When Punk Went CEO

An Elegy for Those Who Rocked

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Image of Fugazi courtesy of Flickr user MS under the following Creative Commons license.

My parents weren’t in the business sector, but I was exposed to my fair share of it growing up. Dad ate his Shredded Wheat with the Wall Street Journal splayed open on the table. And in those years when I no longer had sleepovers but didn’t yet have my driver’s license, I watched “The McLaughlin Group” on Friday nights as Mom snoozed on the couch.

But I learned the truth from Fugazi.

Before it became a genre, “indie” was an ethos that said more about the means of production than it did some musical aesthetic. Labels like SST, Touch & Go, and Fugazi’s Dischord Records weren’t marketers—they were curators, manufacturers, and evangelists. They delivered the religious doctrine that got me through adolescence.

And Fugazi was more than the sum of its songs. The band—Ian MacKaye, Guy Picciotto, Joe Lally, and Brendan Canty — was the live expression of a life philosophy. They kept their album and ticket prices low so that kids like me could afford to have our lives changed. More than once, I even saw MacKaye personally refund a concertgoer’s money for not living up to his ethical standard: don’t mosh, stay cool, and get woke. They didn’t even sell t-shirts, no matter how much I wanted girls to know I listened to good music. Look to the song “Merchandise” for a summation of their philosophy:

Merchandise keeps us in line
Common sense says it’s by design
What could a businessman ever want more
Than to have us sucking in his store

I followed the rules, got good grades, and (largely) stayed out of trouble. In other words, I was compliant. Which is precisely why I loved underground music. Independent bands like Fugazi, Mission of Burma, and Minutemen embodied the kind of resistance I could embrace: sensible political and economic dissent. They also taught me the basic (ultimately simplistic) premise that big business can’t be trusted. To this day, even as someone who now works with big businesses, I never forget that a company’s profit-making motives rarely align with the personal goals of its employees.

Yet I’ve noticed a curious generational divide when it comes to attitudes about the business world—I mean, brands. In high school, I didn’t know anyone who dreamt of being a CEO. This was a time when the acronym conjured up images of rich fuddy-duddies like Lee Iacoccoa, whose bestselling autobiography predicted smug Wall Street-era memoirs like The Art of the Deal. (Take one look at its cover to understand what I mean.)

At most, my classmates resigned themselves to getting “decent” jobs at some boring company. But more likely, my closest friends wanted to be rockstars—whether that meant being an artist, writer, teacher, or actual musician. We were driven by an impulse to buck the system. Our professional goals were the résumé equivalent of a giant middle finger at the Man.

But today, startup founders like Jack Dorsey or Elon Musk are “rockstars.” TED Talks inspire the same rabid following as a mid-90s Lollapalooza second-stage bill. Kids in their 20s once dropped out of college to rent a dump and start bands that railed against the system. Today, they do it to “disrupt” business by designing mobile apps.

To be clear, this isn’t meant to be some gassy screed against millennials. I’ve never bought the low-hanging opinion pieces that make grumpy generalizations about young people’s attitudes and behaviors. These arguments often sound more like a case of revisionist sour grapes than market research.

As an analyst-in-training, I think it’s too easy to reduce an entire generation down to a case of “helicopter parents” or participation trophies. Frankly, I’m not even convinced “adulthood” exists at all (watch this space for more on that later). Either way, I suspect millennials are better defined by their current life stages (e.g., unmarried and no kids) than by some blanket societal variables. Besides, I know Gen Xers who paid hard-earned money to attend the SXSW Conference—not its original music festival. So, this seems more cultural than generational.

And, sure, we still have our anti-Wall Street movements like Occupy and heroes like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. But, truthfully, the most support I’ve seen for this sentiment is on Facebook.

All of which makes me wonder, Where has all the rock gone?

By “rock,” I mean more broadly any creative act of political dissent. Plenty has been written about the commodification of the arts, particularly punk (see: CDGB Lounge & Bar at Newark Airport). Green Day still sneers and rants about America’s inequities, but the eyeliner and Manic Panic seem too representational to take seriously. Yes, there are bands—Against Me! or Pussy Riot—that live counter-culture in both music and deed. But you (and your parents) will be more likely to hear “indie” music between innings at a baseball game than on the National Mall.

Thankfully, hip-hop remains a standard-bearer for political music. Acts like Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels, and A Tribe Called Quest can be counted on to speak truth to power. Of course, rap is the musical language of marginalization. And while there’s always a tension within the genre between racial politics and rampant consumerism, it continues to defy complete co-option and be a relevant outlet for protest—in part because its history is inextricable from America’s history of oppression.

Perhaps that’s why big business is so comfortable with co-opting punk rock. The first time I heard The Stooges’ “Search & Destroy” in a Nike commercial felt like a swift kick to the mixtape. But I’ve since softened in my older, bill-paying days. I don’t fetishize ideological purity like MacKaye did and still does. Artists should get paid for their work—whether on tour, on Spotify, or “on brand.”

But where independent music once represented the marriage of art and action, it now seems like a naive weapon in the force of social change. Young people no longer look to their favorite musicians to change the world. Instead, they affect genuine social change by starting B Corporations.

I’ve lately been thinking about the value of creative expression, thanks in part to grad school and, of course, the recent election. My sense is that reactionary political art doesn’t really do much (or age well). There’s simply no substitute for proactive civil action.

Still, creativity is what makes us human. That’s what Donald Winnicott, the British analyst and theorist, argued. (See here for more on his perspective.) But his idea of creativity is a bit more complicated than, say, singing a protest song. Psychoanalytically, creativity takes place only in the imagination — in the space between our inner lives and external reality. It is the fundamental force behind maturation.

Winnicott saw creativity as the purest expression of what he called the True Self, which exists in conjunction with the False Self. He believed that, in spite of our desire for love and social exchange, there is a side of everyone that is “an isolate, permanently non-communicating, permanently unknown, in fact unfound.” As much as it relates to authentic experience, the True Self also wishes to remain secret.

In his conception, we can better understand this inner truth by seeing what it isn’t—in other words, our False Self. This is the “me” that represents the compromise we make to interact in the real world. But it’s not all bad. Without this trade-off, we might all just say and do only what we feel—no matter the cost. And yet, in Winnicott’s conception, this False Self is ultimately an act of compliance. It’s precisely the kind of compliance I mastered in high school, struggling to balance my wish to be Ian MacKaye with my desire to simply get though.

Navigating society with any degree of success is a juggling act, between obedience and desire. That’s why I wonder what it means that young people today might gamble on launching a startup rather than joining a band. Sure, either choice might defy parents’ desires for their children to get a decent job with health insurance. But where dad was a doctor or mom was a lawyer, Dick is now an “innovator” and Jane just went IPO. Which is to say, since when did money become so cool?

Rock used to be an act of defiance. But musicians now make appearances at corporate parties. It makes me think of the time when I was unemployed and looking for a new direction in my life. I spent a month working on a business plan to open the first “hip” coffee shop in my neighborhood before I realized I’d rather be a guy who has the freedom to telecommute. In other words, why rock if you can pay someone to rock you?

The point is that “us kids” once wanted to destroy the system. But somehow, the only people edgy enough to do it these days are the businessmen currently in the White House.

All of which is to say, apologies for the rant. I must be feeling my age. But as Ian MacKaye sings in “And the Same”:

Yes I know this is politically correct
But it comes to you spiritually direct
An attempt to thoughtfully affect your way of thinking

Liked this essay? Check out my follow-up, “Straight Edge, or Righteous Self-Denial.”

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