If you change the box to make it more appealing, what's inside the box will change too

Quote of note from Futurismic's Paul Raven, writing on Makers and Breakers: "If there’s any lesson to be taken from punk, grunge, rave and any other subcultural scene that went mainstream, it’s this: the aesthetic is not just a veneer. If you start changing the box to make it more appealing to more people, then what’s inside the box will start to change as well, because otherwise you’ll start getting a lot of returns; simple market forces."


  1. I’ve always found the demise of any subcultural scene arises from its adoption by the mainstream, ie. signing every Seattle band to a recording contract/selling flannel at Gap. In addition, the more a scene attracts a crowd, the more it dilutes said scene. This is what happened to the hippies, who really only existed for one brief summer. So-called “New Wave” music stemmed from the dilution of punk.

    Me, I was born in 1958; punk was my rebellion. And now The Clash’s music sells Jaguar automobiles. “I-R-O-N-Y!”

  2. Um, does anyone else notice the guy shares the same name as the dead bassist for Killing Joke?  But it’s an interesting piece.

    Also, Irksome: I’m not sure I fully agree with the whole underground to mainstream narrative (not that I want to discount your experiences as a punk…).  I think it’s more complex than that.  Was Sire records somehow outside the mainstream music industry? And what about bands in Britain, who signed to major labels because that’s what there was.  I would argue that the experience that many punks had with the mainstream music industry pushed them into a more underground stance.  Black Flag is one example – the situation with Unicorn/MCA?  I would argue that it was that situation with the album Damaged that pushed them eventually to DIY.

    1. I was, of course, speaking in broad, sweeping generalities; the last bastion of the brain-addled.

      In my experience, there’s an nearly-audible *click* when sub-culture becomes culture; when that which was previously unacceptable becomes accepted. This is palpable in a variety of mediums, perhaps all; Ice Cube graces our televisions, Hair went to Broadway, London Calling sells an elite British car; I’ve heard Imagine and Light My Fire in elevators. My older sister recognized it the day my father bought bell-bottoms in the ’70s; there’s a moment when you realize that something has stopped being rebellious.

      As an aside, I struggle with seeing youth today (…) garbed as hippies or punks; I want to throttle them and scream, “That was OURS, make your OWN revolution.” Darn kids, GET OFFA MY LAWN!

      1. I feel you.  I actually often feel that same as you, when I see kids dressed like
        some formerly underground culture (which is ubiquitous on my and all college campuses)… damn kids, I was there first, get
        the hell off my lawn, etc.  I sort of fall into hipster mode (I was
        there before it was cool, putting my glasses on, “jumping someone else’s train”, etc)…  It’s a vexing problem, to say the least. 

        But I guess I see it as a problem of consumption, more than anything else.  Even if you take the contrarian point of view regarding consumption (rejection of consumption on some level or another), you are still identifying by how you do (or don’t) consume. And by you, I don’t mean you specifically of course, but you as an abstract (so all of us). On some level, isn’t that what Raven (not the dead bassist for killing joke) is talking about? You use the Doors as an example there, but the Doors were always “mainstream” in the sense that they were widely popular, as was Lennon (the Beatles were HUGE).  The Doors were on Ed Sullivan and caused a huge controversy in their wake (with the very song you mention).  They were never really “underground” in the sense of being obscure, visible only to an underground few…  I don’t think this undercuts their importance, talent, or their social critique made through their music.  I guess Thomas Frank covers some of this in Conquest of Cool, which ties advertising to the counter-culture.

        Maybe the problem is that we are deeply concerned with the problem of authenticity and consumerism.  But what does “authenticity” mean, anyhow?  I think I’m going to struggle with that question as long as I’m working on these issues regarding rock/punk culture.

        So… I don’t know?

        1. As examples, The Doors and Beatles were wildly popular at the time, yes; but within that sub-culture. My parents were convinced Jim Morrison was the Devil and that Dylan, Lennon, Morrison et al were corrupting their children and “the establishment” agreed. People were experiencing palpable fear that this devil music was undermining the social fabric of the country. Sounds vaguely familiar, don’t it? And yet, that moment happened when that cultural edge was dulled, to eventually be replaced by the next unacceptable cultural movement. Or in this case, disco happens. There is a point where popularity (within the sub-culture) and acceptability (by the rest [read: your parents]) overlap and that confluence is the demise of that SUB-culture. Rap is a powerful example when you look at the vehemence of its initial detractors; however, my grandparents felt about big bands what my parents felt about rock AND rap. As long as the mainstream (read: your parents) despise it, it stays cool. The Beatles became acceptable. So has Ice-T. Don’t even ASK about Flava Flav (RIP), but at the time, PE was at the vanguard of a radical social movement, and now… well, I don’t wanna TALK about it, ‘k?.We are indeed inherently social animals but within context; some strive to be part of while others strive to reject. Perhaps that’s the line there; when the former crosses over, the latter walks away. As to “those darn kids”, I feel sorry for them more than any other emotion. There was nothing like living in London in 1978, unless you were in the Haight in ’67 or, or, or. When I say “Find your OWN revolution” I mean it as encouragement. I’ll be too old to participate but I’ll be hollering from the sidelines. 

          1. Isn’t the subculture just teenagers, though (a marketing demographic that was created in the 20s), which was a major demographic due to the post-war baby boom?   Certainly, it was teenagers who were consuming this stuff, over their parents, but they were the ones who were being targeted with the music as a demographic.  This was true with music and culture in the 1950s (as evidenced by films like the Wild Ones and the embrace of Elvis as an icon of youth).  And certainly some adults liked the stuff, as they were the ones who were putting it on the air, in record stores, on the radio, right?  The generation gap seems to me to be just as much a product of the commodification of popular culture as is the mainstreaming of marginal cultures… oh, have you seen that frontline, the Merchants of Cool (from 2001).  Occasional Boing boing commentator Douglas Rushkoff is all over it…  Some interesting food for though on this issue.  I actually showed it in my American history class this summer.

            But maybe I’m conflating the idea of a sub-culture with the idea of an underground culture.  But where does one stop and the other begin? 

            Also, how much of the cultural aspects of the 60s/70s were “revolutions” in and of themselves (not talking about the specific political movements here – the new left, the civil rights movement and the liberation movements – those were specifically political, of course — I just mean culture here). How much of what was happening during the Berkley summer of free speech had to do with dropping out and free love on Haight-Ashbury (is there overlap between the diggers and the new left?)?  There is of course, overlap, but how much?  I’ve always found that problematic to untangle (not that I’ve done it, mind you…), and there is a drive to just lump the whole thing into the summer of love and the anti-war movement and be done with it.   And the Clash of course had a specifically political stance in their music (as did some other artists, Crass and Billy Bragg come to mind, and even the band Skrewdriver who jumped on the right-wing bandwagon), but what about the many bands who rejected politics in that scene (are the Sex Pistols particularly political, and if so, how so)?  The early New York punk scene I don’t find particularly political at all.  Nor do I find much politics in the LA punk scene, even with the rise of hardcore.  At least not explicitly so.

  3. This is what ‘the medium is the message’ was used to indicate (at one point): form dictates function, and form dictates the social arrangements surrounding a commodity (whether it be physical or intellectual).

    Sometimes, form overwhelms content so much that it in a sense manipulates memory. I for the first time realized a few weeks ago that ‘Crazy Train’ contained the lyrics “Why can’t we learn to love and forget how to hate” — something people would more strongly associate with John Lennon than with Black Sabbath (though “the law is love”). My mental model of Ozzy Osbourne conflicts with the perception that he might sing out cheesy hippy-dippy pop-pacifist lyrics, so I blocked on it. Laibach uses this to great effect in their various subversive covers.

  4. So the commercialization of EDM has created dubstep….

    I’ve always been perplexed by the idea of individualism by becoming part of a group.  The whole, lets rebel by becoming part of the goth, punk, skater, ect.. scene just made little sense to me if you were wanting to truly express yourself as an individual.  Not saying that a person can’t be goth, or enjoy what that group has to offer, but so many people blindly accept their group as “different” that it makes them that way.  Where as I see it as simply conforming to a different set of rules. 

    I guess a part of it is growing up.  Perhaps I’m the weird one because I never had a desire to become part of a group.  I knew what I liked, and didn’t really care to change that to fit in with a crowd.

    1. I’m curious — do you think that humans are not social animals by nature?  That doesn’t necessarily mean these sorts of identities (which I would argue hinge on consumerism, for good or ill), per se, but I guess it would assume some kind of social conformity to some kind of socially constructed norm? Is modern social conformity different from in the pre-capitalist world? What say you?

      1. Certainly humans are social creatures by nature, but I do think a great deal of our (U.S.) social construct has been molded by capitalism.  Probably even more so now, than say 15-20 years ago when I was coming through school. 

        I think as teenagers/young adults the vast majority of people (no matter what society) are looking for acceptance.  Many find it by becoming part of a group, that doesn’t mean that doing so is bad or is causing them to lose self identity.  Personally growing up I had little desire to want to become part of a specific group.  I could/can appreciate them for what they are and what they represent, but I personally have little desire to alter the way I dressed to be part or seen as part of a crowd (like being goth for example).  It is kind of like the punk movement of the 80’s/early 90’s.  Now all those people are well into adulthood.  Some of them may have moved or changed their social views, while others may still believe in the ideas of what that group meant to them.  Either way I suspect on a very small percentage still dress and act like they did 20 years ago.

        However the flip side of the desire for acceptance is conformity to that group.  But somehow that desire to rebel or be a part of a certain group makes teens feel different, more like individuals.  And in reality all that does is make them more like everyone else in their group.  All in all, people grow up and their world views expand and they simply mold those old ideas into new ones. 

        The older I get the more I realize common sense isn’t so common.  And really a strong emphasis should be placed on teaching kids/teens/adults how to think for themselves.  Being part of a group can be fun, but having it define you can be dangerous at the same time.

        1. That’s interesting.  I more than readily agree that capitalism has deeply impacted our social constructions and it’s something to be explored more.  The question I think that is worth looking at overall is whether or not there is an “outside” to this (according to Foucault, there is no outside the panopticon, only shades of rebellion within that – ie, various kinds of non-conformity).   I totally agree with getting kids to think for themselves (especially cultivating skeptcism of everything). I also don’t think that the condition of thinking with a group rather than for oneself is confined to teenagers, either. The pressure to conform to one group or another is strong through out life, I think.  Also, we now have the era of “post-modernity”, where there is a “lifestyle” (consumer identity) for every niche one can think of.  It happens with various kinds of identity formations. 

  5. “Hope I die before I get old…..”  Roger Daltrey (now aged 67)
    Every generation has it’s revolutionary music. Jazz and Blues upset folks, Rock n Roll, Rock, Psychedelia, Punk, New-Wave..   I don’t much mind the commercialisation of genres, at least it allows more folks a chance at reaching back to sources and discovering the ‘original’.  That X-factor girlie must have hipped a few to Cohen.  And how many listen to Dylan through songs of Baez, Hendrix, The Byrds or Clapton (and countless others)

    Having said that, I do cringe when I see P.I.L.s Metal Box on CD, not sure why, it’s just wrong.  Is it just me?

    1. Have you read Elijah Wald’s book on Robert Johnson and the blues (Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Creation of the Blues)? It’s an interesting take on the blues as seen from the time it was happening vs the treatment it got in the 1960s (or an attempt to do so, partially successful, I think). He also wrote one on the Beatles (provocatively called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll or some such) which I have not read yet, but plan to soon.  Gives an interesting perspective on the commercialization of music in the 20th century, especially in the post-war period. Also, I’ve been meaning to read Jon Savages book on the creation of the teenager, called Teenage: the Creation of Youth Culture… one day I’ll read them all… time.

      1. I’ll have a look, thanks for the tip.
        Now Teenagers, they’re a whole different bunch. And as someone else has pointed out, common-sense doesn’t seem to be that common, they need to be taught critical thinking at the very least.  My own teenager is wandering aimlessly, but at least he’s willing to listen.  I can’t listen to his nordic Death Metal though.  And he gets  a tad upset when I point out that they’re playing standard Bach progressions and modes but with distortion  :)

        1. Hell yeah, they are!  What’s that one band the combines metal and cellos or some such?  Apocalyptica?  Really, there is nothing new under the sun… all culture is remix culture!!!  Maybe one day he’ll grow out of nordic death metal and start listening to some music concrete or some such…  Oh, you should also check out a documentary about the Balkans which hits on the issue of the origins of a particular song called “Whose Song is This?” A Hungarian film maker was hanging out with friends in Turkey, when a song began to play, and they all quickly claimed it as being from their own culture (various balkan nationalities).  Food for thought regarding how cultures are made, I think:


          1. Haha, strangely enough, I’ve been following a few musicians here in London.  One is a Turkish singer who sings in a Klezmer band, playing Jewish, Sephardic, Serbian, Hungarian and Persian songs. She sings in all the languages and all the musical styles blend well.  Then she sings Rebetiko with a greek band, but most of the songs have lyrics she knows in Turkish.  
            http://tinyurl.com/3tj95wk          (Apologies for shameless plug)

            Most of this is due to migration (forced or otherwise) where there always seem to be musicians who want to play new stuff.


  6. I think Hot Topic could be submitted as exhibit a in the case against Paul Raven’s quote.  Granted that the sex pistols were a jumped up boy-band, there were other bands like Crass that were legitimately promoting an ideology.  A central part of the punk culture I participated in in the early 80s was extremely anti-consumer, and anti-materialism.  Spending a lot of money on fashion was seriously missing the point.  

    I think that it’s been proven that it is doable to take the signifiers of a movement, and point them at a new signified.  Otherwise, you’d see a lot more kids sneering at $20 clash t-shirts and just making their own.

    1. First, now I have the “Burn down the hot topic” song from that south park episode stuck in my head… 

      Also, I agree about some later punks having a strong anti-consumer/materialist bent and that one can change the signifiers of a movement to mean something else. I think I’d add that by taking that stance (anti-consumerism), one is still responding to consumerism — on some level, they are still controlling the terrain of the argument.  This is not to criticize the anti-materialist stance of punk rockers, cause I feel common cause with it.  Plus, not all punks did of course, some even saw themselves as small time entrepreneurs, fully in the capitalist mode (read Joe Carducci’s book Rock and the Pop Narcotic), but then you get into who is a “real” punk, and it all gets lost in the chaos, but who is more authentic quickly becomes the focus rather than the music or the rebellion itself…

      I also I think that kids always do that — they remix the meaning of a signifier to suit their own ends.  I think that is just as true as kids into mainstream culture as it is of kids of more marginal cultures.  I think it was… Simon Frith, who argues that culture as handed down by those in “charge” of culture is rarely used as intended…  It was in the Sociology of Rock, I think? And that’s been regurgitated back into the culture now (as remix culture).  Think about the way that that terrible Rebecca Black song was mixed up in the culture, despite it’s terribleness as a song.  The Stephen Colbert/Roots version was hilarious and a nice little moment, if you ask me.  Maybe it’s just cause of I <3 both Colbert and the Roots…

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