Monday, September 21, 2015
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
I am bemused by the way the terms “rebel” (and “rebellious”) and “establishment” have worked their way into popular parlance over the last half-century.
If a rebel is somebody who confronts, opposes and perhaps wishes to overturn a society as it is, then very few of the people who are labelled rebels are anything of the sort. If the “establishment” means those who are in entrenched positions of wealth, power and influence, then the word is often used as a term of abuse by people who themselves could be more accurately described as the establishment.
What I believe has taken place here is a confusion of manufactured image with social, cultural and economic reality. And I trace this confusion largely to the entertainment industry.
Take “rebel” first of all.
Way back in the 1950s, rock music (then called rock’n’roll) first grew out of black rhythm-and-blues and began to be marketed to newly-affluent white American teenagers. Rock stars like Elvis and Carl Perkins and Eddie Cochran and Jerry Lee Lewis were billed and promoted as “rebellious”. After all, they produced the type of music that irritated the teenagers’ parents, so this was real rebellion, right? Sometimes they would appear in movies in which they were on the wrong side of the law, or placed in opposition to authority figures. More rebellion.
And ever since then, even as music fashions have changed, the expected image of a pop or rock star is of somebody surly, confrontational, giving the fingers to authority and showing he or she sides with us kids (even kids in their twenties or thirties) as opposed to those boring adults. How often does one see such terms as “edgy”, “controversial” and “rebellious” applied to rising rock stars?
At which point, there has to be some cold calculation. Has there ever been a rock or pop star who has really confronted or wished to overturn the bases of his or her society? Sure, some might attach themselves to fashionable causes, which is always good for publicity among the target audience. But the music industry, which produces rock stars, works entirely on the profit motive. Its business is to return huge profits – not to change the world – and rock stars who really make it are paid fabulous sums.
Are these rebels against society? Of course not. To buy the image of the rebellious star is to conform to what the publicity machine would have you believe. It is the opposite of rebellion, just as pop and rock music is the most conformist sort of music there is. Culturally, in the current climate, you are far more of a rebel if you listen to classical music or jazz – after all, you’re going against the current cultural norm.
Regrettably, this image of the rebel as one who just has to snarl and look surly (while playing a commercial game) has corrupted the whole concept of rebellion and rendered it superficial. To be a rebel, all you have to do is buy the t-shirt (maybe with Che Guevara on it), turn your loudspeakers up, or maybe walk through commuters with your i-pod to your ears.
And what about the term “establishment”?
I would define any “establishment” as something well-established which is able to command great wealth and wield great power and influence over people who do not possess these things.
Which brings me to two television interviews with Hollywood directors, which I saw when they were screened in New Zealand some years back.
In 1991, ahead of the release of his meretricious and largely fictitious fantasy film JFK, purportedly telling the “true” story of the assassination of President Kennedy, Oliver Stone said that he was challenging “establishment historians” with his interpretation of events. In 1997, ahead of the release of his romanticised and historically-inaccurate film Titanic, James Cameron said that “establishment” films had presented the passenger-liner disaster in quite inaccurate ways.
So what was the term “establishment” intended to convey in these two instances? It was intended to suggest that the speaker was on the side of the plain folks who were listening, the mass audience for the movies, as opposed to those elitist academic historians.
At which point I rebel. Surely a Hollywood director, who can command a multi-million dollar budget to make a movie, is far more of an “establishment” figure (in any real sense) than an academic historian is. In influencing people, commanding power and having much money, the film industry far outranks academe.
In the cases of both pop music and movies, the concocted image bears little relationship to economic or cultural reality. Media “rebels” and movie directors claiming to oppose the “establishment” are inducers of conformity and distractions from, or opponents of, any real scrutiny of society regarding its power structures. After all, such scrutiny might lead to real rebellion.