On the evening of Sunday 7 June, an easyJet flight from Bodrum, Turkey landing at Luton airport was met by police who escorted passenger Kate Moss from the plane for disruptive behaviour. The internet discussed little else for days, for this was a story with many talking points.
Kate Moss flies easyJet, for a start. Kate Moss carries vodka in her handbag (allegedly). And controversy: was Moss throwing her weight around on the flight, demanding attention from the crew because of her celebrity? Or did easyJet throw the rulebook at Moss because she was a woman in the public eye who had had a few drinks?
But all of the above was just fish-and-chip paper, a moment of celebrity misconduct destined to be just a footnote under Ben Affleck and Gavin Rossdale. The detail of this story that changed the course of 2015 was the insult Moss lobbed at the pilot as she was escorted from the plane. She called her a “basic bitch”, and overnight a cult, hitherto underground term of abuse hit the mainstream.
You know what it means to call someone “basic”, right? You are basic if you pride yourself on possessions or preferences that you consider to be cool or aspirational, but which are in fact commonplace or obvious. Being basic is liking what it is typical to like.
Drinking pumpkin spice latte, for instance, is basic, as is instagramming your brunch or tweeting about the arrival of Pret’s Christmas sandwich. Duckface in photos is basic. Inspirational quotes on social media are basic. The hashtag #AboutLastNight is basic. Right now, being “obsessed” with your beauty advent calendar is basic. (Come to think of it, hashtags per se and being “obsessed” with anything are basic.) Basic is following trends and thinking that this makes you special, when to those who police pop culture you are eye-rollingly predictable. What the rise of basic as an insult tells us about 2015 is how labyrinthine the rulebook of cultural engagement has become. A few years ago, you could put down someone who wasn’t quite keeping up with the trends by calling them “naff”, which essentially meant they were six months behind. The trouble is, now that social media provides a rolling ticker-tape news-feed of what’s in and what’s out, no one is six months behind any more. You don’t need to hang out with the cool kids to know what’s up; it’s all on Instagram. So basic is a put-down aimed at those who imagine that being on-trend makes them cool. It is an insult that skewers something about the way social media turned nasty this year, because there is something very snobbish about mocking people for conformity, about an elite laughing at less sophisticated folk who trustingly follow style rules and think this will be good enough.
It’s tricky to pinpoint the birth of basic, because the word as an insult is simply an exaggeration of what the word basic means in the vernacular. Sylvia Plath uses basic as a scathing term for social behaviour in her Unabridged Journals, in 1950: recalling an attempt to make conversation in a fraternity room, she writes: “You’ve had all you can take of good-looking vacuums and shallow socialites. So you try to be basic.”
In the 1989 film Say Anything, Diane (Ione Skye) knocks back Lloyd (John Cusack) by calling him basic. In Clueless, Cher Horowitz mocks a group of rival peers in the mall with the cuss “Could they please be more generic?” – for generic in 1995, read basic in 2015.
But basic as a pejorative adjective for women really happened around 2010, with Lil Wayne’s I’m Not a Human Being – verbatim quotes not breakfast-table appropriate, but essentially his point is that he drives around in cars and gets a lot of blowjobs, and therefore is not basic, and Kreayshawn’s 2010 single Gucci Gucci. (“Gucci Gucci, Louis Louis, Fendi Fendi, Prada; the basic bitches wear that shit; so I don’t even bother.”)
The key question at the end of 2015, of course, is whether basic is still a thing. A nascent movement to reclaim the word never quite took off, essentially because being truly basic is incompatible with that level of nuance. For all its dubiousness, it can still be funny, in a deeply childish way. (See: Marc Jacobs and Kate Moss reenacting a classic basic bitch meme in a video where they stage whisper the accusation that we, the public, are basic).
Basic is nasty when it is used as a put-down to women who dare to think themselves special (“27 signs you’re dating a basic bitch”); but can still be pretty satisfying as a way to call out a man who is pleased with himself for no obvious reason. Oh, and a teen calling his mum out as basic for “drinking Starbucks in the car and singing along to Hotline Bling”? Lol.