PRINT September 1997


the culture trust

NOW THAT AMERICAN soldiers have learned to make love and not war, and the FBI has been humanized as its own public enemy, and a draft-dodging, pot-smoking, free-loving, TV-weaned ex-longhair approaches the second half of his second term, we understand that the personal truly is the political.

Jim Bakker’s Christian theme park and Pat Robertson’s TV network notwithstanding, family values are a relative nonstarter in the super-marketplace of multiple lifestyles and consumption identities. At least compared to those of the old counterculture. You can find “free-love” pornotopia at just about any video store. Marijuana is the major cash crop of Northern California. Robert Johnson and Bugs Bunny are honored as US Postage stamps. Nathan Glazer publishes a book called We Are All Multiculturalists Now, and “Gay Day” has taken its place among the pagan rites of Disney World.

Che Guevara—martyred and resurrected thirty years ago next month—may have been conspicuous in his absence in the series of ads that drafted rebel males like Chet Baker and James Dean to promote Gap khakis, but the revolution’s Great Trademark is active in Europe selling shoes and neckties, gracing a top-selling Swatch watch, and giving his name to a brand of British beer. (And that’s just for starters—forget the disastrous Che biopic of 1969, two new movies are in the works.) The use of Jimi Hendrix to flack Internet access may not be what candidate Bob Dole had in mind when he attacked “the mainstreaming of deviancy” in the last election, but—as foretold by Herbert Marcuse back in the day—Repressive Tolerance rules.

The Dodge Rebellion that the advertising agency B.B.D. & O. declared on behalf of Chrysler Corporation in 1965 (same year that Marcuse published his notorious formulation) was the original Baby Boom-directed instance of what is now called Liberation Marketing: Consumers unite, you have nothing to lose but the inability to change ... your image. Dodge had formerly been a car for middle-aged squares—its spokesman was TV band leader Lawrence Welk. Suddenly gramps was gone and, instead, the car was being promoted by Pam Austin, a twenty-four-year-old California blonde whose résumé included two movies with Elvis. “There’s a revolutionary leader whose face is getting to be better known than Fidel Castro’s, and is certainly less bearded. And she’s a she,” The New York Times noted.

Did the counterculture take capitalism at its emancipatory word, demanding only the freedom, plenty, and democracy that the program promised—or was it vice versa? Because supermarket democracy is largely a matter of demographics. Time Warner and Walt Disney can comfortably place their bets on red, black, and double zero—encompassing their own critiques, negations, and alternatives even within the same product. (How can parents explain to kids that Hercules is a marketing event when the movie itself satirically preempts this criticism?) In “Conglomerates and the Media,” Thomas Frank argues that the market works to “occupy the niche that dissident voices used to occupy in the American cultural spectrum.” Moreover, “the most effective identities are found when a brand takes on the trappings of a movement for social justice.” With shopping the most universal form of unalienated labor, advertising shoulders the utopian dreams of the left. Benetton celebrates a politically correct diversity; Nike promotes spiritual self-improvement; the Body Shop protects the rain forest; Ben & Jerry’s ice cream makes gluttony taste like communal spirit.

Resistance anyone? How about the already passé resurrection of late ’50s lounge culture—Vegas nostalgia, cocktail chic, the canonization of Tony Bennett and Burt Bacharach, a decadent taste for the swinging bachelor pad musical of Esquival and Les Baxter. To appreciate the Ratpack Revival one need look no further than the hour-long infomercial telecast late last spring over Viacom’s VH-1: Bill Clinton: Rock & Roll President. Coproduced by Sarah Staley, the daughter of Clinton’s high school friend Caroline Staley, replete with Carly Simon’s smugly unctuous commentary and a bunch of vintage prop albums, Rock & Roll President is a sub-Forrest Gump distillation of the Boomerography, replete with weighty pronouncements: “Eleanor Rigby” is “one of the most powerful songs I ever heard.” (Feel the pain?) Rock & Roll President intercuts candidate Clinton’s epochal Arsenio appearance with early Elvis on TV—although the Prez is seen to best advantage in an ancient 8mm home movie with his hair slicked back and the short sleeves of his Madras shirt fashionably double rolled, already biting his lip as he essays the cha-cha-cha.

Will rock ‘n’ roll never, ever die? Let’s take the Bridge to the Twenty-first Century. The very same week that VH-1 chose to showcase the President’s faux record collection (a prop supplied by the producers), the official organ of the Time Warner empire raised the generational stakes: “You called us slackers,” Time’s cover warned, pretending to speak on behalf of those Americans born after the 1965 Dodge Rebellion. “You dismissed us as Generation X. Well, move over. We’re not what you thought.” (And what was that again, sonny?)

Hello Geezerdom. Like Ronald Reagan before him and TV itself, the Rock & Roll President is a conservative hedonist. By comparison, the mainly dead Ratpack appears to those who missed it the first time to be a bunch of heedless reactionaries. These drinking, smoking, cursing grown-ups embody the last moment before Liberation Marketing and the Baby Boom conquered the world.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum.