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Monday, June 28, 2004

Enough with the rebellion already. Culturally, we did it. It's done. Time to move on.

Don't get me wrong--I certainly don't have any objection to some of its use in the past. It was a brilliant move on rock's part to latch onto that particular aspect of the adolescent condition, it being such a potent one in the time period in which rock really came to fruition. There really was something to rebel against, there really were widely-held and actively repressive social norms that didn't make any sense. The whole society needed a dose of rule-breaking, and while it was done more potently (while being simultaneously more inevitable) in other fields, it gave the music an extra layer to experience, which is one of the reason it's seemed (and still seems, on rare occasions) so vital.[1] Pop always has to have some connection with a juvenile impulse, I think, and it just so happened in this particular instance that the juvenile impulse involved (rebellion against authority, in the juvenile case stemming from a real feeling of power but still being a minor and thus explicitly under others' control) happened to be one shared by adults. In other words, it was something that, in this particular context, you didn't grow out of, you weren't ashamed of, had relevance to your adult life. And this was true for a large number of people.

But I'm just not sure that's true anymore. The problem, if it is a problem, is that we pretty much won. The kind of change that can be effected by cultural rebellion, by a climate of transgression--which changes are confined to the realm of shared perceptions and assumptions, of what is acceptable to say and do--well, there don't seem to be a whole lot of opportunities for that sort of change anymore, at least not in the areas of the world where the cultural valuation of rebellion is strong. As unjust as it may be, there's a substantive (and, more importantly for cultural change, perceptual) difference between, say, minorities not being able to sit in a certain area of a bus and minorities being largely concentrated in low-income residential areas. The former can be changed by a shift in attitude, but not the latter. The latter is a much harder problem, one which needs to be solved rather than merely rectified.

I'm just not sure what's left for culture to make a dent in with its particular brand of rebellion. This is evidenced in no small part by its utter failure to do so. The speed with which any particular rebellion is subsumed by the larger culture (punk, hip-hop, etc.) is less a function of the ability of a status quo to incorporate opposition (although this is certainly a factor) and more due to the fact that the method itself is not longer really workable.

I mean, what's really left to rebel against? The only thing that's been really galvanizing in recent years, at least in the US, seems to be the various corporate radio issues with ClearChannel and its cohorts. I support that fight, of course, and sympathize, but, sheesh, come on now. It's like rebelling against Nabisco--a) it's a corporation, not a shared truism, and it's a little weird to be rebelling against an entity; and b) it's not something a lot of people support anyway. As to a), the response would have to be "So are they oppressing you?" to which the only reply really is "Well, uh, no, I just don't like them," which is sort of toothless. There is also, of course, government regulation involved, but the response to rebellion against that would be the same as the response to rebellion against a media corporation. (How is the FCC oppressing you exactly?) Add to this the fact that the terms this is usually put in make the issue about not being able to hear the Shins rather than not being able to hear a wide spectrum of political viewpoints and it's all a little odd. And as to b), can you honestly imagine a George Wallace-ish situation where a politician rises to prominence on a pro-ClearChannel platform? It's just not that big of a deal, nor is it widely supported. I don't like ClearChannel, but curing it with rebellion seems a little dumb.

The issue is that to be effective, cultural rebellion, by definition, has to be acting in opposition to something with broad support. What it's seeking/able to do is not so much construct an actual physical rebellion (i.e. crowds of people marching/fighting together) as to inspire/inform people in such a way that they change their individual behaviors. Very capitalistic, if you're into that sort of thing, and fine as it goes. But this only works, as I say above, against problems that can be reversed, and not a whole lot really can. We're sexually repressed? OK, let's start fucking more. Women earn less than men? Well, we can still fuck more, but that will rarely help.

Actually, the values that cultural rebellion could effectively assail are the very ones we lib'ral types want to promote. Because we won, by and large (and because the 50s were, in fact, a reactionary backtracking from the libidinous 20s), progressive values are, in fact, the norm. They are the status quo. And this is why we see conservatives getting so much traction from rebellious tactics, whether it's against "PC thugs" or "the homosexual agenda" (uh, you mean the be-nice-to-people agenda?) or whatever. Regardless of whether these things are, in fact, the views held by a majority of Americans, it's clear that they've achieved enough visibility and acceptance that rebellion against them can gain some real traction. I suppose for some people, the best argument I could make against the rhetoric of cultural rebellion is that at this point (in America at least), it mainly serves conservative aims.

But I guess the main reason this bugs me is that because I think there are other juvenile impulses that fit the criteria described above, that are things we don't (or shouldn't) outgrow, and these things could be championed just as rebellion once was. For one thing, teenagers are remarkably uncool, and this is kind of awesome. Either they're just not cool to begin with, or their conception of cool is so ridiculous that it's laughable, but they have not put up those detached barriers yet. That's something you can use, that exuberance of teenagers at their best (sort of). It may seem only slightly removed from rebellion, but think of it as not the words of "We're not gonna take it!" but the shout itself. Its well-nigh atomic pure energy is certainly something worth harnessing.

But oh this is just a transitional phase. Because of course, as I just said, what we're aiming for here is not actual adolescence but Teenagers At Their Best (TATB). Not all teenagers are rebellious, of course; this is simply a condition of adolescence, not necessarily a reality. Similarly, while teenagers can be cruel and exclusionary, TATB, funneling the younger shout of "that's not fair!" that's not so much an argument for freedom or even justice so much as simple equality, a desire to have exactly what your sibling/friend/parent has. Similarly, adolescents can often be anti-individualistic, and this is not necessarily a bad thing; the desire to be simply part of the crowd, when turned on its head, is the desire to include everyone. For all the games of hierarchy that dominate adolescent life, lurking there are these twin impulses, and even if they need to be nurtured they will not be created from whole cloth. There are things there to run with, if you want to. And I'm not even getting into lust or love, but someone else is welcome to.

Now, hold on a minute. Am I really saying that we should eliminate rebellion as a value? No, just as a (pop-)cultural value. Aside from the reasons above, I think that if we do accomplish this removal, maybe we can stop thinking of rebellion in such teenage terms--maybe we can approach it in a mature way and actually make it work. Cultural creation makes things seem inconsequential, but sometimes they're not. And in the case of rebellion, just as it added an extra layer of experience to early rock music, as it made it a fuller expression, so can the inconsequentiality that acts upon those extra layers obscure its value in a different venue, and it's an important value. If a method of political change becomes merely a pop trope, what then? And if it is a pop trope, can it seriously be anything else? Can it be redeemed by itself, or only be something from outside? And would it be better to concentrate on something else?

Here's what I will say: ambivalence is now the handmaiden of change.

[1] You can also make arguments about the way the terms under which it was conceived required it to be so straightforward, which directness is a large part of what makes it so appealing to so many people. The simple fact of its existence was meaningful, and so the more strikingly that existence was expressed, the more effective it would be. Uh, arguably.