"I'm really tooth decay": The Paradox of Avant-Garde Resistance in the Case of Negativland's DisPepsi
Issue #56, Summer 2001
It was Coca-Cola. My father had once told me that it rotted the teeth. That if you put a tooth in a glass of Coca-Cola it would rot away. At home we never drank it.
— E. L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel
Ever since Walter Benjamin's 1935 essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," experimental artists working in varied media have confronted the problem of political efficacy, either in the realm of bourgeois sponsorship and clientele ready to co-opt their experiments, or a commercial sphere that rejects their often disjointed and complex texts. The question of the relationship between a world increasingly dependent on technology and the experiences that come from daily activities that engage technology, ATMs, computers, television, video, and the like shows that contemporary life has profoundly changed the perceptions of people living with such devices. Moreover, the intense presence of technology in the lives of many living in post-industrial nations is accompanied by constant advertising; images and narratives that evoke various products interrupt television and radio programming, drives down the highway, and, now, the tops, margins, and bottoms of many Web sites. The role of the product — or as Jean Baudrillard calls it, the brand — is central, appearing in a steady stream that often merges so closely with the media that the programming is also the commercial, such as is the case with cable channels, like the Weather Channel or CNN. Products and advertisements also merge in the virtual space of the internet as search devices are also companies, like Yahoo!, Lycos, and AOL.
Experimental artists such as Marcel Duchamp de-familiarized ordinary objects including urinals, bicycle wheels, and snow shovels, and placed them in the space of a museum exhibit, giving them titles that draw attention to their use while playing with the possibilities of their roles in the culture that produced them. In a similar vein, post-war artists like Andy Warhol appropriated advertisements (such as his famous Campbell soup can silk screens) and put them alongside other icons of cultural significance such as images of Marilyn Monroe and Mao Zedong, not to mention Warhol himself. In a sense, he continued Duchamp's challenge to high culture and reinvigorated the discussion of what constitutes art. This tradition of incorporating popular culture's texts, especially those associated with advertising, resurfaces in the 1980s and 1990s with the agit-prop group Negativland, which experiments with "found" sound texts to create hybrid "audio collages." By their defense against a suit by Island records for the group's re-purposing of U2's song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" without proper authorization, they locate themselves in the tradition of visual artists such as Duchamp and Warhol.
When critics write about Negativland, they tend to focus on the lawsuits filed against the band resulting from their appropriation of sounds that typically include portions of films, advertisements, outtakes of Casey Kasem's radio program America's Top 40, popular songs, talk radio show/host voices and original music. Indeed, that this group challenges the law in ways that previous experimentalists have not speaks to the confusing and unstable terrain of copyright law. In their Bad Subjects essay "Sample My Privates," (#41) Joel Schalit and Jonathan Sterne argue:
... Intellectual property is only a valid category after the fact, after a certain set of practices are defined as theft. This is because the very notion of intellectual property requires a stable conception of content and media; without such a stable concept, intellectual property becomes an empty category. New communications technologies often wreak havoc with conceptions of copyright until the medium in question has a well-defined industrial and content structure.
This tendency also shows how musical innovation, new technologies, and popular culture combine to bring into crisis seemingly established, stable, and powerful media companies. For example, Schalit and Sterne contend that, once artists win the right to sample in order to make a new artistic product, the issue of cleaving the right to ownership from the original artist so that it may be owned by the company that has signed the artist becomes the key to determining intellectual property: "The categories of creative production and ownership are clearly separated: the collaborators appear as property of their holding companies; the samples appear as common property [in terms of fair use]." Intellectual property, then, must be owned by someone, not necessarily its producer, to be a commodity, or to have exchange value.
These points are important and draw attention to the unique ways in which technological reproduction democratizes the production of musical texts and challenges the established order of the recording industry, which is not at all interested in the rights of the artists producing music but rather in the industry's ability to own lucrative products. However, the politics of the esthetics generated by Negativland's experiments are also of interest. The practice of making Negativland's art is not the only thing about their work that threatens capitalist ideology. The commentary in the art itself shows a strong resistance to the dulling, narrow, and one-dimensional approach of advertisers. Their most recent full-length, 1999's DisPepsi, begins to break down the images that Pepsi and Coca-Cola create through their advertisements. The title DisPepsi, of course, uses the trademark name of Pepsi-Cola, and, as it is advertised on Negativland's Web site and printed on the CD, the letters are scrambled to avoid a lawsuit. Beyond exposing the processes through which Negativland upsets the order of musical ownership, they also, like Duchamp and Warhol, have things to say about their culture.
In her book on avant-garde art, Radical Artifice, Marjorie Perloff contends that when cultural critics find themselves dissatisfied with the seeming lack of political conviction in postmodern art and literature, they often exclude the reading that the art calls the viewer to engage in. Her example is an astute reading of Marcel Duchamp's "readymade," which consists of a wooden-handled, galvanized-iron snow shovel, which stood on display in a museum in 1915. Perloff draws attention to the title, In Advance of the Broken Arm, and identifies it as a precautionary measure for all right-thinking bourgeois homeowners and "as industrialized society's replacement of the human arm." Yet, Perloff notes that other critics ignore the title and fixate on the playfulness and "philosophy" of the art. Similarly, critics such as Linda Hutcheon addresses the same charge against postmodern fiction as she establishes her concept of "historiographic metafiction" as being rooted firmly in a dialogue with a world that assumes referentiality. Rather than create a simple parody or reproduction of an event in history, for example, historiographic metafiction will call into question the processes through which the complex play of events, perceptions, and experiences in any given moment becomes ordered, linear, and unified in traditional narrative forms. Like writers such as John Fowles questioning contemporary efforts to comprehend life in the 19th century in The French Lieutenant's Woman or Kurt Vonnegut challenging the role of the author in Slaughterhouse-Five, Negativland breaks into the strong associations that bind commodity and the "affects," or sentiments, that consumers are supposed to associate with it.
Before discussing Negativland's impact on the complex relationships through which consumers come to identify "brands," a sketch of Baudrillard's notion of the "brand" will be helpful to get at the process of signification that occurs in the process of brand association. For Baudrillard, advertising creates a peculiar connection among acoustic images (signifiers) and the concepts that they attempt to represent (that which is signified). For Baudrillard, there is no action in the play of signifiers in the langue of advertising; in other words, what occurs in advertising is not language. Rather, advertising establishes "a system of classification," taking the complicated ways in which human beings experience the world and create identities (through language) and, instead of engaging thought, funnels their thoughts into categories. Repressive ideologies, thus, give way to a new form of alienation, which stems from a constant state of contradiction in which consumers cannot find meaning within the system of signification. For Baudrillard, the result is "unconstrained behaviors," providing "pleasure" as the consumer "chooses" and "purchases." Thus, the consumer comes to understand the world and others through a self-referential system of "social standing," as marked by the play of signification. Even though Baudrillard states explicitly that the "code" through which brand names acquire meaning (which has nothing to do with the product, is not a matter of class status per se), his examples do tend to suggest a close connection between consumerist identity and the status of the object. The key in this definition is to note that an object's status is dependent on other significations of other affects, manifested in the brand names themselves. The status is not simply class status for Baudrillard, but rather a massive economy of suggested meanings that relate to one another.
In the case of Negativland's DisPepsi, the product throws into circulation a multitude of signifiers. Pepsi ads themselves use many suggested meanings by recruiting celebrities, exploiting their own rivalry with Coca-Cola, generating a nebulous definition of the generation coming of age in the 1990s ("Generation Next") and a host of general and vague descriptors. If there is no ground from which to locate a stable system of signification, then how can one undercut Pepsi's messages? This question reflects primary reason for many critiques of the postmodern condition. However, as Bernstein, Hutcheon, and others contend, locating the processes through which a seemingly unified narrative is constructed acts as its own form of resistance and yields a fruitful critique. The seemingly coherent connections between affects, like happiness or friendship, and the brand name signifier, create a "code," to borrow Baudrillard's term, and even though this code is not language, it does use spoken and written words to promote a seemingly seamless idea of the "brand."
It is at the level of this unit of meaning that Negativland breaks the "code." Since there is no dustbin through which to rummage, due to the system of signification in consumer culture undermining all but the esthetic value of the past, Negativland goes to the dumpster and the cutting-room floor. For example, the DisPepsi CD is framed by two distinct sounds, easily recognizable by the listener. The first sound on the album is the swift crack of the Pepsi can opening, followed by its companion, the effervescent fizz. This sound often accompanies soft-drink ads and has no real meaning, but the listener has been told often enough that this sound means something along the lines of "refreshing," "cool," and/or "satisfying." In the context of DisPepsi, the sound seems to set up the same sort of expectation, but what follows is a continuous distortion of Pepsi (and other soft-drink) ads and a disruption of many Pepsi ad campaigns. Following the deconstruction of the Pepsi and Coke ads, the final sound on the CD, its logical "ending," is the crunch of an empty can and its clanging as it is discarded, perhaps in a receptacle or against a wall. This final sound, the sound of trash or the trashed Pepsi can, certainly is one that is abolished from soft-drink ads. Following parodic songs and odd juxtapositions that tear at the image of Pepsi that crosses television screens, mini-mart windows, and people's T-shirts, the crushed Pepsi can becomes a metaphor for Pepsi's image. The work of DisPepsi is to splice ads together, add authoritative voices discussing advertising strategies, insert commentary by Negativland, and pose an alternative gestalt image of Pepsi that disrupts the image that Pepsi creates for itself.
What makes Negativland's approach relevant to discussions about resistance to commodity culture is how it goes about challenging Pepsi's brand image, constituted by the endless associative and unrelated sounds and images that stream through consumer culture, and what it contributes to thoughts on value within the economy of meaning (or nullification of meaning) generated by the barrage of images and brands in advertising. According to Baudrillard, in advertising referentiality dies as result of the rising "autonomy" of the hermetic system of associations within the world of advertising. In Negativland's DisPepsi, no pretense to claiming history (in the materialist sense) occurs. Rather, from the death of referentiality (in sounds associated with Pepsi) rises the "phantom" of "negativ" possibilities. As explained above, the birth of the suggested drink of Pepsi, in the form of the sound of the opening can and fizz that introduces the sounds on the CD, is closed off by the "other" suggested sound, the discarded Pepsi body that clangs onto the floor or against a wall at the end of the album.
The only way to undermine the chain of signification that appears in consumerism is to pose an alternate string of signs that associate the product with its unfavorable aspect in death, trash, for example. Similarly, just as Pepsi juxtaposes its acoustic image with celebrities and references to an equally dead political economy in its seeming reference to democracy in its slogan "Pepsi: The Choice of a New Generation," Negativland provides a bit of its own commentary in two main ballads on the CD. (Of course, the slogan says, "The choice of a negativ generation" early on in DisPepsi.)
In the first song, a ballad entitled "Drink It Up," the speaker pours out a litany of soft drink puns that name other brands of drinks, ranging from beer to milk: "When Samuel Adams makes me ail, and Dr Pepper is not around ... When crystal light has just burned out, and Canada's run dry, my mind just turns to Pepsi ..." (Throughout this essay, in the quotes taken from DisPepsi, I consistently had to make judgments about punctuation and the placement of words. The tracks layer sounds and create an intricate system with various recognizable, gendered, and obscure voices that slide in and out of music, noise, and other sounds. Therefore, the quotes are sometimes approximate.) In the first section of the ballad, the puns refer not to other products but to other signifiers in the system in which Pepsi participates. Negativland, in effect, creates the sounds of its brand names through the voice singing. Pepsi depends on these other products in order to reinforce its own status in the economy of sounds and images associated with other beverages, but it rarely names them, except in its "challenge" to them or competition with them, yet its own identity depends on them. The final voice in the ballad, however, is that of a child explaining a Pepsi commercial. The voice states, "It's just a funny thing when in the Pepsi commercial, you hear this sound, it's the Pepsi machine gzeet gzeet [imitating the sound]. It's the sound of the machine taking the money."
At this point, Negativland introduces another aspect of Pepsi that Pepsi would rather not have the viewer/reader/listener imagine, spending money. Just as Miller beer used the Allman Brothers' song "Midnight Rambler" but left out I don't own the shirt I'm wearing and the reference to one more silver dollar, Pepsi ads do not make reference to Pepsi prices, though they sometimes show the "experience" of getting the product from the vending machine. There are valid reasons for leaving out this association. In Gayatri Spivak's "Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value," she breaks down the notion of money in Marx, calling it "a forever seething chain in the pot." By "opening up ... the seemingly positive phenomenon of money through the work of the negative," Spivak reveals that "money is a vanishing moment facilitating the exchange of two commodities," namely labor power and the commodity being purchased. Money, then, not only signifies what it can buy but what it took to earn it, labor. The child in Negativland's song finds the sound amusing because it does not fit with the selected chain of senseless signifiers that usually cluster around Pepsi and that Negativland parodies in "Voices Inside My Head." In this track, different voices that do not sound dissimilar to those heard in advertising state:
I need Pepsi ... right away ... brand loyalty. I don't know what else to say, but I need a Pepsi, so I can play basketball, feel good about me, I don't know what to say, Pepsi today ... our orange is practically rollicking, our lemon is almost giggling, black cherry and black raspberry are so bubbling with happiness that they are just dancing in the glass ...
The sounds rollicking, giggling, and bubbling mean nothing, but are as potently innocuous as they are empty. In another track, "The Greatest Taste Around," Negativland creates a series of negative associations with the sound Pepsi: "I got fired by my boss Pepsi. I nailed Jesus to the cross Pepsi ... Poor old widow's house burned down Pepsi. ... Medicated ointment being spread on a painful burning rash Pepsi." The string of signifiers in the "lexicon" of Pepsi ads might be endless, but the ads themselves, scrutinized, reveal a thin volume, and adding most anything to it begins to break it down. In order for Pepsi's unusual semiotic system to work, it also depends on people to listen, watch, and read purposelessly and without much consideration. However, as Negativland carefully scrutinizes thousands of seconds of Pepsi texts (and others) they call attention to the ludicrous associations in the ads. Yet, these ludicrous associations serve the purpose to project the brand and connect it with vague, general suggestions.
Besides linking the sound and image of Pepsi up with series of unrelated, senseless sounds and images, the advertisements also connect it with celebrity endorsements that have accumulated over the years. In the tracks entitled "A Most Successful Formula," "All She Cared About" and "I Believe It's L," and in many of the samples, stars simply identify themselves, such as Ricardo Montalban (Fantasy Island), Marion Ross (Happy Days), William Christopher (M*A*S*H), Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie), and Alan Thick (Growing Pains). But, in other samples, such as those featuring Michael J. Fox and Bill Cosby, they are either interviewed or are found reading their lines for the ads. While Ricardo Montalban's voice is sampled throughout the album repeating This is Ricardo Montalban so often that it sounds musical and memorable, Michael J. Fox's voice is at first difficult to recognize because the samples are faint. Nevertheless, they increase in number and volume in the mix of sounds that are continually layered upon one another on these tracks, and the words become clearer: Hi. I'm me, I'm using this to sell you this.
However, Fox's interview reveals his disbelief, explaining how people approach him, saying that they enjoyed his television show Family Ties, his film Back to the Future, and the Pepsi commercials, which "they started treating ... like a movie." Contrary to Fox's reflective interview sampled in "A Most Successful Formula," Bill Cosby's prolific career as an endorser of Pepsi, Jell-o and other products provides endless resources for culture jammers, and Negativland uses many samples of Cosby's voice endorsing Pepsi. He exclaims, Challenge this, Coca-Cola! at one point, but, through Negativland's supply of signifiers and the technology to bring them together, Cosby seems to say, "People think I'm Bill Cosby, but I'm really tooth decay." Again, Negativland jars the "code" by interjecting a sound that draws attention to the lack of nutrition and even unhealthy results of consuming soft drinks.
In the mix of celebrity voices are accompanying news reports of Madonna's major contract with Pepsi, which was later dropped after the release of a "controversial" video for her song "Like a Prayer," and of Michael Jackson's pyrotechnic disaster, which resulted in his hair being set on fire during the filming of a Pepsi commercial. The blending of news and advertising culminates in the tracks "Hyper Real" and "All She Cared About" when the speakers in those tracks discuss the free advertising that Pepsi receives from the publicity of the celebrity contract and when other portions discuss four free minutes of advertising that Coke received when people protested its changed formula in the product called "New Coke." Quickly, however, DisPepsi demonstrates that it does not matter whether such antics are marketing strategies or happy accidents that generate not only free airtime but also booming sales. The discussion is sealed off with a voice saying, "genius marketing ... the truth is we're not that dumb and not that smart." The issue is unresolved, because it does not really matter whether it was planned or not. Immediately after this indeterminate conclusion, a voice explains, "You know better, the amount of money that Americans spend on Coca-Cola in one week will feed all of the poor children in all of the public schools in all 50 states for two years; [another voice] what about Pepsi?" In these lines, the quick shift to a new topic, whether or not the claim bears out, calls into question the cultural role of Pepsi insofar as it associates itself with empty terms and images, while the company and product do little for people. A similar statement appears in a track, called "Aluminum or Glass: The Memo," in which the speaker asks if the "advertising executive, living in Los Angeles, [would] understand where the homeless live [... and do we know] that you can die frozen underneath an overpass?"
Even though these interruptions to Pepsi's code are equally empty, and cannot claim the status of the "real," it is important to consider that the media are filled with stories, images, and a system of sensational codes regarding poor children, homelessness, and other images that, culturally, are assumed to be "real." What Negativland taps into is not a "real world" outside of Pepsi advertisements that negates the image of Pepsi but rather a simulacrum of the "real" that is familiar to listeners on television shows, such as N.Y.P.D. Blue and Law and Order. The disruptive part is that both sets of codes are set up in one song whereas, on television and in other media, the commercial has its place. Negativland's splicing together of these texts only makes more noticeable the huge chasm that goes unnoticed daily as the news that reports violent acts daily is interrupted by advertisements for chalupas, Jeeps, Luvs, and Viagra.
The effect of Negativland's collage technique exaggerates the role of Pepsi and renders it obvious. Unlike the naturalizing practices that television viewers perform, which allow them to comprehend and feel unmoved by a radically disjointed version of reality, Negativland calls attention to the disjunction. What they radicalize is the form in which the messages are conveyed rather than the messages themselves. By scouting divergent sounds and combining them, they do not create a "hyperreality"; indeed, they and everyone else already occupy such a place. Instead, they draw attention to the media that they use by placing these sounds onto a music CD, opening up questions and challenging assumptions about the media themselves.
Elizabeth Rich is an Assistant Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.