Anarchy For Sale

marilyn manson"The revolution will not go better with Coke…"
-- Gil Scott-Heron, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"

Rebellion sells. Marilyn Manson, a shock rocker hated by conservatives for his decadent excesses, was rewarded for his sins by having the number one selling album in America during its first week of release. In modern America, the musical cries of teen angst can barely be heard over the "ca-ching" sound of profits rolling into the wallets of drooling corporate executives.

Dotting malls of America is a chain store called Hot Topic, a store that claims "It's all about the music." Inside one might find torn and safety pinned anarchy shirts or spiky bracelets -- all necessary accessories for today's suburban teenage outcast. "The Company believes teenagers throughout the United States have similar fashion preferences, largely as a result of the nationwide influence of MTV, music distribution, movies and television programs. [The Company recognizes] that music is the primary driver of teen fashion preferences," Hot Topic's website cheerfully announces.

From early rock n roll and 60s psychedelia, to punk, to hip hop, to grunge, the music of the counter culture has been eagerly sought out, re-packaged, and sold back to the youth of America. This is a process, that while useful in bringing underground music to the mainstream, guts that same music of the very thing that made it revolutionary and dangerous to the mainstream -- its independence from the status quo. It is essential for any musicians who advocate social change to not limit themselves due to corporate censorship or grow apathetic with the fruits of success. To avoid this, they must remain free of major labels and other corporate aspects of music, and refuse to participate in a system that turns rebellion into profit.

bob dylanMusic has a long tradition of social protest. From "The Times They Are a-Changing" by Bob Dylan, "Get Up Stand Up" by Bob Marley, "Fight The Power" by Public Enemy, or "Kill the Poor" by the Dead Kennedys, musicians are among the first to point out the flaws of society and advocate for change. Since the start of modern music, musicians have faced the question of how much of their art must be sacrificed to make it amenable to the corporate system. Artists concerned with social change have faced this decision doubly so. How much of the system they supposedly oppose can they embrace to spread the message of their music?

The arena of modern mainstream music is a carefully managed machine. A disparagingly small number of companies own all commercial radio stations, TV stations, record labels, and sizeable concert venues in the nation. One of the more sinister examples of this is a corporation named Clear Channel. Clear Channel controls 1,200 radio stations, including 60% of all rock programming. Clear Channel can count their number of listeners in the United States in the hundreds of millions. The end result of the consolidation of ownership (and therefore power) in the music industry is that companies can carefully pick and choose which artists the vast majority of Americans -- who are unwilling or unable to examine alternative venues for music -- hear, as well as control the artists themselves once they enter the mainstream.

As can be seen by the stranglehold Clear Channel has on the music industry, corporations in America are part of the status quo. Capitalism, and more specifically money, in America is a religion with followers more devout than any other. Any voice, in music or otherwise, that challenges the status quo is inherently challenging corporations. The typical corporate response is to fight these challenges by turning revolutionary music into a product. Instead of being authentic art, music becomes a thing to be bought and sold, which debases the very meaning of the music and defangs the threat.

rage against the machineConsider the band Rage Against the Machine, who addressed quite a number of issues lyrically, including capitalism, revolution, immigrant and prisoner rights, racism, and police brutality. When they behave the same way as the pop group N*Sync, with the only difference (other than musical style) being lyrical content, Rage Against the Machine ceases to be a rebellious band. Instead they become as harmless as the next mainstream superstars.

How a band chooses to distribute and sell their music makes as much of a statement about a band's politics as lyrics do. If Rage Against The Machine and bands like them truly cared about the poor, they would not charge $20 for a CD or $30 for a concert, as Rage Against the Machine has done. These prices are many times the hourly wages of the oppressed that the band supposedly speaks for. Musicians who are interested in social change should realize that actions speak louder then words. Music that is lyrically rebellions, but in all other ways functions as the same mass marketed, mass produced corporate pop that poisons the airwaves, betrays its message by the reality of its exploitation.

n*syncIn addition to being rendered harmless, a musician who fights for social change but embraces corporations strongly risks hypocrisy -- if not directly aiding those who oppress them. Rage Against the Machine calls for riots and rebellion in their lyrics, but has bouncers and security guards to keep events orderly. The major record label EMI from England signed numerous outspoken political punk bands, including the Sex Pistols, Stiff Little Fingers and New Model Army in the late 70s and early 80s. However, EMI was heavily involved in investing in companies that built weapons for the military, participated in animal testing, and invested in apartheid in South Africa, as well as being a large contributor to England's conservative party (Profane Existence 23). By making money for EMI, these bands were making money for the very people they supposedly opposed. In fact the Sex Pistols, who are one of the most well know and influential punk bands, were "created to sell trousers" according to band manager Malcolm McLaren.

public enemyA similar development can be seen in the genre of hip hop. When it first started, hip hop was home to many outspoken artists such as NWA or Public Enemy who had a rebellious lyrical agenda. Because of the way the genre was pimped, so to speak, modern mainstream hip hop is largely nothing more than a string of sexist references to women and boastings of wealth, nice cars, and pimping skill. Both hip hop and punk have strong underground scenes. The vast majority of groups in each genre that have remained political, both through words and actions, have been the groups that have remained in the underground and rejected major label contracts.

It is hard for an artist, even one who recognizes the corruption of major labels and corporations, to say no to making money doing what they love, which is almost always what a rejection of major labels means. However, to artists who care about changing society, their music and politics should come first. Integrity is not something that can be bought with any amount of money.

This is not a condemnation of all mainstream artists who advocate social change and radical politics, nor is it a condemnation of those who do not. However, bands who wish to be truly revolutionary must be the change they wish to oppose. Condemning those in power, calling for change, but acting with the same profit-making lust of those condemned is not enough. Instead of sitting complacently by while musical rebellion is whored out for dollars, artists should create their own networks of musical liberation.
Musicians and others concerned about rebellious music should work to create independent bands, record labels, venues, and stores. By remaining free of corporate control, by saying no to major labels, big contracts, and the commodification of rebellion, musicians can become a true threat to the status quo.

Max Raynard is a musician and activist. He currently attends City College of San Francisco and is a writer for Wiretap. Email him at max_raynard@yahoo.com.

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