Whence basic? It began as black slang meaning “trashy”, “low-class” or “contemptible”, and–in its full form, “basic bitch”–a woman who has these characteristics.
There is a hint of delusion about the basic bitch—she thinks she’s better than she is—but this is drowned out by general disdain. For my money, basic bitch isn’t much of a dis. It gets by on alliteration and a dash of misogyny without saying much more than “I don’t like you”. As insults go, it’s pretty basic.
As the term moved beyond its community of coinage, the notion of self-overestimation was amplified. This comes across in Kreayshawn’s indelible 2011 earworm, “Gucci Gucci”. The song is mostly about bad bitches—women who effortlessly occupy the top of the Great Chain of Sexily Insouciant Being—but they exist in contrast to basic bitches, who yearn to breathe that rarefied air but just don’t have what it takes. These bitches try to hide their basicness beneath name brands—Gucci, Gucci, Louie, Louie, Fendi, Fendi, Prada—but Kreayshawn sees right through it. Her contempt is not for luxury goods per se, but rather the idea that style can be purchased. She is a full-blooded aristocrat, peering down her nose at the arrivistes.
“Basic” mutated again when it moved from slang and pop music into the Zeitgeist at large. It became explicitly gendered but lost its connotation of trashiness. A basic bitch was now a middle class woman with cloyingly average tastes: Ugg boots, Sex and the City, and Pumpkin Spice lattes. Her delusion is that these tastes make her interesting, when in fact they are painfully trite.
It’s the Pumpkin Spice lattes that do it. Why, among all the flavors on offer at Starbucks, is Pumpkin Spice the one that brings a stereotype to life? A generation ago the punchline would have been simply “latte”, and it would have been directed against pretentious strivers in general instead of this one particular kind of of female striver who, hilariously, doesn’t even realize she’s striving. This detail is at once preposterously specific and immediately recognizable. It’s poetry.
Imagine explaining to the proverbial anthropologist from Mars—or just your grandmother—why “Pumpkin Spice” evokes a whole risible world. You can’t. Or actually, you can, if you’re willing to trundle out the postmodern heavy artillery, but the difficulty is an indication that we’re operating at a high symbolic altitude, playing a game in which the delight comes from picking up on specific cultural references. Kreayshawn’s aristocratic disdain is still in effect here. Basic joins other terms of contempt—inauthentic, uncool, consumerist—whose essence lies in their inscrutability. The trappings of basic bitchness cannot be inherently contemptible. They have to be pleasant enough to win aficionados. Otherwise no woman would want them, and there’d be no basic bitches to mock.