For as long as I've been alive, both major label and independent musicians alike have been associated with some form of obnoxiously public activism.
Anti-war, anti-meat, anti-capitalism, anti-fascism.
In the early aughts, I found myself drawn into what I now consider to be a completely fake anti-war movement — during the hardcore/ punk heyday, raging against Bush and the Iraq war. It felt genuine. War is bad! These people must be good. They were so brave for speaking out. Did I read anything about U.S. foreign policy? No! Did I feel self-conscious about being uninformed and eager for a trusted source to curate correct opinions for me? Yes!
Something always felt off. What were we really fighting for? Was this actually a radical and anti-establishment effort? Nothing was happening. Why were the same policies that were supposed to help these progressive causes actually doing the opposite in practice? Why was it inappropriate to notice this?
These views I adopted in my youth, though disguised as fringe, were actually largely accepted in the mainstream culture. In many of the circles I found myself in during college and afterwards — with the sole exception of one dinner where my grandfather told me my university was indoctrinating me — you could mimic these vague progressive talking points with next to no conflict. In fact, it became increasingly important to signal your allegiances whenever you could.
I never questioned this. However, in the past several years this ideology became so incoherent and inconsistent that it required constant monitoring and review to avoid any wrong-think. Especially with more nuanced issues. We're pro-choice and pro-personal autonomy, except when it comes to vaccines or mask mandates. We're pro-working class, except when it comes to workers protesting lockdowns in order to protect their families livelihood. We're anti-war except when it comes to the U.S. funding wars against "bad guys." How can a gal possibly keep up? After all, I was kept very busy working two jobs and birth control kept my brain barely working, because of feminism™, or something.
In 2020 musicians shifted their activism towards the strangest thing of all, they became anti-music activists. How was it that same musicians who fought tooth and nail for their right to smear shit over themselves while performing, did not have that level of passion about their right to perform?
It is not a rhetorical question to ask what happened to punk rock, as I have been asking for several years now. Why didn't the so called revolutionaries stand up for music when the world was shut down? I desperately wanted to know. Music is sacred. Music is healing. If live music is so important for the artist's message of rebellion, why was it suddenly not? It became quite clear this has been by design, carefully crafted over time.
Growing up in the 80's & 90's we're taught that propaganda looks like swastikas and soviet era posters, or Rosie the Riveter — that you could see it.
Sure this sort of messaging was supporting horrific war efforts, but the propaganda part was clear. At least in hindsight. You knew this art was made by the government in support of their goals. You knew it was meant to be persuasive. You also may have been blissfuly ignorant enough to think your government was not a corrupt collection of war criminals — but I digress. Even if you believed such foreign policy goals to be benevolent or supported them, there was at least transparency as to who this messaging was coming from.
Modern propaganda clearly has diverged from this over the past several decades, where the lines are now extremely blurry. Now it looks something like this asshole, Zack De La Rocha. Fighting capitalism by selling $200 tickets to Rage Against the Machine shows and collaborating with the comically villainous entertainment monopoly Live Nation. Allowing fans to feel rebellious, while under the safe umbrella of compliance.
It is widely acknowledged that pop music serves to influence trends as well as the thoughts and ideas of the masses. The counterculture unfortunately is not above this, and is quite possibly more effective at it. The youth in particular are easily targeted by counterculture movements, taking advantage of their desire to seem interesting and stand out, while simultaneously wanting to gain acceptance of their peers. This is easily exploited to shape their ideologies and alliances. Is it possible the counterculture is being controlled in a way that is against our best interest, creating only an illusion of rebellion?
In 1976, in what was likely an organized publicity stunt, The Sex Pistols go on 'Today' show with Bill Grundy in a notorious appearance including explicit language on television.
It's not just the swearing being "controversial" at the time, it's the pernicious nature of media and the unfortunate lack of literacy by most viewers. Video sinks into peoples brains in ways we still do not fully understand. It's important for the boundaries of art to be explored and for open mindedness. What if this openness is being exploited as a way to implement societal control?
If you're a child rebelling against the strict teachings of your parents, this seems cool, edgy, relatable — a breath of fresh air. But upon closer inspection, the members of the Sex Pistols operate more as caricatures of anti-establishment youth.
This whole nihilism bit is a lot easier to do when a record label just gave you $40,000... isn't it? While entertaining, I've grown quite wary of any media that glorifies behavior which would be detrimental if a normal person behaved similarly. Sure, Johnny Rotten can brush off classical music and swear on live T.V., waste money and otherwise behave recklessly — but will these values lead a regular person to a life of happiness and fulfillment? Probably not! Could it encourage young people to think they could achieve success by mimicking this behavior. Maybe?
Worth noting here that I completely disagree with the PMRC's initiative to censor musicians they deemed inappropriate, and that line of thinking in general — just to clarify, that is certainly not where I'm going with this. I'm attempting to explore something a bit deeper than run-of-the-mill pearl clutching about degeneracy. What has occurred to me lately is these musicians behavior is not occurring organically, but is being manipulated in some way in order to influence the masses in support of the establishment. Themes involving depression, substance abuse, promiscuity, apathy and collectivism are constantly repeated while self-reliance and individualism are less so.
It would be incredibly clever to funnel propaganda under the guise of being anti-establishment, wouldn't it? Make the prisoner think it was their idea all along. And who is more vulnerable and eager to fit in or seem cool to their peers than teenagers.
We're constantly being pummeled with videos and sounds that are not what they seem, which has resulted in a world where many are left unable to comprise any amount of independent thought. We're left with this binary, good versus evil mentality and an inability to see nuance. This permeated and destroyed the indie music scene in a way that has made it completely inhospitable for independent thought outside of the approved dogma.
I come to all of this with an interest in researching how I myself fell victim to this and as a way of righting my wrongs. Until recently I proudly worked in music, at several of the top independent record labels in the country. Until recently I was part of the same machine that I've grown quite concerned about.
In 2020, after basically never reading a book in my entire life, I started reading Edward Bernays' Propaganda during lockdowns in NYC. My copy included a foreward by Mark Crispin Miller. This was particularly interesting because MCM, also in NYC, later came under quite a bit of scrutiny from applying his extensive knowledge of propaganda to current events as they were unfolding. This apparently, is not allowed.
Anyway — the book begins with the following, which has altered my world view significantly:
"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society"
So — why does it matter if everything is fake? If everything is fake then we were never going to be allowed inside the club to begin with. We can stop trying. We were never going to get the big record label deals, sell out huge venues, we were never going to be allowed to speak freely against the establishment while simultaneously basking in the mainstream media spotlight. We were always going to be made fun of and attacked for pursuing real freedom. It was always rigged against us — under the existing systems freedom of expression never existed.
The mirage that this could still be achieved while working with centralized power was never real. The answer was always for artists and musicians to turn to their local communities for support and do things themselves or seek trusted partners for help while maintaining creative control. Playing in front of hundreds of people is an excellent goal, but it does not discount the value of playing in front of 5. Creating art and music in any capacity, is incredibly important.
This all may sound tragic and dreary however the takeaway is a bit of a white pill, as it were. The power was always only truly with the individual — decentralization is the way, and there's enough room for everyone. Let the gatekeepers keep gatekeeping.
I might be wrong. I might change my mind. But as of right now I'm quite confident the government has had significant influence over underground punk and hardcore movements as has been increasingly evident by the suspiciously complaint behavior of a so called anti-establishment scene over the past several years.
Follow along here with me, a regular dumbass bitch, while I read books and share my interesting findings about the fake counterculture. The resources listed below have led me down quite the rabbit hole and I will have more thoughts to share soon.
As I've mentioned before, my research so far has led me to the excellent work of Mark Devlin, Jay Dyer, David McGowan, John Adams and Nino Teauoneaux.
Here are some resources for anyone interested in exploring these topics!