CMC Popular Music

A process of commercial ‘recuperation’ always leads to the turning of subcultural signs into mass-produced goods. This process of comodification creates a ‘diffusion of the subculture’s subversive power’ (Hebdige 1979) Discuss this statement with reference to specific examples. Essentially what Hebdige is saying with his statement is that eventually a subcultures generic trademarks will cross over into the mainstream. This will in tern render the original intentions of subversion diluted pastiches of there former representations.

The validity of this statement is interesting in two ways. Firstly are subcultures subversive qualities diluted through popularisation? And secondly and perhaps more importantly in terms of more contemporary subcultural representations; how valid is the statement that what might be considered subcultures are actually subversive in terms of attempted displacement of a dominant ideology. It is these two areas with particular reference to the Punk movement of the nineteen seventies which I intend to discuss within this Essay/Exam.

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Looking at the work of Hebdige himself and other writers and theorists in comparison, and also contrasting areas. Punk is perhaps the most obvious musical form which has been linked to subculture. Even Hebdige himself is of the opinion that music and subcultures are part of the same “expressive circle” (Quoted in Middleton, 1990:165). It is for many the archetypal musical subculture as Jeff Pike writes with reference to The Sex Pistols in ‘the death of rock and roll’ “the fury was undeniable, and so was the vision” (1993:268). The punk movement was spawned in and around 1976.

It was a reaction initially against the what many saw as the grandiose ageing hippies who then dominated the charts under the banner of ‘progressive rock’ Which highlights a point made by Ted Polhemus that one of the key aspects of musical subcultures was to subvert the one which had appeared directly before it (1994). This was of course one of the major factors in the burgeoning Punk scene; what Polhemus calls “the suppression of a new generation by an older generation (especially one that had made such a song and dance about youth” (1993:90).

But more than this was the relevant timing of the punk movement and subsequently, why it is so important as an example within this discussion. The high unemployment rates and the economic uncertainly present throughout Britain where largely to blame. As was the realisation that the promised age of prosperity and utopia promised by the passing generation was never going to come to the present one. As Polhemus puts it “had Mclaren and Westwood not been around to toss a few sticks of dynamite in the right direction an eruption would have occurred anyway” (1993:90).

Punk saw itself as being in direct conflict with the established order it felt had betrayed a generation as John Fisk highlights the main function of conflict sub cultural groups in his article ‘The Popular Economy’ “The power domain in within which popular culture works is largely, but not exclusively, that of semiotic power. One major articulation of this power is the struggle between homogenisation and difference, or between consensus and conflict” (Quoted in Storey, 1994:511) The movement was just that; a movement.

It not only had it’s own music and political overtones in nihilism and anarchy it also had it’s own look. All of these were typified by there ‘do it yourself’ attitude which moved them away from the dominant culture not only in terms of being different but also in terms of being seen to deliberately destroy or subvert acknowledged codes of dress i. e. rips and safety pins. Adorno of course denies even that sub-cultures as popular music forms really exist. He may recognise some elements of specificity within popular music.

But, he believes that what is produced is essentially commodified and lacking in individual expression “he subsumes it (specifity) into a theory of false individualization, designed in his view, to disguise mass cultural production” (Quoted in Middleton, 1990:39). This however is to ignore the socio-economical stance against which the punk movement stood. Dick Bradly also counters Adorno’s views. As movements such as punk moved into territories as yet uncharted by youth subcultures the theories such as Adorno’s began to lack the relevant range of awareness: the specifity nature of cultural goods, which Adorno recognises, cannot be adequately covered by his argument that the apparent use-value of popular music (it’s immediacy, it’s status as art and as a repository of ‘human’ feeling, and so on) is an illusion which actually functions in the service of exchange -value (it is an aspect of what people buy). For this argument wrongly denies the existence of any real relationship between the listener and the musical object itself, turning that relationship into an abstract reflection” (Quoted in Middleton, 1990:39/40)

However to counter this point again but in terms of more modern post punk settings it is important to note what Hall and Whannel have issued as being a definition of a ‘pop star’, and superimposing that definition onto the model of punk. Using the young to identify with the ‘youth’ is an established trick in terms of selling music orientated products. The socio economic climate of late nineteen seventies Britain could have been the right climate for a certain amount of discord but was it in fact cynical manipulation on behalf of Malcolm Mclaren and Virgin records (The Sex Pistols third record company) which lead to Punk becoming a phenomenon.

Did all the other record labels then start to sign up Punk Bands to a) give a voice to Britain’s disaffected youth or b) to make money from them. Is the person described below Gareth Gates or Johnny Rotten? “He is usually a teenager, Springing from the familiar adolescent world, and sharing sets of common feelings with his audience, But once he is successful, he is transferred into a commercial entertainer by the pop music business. record companies see him as a means of marketing their products-he is a living, animated, commercial image” (Quoted in Storey, 1994:63/64)

Therefore it can be argued that what we think of as Punk was in fact not the subcultural movement created from the metaphorical hangover the country suffered after the late sixties and early seventies. But in fact an exploitation of that very state of affairs. If this is so then the commodification of Punk like other forms of music from the 1960’s Tin Pan Alley Bands of the sixties to the current incarnation of ‘Boy Bands’ of the Nineties simply a commodity from the start. If one was to take away the record labels and the clothes labels would we still have ‘punk’ or just an angry youth?

However, Hebdige does not agree that sub-culture are commodified forms mass communication from the moment of there conception. After all how can a subculture’s ‘subversive power’ be ‘defused’ if it had none in the first place. He had though come to see “subcultural styles as less as expressing a groups material position in society than as intervening in existing processes of signification” (Middleton, 1990:164). Hebdige Also subscribed to the ‘Structuralist’ view of subcultures.

Identifying historical structures to subcultures which in many ways outlines what Polhemus stated about in inevitability of Punk due to the historical circumstances which preceded it. Therefore we can now see exactly what Hebdige meant when he questioned the validity of subcultures subversive qualities after commodification-which Hebdige saw as inevitable. A key question here is: to what extent do subcultures mark themselves as different, and to what extent are they under control of a more “generalised practice of symbol manipulation”? Middleton,1990:164) For Hebdige subcultures formed out of specific circumstances and although not entirely class on material position as some such as Adorno might argue; They do operate on more holistic level. Therefore, as the subculture becomes more popular it inevitably risks adoption by agents e. g. major record companies, fashion houses of the ideology it originally sought to subvert, and as a whole it’s capacity to subvert becomes less and less. Essentially when the high street takes over, the movement is lost. A prime example of this is the Punk movement.

Now fully immersed within not only the mainstream, but the very world it sought to subvert. The best example of this is Versace’s use of jewel encrusted safety pins to hold together garments for high fashion and the wealthy. Although others such as Jean Paul Gaultier have also experimented with this style of pastiche. Pastiche is an area which Jameson and Baudrillard both highlight as being symptomatic of the problem with post modern constructs of subculture, they see it as being the rudimentary predicament of the epoch.

We are according to Baudrillard, living in a state of hyper reality and therefore subcultures are simply lacking in the substance or ‘the real’ enough to pose any significant subversive threat. As Storey points out: “One of the special features of this (post modernity) is the role of the media in the speeding up of the fashion cycle… At this stage of adolescence they (teenagers) don’t really want to be understood. But many learn to feel misunderstood because they are told so often that they are” (Storey, 1994:62)

A key example of pastiche in relation to subcultures has been given by Hall & Whannel, who although acknowledging that historically each subcultural group appears in opposition to the one that immediately previous to it. Many elements can continue on, staggered through different generations: “Contrary to expectations, this style (Teddy Boys) did not disappear, but persisted in the dress motorcycle addicts and ‘ton up’ kids, and reappeared with the rockers.

A variant of this nonconformity could be found among ‘ravers’ or ‘Beatniks’ with the trend to long hair, heavy sweaters, drainpipe jeans and boots or black stockings and high heels” (Quoted in Storey, 1994:65). Does it make subcultures loose they’re shock value? Is there really any scope for subversion left? The macro negations of the post modern condition, left many writers such as Foucault seeking a more post structuralist approach to understanding ‘discursive’ strands within our culture.

Foucault and Post Structuralist more plural approach would argue that the structuralist thesis put forward by Hebdige is too simplistic. Foucault’s theory of discourse analysis would suggest that subcultures grow on a more individual level according not only to what might be occurring historically at any given time -although this is important- but also according other elements or discourses which might effect an individual or groups of individuals at that moment. For example, in terms of Punk One might be drawn to the subculture through a taste for it’s music as a musician.

Another though might perhaps be drawn to it’s sense of Nihilism through some sort of personal trauma within their individual lives. Any possible ‘diffusion of subversive power’ might be accorded should a great number of members of that subculture disown it. But this is due more to moral panic from the mainstreams point of view. The idea that greater numbers will cause greater subversion. In fact the opposite could be said. A Punk or member of any Subversive group who has entered due to more personal discourses may grow ever more vitriolic as popularisation increases.

An example of extreme subversion through personal discourse could be that of Satanic Metal fans. Murders in Scandinavia committed by musicians -Emperor Guitarist ‘The Lord Of Silence’ convicted of murder- and vandalising of graveyards. This in the face of Marilyn Manson’s increasing popularity. Of course while Manson himself seems less and less capable of shock and thus might seem to ad weight to Hebdige’s ideas. The Death Metal Subculture still has the capacity to be subversive Even if those who undertake that subversion are few in number an inarticulate of voice, it is still subversion.

Hebdige seems to have a pre occupation with wanting to group each member of a subculture as uniform to that subculture. In actual fact it is now difficult to distinguish alienated forms of grouping. Even if one takes the view that there is in fact two types of subculture: Those who seek to subvert social norms or dominance by a ruling ideology; And those who seek to distinguish signified difference from it’s peers. We can now see Skateboarding ‘Goths’ BMX riding ‘Chavs’.

The lines within post modernity are becoming increasingly blurred. And although Hebdige’s statement is true a certain extent. It is what Foucault would call “A regime of truth” (Quoted in Hall, 1997:49) It can never be completely true as there are too many individual, self orientated discourses both hidden and on display within post modern western society. ‘diffusion of subversion’ via ‘commodification’ is also not necessarily answering the question as to why certain we do not consider acts to be as subversive as previous generations.

Another reason for this stems from the point Storey made regarding the speeding up of ‘fashion cycle’ by the mass media been lost due to our post-modern individualism, our desire for consumption and gratification? Jameson has highlighted in his writing that “it must be stressed that it’s (postmodernism’s) own offensive features no longer scandalise anyone and are not only received with the greatest of complacency but have themselves become institutionalised” (Jameson, 1991:56).

Jameson therefore seems to suggest that although subversion is still possible. To achieve it on such a large scale as say Punk did; as a movement against a social norm incorporating large numbers of distinct members is now impossible. This in tern renders Hebdige’s comments relevant only in terms of history. More recent movements such as ‘Girl Power’ or Grunge where either to superficial or self referential respectively to be considered subcultures adequate enough for idealistic subversion.

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