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Prelude to Punk Politics, Part 2

Overnight, punk had become as stupid as everything else. This wonderful vital force that was articulated by the music was really about corrupting every form—it was about advocating kids to not wait to be told what to do, but make life up for themselves, it was about trying to ge people to use their imaginations again, it was about not being perfect, it was about saying that it was okay to be amateurish and funny, that real creativity came out of making a mess, it was about working with what you got in front of you and turning everything embarrassing, awful, and stupid in your life to your advantage.

But after the Sex Pistols tour, I had no interest in doing Punk magazine. It just felt like this phony media thing. Punk wasn't ours anymore. It had become everything we hated. It seemed like it had become everything we had started the magazine to rage against.
--Legs McNeil, in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (p. 334)
In the last prelude, I was led to take up the "culture industry thesis" while trying to understand how the meaning of a song changes by its insertion into a larger cultural network. This idea is of course at the heart of what Adorno and Horkheimer were trying to convey by coining the term: the culture industry functions to neutralize threats to the system. A quick review of the way Adorno and Horkheimer say this works:

“What is decisive today,” Adorno and Horkheimer write in the first culture industry essay ("Enlightenment as Mass Deception"), “[is] the necessity, inherent in the system, of never releasing its grip on the consumer, of not for a moment allowing him or her to suspect that resistance is possible.” It works to suppress resistance and enforce conformity at the level of the individual within the system. On the other hand, though, the culture industry is also necessary in order to stave off the disruptive (read: emancipatory) effects and tendencies within “natural” or “normal” culture:
Culture, in the true sense, did not simply accommodate itself to human beings; but it always simultaneously raised a protest against the petrified relations under which they lived, thereby honoring them. Insofar as culture becomes wholly assimilated to and integrated in those petrified relations, human beings are once more debased. Cultural entities typical of the culture industry are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through. ("The Culture Industry, Reconsidered")
Whereas culture once stood in protest of conformity and reification, the culture industry now stands to reinforce these things. Thus we are not to understand the phrase “culture industry” as referring to some sort of production line, “mass-producing culture,” as it were. “[T]he expression industry is not to be taken literally. It refers to the standardization of the thing itself—such as that of the Western, familiar to every moviegoer—and to the rationalization of distribution techniques, but not strictly to the production process” (CIR). The culture industry works by appropriating categories which once emerged spontaneously—such as “the Western,” or even the categories of “high” and “low” art—and reifying them. What once was spontaneous, diverse culture is knitted into a unified system from which there is virtually no escape; the “rebel” is either subsumed within the system, or he is marginalized and ignored:
Anyone who resists can survive only by being incorporated. Once registered as diverging from the culture industry, they belong to it as the land reformer does to capitalism. Realistic indignation is the trademark of those with a new idea to sell. Public authority in the present society allows only those complaints to be heard in which the attentive ear can discern the prominent figure under whose protection the rebel is suing for peace. (EMD)
By solidifying cultural “alternatives” into modes of the same unified system, the culture industry thus incorporates and effectively disarms any attempts at rebellion (what counterculture supporters call “cooption”). To take a simple example, the Sex Pistols were obviously not big fans of “the system,” and it can be argued that their music was a cry for revolution. While John Lydon sang “I am an anarchist,” however, he did it as a capitalist; as any Sex Pistols fan can tell you, “God Save the Queen,” the song in which Lydon shouts, “Don’t be told what you want / Don’t be told what you need,” rose directly to number one on the sales charts when it was released in 1977. So there seem to be a couple of important points to Adorno and Horkheimer's argument, here:
  1. The culture industry works on the "raw material" of culture, to create out of it a system of commodities;

  2. It does this, at least partially, by standardizing products into "genres," "types," and "markets";

  3. This closed system of commodities can then appropriate challenges, rebels, etc., as new products to be marketed, thereby neutralizing the threat.
Now all of this is fine and good for a critical social theory, of course, but we don't want to get off topic (heaven forbid!)--How does are these points of the culture industry thesis important for understanding the meaning of a song?

Consider the precautionary tale of Mr. Green Gartside. Gartside's band, Scritti Politti, was originally formed in 1977 as a Marxist collective (indeed, both the band's name and an early tune--"Hegemony"--were directly inspired by Antonio Gramsci); what is most interesting, however, for those of you who may know Politti's US smash single "Perfect Way," is that you simply would not recognize the early Scritti Politti as the same band at all. Not only is the style and song structure vastly different (early Scritti Politti is a post-punk, reggae-inspired, experimental band all the way; late Scritti Politti is ultra-slick, polished, R&B-inspired 80s pop music), Gartside himself is complete unrecognizeable here--the Michael Jackson-inspired "voice that's eternally 14 years old" doesn't show up until the mid-80s. Indeed, Scritti Politti becomes the band that most Americans would recognize only after 1983, when Gartside essentially sacks the rest of the band, signs with Virgin, and moves to New York. Their early work is fairly obscure, late 70s post-punk; by contrast, 1985's album Cupid & Psyche 85, is successful, mainstream pop. By this time, Gartside is pulling heavily from Derrida and Lacan—his goal is to deconstruct pop from the inside:
"When I met Derrida, he told me what I was doing was part of the same project of undoing and unsettling that he's engaged in," Green boasted in a 1988 interview, referring to a dinner with the philosopher arranged by a French studio. Yet it's doubtful that the subtle subversions woven into Scritti's superslick sound were picked up on by most listeners. This was especially true of the American audience, which wasn't familiar with the backstory of the band's tortuous journey toward pop and, seeing the video for "Perfect Way," most likely took Green to be just another fey, fair-haired pretty boy from England. On US radio, surrounded by what Green called "the bright, brittle, endless barrage" of mideighties pop funk, it was hard to distinguish "Perfect Way" from any of the other cosmetically perfected, ultracommercial records of that era. Outside the context of indieland's frugal means, he expensiveness of the sound didn't carry any real resonance. Green angrily dismissed "any attempts to tie it to Thatcherism" as "nonsense," but it was hard to see how Cupid could be read in any other terms than straightforward upward mobility, especially when you factored in things such as he beautiful models used in "The Word Girl" video or the fact that Green himself did a modeling assignment for Vogue. Buying in or selling out, was there really a difference in the end? (Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, p. 351, emphasis added.)
The system of pop music, we could say, functions to keep out things that are not pop song commodities. But turning one's art into a pop song commodity also means that this new product is given a new context, in which its meaning changes dramatically. Gartside's music "means" one thing when it exists as an "indie song commodity" (note that this is already an entry into the culture industry!)--but this same song will "mean" something else when it is taken up as a pop commodity. Each step into the industry system is a recontextualization, and each recontextualization is an appropriation (and substitution) of meaning. This is the issue Greil Marcus was talking about in the passage I quoted last time, about the "swallowing up" of what Sprinsteen says by the celebration of his ability to say it. Marcus perhaps makes the point even better when discussing ironic symbols and phrases:

Remember that one? In 1968, in the Vietnam era, the slogan appeared on antiwar bumper stickers: it was an irony, an attempt to negate what it described. With opposition to the Vietnam War growing by the day, the bumper-sticker irony was empowered: talking backward, it said what it meant. Today, worn by marines on whorehouse leave from their foreign bases, the slogan only speaks forward; now it is an affirmation. Now the irony empowers—absolves—those who may do the killing. The joke is on the antiwar activist who, long ago, invented the slogan.

Context is all: because the world has changed, one old slogan has its meaning reversed; an older slogan simply comes back to life. Consider this T-shirt motto, much favored by Americans working with Nicaraguan contras: "KILL 'EM ALL, LET GOD SORT 'EM OUT." The derivation of this T-shirt . . . is interesting. In 1209, at the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade, Pope Innocent III's war of extermination against the Cathars of southern France, a Catholic commander asked how he might distinguish believers in the true Church from the heretics. "Kill them all," came the reply: "God will recognize His own." The new language may be born dead, as a language; as power, it only has to kill to stay alive. (From "The Return of King Arthur," originally published in Artforum in 1986, republished in In the Fascist Bathroom.)
So the workings of the culture industry are important to our inquiry, inasmuch as the very functioning of pop culture as a system is going to shape the meaning of any pop culture product. Irony is going to be undermined, critical messages filtered out or even reversed, and the very structure of commodity distribution and consumption is going to override the specific content of any particular commodity. (This, incidentally, is the way I understand Marshall McLuhan's famous quip, "The medium is the message.") This is all going to be especially significant if we want to take up the case of punk, in which irony and a rejection of the system are such key features.

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