The beauty of punk was that it couldn’t possibly sell out. Who’d want to buy? “It was by definition ugly and nasty and based on an opposition to money and fame and success,” writes Anne Elizabeth Moore, former coeditor and associate publisher of the defunct Chicago-based zine Punk Planet, in her new book, Unmarketable. “Membership was based on the principle that what was made by hand for yourself and your friends was better than what could be purchased.”
Whoops! Punk turned out to be highly marketable, as Moore details in story after story, all turning on the ability of corporations to use humor, irony, and weirdness, sometimes so subtly that the underground had no sense of having sold out or opted in. In the late 90s Jones Soda prospered by putting its vending machines in skate parks, bike shops, and record stores, “as if it were a natural part of that scene.” In 2005, prior to the release of Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, a crumpled pseudo-homemade envelope showed up at the offices of Punk Planet. It contained an invitation to check out a Web site called Grrl.com, which “appeared to be a wholly unofficial fan site for hipsters who grew up loving Luke Skywalker,” though it was actually the creation of Lucasfilm marketer Bonnie Burton, a woman who “claims a direct connection to the early 1990s riot grrrl movement.”
Nike ripped off the iconic album-cover imagery of the hardcore band Minor Threat for a skateboarding tour promotion, then pulled the campaign partway through and apologized. But it got the buzz it wanted and put Dischord Records, the label run by Minor Threat front man Ian MacKaye, in a no-win situation: either let the thievery stand or take Nike to court, thus further publicizing an unwanted association. Two summers ago Matt Malooly, a WLUW DJ and contributing editor to Lumpen, came across a graffadi campaign for Axe Body Spray on Milwaukee Avenue that had been funded by a promotional outfit called Critical Massive. When he and his friends started painting over the images (“too cute to be street art,” says Moore, “too gritty to be advertising”) they were accosted by the man who’d been hired to make them. He said he wanted to break their fingers for ruining his piece.
Moore sees these episodes as threats to the integrity of the movement she’s had a hand in chronicling and shepherding. She bemoans, for example, how Bonnie Burton’s e-zine “served to blur the line between what is genuinely DIY and what is done for the Man,” a division that Jake Dobkin of Gothamist describes this way: “Art is created for the love of the creative act. Advertising is created to convince people to buy more crap that they don’t need.”
But these distinctions won’t stand. Some advertising is art. Some art is advertising. Most advertising is schlock because most people have bad taste, not because of who pays for it. For that matter, most attempted art is schlock too.
Like their counterculture elders from previous decades, punks are blinded by the romantic idea that artistic creation wells up from some intrinsically authentic place within you. But you are what you are because of the culture that surrounds you, good and bad. Your personal artistic impulses grow out of it and rely on the materials within it.
Some of Moore’s stories illustrate this fact, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She has a hopelessly ambivalent relationship to the “Star Wars“ movies, which are commercial and therefore (in her worldview) despicable. But she grew up with them, hence it’s “genuinely unthinkable that we wouldn’t attend and support every episode of the series.” Similarly, the underground couldn’t condemn Converse even after Nike bought it in 2003, because Chuck Taylors were “practically a required uniform for my 1980s-era adolescence.” If soft-drink vending machines were really as alien to the culture of skateboard dudes as Moore claims, Jones Soda would’ve gone bankrupt.
The truth is there’s no problem here if you don’t create one. We’re all part of our culture, and our culture is (among other things) about selling stuff. And that’s OK. Selling stuff isn’t wrong; selling by deception is. When capitalism is done right (and it often isn’t), it’s one of the best ways ever invented for different people to get along and prosper. Hipsters are no match for it, not because they’re dumb or venal, but because their underlying philosophy is bankrupt. Not only does it confuse marginality with merit, it’s all about being pure and separate from a culture you can’t help but be a part of.
Moore is so frustrated by the way corporations mimic and co-opt ironic strategies like culture jamming that she’s finally reduced to proposing that underground artists produce not ugly, unsellable stuff, but seemingly sellable stuff with just a faint stain or imperfection, “a mark imperceptible to most, and difficult to locate... [that] looks very much like everything that surrounds it, until you notice its fundamental difference. And by then you can’t get rid of it.”
Huh? This futile reduction of DIY and punk to homeopathic invisibility would be funny if Moore hadn’t already described plenty of real abuses that need to be exposed and stopped. Pretending to be an ordinary person when you’re flogging merchandise is wrong. Cheating is wrong. Buying legislators is wrong. Punishing graffiti artist John Tsombikos with jail time while letting Verizon off with a wrist slap for graffadi is wrong.
To deal with these abuses we don’t need a purity-obsessed counterculture. We need a counterpolitics that blows the whistle on dishonesty and gives people and governments at all levels the will to hold wrongdoers accountable—not because they make money, but because they lied and cheated instead of just telling us what’s for sale. v