When I was in High School I realized that my penchant for wearing high-top denim-blue Converse sneakers was only rebellious as long as I was the only one wearing such shoes. But I easily saw the reality beneath the myth when I walked by the local shoe store (Malls were not the thing, yet) and admired the collection of multi-colored basketball shoes in the window. Not only could anyone buy my rebellious sneakers for themselves, but I paused to consider if the yellow version in the window might have actually been more rebellious.
I suppose when Blossom wore that hat it was somewhat unique but how long did it take the big businesses to market the hat and many other variations of the hat to a youthful consumers crawling over each other in a misguided effort to look different and to rebel against society. I’m sure that to this day, very few realized that they were fueling the very corporate capitalism that they thought they were rebelling against.
But we all sell out because we all buy things. Someone is making a profit off of our revolt.
Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter wrote a book in 2004 called Nation of Rebels (The Rebel Sell outside of the US). The theme was simple: you can’t rage against the machine by engaging in rebellious consumption. The illusion, it seems, is to think that non-conformity will attack and eventually destroy the corporations and consumerism. The opposite is actually true: the system doesn’t give a crap about conformity; in fact, non-conformity is the impetus for growth in a consumer society. Consider this: women did not regularly wear blue-jeans in public, but take a rebellious youth to start wearing jeans and a whole new market opens up for big business. Soon bell-bottoms, hip-huggers, designer jeans, and all many of pants for women (and for men) are selling to this rebellious market and making the corporations richer and richer.
We’ve all had the experience of “liking” an obscure or in some way different performer. I know I went from Bob Dylan to Sun House to Simon & Garfunkle to Leon Redbone. Simon & Garfunkle are a good example. In LA in the ’60s there was a radio show, I believe on Saturday night, that played and discussed a mix of what then was called Folk Music and the radio-guy played some tapes of an obscure group called Simon and Garfunkle. My roommate did not like them because, as he said, they were obviously electronically enhanced. I liked them enough to order their first album before it was released and when it finally arrived at the local music store I ferried it around to all my friends in town to give them the experience of hearing these two New York guys harmonize. Most of my friends liked the music but none of them had ever heard of Simon and Garfunkle.
A year or two later you couldn’t listen to the radio without hearing Simon and Garfunkle several times an hour so I wrote them off my list … they were too popular. But as I look back on it, didn’t I do my part in making them popular by playing my precious album to all my friends? “The very act of trying to run counter to the culture is what creates the next wave of culture people will in turn attempt to counter.”
I guess I sold myself out on that one. Heath and Potter suggest that bands are a prime example of how counterculture pushes their revolt into the mainstream of consumerism. “The counterculture, the indie fans, and the underground stars—they are the driving force behind capitalism. They are the engine. … Competition among consumers is the turbine of capitalism.”
I accept that the competition isn’t between the corporations so much as it is between the consumers. It is the consumers who create the market and the corporations simply take advantage of it. The fashion industry is an interesting variation. Here the industry tends to convert their observations of the counterculture into the fashions that define the direction of clothing from the couture collection down to the Walmart knock-offs. But if you wait, the must-have fashions will fall into obscurity, often to be replaced by fashion ideas that are dragged out of a past and offered to a competitive consumer base that misses the irony that fashion, like most things in life, is not an intrinsic value.
Finally, it’s so much easier to sell out nowadays when even the lowly head-shop takes Visa or Mastercard.