Sunday, November 8, 2009

Pirate shmirate.

There's a new movie coming out called Pirate Radio. It's about, well, a pirate radio station off the coast of Britain in the 1960's.

I will probably end up seeing it, if only because the movie options here in Aalborg are kind of limited. I don't know; maybe it will be great. But from what I can tell from the promotional material, there's something about it that just rubs me the wrong way, in a spot that's been rubbed raw over the years.

It's a movie about youthful rebellion, set during the 1960's. At the time, as with the rest of Europe, the radio spectrum in the UK was much more tightly controlled than in America. As a result, programming was a lot less hip; kids could barely hear rock 'n' roll, outside of a few specialty programs during designated time slots. So this bunch of ragtag rebels and misfits showed up on a ship in 1964 and broadcast from offshore, pissing off the stodgy, square British authorities and awakening the millions of British kids in their cool retro-1960's wardrobes to this awesome, raunchy, liberating sound of blah blah blah...

See, I get tired just commenting on it. We all know the story, the Promethean Dead Poets Footloose Society Riding On The Storm and challenging authority with the power of music/poetry/dance/fire.

The idea that youthful energy and rebellion and sexuality is subversive and threatening to established power is fun to believe, especially if you're young and horny. There's even some truth to it, in that every generation has to shake things up a bit, and just acting like a young person tends to rattle your folks because they're not young anymore and they've kind of forgotten.

But this kind of thing stopped being credibly subversive a long time ago, if indeed it ever was. Youthful rebellion is the safest, most blue-chip marketing strategy there is. Teenagers and young adults are insecure, inexperienced and churning with hormones. Give them credit cards and no understanding of compound interest and it's like shooting fish in a barrel.

So the marketing industry (including the scary Pod People corporate monster that taken over what at one point was a music industry capable of producing new and exciting music) has spent the past forty years flogging this idea that rebelling against your parent's tastes and values is an inherently useful and revolutionary activity. It's gotten kind of threadbare.

I wasn't there for the sixties so I don't know--maybe it really was a hidebound time that desperately needed to be shaken up. I find it hard to believe; it was the 1950's that produced rock 'n' roll, and in Britain the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came out of the early sixties, long before all the groovy social revolution we've all been bludgeoned with. Maybe Britain in particular was stodgy and not real exciting. Of course, it's worth keeping in mind that they had spent the past fifteen years rebuilding what the Luftwaffe destroyed, and under those conditions being hip is a bit of a luxury.

But the overarching conceit of this kind of movie is that what's really oppressing us is some rigid, Apollonian power structure that doesn't want us to have fun. To the extent that that was ever true, I don't think it's been particularly so, let alone relevant, for decades now. There's a power structure all right, and it's oppressive in other ways. But to rebut the Beastie Boys, no, you don't really have to fight for your right to party. Indeed, most of our consumer culture wants us to party, all the time, as long as we're using their party favours--big TV's, big cars, big tubs of carbonated sugar water, big stadiums with thousands of people watching millionaires jump around with guitars. Dionysus has a very comfy seat at the table, thanks very much.

In fact, if anything, the obsession with commercialized hedonism is the problem. We're so busy being cool, being hip, living for the now and having it all, that we've forgotten that we're supposed to be responsible adults with a collective civic job to do. Namely, to ensure that the world we hand off to the next generation is in basic working order, with functional infrastructure and viable farmland and education and an ecosystem that isn't on the verge of full-blown collapse.

Every day for the past six years I put on a suit and went in to my planning job in municipal government and spent the day doing what I could to improve the world. I'm not blowing my own horn; I consider this to be the most basic responsibility of citizenship. But some people thought I was some kind of hero for doing what, two generations ago, would have been the bare minimum required to call yourself an adult. And this says more about how far everyone else's standards have fallen than it does about how awesome I am. The fact that to doing this felt deeply subversive--that is, completely at odds with the predominant ethos of me first, show me the money, and I want to rock and roll all night/party every day--is a sign of real trouble ahead.

All of which is to say, I don't really need another story about how cool it was to be a rebel in the sixties. We know what you were rebelling against. I'm knee-deep in the debris of it all.


  1. We really could do with less mythology concerning how music is revolutionary. That whole boomer notion that sitting in the mud, stoned, listening to guitar is a great way to effect change in the world is so far beyond comprehension that self-indulgent narcissism doesn't even get close to explaining it.

    people have always liked to let loose, whether it was the charleston or harvest festivals. But it's only in recent generations that anyone ever mistook leisure and entertainment for work and actualization. We are the generation whose self-martyred icon sang, 'here we are now, entertain us' and you can trace a line back to another martyred icon who sang, 'all you need is love'(where love is defined as middleclass upbringing, paid tuition, a big car, fastfood and cheap pot).

    I can very much relate to paradoxically feeling subversive while behaving responsibly. Trying to grow food feels subversive. Writing to an MP feels subversive(hell, having some interest in the political process feels subversive). But then, in a civilization that has been methodically excising the word citizen and replacing it with consumer, this makes perfect sense. I remember folk in Montreal would casually say, 'oh, i'm not into that stuff' as though civic duties were equivalent to hobbie choices.

    that being said, the movie has little to do with depicting cultural transformation. if anything, it pokes fun at the idea of music being revolutionary. It's very much about slobby childish slackers, almost a spoof on the warm fuzzy pictures about plucky hipsters taking on the man. i dunno, i turned off my semiotic decoder ring while watching it.

  2. Well, I haven't seen it yet, so hopefully I stand corrected, on the immediate point at least. However, the ad campaign (which I was going on) is certainly all about that cartoon rock'n'roll vs. the Establishment meme. I would have thought that Twisted Sister video would have run that idea to the end of its rope, but shows what I know.