Monday, June 28, 2004

The Death of Howl

Recently I have been hearing a Wendy’s commercial on the radio that uses Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” in a (supposedly) clever way to sell hamburgers. This is a perfect example of capitalism’s ability—for better or for worse—to assimilate dissension.

The music industry is a good place to see this mechanism at work. The art has been taken captive by economics, and for a band to “make it” in their mind they must play music that is within certain parameters, like being family friendly and three to four minutes long. Even music that seems to be rebellious (and this is the very worst kind) really is not. An example of this is mainstream heavy metal, which is a safe, family friendly genre in many respects. It sounds like metal, and it smells like metal, but when it comes to down to it there is some core aspect missing—namely, an edge and a relevant message. For a while there it looked like Hip Hop was going to be a vocal form of protest that would lead to change in our country, but anyone who has seen the never-ending “Big-Pimpin” like videos knows that this is no longer the case.

Victor Pelevin, in his satire of the new Russia titled "Homo Zapiens" points out many things about capitalist society that we miss since we have lived in it our entire lives (it is not critical of capitalism, just observant of it). One comment he makes is about his character Tatrsky's encounter with a Che Guevara T-Shirt: "On the piece of cardboard under the tee shirt it said ‘Bestseller of the month!’ There was nothing surprising about that –Tatarsky knew very well…that in the are of radical youth culture nothing sells as well as well-packaged and politically correct rebellion against a world that is ruled by political correctness and in which everything is packaged to be sold.”

Part of this process is something that happens naturally; just as certain phrases become clichés over time and therefore meaningless. I do not think most people realize the reason why cliché’s are so bad. They are bad because they become meaningless and fail to convey a thought in the way they use to. When we hear something like the phrase “I do not want to put my job on the line,” we do not think about it in the same way a person would if it was the first time they heard it. It merely means, “risk my job.” We no longer imagine the metaphor. The same process happens in art. When this does happen, enterprise aids in the process and is quick to assimilate it.

My point is that we need to keep innovating to stay ahead of industry. If the industry takes a poem like “Howl” and uses it on the radio, then we have to write new poems to get our messages across. If industry assimilates something as rebellious as heavy metal, then we must make new music, until that too, is watered down for fourteen-year-old girls.

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