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Rebels Without a Clue 

Notes on the Co-optation of Cool

Sometime last summer Billboard magazine anointed Chicago the new home of hip, successor to Seattle, and the city's media raced to trumpet the story from the rooftops. But for many people there was nothing new about the news that Chicago had a "scene"; anyone who had listened to that marginal stuff known as "indie" or "punk" rock over the preceding ten years was aware that Chicago was home to quite a number of good bands and labels. But back in those dark pre-Nirvana ages, the Chicago "scene" wasn't something the Tribune crowed about: no responsible civic leader was proud of Big Black; no alderman scrambled for the free shit at Naked Raygun shows. In fact it was only a little more than a year ago that the self-righteous City Council tried to shut down WHPK FM, the south side's unrestrained broadcaster of rock, rap, jazz, and a wonderfully strange thing called "alternative classical."

Things are different now. The Gap has decided that "alternative" rockers make appropriate product spokesmen; the latest Pepsi Generation frolics to a "grunge" sound track; Guess ads feature an "alternative" fantasy band; Ralph Lauren gives us models in dreadlocks; Time has Pearl Jam on the cover. What was hip is hip no longer; what was outside is now inside; what was dangerous is now domestic. Corporate America has decreed a new dispensation of cool, and in the latest reshuffling the City of Broad Shoulders has somehow found its way to the top of the deck.

But dramatic as this shift of imagery may seem, strange as this sudden decision to treat punk rockers as emblems of sophistication rather than criminals may appear, it signals nothing out of the ordinary for the American cultural industry. On the contrary, for years now Hip has been the official philosophy of the "business community," and the Rebel has been the preeminent figure of that all-American way of life known as consumerism. Advertising no longer seeks to scare us with visions of not fitting in with the crowd; rather it promises to deliver us from the everyday, to make us "ex-librarians" or allow us to "break the rules" or reassure us that "different is good." A magazine called Sassy triumphs over Seventeen; the president hangs out with rock bands; Levi's counsels us about the virtues of "losing control."

At first it seems distinctly odd that this commercial questioning of authority has become such a dominant and inescapable message in the 1990s, which is after all an era of unquestioned American military supremacy and unparalleled political hostility to reform: if we like rebellion so much, we certainly have little to show for it. But then, we note, it's the saccharine sneer of James Dean, the prettyboy without a cause, that presides over our malls, not the haggard countenance of, say, Eugene Debs or Big Bill Haywood. And under Dean's benevolent gaze a facile, superficial nonconformity has become the life-style rule of a crushingly conformist society. Deviance--the more egregious the better--has become the sartorial axiom of the junior exec on his day off. And for a surprisingly simple reason. Since the life force of consumerism is the public's favorable disposition toward perpetual obsolescence--its unquestioning belief that the new stuff, whatever it happens to be, is vastly more desirable than the old stuff--the rebel's hunger for generic "change" quite naturally becomes the preeminent motif of the age. With each new crop of hairdos, sneakers, and cars, we are told that the "rules have changed," that this new variety of tail fin--or jacket or deodorant or peanut butter--is exactly what we need to prove to the world that we are radically different, we do our own thing, obey no one, shock everybody.

Hip is the health of the state, and the "underground" has quite naturally become the site of intense colonization, as business searches frantically for ever newer and ever more daring imagery to rejuvenate its public image. Thus we are deluged with a journalism whose sole purpose is to categorize exhaustively the looks, slang, 'tude, and accessories of the various youth subcultures so they can be safely mimicked by weekend life-stylers. A typical cover of a men's magazine called Details promises stories about "Society's New Dropouts" and "Fall Fashion" without any sense of incongruity. And so when it is discovered that the angry, alienated youth of Chicago have "got something going," it becomes a matter of intense corporate scrutiny, of Wicker Park maps for A&R men, of endless major label telephone calls to college radio stations with promises of "complimentary product" and pleas for airplay.

I hate the scene not only because the music sucks, which it does--Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots are two of the most transparently fake rock bands since the Monkees, and Urge's major label debut is a depressing REO imitation, cloying with slick production tricks--but because in the promotion and consumption of "alternative rock" I see the ongoing workings of the vast machinery of human degradation that punk rock once declared itself out to destroy. My music dedicated itself, in one form or another, to resistance, to a scream of frustration with everything that is shitty about American life. But the goal of mass culture and of its latest generation of pouting, posturing rebels is the exact opposite: to make people dumb and complacent; to keep the great wheels of obsolescence turning and turning; to measure out your life in a succession of new costumes and consumer goods. The success of "alternative" means just another lease on life--a lease lasting as long as this "movement," like the dozens of "movements" that preceded it, can retain its "rebel" credibility--for the system that has forced us into meaningless jobs, into an endless drear of cubicle-bound alphabetization or pagination; has supplanted thought with the wisdom of Bob Greene; and has given us a culture that consists of the office radio droning aural sedatives. This is not what rock 'n' roll is about.

And yet this situation also provides us with a unique opportunity. Individuals rarely make a difference in the sweeping movements of history; their pathetic personal concerns, their petty hopes for freedom or a decent life are caught up in or flattened by the inexorable grinding of economic acquisition or militarism. But this time may be different. This sudden attention of the men from the machine, the Doc Martens-and-nose-ring-wearing colonists of Big Culture, may allow us, for once, to toss a wrench into the gears. Autonomy, after all, is what we're after, and if the life-style entrepreneurs get burned badly eough, they may leave us alone. Their slobbering over Seattle was halted when the New York Times and a number of British magazines were tricked into printing a bizarre vocabulary of "grunge slang" that was self-evidently a hoax. With a chorus of cynical laughter resounding in the background, the shamed media soon declared "grunge" to be "dead." So next time the guy from Rolling Stone comes around to see "what's hot," be creative. Tell him about the wild new youth movement that has risen up from the skitching subculture, complete with baggy, brightly colored snowsuits and a particular type of flat-soled shoe. Or maybe the Young Cubists, who have creatively misinterpreted the Picasso with a variety of sharp 20s costumes and who, when they're not listening tearfully to Bix Beiderbecke records (78 rules, man!), engage in running battles with the pretentiously clad, Dos Passos-quoting New Realists from the south side. After all, any of these are just as probable as "grunge" or the velvet costumes of Urge Overkill. So don't let misinformation be monopolized by your elected officials. And make business pay for its new cool.

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