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Sound effects: youth, leisure, and the politics of rock 'n' roll.

The popular music known as rock 'n' roll often seems like a vast wasteland. On the radio you hear the same handful of carefully screened "hits" programmed by computers. In the newspapers, you see ads for giant arena concerts by an endless stream of mean-spirited heavy metal bands (like Judas Priest, .38 Special, and AC/DC) or by corporate soft-rock groups riding big selling records (like Fleetwood Mac, Chicago, and Asia). Or you turn on a nationally syndicated Tv show like Solid Gold, where hits are sold with sex and sex is sold with hits.

Why shouldn't reasonably sane observers turn their back on this scene? Because it's not the whole story. It leaves out rock's occasional explosions of passion and grit, from its birth in 1954 to its resurgence in the late 1960s, and most recently with the punk rebellion in 1976. It misses rock's relationship to countercultures and oppositional subcultures. Those few corporations which control popular music have never completely succeeded in keeping the lid on rock 'n' roll.

some have argued that the rock phenomenon, like punk, is a bourgeois trick to pacify youth. Others are blind to popular culture altogether. Some just want to dance to the beat. But we can't afford to ignore pop music, a bigger industry than either the movies or pro sports. You can dance the night away and reflect thoughtfully on rock in the morning. In the United States, much is written about rock, although little of it offers useful analysis. In England, where clearer class consciousness seems to generate keener analysis, Simon Frith and Dick Hebdige have been listening intently to rock and have a great deal to say about it.

Rock as Mass Culture This is not Free Europe Nor an Armed Force network This is Radio Clash--Using audio ammunition This is Radio Clash--Can we get that world to listen This is Radio Clash--On pirate satellites Orbiting your living room--Cashing in the Bill of Rights This is Radio Clash--On pirate satellites This is Radio Clash--Everybody hold on tight --The Clash, "This is Radio Clash" (1981 Epic single)

In Sound Effects, rock critic/sociologist Simon Frith has written the most complete and thoughful account of rock's production and consumption now available. Every chapter contains insights that will make even experienced rock listeners see some aspect of rock in a new way. He ultimately fails to explain why rock sometimes transcends the inherent limitations of mass-produced popular culture, although his attempt is the richest and most ambitious to date. The central strength of the book is Frith's insistence that rock's status as a mass-culture industry "must be the starting point for its celebration as well as its dismissal." The ideological power of popular music comes precisely from its popularity, because "records which don't sell, which don't become popular, don't enter mass consciousness." In defending rock on these terms, he attacks those who have argued that mass culture in advanced capitalist countries is inherently corrupting. He traces this position from the "Frankfurt School" Marxists like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse to the New Left journalists Chapple and Garafalo, who wrote Rock 'n' Roll Is Here To Pay (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1977). According to this theory, rock is worthwhile only when spontaneously created by musicians who appear on independent labels. As soon as these same musicians sign with major labels, their music becomes a "commodity," and inherently cooptive tendencies begin to destroy the music. The assumption behind this approach is that rock is defensible only when it can be classified as "art" or as "folk music," in other words, as something other than mass culture.

This doesn't mean that Frith ignores the limitations of mass culture. A large section of the book is a comprehensive explanation of how the major labels are organized around the goal of meeting audience demand in the quest of an acceptable rate of profit. He explains what you already know if you listen to commercial radio, that it is in the music industry's interest to produce music which is "safe" enough for mass consumption. And Frith supplies the details of how the industry operates.

But he doesn't stop with explaining how rock is produced, as most writers have done. For him, how rock is consumed is equally important. He denies that the music industry creates "false" needs which it then services with record production. Instead he argues that the industry is organized to discover the real existing needs of young people for meaningful leisure and to meet that demand. And further, he shows that the manner in which the product is consumed is unpredictable and not within the control of the industry.

He takes us on a tour of rock consumption, showing how rock has always been part of youth culture, yet used differently by workers as opposed to students, by men as opposed to women, by British as opposed to U.S. youth.

Drawing on all this, Frith argues that the traditional "mass culture-equals-cooptation" model is an oversimplification, because the major labels are unable to completely control either musicians or audiences. He takes the position that rock's commercial production does not determine its meaning. By pointing in this direction he favors a quite different strand within Marxist writing on mass culture, that of the German critic Walter Benjamin whose work was closely tied to Brecht's. Writing in the 1930s, Benjamin argued that the new technology of mass culture (he spoke of photography and film) was profoundly progressive, because it shattered the "aura" of traditional works of art, making all observers equally "expert" in interpreting a cultural product. In other words, there was now a potential for radically democratizing artistic production and consumption.

The implication is that the mass media are a site of cultural struggle, where artists and audiences can fight for control of the means of cultural production, rather than a place of inevitable cultural cooptation. Seen this way, rock's most explosive moments are "squeezed out" of the conflict between commercial manipulation on the one hand and the aspirations for authentic expression of youthful musicians and audiences on the other.

But Frith only hints that Benjamin's ideas may point the way for an analysis of rock. His reluctance to commit himself to these ideas, or any other approach, undercuts the significance of his book, for in the end he provides no real framework to use in explaining the cultural impact of rock. For example, he shies away from dealing with rock as an ideological force, as an intervention, pro or con or mixed, into the system of values, beliefs, and attitudes which support the status quo of capitalist society. In the end, his consistent ambiguity about the function of ideology seems to be rooted in an ambiguity about the meaning of class struggle in general. Although he concludes with some provocative ideas about leisure, suggesting that class struggle in the end is struggle "for fun," he doesn't project an understanding of classes being fundamentally in conflict politically because of their differing relation to the means of production. As a result, he has no firm footing upon which to ground an understanding of ideology as a real force in society.

But Frith is right when he warns rock critics to avoid the trap of analyzing rock merely as the ideological "content" of the lyrics. Something is wrong if the critic can make the same comments just by reading the lyric sheet as he or she could by listening to the record. Moreover, bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash have a very different ideological impact than, for example, Paul McCartney's love songs. All this points to the need for a rock criticism which can distinguish differing ideological impacts without losing sight of rock as essentially a musical experience.

Even though Frith fails in his overall project, this is still an interesting and provocative book, the best yet written on the significance of rock's production and consumption. Whatever its shortcomings, future attempts to explain rock will use this book as the starting place.

Hegemony and Subcultural Style

Joe Strummer of the Clash on why he got a Mohawk haircut for the recent U.S. tour:

"I did it to try to force some confrontation this time around. I wanted people to react to it, to ask me just what the hell I'm about...."

"And has it?"

"No, not much. Maybe people find it a little too scary, you know, too serious. Over here, you Americans never do know how to take matters of style. It's like you view it as a threat, as rebellion. In England, style signifies ... identity. I would never equate something as simple as a radical haircut with a true act of rebellion."

"Rebellion is deciding to push ahead with it all for one more day. That's the toughest test of revolt--keeping yourself alive, as well as the cause."

Another problem with Frith's analysis is that he too quickly dismisses the work of British subculture theorists. They argue that rock plays an important role as an ingredient of the style of youth subcultures which are themselves challenges to the ideological hegemony of Britain's capitalist class. One of these theorists is Dick Hebdige, whose Subculture: The Meaning of Style argues that the style of the punk subculture in particular can be read as working-class resistance.

Hebdige bases himself squarely on the ideas of the British sociologists who first understood youth subcultures from a class perspective. Their work, collected in the anthology Resistance Thru Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain (Hutchinson, 1976), starts from the premise that each class in society has its own culture, and these cultures are ranked in a structure of domination and subordination. The culture of the dominant class and its middle-class allies tries to represent itself as the culture of the society, but the subordinate culture of the working class always survives, often by adapting itself to gaps and spaces left open to it. Youth subcultures have arisen, more or less visible and coherent, within these cultures. Subculture theorists were primarily interested in the Teddy Boys, Mods, and Skinheads, the spectacular British working-class subcultures of the 1950s and 1960s, and that of the 1960s hippies, which they classified as a "counterculture." This term was used to distinguish the hippies as a subset within the dominant (middle-class) culture. The counterculture can also be distinguished from subcultures because it took a more overt political form of opposition, sometimes striking against the schools, the very institutions which were supposed to prepare middle-class youth for acquiescence to the status quo.

According to Resistance Thru Rituals, the Teddy Boys, Mods, and Skinheads all represented attempts by working-class youth to deal with the same conditions of exploitation and cultural subordination that their parents face. For example, the Skinhead concern with territoriality in their neighborhoods was a reaction to the gentrification of working-class neighborhoods, and the Mod fascination with carefully groomed coat-and-tie looks was a working-class response to the myth of affluence in postwar Britain. To be sure, the subculture youth responded very differently from their parents, but both parents and youth were reacting to the same conditions.

Hebdige provides an intriguing history of subcultures, starting with the hipsters and beats, working through Teds, Mods, and Skinheads, touching on hippies and glamrock Bowieites, and finally concentrating on the Punks, whose spectacular 1976 emergence came after the publication of Resistance Thru Rituals. He also takes careful note of West Indian immigration to Britain after the war and the development of the Rude Boy and Reggae/Rastafarian subcultures within the population. He makes an important contribution to this history by demonstrating that the reaction of white youth to black immigration is a crucial determining factor in the development of the style of each white subculture. The delicate, charged relationship between black and white can be either openly celebrated (e.g., Mods and Punks) or repressed into hostility (e.g., Teds). In this respect, he provides enlightening comments on the positive but complex relationship of the Punks to Reggae. As Hebdige concludes, "a phantom history of race relations since the war" can be seen on the "loaded surfaces of British working-class youth cultures."

Hebdige also goes beyond his colleagues in the way he reads the subcultural style of the Punks. He begins by describing Punk style as being primarily about rupturing natural contexts. In other words, Punk style is constructed by taking unremarkable objects (pins, clothespins, toilet chains) and using them inappropriately, often offensively. Normal fashion is consciously subverted--cheap trashy fabrics and vulgar designs are highly valued, cosmetics and hair dye are worn to be anything but "natural," the perverse icons of sexual bondage are flaunted for effect. Dancing is explicitly non-expressive, robot-like, hardly geared to its traditional function of courtship. The music dispenses with all pretension of technique or the expressiveness of melody and harmony.

And there is also in Punk an explicitly working-class stance, an angry denunciation of the hopelessness of British youth in the face of unemployment, break-up of neighborhoods, etc. But Hebdige denies that Punk can be read simply as working-class alienation. Unlike earlier subcultures, Punk has no permanently fixed icons (the Mod's scooter, the Skinhead's boots and braces). The working-classness of the style is abstracted, once removed from any concrete reality. More important for Punk is a sense of being uprooted, blank, an alien in one's homeland.

How then can Punk be interpreted? Starting with Roland Barthes, but quickly moving to more recent developments in semiotics, Hebdige argues that Punk's creation of style out of random consumer goods is subversive because it exposes conventional style as just as artificial and "made-up" as subcultural style. He believes that this undermines our sense of the normalcy of everyday life. In a larger sense, Punk is subversive because it "signifies chaos at every level." He argues that it broke down the dependable way of grasping meaning because its whole point was to dramatize the rupture of the relationship of the sign and its concept.

This is pretty heady stuff and, as Hebdige admits, may be more complex and romantic than necessary. Somewhere in all this we lose our sense of a working-class subculture struggling against the conditions of British life, and we begin to feel that we are reading the critique of an art exhibit. Interestingly, Hebdige does compare Punk with the radical aesthetics of Dada and Surrealism. In any case, he clearly agrees with those who would characterize Punk as a positive development, as challenge to the unity and cohesion of ruling-class hegemony, a jarring denial of the myth of consensus.

But favorable interpretations of Punk leave many questions unresolved, because the phenomenon has some serious limitations. First, there is the fact that subcultural style is only an "imaginary" solution to the problems of working-class existence. All the subcultural styles can be read as critical comments on the gap between the myth of British affluence and the reality of working-class life, but style doesn't close that gap. As REsistance Thru Rituals puts it, subculture members eventually must take their preordained place in the working class because there is no "subcultural career."

Some, including Simon Frith, have argued that the significance of subcultures has been exaggerated. Few young people are actually committed members of subcultures, and most who have identified with these subcultures in the past have been male. Hebdige agrees that individuals participate at many different levels, but contends that all who relate to a subculture like Punk must share a common language and sensibility. And it also appears that Punk is more sexually integrated than all its predecessors. It should not be forgotten that it was Punk which finally opened up rock to women musicians, leading to a "new wave" of genuinely women's rock music.

Then there is the problem of Punk's message. Many on the left have argued that Punk is, for all its contradictions, essentially progressive, that its angry critique of working-class existence and British and U.S. imperialism outweighs the tendencies toward sexism, racism, and fatalism. On the other hand, Hebdige's assessment that Punk "signifies chaos at every level" doesn't inspire much confidence in Punk's political future. Whatever reading of Punk you adopt, the bottom line is that while it does serve to crack capital's hegemony, there is little evidence that it is the beginning of a new culture, a rallying point on the way to building a working-class counter-hegemony against the capitalist state.

Finally there is the problem of "incorporation," the ability of society to coopt subversive subcultural style, to trivialize it ideologically and sell it as just another form of exotica. For Hebdige, this "incorporation" is inevitable, and every subculture has its "moment" after which it must necessarily decline. It is now eight years since Punk hit, and although it has undoubtedly mellowed, it has not disappeared. Certainly it would be a mistake to suggest that the experience of a particular British subculture could be replicated elsewhere in Europe or in the United States. But a great deal of contemporary "hard-core" Punk and post-Punk rock retains a sharp-edged political tension and is far from being coopted for play on commercial radio. And Punk music and style continue to live in clubs, record shops, and fanzines in Europe and the United States.

Something new may be happening. The style of a working-class British subculture has been taken up by a developing youth movement, something more like the counterculture of the 1960s, but with working-class origins and roots. Both the anti-nuclear and squatters movements in West Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands have been influenced by a militant new youth movement based outside the universities whose music is Punk. And in some U.S. cities, Punk bands like the Dead Kennedys of San Francisco are trying to set a political tone, struggling to overcome the nihilism of much of the Punk scene. Meanwhile, political British bands like The Clash, The Gang of Four, The Au Pairs, The English Beat, and Tom Robinson continue to record, tour, and just survive, providing inspiration for further developments.

These things are just now bringing new questions into focus. For now, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, especially when read together with the more sober Resistance Thru Rituals, is an excellent place to get one's bearings for understanding the subversive creativity of youth of which Punk is just the latest example.
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Author:Gaut, Greg
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1984
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