Today’s blog examines one of the central theses of my recent book, New Wave: Image is Everything, available now from Palgrave Press and Amazon.
For nearly forty years, punk rock has received the lion’s share of attention from music critics and scholars, in both the popular and academic press. New wave, on the other hand, gets labeled shallow and – worst of all epithets – “popular.” I would venture to guess that outside of Beatles studies, no body of work has generated more books and articles than punk. I’m not suggesting punk doesn’t deserve serious study. No one would deny its radicalizing influence on music: it altered forever both the sound and lyrics of rock not to mention the nature of the industry itself. More importantly, though, punk – more than any other genre – burst the bounds of music to affect culture at large – fashion, economics, politics. The 60s generated a soundtrack for its own times, the music reflecting values and attitudes; punk attitudes and values, in contrast, sprang from the music, with teenagers taught how to rebel by bands who spit on them from the stage and declared decisively, “no future for you!” The punk sound inspired the culture. All of which helps explain why it has spawned such significant writing from the likes of Greil Marcus, Jon Savage, Simon Reynolds, and Victor Bockris. As Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: a Secret History of the Twentieth Century argues, punk participates in a long line of avant garde movements beginning with Dadaism. Any history of artistic rebellion, then, requires a chapter on punk.
Yet punk, for all its angry dismissal of the hippie music that came before it (Joe Strummer: “All the hippies around now just represent complete apathy. […] I’ll jeer at hippies because that’s helpful. They’ll realize they’re stuck in a rut and maybe they’ll get out of it.”) was of a piece with all of the rock-and-roll that had come before. Strummer, Rotten, Richard Hell, all traced their roots to the earliest days of rock, when Elvis and Buddy Holly had truly shocked audiences with their sound and image. But in many ways the punks also tapped into the 60s notion that music could generate social change. True, the social change they had in mind involved a wholesale rejection of cultural and political values. Still, while the Sex Pistols were about “anarchy in the U.K.,” that anarchy had a decidedly political basis: “God save the queen, a fascist regime.”
New wave, at least in its purest form – Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet – rejected political change outright, embracing instead the power of the image. No depth; pure surface; “The politics of dancing/ The politics of ooh feeling good.” That attitude, “embrace the image,” was helped along by MTV and the advent of slick magazines like The Face, where Simon LeBon’s masturbational habits were more newsworthy than Duran Duran’s musical influences (“What do you think about when you masturbate?”).
But this shift to “image is everything” was presaged by the academic movement known as postmodernism. Theorists, including Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Robert Venturi, and Jean-Francois Lyotard had been suggesting society was heading in the direction of depthlessness since the mid-60s. Baudrillard summed this thought up best in his conception of the simulacrum, a view of the world that insists the real has entirely disappeared to be replaced by an artificial simulation (see The Matrix for a practical representation of this line of thought).
The postmodern condition, and its first flowering in popular culture, new wave, sounds like a negative vision of the world: the loss of reality? A total collapse of meaning and value? A craving for nothing more than celebrity image? What else are films like The Matrix, The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento, Wall-E, if not warnings about the end of reality? I have little interest, though, in debating whether the postmodern condition has improved life or doomed it.
My argument? Good or bad, the postmodern condition became a fact of life, and it was new wave that helped it make the leap from the philosophy classroom to mainstream consciousness. I could point to the pervasiveness of postmodern themes in television shows from Family Guy and South Park to Community and Kimmy Schmidt. I could explain how Facebook and texting have allowed us to shape our identities into ideal – if absolutely artificial – versions of our selves. I could talk about our obsessions with celebrities like the Kardashians who after all can’t be thought of as anything beyond pure surface images.
To be sure, we rail against some of these institutions from time to time. Bill Maher and Jon Stewart plead with us to demand real news. A speaker at my daughter’s high school graduation last Friday warned about the dangers of the internet, how it stymied personal growth and social skills. And there are whole movements, like grunge, that have tried to pierce the image and return us to a world with depth. But here too Baudrillard is instructive. In one memorable illustration he explained how Watergate’s effect was to convince us power continues to exist in politics. If we believe someone is “abusing” their power, there must still be power. In fact, real power drained from the system long ago. A more pop culture specific example might be Oprah Winfrey’s outrage over discovering that James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was mostly fiction, outrage that masked the fact that no memoir can lay claim to absolute truth and reality. More importantly, as I’ve mentioned in this space before, the truth is our outrage grows less and less with each passing day. We’ve grown quite comfortable playing Guitar Hero and ordering pizza with an app.
Which returns me to my central argument. While punk tends to get all the attention, it’s worth remembering that bands like ABC and Thomas Dolby, even Flock of Seagulls inaugurated the world we inhabit today; Johnny Rotten tried to change the world; David Byrne actually did. And while I can get behind a certain nostalgia for the Clash and the Pistols, I do wonder sometimes when Boy George will get his due. Granted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has seen fit to include both Blondie and the Talking Heads, ignoring “shallow” groups like Culture Club and Duran Duran ignores the debt we own them for teaching us the high art of emptiness.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books, New Wave: Image is Everything and Television Storyworlds as Virtual Space, as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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