Commodifying Rebellion: Thirty Years of Punk and Media Dialectics.
Commodifying Rebellion: Thirty Years of Punk and Media Dialectics is a system engineered to spawn critical views on an intellectualised history of contemporary youth rebellion and its commodification. The focus of my research is the dialectics between the ‘rebellious’ signifying practices of the youth subcultural movement of punk, mainly in Britain, but also in the USA, from its official inception in 1976 to the present, and the workings of the media machine, with an emphasis on advertising and branding. This is not a musical study. It is an attempt to investigate the formation of modern youth identity.
The research is based on a number of primary and secondary sources, cultural studies and media theory, interviews with punk producers, fanzines and lifestyle and culture publications.
Everything and everyone can be a possible source of inspiration. Certain events can draw us to concentrate on such sources in various ways. All are worth experiencing. We go through life and we might be fortunate enough to sense such sources, and that for me is the real success. Everything else is just play. What matters is not the final result; it is what you have learned along the way. I want to thank my dad, the most gifted man I know, for having given me the chance to get to where I am now, and to play with my intellect. I want to thank my best friend Walter for growing up and playing along with me, trying to become the finest that we can possibly be. The warmest thanks of all go to my absolutely beautiful sister Sara, without whose support I would have lost myself many times along the way, and for convincing me that as hard as it might be, I am never playing alone. Ultimately, I want to thank individuality, the real catalyst of sensing. In days like this, when the sun shines, the music plays and I am with myself, in this huge city, feeling the blood rush through my veins… making me want to play.
The idea for this dissertation came from an interest that I have always had in mediated youth cultural activity, in the formation of generational youth identity, in the ‘power’ of advertising and of its parallel development – branding – to shape who we, as youth, are.
I remember a sentence that I used to hear all the time in my teenage years: “The youth today are not like we were in the …” – the what? Interchangeable: some would say ‘40s, ‘50s, all the way down to the ‘70s. I used to take that as an affront: did that mean we were incapable of fighting for something, simply because we were growing up in the present? Was there some kind of ontological determinism that the present should always be less worth living than the past? That we had nothing left to fight for? Or that mainstream culture has brainwashed us so much already that we cannot even see our and society’s problems unless a TV screen tells us?
The ‘rebellious’ or ‘alternative’ youth I saw on TV or in movies was rarely portrayed as ‘productive’, but rather as relatively socially problematic. Now I realise that I had overlooked the fact that it was all mediated. I was always fascinated by the way language is made to produce qualitative labels that right away categorise everything: why, for instance, the prefix ‘sub’ when talking of these satellite (as I would call rather them) cultures? Norman Mailer said in 1957: ‘We are obliged to meet the tempo of the present and the future with reflexes and rhythms which come from the past; the inefficient and often antiquated nervous circuits of the past strangle our potentiality for responding to new possibilities’ (Eshun: 1999, 71). I decided to negotiate between these circuits and possibilities.
The subject of the study is therefore the dialectics between the developments of the youth subculture of punk and mediated society at large. I will focus on the developments of punk from 1976 through to today, mainly in Britain but with references to American punk. Why Punk? Firstly, because from the very beginning punk was the most extreme form of youth rebellion. Through a series of signifying practices, against the dominant culture and at a specific time in history, ‘punk style contained distorted reflections of all the major post-war subcultures’ (Hebdige: 1979, 26). The second reason I chose to examine punk is that more or less everything that came next was influenced by it. My aim will be to investigate the commodification of the punk subculture, and therefore the relative descent of punk in its ‘original’ motives. As I will argue, such ‘process of recuperation’ and incorporation has become easier throughout the years because of increased global media power.
My core thesis is that just as identity is a flow, so is punk as a subculture, and that any talk of it cannot be detached from the influence of the media. I will demonstrate that after its alleged death in 1979 punk went two ways: one branch of it abandoned a great deal of the punk’s emphasis on style to focus on political action, while another branch developed into a brand and entered the realm of the mainstream. This two-way split is something that is missing in many theoretical and cultural accounts of punk. Consequently, I will argue that advertising and the media, due to the 1980s boom and global mergers, are now developing new strategies of advertising through the incorporation of rebellion, by means of a specific use of urban space in ‘youth areas’ of large cities.
Chapter One examines the fundamental issue of modern identity through an overview of my own selection and interpretation of aspects of the history of the 20th century that I feel are most useful to introduce the general cultural atmosphere of the period we will be looking at. In this chapter I will also discuss the birth of the ideas of youth culture and subculture, rebellion and authenticity.
Chapter Two presents my research methodology. I will discuss my theoretical approach and the usefulness of some specific texts, the contradictions amongst some sources, and the importance of first-hand accounts.
In Chapter Three I will illustrate the developments of my case study, punk, from 1976 to today. I will highlight those factors that are most pertinent to my discussion of the dialectics between punk and the mainstream media. For the purpose of my research, I have divided the movement into two main chronological categories: ‘Punk Then’, from 1976 to the late-‘70s, and ‘Punk Today’, from early-‘80s to the present.
Chapter Four is the core chapter of my research, and it is here that the punk/youth/mainstream skein will be unravelled. I will attempt to define the meaning of ‘mainstream’ and will analyse the role of advertising in the landscape of youth and media cultural activity. My argument is centred on four theses:
1. ‘Punk Then’ was a signifying vehicle for youth rebellion from the 1960s and early 1970s, the catalyst of a set of alternative (by which I mean non-dominant at large) ‘structures of feelings’ that were already present in society.
2. In Britain, Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood and their entourage, educated in art schools and aware of the theoretical and cultural issues of the time, were the puppeteers of this movement and its popular definition. Through an emphasis on style they were able to create one of the first and most enduring ‘alternative youth brands’.
3. Punk did not die in 1979, as some argue. As the ‘spirit of an age’, a ‘structure of feeling’ that integrated a sense of rebellion already present in society, it simply evolved. It progressed sociologically by splitting in two branches – one that kept a focus on style and entered the realm of the mainstream cultural production, and one that abandoned the more ‘Shock! Horror!’ aspects of style and became more politicised in the way we would talk of political activism today.
4. The branch of punk that gave in to major record labels and whose rebellion materialised in the work of lifestyle wholesalers has been institutionalised, but since then the media industry, and more specifically advertising, have commodified its sense of rebellion and matched its anti-corporatism in newly developing market strategies of the ‘cool’ that include a use of youth urban space where the production process is masked amongst the imagery.
In the conclusion I will offer a synthesis of my arguments and findings and provide some ideas for further research. Finally, and probably most importantly, my intent is to avoid making generalising statements about punk and youth subcultural expression, which are too often found in this kind of analysis. I will also try to avoid categorising cultural identity formations into simplistic and over-intellectualised statements that tend to neglect the diversity and complexity of the process of production and consumption of such expression.
CHAPTER ONE: CRITICAL LITERATURE REVIEW
‘THE ATMOSPHERE’: CONTEXTUALISING 20TH CENTURY IDENTITY THROUGH REBELLIOUS EXPRESSIONS.
Philosophy For The System.
Imagine a man, who as here has laid his ear as it were on the heart chamber of the world-will, who feels the mad desire for existence flow outwards into all the veins of the world in the form of a thundering torrent or of the gentlest spraying brook, should such a man not suddenly shatter into pieces?
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy
And who are you, said he?
Don’t puzzle me, said I.
-Laurence Sterne, Tristam Shandy
Most theorists of modernity agree on the centrality of the ‘self’ in the construction of modern identity. There are infinite answers to the question “what is identity”, an ascertainment that already portrays the irreducibility of the concept (Hall and du Gay: 1996).
Roy Porter claims that Renaissance Italy was the birthplace of the self-fashioning individual, ‘the time and place when mankind – by which was implicitly meant literate, gifted, elite males – began to liberate itself from the chains of custom, conformity and the Church, taking a fearless leap forward into self-discovery and self-fulfilment’ (Porter: 1997, 3).
Enlightenment thinkers shifted the focus on Man as a separate entity from God. Diderot already had put forward the idea that there are two men in each of us: the artificial one (reflecting and acting in society) and the violent and dark one, the “genius”.
Distancing itself from the Enlightenment, Romanticism re-lives the sublime as a troubled, yet fascinating, full-on sensation of nature and humanity. As Porter explains, this was matched by the idealisation of the outsider’s journey of self-discovery (Porter: 1997). Such focus on the ‘outsider’ provides us with an important link to punk. Indeed, Romanticism at large constitutes one of the best tools to explain subcultural expressions. Neil Stevenson, for example, takes Isaiah Berlin’s (1965) description of Romanticism and substitutes the word Romanticism with punk:
Romanticism is the primitive, the untutored, it is youth, life,… but it is also pallor, fever, disease, decadence,… the Dance of Death, indeed Death itself… It is the confused teeming fullness and richness of life,… turbulence, violence, conflict, chaos, but it is also peace… It is the strange, the exotic, the grotesque,… the irrational, the unutterable… (Stevenson: 1999, 18)
Romanticism symbolises a moment in history when artists shouted out their freedom, and from now on ‘all attempts to set up an authoritarian culture meet with invincible resistance’ (Hauser: 1951, 148), the central leit motiv of punk.
In the late 1800s, Nietzsche’s analysis of contemporary society constituted a fundamental philosophical turn. Nietzsche’s main concepts are those of the Death of God, nihilism and the need to accept the two ‘forces’ of life, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. We must go beyond such forces to appreciate fully the core of our ‘identity’, which swings between creative destruction and destructive creation. In order to implement modern projects, we need to creatively destroy something from the past to create once more out of such destruction.
More drastic and pessimistic is Weber, who sees humanity trapped in an iron cage, unable to liberate itself. According to him, his ‘contemporaries are nothing but “specialists without spirit, sensualists without art; and this nullity is caught in the delusion that it has achieved a level of development never before attained by mankind.” Thus, not only is modern society a cage, but all the people in it are shaped by its bars; we are beings without spirit, without heart, without sexual or personal identity […] – we might almost say without being’ (Berman: 1982, 27).
The issue of artistic production in the contemporary world is problematised by Walter Benjamin. In his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin introduces the concept of ‘aura’ in order to discuss art’s decay in contemporary times. He comes to the conclusion that in the age of mechanical reproduction of works of art, ‘the greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticised with aversion’ (Benjamin: 1999/1936: 227). This view is taken up by Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School. In The Culture Industry, Adorno talks of a culture production structure that holds growing similarity to a Fordist system, with that of a ‘mass audience’ becoming the central concept.
A similar scepticism is put forward by Marcuse who, in his major work, One-Dimensional Man (1964), claims that technological rationality is creating a homogenously controlled totalitarian environment where ‘the repression of all values, aspirations and ideas which cannot be defined in terms of the operations and attitudes validated by the prevailing forms of rationality. The consequence is the weakening or even disappearing of all genuinely radical critique, the integration of all opposition in the established system’ (Marcuse: 1964, xii). In a way that remind us of Foucault’s all-encompassing view on power, Marcuse here makes some very valid points. However, while One-Dimensional Man has some great provocative power, I believe it has too much of a totalising view of the alleged totalitarian administration society it describes. It tends to forget that there are people who, like himself, are aware of such system, and that can work to at least try to change it. Arguably, punk will be one of such counteractive manifestations. In fact, change does not necessarily have to come from political or economic sources – it can come from various facets of the spirit of an age, from forgotten philosophies or from new ones, from lines of thoughts far away from ours. Marcuse tends to be too drastic on the role of technology, therefore a priori denying any opportunity of success for all those groups who, like in 1968, tried to bring about change.
All of these philosophical investigations are mirrored in the 20th century rise of avant-garde movements like Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, all an ‘attempt to instil youthfulness into an ancient world’ (Ortega y Gasset: 1956, 47). As David Harvey suggests, ‘certain avant-gardes – Dadaists, early surrealists – tried to mobilize their aesthetic capacities to revolutionary ends by fusing their art into popular culture’ (Harvey: 1990, 22). The Dadaist anti-art discourse was marked by an overwhelming conviction in the alienating artificiality of society. The punters of the Cabaret Voltaire sustained rebellion on all levels, leading eventually to subversion.
On a similar note, Lettrists first and Situationists later took up those same paradigms and formulated their critique on the acknowledgement that society was becoming pure spectacle, an overall framework that went beyond its mere ‘visual’ acceptation. The Situationists, whether rightly or wrongly, are seen as having played the role of the precursor in the protests and student movements of 1968. As early as 1957, Guy Debord, one of the leaders of the Situationists, developed the idea of libertarian hostility to all forms of state authority, a concept that will be dear to the punk movement in the late 1970s. He argued that we live in a societé du spectacle, where all human experience is mediated through images.
In the late 1960s conditions were therefore ripe for all those who felt they had something to say to gather in protest against patriarchal institutions, spreading consumerism and the commodification of culture. The student and workers revolts of 1968 represent a turning point in the activities and perceptions of the youth.
Foucault identified the events of 1968 as explanatory of his theory of power and resistance. His theory is at the basis of my argument that 1) no rebellious cultural activity can be analysed as or expected to be separate from the structure within which it takes place; and 2) increasing global media power plays a fundamental role in such structure.
Where there is power there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power. […] Hence there is no single locus of Great refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case: resistances that are possible, necessary, improbable; others that are spontaneous, savage, solitary, concerted, rampant or violent; by definition, they can only exist in the strategic field of power relations (Foucault: 1976, 96).
The politicisation of art opened up a whole series of animated discussions that would eventually lead to a re-evaluation of the aesthetic (and elitist) notion of the superiority of an alleged ‘high art’ as opposed to ‘low art’. More specifically, pop/rock music became a means of expression appropriated by the revolutionaries of 1968. Today, on the contrary, it is a genre largely considered mainstream and lacking those rebellious components.
All these discourses need to be framed within a ‘philosophy of modernity’ and its paradoxes. We celebrate in one way the prodigies of science and technology, but in the other way we get a feeling of dissatisfaction and estrangement (alienation), of not wanting to be part of this mechanical world (nihilism), of this huge, unstoppable engine, that we often feel far from our inner nature.
Berman gives one the best definitions of modernity:
To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we know, everything we are. Modern environment and experiences cut across boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction (Berman:1982, 15).
In the end, modernity is a construct, a tool to try to explain what world we live in today, and so is that of a fixed identity, national or individual, of social categories and groups, subcultures and so on. Perhaps this is exactly what some youth intended to signify in the late 1970s: an attempt to make up for a paradise lost, by plunging into hell – at least in the eyes of those who were dictating social rules.
The idea of identity as an homogeneous, fixed entity, gifted with some ontological unity is becoming old fashioned. Man realises ‘I is a crowd’, and, as Eshun proposes, ‘It was already clear to Rimbaud back in the 19th C that I is another… that you are a population, that unity is a fleeting, accidental convergence persistently mistaken for an identity. The unified self is an amputated self’ (Eshun: 1999, 38). We are ‘assembled’, becoming selves (Porter: 1997, also Hall & Du Gay: 1996), which goes hand in hand with Raymond Williams’ definition of culture as a ‘way of life’. Language, class, politics, geography, history, background and so forth are all determinants of such becoming.
Youth Cultures and Youth Subcultures: Facts and Theories of Definition.
Let us conclude: those who are unable to change methods when the times demand it
doubtless prosper as long as they remain in step with fortune; but they are lost as soon as
fortune changes. As for the rest I think it is better to be too bold than too cautious…
-Machiavelli, The Prince
In trying to define the terms of youth culture, subculture, rebellion and authenticity, we need to bear in mind that these words, just like the term identity discussed above, are fluid concepts. Their meanings, expressed through language – intended not only as spoken, but also as visual and emotional – might often vary according to the different geographical, cultural and socio-political contexts in which they are employed.
Whilst for practical reasons I will use the expressions ‘youth culture’ and ‘subculture’ throughout my study, it is best to see them as a fluid equation of the kind:
x (y) = z
where x represents the most commonly accepted meaning of those expressions, y their fluidity and variables, and z the final result, that which borders the myth, what cannot be fully rationalised.
Youth culture sits on culture’s lap. Like an icon of mother and child. And as a child, youth culture can assume an array of behaviours, even the most rebellious ones, towards its mother, but the link between the two cannot be broken.
Skelton, Valentine and Chambers, in their Cool Places: Geographies of Youth Cultures (1998) pinpoint the emergence of a ‘youth’ consumer market in the 1950s as the signifier between the youth and the adult world. While the term youth from the point of view of the economy of the market place used to define people aged 16 to 25, culturally it became obvious that such demographic definition was not wholly appropriate.
The concept we need to introduce here is that of Judith Butler’s notion of ‘performativity’:
Conceptually children may “grow” or “shrink” in age as negotiations [with parents] take place. Similarly, some young people may be legally defined as adults yet might resist this definition by performing their identity in a way which is read as younger than they actually are; whereas others may actually perform their identity such that they can ‘pass’ as being older than the actual age of their physical body (Skelton and Valentine: 1998, 5).
What emerges from our discussion so far is that the best definition of youth culture probably comes from the fusion of the attitudinal one and the market-driven, demographic one. This spawns considerations on the birth of popular culture, which arguably today enters the realm of culture increasingly through the youth market. I believe that popular culture is becoming an abused term, and a term of abuse. It is a way to throw fads into the market. Many theorists of youth culture today would agree that popular culture ‘is, strictly and exclusively, the stuff produced for us in a thousand corporate boardrooms and demographic studies’ (Baffler: 1997, 158).
I will offer a critique of this view below. For the moment, let us look briefly at the child in the lap of the child in the lap of mother culture: subculture. The concept of subculture holds ‘that the paramount ailment of our society is conformity, a malady that has variously been described as over-organization, bureaucracy, homogeneity, hierarchy, logocentrism, technocracy, the Combine, the Apollonian’ (Baffler: 1997, 32). Therefore, the term subculture is used to describe ‘alternative’, ‘satellite’ youth cultures. Thornton defines subculture as ‘groups of people that have something in common with each other (i.e. they share a problem, an interest, a practice) which distinguishes them in a significant way from members of other social groups. … “Subcultures” (as they have been written about over the past three-quarters of a century) have come to designate social groups which are perceived to deviate from the normative ideals of adult community’ (Gelder and Thornton: 1997, 1-2). One obvious problem is the sub- prefix added to the word culture, which implies some scientific, arbitrary and a priori differentiation of inferiority within the cultural realm.
According to Hebdige, who, in his widely read Subculture The Meaning of Style (1979) employs semiotics and structural anthropology (along with a mix of other approaches) to analyse the meanings of post-WWII subcultural oppositions to the dominant culture: ‘the meaning of subculture is… always in dispute, and style is the area in which the opposing definitions clash with most dramatic force’ (Hebdige: 1979, 3).
Some theorists (Skelton and Valentine: 1998) criticise Hebdige for having over-emphasised the political aspects of style, and the level at which subcultures challenge hegemonies, when some of them were not political at all; others criticise him for not having taken music into enough account; others, like Mattson (2001), for having emphasised the phenomenon of consumption rather than production. All these critiques are valid, as is Hebdige’s account, and all will be useful to our discussion.
Before Hebdige, the tradition of subcultural studies in Britain was represented by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham. By combining the work of the Chicago School of Sociology and the Marxist-based mass society theories of the Frankfurt School, the CCCS merges the sociological deviancy theory with the concept of neo-Gramscian hegemony and Barthes’ semiotics. In Resistance Through Rituals (Hall and Jefferson: 1976), the CCCS, with a predominantly class-based approach, read the emerging subcultural practices as a way for some youth to subvert and reject dominant culture values through appropriation and negotiation of pre-existing signs (what is commonly referred to as ‘bricolage’ in punk). Such signs, the CCCS argue, were appropriated from what they called ‘raw material of social existence’ (Hall and Jefferson: 1976). Hebdige, however, was quick to point out that such material is probably not that ‘raw’, in that it is ‘both real and ideological. It is mediated to the individual members of a subculture through a variety of channels: school, the family, work, the media, etc.’ (Hebdige: 1979, 81). This would correspond, once more, to the (y) factor in our youth/subculture equation: that cultural material that is embedded in us from the day we are born, from the selection that is pre-made for us out of which we can mould our own practices, from which we can try to distance ourselves but which we can never completely delete.
In descriptions of subcultural ‘deviant’ activity, transgression and rebellion are the most important signifiers, and it is arguably through those that the communities in question establish their authenticity. In the October 2002 issue of i-D magazine we read something that I hear constantly in all ‘alternative’ youth circuits. A 20 year-old model/designer is asked: ‘What’s your favourite record?’ He replies: ‘Rent Boy by my friend Hidi from Finland, because it’s good and has never been released’ [italics mine] (i-D: October 2002, 204). Is the fact that no one has heard it before enough to make it authentic? Authenticity is a key concept in contemporary discourses of cultural production (we have seen earlier how Benjamin had already started to question authenticity’s future in an age of technological reproduction) and within the realm of arguments on the manufacturing of popular culture. Whatever we read, from lifestyle magazines like The Face or i-D to media and cultural theory, we perceive the youth’s struggle in the endeavour to be ‘authentic’ in the backdrop of a culture where everything seems to have already been done and turned into a cliché: rebellion, revolutions, archetypes of fight for freedom, avant-gardes.
Rebellion constitutes a key practice in punk’s claim for authenticity. At its best, rebellion matures out of the dialectics between outrageous behaviour and constructive resistance. As Baffler defines it, rebellion is ‘a sort of Nietzschean antinomianism, and automatic questioning of rules, a rejection of whatever social prescriptions we’ve happened to inherit. Just Do It is the whole of the law’ (Baffler: 1997, 32). Ironically, Just Do It (of Situationist echoing) is the slogan appropriated by Nike in their advertising and marketing campaigns of the ‘urban cool’.
Whilst the CCCS saw authenticity in working-class resistance, ‘later work, informed by a postmodernist framework, saw authenticity as mere modernist nostalgia. Post-punk revivalists were understood to be little more than an ironic parody, celebrating their lack of authenticity and the superficiality of an image-saturated culture’ (www.wlv.ac.uk/nofuture).
But in order to work, authenticity needs to be authenticated, and it is the media that fulfil the function of authentication in society at large (Dyer in Gledhill: 1991). On the other hand, however, we could argue that both the CCCS and the media-authentication theory undermines the possibility of punk self-authentication within their own community, underestimating, once again, the aspect of cultural production over consumption.
I would like to start my discussion of methodology with a comment on the difficulties I encountered in planning my work. As Roland Barthes wrote in a special number of Communications (1968), ‘To describe the event implies that the event was written. How can an event be written? What can the writing of an event mean?’ (quoted in Reader: 1993, 1). Probably the best reading of events would be to consider them as a flow of ‘spirit’, an ‘alternative’ way of living within a way of living, a ‘structure of feeling’, to borrow from Raymond Williams. A structure that cannot be broken down through the use of one theoretical approach.
In terms of primary sources that constituted the initial stages of my research, I chose to focus my attention on non-traditional, little-used yet rich and abundant sources such as photographs, pamphlets, lyrics, fanzines, designs, films, music, art, free poetry and first hand accounts. Consequently, I opted for a hybrid approach that reflects the complexity of the theme, with an emphasis on the semiotic approach expounded by Roland Barthes and Dick Hebdige. Moreover, literary criticism, structural anthropology, sociology, philosophy, political economy (especially the work of Alger, Herman and McChesney) all provided me with the necessary theoretical tools. The work of Naomi Klein set the best background for my understanding of the workings of the brand within the youth market. The work or Richard Dyer on authenticity was useful to define its functionality within my broader argument.
My research will move horizontally, covering about thirty years of history of punk subculture and media activity, within a spectrum that has at one end cultural studies (e.g. in my analysis of youth subcultures – and punk specifically – in their relationship to society and the media) and on the other end media studies (e.g. in the importance given to the developments of the media industries from the ‘70s).
I based my literary review, ‘The Atmosphere’, on those philosophers and thinkers of the 20th century that most influenced my research on punk. Amongst the many, Nietzsche was useful to introduce the concepts of Apollonian/Dionysian – rationality/irrationality that are fundamental in the description of a rebellious and anti-dominant culture subculture like punk; Benjamin and Adorno to discuss the condition of art in the first half of the century; Marcuse, Porter and Hall for matters regarding discourses of modern identity; Berman and Eco were useful in drawing some important conclusions on what ‘being modern’ signifies, and so was Harvey for the post-modern paradigm.
Fruitful to my discussion on youth culture and subcultures were Hebdige’s Subculture The Meaning of Style and the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham (however dated, as I explained earlier). Marcus, Savage and the fanzine File (from 1978) enlightened me on the meaning of punk in the late 1970s, but I am aware that many such accounts, especially Marcus’s, over-romanticise the period.
The Baffler’s (a punk New York-based fanzine) collection of essays ‘Commodify Your Dissent’ was also a fundamental text. While I am aware of its unambiguous anti-corporate and anti-dominant stand, ‘Commodify Your Dissent’ offered me some very interesting insights on the working of the media within popular culture from the perspective of those who try to break free of that influence.
Gina Arnold’s work and recent issues of magazine Punk Planet helped me sharpen my understanding of today’s punk. Also very insightful were conversations with people in the punk club-scene in London, at nights like Ghetto’s Nag Nag Nag. Without these I would still be standing far from any understanding of youth cultural production or consumption related issues, let alone of punk.
Formal interviews were also fundamental to my research. Denise Koricky is producer of All Things Rock, arguably the only MTV show that tries to integrate punk-rock culture from a punk perspective. The interview with her took place in New York in March 2003. She enhanced my critical understanding of the view that punk is mainly a sense of community, of belonging, with little to do with the issue of mainstream cultural production. An e-mail interview with Liam Lynch provided me with great insights into the workings and ethics of a punk artist who works with mainstream musicians (like Tenacious D, PJ Harvey) and on mainstream TV shows (he is the creator of MTV’s Sifl and Olly Show). Lynch has also released his own albums on his 111 Productions label.
British post-pop artist Duggie Fields gave me two face-to-face interviews in February 2003. He contributed greatly to an in-depth description of the general atmosphere of the 1960s as well as the hippie/punk parentage through the 1970s. His personal friendship with McLaren, Westwood, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and many other well-known artists from that era was a fascinating tale that put my arguments into perspective.
CHAPTER THREE: THE PUNK MOVEMENT
‘Punk Then’: The ‘No Future’ Generation.
At the dawn of 1976 England was struck by rocketing unemployment, the Notting Hill race riots, an industrial landscape that saw railroads cutting roughly through cities and interrupting the already fragile equilibrium of disadvantaged council estates and teeming cities. Space and time were being subjected to the relentless laws of the free economy rationality, in a world terrorized by the threat of nuclear destruction. This situation culminated in the ferocious conservatism of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US. By a way of anecdote, the story goes that the band The Clash actually took its name when Paul Simonon, while skimming through an issue of the Evening Standard, realised that the most used term was, indeed, ‘clash’.
In this bleak atmosphere of alienation, some critics suggested that ‘punk rock was the probably inevitable and certainly sulphurous reaction to both the nation’s parlous state and an increasingly bloated and self-satisfied generation of musical heroes who in the 1960s had symbolised rock ‘n’ roll rebellion but had recently sunk into complacent disregard for what was happening out there in what passed for the real world’ (Uncut: Feb 2003, 42). The catalysers of punk were therefore ‘boredom and futureless views’ (Lynch: 2003), when ‘nothing better validates the surrealist perspective than the emergence of something like new wave, in which art and music combine to provide means for revolt to claim new terrain’ (Goshert: 2000, 97).
The summer of 1976 is taken as the official birth date of the punk movement. McLaren spotted Rotten and would form the Sex Pistols; the Marquee in London was thriving with new ‘anarchic’ acts; the music, coming out of a three-chord guitar, a base and a singer, was attacking the ear in a way never heard before; the King’s Road started to become evidently busier with a provocatively dressed clandestine youth, coming in and out of Westwood and McLaren’s Sex shop sporting ‘perversion’.
The media started to pick up on it – emphasising the nihilistic aspect of this new group of ‘freaks’, a nihilism that soon ‘glamorised by the media, was understood by young people eager for new myths as a promise of freedom’ (Marcus: 1989, 262).
In 1983, just a few years after the official beginning of punk, Kenneth Hudson published The Dictionary of the Teenage Revolution and Its Aftermath as a way to explain the language labels increasingly assigned to alternative lifestyles. This could be read as a sign of the authentication of a phenomenon. Hudson defines punk as the only subculture that has tried to detach itself completely and overtly from the mainstream culture of class-bound Britain in the late 1970s.
An abbreviation of Punk Rock… In the USA it has had several meanings during Victorian Times and the 20th century – ‘touchwood’, ‘rubbish’, ‘a passive male homosexual’, ‘a showbusiness apprentice’. … There was also a late-1960s meaning, ‘raw, unappealingly unsophisticated’. … ‘Punk’ acquired another sense about 1976, in connection with a new style of pop music – ‘punk rock’ – and the bizarre dress and hairstyles that went with it. … Outrage was and is the name of the game… ‘Punk’ is the attitude of mind, the style, the activity, and a ‘punk’ is also a person involved in it all (Hudson: 1983, 149).
Having started more as a dissatisfied, white, middle-class, mostly stylistic and musical movement, contrarily to its alleged low-class origins (Fields: 2003; Simpson and Hodgkinson in The Guardian: August 10, 2001), punk soon offered the possibility of the constitution of an alternative public sphere for those youth groups within society that felt dissatisfied with the conditions of cultural and economic consumption and production, and wanted to create their own ‘niche-like’ forms of expression.
One of the characteristics of primordial punk, both emphasised by its makers and its critics, was the search and implementation of chaos. The most obvious reference here is to Nietzsche’s Dionysus, that is, to that primordial matter of existence that is at the basis of the origins of the universe. This finds a parallel in the argument that the teleological processes of increasing rationalisation of late capitalism ended up producing, as a primary effect, an augmenting ‘chaoticisation’ of the cities. Such chaos materialises itself into ‘noise’ music, which paves the way for a more structured conceptualisation of ‘noise aesthetics’ with later groups like Nirvana.
Like Nietzsche’s style, punk style aims at explaining the dissonance that is the heart of the world. In Nietzsche’s time, if one wanted to listen to that dissonance, one would listen to Wagner’s music. In the late 1970s, it was punk. Punk’s style of dancing (pogo) confirms our hypothesis that punk’s core politics were those of dissonance expressed through chaos, through irreducibility to a single entity. Pogo is a way to challenge the audience/performer dichotomy. The pogo dancer, in pop-accordance with the spirit of the so-called ‘Machine Age’, doesn’t create sound, he doesn’t hear sound… Like Tinguely’s machines, the punk machine self-destructs, smashing equipment, slashing skin, decorating the general milieu with broken beer bottles and safety pins… Spitting at the band completes the electric circuit, becoming the highest compliment (File: 1978, 17).
AA Bronson, the writer of the File article, goes on illustrating punk’s ‘politics of desire’.
Desire is anti-capitalist. Present economies of production and distribution do not allow for an economy of desire… Punk rock is the visible, readable, codable and decidable desiring machine from which a new politics, a new economics must be erected. The strength of capitalism in Britain is dependent on its ability to recognize and utilize (manipulate) this existing desiring system. The strength of punk is dependent on its ability to generate new economics of production and distribution corresponding to the pattern of desire it has revealed. Hence the self-produced record, the fanzine… (File: 1978, 17).
The fanzine is an interesting aspect of independent punk culture. In our discussion of the relationship between media and punk and the commodification of rebellion, the fanzine represents a punk self-created (or self-adjusted) ‘medium’, an attempt to contrast mainstream media It is structured around: 1) validation; 2) community formation; 3) political action (Atton: 2002). Hebdige maintains that the punk fanzine is aimed at the ‘destruction of existing codes and the formulation of new ones’ (Hebdige: 1979, 119), and identified as a main subcultural signifying practice. However, as Atton suggests, by saying so we run the risk of generalising the fanzine to something that is inherently and essentially structural (Atton: 2002), which contradicts the stated role of punk. On this point, Andy Bennett has suggested that we substitute the term subculture with that of tribus, ‘as an analytical category to explain the more fluid nature of sociality that is a feature of late modern society, especially where notions of identity and sociality are less ‘given’ by structural conditions and are instead constructed by social actors in evolving, shifting communities’ (Atton: 2002, 58).
This is an important point in our discussion because it further supports the notion of the relative futility of cultural classifications and points to the inherent contradictions in discourses of subcultures in relation to culture. Perhaps more importantly, it shows that any means or tools that relate to the formation of a group identity have to be carefully put to test and analysed, so as to not overlook the fluidity of the concepts themselves.
In the true spirit of D.I.Y. philosophy, fanzines were produced in the form of bricolage. ‘Bricolage refers to the means by which the non-literate, non-technical mind of so-called ‘primitive’ man responds to the world around him’ (Hebdige: 1979, 103).
Yet we must be careful not to be fooled by this: bricolage does not mean total absence of order, rather the opposite. The structure is carefully crafted to carry a definite message.
Punk’s parentage itself is an eclectic communion of different youth styles and genres: glitter-rock and mod, reggae and American proto-Punk (McLaren lived in New York where he styled the New York Dolls before he started his London musical enterprise: the Sex Pistols). According to Stevenson, the Glam/Communist look McLaren chose for the Pistols was an attempt to ‘make political iconography fashionable… It was Malcolm’s first attempt to commodify revolution and sell it’ (Stevenson: 1999, 13).
The floor starts to creak. It is when punk enters the realm of popular culture that questions of rebellious authenticity arise, and its future becomes uncertain and problematic. ‘That was punk: a load of ideas sensationalized into new feelings almost instantly turned into new clichés, but set forth with such momentum that the whole blew up its equations day by day’ (Marcus: 1989, 77). Some argue punk died because of the selling-out of bands like The Clash (to CBS) or the Pistols (EMI and Virgin), which opened the road for successive punk bands to sign with music label giants. What we are about to see is that punk quite simply metamorphosed.
‘Punk Today’: The Two-Way Split.
So far we have discussed how both punks and academics have argued that ‘Punk Then’ symbolised, through a number of signifiers, the refusal to conform. In this section I examine how and why punk, from the so called post-punk era (which started around 1979) to today, under the influence of the boom of the media and consumer culture, went two ways: one branch became more structurally politicised and socially aware, while another retired to a more ‘mainstreamised’ style-based culture.
The structural advantage that punk has today is that it can base itself on the history of experiments, attempts, successes and failures that preceded it, as it is with every movement that can look back and either take or reject from their parentage. The disadvantage is that this very history makes it harder for today’s punk-rock bands to gain authenticity. What is certain is that, whether politicised or merely reduced to style, punk still wants to symbolise refusal to conform. As Tony Pointless of the punk band Rambo states, ‘that’s why I’m a punk – I feel it’s extremely important to be visibly against popular/mainstream opinion. People need to be reminded, if not made aware, that there is a part of the population opposed to what’s going on’ (Punk Planet: issue 54, 76). This view on the responsibility of the artist is shared by most punks interviewed in punk fanzines or magazines.
The 1980s saw a branch punk go from its original D.I.Y. and independent production ethos to big business. Punks turned to more conventional careers and to deal-signing, something that Gina Arnold, amongst many, does not hesitate to consider as ‘selling-out’ and ‘co-optation’ of punk. Other bands, instead, simply split up. Arnold is also quick to point out that there is nothing anomalous with ‘selling out’ and that punk bands should not be singled out and criticised for it.
The 1990s thus saw the proliferation of MTV-styled punk bands of the likes of Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Sum 41, Green Day, Good Charlotte, and The Strokes (the ‘mainstreamised branch’). Along these, there are other punk bands that might be considered ‘truer’ both because of lyrical and stylistic reasons and political commitment, and because they have not been hugely media acclaimed. Examples would be Crass, AFI, Rancid, Bad Religion, NOFX (the ‘politicised branch’).
Framed within discourses of post-modern uncertainty and commodification of culture into mass culture, out of this politicised branch of punk many bands have developed a kind of more thoughtful and intellectualised politics rather than shocking anarchism or nihilism. Whilst most songs are still about being outsiders – which really is not peculiar to punk only, but also the favourite topic of most pop and hip-hop bands – such bands seem to have realised that nihilism will be socially effective only if it is proactive, as opposed to the arguably more ‘passive’ nihilism of ‘punk then’. They have also realised that, when mediated, a revolution might not be as effective, because the medium can distort its aims.
I would suggest that this may be the formation of the myth in progress: there is a feeling that, because of the make-up of the society we live in, in order for punk to be authentic, both inside and outside the mainstream, it should be politically committed. However, being politically committed should not be cast as an overall prerequisite. If we look at its developments, it is not, in short, the essence of punk. That is why we argued that the MTV-styled punk bands are as punk as the ones who are more politically committed, anarchic, nihilistic, anti-corporate.
The early 1990s also saw the emergence of a number of punk sub-cults, which, because of their commitment to alleged ‘original values’, are considered a re-birth of punk after its murder/media accomplice in the 1980s. Grunge, which has its official home in Seattle, while style-wise maintained many similarities with punk, also took a decisively anti-globalisation stand (the pacifist anarcho-punk band Crass being at the head of it), and anti-branding (the US fanzine Stay Free! being at the forefront of it). Grunge represented a more grounded and less style-based valorisation of oppositionality that allowed for political action (Mattson: 2001). Grunge attracted people who were not necessarily punks before.
Mattson (2001) tells us of police shutting down independent punk shows in Seattle during the mid-‘80s. Some of the independent musicians involved formed the Youth Defence Campaign (YDC) group, through which they formally engaged in political and civil action to protest against such policies and negotiate with the state government for the opening of public spaces to accommodate youth’s creativity. They even took their political activities a step further by campaigning against youth unemployment and low wages, against the weaponry industry and financial enterprises that supported third world debt and American imperialism.
Yet, as Baffler argues, Grunge too was doomed to be devoured by the corporate machine. Some of its aspects would be marketed and sold in shops, via the net, through books, co-opted for the purpose of reaching yet one more niche market, or simply create one out of pre-existing elements. But does it really matter? If Grunge was able to make an impact and catalyse dissent, even if just for a short while, does the fact that it got turned into a commercial style detracts anything from its original goals and achievements?
My argument is that the dissent that is at the basis of any subculture takes different shapes and that, once co-opted by the media machine, it simply takes the shape of yet another subculture or movement, in a constant cycle. For example, on today’s scene there is a branch of punk that is taking ground: queer punk. Having started as a sub-cult around 1994, mainly in Chicago and New York (but also in London) ‘queercore’ centres around sexually explicit and rock ‘n’ roll inspired texts. Bands like Pansy Division (scouted by Green Day) and Tribe 8 try to get across a punk message of liberation and refusal of social standards as far as homophobia and sexual stereotyping goes. Such are the specifics through which queercore bands are politicised.
What is interesting about the queercore phenomenon is that it shows once again how limitative the concept of subculture can be, and how fundamental it is to bear in mind the (y) variable in the equation outlines earlier. In fact, queercore artists are both punk and gay, two ‘subcultures’, at least culturally, some argue, as would be considered by the dominant culture.
So, What Is Punk?
Marcus suggests that ‘punk was not a musical genre; it was a moment in time that took shape as a language anticipating its own destruction, and thus sometimes seeking it, seeking the statement of what could be said with neither words nor chords. It was not history. It was a chance to create ephemeral events that would serve as judgments on whatever came next, events that would judge all that followed wanting – that, too, was the meaning of no-future’ (Marcus: 1989, 82).
The opinion I have formulated is that punk signifies an ‘attitude’, with precise stylistic devices and music, based on a dissent that is at the basis of any subculture – whatever form this dissent may take. This is a view shared by Liam Lynch, who observes:
For me, punk was always about an attitude or a way of feeling rather than a set of grocery list items that need to be purchased… like safety pins, hair dye, ripped shirt, army boots, metal studded black leather wrist band, eyeliner… My song [punk-rock hit United States of Whatever] was made with ‘punk’ spirit: it’s a free-for-all… anything goes. It’s about not caring what people think of you or what they are saying or what you will do. The truth is that if I had acted artsy or treated my song with over-thought out of anal-retentive perfectionism, it wouldn’t be punk. If I had taken the time to write about it, for me as an artist, it wouldn’t have come from that reckless part of me that doesn’t care what people think. Of course, this probably is a spirit that originated in true punk rock belief in anarchy. I don’t believe in anarchy, but I do believe in my own creative anarchy, where I have mo structure and anything can happen’ (Lynch: 2003).
Gina Arnold says punk is about ‘art and togetherness and community and non-conformism’ (Arnold: 1997, 67). Koricky shares her view and argues that punk is ‘about bonding with other people who are different, who feel left out and non-represented in society. Punk was and is a punch in the face, a sound that destabilises you to then build you up stronger and more secure in your anti-conformist views. This is the attitude, and as such it’ll never die. And this original attitude has been lost along the way, but will surely come back’ (Koricky: 2003; also Arnold: 1997, 98).
CHAPTER FOUR: COMMODIFYING REBELLION
If you feel a burning need to understand ‘culture’, get out of the coffeehouse and buy yourself a subscription to advertising age.
What Is the ‘Mainstream’?
So what is the relationship between youth rebellion and the mainstream, corporate media market? How capable is each to survive on its own terms or to influence one other? And how and why have the mainstream media been able to incorporate alternative and rebellious forms of expression, while still keeping them looking alternative and rebellious?
First of all, we need to provide a definition of ‘mainstream’, as it will help us frame our more general discourse on identity and the significance of media/subculture dialectics. In our broader discussion of identity, both mainstream and subculture are simplistic tools we use to describe a moment in time and space that is anything but reducible down to a core, a unified entity. ‘Most modern societies are in fact a cluster of intersecting subcultures, and it is becoming harder to say from what normative cultural world a particular subculture deviates’ (Eagleton: 2000, 75).
The ‘tragedy’ is that the media seem to have become a world for advertising to flourish in and therefore increase the corporate firms’ profits. The clash implies a changing notion of art through media, technology and so forth, and a constant reassessment of the possibility for the existence of a public sphere in contemporary society. Therefore, when we talk of the interplay between media and punk we are talking of opposing powers: one that thrives on definition and categorisation (musical, filmic genres, etc.) and one that is putatively set out to oppose all stereotyping and definition. Or so the myth goes. When we talk of such relations between subcultural and mainstream activity, how will we know the difference between the power we promote and the power we oppose? Is it, one might rejoin, a matter of ‘knowing’? For one is, as it were, in power even as one opposes it, formed by it as one reworks it, and it is this simultaneity that is at once the condition or our partiality, the measure of our political unknowingness, and also the condition of action itself. The incalculable effects of action are as much a part of their subversive promise as those that we plan in advance (Du Gay, Evans and Redman: 2000, 116).
Probably the definition of mainstream I find more plausible is that of mainstream as a fluid marketplace, driven by advertisers, for the sale and purchase of cultural goods solely to the purpose of profit making, on each side of the spectrum. Such goods, once sold, enter the dominant culture and can potentially become popular. In such marketplace, the quality or ethics or poetics of the cultural production give in to the quantitative aspects of the business. This does not mean that the product will lose quality, but it certainly will have to compromise, sooner or later, with the industry that has by now commodified its ethics.
Incorporation of the ‘Alternative’ and Commodification of Rebellion.
Hebdige draws upon Barthes’ Mythologies to explore the way rituals and forms within ideology in society take shape and, eventually, become ‘naturalized.’ Bringing Gramsci into the picture, Hebdige points out that the naturalisation process works through hegemony, a fluid concept that has been reproduced continuously in order to keep on, a fundamental point in the discussion of the relationship between punk subculture and the media that will follow. ‘Hegemony can only be maintained so long as the dominant classes “succeed in framing all competing definitions within their range” (Hall: 1977), so that subordinate groups are, if not controlled, then at least contained within an ideological space which does not seem at all “ideological”: which appears instead to be permanent and ‘natural’, to lie outside history, to be beyond particular interests’ (Hebdige: 1979, 16). This is a view that still holds all its validity. The Baffler argues on the same lines that ‘The culture industry is drawn to “alternative” by the more general promise of finding the eternal new, of tapping the very source of the fuel that powers the great machine’ (Baffler: 1997, 151).
The process of the marketing of the rebel started around the late-‘80s, when the media began to generate ‘An artificial alterity…, as a show of pluralism, and as an effort to counteract the deadly sameness that advanced capitalism constantly produces’ (Mattson: 2001, 92). The path towards recuperation, as precursor of commodification, which happens on both the commodity level and as ideological form (Hebdige: 1979, 94), is one of:
♣ Ambivalent hysteria. ‘The battles between mods and rockers were genuinely mainstream media provoked and staged – shock! horror! Look what the kids are doing… and punk was part of that again, shock! horror! Look what the kids are doing…’ (Fields: 2003), yet inviting them to TV shows and putting them on the cover of newspapers and magazines.
The climax of media acclaimed ‘Shock! Horror!’ hysteria was reached with the Sex Pistols appearing on ITV Today show (2 December 1976). Instigated by unprepared interviewer Bill Grundy, they called him ‘dirty bastard’, and pronounced the word ‘fuck’ repeatedly. The Sex Pistols got huge controversial promotion, yet were dropped by EMI (to then embark on a new journey with Virgin). Saying ‘fuck’ on TV was a scandal for the bourgeoisie that controlled television. For punks and a great deal of other people, ‘It was the sound, Jon Savage wrote long after the fact, of people discovering their own power’ (Marcus: 1989, 37). But that ‘fuck’ could also be interpreted as the victory of the bourgeoisie: the Pistols had given in, conforming to the rule of the dominant/rebellious game, to the expectations of the culture they had set to oppose. Punk, some would say, died then.
♣ Process of recuperation. The subcultural practices become better known and those acts of resistance are ‘situated within the dominant framework of meanings and those young people who choose to inhabit a spectacular youth culture are simultaneously returned, as they are represented on TV and in the newspapers, to the place where common sense would see them fit’ (Hebdige: 1979, 94).
The argument is therefore that ‘rebellion’ will sooner or later be recuperated and made docile, so that profits can be made. And since youth cultural studies and social policies have propagated the idea of youth rebellion, they play on that to differentiate youth from their parents and previous generations, and provide them with a lifestyle imagery that involves alternative behaviour in order to be young and, ultimately, cool. The image of the outsider is glamorised and romanticised. You are slowly induced to forget the ripped t-shirt style was started because those kids often did not have money to buy new t-shirts. Fashion houses produce them, recuperating that imaginary of authenticity and rebellion, sell them back to you for high prices, and the result is that you are cool and they have increased their profits.
After all, as Eco suggests, this is the point of the entertainment industry: ‘To speak of things one wants to connote as real, these things must seem real. The ‘completely real’ becomes identified with the “completely fake”. Absolute unreality is offered as real presence’ (Eco: 1986, 7). The argument is that that as soon as academic studies and cultural institutions pick up on these movements, they become authenticated in a way that in reverse implies loss of authenticity and of originality. This is a view also shared by Koricky and Lynch (2003): the original rebellious meaning of any subculture, if there was one, becomes eventually institutionalised and commodified.
Here are examples of rebellious slogans that have been appropriated by the most corporate brands in the world:
There’s a riot going on
Recent Dazed & Confused Slogan
Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules
The Art of Changing
This Is Different. Different Is Good
The Line Has Been Crossed: The Revolutionary New Supra
Innovate Don’t Imitate
The fact is that Western corporate media ‘is not an oppressor, but a sponsor of fun, provider of lifestyle accoutrements, facilitator of carnival, our slang-speaking partner for that even more apocalyptic orgasm. The countercultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy, its hunger for transgression now perfectly suited to an economic-cultural regime that runs on ever-faster cyclings of the new… Consumerism is no longer about “conformity” but about “difference”’ (Baffler: 1997, 34).
Advertising: Commercialism Goes Punk!
I remember the moment when it hit me that my frustrated craving for space wasn’t simply a result of the inevitable march of history, but of the fact that commercial co-optation was proceeding at a speed that would have been unimaginable to previous generations.
-Naomi Klein, No Logo
I would now like to look more specifically at something that has provoked a great deal of interest in me, and that I propose for further research: the relationship between subcultural co-optation (with punk as a case study) and the advertising firms’ use of urban spaces.
In media theory one of the ever-alive debates is that on the active/passive audience, which in advertising terms translates in how suggestible people are to ads. As far as youth is concerned, the advertising industry seems to lean more for the very active audience theory. As Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the agency responsible for the Levi’s ads, puts it, ‘Young consumers are sophisticated, video literate and acutely sensitive to being patronised. They pick up messages quicker than you would believe’ (Marris and Thornham: 1996, 767).
The opposing view, that preferred by many cultural theorists (especially from the Left), political economy critics, and new-generation of anti-corporate, ‘brand aware’ troops like Naomi Klein, reflect Marcuse’s (1964) view that advertising is the hinge of capitalism, and it can exert great influence on us by selling us products and lifestyles, ‘indoctrinating us into social conformity and thus ultimately suppressing political opposition’ (Marris and Thornham: 1996, 767). Given that human beings are extremely prone to suggestions, however literate we might be, and that nurture, rather than nature, is what makes us what we are socially, my study takes into account practices of advertising and the ‘subconscious’ establishment of dominant culture (hegemony) into our imagery.
The issue of the need for physical cultural spaces for youth was introduced earlier when talking about the YDC activities in Seattle. Susan Ruddick (1998) highlights how cultural theory has tended to neglect the role of the urban spaces for the youth – the so-called ‘third-space’ – in relation to identity formation. When the youth appropriate some of these spaces (from independent concert locations to shelter for the homeless, to graffiti space or simple gatherings) authorities claim them back, citing the youth’s actions as illegal:
As American Demographics put it, new media consumers will be ‘more tolerant of advertising because it will be more appropriate and customized.’ In the new media, the goal of the marketing message is not the ‘purchase,’ but ‘further interaction.’ As life becomes a ‘perpetual marketing event’ we will no longer be able to discern where advertising begins and where it ends (Baffler: 1997, 142).
What we find is that advertising is becoming cleverer, i.e. more subtle, and is learning to select and use the space around it to carry the message more vigorously. In a metropolis like London, for example, where we are exposed to an average of 3,000 advertising messages a day (Sleaze Nation: December 2002, 68), it is not rare to walk around and wonder whether some of the posters on walls are ads or not. The solution to the Bartle Bogle Hegarty/Marcuse opposing theories advertising agencies seem to be going for is to aim at a specific and subtler organisation of urban space.
This is where the second, but equally important, need for the mainstream to incorporate the ‘rebellious and alternative’ comes in. What I mean by this is that advertising is producing ads that look ‘alternative’ – not as straightforward as the ads we might be used to, as abstracted from the environment through the use of billboards.
The commercial message is driven home with the vanguard iconography of the rebel: screaming guitars, whirling cameras, and startled old timers who, we predict, will become an increasingly indispensable prop as consumers require ever-greater assurance that, Yes! You are a rebel! Just look at how offended they are! (Baffler: 1997, 41)
This advertising technique can be broken down into a) selecting a jammed, brand-saturated environment that yet looks culturally and artistically controversial, independent, hip and politically alternative, and b) producing ads that do not look like ads, or that mix with the surrounding ‘street’ art in a way that does not make them look like conventional ads. Drawing on Marx, Harvey highlights that ‘Advertising and commercialisation destroy all traces of production of imaginary, reinforcing the fetishism that arises automatically in the course of market exchange’ (Harvey: 1990, 102).
Fig. B shows ads on a wall in the Old Street/Hoxton Square area, an London quarter that is known for being a hip, trendy and up-coming youth environment. The ad for ‘No Style Without Substance’ stands next to an ad for cheap calls to the Caribbean; we look up and see Bansky’s anti-war stencil (Fig. C), with a further call to arms sprayed on it in red a few days later, which informs us of the date and time of the peace protests against the war in Iraq. Fig. E was taken a few steps down the road, and it is not clear whether it is an ad or not. Fig. G sports a handwritten ‘MAI68’ on a series of tags visible in other parts of the area too. Fig. F features anti-war leaflets glued on the wall on top of other ads – leaflets that I believe the advertisers are actually happy to leave (the leaflets were there for 18 days, until some other ads were eventually glued on top of them), because they enhance some of the deep and intense political commitment that they want the products they sell to be associated with.
Such juxtaposition of images, co-inhabiting an area that is already considered one of the liveliest artistic centres of London, is the perfect environment for the new generation of subliminal advertising. It tells you that you are a rebel, that you are authentically innovative, that you are politically committed, and therefore, by association, it suggests that purchasing a product advertised in such space around you will convey a very similar message.
Fig. A shows an ad for American eclectic hardcore rock band Linkin Park (most of the ads around Hoxton Square are for rock bands or music acts at any rate), and their new album, ‘Meteora’, which launches with the single Somewhere I Belong. The black background with the large white writing certainly stands out, and in that chaos of images and messages the ad perfectly titillates our search for a place where we belong. We are all part of the rebellion, through ‘punked up’ advertising practices. The same can be argued with Fig. D, where Punk Rock Princess advertises her new musical offerings by the juxtaposition of the words ‘punk’ to ‘Something Corporate’, a clash in terminology. The place for the ad is the door of a derelict shop right next to Trafik, one of the trendiest bars in trendy Hoxton Square. It all just fits perfectly: punk and mainstream media in valuable juxtapositions on different semantic levels. As Bansky says provokingly, ‘We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves’ (Bansky: 2001, pages not numbered).
What Came First? The Beauty or the Myth? Or the Brand?
This takes me to my other point: the consideration that punk is the first musical and stylistic movement to have created a brand out of its own self. Some of its masters, like McLaren and Westwood, helped start the process, while the media gave it the initial ambivalent coverage that authenticated it and eventually hallowed it in the world of alternative consumerism. As Marcus points out, ‘punk began as a fake culture, a product of McLaren’s fashion sense, his dreams of glory, his hunch that the marketing of sado-masochistic fantasies might lead the way to the next big thing’ (Marcus: 1989, 69).
The next big thing was, arguably, the world of brands. Punk, as a complex movement, evolved into a brand because it directed itself to the highest and most interesting new bidder: the youth. Punk produced objects of consumption, like ripped t-shirts, specific to a new imagery. Such ‘objects-of-cult-to-be’ were produced out of value-material that was already there, like with most products that intend to sell a lifestyle: technological innovation is not the goal, the goal is divested recuperation as difference, where the meaning of the goods (as images) supersedes the product. In order to be successful, McLaren had to create something that would distinguish him from all the other subcultures, and his Situationist/King Mob background (of which not all punks were aware) was the perfect fertile ground.
Reid was the perfect new-logo creator. Westwood the perfect new style guru: she eventually forged herself into a brand, with a clothing line that still holds strong today, three decades later. The Sex Pistols, McLaren’s most successful brand, were the perfect ‘crowd-amplifying’ spokespeople. All together they succeeded in creating an extremely powerful pan-consumerist youth brand, one whose products parents would have never bought for their children, so that those children would have always feel it really represented them, and them only, in their generational struggle over the formation of their identity. An identity that is still now being recuperated and transformed out of the same materials by music producers, fashion houses and lifestyle magazines.
From a capitalist point of view, punk was a success because it was turned into a marketable lifestyle, making it easy for people to start identifying themselves with the web of alternative signifiers we can now purchase.
Thus, the ‘mainstreamised’ branch of punk has arguably recreated the same structures it set out to oppose. With the increasing size of the media and the growing number of youth media brands, the power to co-opt and attract even the most ‘alternative’ person into their web has also increased, therefore shaping the landscape of popular culture.
Amongst the emerging youth media brands, MTV’s role has certainly been the most dramatic. Upon its launch in August 1981, MTV reached 2.5 million homes; today, it reaches 300 million homes. This fits within a general trend that sees a constant increase in the number of hours we spend in front of our TV sets. Globally, from 1979 to 1991 the number of televisions tripled (Herman and McChesney: 1997, 39), entailing much wider exposure to ads. MTV’s influence has no real competitors and strongly influences the development of the music scene. Right after its launch it became clear that the rock-video aesthetics would soon twist the way music featured in the realm of popular culture. In order to break through, music acts would now need to produce videos to accompany their releases, which is why most punk bands either split up or signed record deals with major labels, as we have seen earlier. Now bound by, in most cases, seven-year contracts to the likes of EMI, Sony and Universal, the bands’ output had to go through a number of marketing checks previously not as determinant. The fact that centralised media power and accentuated commercialism have become
dependent on advertiser support and responsible primarily to shareholders is a clear and present danger to citizens’ participation in public affairs, understanding of public issues, and thus the effective working of democracy… This power is not only economic and political, but extends to basic assumptions and modes of thought; that is, to ideology. To no small extent the stability of the system rests upon the widespread acceptance of a global corporate ideology (Herman and McChesney: 1997, 1, 34).
In order to work, this ideology tried to remove competition from the establishment. Consequently, most alternative media, which would carry the output of the ‘politicised’ branch of punk, ‘have been more and more constrained and compromised by very inadequate funding and by being forced to go begging to big corporations—the very forces, along with the government, from which they most need absolute independence’ (Alger: 1998, 227). This way, alternative music and style are incorporated in the mainstream, but the politics are left out.
Victory will be for those who know how to create disorder without loving it.
In this thesis I have stressed that the concepts of modern identity, culture and subcultural activity are constructs that need to be read as a heterogeneous flow of discourses rather than a fixed, homogenous entity. Punk needs to be conceptualised as a flow of signifying practices in agency/structure dialectics. Therefore, we cannot underestimate the role the media play in authenticating the movement and shaping our perception of it. I have framed punk’s emergence within a discourse of social chaos that translated into a specific style of independent production, up to the late-‘80s split of punk into a ‘mainstreamised’ branch and a more politicised one. I have offered the examples of Grunge and ‘queercore’ punk to propose a more empirical definition of punk, and to introduce issues of commodification of alternative imagery within present ideological apparatuses of production and consumption. I then moved on to a more detail exemplification of my argument by looking at urban youth spaces in London’s Old Street area. This supported my hypothesis that punk stands in a dialectical relationship with advertising and branding, even more so in the contemporary framework of increasing global media power.
Marcuse was right in expressing concern about the one-dimensional thought that seemed to be prevalent in society in his time. So was Benjamin in stressing the developments of technological reproduction of works of art. On the one hand, these trends seem to have worsened, and while it looks like we are given more choice of cultural products, that choice is arguably less spontaneous and more manufactured, with rebellion and opposition integrated in the workings of the machine. On the other hand, however, we have seen how there is still a branch of punk that is conscious of such workings and strives to remain anti-dominant and anti-corporate by refusing to sign up with major labels and therefore enter the mainstream.
Dissent is at the basis of any subculture and takes different shapes. Punk was one of them, with precise stylistic devices. Once co-opted by the media machine, dissent will simply take the shape of yet another subculture or movement, in a constant cycle. As Fields points out, ‘punk happened along the media boom, in the late ‘70s. Tabloid attention throughout the years is what changed it; ‘weekend punks’ started appearing, it media attention that created them. It made a parody of style. So the real ones, like Vivienne, moved on pretty quickly. But then New Wave came along. The protest, in practice, never ends’ (Fields: 2003).
I have also highlighted that we should abandon limitative definitions of subcultural movements and rather see them as fluid progress, without condemning them to death simply because of a dialectics they have entered with the media. Such process of negotiation is inevitable. As Harvey suggests, ‘the only way open to “eliminate the fascism in our heads” is to explore and build upon the open qualities of human discourse, and thereby intervene in the way knowledge is produced and constituted at the particular sites where a localised power-discourse prevails’ (Harvey: 1990, 45).
I also want to comment on the emphasis on style in discourses of subcultures. I would like to propose for further research the youth populated neighbourhoods in metropolises like London, in relation to the formation of urban style. To this purpose we should always bear in mind that the concentration on style is a double-edge knife. While style helps to create the sought-after feeling of a bonding and anti-mainstream community, which is visually very effective as a form of demarcation, it also tends to close us down to ourselves, as was argued with punk.
Another topic that merits further investigation is the techniques that punk and subcultures at large can employ to survive and make a stand against the mainstream media, and how the subcultures and the media could actually work together to enhance the artists’ responsibility in political and cultural issues
Finally, I have stressed how punk simply evolved as a series of performative elements. The notion of performativity can never be stressed enough. Trying to argue that ‘original’, ‘real’, ‘true’ punk has suffered misconceptions and some sort of conspiracy would be like wanting punk to enter true ‘high-art’, a category that punk itself was trying to destroy. Demanding that punk be what it was in 1976 would be being blind to the fast-paced changes in popular culture. It would be transcendental. It would be irrational. Lynch offers the best metaphor for this process: ‘this is all subculture comes to mass culture that happens with everything. That pulse within society that comes from deep in the centre and then weakens as it spreads out’ (Lynch: 2003).
All this needs to be framed within evolving discourses of postmodernism and metropolitan culture. We must allow ourselves to exercise our critical skills but always bear in mind that we, as individuals, are part of a changing reality we cannot detach ourselves from. Social struggles make us feel alive. It took me some years until I realised that there is always something to fight for. Whether you associate yourself with one or another subculture or dominant culture the cycle of life will carry on, and we will change with it. We have the same right to fight for our own freedom and human rights and happiness as anyone does to fight for whatever they believe in. This is real diversity, and it is what keeps humanity exciting. Through the good and the bad, and beyond it.
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