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Out of Context

November 30, 2010

Capitalism won.  But winning wasn’t enough; it has to keep rubbing it in.  It was shocking enough when “Lust for Life,” a black celebration of dirty trashy punk life with lyrics (according to Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk) about injecting heroin in the only place left to inject it (“of course I’ve had it in the ear before”), was turned into the theme for probably the most archetypal vanilla, boring experience – a family fuckin’ fun cruise on a giant Carnival cruise ship, Iggy Pop joining Kathie Lee Gifford and Richard Simmons as ambassadors of the joy of stuffing yourself and then lying bloated by the pool.  The generation before me had that experience when their precious Beatles were sold to Nike. (Although the surviving band members did sue, having been sold out themselves by Yoko Ono, who expressed approval of the ad, saying that the commercial “is making John’s music accessible to a new generation.”)

The outcry from old punks (Iggy) and old hippies (Beatles) was the shock of discovering that the world had not, for all your hopes and dreams and maybe even efforts, changed significantly enough to prevent your stance of defiance from being taken by those you defied and sold back to you, your happiest secret moments of private musical joy used against you now as they sewed some corporate product onto them like a Frankenstein monster, their “brand identity” polluting your memory forever.

Worse than that, your “coolness” became an easily acquired status object for everyone you’d rebelled against all that time, who could now be as cool as you by purchasing something associated with your prior coolness.  “Commodifying dissent” became a new industry – the way to a young consumer’s heart is through his politics, or at least the politics or artistic taste or sensibility he wants to be seen to have.  “Cocteau wore khakis,” the Gap reminded us – Cocteau did a lot of drugs, too, as did Chet Baker, but their khakis made them great despite all that.  Einstein and Picasso were co-opted by Steve Jobs as shills for the Mac in an ad campaign that implied that both would fer sher be on Macs today if they weren’t like dead.  Just think how rockin’ Guernica would have been if Picasso could have used iPhoto!

I don’t know why, then, I was so surprised to hear the music of Gang of Four on a commercial for Microsoft’s new Kinect.  Gang of Four was pretty much the only original punk band with a refined political sensibility, a hard-left doctrinaire Marxism leavened only slightly with bitter irony.  As happened to Talking Heads with “Burning Down the House,” Midnight Oil with “Beds are Burning,” and Chumbawumba with “Tubthumping,” they achieved success only because the subversive lyrics of “I Love a Man in a Uniform” were ignored in favor of the infectious chorus and the block-rockin’ beats.  As the link above notes,

The ad ends before Jon King gets to his views on recreational activities: "The problem of leisure / What to do for pleasure / The body is good business / Sell out maintain the interest / Ideal love a new purchase / Dream of the perfect life."

Either this is hipsterism at its worst – the happening young scenesters at the ad agency smirking at the inside joke they are playing on their client and on the public.  See how subversive we are!  Or, worse, they have convinced themselves and their client that their product is as “subversive” as the music which accompanies it once was in Mrs. Thatcher’s England.  Most likely, they just want their friends to see how cool they are for knowing who Gang of Four is.

I’m currently reading Loot, about the history of museums and their acquisition of the world’s great art treasures, about which I’ll have more to say when I’m done.  Many of the museum directors interviewed defend the practice of removing so many objects from their country and sites of origin, especially in those circumstances where the objects were likely to be either stolen and fenced into private collections, or destroyed outright.  Look at all the Renaissance paintings in museums that were once in churches, they argue – the context of these things has changed over time.  The context of music certainly has too – music for churches and royal courts is played from concert halls to shopping malls.  More than one work of art has “succeeded” in the world because the audience willfully ignores the subtext and focuses on the love story, or the pretty picture, or the hypnotic melody.  Who knows – in the end the whole scheme may backfire, leading more than one young person to listen to the whole of Entertainment! and become a radicalized anti-capitalist activist.  Defiance continues apace, as seen during the Gap campaign when posters like “Hitler wore khakis” popped up to remind us that corporations cannot always control the contexts they seize.  Not likely, but then again, life is full of surprises, not all of them unpleasant violations of our memories.

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