’s recent dissent.  Rolling Stone got it right when they dressed Shaun White in tight, denim, flag pants in 2010; he was a rock star, in the truer spirit of a bygone time. The snowboarder’s channeling of artistry and masterful technique into an extreme sport gave this generation a glimpse at real rock and roll.

The pants came to mind again after reading Elizabeth Weil’s profile of White in the New York Times Magazine earlier this month, on the occasion of both the upcoming Olympics and the snowboarder’s newer role as lead guitarist for the band Bad Things. The takeaway from reading the article was that White, too, is now more of a brand. In the article’s photographs, he sported a business suit while atop a snowboard, he hair cropped and looking unruly-lite, in a highly styled sense. I could more easily envision this Shaun White in a meeting about a start-up with Sean Parker at a San Francisco club than performing with his band. About a week after reading the article, it was announced that White was pulling out of this year’s X-Games, in order to prepare for the Olympics. Last weekend, the documetnary Shaun White: Russia Calling aired on NBC, emphasizing mental and physical challenges, previously unfamiliar to White, that keep cropping up this time around.  While there is an underlying sense that the pressure of being a brand, with cameras and interviews and expectations constantly surrounding his practice runs, is one of the biggest complicating factors, it is difficult to read very much into the film since White was also one of its main producers.

It is understandable that Shaun White decided to grow up; infinite reckless abandon generally is not actually infinite, and most child stars rarely fare as well as he appears to be handling himself at age 27.  White also went a little overly reckless last year, in a Justin Bieber way, so this may be the best possible reaction to that incident. However, the loss resides in the possibility that if, rather than simply trying to become a functional adult, he is trading something genuine for an exercise in personal branding, as Weil’s article seems to imply. In a time when everyone seems to have a brand and someone to auto-tune their image, it’s hard not to miss the Shaun White who stared into a limitless future of snowboard-induced pleasure, wearing obscenely tight American flag pants.