Adorno piously said, “The Culture Industry piously claims to be guided by its customers and to supply them with what they ask for. But while assiduously dismissing any thought of its own autonomy and proclaiming its victims its judges, it outdoes, in its veiled autocracy, all the excesses of autonomous art. The culture industry not so much adapts to the reactions of its customer as it counterfeits them.”
Same goes for what passes for punk rock these days. It’s a pop veneer of the ideology that defined punk. It’s simulated punk, and it’s just like simulated sustainability. A replica.
Greenway, Yellow Card, All Time Low, Blink whatever – it’s all watery reflection. And – like Corporate Sustainability – it serves only the purpose of driving consumption of itself. That’s the job. When Bono endorses Capitalism (not with a human face, but with a human mask at best), you know both capitalism and U2 has lost their edge. Less Edge may be what U2 needs, actually. I don’t know why I hate on U2 so much. I just do.
Punks by nature of what they are defining themselves against, embrace early gyrations of 70’s sustainability: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Each of these simple strategies are attacks on consumerism, so punks relationship to capitalism and corporate elitism is personal. It’s also political. That they adhered to the three Rs of sustainability may or may not be (likely ‘not be’) out of some atypical love for the earth – again it’s more political than environmental. In their lyrics, the represent their anger as political, anyway. In practice, their worn our jackets and safety pins for jewelry is as much a sustainable action, as it is a political statement. But’s in ideology it’s not.
For many punks these aesthetics of being punk are just that- aesthetic, but maintain a closer relationship to the ideology than their modern counterparts (I’m looking at you Good Charlotte). Punk music – as a smart externalization of an angst – is an attempt to tear down a system that they want to oppose, much in the same way that under educated white men applaud Trump for tearing down our system of government. I get it. Punk rock was a reaction to politics -Regan for example. Burn it all down. It’s anarchy over consequences.
Further, Trump’s regime is a kind of deviant art in the same way that the Jim Rose Circus was. Rose’s purpose, like early punk, was to dumb down everything and in a shocking manner. It’s scatology via theater. Rose was a blend of punk rock and theater metal. Hanging odd objects off testicles, Rose delighted crowds of punk rockers with shock and awe. He was an echo of the William Burroughs’ chant “tain’t no sin, to take off your skin, and dance around in your bones.”
Trump is the same for his disenfranchised audience. Rose’s freak show literally displayed the acts that The Mooch claimed Bannon was trying to do.
Ian McCay, Minor Threat then Fugazi frontman, was an early new-consumption provocateur / entrepreneur. His label, Discord records was a reaction to Corporate Labels, and an advocate of the DIY methodology (another connection to sustainability). Discord brought back the power (and importantly the work) to the bands – produce, market, distribute. Talk about the means of production. On Fugazi’s 1990 Repeater, McCay sang:
Never mind what’s been selling,
It’s what you’re buying
That was a fairly evolved punk sentiment coming out of an anti-consumption movement that McCay was
an early part of with Minor Threat. In Repeater, McCay put the responsibility back on the consumer, not the corporation. Ironically, McCay is singing Corporate America’s tune – vote with your wallet. Corporate America has always argued that the market will reward the company selling what the market will buy. Trick is, we don’t know what we’re buying. Corporate sustainability is mostly corporate marketing. “Real” corporate sustainability is phenomenally un-sexy. It’s hard, it’s science, it’s data. It doesn’t sell products. There’s a lot of it, but it’s pretty boring. Zero waste is sexy. Getting there, not so much.
Sustainability as Attribute is all very “Late Capitalism” – in the internet meaning of the term – that irony of what we buy and why we buy it mixed in a flask of Marxism. Below is a pretty good breakdown of what I am talking about.
Punk was searching for by creating something real, raw. It’s ideology is Naked Lunch, the Burroughs’ novel about being a junky. It’s stripped down rage without flourish. It’s crappy tattoos. It’s straight edge and partying. As a reaction to a culture of consumption of and for happiness, punks simply didn’t consume. It wasn’t about a tiny house. They had to crawl back to the suburbs. Which is worse? Today, we consume more because we are told that there is happiness beyond ownership.
Both (not consuming and consuming) are a kind of lamenting quest for Real Happiness. In fact, Real Happiness and helping consumers live an authentic life was THE theme of Sustainable Brands this year – Redefining The Good Life. At the conference, major and minor brands (threats) stood on stage touting the ways in which their products create a new meaning for consumers – the meaning of good and real happiness. This is what marketing conferences have always done by the way, but this year’s theme was transparently so.
Look at Coca-Cola’s tagline work through the ages: “The Real Thing” (1969), “Have a Coke and a Smile” (1979), “Coke is it.” (1980) “Can’t Beat the Real Thing” (1989), “Coca-Cola always the real thing!” (1998) “Real” (2003), “Make it Real” (2005), and finally going all in with “Open Happiness” (2009-2015). Coke has the ego to do what other brands won’t – to break the invisible hegemony of advertising and to literally tell their consumers – our product will make you happy. It is not metaphor. It’s a lie, but it’s not a metaphor.
We saw an earlier form of this exact problem in The Clash’s 1979 Lost in the Supermarket:
I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality
Clash can be called cartoon punk (my girlfriend is going to kill me for thinking that), in the same way that Corporate America does cartoon sustainability. There is real sustainability happening underneath for sure, but most of it we won’t see because it’s not sexy. We can’t see it because they don’t talk about it, because it’s not sexy. And this is one of the problems. We (consumers) want Abs and Coke. We want Fast and Fuel Efficient. We want Cheap and Sustainable. So that’s what they sell us. And we want these things because they have tricked us into thinking that we can have it all: unique and tribal.
Like us (consumers), Nirvana wanted it both ways – to be deviant and mainstream. When they made it to the cover of Rolling Stone, frontman Kurt Cobain used the new mainstream fame to make that very statement. “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” read his t-shirt not hidden under an ugly green (now) hipster sweater. He was having his Abs and his Coke – his fuck you and his fame. He got to be both on the cover of corporate media and still shit on Rolling Stone. No doubt Rolling Stone knew this and wanted some of that credit as well for “allowing” the picture. They knew the irony and did it anyway gleefully. Don’t smile Kurt, this is serious. Don’t enjoy it.
All this leads me to the theoretic antidote for punk’s world view – conscious capitalism. You can be punk and buy stuff too, just ask Bono. You can have gay friends and eat Chic Fil A. A more timely version of conscious capitalism might be Rainbow Capitalism – corporations with super-flawed human resource policies (from boardroom to bathroom) who wave the rainbow flag in an elaborate display of Gay Washing.
Calling out the hypocrisy of these forms of capitalism – which are simply marketing and not actually solving any of the problems they pointed to – is as punk a sentiment as Motorhead’s Eat the Rich.
(For more on the relationship between Punk and Metal, read your Klosterman.)
Meta Note: Although culture clearly has a defined relationship to ideology, Louis Althusser has argued that art and culture are not simply a part of the ideological instance of society. For Althusser, lasting cultural expression “makes us see … the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes.”
This, by the way, is the point of this series of essays.
As a sustainability consultant I built a practice of using this way of thinking to look at the naked truth’s of sustainability, not just the flash pop and whirl. Watch – Like a Skater Looks at a Pool, a sustainability approach video.