As part of our theory coursework, we’ve been looking at the work of Frankfurt School critical theorists such as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, particularly their ideas on the culture industry and the avant-garde, as well as music’s role within these. Because I am who I am, I immediately started to think about how these concepts of political dissidence and consumption in art related to the punk movement of the late 70s and early 80s. How are the political aims expressed by the lyrics, musical stylings, and fashion of these groups reflected in their means of production and dissemination into the public sphere? And in what ways can punk address the Umfunktionierung of its own format?
Adorno, speaking about the protest music of the 60s, was doubtful as to the real political potential of music within the confines of a commercial system and the formal and stylistic norms imposed by this. He claims that
“attempts to bring political protest together with ‘popular music’ – that is, with entertainment music – are for the following reason doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even there where it dresses itself up in modernist guise is to such a degree inseparable from past temperament, from consumption, from the cross-eyed transfixion with amusement, that attempts to outfit it with a new function remain entirely superficial. And I have to say that when somebody sets himself up, and for whatever reason sings maudlin music about Vietnam being unbearable I find that really it is the song that is in fact unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumption-qualities out of it” (Brown).
However, by time punk music rolls around, at least initially this “crossed-eyed transfixion with amusement” appears to have gone. Rather than masquerading as an easily consumable product, punk deliberately exploits discordant sounds and chaotic public performance to reflect its challenging political content. This achieves what Benjamin refers to as “shock effect” – an awaking of the consumer from their passive existence through confrontation with the means of production.
However, whether you interpret the style of late 70s UK punk exemplified by the Sex Pistols as an avant-garde series of elaborate situationist pranks, or the nihilistic roar of a young working class being starved by a crumbling economy, any contention that this was a serious challenge to the capitalist establishment is undercut by the groups’ reliance on and operation within the mainstream record industry. Likewise, the record industry’s happiness to co-opt rebellion against itself and exploit punk’s theatrics for profit demonstrates capital’s readiness to wear the mask of revolution, while in truth shoring up its own authority. Just what does the “anarchy” of the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the UK” signify? Surely it is more bauble than gunpowder plot. Punk, at least in this early form, is a carnivalesque reflection of mainstream culture that, because it can only exist with the consent of that order (using its capital to produce and promote records and tours), cannot affect structural or sustainable change against that it. Each would-be revolutionary is in fact a double agent against their own will, as détournement inevitably cedes to recuperation.
Benjamin, in criticising the “new matter-of-fact” literature of his time, claims “their function is to produce, from the political standpoint, not producers but agents. Agents or hacks who make a great display of their poverty, and a banquet of yawning emptiness. One could not be more totally accommodated in an uncozy situation” (264). This is a line of thought further developed by Adorno’s assertion that “in capitalist times, the traditional anti-mythological ferments of music conspire against freedom, as whose allies they were once proscribed. The representatives of the opposition to the authoritarian schema become witnesses to the authority of commercial success”, with the end result being that “the listener is converted, along his line of least resistance, into the acquiescent purchaser” (273). Stewart Home points out that a similar attitude that took hold in punk:
“What punk did do was tap into a reservoir of social discontent and create an explosion of anger and energy. Punk wasn’t offering a solution, it was simply a genre of novelty music being hyped on the back of the manic and frequently pointless exploitation of social tensions. Punk was pure sensation, it had nothing to offer beyond a sense of escape from the taboo of speaking about the slimy reality of life as the social fabric came apart. After all, if Punk Rockers had preferred ‘analysis’ to ‘rhetoric’, they’d have been attempting to organise a revolution instead of pogoing to three minute pop songs” (23)
This is less the fault of the bands themselves (whose aims were genuine, if somewhat short sighted), but rather of the record industry’s exploitation of their protest for profit. Thankfully, before long groups would form that were very much more concerned with revolution than pogoing, and unafraid to dispose with the capitalist wrapper surrounding punk. One such group were Crass.
While it’s safe to say that there would be no love lost between the anarcho-punks of Crass and the authoritarian Frankfurt Marxists, there is a significant intersection between both groups’ ideas regarding the production of art within a capitalist society. Crass were part of an anarchist collective centred around Dial House in Essex, and deeply involved with the anti-globalisation movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Their lyrics directly and specifically addressed issues of ethical consumption (particularly vegetarianism), feminist issues (their album Penis Envy an express response to and critique of the “macho” image of punk), and the austerity of the Thatcher government. This last target lead the group to establish an approach of direct action, quickly recording and releasing records which commented on the Conservative government’s war in the Falklands such as “Sheep Farming in the Falklands”, “How Does It Feel to Be the Mother of 1000 Dead?”, and “Yes Sir I Will”. These later recordings abandoned the three-cord strictures of punk for atonal arrangements indebted to free jazz and avant-garde classical music. In a sense these choices demonstrate an awareness of and resistance to Benjamin’s model of shock effect being eventually absorbed back into acceptable art forms, favouring a constantly shifting perspective delivered in a form which ceaselessly denies any passive consumption.
If the Sex Pistols appropriated the motley appearance of anarchy to sell records for Virgin and advertise Malcolm McLaren’s Sex shop, then Crass adopted the branding and packaging of the record industry and subverted it for their own means. Crass’s records and live shows were accompanied by an iconic logo, releases on their record label had a uniform design, and on stage band members appeared in only black. This explicit branding allowed Crass to eliminate any sense of “aura” or idea of modernist individualism in the commercial aspect of their records, while the music itself reasserted the responsibility of the individual to resist the capitalist establishment. By clearly separating the form and content of the art, Crass avoided conflation of protester and target, and this approach undoes the conversion of listener into “acquiescent purchaser” that Adorno observed.
Adorno, Theodor W. “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato, Eike Gebhardt, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1993. 270-299.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Author as Producer”. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato, Eike Gebhardt, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1993. 254-269.
Brown, Ric. “Theodor Adorno on Popular Music and Protest”. https://archive.org/details/RicBrownTheordorAdornoonPopularMusicandProtest.
Home, Stewart. Cranked Up Really High, Codex, 1993.