Monday, October 29, 2012

Don't Dream It, Be It


It’s got cross-dressing, orgies, a fair share of skin and lots of ugly, nasty rock and roll. Forget the candy; for us adults, The Rocky Horror Show is the most fun you can have on Halloween. There’s no way to count how many midnight showings of the performance or the movie are shown every year.

Find a city this Halloween -- or hell, find any mid-sized college for that matter -- and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find at least one group of misfits trying to figure out how many amps they can safely plug into a powerstrip so that the chorus of “Time Warp” reaches the back of the bar. It’s as much a part of the scary season as haunted houses or the Great Pumpkin.

A true review of the show is almost superfluous at this point, and not only because there’s been an untold number of performances in the near-forty years since its original production. Honestly, it’s become more phenomenon and tradition than a play or a movie -- albeit a strange tradition. In a world still so straight-jacketed by do-this-not-that morality, it’s one of those rare moments you can really let your freak flag fly.

Lots has certainly changed since Richard O’Brien, a British actor recently canned from the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar, wrote the original music and book for Rocky Horror. Funnily enough, he did it just to blow off steam, not really with any intention of making it into a serious production. “I went home and I wrote a musical that I wanted to go and see,” says O’Brien. “And it was just a bit of fun.”

When director Jim Sharman spoke to O’Brien about it, however, it came to life. The rock musical about the straight-laced Brad and Janet lured into the outrageous B-movie world of a transsexual Transylvanian came to be at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973. Two more fine, upstanding members of respectable society were stripped half-naked and corrupted onstage almost every night for three weeks. Needless to say, this was not a place for purity rings.

This was only four years after Stonewall. The idea of going outside any kind of gender norm -- let alone having your biologically male protagonist strut the stage in fishnets and a bustier -- was still a bit risque outside the still-marginalized world of drag-shows. In fact, same-sex relations of any kind had only been decriminalized in the UK six years before in Britain.

Back then, the Royal Court itself had only been open for about seventeen years, and had become known for taking on more experimental fare. It was also in an area not quite as posh as today. In the early ‘70s, the Earl’s Court and Knightsbridge areas hadn’t gotten anywhere near as slick and gentrified as they were later to be.

What’s more, queering was in the air more generally. The 60s might have been over, but rock was in a pretty subversive place. Glam was on top at this point with Bowie and Roxie Music; even the New York Dolls, who played a much more stripped down, less synthed rock and roll, were more than happy to cake their faces with makeup. It made conservatives sneer and good church-goers gasp in terror.

Remember, this is 1973, a good two or three years before the idea of “punk” arrived on everyone’s lips. Nonetheless, the show’s outrageous grittiness mixed with a reckless abandon and sense of fun -- not to mention a utilitarian approach to its rock and roll score -- did seem to anticipate the shock to the mainstream that punk would deliver.

The 1976 film was an entirely different animal, if for no other reason than it was, well, a film. Not a play. To this day O’Brien, who also played Riff Raff on camera, retains mixed feelings on it. “I don’t like talking about the movie,” he said in a 2011 interview with Sabotage Times. “I don’t like drumming up more business for 20th Century Fox you see.”

At the same time, O’Brien can’t help but admit that it was a hell of a lot of fun. And why wouldn’t he? Tim Curry (in what is surely his best-known role over thirty-five years later), Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, and yes, Meat Loaf, well before he endorsed a presidential candidate whose Mormon head would explode if he ever actually watched the film.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show also carried with it a great deal more of the punk aesthetic (just check out Frank N. Furter’s leather jacket halfway through) and a few sly jabs against straight-laced conservatism. Probably the most illustrative example comes right before squares Brad and Janet get a flat-tire and discover the Frankenstein place -- as they listen to Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation speech on the radio.

By this moment, most of the world had experienced the end of the post-War boom, and Britain in particular was declining into economic depression. Lampooning conservatives was pretty easy in the midst of all this. That it could be done in such a camp style incorporating everything from  spaceships to gold lamé speedos merely solidified how hard it would be for traditionalists to even think of responding.

Today, there’s a different landscape in which Rocky Horror and all its iterations exist. On the plus side, the idea of non-straight orientations, including trans lifestyles, are viewed with much more acceptance and embrace. Says O’Brien:

“Well in our western world, England, Australia and the United States etc, there are still strongholds of dinosaur thinking. But, you know, I am a trans myself and I know it’s easier for me now. I can be wherever I want, whatever I want and however I want. And I suppose to some extent, a very small extent, my attitudes in Rocky Horror have helped make the climate a little warmer for people who have been marginalised, so that’s definitely not a bad thing...

“I’m not saying we’re totally responsible for any of this but we are indeed part of a journey of shifting boundaries. You know, to be transgender is not a choice, to be gay is not a choice, to be heterosexual is not a choice, it’s just the way we’re made. And we hopefully got that message across with a lot of fun along the way. Rocky’s allowed a lot of people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to express themselves have that chance to be more open and to free themselves.”

Unfortunately, those “strongholds of dinosaur thinking” are hard to ignore. They may even help put a straight-up homophobe in the White House (not that Obama has really done all he can to help the LGBT and queer communities).

Maybe that’s why experiencing Rocky Horror remains both necessary and a real thrill. In college I had the luck to perform in a version of the show. The directors needed someone who played guitar to play Eddie, because he would double as a member of the band. I could play bar chords and hock a loogey across the rehearsal space. Apparently that’s all they needed.

Something to understand is that this was in Syracuse, New York, where I was attending the university. There really isn’t much else in Syracuse, a city of 200,000 that is rust belt personified. It used to host the largest Carrier air conditioner plant in the country; in fact the stadium is named after the company. The jobs there were good union jobs. But like so many other factories, Carrier closed shop in the 1980s, took the jobs with them and let the city’s working class get scattered to the wind. Half of downtown Syracuse was perpetually boarded up. From my understanding, it still is too.

Of course, there was plenty of homophobia among the fairly large frat scene on campus. But any area that’s in perpetual economic hardship is guaranteed to carry with it a great degree of “blame the other” mentality -- even in the “enlightened” blue state of New York. It’s worth keeping in mind that as recently as 2008 Syracuse was the scene of the fatal shooting of transgender woman Lateisha Green. Like all cities, it’s the kind of place where alternative spaces are always in demand.

The LGBT scene wasn’t huge at that time, but it was certainly big and proud enough to hold its annual pride march, and the gay bars were the places where you were guaranteed to have the most fun regardless of your own orientation.

It was in one of these places we performed Rocky Horror. Actually the place officially identified as a club, but most NYC or Los Angeles clubs would scoff at these modest digs. It couldn’t have been more than the size of a small loft, with a tiny stage and shit sound equipment.

Still, the energy wasn’t to be missed or matched. We had built it well beyond the campus, and the crowd was gay, straight, lesbian, trans, queer, young and old, black and white. Cliché though it might be to say so, it’s also true that it was a little closer to how any proponent of sexual liberation thinks the world should look.

The shout-backs from the audience were right on cue and as hilarious as if they were being said for the first time. We took more than a few liberties: I modeled my Eddie off of Joe Strummer, complete with the electric leg and telecaster. Our Riff Raff based himself on Sid Vicious. We thought it’d be fun to have our Rocky be someone with a beer gut, and our Frank N. Furter had a shaved head, a nice offset to his bustier and garters.

And ultimately, that’s what made the night so fun; that we were taking a work that had become something of a “classic” by this point, turning it on its head, and the knowledge that this is what we were supposed to do if the show was to be relevant in any way. Were we successful? I can’t be the judge of that; I just know I had a good time.

In the end, what shows like Rocky Horror put on the table is the question of what it means to be a “freak,” and why we all, in this society so bound by repression and deprivation, have a need to fly it. Halloween aside, the question answers itself.

What most people desire -- even the Republicans reduced to footsie in an airport bathroom -- is for the line between freakishness and respectability to be erased. Where freedom has actual meaning, and where, oddly enough, Frank N. Furter’s mantra “don’t dream it, be it” is possible 365 days a year.

First appeared at Red Wedge magazine

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Boots Riley's Rhyme and Reason


I spoke with the Coup’s Boots Riley at an auspicious time. Right before calling him, I’d returned from a downtown rally of thousands of striking Chicago teachers and their supporters. It was arguably the most significant American labor battle in thirty years, trading in the calcified, ineffective style of “union-management cooperation” for an old school, knock-down, drag-out, class struggle unionism that gets actual results.

The day before, I had emailed Boots asking whether he wanted to sign on to an “Artists Stand With Chicago Teachers” statement, spearheaded by area artists with the blessing of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign.

Anyone who’s ever tried to get in touch with a musician of any high profile knows how tough it can be, let alone when trying to get them to lend their name to a cause. Not with Boots. He’d given me his personal email address previously, and only an hour or so after asking him to sign on to the statement, he replied back with three simple words: “Sign me up!”

It’s this kind of informality that makes speaking with Boots a real pleasure. You get the feeling that you’re simply conversing with a comrade, someone who will gladly pick you up when you fall down on the picket line.

He is, first and foremost, a revolutionary. In the ’60s his parents had both been close to the Black Panthers, and he himself began identifying as a radical in his teens. Rapping came around the same time. Still, saying that the two go hand-in-hand for Boots would be a vast oversimplification. Truth is, he sees the relationship between music and struggle to be much more nuanced.

This is perhaps why Boots has allowed the Coup to evolve so much over the past twenty years. Sorry To Bother You, due to be released October 30, is twelve tracks of mayhemic noise-rock inflected hip-hop dripping with Boots’ characteristic humor, bravado and passion. It sounds quite different from 2007’s Pick a Bigger Weapon, and even more different from 2001’s Party Music -- the album that will be perhaps eternally remembered as the one whose original cover provoked shrieks of outrage from America’s conservative right.

Both previous albums utilized what might be called the more “traditional” electronic beats and turntablism common in hip-hop. Sorry To Bother You, however, is at once more organic and far out. Boots says that there was a conscious decision to include as much distorted heaviness as possible in the beats and music. The end result has been characterized by some as almost punk rock.

“A lot of that was not intentional,” he says. “The intention was just to make edgy, soulful music that technically felt rough, and that you could dance to. So, for instance, I feel like the guitar for ‘Land of 7 Billion Dances’ is very funky, but definitely has a punk feel to it, and the texture too. And the drums are basically a New Orleans march, but the whole thing sounds like funk and rock and soul and all of that put together.”

The punk is there, for sure. That’s Anti-Flag’s Justin Sane jumping in on the fun-house chorus of “Your Parents’ Cocaine,” oh-so delicately suggesting to rich kids that they “blow your fucking brains out!”

To say this is simply another embrace of “rock-rap,” along the lines of Boots’ work with Tom Morello and Street Sweeper Social Club, would be incorrect however. For Boots, there’s much more of a holistic connection between hip-hop’s roots and the album’s more apparently left-field influences:

“There are differences in a lot of things, but some of it has the same root, or come from different branches of the same tree. So, with ‘Magic Clap,’ I wanted to make something that was pushy and edgy. But then as we did it and started messing around with the bassline, it kind brought us back to almost old Motown. But at the same time that edginess is still there and you can see the connection.”

This is a somewhat unorthodox way to look at music, notably off the beaten path that much of the music industry would like us to take.

But something about this album’s formula has clearly, if you will, struck a chord. After its release three months ago, The Onion’s AV Club named “Magic Clap,” the album’s lead single, “a solid contender for song of the year.” Calling the song catchy is a bit of an understatement. “Magic Clap” is thoroughly groove-laden and danceable. In a smart production move that has long set the Coup apart, the lyrics are turned to the most crystal-clear frequency; you might be getting down while hearing them, but you certainly won’t mistake them:

“It’s like a hotwire, baby
When we put it together
When the sparks fly
We’ll ignite the future forever
This is the last kiss Martin ever gave to Coretta
It’s like a paparazzi picture when I flash my Beretta
I got scars on my back
The truth on my tongue
I had the money in my hand when that alarm got rung
We wanna breathe fire and freedom from our lungs
Tell Homeland Security
We are the bomb”

Wishy-washy conventional wisdom tells us that music is supposed to “bring us together.” Not with Boots. Not by a long-shot. His open chiding of Homeland Security is just the tip of the sword for him. Songs like “The Guillotine,” one of the album’s highlights, gleefully proclaim with hand-clapping enthusiasm “we got the guillotine, you better run!”

Asked why he feels the rich deserve to be mocked, Boots replied: “That’s just what we’ve got to do until we can do more to them.” He also points out that a great device of political analysis is the ability to point out the absurdity of the situation. “When having an analysis of how the system works, it’s very important to point out the ironies in the system. The one clear way to do that is through humor.”

On Sorry To Bother You, this humor is employed possibly most effectively when taking up the very functions of arts and culture in capitalism, as Boots does in “You Are Not a Riot (An RSVP from David Siquieros to Andy Warhol).” Imagining a correspondence between the man who most opportunistically exploited the connection between art and commerce and a hardline Mexican communist muralist is certainly entertaining food for thought. Boots doesn’t disappoint.

“You! You are not a riot,” he proclaims. “You are the tight leather pants on the old ex-general! You! You are not rebellion! I got the invite to your party and I threw it away!”

It’s also an interesting glimpse into the constantly shifting conflict between those who have adopted radical chic to sell merch and those who have actually forged that aesthetic through virtue of their own struggle.

“Culture in a capitalist system is going to be enveloped by capitalism. I mean, picket signs are used by companies to sell clothing. You see murals that are Gap ads! So if you just have the aesthetic, it’s not going to do it. [That song] is talking about artists who knowingly use that rebellious aesthetic but have no intention of actually rebelling.”

The difference between the poseurs and those who can walk the walk is something of which Boots is conscious.

“There is nothing we can do until we have a mass movement that can change the material situation,” he says. “That’s not even the revolutionary part, but hopefully that movement can become revolutionary.”

Not that he thinks revolutionaries should be sitting and waiting. His involvement in Occupy Oakland has further cemented a genuine activist cred over the past year. Though far from being a pacifist, he has been one of the Bay Area’s more high-profile critics of the black bloc tactic, saying “its repeated use has become counter-revolutionary” recently. He was also a big proponent of last November’s shutdown of the Oakland ports, and insists that the major link that the radical left needs to solidify is that with labor.

Yes, he has some big criticisms of the movement. “It seems that people -- even people who consider themselves revolutionaries -- didn’t see how great of a chance this was to just get people involved in class struggle around things that they were dealing with everyday. They just saw things not being technically called revolutionary or things not looking aesthetically the way they thought revolutionary things should look.”

He also sees the movement, despite its shortcomings, as an important step forward after thirty years of class retreat. If nothing else, it finally brings people together on a platform of class struggle. In fact, he sees the recent uptick in union activity as greatly affected by Occupy. “I think that definitely, because of the Occupy Wall Street movement, there’s a new militant labor movement that’s going to jump off. And by a militant labor movement I don’t necessarily mean the traditional labor unions; maybe they’ll be involved, maybe folks will take those over. But there’ll be new standards and people are going to have to defy the Taft-Hartley Act” -- the notorious 1947 law that puts severe restrictions on union organizing.

Boots also mentions in particular, and more than once, the 1930s, when a militant union movement had to break the law several times to win basic organizing rights, not to mention better pay and jobs. This naturally leads to talk about Pete Seeger, Billie Holiday, Leadbelly and all the other legendary artists who sang the sound of the struggle and whose works are intimately tied up with those years. Does Boots see his own music, or that of artists like him, as playing a similar role?

“The inspiration that November 2 [the date of last year's port blockade] gave to millions of people is multiple times more than all of the music that I’ve ever done in my life or Rage Against the Machine has ever done in their life. That’s way more inspiring! This music is just what people can listen to afterward while they’re at the bar.”

With all due respect to Boots, he might be selling himself short. Of course nobody can reasonably say that playing the right notes or spitting the right rhymes is a substitute for the often grueling, painstaking work of building a real movement for change that puts power in the streets. But the effect that the music has on people’s souls and minds, the potential to inject them with real confidence and remind them of their rage, is never to be dismissed.

I asked Boots to tell me the story of Double Rock. In 1989, Boots was regularly visiting the Double Rock housing project in San Francisco to talk politics and organization with residents. One Sunday, he was informed that two nights before, the police had beaten bloody two eight-year-old twin boys, both sons of a woman named Rossie Hawkins. When Hawkins came outside to protest the violence against her kids, the cops gave her the same treatment.

Hawkins and her sons were by no means the only African-American people in Double Rock who had been dealt such treatment. In fact, a week before, another young man had been beaten so badly by police that he had died while they stalled driving him to the hospital. When Hawkins and her two sons were put in the back of the squad car, local residents knew what might happen.

Dozens of people spontaneously began crowding around the police car, demanding that Hawkins and her sons be released. The cops, in response, fired their pistols into the air; the crowd naturally scattered.

Then, something awe-inspiring happened: “Someone started chanting ‘Fight the power! Fight the power!’” The crowd stopped running. “By the end of the night, police cars were turned over, and those cops ran out of there without their guns. And someone had gotten Rossie Hawkins and her kids to the hospital.”

This was the summer of 1989, when Public Enemy was all over the radio, and those simple words -- while they didn’t flip the cop car themselves -- certainly changed folks’ minds. In the right moment, a change of mind can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

It’s been almost twenty-five years since “Fight the Power” hit the airwaves, and certainly a lot has changed. A lot has also, unfortunately, stayed the same, and for far too long at that. So, is now the moment? Is now that time when everything might shift drastically? When the drab fakery of the culture of the 1% might be flipped on its head in favor of a more immediate, revolutionary culture?

“I think that it will come from a movement existing. So, because there will be a movement creating the artists, I think that there will be revolutionary culture. Hopefully the revolutionary culture will be one that informs and influences everyone because there’s a movement that people are involved in.”

No doubt, there’s a long way to go between that moment and where we’re at now, but it’s a lot closer than we’ve been in a while. What that new culture might look like is anybody’s guess, but don’t be surprised if you hear a chant of “we got the guillotine!” at a future demonstration.

First appeared in the Occupied Chicago Tribune

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Hundred Years of Guthrie


On January 19th, 2009, a crowd of thousands gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. It was the day before the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States, a country where it had once been perfectly legal to own someone with black skin. The historic symbolism of gathering in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King had given his “I Have a Dream” speech, was palpable.

There, living folk legend Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and Seeger’s grandson Tao, backed by a multi-racial choir, led the large crowd in a celebratory sing-along. Their song of choice? “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie.

Few musicians or songwriters have had as massive an impact on American music as Woody Guthrie. “This Land Is Your Land” is one of the best-known songs in US history -- even among those who know nothing else of Guthrie’s works. It’s been featured over the years in commercials for Coca-Cola and American Airlines, and performed on floats at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Conversely, it’s also filled the air at union rallies, anti-war demonstrations and--most recently--actions of the Occupy movement.

This year, there are countless concerts, performances, and other events being planned to celebrate what would have been Guthrie’s hundredth birthday. These events and more are welcome. Guthrie’s legacy is one well worth celebrating. But perhaps because of the sheer omnipresence of his influence, there persists a nebulous, “all things to all people” atmosphere surrounding the songwriter’s work.

As always, it’s a lot more complex than that. While Guthrie the myth may be easily manipulated and used, there’s a good chance that Guthrie the man might balk at his music being used to sell soda. After all, this was an artist who once passionately declared his outright hatred for what capitalism does to music:

“I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own songs and to sing the kind that knock you down farther... the ones that make you think you've not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I'd starve to death before I'd sing any such songs as that.”

Recent years have also seen discoveries surrounding the “original” or “lost” verses of “This Land,” which show its content to be less of a celebratory missive than a bold reminder of American inequality. This is on top of scholarship seeking to bring Guthrie’s radicalism back to the center of an appreciation of his art, including the recent Woody Guthrie, American Radical, by University of Central Lancashire professor Will Kaufman.

The sanitizing of Guthrie is nothing alien to the music business; anyone familiar with the real legacies of John Lennon, Bob Marley and so many others will recognize this process. Rebellion might be dangerous, but it’s also cool. And if a musician’s radicalism can be hewn from their artistic greatness, then the bucks roll in unencumbered. What’s more, Guthrie’s career coincided with and was a crucial component in the formation of American popular music. Stripping his music of its subversive content means doing the same for a key link American history.

The Do Re Mi

In his autobiography Bound For Glory, Guthrie would claim that his activism began at an early age. In fact Guthrie’s beginnings could not have been further from those of a radical.

Born July 14th, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was named after then-Governor of New Jersey and soon-to-be President Woodrow Wilson. Guthrie’s father Charles was an aspiring real estate developer and local Democratic politician with a strong racist and anti-socialist streak. Charles would frequently rail in speeches and newspaper op-eds against the “moral depravity” of the Socialist Party.

Years later, the younger Guthrie would discover that his father was present at a notorious Okemah lynching the year before Woody’s birth. He also speculated that his father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Well into his adulthood, Woody clung to establishment ideas. By the time he had reached his twenties, however, the Great Depression had taken hold. Making matters worse was the “Dust Bowl” in the American farmlands--along with drought, disease, crop-failures and farm foreclosures.

The Guthries, who had always possessed strong middle-class pretensions, weren’t farmers. Nonetheless, they were literally scattered to the winds of poverty like so many other families in their area. Woody was one among the thousands of “Okie” migrants who went west searching for some form of living. At that time, he believed his ticket out of poverty was to make it big as a cowboy singer in the vein of Will Rogers.

The journey to California -- a stark and destitute reality contrasted to the “land of plenty” that was supposed to be at the other end -- changed all that. When Guthrie and his cousin “Oklahoma” Jack knocked on the door of Los Angeles’ KFVD radio station in 1937, he had little to his name aside from the guitar on his back. One of the songs that Woody performed for their audition that day has since become one of his best known: “If You Ain’t Got the Do Re Mi.”

According to Will Kaufman:

“‘If You Ain’t Got the Do Re Mi’ [was] about an illegal blockade that had been set up by the Los Angeles Police Department, hundreds of miles outside their jurisdiction, to prevent the Dust Bowl migrants from entering the state of California unless they had fifty dollars or more to prove that they weren’t ‘unemployable.’ The blockade had only lasted for a few months in 1936 -- it was gone by the time Guthrie arrived in California -- but the memory of the insult was fresh enough to provoke a stinging musical critique. It was fairly strong stuff for someone who simply wanted to sing cowboy music and make a few bucks.”

This “strong stuff” did indeed stand apart from the lion’s share of mainstream music. Record companies’ general interest was in smooth, prepackaged (and overwhelmingly white) crooners like Perry Como and Bing Crosby. Blues was shoved into the category of “race records,” along with all but the most accessible big-band jazz. What is now broadly called folk and country were demeaned as “hillbilly music.”

Both were seen as appealing to niche markets, those most marginalized in society and deemed somehow unimportant. Even KFVD, whose primary musical programming was “cowboy music,” was taking a risk by broadcasting an artist as coarse, unpolished and brash as Guthrie. But the station’s owner Frank Burke was a leftist; he had been a supporter of Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty In California campaign.

Another risky hire for Burke and KFVD was Ed Robbin, member of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) and local correspondent for the party’s west coast newspaper the People’s World. Burke had given Robbin a spot three times a week at KFVD. One day in 1938, Guthrie approached Robbin about listening in on his show. Robbin agreed, and it was there that he was pleasantly surprised to hear Guthrie perform a song about the Bay Area former labor leader Tom Mooney.

Mooney had been convicted of involvement in the San Francisco Preparedness Day parade bombing in 1916. His conviction was rightfully considered by labor activists to have been little more than the result of a show trial. In 1938, after over twenty years of campaigning among radical groups, California’s newly elected Governor Culbert Olsen had finally pardoned Mooney and had him released.

Mooney had recently been interviewed on KFVD. But Robbin was unaware that Guthrie -- who was now hosting his show by himself -- had any political streak whatsoever. By his own admission, his jaw hit the floor when he heard Guthrie perform “Mr. Tom Mooney Is Free” on the air. Not only that, but Guthrie had closed the song urging his listeners to tune into Robbin’s commentaries: “he tells the truth, and that’s pretty rare in this town.”

Guthrie had encountered many CPUSA members in his travels; they were the most dedicated union organizers among migrant laborers and field workers. Not long afterward, Ed Robbin became his booking agent, and he was quickly confirmed to play at picket lines and union halls around California. He also began writing his famed “Woody Sez” column for The Daily Worker. Guthrie had decisively stepped into the fray of the American Communist movement.

The CPUSA in 1938 was a tragic contradiction. Though its members had played often heroic roles in myriad strikes, anti-racist struggles and international solidarity campaigns, it was by the 1930s completely “Stalinized.” The 1917 Russian Revolution had cracked under the weight of civil war and international isolation; its working class was in shambles and the country had fallen to hands of an opportunistic bureaucracy led by Joseph Stalin.

The CPUSA, like all official Communist parties, had its line increasingly determined not by the possibility of workers’ revolution but by the foreign policy needs of Moscow. In 1936, the party began effectively lending it support to a “Popular Front” with the Democratic Party.

Nonetheless, the party’s commitment to grassroots struggle and a workers’ world (at least in its rhetoric) was what inspired over a million people to pass through its ranks during the Depression. Countless others, including Guthrie, would never join but would remain sympathetic--sometimes for their entire lives.

Contrary to what some might think, Guthrie was neither rash nor disingenuous in his political loyalty. Both Klein and Kaufman spend a good deal of time in their respective books mentioning the books that Guthrie digested during his political life. Years later, Guthrie’s copy of Marx’s Capital was discovered with notes such as “must memorize contents” written in the margins.

This isn’t to say that he didn’t make some truly bone-headed judgments in his defense of the CPUSA. Most notorious was using his radio show to speak (sing, actually) in favor of the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany in August, 1939. Plenty of sympathizers cut ties with the CPUSA for Stalin’s alliance with the fascist enemy; Guthrie wasn’t one of them. For his boss Frank Burke, this was one step too far. Guthrie and Robbin were both fired from KFVD.

Hard Hitting Songs

Not long before Guthrie came around, the Communist Party’s views on music had been, at best, out-of-date. The Pierre Degeyter Society, a Communist-affliated musical club with chapters on campuses across the US, promoted the idea that music in a socialist society would be little more than workers composing classical operas. Stalinism’s heavy emphasis on stuffy, formalized art for the use of propaganda (laughably called “socialist realism”) certainly didn’t help matters.

The arrival of Guthrie, however, coincided with an influx of folk, blues and jazz artists into the party’s orbit. Bebop innovators like Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie were playing CPUSA sponsored dance parties. Leadbelly was being invited to play his “Bourgeois Blues” at communist summer camps. And a large crop of radical and progressive folk singers -- Josh White, Aunt Molly Jackson, Sarah Ogan -- followed with him.

Accompanying all this was a broader shift in music. Slowly but surely, the Comos and Crosbys of the world were being supplanted on the radio in favor of a more grassroots sensibility. Musician Mat Callahan, in his book The Trouble With Music, explains that the late ‘30s were a time when “popular culture” hadn’t only taken shape but had assumed a position of dominance in the west.

No more was music just the creation of some slick, uniquely gifted individuals with the backing of music industry honchos. Now, any working person could pick up a guitar or a harmonica and have their story taken seriously. What had previously been dismissed as “race” or “hillbilly” music was increasingly accepted as more credible and authentic. When Guthrie moved to New York City in 1939, this shift was in full swing.

Surrounding him was a throng of activists and musicians profoundly inspired by the emergence of a radical working class folk culture. Pete Seeger, Josh White, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax (sister of folk musicologist Alan Lomax, one of the earliest to record Guthrie’s songs), Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee.

It seemed only logical that they coalesce into some way, and in 1940, the Almanac Singers came into being. They weren’t so much a band as a confederation; membership was always changing depending on individual artists’ other commitments. Guthrie, while not always the most reliable, was certainly a powerful influence on the group.

Looking at the tour schedule for the Almanacs, one gets the sense that they’re peeking at Eugene Debs’ day planner. They performed not just in New York but across the country, at fundraisers for the People’s World and the American Peace Movement, picket lines for striking gypsum miners and auto workers alike.

This was a time of ascendancy for the American labor movement--in particular the Congress of Industrial Organization. Since splitting from the American Federation of labor five years previously, the CIO had surpassed the AFL in both size and militancy. In contrast to the AFL’s concessions to segregation, the CIO had put a premium on fighting racism both on the shop floor and, often, in the world at large too. The same was true for many other unions outside the CIO’s direct sphere of influence, particularly in the American south.

This put union organizers -- which included a great many CPUSA members and sympathizers -- square in the crosshairs of American racism. One such organizer was Annie Mae Merriweather, an African-American woman from Lowndes County, Alabama active in organizing sharecroppers. After the suppression of a 1935 strike, anti-union thugs Vaughn Ryles and Ralph McGuire shot and killed her husband and fellow-organizer Jim Press. They then kidnapped her, hung her by her wrists in a nearby barn, whipped and sexually assaulted her, then left her for dead. She survived and later told her story to the NAACP.

Guthrie had heard Merriweather’s story before. It had become one of the most widely known of the southern sharecroppers’ struggle--not just for its gruesome details but for the iron resolve that Merriweather displayed both during and after. After playing an engagement for Oklahoma City oil workers in May of 1940, local CPUSA organizer Ina Wood asked Guthrie and Pete Seeger “isn’t it about time you wrote a union song for women?” They worked late into the night, and set Anna Mae Merriweather’s to the deceptively upbeat tune of the “Redwing” polka.

Though the graphic nature and particular references were later toned down, this was an early version of what has since become a labor standard: “Union Maid.” It was included in the Almanacs’ second album Talking Union, released in the early summer of 1941.

Guthrie’s output generally followed this theme during these years--as he called it in the folk-song compendium he compiled with Seeger and Alan Lomax, “hard hitting songs for hard hit people.” Stories of ordinary people trampled under the system’s boot figuring out how to retain their dignity and hit back. His recording sessions included songs like “Tom Joad,” his two-part adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; parables of modern-day Robin Hoods like bankrobber Pretty Boy Floyd; and “Blowin’ Down This Old Dusty Road” with its quiet declaration “I ain’t gonna be treated this way.”

Given the heady and often desperate times in which they were released, there can be little doubt that the overarching message of these songs was as powerful as it was radical.

Whose Land?

Guthrie and the Almanacs’ rise to prominence didn’t go unopposed. Several right-wing critics bemoaned the fact that open Communists were becoming accepted in the mainstream. Carl J. Friederich, a Harvard law professor, wrote for The Atlantic magazine that the Almanacs’ Songs For John Doe in particular was “strictly subversive and illegal.” To Friederich, folk music generally was a “poison in our system” whose relative ease in spreading made it an especially pernicious threat to the American way of life.

Such criticisms, alarmist as they were, weren’t entirely off-base. Guthrie’s songs deliberately bucked the trend of Hollywood and Broadway’s sun-shiney show-tunes and Tin Pan Alley’s sanitized parlor ditties. Guthrie seemed to have little tolerance for culture that attempted to sugarcoat the hard daily reality for poor and working people.

And so, when he heard Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” choking the radio waves during his travels, something about the song obviously stuck in his craw. It was February, 1940, and he set to work on writing an antidote:

“One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office, I saw my people--
As they stood there hungry
I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me”

Why Guthrie shelved these lyrics for almost five years isn’t clearly known. It’s likely that to him it was just another idea that hadn’t yet congealed. It is worth pondering, however, whether the CPUSA’s attitude toward World War II had anything to do with it.

After Hitler broke the non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union, the Communist Party performed yet another about-face and became the most gung-ho supporters of the American war effort. The party even went so far as to support a nationwide “no-strike pledge” and the internment of Japanese-Americans.

Once again, Guthrie stayed the course on the CPUSA’s line. He did three tours with the Merchant Marines and served in the US Army, though he was considerably hard to handle while being stationed at the barracks. It’s easy to see how questioning whether God did indeed “bless America” would be off-limits in the midst of all this.

“This Land Is Your Land” would eventually be recorded in 1944 between his military stints, and wouldn’t be released until a few years later. By that time, it appeared the pendulum had swung back. The year 1946 saw the biggest strike-wave in American history, including the general strike in Oakland. The CIO launched “Operation Dixie,” an attempt to unionize the south and strike a blow against Jim Crow segregation in the process.

The struggle for civil rights also appeared to be reemerging into American politics. When Isaac Woodard, a Black Army veteran who had been honorably discharged mere hours before, was brutalized and permanently blinded by Batesville, South Carolina police in February of ‘46, it produced a national outcry.

Guthrie, like many other CPUSA members and socialists, threw himself headlong back into the unfinished business of American class struggle. His work reflected it too. He, along with writer Irwin Silber, Seeger and others, formed the People’s Songs collective -- a short-lived and more loose-knit attempt at continuing the Almanacs’ work--in 1946. He wrote reams of songs showcasing America’s radical labor heritage, including an entire album’s worth of material dedicated to executed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.

In August, he played in front of an audience of over 30,000 at a rally for Woodard in New York’s Lewisohn Stadium. The bill also included celebrities such as Cab Calloway, Orson Welles, Milton Berle and Billie Holiday. Guthrie wrote a pair of songs dedicated to the “Trenton Six,” Black men convicted of killing a white man in New Jersey on shoddy evidence in 1948.

Fascism on the Hudson

On August 27th, 1949, People’s Songs organized an outdoor benefit concert for the Civil Rights Congress featuring Guthrie, Seeger, Paul Robeson and a collection of other progressive musicians not far from the town of Peekskill, New York. Before even all of the artists had arrived, it was apparent that the show was in trouble. A growing mob of racists had congregated nearby, first lynching an effigy of Robeson, then beating thirteen people headed for the picnic grounds. They shouted slurs such as “commies,” “kikes” and “niggers,” and burned a cross on a nearby hill. Members of the local Ku Klux Klan had mobilized, and were also so confident that they appeared in public without their robes or hoods!

Police were called, but didn’t arrive until hours later, and even then, refused to intervene. The local American Legion post, who along with the KKK had been instrumental in organizing the mob, claimed no involvement, and no real investigation was ever performed into their actions on the day. In the aftermath, the local Klan reportedly received over 700 requests for membership in the Peekskill area.

The horrifying violence of August 27th made holding the concert impossible. Unionists and radicals in the area organized a protest campaign, and the show was rescheduled for a week later on September 4th at an old golf course at nearby Cortlandt Manor. Twenty thousand people showed up to support, with security provided by members of the longshore and electrical worker unions. Robeson, Guthrie and others performed this time around without incident, but directly afterward, violence erupted yet again.

As concert-goers and artists left via bus and caravan, another mob--again organized by the American Legion and KKK -- pelted the passing vehicles with rocks. Some were dragged from their cars and beaten by rioters. Once again, local police stood by and did nothing; over 140 people were injured.

The aftermath saw Guthrie’s last big burst of songwriting. He had been in the same car as Seeger and Lee Hays on September 4th, and had pinned his shirt against the window to prevent the shattering glass from injuring anyone. Says Kaufman:

“In the weeks that followed, Guthrie was stung into action, reeling off a series of his angriest, most contemptuous, most defiant songs in a remarkable burst of energy--at least twenty-one songs about Peekskill written within a month. Collected in a makeshift volume titled ‘Peekskill Songs,’ they were for the most part parodies of traditional and early country music standards.”

Peekskill represented something of a last stand--both for Guthrie and the radical workers’ subculture he had helped forge. By 1949, anti-communists like Joe McCarthy were already rounding up suspected subversives, pressing them to testify before Congress and whipping up furor over “commies.”

This witch-hunt was most famously wrought in the world of culture and entertainment. Countless screenwriters, actors, directors and musicians had their careers ruined. Paul Robeson, proud and defiant, was blacklisted and had his passport revoked for refusing to name names. His career never fully recovered.

Even some of the Almanac Singers -- including Burl Ives and Josh White -- caved to the pressure and gave names to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Seeger himself escaped by the skin of his teeth, and was one of the few to maintain any kind of music career outside the coffeehouses with his much-sanitized Weavers.

As for Guthrie himself, he would be restricted from speaking and singing his mind too, but for a different reason. He had been diagnosed with Huntington’s disease some years earlier, the same that killed his mother. Though he tried to keep his guitar in his hands and continue writing, his motor skills deteriorated, and he died on October 3rd, 1967 at the age of 55.

Bound for Glory, Bound for Freedom

We’ll of course never know what Guthrie might have thought about the upsurges of the 60’s; by the time he passed away he had long lost his ability to speak. According to many accounts, his biggest fear during these final days was that his legacy would be forgotten. In the 50’s, before his strength had been completely sapped, he had taken his son Arlo into the backyard of their home several times to teach him “This Land Is Your Land” in its entirety, including the lost verses.

Perhaps he needn’t have worried. As we now know, “This Land” became iconic during the 60’s. Despite the contradictory way in which it was often used, the song’s lost verses didn’t stay lost forever. The month of Woody’s death was also, by coincidence, when Arlo released his famed, eighteen-minute song “Alice’s Restaurant,” humorously skewering America’s military draft. The resemblance to his father’s own “talking blues” songs was, naturally, uncanny.

Chances are that if you’re a musician with even the slightest social consciousness, then you’ve been influenced by Guthrie in some way. The radicalism he brought into his songs was seldom forced; it was organically and seamlessly connected with a kind of humanistic appreciation of working people’s everyday struggles.

Maybe that’s why the Guthrie that has re-emerged so many times in popular music has been Guthrie the radical. This goes well beyond just the limits of the ‘60s folk revival. In the early 1970’s, a young man named John Graham Mellor -- later known as Joe Strummer of punk icons the Clash -- grew his hair long and insisted his friends call him Woody.

His lyrics have been set to music by the Celtic punkers Dropkick Murphys, and respun by Billy Bragg and Wilco in the sublime Mermaid Avenue sessions. Even Alabama 3, the London-based electronic group best-known for composing the theme for The Sopranos, cite Guthrie as an influence.

No doubt, “This Land Is Your Land” has long since ceased to be the de facto anthem of the Obama administration. Even when it did, it was on a shallow basis. It’s appropriate, then, that both Springsteen and Seeger have shifted their enthusiasm to the Occupy movement. It was Seeger, along with Arlo, who performed “This Land” at Zuccotti Park during the height of Occupy Wall Street.

What does all of this say? Would a hundred-year-old Woody Guthrie be more over the moon for another Democratic president, or the first open-ended American class struggle in two generations? It’s an honest question; the Communist Party that he loyally followed his entire life went through some erratic shifts between ultra-left posturing and craven support for the Democrats and America’s policies abroad. Parsing out the kernel of genuine liberation is difficult with such an organism.

That kernel is most surely there, however; Guthrie made a point of highlighting it every chance he got. He was, in his own words, “out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world.” His songs, at their very best, have this woven into their fabric. It’s a cold, hard, undeniable fact.

This is an abridged version appearing in Red Wedge magazine. The full and original version appears in the September/October issue of the International Socialist Review, available in most major bookstores.

Monday, October 8, 2012

On the Further Decline of the Hipster


Subcultures can never truly die. Even when it looks like the last nail in the coffin is firmly in place, there is always some last group of hangers-on and true believers, convinced that the way they dress and the music they listen to is the ultimate in “making a statement.” To these people, it’s only a matter of time until the rest of the world wakes up and joins them in their vibrant and dynamic quest for cultural truth -- even if the rest of the world couldn’t be bothered to blow off the dust that is rapidly accumulating on their stalwart counterparts.

Sometimes that’s a good thing. Nas’ 2006 insistence that “Hip-Hop Is Dead” instigated a back-and-forth that is still ongoing, and perhaps inadvertently kicked the defense of the art-form’s soul back to the underground. Same with punk rock, continually being renewed even as the industry tries to bury it beneath a million Simple Plans and Fallout Boys.

Other times, however, you truly wish that a subculture would actually die and never come back -- or at least sink to the bottom of capitalism’s frustratingly interminable cultural cesspool.

Such is the case with hipsterism. No fewer than two articles have been written over the past two years by this author alone declaring that the final nail was coming any day now.

Nor was I the only one. Around 2010 or so the phenomenon of skinny jeans, porn-staches and neon leggings hit its peak, and the backlash started with a vengeance. Bands that had been cutting edge only a year before were now the most irritating presences in music. Plenty of magazines began forecasting the subculture’s death.

Even the word itself became a slur. T-shirts were made with the words “Die Hipster Scum!” emblazoned on them. Jokes were passed around: “How do you piss off a hipster? Call him a hipster.”

And yet, they’re still here. All the writers who so gleefully anticipated the day when porn-staches and v-necks would finally be dispensed of are still holding our breath. Despite how expensive it is to shop at Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, not to mention buying the rarest of records you’ll never listen to, hipsterism seems to be stubbornly remaining part of our post-recession, post-Occupy moment. It’s been sucked back into the system, which means until that same system is brought down, it’s likely not going anywhere.

Maybe that makes it less urgent to actually understand the culture. After all, hipsterism may not be dead, but it’s certainly far from being at the cultural vanguard. It’s declined, but that decline has been recent. And there’s no history so hard to write as recent history. Still, if we are up to the task, we might understand how this decline came about, and what it might mean for forging a culture that is truly authentic and incorruptible. If such a thing is even possible in the first place.

1. Fell In Love With a Look

One might be forgiven for seeing something redeeming in the hipster’s dawn a decade or so ago.  Part of it was also how much the idea of the “hipster” overlapped with the concept of “indie.” And let’s be clear: what was left of mainstream culture around the turn of the millennium was pretty soul-sucking.

Ten years prior, grunge and hip-hop had punched into the mainstream, freaking everyone’s parents out and providing us with a chance to actually say “fuck you!” to everything that had alienated us. Then, almost as quickly as it came onto the scene, it was either gone or re-appropriated (you can see a pattern emerging here). The rage that had been bookended by the LA riots on one end and the Battle of Seattle on the other had been replaced by post-9/11 flag-waving to the tune of Nickelback and Puff Daddy.

Then came the White Stripes. Then came the Roots with their breakout circa Phrenology. All of a sudden, popular music became fun again, gritty and rebellious. Rolling Stone hadn’t been the place to go to search out good music for some time; now it was Vice and Paste. And all of it in one form or another was being called “indie.” As in “independent.”

This wasn’t necessarily anything to do with the record industry -- both the Roots and the White Stripes were on major labels. Rather, as is usually the case, it was the attitude that defined indie. These were groups that may have been on big labels, but in interviews they would insist on an amount of creative control that these large entities hadn’t previously been willing to relinquish. We could all thank the advent of peer-to-peer file-sharing for that concession.

And here was the unique thing. Indie wasn’t a description of a genre. It could just as easily be applied to punk and garage acts as it could to hip-hop or electronica or folk or dance. This was a subculture with a nascent but very real multicultural potential at its core.

When the US invaded Iraq, it was indie groups who called it out for the mistake it was. When the same-sex marriage fight sprung up in 2004 a lot of these same acts came out in support.

No, they weren’t raging against the edifice the way their ancestors had ten years before. If anything they had taken the shoegazing aspect and amplified it; this wasn’t so much a subculture of kids ready to say “fuck you” as turn their noses up and say “you just don’t get it, do you?” before shrugging and walking away while lighting an American Spirit.

Maybe irony had replaced rage, but let’s face it: that our parents had exchanged their own youthful rebellion for Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush neoliberalism was one of history’s cruelest ironies. They had good industrial union jobs waiting for them after high school, as well as relatively affordable access to college. We had retail positions that paid us seven bucks an hour and student loans that kept us in debt into our forties.

2. Defeated Commune, Defeated Cultures

Stepping back, one must recognize the contradiction in this time and place. Subcultures are by their very definition something embraced by groups of working class people; in fact the very definition of a “popular culture” is one that comes from and reflects back into the working class. The problem, however, was that a great many of those who populated indie’s early years had no clue what that meant.

Brushing aside all the palpable excitement and enthusiasm for the music and clothes and aesthetics, this was socially a pessimistic moment with deep roots. Dubya’s pronouncement of “you’re either with us or against us” echoed the twenty-five year old mantra of “TINA -- there is no alternative.” Notions of class struggle or basic solidarity were in short supply. It wasn’t that they didn’t exist, it was simply that the other side of the struggle had been winning so thoroughly that most of us honestly couldn’t point to an example. And if the ideas and memories of the basics -- how to win a better wage, rent control, food prices, etc -- aren’t there, then the cultural components can’t fall into place either.

David McNally, in his book Global Slump, touches on what this process looked like for working class culture:

“[C]ultures of resistance were sustained in and through organized infrastructures of dissent… But in the great wave of industrial restructuring, geographic relocation and union-busting that consolidated the neoliberal era, much of this was eroded. As plants closed, union halls disappeared, oppositional spaces died out, and people moved on, workers were literally dispossessed of their cultural resources.”

Filling in this void were notions that America was a “middle class nation.” It was total crap, of course, but any individual attempt to rebuke it was sure to be smacked down by howls of young people being “entitled,” “spoiled,” or having “no idea how good you have it.”

Indie and the hipsters that sprung out of it weren’t expressions of confidence and a better tomorrow, then. Quite the opposite in fact. This wasn’t analogous to the soul and rock and roll of the ‘60s and ‘70s (often wrongly assumed to be mostly middle class in nature). Nor was it running parallel to the folkies or beboppers in the late ‘30s. Ascension of working people wasn’t part of the formula. A much more appropriate analogy was the scene of painters, writers and musicians that converged around the Moulin Rouge after the defeat of the Paris Commune in the 1880s.

This was certainly a rebellion against the notion of “classlessness,” but one that necessarily pretended toward a rejection of class too. Our cultural and political history had been ripped from us, and with no sense of where you’ve been, there can be no sense of where you’re going.

The only alternative, in a world lacking any kind of alternative, was to simply refuse to buy in. To decide on a different path and keep as far away from the mainstream as possible. To be, well, independent. Don’t like the system? Don’t bother with tearing it down; just create your own.

3. The Limits of Irony

So what, then, is the difference between being a hipster and simply being indie? Defining that has never been a precise task. But in any culture -- even those such as punk that elevated an “aesthetic of poverty” and thus created DIY -- there are always those who can literally afford all the sartorial and consumer accoutrements. Annoyingly, it always seems to be these people who become the culture’s self-appointed guardians.

The rub is that indie culture, broadly, has always brought with it a strong mistrust of the consumer culture propagated by neoliberalism. Problem is, unless there’s an actual alternative being posed by the very people most under the system’s boot, there isn’t much else to turn to except some kind of parallel world where the “values” are supposedly different. Ergo Urban Outfitters, blasting Modest Mouse out their speakers as they sold novelty items poking fun at “the mainstream.” Or, perhaps more poignantly, American Apparel, whose neon duds ostensibly were made sweatshop free, and were often emblazoned with slogans like “Legalize Gay,” or “Legalize LA,” in reference to the same-sex marriage and immigrant rights struggles.

In essence, all this was a jab against the inherent emptiness of the general culture. But the question this necessarily posed was simply this: “what to do instead?” And without any answers, it all quickly drifted back to the irony. As I wrote in a 2011 article:

“Hipsterism, at least in its earliest days (the days before it was labeled ‘hipsterism’) was in essence an ironic jab against the myth of the American Dream, albeit wrapped a kind of post-modern cynicism. The whole aesthetic was based off a host of stereotypes of different social groups--particularly the white working class. It's here that [art writer Ben] Davis' ‘signs of cultural distinction’ come into play. The trucker hats and sunglasses, the v-necks and porn-staches. While there was an implicit rejection of classlessness here, there was still an air dripping from most hipsters that they were ‘above it all.’ At best it was a fantasy, at worst it was an insult. Basically, it was a simultaneous rejection and reflection of latter-day neoliberalism.”

And when you’re dealing with as erratic an outlook as irony, it’s not too hard to simply start personifying the very realities you’re supposedly poking fun at. Dorian Lynskey points out that this unstable positioning is what leads hipsters to make “the transition from the working-class iconography of trucker caps and Parliament cigarettes to the upper-class whimsy of The Royal Tenenbaums and cutesy indie-pop.”

That’s precisely where the backlash started to manifest. In 2009, while America was finally starting to come to grips with living “post-recession,” writers who had previously sung the praises of Vampire Weekend were now calling them snide upper-class tourists. Frontman Ezra Koenig didn’t help himself by saying that the problem was too many music journalists wanted to be activists.

As the years dragged on and “post-recession” America proved itself to look a lot like just plain old recession America, this kind of polarization continued. The more well-to-do dandy types in the indie world -- those very types who could afford to be the core of “hipsterism” -- wrapped themselves in whatever privilege they could find. The rest of us found ourselves kicked further down the ladder and had to come to grips with the fact that wearing the right t-shirt was not a sufficient act of resistance.

4. Progressive Exploitation?

Perhaps this is why all of hipsterism’s warts are so much easier to call out now. The hipster may not be dead, but he’s sure a lot uglier. American Apparel is now engaged in labor disputes with the same Californian textile workers they supposedly treat so well. The company’s CEO, Dov Charney, has been brought up on charges of sexual harassment several times. Many writers, commentators and journalists have insisted that, given the nature of American Apparel’s advertising, this could come as no surprise.

Last summer’s controversy surrounding the Pitchfork festival’s booking of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All really illustrated just how far the polarization had gone, and how out-of-touch the most elite elements of hipster culture had become. The protest against OFWGKTA wasn’t that of uppity conservative censorship-mongers, nor the opportunistic hue and cry about misogyny periodically thrown up by politicians looking to scapegoat hip-hop. It was community members and feminists concerned that lyrics showcasing extreme violence against women would be coming from the front stage without anyone to challenge them.

The response of the festival’s organizers was hardly what one might expect from “progressives.” First, the website’s editorial staff stood by the choice of Odd Future as headliners (resorting to defenses practically straight out of Norman Mailer’s The White Negro). Then, they denied table space to domestic violence and queer advocacy groups who were merely asking a chance for a dialogue with attendees about Odd Future’s content. Eventually, the Pitchfork festival organizers relented on the table space, but the damage had already been done.

The examples of sexist and racist behaviors from a subculture that was somehow supposed to be different didn’t end there. Vice magazine has run some articles over the years that could be generously termed a bit off in the area of sexism and racism. Then, all of the other blemishes started to become a lot clearer: such as Urban Outfitters’ caving to pressure from Islamophobes to stop selling kuffiyehs even as they sold t-shirt with racist depictions of Arabs on them in 2004. After the Odd Future backlash, all it became a lot harder to ignore, not that it should have been in the first place. Sayings like “hipster racism” and “hipster sexism” began to enter the lexicon.

This was basically the implosion of the alternative culture mirage. The notion of “our own” -- our own bars, our own stores, our own music, our own fashion and so on -- had run up against the inevitable contradiction that someone has to own the bars, the record stores and clothing lines. And owning a business brings with it certain realities, certain compromises, certain priorities of profitability, and certain excuses to make sure that profitability stays intact. In short, the color of your sunglasses doesn’t make the fact that you have to exploit people suddenly go away.

At a certain point, hipsterism’s irony came back to bite itself in the ass, a victim of the post-modern cultural oroboros.

5. History Stuck on Repeat

A subculture's decline normally comes when its name arrives on everyone's lips. This is expressed in an insanely meta way in the recent Russian art-house film Hipsters. Taking place in the Soviet Union of the 1950's (when blow after blow was delivered to the notion that the USSR was anything related to workers' democracy) these obviously aren't the hipsters we know today. They're much closer to what we today would call rockers: leather jackets and pompadours, Elvis and Bill Haley, sounds and styles that were either frowned upon or outright banned as western decadence in Kruschev's Russia.

The film follows a zealous stalwart of the Communist Youth who, first setting out to destroy the subculture finds himself seduced more and more by the fertile promise of rebellion and freedom. Hipsters, however, ends on an oddly ambiguous note; the final musical number instills us with the idea that the absolute best any young person can hope for is five years of fun before we become just another cog in the machine.

It's not clear whether any social or political commentary is intended in this film; upon research, I couldn't find anything on the director's beliefs. That commentary -- intended or not -- is definitely there though. It's particularly hard to ignore the uncanny parallel between the film and the modern Russian state's repression of avant-garde and punk artists -- in particular the case of Pussy Riot.

The less esoteric parallel, though, is to the dynamic of how subcultures are forged, how they rise up and, becoming popular for their rejection of an alienating society, are sucked back into the system. Subcultures, after all, are only subcultures, and without an ever expanding space to thrive and evolve, the pressure from the powers-that-be can only grow. It may be political pressure to close up shop, it may be economic pressure to sell out or be co-opted. Either way, the underlying message is the same: "join us or starve."

6. Occupying Indie

Any ability to reject this choice has to be forced. Power, as someone once said, concedes nothing without a demand, including the power to maintain a culture independent of the forces of capital. This truth has been realized by a growing number of young people, most particularly with the rise of the Occupy movement last year.

Where were the “progressive” cultural lightning rods like Pitchfork during all this, when an alternative was actually being built, when the very economic edifices that made such cultural vapidity were being challenged? They were faithfully reporting the bands who were speaking in support of Occupy, but their reportage seemed withdrawn, confused even, as if they were afraid to say one way or another what Occupy represented.

Never during Occupy’s apex did Pitchfork run an article asking what the significance of the movement was for music. When Lupe Fiasco released his Friend of the People mixtape -- in essence a love letter to Occupy -- Pitchfork ran a lackluster review that didn’t even mention the movement or Lupe’s involvement. In the end, all it revealed was just how equally out-of-touch the site had become with the masses. It’s a lot easier to claim you speak for a movement when the very people who populate it aren’t actually moving. Now, however, they are.

Obviously, Pitchfork, American Apparel, Urban Outfitters and all the rest continue on. But the pretense of representing anything more than simply another branch of the same system is pretty much gone. Perhaps the owners and operators might be nominally more liberal than that folks who own the Gap, but there nothing that fundamentally sets the two ends apart in their interests.

Are there any hipsters left, then? Yes, but they have, like Pitchfork, Urban and all the rest, had their bubble popped. As I also said in last year’s article:

“The cultural bubble has been popped, and the downward mobility of today's young people can't be ignored, least of all by themselves. The ‘liminal [lower-middle and better-off sections of the working] class,’ insofar as it ever really existed, is basically on its way to extinction. As it disappears, it takes with it whatever content there was to hipster culture. Those hipsters lucky enough to be financially prosperous are seeing the silliness of the whole thing and trading in their skinny jeans for business suits. The rest are stuck working as baristas and living in tiny apartments with the creeping knowledge that they actually are the people they once parodied.”

Since the original writing of this article, the Occupy movement has come and gone, and working people -- from Chicago teachers to WalMart workers -- have gone out against their employers. The system’s fulcrum, along with all the oppression and cultural shortcomings that come with it, has been exposed. All of this has served to speed up the differentiation between the now obviously well-to-do hipster class (which it can fairly, albeit perjoratively, be called) and the rest of indie’s stepped-on denizens.

It’s likely that the ironic t-shirts won’t be going away. In any event, they were never really the source of gentrification or inequality, both of which people have always rightfully been pissed about. The buck for those evils has always stopped at the doorstep of a larger system that created a culture of fictionalized prosperity. Indie, in the best of its incarnations, was an attempt to reach for something different, but one bound to come up short for the simple reason that it didn’t have sufficient breathing room. The self-appointed arbiters that came up through the ranks had no idea what to do when they got to the top; eventually they found themselves on the wrong side of the line, and butt of any joke involving tight pants.

There’s good news that comes with this precipitous decline, though. If those who could safely be called hipsters always represented a better-off minority within indie culture, then it stands to reason that the rest of the indie kids have only the best elements to play with. And this time, it’s within the context of a real fightback that already has a great amount of vibrancy to play with.

Hipsterism hasn’t died; it likely never will. It has, however, ceased to be anything remotely relevant to a necessary radical working class subculture. Only this can pave the way for a culture that is truly independent of capitalism’s cruel vicissitudes.

First appeared at Red Wedge magazine

Monday, October 1, 2012

Cultural Workers Strike Back


Written in collaboration with the editorial board of Red Wedge magazine.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” So wrote the Russian revolutionary VI Lenin. For the past couple years it seems there are any number of weeks this adage could describe. These are times when people’s ideas about everything shift rapidly after years of static powerlessness. And when we say everything, we mean everything: economics, politics, culture, and yes, the arts.

September 20th saw members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 reach an agreement with the Corporation of Fine Arts Museums (COFAM) in San Francisco. For over a year, workers at the Legion of Honor and M.H de Young Memorial art museums (both owned and operated by COFAM) had worked without a contract. Management demanded an increase in health coverage costs and introduction of a “tiered” wage system for newer hires -- which amounted in some extreme cases to a wage cut of 77 percent!

Perhaps most stunningly, COFAM weren’t even pleading poverty to justify the cuts. Management were openly admitting that their unrestricted net assets had increased by $19.6 million in the past two years. What’s more, they were playing hardball and spending over $700 an hour by hiring union-busting law firm Hanson Bridgett LLP!

Hardly the enlightened, fair-minded attitude one might expect from an institution dedicated to providing the general public with the fine arts. Larry Bradshaw, Vice President of Local 1021 hit the nail on the head when he expressed the following: “For an organization that is supposed to be community-oriented and culturally high-minded, management’s actions are appalling.”

This past spring the museum workers began handing out flyers and informational materials to attendees at public events. Not long after that they upped the ante by holding flash-mob style rallies at “Friday Nights at the Museum” functions. Community members, local politicians and artists began coming out in support of the workers. In August, members of Local 1021 voted to go on strike.

As it turns out, the hundred or so workers never did act on the strike authorization, but they certainly raised hell for COFAM. On September 7th, 300 people invaded the lobby of De Young museum chanting “no justice, no Picasso!” Nineteen participants were arrested, but the struggle quickly became a public relations nightmare for both museums. Two weeks later, management caved and agreed to what they called a “double-digit” pay increase.

Two days after an accord was reached in San Francisco, on Saturday, September 22nd, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was forced to cancel its evening performance featuring world-renowned conductor Riccardo Muti. The reason for this cancellation? The musicians of the orchestra, recognized as some of the absolute best classically trained artists in the country, had walked out and gone on strike.

According to a press release from the musicians (members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians) management at the CSO had demanded a 5 percent pay-cut. This was on top of the significant concessions that the musicians had already agreed to in contract negotiations, and the 2.5 percent decrease they had conceded in their previous, recently expired contract.


Like the De Young and Legion of Honor museums, the CSO had reported record-breaking revenue in the form of endowment and fundraising. This was on top of strong ticket-sales for the 2011 fiscal year.

Initial coverage of the walkout was overwhelmingly huffy and negative. Journalists at the Chicago Sun-Times had clearly sought out the most well-to-do attendees at Saturday’s cancelled concert.

“They are thumbing their noses at the people who pay them,” said one subscriber. Another, an 80-year-old woman from nearby Evanston, declared “The CSO is the beneficiary of half of my estate. I’m going to tell you I’m going to rethink it.” Or, as one Red Wedge editor put it, “Harumph, harumph.”

But solidarity for the musicians was also forthcoming. Though it was called on short notice, the picket line on Saturday was well-attended, including by younger musicians supportive of the strikers. Even the Chicago Tribune was forced to admit as much. Messages of solidarity from community members also came in via Twitter and Facebook. On the afternoon of Monday, September 24th, musicians and management entered into negotiations again and reached a tentative agreement.

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At the time of writing, final details for either contract have not been made public. It is likely that both contain at least some concessions as well as some gains. The fact that in both cases workers and artists flexed their muscle and refused to be taken advantage of is significant, however, and has implications for future fights around the arts. There are two conclusions in particular that bear pointing out.

First is the much broader context. Obviously, neither the caving of COFAM nor the Chicago Symphony strike can be separated from a broader working class fightback that is brewing right now. The Chicago musicians walked out only two days after the Chicago Teachers Union settled their own contract with the city, protecting wage increases and paving the way for future struggles. Just about every commentary on the CSO seemed to mention the teachers in the same breath.

While mainstream media may equivocate on these struggles, it’s likely that most working people are saying “it’s about damned time.” Five years into an economic crisis -- a crisis we are told repeatedly is ending somehow -- working people have finally had it with paying for a collapse caused by the rich.

They’ve seen their friends and family laid off, their neighbors evicted, their kids schools shut down and social services slashed. It very well may be that the final straw has broken the camel’s back; a growing number of American workers are joining their counterparts in Egypt, Greece, Spain, South Africa and beyond by refusing to be stepped on anymore.

Sure, the floodgates had been cracked for some time. The occupation of Wisconsin’s State Capitol last in February of 2011 and the emergence of the Occupy movement represented initial stirrings. The teachers strike, which seized national attention and mobilized tens of thousands in sympathy across the country may very well have kicked those same gates wide open. And while American workers still have many hard lessons ahead of them if they're going to learn how to win, it can now be said with confidence that they're at least learning how to fight.

Steven Ashby, a professor of labor relations at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, sums it up nicely:

“So are Wisconsin, Occupy and the CTU strike another turning point that future historians will see as the beginning of a new mass workers' movement demanding social change?

"If I was a betting man, I'd put my money on it. One key ingredient in the making of historical turning points is that people begin to view street protests as normal instead of weird. Instead of viewing a mass march on TV or the occupation of a building as strange and scary, many people watch those same events and think to themselves, ‘Good for them. That's what it takes to get anything done in this country. Maybe I'll join them.’”

Which brings us to the second conclusion. What has this same system, this same system hell-bent on taking everything possible from the working class, done to our art? The answer can be seen in the dwindling number of public schools with art education, community arts centers having their funding revoked and forced to shut down.

We should take it as no coincidence that President Ronald Reagan’s push to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts came in 1981 -- the same year that he notoriously broke the air traffic controllers union and opened an all-out assault on working people. These attacks on the NEA and public arts in general have continued through Bush the First and gone all the way through the lackeys of the late Andrew Breitbart.

As a result, most “public” arts institutions in America, even those that bear the name of their host city or state, are run by private consortiums. The vast majority of their funding is likewise private.

Hand-in-hand with these decades of assault on our right to art has come the idea that art itself is not labor. Art is not the purview of ordinary people, the logic goes, but the creation of those with a supreme gift. Any truly great artist is a “genius,” and genius is anathema to the mundane world of actual work.

Of course, this logic has always been complete and utter nonsense. Now, however, as the workers who help actualize our art stand up with others like them, saying “enough is enough,” the mask is slipping. The process of mystification that has taken art out of the realm of the real is threatened. Good thing too.

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Without the workers of the De Young and Legion of Honor Museums -- the janitors, support staff and retail workers -- these museums would not operate. As the signs carried by the workers themselves reminded us: “We Create and Support These World Class Exhibits.”

Furthermore, what does it tell the residents of San Francisco that these museums don’t care about their workers? In the long run, if COFAM had been able to ram through their initial contract, would other working people even feel welcome there? Or are museums destined to become what the stereotype has always deemed them; playgrounds for the privileged set who can afford to have halls named after them?

The case of the symphony organizations is notably different, but leads to similar conclusions. Stories in the mainstream press frequently alluded to the CSO musicians’ “average salary” of $170,000 a year. None mentioned that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA, who run the orchestra) experienced a 20 percent increase in their net assets in 2011 to $262 million. Any insistence that this large jump came as a result of anything other than the musicians themselves stretches the limits of logic.

Indeed, the musicians of the CSO were recently ranked by an international panel of judges to to be the best orchestra in the United States. They’ve won a record-breaking amount of Grammy Awards, and performed across the entire planet. Every single one of them have trained for decades to mold themselves into the absolute best in their craft. Anyone who thinks this isn’t hard work doesn’t understand the meaning of the term.

As violinist Ellen McSweeney recently wrote in a blog post (also appearing in this week’s Red Wedge):

“Salary does not define the dynamic; power does. Why does it matter how highly paid the CSO musicians are if they have no control over the institution for which they work? A few basic questions demonstrate the amount of power the musicians have. First, do the musicians have any say in major financial decisions made by the organization? No. Second, do they have control over the orchestra’s means of production (the Symphony Center space, the equipment, the public relations department, the donor base)? No -- because they’re just employees...

“The unionization of orchestral players has allowed musicians to control length of rehearsal time, temperature, breaks, and other essential working conditions. But anyone who’s ever felt like an overworked mule -- sore muscles and all -- at the end of an orchestra rehearsal knows that orchestral playing is labor.”

There are also, as always, a select few living quite high on the hog from this labor, this passion, and this creativity. If all these labor disputes have done is bring this basic truth a little closer to the surface, then it’s safe to say that they’ve been a step forward for working artists. Which is to say the majority of artists.

“Art can change the world.” It’s a silly little utopian aphorism. Anyone who has been to any number of demonstrations will probably associate it with the naive neo-hippies who show up without so much as a little toe on the ground, let alone both feet. But in some ways, it also reveals something truly unique about human beings: namely that we are the only ones on this planet who are capable of true creativity.

We are the only species on earth capable of to shaping it and wielding it to our needs, of making it more humane, gracious. Of constructing buildings or composing symphonies. We are the only ones able to see that change and relay it back in a painting, a poem or a song. And its our labor -- in terms of muscle, brain and creativity -- that enables us to do any of this. Surely, it’s one of the great tragedies of human history that out very ability to make the world a better place is abused, exploited and crassly dropped on the doorstep of profit.

It’s not just that all art is created by labor, it’s that (as the saying goes) all wealth is created by labor. And just as it’s worth thinking of how many more people we may be able to feed, house and clothe without the parasitic one percent, it’s worth wondering what heights our art might reach without them too.

First published at Red Wedge magazine