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FOOD AND DRINK

4 MIN

A Brief History of Faygo, Detroit’s Iconic Pop

Fuelled by nostalgia and a yen for Redpop, our writer explains why for Detroit and Windsor locals – not to mention some subculture groups – Faygo is much more than just a soda.

If you’re a kid who grew up in Windsor or Detroit, you remember very well the first sound financial decision you ever made: buying Faygo. Back in the ’90s, it cost ninety-nine cents for three radioactive litres, meaning it was literally a whole extra litre of pop for a whole dollar less than the premium brands. And figuring that out made you feel as though real life wasn’t gonna be so hard, because look how easy it is to make smart decisions.

Of course as you get older, there are a million reasons to stop drinking Faygo: things that stain your mouth become less appealing; you learn that sugar is bad for you, and though maybe you don’t actually care about that, you realize that it looks good to at least pretend; at some point you were told that proper human adults are supposed to be drinking some outrageous amount of water per day, which left you almost no time for pop treats. And just like that Faygo drifted out of your life.

Then one day, years and years after you first discovered it, you suddenly have a craving for Redpop so bad it’s making your fillings tingle. But you’ve wandered too far north of the border, where safety standards for human consumption are too high to allow for flavours like Redpop, or Moon Mist or Rock & Rye. Hopefully it’s just your pesky nostalgia acting up and a quick look at an ice-cold glass of glowstick liquid will settle your mostly metal molars. But when you type Faygo into Google, you quickly discover that Faygo as you knew it no longer exists. Instead you find what seems like a very different drink, a high-falutin,’ fixie bike-ridin,’ shoplocal hashtaggin’ drink. There are recipes for banana bread on this Faygo’s Twitter page. There are Faygo scented candles and a Faygo mimosa, recommended for those looking to “up their brunch game.” Brunch. Faygo. Brunch. Faygo. Your brain nearly short circuits. When did Faygo change? Why did Faygo change? If I pay for a bottle of Faygo with a five-dollar bill, will I get any change?

Courtesy Faygo

Faygo has been manufacturing affordable pop in Detroit for 109 years, since 1907 to be exact. That’s when Ben and Perry Feigenson, bakers and brothers, emigrated from Russia, and decided to develop sodas based on their icing flavours. They’d use what was then a new and exciting type of twist-off bottlecap, one that made a pop sound when you opened it, and in a brilliant marketing move they called their carbonated beverage pop instead of soda. This altered the linguistic landscape of almost the entire Midwest forever and effectively created a regional signifier that people from that area could bond over no matter where they were in the world. Faygo’s tooth-achingly sweet ads over the years often emphasized this sense of community, empowering Detroit by being a fixture at Tigers’ games and using city landmarks – like the Boblo Boat – in their commercials, always reflecting an image of the city that those who lived there believed it could be.

Along the way, however, another factor contributed to the trajectory of the Faygo brand: Juggalos. For the uninitiated, Juggalos (and Juggalettes) are mega-fans of the Insane Clown Posse (also known as ICP), a pair of super theatrical rappers who paint their faces and recite some of the most violent and depraved lyrics imaginable in a kind of performative transgressiveness that speaks to those who feel alienated from the mainstream, specifically those alienated due to extreme poverty. Violent J, one of the front men of the group describes their ideology as “making it look cool to have nothing,” which, though actually an admirable effort when you consider the predominant media message (that is, that it’s gross to be poor and cool to be rich), would be a nightmarish endorsement for a family-friendly brand like Faygo.

But that’s exactly what happened. Faygo, being cheap, delicious, and from Detroit was the perfect symbol for celebrating poverty, and thus became the Juggalo’s holy water. The band goes through 350 2-litres a night when they’re touring, baptizing the audience in a now legendary, “Faygo shower.” The drink and its many flavours have been incorporated into tons of lyrics, and at the annual Gathering of the Juggalos, a three-day horrorcore music festival, it’s blasphemous to be seen without a 2-litre in hand. Because of ICP, Faygo went from a quaint, mostly regional product, to being famous around the world.

Courtesy Faygo

A postcard from a series honouring the brand's evolution:"Through the thirties and into the Second World War, Faygo continued to perfect its Pop, adding new flavors, new bottles, the now famous “shield” emblem, and a refined Root Beer formula."

With this in mind it’s not hard to see why, at first, this newfangled, fancy Faygo image almost reads as a reaction to ICP’s co-opting of the brand. But you’re not sure how to feel about it, this Faygo that brunches and partners up with local, indie bike manufacturers to create Faygo-coloured cruisers. You don’t believe that Faygo is trying to distance itself from those kids who bought their Redpop with carefully counted couch coins; the underprivileged, ICP-type Detroit youth that, for better or worse has been Faygo’s most loyal demographic. Because you know in your hearts of hearts Faygo would never do that. You’re relieved to discover that Faygo is still cheap. Not 3-litres for a dollar cheap, but relatively inexpensive compared to the premium brands, meaning still more accessible to those couch coin kids.

And you realize that the company, born, bred and still manufactured in Detroit, is simply doing what they’ve always done: mirroring the best possible image of their city. This new marketing isn’t high-falutin’, it’s hopeful. It’s presenting a Detroit that’s young, creative, energetic, maybe even inclined to brunch sometimes. It’s doing exactly what over 100 years in Detroit will teach you to do, that is, “to make it look cool to have nothing.”

Published Friday, December 9th 2016

Header image credit: A Faygo mural that was discovered after a neighbouring building was demolished in Downtown Detroit/Lou Peeples

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