One of the few memories I have of high school (remember the '60s saying, "If you remember it you weren't there"?) is a book, The Forest People, in which anthropologist Colin Turnbull recounts his experience of living among the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire. He described an uncorrupted dreamworld where the number-one crime against the community was hoarding food from the hunt. The punishment was temporary exile until the slovenly offender learned his lesson.
Likewise, the memory of my high school punk years has a similar halcyon quality in which the single most significant crime against the "scene" was selling out. As with the Pygmies, offense meant exile. Just ask what happened to Green Day when their grassroots fame exceeded their small East Bay punk scene and exploded onto the national stage. Or Kurt Cobain. When Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" dropped into permanent top 40 rotation and Seattle's grunge flannel became the national uniform of youth, the band faced severe criticism from alternative music hardliners. In particular, Cobain was criticized for his insistence that Nirvana's records be sold at Wal-Mart. But Cobain did so because when he grew up in rural Washington that was the only place he could buy music.
When I suggested many years ago at a conference of zine publishers that they take a less rigid stance with chain stores, the mostly younger punk impresarios shouted me down. Using the Nirvana Wal-Mart anecdote further infuriated the audience because as I had wrongly assumed, Cobain was not considered a success story, but rather an example of treachery. How dare he sign with a corporate record label like Geffen and show his videos on MTV? It turns out my cohorts of the micropress were correct. Corporate bookstores ended up contributing to the downfall of independent zine distribution.
In retrospect, I think the concept of selling out was too rigid, but was also necessary, because under our current cultural conditions, there seems to be little debate about what constitutes a "sell out." For example, on my blog I once criticized the concept behind a marketing company called IndieClick, which is designed to target the "indie culture" demographic. Its site states:
"INDIECLICK represents the best of online music, community, blog, culture, gossip, gamer, comic, college and entertainment communities. We work with advertisers and agencies to deliver relevant and targeted messaging to our discerning audience of more than twenty-eight million 16-34 year old 'Influencers' and tastemakers.
"INDIECLICK provides advertisers and agencies with the ability to speak to the elusive and desirable audience of early adopters who generate word-of-mouth and multi-media viral effects when their interest is obtained."
Harmless enough, right?
Compare this with the cool hunter LookLook's mission statement:
"To share youth culture with the world so people have a better understanding of this dynamic community's impact on industry and society. Connecting you to youth culture."
LookLook was featured in Doudlgas Rushkoff's great Frontline doucumentary, Merchants of Cool (click here to watch it for free). They present themselves as providing some kind of nobel communication service. But I beg to differ. Cool hunting is cultural vampirism, and I take offense when it is suggested that it somehow is there to enrich society.
IndieClick's front page features a cute girl with trendy hair, pierced lip, some cleavage and an iPod in her hand. She blows a bubble and is oblivious and carefree. She has no political views but distinct buying habits. Again, according to the site her habitat is place that can be clearly infiltrated:
"IndieClick effectively targets the seventy-five million savvy young Americans, 16-34, who spend in excess of $200 billion each year on DVDs, CDs, iTunes, clothing, music, shoes, magazines, books, movie tickets, accessories, beverages, food, liquor, cigarettes, autos, bicycles, iPods, travel and more."
In my blog post entitled, "You've been punk'd," I scribbled, "Congrats, punk rockers, you are now a demographic," and I then followed it by quoting IndieClick's detailed demographic profile. I acknowledge that the tone was sarcastic, but I got a hostile reaction from fellow netizens who defended the company for helping people make money on their blogs and for providing a venue for artists to sell their products. I was further chided for criticizing the marketing of a punk as if I were naive. (One commentator, however, complained that he never got paid for his "clicks.")
I am not against advertisers or businesses that want to sell things. What troubles me is that people fly the banner of punk, or hip hop for that matter, without considering either movement's ethical roots. The original practitioners of both hip hop and punk had very strong political convictions and believed that one expression of people power was choosing the kind of businesses they would or wouldn't support. I scoured the IndieClick site for a statement of ethics, but was not surprised when my query found nothing because it is a company that sells a lifestyle concept devoid of politics. It is true that punks used advertising, as my critics contend, but what we didn't do is shill tobacco, alcohol, cars and environmentally destructive products. As a punk I would be utterly embarrassed to sell my community to advertisers on the basis of how much they drink or smoke.
All of which goes to the root of my quandary: what is a community? Is it a group that merely shares consumption habits and style? I find it curious that one manner in which one defines his or herself on MySpace is by what media products are consumed. Increasingly we define ourselves according to our favorite books, TV shows, movies and bands. While I certainly can tell the world a lot about myself if I say that I like The Clash rather than Britney Spears, how much does this really say about who I am? In the punk days there were very few of us, so when we saw each other on the street, we always felt like part of a tribe. Such deeply felt connections now seem distant and lost in the wake of market cooptation. I have not been to Burning Man, but I suspect the tribal feeling is akin to the old punk days. I have no doubt, however, there are cool hunters cooking up ideas drawn from Burning Man to be churned out by prison labor in China so they can be regurgitated in toxic form for consumption in Dubai's shopping malls.
Though I'm concerned by the extent to which we are dependent on products for a sense of connection with the world, all is not bleak. Trends like Web 2.0 and communities like Reality Sandwich are certainly creating interesting and vibrant virtual communities, generating connections that would have been impossible ten years ago. The Internet now allows artists to connect directly with audiences and is taking power away from corporate media companies who traditionally act as middlemen. But the trade off requires critical inspection. MySpace has helped independent artists build audiences, yet it also has created a self-made marketing opportunity for one of the world's largest media conglomerates, News Corp.
There is a fine line between our use of computerized social networks and the ease by which they also facilitate targeted demographics. I don't mind being suggested products that I might like, as is the case when I visit Amazon.com. But if we are making a devil's pact with the marketing industry to pay for our free entertainment, then we should at least demand that these companies engage in ethical business practices, such as not promoting degrading products or imagery, militarism, addictive substances or environmentally destructive goods.
If we are to rescue anything from punk beyond its style, then it must be the demand for ethical behavior. With moral principles we become a real community, because we acknowledge that our behaviors affect each other, just as the Pygmies wisely identified hoarding as a socially destructive activity. If advertisers decide to sell us products regardless of their social and environmental impact, perhaps we should do what is best and exile them to a place where they will no longer hurt anyone. Through boycotting (and supporting companies we do like) we can train them to behave better. If there is any hope for our civilization, we'd better discard the lamest excuse of the 20th Century, "It's only business," and come to terms with the notion that a community is not a demographic, but a vibrant network generated by felt meaning and connection.
Image by Jeremy Brooks, courtesy of Creative Commons license.