Seattle Uber Alles
Issue #9, November 1993
I don't feel the least bit guilty for commercially exploiting a completely exhausted Rock youth Culture because, at this point in rock history, Punk Rock ... is, to me, dead and gone. We just wanted to pay tribute to something that helped us to feel as though we had crawled out of the dung heap of conformity. To pay tribute like an Elvis or Jimi Hendrix impersonator in the tradition of a bar band. I'll be the first to admit that we are the '90s version of Cheap Trick or the Knack.
— Kurt Cobain of Nirvana
NEVERMIND COMMODIFICATION IN THE USA
The phenomenon of selling out has become big currency these days since the adoption of punk by the American culture industry. Now you can purchase combat boots at Nordstroms, and even your favourite music retailer at the mall carries all of the current Butthole Surfers albums issued by Capitol. Camelot Music's refusal to carry titles by the Dead Kennedys seems to be a faint memory, as does the the Frankenchrist trial and the PMRC hearings in Washington eight years ago. One wonders whether Tipper Gore reciting the lyrics to The Mentors' Shit Tower to Congress ('Smell my anal vapor baby') was just preparing the public to be force fed Nirvana. After reading about the recent battles in Mogadishu I couldn't help but snicker when I recalled the Live Aid concerts the networks forced me to watch on television when I was in high school. Smart Bombs are less ironic.
The ability of major labels to market punk should make everyone question what is really 'alternative' and what is not. While it may seem like a fairly obvious question to the jaded, this has not been properly answered by the punk community in this country at a time when it needs to rethink the theoretical premises of its aesthetic orientation to politics. Punks are continually amazed at the extent to which their anarchist rhetoric of freedom, their critique of boredom as an instrument of domination, and their Adornoesque diagnosis of the entertainment business as a manager of consciousness has been put up for sale by MTV and Tower Records. What they fail to realize is that the attempt to bring punk into dialogue with American society has forced it to enter the sphere of economic relations that it has identified as the source of alienation, exploitation and reactionary political regression.
Part of the sales pitch that punk labels make is that they are able to offer listeners an alternative social space in which to reflect about politics because they have created pockets of society that have not been rationalized by capitalism. As this logic goes, punk labels allow for the production of music whose form and content challenges bourgeois political consciousness because they do not subject their artists to the demand that they produce art to make themselves profitable as businesses. The presupposition of this stance is that it must be neccessary to free art from capitalism in order to make it a medium that facilitates critical political thinking.
At the same time punk labels must continually try to find ways to stay in business, thus bringing the forces of production into conflict with the ideology of freedom themselves and their artists espouse. In the case of Sub Pop, this means learning to make enough money to allow for the continued survival of the parent company with as much comfort as its artists have. What it all boils down to is that there is nothing truly revolutionary about punk except its aesthetic orientation towards bourgeois art, and the mind numbing effect it has upon bourgeois consciousness.
While punk indicts pop music as self-congratulatory propaganda (i.e. Mudhoney's 'Overblown' from the Singles Soundtrack,) it simultaneously renews the cultural form that it criticizes by giving this critique back to the bourgeoisie in order to reassure them that its self-understanding is not pre-given. Sub Pop exemplifies how punk has becomes a form of cultural expression that gives the bourgeois the illusion that they are not subject to having their tastes manufactured the same way in which they manufacture other classes tastes. The bourgeoisie have chosen to appropriate punk over other forms of culture because sub-consciously they find that its critique of domination is a good way to disguise their own domination from themselves.
Perhaps the next step to take would be to make all truly emancipatory forms of political art free and readily available just like ideology and venereal diseases. This way punk bands would never have to force themselves to engage in discourse with the rest of society on capitalist terms. Like ideology, radical politics would be as free and as easy to assimilate as the quasi-fascist attitudes and ideas one takes in by watching television or listening to Pearl Jam. Then again, who would pay to produce all those free copies of Crass' Penis Envy one would like to hand out to purchasers of grunge clothing at Macys, Urban Outfitters, or the Gap? The cooptation of punk should teach us to jettison the illusion that art can affect a structural transformation in American politics when it can only illuminate its contradictions.
The primary failure of punk to do anything other than to make obvious the despair and hopelessness of late twentieth-century American life is its lack of association with organized, radical politics. For a moment it appeared during the nineteen eighty-four elections that such an alliance would be possible as nascent anarchist groups teamed up with punk bands during the Rock Against Reagan shows in San Francisco and Dallas to protest the futility of participating in traditional political processes.
There has been very little such constructive political activity within the punk community since then. This has to do with the defensive posture that it was forced to assume during the late eighties due to the pressure placed upon it by the PMRC, the collapse of several major distributors such as Rough Trade, and the signing frenzy inaugurated by Nirvana. If a label couldn't get its albums into the right stores due to censorship, it lost its artists to major labels because it could not afford to pay them what they deserved. Labels like Sub Pop and Matador are attempting to overcome the loss of their artists by signing distribution deals with outfits like the Alternative Distribution Alliance, a joint venture between Warner Brothers and Restless.
As the economic noose around punk's neck gets tightened, its capacity for critique lessens. By signing distribution deals with major labels, large indies have acknowledged that the spaces they created for critical political thinking have become rationalized by capitalism. Now that these spaces have been colonized, the only thing they can do is sell them. The spectre of grunge continues to loom heavily over America. Touch me, I'm sick.
COOLER THAN YOU:
QUESTIONS OF INDIE IDENTITY
For at least a decade it has become a ritual for people in the indie scene to denounce as a *sell out* every band that moves from an indie to a major label. One of the earliest examples of this surrounded REM's move to a major and the ritualistic cries reached a fever pitch with Nirvana's major label debut Nevermind. Those in the mainstream reply to these denunciations by remarking that all those in the indie scene are disaffected, pouty elitists and that they better grow up quick.
This ritual accusation and its mainstream compliment are not as antagonistic as they might initially seem. Together they express a dimension of truth about the indie scene and indie identity. With their cries of *sell out*, indie scenesters call attention to their identity's fragility in the face of mainstream harvesting of indie music, fashion, etc. Alternatively, by exhibiting disdain for scenester bleats of *sell out*, the mainstreamers point to the non-existence any sort of separate alternative space within society. Their message is that all individuals are part of the capitalist mainstream in some way or other. Indeed, despite all their protestations to the contrary, the scenesters remain within the logic of capitalism especially in the way they produce their culture(commodities to be bought and sold). The fragility of indie identity and indieville's embeddedness in a larger capitalist society are inextricably linked. The identity's fragility is a function of the scenesters' refusal to recognize their connection to the capitalist mainstream.
Unlike other familiar forms of identity, indie identity cannot be essentialized. Rather it is only very loosely defined on the basis of such items as band loyalties, record label mailing lists and an idiosyncratic sense of fashion. This fact introduces a certain vibrancy to indie identity formation. Since they are not burdened by essential identity categories, independent individuals can freely create new loci for their identities by forming a new band, publishing a new zine or buying a new 7 inch. Consequently, indieville is always abuzz with the questions, Who will be the next indie sensation? Which new fanzine is the coolest? Can I make a cooler 'zine? Of course this ability to re-define the indie identity brings a certain amount of instability and fragility with it. Individuals can wake up to find that their identity has been 'scooped' and that their bands, zines, labels and even their city all are pass and no longer really items within indieville's borders.
This fragility is accentuated by indieville's troubled relationship with the mainstream. The typical scenester reaction to the mainstream has been to opt out. Instead of engaging the establishment with a direct political challenge to its legitimacy and forming an identity around this activity, independent individuals have summarily dismissed the 'system' as inauthentic and have turned their backs to it.
Turning away not only magnifies indie identity's fragility it also gives it a certain inward directednes. The identity constantly falls into itself as indieville's bands are picked up by the majors and its fashions are adopted by dependent suburban kids. Indie scenesters must be on the look out for ways of distinguishing themselves, of ways of establishing and re-establishing their identity by discovering a band that much more obscure or a fanzine that much more disgusting. Upon these newly discovered items the scenesters can stake their claim *cooler than you* which simply resonates with *more authentic than you*.
The drive for authenticity and the retreat from the mainstream are bought at a tremendous price. The action of turning away obscures indieville's continued connection to the mainstream. It is romanticism of the worst and most reactionary kind to think one can escape the relationships of a social, political and economic system by denying this system, by opting out. By obscuring these relationships, both self reflection about them and politics undertaken to change them become difficult. Relatedly, by choosing to turn away, the scenesters put themselves into a reactive position. They can only define themselves against the mainstream culture and are ultimately powerless to hinder the mainstream's capacity to undermine their identities by making indie bands into stars and fanzines into books. In the end, the cry of *sell out* is the only weapon scenesters have.
I think tattooing can serve as an example of how individuals attempt to find new foundations for their identities and also how easily these foundations are undermined by the mainstream. By tattooing the body and thereby inscribing the alternate identity on the very skin, the independent individual raises the stakes and dares those in the mainstream who might try to appropriate his 'look' and his 'culture' to also permanently alter their appearance. The tattooed individual holds up his authentic permanence to the banal flux and change of commodified mainstream culture.
Of course, the individual has just willingly and permanently marked himself, making him easier for the mainstream to categorize and thus control. Instead of undermining indie identity by tattooing itself, the mainstream simply transforms the tattooed individual into an image and plasters him onto album covers, in fashion magazines and on billboards. Against the tattoo's supposed permanence the mainstream culture simply draws an image and lets it wash over the individual like so much rushing water passing over stones.
Considering the way mainstream culture uses the power of the image to co-opt alternatives, the most radical thing Kurt Cobain could have ever done over and above his overtly 'political' work would have been to refuse to ever have his picture taken. In this he would have resisted the power of the image and its prominence as the main medium of communication. He would have created a genuine sense of mystery in an image laden, demystified world -- a true utopian moment denying the power of the economic system in which we all find ourselves.
In the end, indie scenesters are not much different from most of us who struggle to maintain an identity that is somewhat stable and can in some way be called our own. Who hasn't felt the sting of disappointment when an object that was a component of his or her identity is taken from them and thrown into the wider world where it becomes a foreign entity no longer their own. A telling mainstream analog to the indie scenester's disappointment over her fave band signing to the majors is the disappointment faced by the sports fan when her team moves out of town.
What can we learn from indieville? I think there are two things to be learned. One, under a system where the commodity form is dominant no identity is safe. Identities will always be open to commodification and *deconstruction*. Two, the action of turning away and refusing to engage capitalist society can only accentuate the fragility of identity.
Opting out, for all the harm it causes, is the first step in challenging the legitimacy of capitalist culture. However, this first step must be coupled with a second step, namely the articulation of a viable program of radical politics. The question for identity is whether a political program can insure a more solid foundation for personal and group identity. There is no room here to theorize about this point, but it seems this is the next area to explore under the topic of identity formation. Indieville illustrates the hopelessness of establishing an identity upon a negative activity (opting out). We can not passively wait for the next new alternative space to open up, but must engage the system within a program of radical politics.
Joel Schalit is a graduate student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He is also a member of the National Hardwood Floor Association and the Christal Methodists.
John Brady is a graduate student in Political Science at UC-Berkeley and a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. He can be reached through e-mail at the following Internet address: firstname.lastname@example.org