This article first appeared in the early 1980’s in New York and an edited version was republished a few years later in an obscure, apparently one-off, magazine called Hopeless Tasks which emerged from Seattle, USA. It’s a neatly stated situationist-influenced critique of pop culture recuperation, bands as entertainment commodities and the weaknesses of punk ‘radicality’.
Founded on the essential deceptiveness of pop music’s function within advanced capital, today’s pop revolt can only lie to itself as to its radicality. The terms oppositional pop, rebel music, and radical bands are invented terms. The alternative music press, the widely scattered fanzines produced by misinformed malcontents and aspiring journalists, like to label the bands as the centre of gravity for a movement of negativity against Power and authority. Stripped of the ideological baggage found in a song lyric, an interview, or in the slogans inscribed on record and cassette covers, our music rebels proliferate at every step of their activity the alienating forms of the society they claim to rebel against.
At its outset, the pop music rebellion that only apparently began with the Sex Pistols, was a rebellion aimed at the music industry. The pop music industry, like any other industry, attributes to commodities a mystical ability for the satisfaction of needs and desires – or it creates needs and desires, albeit false needs and desires. Coinciding with post-war reconstruction and the increasingly affluent base attached to that, pop culture became the ideological discourse for the array of commodities available to youth: fast cars (the auto as the sign, in the semiotic sense, of prosperity) being just the most superficial and glaring example. During the 1960’s, pop culture was the reification of the dissent against the Vietnam war, the sexual ‘revolution’, experimentation with psychoactive drugs, and the dismissal of material life – among other things. During the early 70’s, from Bowie to Yes and back to Roxy Music, the fantasy escapism of glam-rock and ‘progressive’ music increasingly separated pop culture, in its ideology, from its social base – youth. Top 40 and Top of the Pops music merely became a larger joke with its endless promotion of the most easily seen through aspects of the dominant culture. Punk emerged as a rebellion to regain control of the culture youth no longer ideologically possessed: creating a crisis that merely assured the updating of the pop spectacle. While punk protagonists heralded the movement as the artistic, cultural, and political avant-garde, it was no more than a recuperative representation of a consciousness already at work.
Including every political ideology available on the market, and marketing every political ideology, the latest phase of pop rebellion has nonetheless been a representation of the most critical forces arrayed against advanced capital: forces that first emerged collectively in France during May of ’68. The punk rebellion offered, as it still does, political criticism on an array of subjects, among them: sexual roles, dead routines, authoritarian structures, work, racism, capitalism, rioting, and the reduction of life to mere survival. Despite the radicality found in such critiques, punk rapidly underwent a reversal of any potential subversive force it had: a characteristic of the whole of advanced capital and its ability to recuperate its opposition. While punk entailed, as does its current offshoots, a partial critique of domination, it failed to critique, as youth continues to be fooled by, the dominant culture’s use of pop culture and the domination inherent in the form of pop. It is perhaps this failure which has led to the mutations in punk – post-punk, hardcore, oi, minimalism, industrial, etc., that all claim to contain the criticality of early punk – and the proliferation of even more obvious forms of domination: fanzines; organizations "by punks and for punks" who mainly organize shows, put out occasional records, etc., and deal with the cash end of the movement that "keeps it in the movement". From here it is with a more detailed analysis of the form of domination in pop culture that, perhaps, a more effective subversion of pop culture can be put to use.
"The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object (which is the result of his own unconscious activity) is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires."
(Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle.)
The radical band, rather than being a component of a rebellious pop culture, is both a process and a product within the pop industry: it is a commodity that creates itself, contrary to its real desire to be solely communication. From the recruitment of members and the formation of the band, to the rehearsal, the stage, and possibly the record or cassette, this process is a production that develops itself as an entertainment commodity. Regardless of the fact that the band attaches a subversive content to the commodity, its methodological flow is that of all commodities and remains constrained within the metaphysical subtleties all commodities contain. The radical band’s essential weakness is not so much that it attempts to attach a subversive content to the commodity which it is, but that it fails to subvert the commodity’s domination.
Respective to the highly paid "straight" wage-slaves-cum-commodities of the entertainment industry, the only real compensation the radical band has for its activity is that of a feeling in the participation of rebellion. It is not important whether or not the band behaves literally as a commodity (i.e. whether or not they, or a club owner, require that their audience pay to see them, or if they have records or cassettes available) but that the form they utilize for their participation is the form of the commodity. It is precisely in the commodity form where the absence of participation can be located. The commodified radical band is the pseudo-fulfilment of both the need and desire for revolt: it is the representation of rebellion, a non-living image that reflects, but does not act upon, the basis of revolt. By its continual pseudo-satisfaction of those needs and desires it sublimates the possibilities for real activities that could fundamentally change lives. The radical band does not participate in rebellion, but reduces it to a frozen frame of passively absorbed images.
To the purpose of profit, the commodity is both the result and the goal of the existing means of production: it aims at nothing other than the reproduction of itself. The reign of the commodity as a pseudo-satisfaction of needs and desires entails the separation of individuals. This separation ensures not only the return of the consumer, due to the pseudo-satisfaction, but that the commodity becomes the focus of those needs and desires. The entertainment spectacle of pop rebellion provides the spectator with a false gratification of desires: no one is challenged to rely upon themselves and their own inner creativity and ‘worth’ and there is no need for real activity.
(Author’s note: this text is what was only the beginning of a much longer analysis (and much more detailed), but I got tired of writing in solitude. Perhaps the printing of these first sections will make my activity more collective, rather than isolated and separate.)
-- Gregor Jamroski
First published as a chapbook, in an edition of 500 in the early 80s in New York. Hopeless Tasks republished this edited version several years after it was originally written. Source; endangeredphoenix.com