PHARMAKON / LUST FOR YOUTH TOUR DATES
June 19, 2013 - San Francisco, CA - Elbo Room w/ Lust For Youth
June 20, 2013 - Los Angeles, CA - Complex w/ Lust For Youth, Pure Ground
June 21, 2013 San Francisco, CA - The Lab w/ Lust For Youth, Pure Ground
June 22, 2013 - Portland, OR - Beacon Sound w/ Lust For Youth
June 23, 2013 - Seattle, WA - Narwal w/ Lust For Youth
PHARMAKON TOUR DATES
July 20, 2013 - Chicago IL - Bottom Lounge w/Wolf Eyes, Marshstepper
July 22, 2013 - Iowa City, IA - Blue Moose Tap House w/ Swans
July 23, 2013 - Newport, KY - Southgate House w/ Swans
July 24, 2013 - Columbus, OH - The Bluestone w/ Swans
July 25, 2013 - Cleveland, OH - Beachland Ballroom w/ Swans
July 26, 2013 - Buffalo, NY - Trafl Music Hall w/ Swans
“Poseur” is not a term I use, I assume no one over the age of 18 uses unironically, nor am I confident it has ever really been adopted in the electronic music scene. It does, however, exhibit a particular attitude endemic to music “aficionados” and musicians that I find both fascinating and fundamentally wrongheaded. (1) There are quite a few qualities or actions that might pick one out as a poseur, but I am only here to address one subset of alleged poseurs: poseurs who “only” like a song after they have learned some fact about it, usually the artist, the story behind the song, the novel method of production, or such. You know, the poseur who says that a jazz improv piece sounds like noise until they realize it’s Coltrane—usually with the subtext that the musical and/or social group they identify with generally approves of Coltrane. Julian Dodd, prominent philosopher of music, even employs this attitude as a rhetorical device in his most recent book Works of Music. I quote: “[i]n our ordinary discourse about music, we regard with suspicion those who change their opinion of a piece’s aesthetic value after who composed it and when.”(2) I assume Dodd would extend his claim to other facts that could be evidence of changing one’s opinion in bad faith to meet us at our aforementioned definition of “poseur.” While Dodd’s claim may be true, the problem is that there’s not a goddamn good reason for being suspicious of these so-called “poseurs.”(3)
Allow me to explain: I’m talking about poseurs for a reason—that reason being that your dear author, my good friends, may count as a poseur. I never thought much of Herbert’s One Pig except that it was, in concept, fascinating—important even—but ultimately dull as an album. But I write now as a changed man, a poseur, or at least a man of two minds.
Herbert’s Mutek performance of One Pig was astounding and captivating. Throughout the performance, my inner-monologue returned again and again to the thought that it was one of the best performances I’d ever seen hands down. The artistry and details of the performance were unequivocally exceptional. I knew Herbert was an auteur(4) of sorts, but during this performance I really saw him as an auteur; a mad scientist composer with a complicated, but nuanced vision. Herbert’s Mutek performance really has revealed a new valuation of Herbert and the One Pig work for me. And, in this sense, perhaps I count as a poseur. After all, shouldn’t you be suspicious that I was simply wrapped up in the moment? Or following the other critics’ positive reviews and the standing ovation from a crowd primarily comprised of press and other “aficionados”? How can I live with the shame and bad faith?
For one, in art and music context is everything. While I suppose this claim is still controversial in some circles, it shouldn’t be. Consider even your most basic experience of music. Take a second and think about what makes a certain combination of sounds music while a (perhaps very similar) combination of sounds turns out to be ruckus. It’s a complex web of factors that separates music from noise, but we can at least name some of the factors: historical facts about what has been called music, facts about who is making the music, facts about when the music was made, facts about how the music was made, facts about how the music is presented to you (visually and audibly), facts about your personal experiences with similar sounds, facts about what frequencies are audible to humans, and so on. All of the above factors are ostensibly contextual; that is, none of the above facts are about the actual physical or formal properties of the sounds (or combination thereof) themselves. If you stripped all of this context away from the sounds, it’s not even clear what could distinguish them as music from noise. Music is a social practice that requires a community to understand, support and propagate it.
That said, my particular experience was not a product of facts about Herbert’s critical history or how One Pig was physically produced. Rather, my change of heart was visceral, precipitated by the play of my senses. Insofar as music is a physical phenomena with real psycho-physical effects, it would be irrational to exclude the sensorial mélange of live performance from the list of important contextual facts regarding music. And Herbert is clearly aware of this. Not only did his performance exude a sense of careful design—from the lab coats to the musicians’ stage arrangements complete with pig-pen-MIDI-trigger-interface setup—Herbert assured the din of mechanized industry shook the house and the hay and cooking pork was aromatic to the back of the house. More than play the songs of One Pig, Herbert wholeheartedly portrayed his perspective, his style.
I invoke “style” here in a semi-technical sense: style is the particular habits, conventions and histories that culminate in how an embodied subject navigates the oneself and the world. Everyone has a certain irreducible perspective or, even more to my point, a certain physical way they carry themselves. In fact, I think this is something like what most people mean when they say they like an artist’s perspective or style. It’s both something intangible and essentially ineffable, but ostensibly envelopes you while seeing an artist at work—it’s right there in front of you. Don’t think, look!
Perhaps some folks will object that insofar as style is easy to demonstrate, but hard to describe, it’s not clear what it adds to the artist’s work. But style is all part of the surrounding context that gives the work any value or meaning at all. It is a product of the very expression that becomes codified as a work.(5) As both product and context for a work, style is integral to a work’s understanding. Style reveals previously hidden complexities and depths, it provides the scaffolding onto which one can engage and explore a work—and not necessarily intellectually. Besides providing entries for criticisms or philosophical inquiries, style activates one’s senses and sense of embodiment. Sometimes this experience might be a better understanding of the (literal) movements or tone or pathos or sonorous frequencies of a work. For me, I’m not even quite sure how to describe what engaged me at Herbert’s performance, but I do know it profoundly affected my appreciation of One Pig and Herbert as an artist.
Of course, Herbert’s performance (as well as the rest of the A/Visions performers) was quite a bit different than the lion’s share of Mutek performances that fall pretty squarely into the electronic show stereotype: one or two people fiddling with knobs and computers accompanied by lasers and other visuals.(6) Based on this stereotype it’s easy to see why people often scoff at electronic music performances—after all, couldn’t a DJ (or, worse, computer) play the same music? With a DJ the audience might hear the same sounds, but the other senses are affected completely differently.(7) The manifold of an artist’s style is reduced to a single aspect of their expression. Even works I’ve listened to often and carefully can be enriched by a performance in a way that simply listening to the work in different setting cannot.(8) For instance, I am avowed fan and critical advocate of Laurel Halo and every album in her discography. Mutek, however, was the first time I’ve had the chance to see her perform live. Seeing Laurel Halo perform live amplified my appreciation of her unique perspective. Her performance showed a certain contemplative tenacity that permeated her jigsaw-puzzle beats. Her style, her artistic perspective is exceptional and it permeates her work. Especially when juxtaposed with multiple acts in marathon nights, the most compelling artists exude their style on stage despite the fact that most of the artists are “simply” turning knobs and triggering samples.
Allow me to be forthright: the trope that it’s only worthwhile to see an electronic show in order to feel the bass is bullshit.(9) Such a claim can only reasonably be made by someone who privileges the physical effects of sounds to the craft(10) itself, thereby failing to grasp that the physical effects of the sounds are integral to understanding the art and vice versa. I’ve repeatedly heard and read Mutek described as the “intellectual” electronic music festival, but this opinion does a disservice to the festival and its attendees. To deemphasize the bodily and experiential aspects of Mutek is to misunderstand its purpose, relevance and importance. The breadth of talented artists Mutek gathers to be enjoyed nearly simultaneously with quality visuals and audio defies any desire to reduce it to another summer party festival. No, Mutek is important because it consciously cultivates and expands the social and artistic discourse surrounding electronic music by providing artists with a platform to project their individual and collective styles. Mutek’s performances are an opportunity to participate in the development of the craft itself.
Sitting here listening to Herbert’s One Pig with “changed” ears is a novel experience. Formerly peripheral flourishes reveal themselves and immediately trigger certain ephemeral moments of the performance. I hear the eponymous pig where I’d never heard it before and the narrative arc is more concrete. But, most relevantly, do I enjoy the album in this new light? Actually, no, not much more than I did before. But this shouldn’t be thought to constitute a failure or an objection to my claims. I do appreciate and approach the album much differently, which alone indicates a critical success. To expand the perspectives and depths with which one can listen or engage critically with music novelly is also to nurture the art. Similarly, it’s not that any of my claims are particularly novel, but they are compelling reasons to reject the myths about electronic music criticism and practice. Maybe—just maybe—we’re all not poseurs after all.
- Eric Murphy (Co-Owner, Indie Street)
1 To be fair, it is ubiquitous among all sectors of the artworld.
2 Dodd, Julian. Works of Music. Oxford University Press: New York, 2007. P. 206.
3 I freely admit that there are likely cases of people changing their aesthetic opinions in bad faith, in which case said person is a poseur. But I believe my argument that follows will prove that it is worth giving these so-called poseurs the benefit of the doubt barring additional reasons for suspicion (e.g., said poseur has changed her opinion in bad faith previously).
4 In this context, perhaps the opposite of a poseur?
5 An artist’s style influences their expression, but the expression also further defines and refines the artist’s style, like a feedback loop.
6 Of which, it should be noted, Mutek had probably the best I’ve ever seen. Seriously, do yourself a favor and check out some pictures if lights, lasers and such are your jam.
7 Moreover, arguably there may be subtle, even consciously undetectable differences that nonetheless affect one’s experience when hearing a DJ play a song as opposed to hearing a song performed live.
8 Two things here: (1) to be clear, a better understanding of the surrounding context and style of a work can just a equally negatively affect one’s opinion, and (2) my claim is not that listening to a work in a different context cannot enrich ones experience at all, just not to the same extent as a live performance by the artist.
9 I use “bullshit” here in Henry Frankfurt’s technical sense: to not care if what one is asserting is true or not.
10 I do not use the term “craft” pejoratively nor do I adhere to the strong enlightenment distinction between art and craft.
06/14 - Bellingham, WA - The Wild Buffalo
06/15 - Vancouver, BC - Biltmore Cabaret
06/16 - Spokane, WA - The Center
06/17 - Pullman, WA - Belltower Concert House
06/19 - Calgary, Canada - Sled Island Festival
06/21 - Winnipeg, MB - West End Cultural Centre
06/22 - Fargo, ND - The Aquarium
06/23 - Minneapolis, MN - The Cedar
06/24 - Des Moines, IA - Vaudeville Mews
06/26 - Akron, OH - Musica
06/28 - New York, NY - Seaport Music Festival
06/29 - Hamden, CT - The Space
07/04 - 07/07 - Roskilde, Denmark - Roskilde Festival
07/18 - Dunedin, NZ - ReFuel
07/19 - Auckland, NZ - Kings Arm
07/20 - Wellington, NZ - Bodega
07/23 - Perth, AU - The Rosemount
07/25 - Sydney, AU - The Standard
07/26 - Byron Bay, AU - Splendour in the Grass
07/27 - Melbourne, AU - Corner Hotel
08/03 - Chicago, IL - Lollapalooza
08/09 - Goteborg, Sweden - Way Out West Festival
08/10 - Oslo, Norway - Oya Festival
08/16 - Hasselt, Belgium - Pukkelpop Festival
08/17 - Biddinghuizen, Netherlands - Lowlands Festival
08/18 - Wales, UK - Green Man Festival
09/06 - Portland, OR - Branx (Music Fest NW)
09/26 - San Francisco, CA - The Fillmore
09/27 - Los Angeles, CA - Troubadour
09/28 - San Diego, CA - Casbah
09/29 - Phoenix, AZ - The Crescent Ballroom
10/02 - Austin, TX - The Mohawk
10/03 - Little Rock, AR - Stickyz RocknRoll Chicken Shack
10/04 - Nashville, TN - Exit In
10/05 - Atlanta, GA - Terminal West
10/06 - Carboro, NC - Cats Cradle
10/08 - Washington, DC - Rock & Roll Hotel
10/09 - Philadelphia, PA - First Unitarian Church
10/14 - Boston, MA - Brighton Music Hall
10/15 - Montreal, Canada - Cabaret Mile End
10/16 - Toronto, Canada - Lee’s Palace
10/17 - Detroit, MI - Magic Stick Lounge
10/18 - Columbus, OH - Ace of Cups
10/19 - Pittsburgh, PA - Altar
10/22 - Madison, WI - The Frequency
11/07 - London, UK - Electric Ballroom
11/08 - Manchester, UK - Academy 2
11/10 - Poitiers, France - Confort Moderne // Co-Headline show w/ Suuns
11/12 - Utrecht, Holland - Tivoli Ouderacht
11/13 - Brussels, Belgium - AB Club
11/15 - Prague, Czech Republic - Chapeau Rouge
11/16 - Vienna, Austria - B72
11/18 - Budapest, Hungary - A38 Ship
11/20 - Zurich, Switzerland - Rote Fabrik
11/21 - Dudingen, Switzerland - Bad Bonn
11/22 - Carpi, Italy - Mattatoio
11/23 - Rome, Italy - Blackout
11/25 - Montpellier, France - Rockstore
11/26 - Barcelona, Spain - La 2
11/27 - Madrid, Spain - El Sol
06.21 - Upstairs At DNA Lounge - San Francisco, CA*
07.20 - The Uptown Nightclub - Oakland, CA^
07.21 - The Box @ Blue Lagoon - Santa Cruz, CA#
07.31 - Dante’s - Portland, OR#
08.01 - Le Voyeur - Olympia, WA#
08.02 - KEXP Live On-Air Performance - Seattle, WA
08.02 - The High Dive - Seattle, WA%
*with Books on Fate and Return to Mono
^with Teenage Sweater and Mortar and Pestle
#with Books on Fate
%with Books on Fate and Whitewaits
09/13 Hamilton, ON - Supercrawl
09/15 Pontiac, MI - The Crofoot
09/17 Minneapolis, MN - 7th Street Entry
09/18 Winnipeg, MB - WECC
0919 Regina, SK - Exchange
09/20 Saskatoon, SK - Amigo’s
09/21 Calgary, AB - SAIT
09/22 Edmonton, AB - Avenue
09/24 Kelowna, BC - Habitat
09/25 Victoria, BC - Lucky Bar
09/26 Vancouver, BC - Electric Owl
09/27 Seattle, WA - Neumos (Decibel Festival)
09/29 Portland, OR - Mississippi Studios
10/01 San Francisco, CA - Rickshaw Stop
10/03 Los Angeles, CA - The Echo
10/05 Salt Lake City, UT - Urban Lounge
10/06 Denver, CO - Hi Dive
10/08 Lawrence, KS - Replay Lounge
10/09 Grinnell, IA - Gardner Lounge (Grinnell College)
10/10 Chicago, IL - Schubas
10/11 Cincinnati, OH - MOTR Pub
ALL PUNK CONS
By Joel Shalit
All work is honorable, yet art is just a job,
Let me spend a paycheck on a beer
No heroes no, no leaders, no artists, no gods
I’m a worker, you’re a worker,
Would you like to be a worker too?
— The New Bomb Turks
‘Born Toulouse-Lautrec’ 1992
COLD WAR ROCK
The Cold War defense buildup created the economic infrastructure and cultural imperatives that gave birth to rock’n’roll. The affluence of the permanent wartime economy of the postwar period provided the larges generation in American history with the buying power to make rock the quintessential feature of modern mass culture, providing it with hegemonic possibilities lacking in all cultural media, except television. By the height of the war in Vietnam, the recording industry’s productive output reached an all time high that was not approximated again until early 1992 when Billboard magazine changed the surveying system by which it calculated the progress of new releases, and Nirvana and Pearl Jam reached the top of the charts.
The resuscitation of the hegemony of the American recording industry is difficult to explain because the economic and cultural conditions which facilitated its rebirth in the early nineties were entirely different from those conditions which preceded its initial implosion during the height of the Cold War. America had already experienced two recessions, first in the mid-seventies as a result of the Arab Oil Embargo, and the crippling inflation caused by the Nixon Administration’s mishandling of the economy; second, in the early eighties, due to the Reagan Administration’s radical deregulation of the market, and its lowering of interest rates. Followed by massive cutbacks in defense spending as a result of the termination of the Cold War, and an extraordinary surplus of weapons, munitions and spare parts, rock’n’roll’s cultural hegemony could no longer be attributable to warfare state generated affluence, or economic productivity in other fields spurred on by defense spending.
The two primary factors responsible for the revival of the recording industry were new techniques in production, distribution, and promotion of new music introduced to the marked by punk record companies, and the consolidation of the economic hegemony of already established musical acts left over from the heyday of American affluence during the sixties as the Classic Rock radio programming format. Unknowingly conspiring with one another to create a renaissance of production and consumption, punk and Classic Rock came together for the first time with the introduction of grunge to the mainstream music market as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden.
Grunge was instrumental in restoring the recording industry to its previous levels of production precisely because as a genre it brought together sixties and seventies rock burned into the collective unconscious of the American public by Classic Rock radio programming, with the aesthetics and grass roots, community based market strategies pioneered and developed by punk record companies. As a result, the recording industry was allowed to expand its already massive institutional infrastructure into the intimate, local sphere of economic activity opened up by small, independent labels.
BACK TO GOD HOUR
Grunge couldn’t outlive the market it rejuvenated because it was never a coherent musical genre that transcended its punk and hard rock predecessors. Kurt Cobain’s suicide in the spring of 1994 symbolically eliminated the period of unprecedented economic growth in the alternative music industry first inaugurated by the multi-platinum success of Jane’s Addiction’s 1989 LP, prophetically titled Nothing’s Shocking. Despite the success stories of Nirvana’s offspring such as Bad Company soundalikes Everclear and sugarcoated Nirvana clones such as Bush, grunge faded into its own convenient break even high school niche market by 1996. Sales plunged tenfold, and new records by groups like Pearl Jam, The Gin Blossoms and Hootie and The Blowfish sold less than a third of their original debut.
The music industry fell back into its traditional red tape crisis mode because its investments ceased to bring in overwhelmingly profitable returns. Now it was back to spending more money on videos than records, dropping bands who failed to move less than a hundred thousand units, and buying alternative labels like Sub Pop and Matador for their back catalogues instead of for their projected future returns except for groups like Pavement and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
The only echoes of the alternative bull market that could still be heard were the whimpering moans of Green Day’s nouveau riche Billy Joe crying out about how bored he was stuck in his filthy apartment off of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and the repetitive sharpening of swords at Maximum Rock and Roll HQ in San Francisco, where editor Tim Yohannon continued to deride the morality of the labels he had fostered for not being punk enough because independent labels like Epitaph managed to score top forty hits with records by bands such as The Offspring.
The sounds of rival gang leaders flushing themselves down their porta potties had never been any louder. If punk had been the political party it always tried to be, this would have been the equivalent of factional infighting amongst upper middle class Trotskyites condemning each other over differences of opinion in implementing revolutionary strategy. As usual, everyone remained clueless about the political meaning of what they were really quarreling about. No one in the scene could differentiate between revolutionary marketing strategies and political rhetoric, so the real terms of the debate about selling out continued to enhance the Oedipal consequences of the whole pointless, sadomasochistic melodrama.
Nevertheless Yohannon and his burrito hungry band of fashionable teenage cultists could safely say that their admonitions against straying into shopping malls was indeed correct. Politics had transcended marketing, and someone had actually killed themselves over their inability to reconcile commercial success with cultural authenticity. Driving the point home with the subtlety of a cruise missile slamming into a children’s hospital in Baghdad, Yohannon began his thoughtful indictment of his rebellious progeny by publishing a picture of a faceless person with a cocked revolver stuck in their mouth in the first issue of MRR after Cobain blew his brains out.
Two weeks later punks began pointing their fingers at each other in a confused and misguided attempt to blame the older generation for their own growing market clout. Goaded by MRR’s increasingly self-marginalizing denunciations of Jello Biafra and his label Alternative Tentacles for creating the aesthetic recipe that made punk profitable, homeless crusties descended upon Biafra several weeks later at the Gilman Street club in Berkeley, beating him savagely for being a rock star, and a sell out.
Nothing epitomized the conservative tendencies of punk politics any better. As the godfather of the American independent ideology, Biafra was ritually scapegoated because of the limitations of this own political program. Redistributing cultural goods is not the same thing as redistributing wealth, and it never will be. But Biafra never really explained that. After all, the name of his own record label was enough of a dead give away: Alternative Tentacles. Nevertheless, Biafra was held accountable for destroying a countercultural movement that never really understood him, let alone itself, first. The terrible irony of Biafra’s fate is that his own denunciation of right-wing punks in The Dead Kennedy’s seminal Nazi Punks Fuck Off, ended up, instead, being turned against him. Maybe punk rockers were the wrong people to be proselytizing after all.
Not long thereafter, the final stage of punk’s redefinition of the music market began in full force. Green Day managed to capitalize on the pioneering efforts of thousands of punk bands that had preceded them by scoring several top ten hits after signing to Reprise, making pop punk a household word. And Rancid made mohawks popular again by posing a former members of the Exploited singing songs with fake cockney accents that reminded every one of London Calling-era Clash. The cultural momentum that began with The Sex Pistols obscenity-laced appearance on Bill Grundy’s talk show on British television seventeen years earlier had come full circle. Nothing could have driven the point home better this summer than hearing a middle aged Johnny Rotten repeating No Future, repeatedly in American sports arenas during the Sex Pistols reunion tour. Rotten was right. History always repeats itself.
EFFICIENCY AND PROGRESS
It is strange that it took so long for punk to become incorporated into mainstream, massed produced culture in America given its success in reviving a declining industry. The economic downturn of the mid-seventies and early eighties are largely responsible for the initial marginalization of punk from mainstream music production, promotions and sales. Despite several successful experiments with groups like The Dead Boys, The Sex Pistols, Richard Hell, The Gang of Four and the Buzzcocks, major labels were disinterested in producing and marketing punk bands because they lacked the promotional imagination necessary to make investments in borderline groups sufficiently pay off in a large and segmented music market.
By 1986, the minuscule financial success of independent labels convinced major label executives than an economic infrastructure had been created which could support their expansion into a once controversial, albeit fringe market for new music. Initially signing groups with long sales histories such as the Replacements, Husker Du, and Soul Asylum, major labels had a great deal of difficulty in turning any kind of profit except great record reviews by a new generation of rock critics, such as Greil Marcus, Gina Arnold, Ira Robbins, Gerald Cosloy, and Eric Weisbard, all of whom in another era would have ended up writing poetry reviews for The New Yorker, The New Republic, or The Nation.
It was not long until staunchly independent punk groups like Sonic Youth, economically embittered by their experience of the corporate world on the independent level, began to entertain the idea of signing major label contracts. Their reasoning could not have been better. What was the point of remaining poor and impoverished on an independent label when they knew they could be receiving better pay elsewhere? At the least, they would be able to devote more time to their art even if it meant taking the risk of going into debt by prematurely accepting too large an advance on predicted future sales. It was worth it, the post-Cold war period of economic downsizing had begun, and they had to preserve their livelihood. Acutely aware of the effects that the economy was having upon small businesses, bands began leaving independents in droves, and the signing process, abetted by an increasingly worse economy has continued unabated since 1989.
The exception to the rule of poverty occurs when highly profitable independent record companies make profits their truth. The Offspring’s recent legal battle to sever their contract with Epitaph to move to Columbia provides a riveting example. After selling eight million copies of the group’s fourth LP, Smash, Epitaph began to treat the band as though they were a commodity. One article reported this summer that label head and ex-Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz went so far as to take out a life insurance policy on lead singer Dexter Holland. Another story contended that Gurewitz sold all of Epitaph’s publishing rights to Sony without telling any of the bands on his label.
In a recent interview, Holland explained that the only time The Offspring ever heard about changes at the label was when they would come across stories of Epitaph’s business transactions in The LA Times. Holland argued that the reason the band moved on to a major is that Gurewitz had effectively sold them to one anyway. By breaking their contract and moving on to Columbia on their own accord, Holland contended that the band was in fact taking back control over their work that his band was in the process of losing at an indie that they would have more than preferred to remain with had they been treated more like friends and less like products.
Regardless of whether the Offspring weren’t always a commodity is besides the point. Greed infects the music industry, just like it does any other kind of business. The problem with punk ideologies of independence and economic autonomy is that they pretend that it is possible to engage in certain kinds of business practices like entertainment without being subject to the law of supply and demand. Hence how ridiculous it becomes when music critics and fans alike are surprised when a particular designer label like Epitaph, Sub Pop or Amphetamine Reptile does really well financially and then continues to exploit its artists in search of even bigger dollars.
The problem is that American punk in particular is supposed to be inherently political, meaning anti-capitalist. Or so the Do It Yourself ideology contends. Independent record labels end up acquiring the same kind of political meaning that punk bands are supposed to adhere to because we’ve been taught by their advertising to see bands as extensions of labels themselves. The problem is that we end up glorifying corporations by investing them with a kind of emancipatory potential for political liberation we otherwise reserve for political parties, prophets and religious leaders. Nothing could be more regressive, because what this means is that deep down inside we believe that we’re being saved by entertainment conglomerates and the mythologies that they create to justify further consumption.
PINNING THE TAIL ON THE DONKEY
The movement to major labels has sparked several years worth of intense debate, name calling, and cries of betrayal within the punk and otherwise bohemian music establishments. While no one seems to be clear what the precise reasons are for branding a previously beloved act a traitor, or even worse a sell out, the artistic and political climate in which American punk emerged during the early eighties provides many answers to an otherwise ridiculously easy to put together puzzle.
The major label rejection of radical American punk groups such as The Dead Kennedys and Black Flag centered on the cancellation of their contracts with IRS and A&M over censorship of artistic content. Neither label was interested in promoting groups that appeared to promote radical politics, though Black Flag was merely articulating upper middle class resentment against low forms of consumer culture, whereas the DKs were fueled by a quasi-Marxist, antifascist political program revolved around a critique of everyday American life, defense-based economics, and religious revivalism. Because of their marginalization, both groups started their own labels, SST and Alternative Tentacles, and subsequently began to develop a critique of mass culture, a theory of entrepreneurial economic decentralization, and a theory of semi-proletarian ‘do it yourself’ aesthetics tailored for class conscious, anti-consumerist middle class adolescents and college students.
The loss of these egalitarian ideals is what is mourned for in the discourse about selling out. Unfortunately, these ideas are transposed into a discourse about radical aesthetics, and how it is compromised by major label, multinational relations of production, and disapproval of disproportionately high salaries for antiestablishment musicians. The danger inherent in remaining unclear about what the real stakes of selling out are is that it obfuscates understanding punk’s compatibility with capitalism, particularly its modes and relations of production, its cultural institutions, and their administrative function in modern society. To make this problem clear, it is necessary to go back to the idea of labor and mode of production that lies at the heart of American punk ideology.
As a result of having been shut out of the productive process of mainstream American popular music, punk intellectuals such as Jello Biafra and Tim Yohannon formulated an economic strategy by which they were able to help construct their own artistic institutions and markets within which to create and disseminate their own music and literature. The strategy which they adopted to accomplish this is paralleled by the New Social Movements strategies of the sixties and the seventies, which attempted to politicize cultural institutions to counter state intrusion into the public life of individuals engaged in the pursuit of unrestrained economic interests. The goal of such forms of politicization was to make institutions into resources which could help preserve the possibility of resisting political authority in response to an increasingly interventionist state bureaucracy which progressively limits the capacity of individuals to think for themselves freely in association with others.
NEVER TRUST A COMMIE
The adoption of New Social Movement strategies by American punk was not a conscious decision. It was formulated as a political response to an economic form of marginalization imposed upon artists within a fairly conservative and aesthetically unsophisticated popular artistic tradition. What is not coincidental, however is how these influences became channeled into the constriction of the punk community, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area where Yohannon, a member of the Communist Party and a former student activist at Rutgers during the nineteen sixties, set about putting together Maximum Rock’n’Roll with precisely these goals in mind. He deliberately politicized an industry which he saw as having a critical function for young and old people alike in American culture that could be a place to reconstruct the political idealism he was fed as an adolescent during the heyday of the student movement.
The primary facets of the new punk ideology as disseminated in Maximum Rock’n’Roll was very simple: Write music for oneself and one’s friends, produce it independently, using all the means at one’s disposal that one did not have to contract out to someone else to do, and manage one’s own business affairs to retain control over the creative and political aspects of one’s own work. As this ideology took hold, small record companies such as Alternative Tentacles eventually grew larger, signed other artists, and for the first time developed a class of music bureaucrats who fulfilled the administrative and productive roles that artists within this community had been taught to assume themselves. Subsequently, the whole notion of aesthetic, productive and administrative autonomy went out the window, and what emerged was a petite-bourgeois imitation of the economic and social organization of a larger business community whose purpose was to produce and disseminate popular music on a mass scale.
The co-optation of the new punk counter-hegemony was inevitable. In their struggle to establish themselves as autonomous institutions, punk record companies and magazines had to rationalize new aspects of the music market previously ignored by major labels and larger entertainment conglomerates. Having identified exploitable shopping outlets such as privately owned record stores, clubs, mail order catalogues, and L.L. Bean style 1-800 credit card order services, punk institutions began to compete with the very firms they were seeking independence from. Accordingly, larger labels began looking at the possibility of taking over such markets as a legitimate response to the competition posed by punk having opened them. Because of their own superior financial resources, larger entertainment consortiums could eventually take over these new markets without much expense at expansion, and eventually take punk producers and consumers away from the institutions they had grown up in and had been educated by.
Economic facts aside, punk was co-opted because it lacks a coherent review of capitalism. Instead of advocating the overthrow of capitalist relations of production, punk insists on reverting to an early form of capitalist development which emphasizes the necessity of the imagination, skills and hard work of the entrepreneur as opposed to the blindness and stupidity of the corporation and the bureaucrat. In this light punk appears as a critique of mass culture instead of a critique of capitalist culture. Subsequently, punk becomes an apologetic aesthetic defense of high culture in opposition to culture’s lower, less authentic, proletarian forms such as heavy metal, rap, country, and rhythm and blues.
The transition that punk has made from entrepreneurial capitalism to mass production does nothing to influence the entertainment industry to become more self-reflective. Instead, mass produced punk has the function of helping mass culture adapt itself to reviews leveled against its authoritarian administration of culture. By giving the system the appearance that it is able to tolerate artistic and political novelty when it cannot, the capitalist superstructure cancels out whatever reflective possibilities punk could inspire.
Mass culture alone is not wholly oppressive. If it were, there would be no way to even imagine that it restricts our capacity to think about art, society and politics. The notion that mass culture restrict reflection to the point that one is unable act in their own enlightened self-interest anymore is precisely the foundation upon which the punk review of mass culture rests. Considering what the Bad Brains once called The Big Takeover, it is fair to conclude that the punk review of mass culture was generated by its economic marginalization during a period of recession. The ideology of aesthetic and administrative independence emerged as a result of the brief ownership of the means and forms of production by artists who during another, more fortunate moment in history, might have been on someone else’s payroll.
10/1 Philadelphia, PA - Union Transfer
10/2 New York, NY - Webster Hall
10/3 Boston, MA - Royale
10/5 Washington, DC - U Street Music Hall
10/8 Minneapolis, MN - First Avenue
10/9 Chicago, IL - Metro
10/12 Dallas, TX - House of Blues
10/13 Houston, TX - House of Blues
10/14 Austin, TX - Emo’s
10/17 Denver, CO - Gothic Theatre
10/19 San Francisco, CA - Treasure Island Music Festival
10/23 Los Angeles, CA - El Rey
10/25 Asheville, NC - Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit
06/16 - Washington DC @ The Dunes *
06/17 - Washington DC - Healthy or Hungover @ The District Tea House
06/18 - Belmont, NC @ Haunted Mill *
06/19 - Athens, GA @ Farm 255 *
06/20 - Gainesville, FL @ Boca Fiesta Backyard *
06/21 - New Orleans, LA @ Circle Bar
06/23 - Austin, TX @ Red 7 *
06/24 - Marfa, TX @ El Cosmico *
06/26 - Tucson, AZ @ Plush *
06/27 - San Diego, CA @ Soda Bar *
06/28 - Los Angeles, CA @ FIGat7th
06/29 - Los Angeles, CA - Film Screening & DJ set @ Cinefamily *
06/30 - Santa Cruz, CA @ Catalyst Atrium
07/01 - San Francisco, CA @ Chapel
07/02 - Portland, OR @ Mississippi *
07/03 - Seattle, WA @ Rendezvous
07/04 - Vancouver, BC @ Electric Owl *
07/06 - Calgary, AB @ Hifi *
07/09 - Minneapolis, MN @ Triple Rock
07/10 - Milwaukee, WI @ Mad Planet
07/12 - Chicago, IL @ Secret Location
07/13 - Detroit, MI @ Trinosophes *
* = w/ a screening of Never Forever
07/24/13 Calgary, AB - Palomino Smokehouse
07/25/13 Edmonton, AB - Brixx
08/01/13 Seattle, WA - The Crocodile
08/02/13 Happy Valley, OR - Pickathon
08/04/13 Happy Valley, OR - Pickathon
08/06/13 San Francisco, CA - Brick & Mortar Music Hall
08/07/13 Santa Ana, CA - Constellation Room
08/08/13 Los Angeles, CA - The Echo
08/09/13 San Diego, CA - Casbah