Thursday, July 20, 2006

Dreams are free, Motherfucker!

Near the end of We Jam Econo, Mike Watt considers the relationship of his friendship with D.Boon and music:
This whole thing with D. Boon and his mother–this idea that you make up your own entertainment and your own activities–I think it was really intense on us, you know, this whole idea of DIY and stuff.

I guess there is a debate over this. You want things for young people to do so they don’t get in gangs and in trouble. But if things are too set up and stuff, you end up running ... creating an army of robots anyway, you know?

There comes a period when you’re gonna have to come up and do things, you know? Become your own person. Pick your own friends. Your own guys you want to build dreams with and stuff.

Big change in my life, meeting D. Boon.
It is the obvious lead-in to “History Lesson part II”, the song that placed the friendship of D. Boon and Mike Watt squarely in the history of punk–“punk rock changed our lives.” The song was a statement of affirmation that starkly contrasted the negativism and poseurism of the evolving hardcore music scene. Michael Azerrad even noted that punks read “History Lesson part II” as an insult. As much as they are considered icons of the underground of the 1980s, the Minutemen (and some of their SST labelmates) rejected the white rage that fed many local music scenes.

I wonder: what will be the place of the underground in the history of American popular culture? Will it merit any mention against the popular music produced for mass consumption?

Obviously, my problem is with the conceptualization of popular culture in an era of mass communication and the choices made by cultural historians in obtaining “thick descriptions.” Music produced for mass consumption reaches larger audiences, but what they convey is as easily forgotten as received. Marketing figured prominently into its popularity.

On the other hand, the music produced by the underground achieved a different kind of popularity: not in the sense of profit and distribution, but spontaneity of expression from the lowest levels. Culture made by the people for themselves–popular culture that was distinct from high culture. Because it was known to only a few, it achieved an intimacy between performer and audience that eluded the other kind of popular music (which is what Azerrad wants us to believe.)

Popular cuts two ways: the ideas received by the people and the ideas made by them. Even if the underground had a small audience, it might still have the capacity to move popular culture. Indeed, bands like the Minutemen could attract large crowds to clubs just below the Hollywood sign. “Hollywood” could be ragged and unique or polished and homogenized.

The question not only arises in the 20th century. A recent book in Germany history examined the hymnals used by German Catholics as a window to their mentality. The results would surprise few: ultramontane, rural, traditional. This image of German Catholicism, seemingly mirroring Pius IX’s worldview, leaves out the progressive tendencies that arose from within: the social activitism of the Moenchengladbach Richtung, or the capitalism of the Cologne Richtung. German Catholics exerted pressure on the course of religion that were not represented by the conservatism of the hymnals.

The underground may become a footnote or page in a book not yet written. The music of the 1980s will be known for selling optimism and materialism–all those things generally associated with Reagan’s America. The history of popular culture in the 1980s will, hopefully, contend with the “alternatives” that contrasted those prosperous years. Punk rock did change our lives.

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