Monday, March 17, 2014

Updating Frank's essays

While I agree with Frank's arguments in both articles, and I think they still hold true in conversations about today's internet/social media culture, his ideas and premises are certainly less controversial or eye-opening than they would have been in the mid-90s. By the way, wouldn't it be fun to do a "where are they now" piece based on all the actors and musicians he mentions? For example, Henry Rollins, the Black Flag lead singer -- whom Frank notes had been studied for his unique "branding" (before this was even a word) back in the 90s -- is now doing the voice-overs for Infiniti car commercials. And Pearl Jam, whom I think he unfairly criticizes, are still touring and making records. As a college student in the mid-90s who read Rolling Stone and followed the movements of pop culture, I think bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were the most reluctant "pop stars" maybe in the history of music. I mean, both Cobain and Eddie Vedder were incredibly reclusive. Pear Jam even sued Ticketmaster for monopolizing concert tickets and setting high prices because they had no competition. By the same token, Frank is right that many bands, actors, and artists used this 90s, counter-culture, reluctant-rebel image to sell themselves and become famous.

Frank's premise that capitalism has swallowed up the counter-culture image. This was certainly the case during the tech boom, when internet-startups were considered maverick and renegade businesses that paid no attention to balance sheets and accounting rules. And, of course, they've also swallowed up this new Generation Y's attachment to FB and Twitter, and their heroes like Bieber, Miley, and Taylor Swift. I think the only difference is the speed with which capitalism can now adapt to changes in pop culture.

One last point:  When Frank says "nobody wants you to think they're serious today,"  where and how does this movement end.  That is, do people start rebelling by becoming more serious, more earnest than ironic?  I think we've already seen this in the new Eco-Food movement, where a substantial number of young people have quit their corporate/urban/tech lives to move to the country and grow their own food and live more simply. And with recent films like Nebraska, The Fighter, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and others, I think we're seeing a change towards more straightforward narratives and more earnest storytelling, less tied to the culture of celebrity or hipster irony.



  1. I’m glad you brought this up, I was similarly reluctant to embrace Frank and whether or not we can ‘update’ Frank is, I think, dependent upon our ability to accept his premises from the 90s. From the selection we read for class, Frank argues that our semblance of a counterculture that rose out of the 50s and 60s is, in fact, just that; the simultaneous incorporation and commodification of the rebel experience. Suddenly Kerouac and Ginsberg are not dissenters, but corporate visionaries. The Stones are on every t-shirt in America and the Beatles sell everything from Nike to more Beatles paraphilia. Punk rock becomes grudge rock and we’re all wearing flannel and dying our hair purple. “What sheeple,” Frank seems to proclaim, “What idiots the counterculture-youth are for thinking they could subvert capitalism! All they do is feed capitalism!”
    The main problem with Frank’s thinking is his assumption that these “rebel” figures wanted to stay out of mainstream and be some kind of second-coming of Marx. The Beatles always wanted to sell records and share their music. Much of the so hailed 60s “counterculture” iconography was not invested in separating itself from Capitalism – the epitome of this is Warhol who sold a zillion dollar painting of a soup can, a soup can that calls out our consumerism for what it is without trying to undo it. Warhol, like the Beatles, wanted to be famous. Perhaps there is no one who wanted to be famous more than Madonna. Frank’s criticism of Madonna is extremely misplaced, and I have no idea how he could hold her up as some sort of actor against capital. She is “living in a material world” after all. What the counterculture, rebels, from the Ginsberg to Madonna wanted to do was counter the social oppression of people within capitalism. They argue for gender and racial equality. They say “All you need is love.” The Beatles could have done more to support Marx thinking, but instead they point out “If you want money for minds that hate… your going to have to wait.” The song Revolution is about “freeing your mind” not escaping capitalism. Madonna wants you to “Express yourself” by “Vogue”-ing and reveling in culture and the products it inspires. In fact, as Frank shows, it turns out marketing this message of equality is extremely successful at selling stuff, including equality itself.

  2. (p.s. Nirvana, on the other hand, may have been reluctant celebrities- and you could argue that it was celebrity that killed Cobain (Courtney Love on the other hand is doing just fine). But even Nirvana takes a soiree into other aspect of culture now and then ( But the problem is not the “Man” or “Selling Out” every artist wants to share their work with their audience. Sure, they can give music away free over the internet- but the band has to eat too. We must consider how much control individual artists have over their own work. The record companies, more often than not, own the music. The band only makes money through touring. But Frank isn’t interested in the logistics of licensing rights and intellectual property laws. Its much easier to conflate culture with capitalism, and blame the artistic for not doing enough to bring about the revolution that he wants. I do not think that we should hold this against Madonna, or against culture. Culture is incredibly flexible, it makes us human – we had it long before capitalism, we will have it long after, and we can make it be whatever we want it to be).


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