Salvos Alternative to What?

Thomas Frank

It’s Not Your Father’s Youth Movement

There are few spectacles corporate America enjoys more than a good counterculture, complete with hairdos of defiance, dark complaints about the stifling ‘mainstream,’ and expensive accessories of all kinds. So now that the culture industry has nailed down the twenty-somethings, it comes as little surprise to learn that it has also uncovered a new youth movement abroad in the land, sporting all-new looks, a new crop of rock ‘n’ roll bands, and an angry new ’tude harsher than any we’ve seen before. Best of all, along with the media’s Columbus-like discovery of this new “underground” skulking around exotic places like Seattle, consumers have been treated to what has undoubtedly been the swiftest and most profound shift of imagery to come across their screens since the 1960s. New soundtracks, new product design, new stars, new ads. “Alternative,” they call it. Out with the old, in with the new.

Before this revelation, punk rock and its descendents had long been considered commercially unviable in responsible business circles because of their incorrigible angriness, their implacable hostility to the cultural climate that the major record labels had labored so long to build, as well as because of their difficult sound. Everyone knows pop music is supposed to be simple and mass-producible, an easy matter of conforming to simple genres, of acting out the standard and instantly recognizable cultural tropes of mass society: I love love, I’m sad sometimes, I like America, I like cars, I’m my own person, I’m something of a rebel, I’m a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride. And all through the ’80s the culture industry knew instinctively that the music that inhabited the margins couldn’t fit, didn’t even merit consideration. So at the dawn of punk the American media, whose primary role has long been the uncritical promotion of whatever it is that Hollywood, the record labels, or the networks are offering at the time, lashed out at this strange, almost unfathomable movement. “Rock Is Sick,” declared the cover of Rolling Stone. The national news magazines pronounced the uprising to be degeneracy of the worst variety, then proceeded to ignore it all through the following decade. Its listeners were invisible people, unmentionable on TV, film, and radio except as quasi-criminals. And in the official channels of music-industry discourse—radio, MTV, music magazines—this music and the tiny independent labels that supported it simply didn’t exist.

They’re upset about “being copied or co-opted by the mainstream.”

But now, it seems, the turning of generations and the inexorable logic of the market have forced the industry to reconsider, and it has descended in a ravenous frenzy on what it believes to be the natural habitats of those it once shunned. Now we watch with interest as high-powered executives offer contracts to bands they have seen only once, college radio playlists become the objects of intense corporate scrutiny, and longstanding independent labels are swallowed whole in a colossal belch of dollars and receptions. Now Rolling Stone magazine makes pious reference to the pioneering influence of defunct bands like Big Black and Mission of Burma whose records they ignored when new. Now we enjoy a revitalized MTV that has hastily abandoned its pop origins to push “alternative” bands round the clock, a 50-million-watt radio station in every city that calls out to us from what is cleverly called “the cutting edge of rock.” And now, after lengthy consultation with its “twenty-something” experts, the mass media rises as one and proclaims itself in solidarity with the rebels, anxious to head out to Lollapalooza on the weekend and ‘mosh’ with the kids, don flannel, wave their fists in the air, and chant lyrics that challenge parental authority.

Time magazine has finally smelled green in the music of what it longingly calls “the hippest venues going,” and, in its issue of October 25, 1993, flings itself headlong into the kind of reckless celebrationism usually reserved only for the biggest-budget movies and the most successful TV shows. Salivating over the “anxious rebels” of “a young, vibrant alternative scene,” it is all Time can do to avoid falling over itself in a delirious pirouette of steadily escalating praise. The magazine breathlessly details every aspect of the youngsters’ deliciously ingenuous insurrection: they’re “defiant,” they’re concerned with “purity and anticommercialism,” they sing about “homes breaking,” and—tastiest of all—they’re upset about “being copied or co-opted by the mainstream.” But for all this, the Time story on “alternative” rock never once mentions a band that is not a “co-optation,” that still produces records on an actual independent label. As per the usual dictates of American culture, only money counts, and indie labels don’t advertise in Time. So Pearl Jam, a major-label band that has made a career out of imitating the indie sounds of the late eighties, wins the magazine’s accolades as the “demigod” of the new “underground,” leading the struggle for “authenticity” and against “selling out.”

Of course this is poor reporting, but journals like Time have always been more concerned with industry boosterism and the hard, profitable facts of making credible the latest packaging of youth culture than with a vague undefinable like “news.” Thus while we read almost nothing about the still unmentionable world of independent rock, we are bombarded with insistences that Pearl Jam is the real rebel thing, the maximum leaders of America’s new youth counterculture—assertions that are driven home by endless descriptions of the band going through all the varieties of insurgent posturing. They have a “keen sense of angst,” and singer Eddie Vedder feels bad about the family problems of his youth. He rose to success from nowhere, too: he was a regular guy with a taste for living on the edge (much like the people in ads for sneakers and cars and jeans), a “gas station attendant and high school dropout,” who thought up the band’s lyrics while surfing. But Eddie’s real sensitive also, a true Dionysian like Mick Jagger, with a “mesmerizing stage presence” that “reminded fans of an animal trying to escape from a leash.” In fact, he’s so sensitive that certain of the band’s lyrics aren’t included with the others on the album sleeve because “the subject matter is too painful for Vedder to see in print.”

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The gushing of official voices like Time make necessary a clarification that would ordinarily go without saying: among the indie-rock circles which they mimic and from which they pretend to draw their credibility, bands like Pearl Jam are universally recognized to suck. Almost without exception, the groups and music that are celebrated as “alternative” are watery, derivative, and strictly second-rate; so uniformly bad, in fact, that one begins to believe that stupid shallowness is a precondition of their marketability. Most of them, like Pearl Jam, play pre-digested and predictable versions of formulaic heavy guitar rock, complete with moronic solos and hoarse masculine pourings. There is certainly nothing even remotely “alternative” about this sound, since music like this has long been the favorite of teenage boys everywhere; it’s just the usual synthetic product, repackaged in a wardrobe of brand new imagery made up of thousands of fawning articles and videos depicting them as “rebels” this or “twenty-something” that. A band called the Stone Temple Pilots, who grace the cover of other national magazines, have distinguished themselves as the movement’s bargain boys, offering renditions of all the various “alternative” poses currently fashionable: all in one package the consumer gets sullen angst, sexual menace, and angry pseudo-protest with imitation punk thrown in for no extra charge.

As ever, the most interesting aspect of the industry’s noisy clamoring and its self-proclaimed naughtiness is not the relative merits of the “alternative” culture products themselves, but the shift of imagery they connote. Forget the music; what we are seeing is just another overhaul of the rebel ideology that has fueled business culture ever since the 1960s, a new entrant in the long, silly parade of “countercultural” entrepreneurship. Look back at the ads and the records and the artists of the pre-Nirvana period: all the same militant protestations of nonconformity are there, just as they are in the ads and records and artists of the ’70s and the ’60s. Color Me Badd and Wham! once claimed to be as existentially individualist, as persecuted a group of “anxious rebels” as Rage Against the Machine now does. But by the years immediately preceding 1992, these figures’ claims to rebel leadership had evaporated, and American business faced a serious imagery crisis. People had at long last tired of such obvious fakery, grown unconvinced and bored. No one except the most guileless teeny-boppers and the most insecure boomers fell for the defiant posturing of Duran Duran or Vanilla Ice or M.C. Hammer or Bon Jovi; especially when the ghettos began to burn, especially when the genuinely disturbing sounds of music that was produced without benefit of corporate auspices were finding ever wider audiences.

By the beginning of the new decade, the patina of daring had begun to wear thin on the eighties’ chosen crop of celebrity-rebels. Entire new lines of insolent shoes would have to be designed and marketed; entire new looks and emblems of protest would have to be found somewhere. Consumerism’s traditional claim to be the spokesman for our inchoate disgust with consumerism was hemorrhaging credibility, and independent rock, with its Jacobin ‘authenticity’ obsession, had just the things capital required.

Out went the call for an “alternative” from a thousand executive suites, and overnight everyone even remotely associated with independent rock in Seattle—and Minneapolis, Chapel Hill, Champaign, Lawrence, and finally Chicago—found themselves the recipients of unsolicited corporate attention. Only small adjustments were required to bring the whole universe of corporate-sponsored rebellion up to date, to give us Blind Melon instead of Frankie Goes to Hollywood; 10,000 Maniacs instead of Sigue Sigue Sputnik. And suddenly we were propelled into an entirely new hip paradigm, a new universe of cool, with all new stars and all new relationships between the consumer, his celebrities, and his hair.

Gap has enlisted members of Sonic Youth and the cloying pop band Belly to demonstrate their products’ continuing street-cred.

And now Pepsi is no longer content to cast itself as the beverage of Michael Jackson or Ray Charles or even Madonna: these figures’ hip has been obsoleted suddenly, convincingly, and irreparably. Instead we watch a new and improved, an even more anti-establishment Pepsi Generation, cavorting about to what sounds like “grunge” rock; engaged in what appears to be a sort of oceanside slam dance. Vanity Fair, a magazine devoted strictly to the great American pastime of celebrating celebrity, hires the editors of a noted “alternative” zine to overhaul its hipness; Interview, the great, stupid voice of art as fashion, runs a lengthy feature on college radio, the site of the juiciest, most ingenuously “alternative” lifestyle innovations in the land. Ad agencies and record labels compete with each other in a frenzied scramble to hire leading specimens of the “alternative” scene they have ignored for fifteen years. Even commercial radio stations have seen the demographic writing on the wall and now every city has one that purports to offer an “alternative” format, featuring musical hymns to the various rebellious poses available to consumers at malls everywhere.

In the same spirit the Gap has enlisted members of Sonic Youth and the cloying pop band Belly to demonstrate their products’ continuing street-cred; Virginia Slims has updated its vision of rebel femininity with images of a woman in flannel sitting astride a motorcycle and having vaguely ’60s designs painted on her arm. Ralph Lauren promotes its astoundingly expensive new line of pre-weathered blue jeans and flannel shirts with models done up in “dreadlocks” and staring insolently at the camera. Another firm offers “Disorder Alternative Clothing” for the rebellious grungy “few who are tired of the mainstream.” Quite sensibly, the makers of Guess clothing prefer imagery of an idealized “alternative” band, played by models, to the real thing, since actual rock ‘n’ rollers rarely sate the company’s larger obsession with human beauty. So there they stand, in a pose that just screams “authentic”: four carefully unshaven guys in sunglasses, grimaces, and flannel shirts, each with a bandana or necklace suspended carefully from their neck, holding guitar cases and trying to look as hardened, menacing, and hip as possible, with a lone blonde babe clinging off to one side. In another ad the Guess Clothing fantasy band are pictured “in concert,” a flannel-clad guitarist spotlit with eyes closed, stretching one hand out to the heavens in an anthemic consumer epiphany.

But the most revealing manifestation of the new dispensation is something you aren’t supposed to see: an ad for MTV that ran in the business sections of a number of newspapers. “Buy this 24-year-old and get all his friends absolutely free,” its headline reads. Just above these words is a picture of the 24-year-old referred to, a quintessential “alternative” boy decked out in the rebel garb that the executives who read this ad will instantly recognize from their market reports to be the costume of the “twenty-somethings”: beads and bracelets, a vest and T-shirt, torn jeans, Doc Martens and a sideways haircut like the Jesus and Mary Chain wore in 1985. His pose: insolent, sprawled insouciantly in an armchair, watching TV of course. His occupation: consumer. “He watches MTV,” continues the ad, “Which means he knows a lot. More than just what CDs to buy and what movies to see. He knows what car to drive and what credit cards to use. And he’s no loner. What he eats, his friends eat. What he wears, they wear. What he likes, they like.”

Thus with the “alternative” face-lift, “rebellion” continues to perform its traditional function of justifying the economy’s ever-accelerating cycles of obsolescence with admirable efficiency. Since our willingness to load up our closets with purchases depends upon an eternal shifting of the products paraded before us, upon our being endlessly convinced that the new stuff is better than the old, we must be persuaded over and over again that the “alternatives” are more valuable than the existing or the previous. Ever since the 1960s hip has been the native tongue of advertising, “anti-establishment” the vocabulary by which we are taught to cast off our old possessions and buy whatever they have decided to offer this year. And over the years the rebel has naturally become the central image of this culture of consumption, symbolizing endless, directionless change, an eternal restlessness with “the establishment”—or, more correctly, with the stuff “the establishment” convinced him to buy last year.

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Not only did the invention of “alternative” provide capital with a new and more convincing generation of rebels, but in one stroke it has obsoleted all the rebellions of the past ten years, rendered our acid-washed jeans, our Nikes, our DKNYs meaningless. Are you vaguely pissed off at the world? Well, now you get to start proving it all over again, with flannel shirts, a different brand of jeans, and big clunky boots. And in a year or two there will be an “alternative” to that as well, and you’ll get to do it yet again.

It’s not only the lure of another big Nirvana-like lucre-glut that brings label execs out in droves to places like Seattle, or hopes of uncovering the new slang that prompts admen to buy journals like The Baffler. 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. As Interview affirms, “What still makes the genre so cool is not its cash potential or hype factor but the attendant drive and freedom to create and discover fresh, new music.” Fresh new music, fresh new cars, fresh new haircuts, fresh new imagery.

Thus do capital’s new dancing flunkeys appear not in boater hat and ingratiating smile, but in cartoonish postures of sullen angst or teen frustration: dyed hair, pierced appendages, flannel shirt around the waist. Everyone in advertising remembers how frightening and enigmatic such displays were ten years ago when they encountered them in TV stories about punk rock, and now their time has come to be deployed as the latest signifiers of lifestyle savvy. Now it’s executives themselves on their days off, appearing in their weekend roles as kings of the consumer hill, who flaunt such garb, donning motorcycle jackets and lounging around the coffeehouses they imagine to be frequented by the latest generation of angry young men. Of course every other persecuted-looking customer is also an advertising account exec or a junior vice president of something-or-other; of course nobody would ever show up to see a band like, say, the New Bomb Turks or Prisonshake in a costume like this. As ever, Interview magazine, the proudest exponent of the commercialization of dissent, explains the thinking of the corporate mandarin who has now decided to dude himself up in a Sid Vicious leather jacket and noticeable tattoo. Punk, as the magazine triumphantly announces in a recent issue, has been successfully revived as a look only, happily stripped of any problematic ideological baggage:

Maybe ‘90s punk is just a great high style. Some will slash their own clothes, and others will clamor after the fashions of rule-slashing designers, [are there ever any designers who don’t claim to “slash rules?”] If your mother doesn’t like it, who cares? If your kid is embarrassed, stand proud. If your bosses fire you for it, screw ‘em. And if people stare at you in the street, isn’t that the point?

So on we plod through the mallways of our lives, lured into an endless progression of shops by an ever-changing chorus of manic shaman-rebels, promising existential freedom—sex! ecstasy! liberation!—from the endless trudge. All we ever get, of course, are some more or less baggy trousers or a hat that we can wear sideways. Nothing works, we are still entwined in vast coils of tawdriness and idiocy, and we resolve not to be tricked again. But lo! Down the way is a new rebel-leader, doing handstands this time, screaming about his untrammelled impertinence in an accent that we know could never be co-opted, and beckoning us into a shoe store. Marx’s quip that the capitalist will sell the rope with which he is hanged begins to seem ironically incomplete. In fact, with its endless ranks of beautifully coiffed, fist-waving rebel boys to act as barker, business is amassing great sums by charging admission to the ritual simulation of its own lynching.

Interlude: Come Around to My Way of Thinking

Perhaps the only good thing about the commodification of “alternative” is that it will render obsolete, suddenly, cleanly, and inexorably, that whole flatulent corpus of “cultural studies” that seeks to appreciate Madonna as some sort of political subversive. Even though the first few anthologies of writings on the subject only appeared in 1993, the rise of a far more threatening generation of rock stars has ensured that this singularly annoying pedagogy will never become a full-fledged “discipline,” with its own lengthy quarterly issued by some university press, with annual conferences where the “subaltern articulations” of Truth or Dare are endlessly dissected and debated.

Looking back from the sudden vantage point that only this kind of image revolution affords, the scholarship of academia’s Madonna fans now appears as predictable in its conclusions as it was entertaining in its theoretical pyrotechnics. After careful study of the singer’s lyrics and choreography, the professors breathlessly insisted, they had come upon a crucial discovery: Madonna was a gender-questioning revolutionary of explosive potential, a rule-breaking avatar of female empowerment, a person who disliked racism! One group of gaping academics hailed her “ability to tap into and disturb established hierarchies of gender and sexuality.” Another celebrated her video “Vogue” as an “attempt to enlist us in a performance that, in its kinetics, deconstructs gender and race,” an amusing interpretation, to be sure, but also one which could easily have been translated into academese directly from a Madonna press kit.

Madonna is “subverting” from within.

The problem is not that academics have abandoned their sacred high-culture responsibilities for a channel changer and a night at the disco, but that in so doing they have uncritically reaffirmed the mass media’s favorite myths about itself. Discovering, after much intellectual twisting and turning, that Madonna is exactly the rebel that she and her handlers imagine her to be, is more an act of blithe intellectual complicity than of the “radicalism” to which the Madonna analysts believe they are contributing. After all, it was Madonna’s chosen image as liberator from established mores that made her so valuable to the culture industry in the first place. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that singing the glories of pseudo-rebellion remains to this day the monotone anthem of advertising, film, and TV sitcom, or that the pseudo-rebel himself—the defier of repressive tradition, ever overturning established ways to make way for the new; the self-righteous pleasure-monad, changing identity, gender, hair color, costume, and shoes on a whim—is more a symbol of the machine’s authority than an agent of resistance. But academics seem to have missed the point. For years the culture industry has held up for our admiration an unending parade of such self-proclaimed subverters of middle-class tastes, and certain scholars have been only too glad to play their part in the strange charade, studying the minutiae of the various artists’ rock videos and deciding, after long and careful deliberation, that yes, each one is, in fact, a bona fide subversive. How thoroughly had they come around to the Industry’s way of thinking; how desperately did they want to, want to get along!

But thanks to the rise of “alternative,” with its new and vastly improved street cred, sneers, and menacing hairdos, the various postmodern courses by which each scribbler arrived at his or her conclusion that Madonna is “subverting” from within, and the particular costly academic volume in which they presented their “findings” are now, thankfully, finally, and irresistibly made irrelevant. Just as Madonna’s claims to rebel authenticity have been made suddenly laughable by an entirely new package of much more rebellious rebel imagery, so their works are consigned to the same fate. Academia’s Madonna fans have built their careers by performing virtually the same task, with a nice intellectual finish, as the toothy hosts of Entertainment Tonight, and now they are condemned to the same rubbish bin of instant forgetting. Their embrace of corporate culture has brought them face to face with its unarguable conclusions, the steel logic of its unprotestable workings: obsolescence.

In this spirit I offer the following observation.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of all this is not scholars’ gullible swallowing of some industry publicist’s line, or even their naive inability to discern Madonna’s obvious labor-fakery. The real disappointment lies in their abject inability to recognize “popular culture” anywhere but in the officially-sanctioned showplaces of corporate America; their utter dependence on television to provide them with an imagery of rebellion. Even as they delved deeper and deeper into the esoterica of poststructuralist theory, investing countless hours scrutinizing bad rock videos frame by frame, they remained hopelessly ignorant of the actual insurgent culture that has gone on all around them for fifteen years, for the simple reason that it’s never made MTV. And academics, the wide-eyed, well-scrubbed sons and daughters of the suburbs, cannot imagine a “counterculture” that exists outside of their full-color, 36-inch screens. So in TV-land as well as the academy, Madonna was as “radical” as it got. Thus did the role of criticism become identical to that of the glossy puff magazines, with their well-practiced slavering over the latest products of the Culture Industry: to celebrate celebrity, to find an epiphany in shopping, a happy heteroglossia in planned obsolescence. As for their interpretations, the professorial class might just as well have been proclaiming the counter-hegemonic undercurrents of “Match Game” or the patriarchy-resisting profundity of Virginia Slims advertising.

Imagine what they could do if they only knew about Borbetomagus or Merzbow!

Fuck You and Your Underground

At the center of the academics’ intricate webs of Madonna-theories lay the rarely articulated but crucial faith that the workings of the culture industry, the stuff that comes over our TV screens and through our stereos, are profoundly normal. The culture-products that so unavoidably define our daily lives, it is believed, are a given—a natural expression of the tastes of “the people.” This has long been a favorite sophistry of the industry’s paid publicity flacks as well: mass culture is fundamentally democratic. The workings of the market ensure that the people get what the people want; that sitcoms and Schwarzenegger and each of the various sneering pop stars are the embodiment of the general will. Thus, as the academic celebrators of Madonna were always careful to assert, those who insist on criticizing Madonna are deeply suspicious, affected adherents of an elitist and old-fashioned aesthetic that unfairly dismisses “low” culture in favor of such insufferably stuffy pastimes as ballet and opera.

This anti-elitist theme is, quite naturally, also a favorite in sitcoms and movies, which establish their hegemony over the public mind by routinely bashing various stock snobs and hapless highbrow figures. Advertising repeatedly strikes the same note: a drink called “Somers” is to gin, one ad asserts, as a bright green electric guitar, implement of transgressive cool, is to an old brown violin, squeaky symbol of the slow-moving. A Pizza Hut commercial similarly juxtaposes a moralizing, old-fashioned stuffed-shirt man who is filmed in black and white, with a full-color, rock ‘n’ roll rendition of the restaurant of revolt. And when the straw man of “cultural elitism” is conjured up by the academics for its ritual stomping, the feeling is exactly the same. There is only the dry, spare, highbrow of the privileged and the lusty, liberated lowbrow of the masses, and between these two the choice is clear.

This, then, is the culture of “the people.” Never mind all the openly conducted machinations of the culture industry—the mergers and acquisitions, the “synergy,” the admen’s calculations of “penetration” and “usage pull,” the dismantling of venerable publishing operations for reasons of fiscal whimsy. What the corporations have decided we will watch and read and listen to is somehow passed off as the grass-roots expressions of the nation. And this is a crucial financial distinction, since the primary business of business is no longer, say, making things or exploiting labor, but manufacturing culture, finding the means to make you buy and consume as much as you possibly can, convincing you of the endless superiority of the new over the old, that the solution to whatever your unhappiness may be lies in a few new purchases. It is a truism of the business world that Coke and Pepsi don’t make soda pop; they make advertising. Nike may pay Asian laborers starvation wages, but their most important concern is convincing us that it is meaningful, daring, and fulfilling to spend over one hundred dollars for a pair of sneakers. If you feel a burning need to understand “culture,” get out of the coffee house and buy yourself a subscription to Advertising Age.

“Popular culture” doesn’t enlighten; on the contrary, it aims to make people stupid.

The media-flurry over the definition of the “Twenty-somethings” provides an interesting example of the ways in which “popular culture” is made, not born. Between the multitude of small presses and independent record labels that were founded, produced, and distributed by young people over the last decade, we have been a remarkably articulate, expressive group. But this is not what was meant when the various lifestyle journalists and ad agency hacks went looking for “Generation X.” The only youth culture that concerned them was the kind that’s pre-fabricated for us in suites on the Sunset Strip and Madison Avenue, and the only question that mattered was how to refine this stuff so that we, too, could be lured into the great American consumer maelstrom. Take a look at the book 13th Gen by Neil Howe and Bill Strauss, the most baldfaced attempt to exploit the culture industry’s confusion about how to pigeonhole us. As with the Time article on Pearl Jam, the book’s lengthy cataloguing of “Twenty-something” culture never once even mentions an actual indie-label band or a magazine produced by young people; all that matters are the movies, the TV sitcoms, the major-label records that are targeted our way. The book’s press kit (which, again, you aren’t supposed to see) explicitly cast 13th Gen as a useful guide for executives in the advertising, public-relations, and election-winning industries. We are to be sold, not heard.

Under no condition is “popular culture” something that we make ourselves, in the garage with electric guitars and second-hand amplifiers, on the office photocopier when nobody’s looking. It is, strictly and exclusively, the stuff produced for us in a thousand corporate boardrooms and demographic studies. “Popular culture” doesn’t enlighten, doesn’t seek to express meaning or shared aspects of our existence; on the contrary, it aims to make people stupid and complacent. “Popular culture” sells us stuff, convinces us to buy more soap or a different kind of shirt, assures us of the correctness of business paternalism, offers us a rebel fantasy world in which to drown our never-to-be-realized frustration with lives that have become little more than endless shopping trips, marathon filing sessions.

“Popular culture” is the enemy; rock ‘n’ roll is the health of the state.

In such a climate, the old highbrow/lowbrow categorization becomes utterly irrelevant: who cares about the intricacies of Brahms when the world is being made and unmade anew every day by the power-tie and mobile-phone wielding commissars of public awareness? The great American cultural conflict has nothing to do with the clever pas de deux of affected outrage acted out by sputtering right-wingers and their blustering counterparts in Soho and Hollywood. It is not concerned with twaddle like “family values” or “cultural elitism,” but with a much more basic issue: the power of each person to make his own life without the droning, quotidian dictation of business interests. If we must have grand, sweeping cultural judgments, only one category matters anymore: the adversarial. The business of business is our minds, and the only great divide that counts in music, art, or literature, is whether or not they give us the tools to comprehend, to resist, to evade the all-invasive embrace.

But between the virtual monopoly of business interests over the stuff you spend all day staring at and the decision of the academics to join the burgeoning and noisy legion of culture industry cheerleaders, very little that is adversarial is allowed to filter through. Our culture has been hijacked without a single cry of outrage. However we may fantasize about Madonna’s challenging of “oppressive tonal hierarchies,” however we may drool over Pearl Jam’s rebel anger, there is, quite simply, almost no dissent from the great cultural project of corporate America, no voice to challenge television’s overpowering din. You may get a different variety of shoes this year, but there is no “alternative,” ever.

And yet it is not for nothing that the rebel is the paramount marketing symbol of the age. Beneath all the tawdry consumer goods through which we are supposed to declare our individuality—the earrings, the sunglasses, the cigarettes, the jackets, the shoes; beneath the obvious cultural necessities of an obsolescence-driven business regime, we find something deeply meaningful in the image of the free-spirit. We need the rebel because we know that there is something fundamentally wrong.

“Something fundamentally wrong.” So ubiquitous is this feeling, so deeply entrenched is this unspoken but omnipresent malaise, that it almost seems trite as soon as the words are set on the page. And yet only the simplest, least aware, and most blithely comfortable among us retain any sort of faith in the basic promises of our civilization. Violence, fear, deterioration, and disorder are the omnipresent daily experiences of one class; meaninglessness, mandatory servility, and fundamental dishonesty inform every minute in the lives of another. Conrad’s horror and Eliot’s futility have become the common language of everyday life. We want out, and the rebel, whether of the “artistic,” beatnik variety, the inner-city gangster type, or the liberated star-figures of “alternative” rock, has become the embodiment of our longings.

It is due only to the genius of the market that these desires have been so effectively prevented from achieving any sort of articulation, so cleverly and so imperceptibly channeled into dumb politics and simple acts of consuming, into just more and more and more of the same.

We may never be able to dismantle the culture of consumption and we will almost surely never achieve any sort of political solution to the problems of this botched civilization. Quite simply, no platform exists from which the monomessage of the media might be countered. The traditional organs of resistance, enfeebled by decades of legislative attack and a cultural onslaught they do not comprehend, have either made their peace with consumerism or cling to outdated political goals.

So foreign to the executive are our “punk rock” rantings that they are forced to hire “youth consultants” to explain us to them.

But through the deafening mechanical yammering of a culture long since departed from the rails of meaning or democracy, through the excited hum of the congregation gathered for mandatory celebrity-worship, there is one sound that insists on making sense, that speaks piercingly through the fog of fakery, the airy, detached formulas of official America. Punk rock, hardcore, indie rock, the particular name that’s applied is not important: but through its noise comes the scream of torment that is this country’s only mark of health; the sweet shriek of outrage that is the only sign that sanity survives amid the stripmalls and hazy clouds of Hollywood desire. That just beyond the silence of suburban stupidity, the confusion of the parking lots, the aggression, display, and desperate supplication of the city streets, the possibility of a worthy, well-screamed no survives. Just behind the stupefying smokescreens of authorized “popular culture” seethes something real, thriving on the margins, condemned to happy obscurity both by the marketplace, to whose masters (and consumers) its violent negation will be forever incomprehensible, and by the academic arbiters of “radicalism,” by whom the “culture of the people” is strictly understood to be whatever the corporate donors say it is. Unauthorized and unauthorizable, it clamors in tones forbidden amid the pseudo-rebel propriety of the cultural avenues of the empire: complete, overriding disgust; routine degradation under the tutelage of the machine; a thousand mundane unmentionables like the sheer exhausting idiocy of shopping, the dark and not at all amusing vacancy of celebrity (because no matter what skillful postmodern maneuvers of ironic rationalization they make, the institution of celebrity requires, at its base, the unironic, and very real, mental surrender of millions of people in such places as Toledo and Detroit and Kansas City), the grinding inescapable ruination of the everyday, the mind-numbing boredom, the You’re All Twisted, violence, distrust, anger. It is the frenzied transgression of the TV mandatory, the sudden giggling realization that something has finally come close, confronted the electronic fist with such forceful extremist honesty, with an openness so utterly foreign to the “realistic” violence of the Hollywood blockbuster, the scopophilia of the sex drama. For them it’s fantasies of the comfortable cul-de-sac with state-of-the-art security equipment, the fine car, the airborne curfew enforcement unit, the Lake Forest estate, the Westchester commute; for us it’s the secession, the internal exile, the purging clean pure no; the unnuanced thrashing release, the glorious never never never, the Won’t Fit the Big Picture, the self-losing refusal to ever submit, the I’m not not not not not not not your academy.

For this expression of dissent there has been no Armory show, no haughty embrace by aesthetes or editors. The only recognition it has garnered is the siege equipment of the consumer age, a corporate-sponsored shadow movement that seeks to mine it for marketable looks, imitable sounds, menacing poses. A travelling youth circus patterned, of course, after the familiar boomer originals of Woodstock and Dead shows, is invented to showcase the new industry dispensations. But so strange, so foreign to the executive are our “punk rock” rantings that they are forced to hire “youth consultants” to explain us to them, to pay marketing specialists vast sums to do nothing but decode our puzzling signifiers. For while we were discovering paths of resistance, the people who are now manufacturing, marketing, and consuming “alternative” product were busily transforming themselves into mandarins at business school, were honing themselves dumber and dumber at the college paper, were practicing their professional skills in the bathrooms of the frat houses. Only lately have they discovered that we’re “hip,” that our look has “potential,” that our music “rocks.”

So now, with their bottomless appetite for new territory to colonize, they’ve finally come around to us. For years they were too busy working their way up the corporate ladder to be bothered, but now what we have been building has begun to look usable, even marketable. But they won’t find it easy. Ours is a difficult country, with all sorts of arcane pitfalls that will require an ever-mounting payroll of expensive consultant-guides, many of whom will lead them astray just for the sheer joy of seeing the machine seize up, of watching suburbanites wander about clad in ridiculous slang and hairdos. (Who was it that foisted Paw on A&M?)

We will not be devoured easily. Few among us are foolish enough to believe that “the music industry” is just a bigger version of the nextdoor indie label, just a collection of simple record companies gifted mysteriously with gargantuan budgets and strange powers to silence criticism. Few consider the glorified publicity apparatus that we call media as anything other than an ongoing attack by the nation’s owners on the addled minds of the great automaton audience. We inhabit an entirely different world, intend entirely different outcomes. Their culture-products aim explicitly for enervated complacency; we call for resistance. They seek fresh cultural fuel so that the machinery of stupidity may run incessantly; we cry out from under that machine’s wheels. They manufacture lifestyle; we live lives.

So as they venture into the dark new world of hip, they should beware: the natives in these parts are hostile, and we’re armed with flame-throwers. We will refuse to do their market research for them, to provide them amiably with helpful lifestyle hints and insider trend know-how. We are not a convenient resource available for exploitation whenever they require a new transfusion of rebel street cred; a test-market for “acts” they can someday unleash on the general public. And as they canvass the college radio stations for tips on how many earrings and in which nostril, or for the names of the “coolest” up-and-coming acts, they will find themselves being increasingly misled, embarrassed by bogus slang, deceived by phantom blips on the youth-culture futures index, anticipating releases from nonexistent groups. It has taken years to win the tiny degree of autonomy we now enjoy. No matter which way they cut their hair or how weepily Eddie Vedder reminisces about his childhood, we aren’t about to throw it open to a process that in just a few years would leave us, too, jaded and spent, discarded for yet a newer breed of rebels, an even more insolent crop of imagery, looks, and ads. Sanity isn’t that cheap.

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