This is to say that where a piece of popular culture may lack the capacity to alter — whether through paradigm shift, revolution or evolution — the greater consciousness of the culture in which it has been produced and proliferated, it is likely to receive the disregard of cultural critics.
And in a manner, there are concrete historical ways in which we can trace the line of distinction. In the latter half of the twentieth century, for example, it is superficially easy to step away and view such catalyzing phenomena as the birth, life and death of rock and roll. For all intents and purposes, this primary medium for popular music, subsumed by the now all-encompassing sway of rap and hip-hop, would be a singular force bleeding out into film (Blackboard Jungle Easy Rider, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), television (Happy Days, The Monkees, Beavis and Butthead) and even politics (Elvis and Nixon, Jimmy Carter and the Allman Brothers, Bill Clinton and his saxophone).
Ostensibly, Rock and Roll achieved miraculous birth in 1955, with the explosion of Presley, Lewis, Chuck Berry and a host of figures whom we may regard today as the founding fathers. This year of inflection would, thereafter, become a template for the cycle by which the content of our popular music could be observed to ebb and flow. Indeed, a short chronological review of rock music as the dominant popular form shows that specific years would mark moments in history, in which the content of the popular form would appear to coalesce with burgeoning youth cultures, political movements and social changes. In 1967 the Summer of Love would feature the political conscious emergence of psychedelic music through the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane. Explicit in their political progressiveness to varying degrees, these artists would part of a movement which would peak in these years in its influence on political activists just as it would dominate the mainstream culture airwaves as well. Indeed, today, these countercultural forms draw our associative gaze to the era in question.
So too may the same phenomenon be observed in the way that we associate punk to 1977, where the emergence of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones and the Talking Heads would herald a newly creative and pointedly nihilistic musical/political ethos. A similar ethos would be adopted by another generation with the emergence of the highly disillusioned strains of grunge in 1991, as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and the Smashing Pumpkins initiated a period of high creativity. In each of these junctures, the ‘political movements’ represented would be seen as pop culture phenomena. Ironically, with both movements, their economic success would overshadow such messages as their explicit anti-establishment and anti-consumer stances. Here, “the tactics of anti-consumption, like the tactics of all countercultures, are fashioned from the contradictions between the material and cultural realities of social (in this case consuming) subjects” (Lack, 1) For all parties concerned in the composition of dissenting or artistically motivated popular culture, there is an internal contradiction that does not allow for easy resolution. We can see in the example of rock music’s cyclical history that many artists have struggled to retain a desired identity in the face of the challenge of great financial success. Here, becoming a part of a material establishment which one has resisted must be resolved through the process of artistic evolution, which is not an easily won achievement.
This is to say that each of these key years marks not just a point at which these deductible forces of counter-cultural modernism would achieve some degree of impact — whether marginal, significant, real or theoretical — but also a point at which they would truly coalesce with economic hegemony. This is to say that even if President’s Johnson or Nixon may have objected strenuously to the message implied by Bob Dylan’s music, the artist’s multi-platinum success, unparalleled literary status and major-label security with Columbia/CBS Records, his influence would mark an economic impact of a competitive scale to his cultural relevance.
So would this be consistently true during each of these moments that counter-culture will have appeared in convenient retrospect to have overcome for a brief and infinitesimal moment the inexorable urge toward the safe, formulaic and economically proven strains of popular culture. An easy example emerges from every generation, with the Beatles (1967), the Sex Pistols (1977), Guns ‘N Roses (1987) and Nirvana (1991) all seeming to actively defy the establishment through political message or instinctual counter-cultural posturing while simultaneously identifying as the most economically significant musical force of their time and place.
In a manner, this is truly a contradiction in terms. If we consider the periods in rock music betwixt which the identified moments have occurred, a pattern becomes more readily and persistently apparent than the occasional emergence of social change. Indeed, popular culture is here shown to be more dominantly an economic force consistent with the economic forces girding political and social hegemonic order. With the examples in question, the incompatible nature of popular culture and social dissent becomes readily apparent. The break-up of the Beatles and the subsequent media smear and American deportation proceedings levied against John Lennon the peace-activist, the implosion of the Sex Pistols, the ambitious flatline of Guns ‘N Roses and the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain all are symptomatic of the nature of the relationship between popular culture and the dissenters which many to use its channels for their message.
This outcome may be a rather poignant claim about the nature of modernism in and of itself, which seems to imply that the resistance to an all-encompassing materialism brought on by industrialization is the utmost of artistic martyrdom. Survival and commercial success is to be seen either as incidental or, perhaps even as counterintuitive in the long run, hence the dormant state of rock music today.
ArtsMIA. (2005). Modernism. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Online at http://www.artsmia.org/modernism/>
Klages, M. (2003). Post-Modernism. University of Colorado at Boulder.
Lack, T. (1999). Consumer Society and Authenticity: The (Il)logic of Punk Practices. Nothingness.org. Online at .
McRobbie, A. (1994). Postmodernism and Popular Culture. Routeledge.
Storey, J. (2005). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. Prentice Hall.