Stopping in for an ATM transaction at my local bank the other day, I noticed the unmistakable cadences of hip-hop playing through the place’s piped-in music system. It wasn’t a shock, admittedly, long after hearing the Doors’ psychedelic classic “Break On Through” while grocery shopping and the cosmic fatalism of Kansas’ “Dust In the Wind” when put on hold. Still, as the rapper’s rhymes and beats reverberated around the financial institution, I had to wonder if our notions of “selling out” are due for a re-examination.
The standard view of such incongruous musical moments is that they represent the co-opting of the counterculture by the monolith of capitalist conformity: you know a song has been tamed of all its revolutionary potential when it’s blared over the speakers of a mall or a supermarket. This is an interpretation which dates back decades – I even alluded to it in my future history, Silence Descends, noting how Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four “alerted wide audiences to their capacity to be distracted by shallow entertainments at the expense of their political autonomy.” And no doubt in the 1930s there were many people so dazzled by MGM musicals they had no time to think about the economics of the Great Depression, and in the 1960s there were many people too busy guffawing over Gilligan’s Island to worry about Vietnam.
In his influential 1996 book Jihad Vs. McWorld, Benjamin Barber dismissed the claims of gangsta rappers (or their apologists) to be signifying serious dissent. “[G]angsta rappers think they are using rock to take on the official society,” he wrote. “But of course the official society owns them rock, stock and barrel and it is they who are being used.” Yet in 1996 there were no rap tunes playing in banks, and for that matter there was no African-American US president or transgender Olympic champion. And those MGM musicals, come to think of it, had competition from John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (later made into a popular film), and Gilligan’s Island didn’t enjoy any bigger a following than John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,“ CCR’s “Fortunate Son,“ and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” In other words, as shallow as pop culture usually is, it does have an insidious effect of gradually changing the deeper culture around it.
Think of some of our most famous amusements and personalities of just the last ten or fifteen years: The Simpsons, Jon Stewart, Michael Moore, The Matrix, Julian Assange, The Onion, Lady Gaga, and many others. This is hardly a Brave New World environment where a stream of vapidly upbeat messages is forever reinforcing public approval of an unassailable ruling caste. Indeed, we exist today in a weird duality where citizens generally don’t trust their leaders but haven’t got around to violently overthrowing them; where consumers are generally dissatisfied with their products but haven’t stopped buying; and where we collectively assume an inherent unfairness in our entire society but yet still aspire to individual success. Whatever the defects of the present civilization, it isn’t for lack of thinking about them (and singing, writing, and making movies about them) that they persist.
Someone – it may have been Francis Fukuyama – once observed that if everyone all at once decided to finally give up on the soul-destroying plastic constraints of modern life and move back to the land, they would eventually all end up recreating the same modern life they were trying to escape…only back on the land. So I’m not sure if it’s progress, exactly, that post-industrial society has accommodated such a long history of self-examination and self-doubt through its commercial media. Perhaps The Grapes of Wrath, “Fortunate Son” and The Simpsons are mere safety valves rather than fundamental challenges to the establishment. But I’m pretty confident that a rabid reactionary of fifty years ago, if he were to land in a world where you can hear ghetto anthems as you cash a cheque and be serenaded by the Lizard King in the frozen food aisle, would be asking who sold out to whom.