Fergie and her apparent conflict to our interests: Hardcore Punk versus commercialism, pop music and its inevitable hypocrisy
This essay is a bit old now, but still i’d like you to read it:
Over the past few days a paparazzi picture featuring Fergie wearing a Black Flag t-shirt has been circulating around the Internet, triggering both humourous and down right distasteful remarks. From the original post found on Twitter, the caption is:
‘Im very sorry folks…its with a heavy heart that I announce the end. Thanks for all who cared.’
Next up are comments like ‘T-shirts have always been a fashion accessory. That’s all they are. Except for yours, of course’, ‘To some people, t-shirts are little more than a fashion accessory. Sad, really’, slightly apocalyptic remarks like ‘the end of days is upon us’, and worst of all ‘Oh, come, ON! Henry Rollins should smack the crap out of you….’. So what we see is the hardcore community up in arms about what seems to be a sacred t-shirt and band, and then hardcore’s right to exercise violence, as I’m sure you can see not just from that comment but also if you search Henry Rollins on Youtube.
The first thing to address is the pop star using revered logos, and how their assumed lack of knowledge of the hardcore scene means they are using our language to commercialise and pervert our scene. I cannot be anything but succinct about the matter: if you sell a t-shirt you commodify it, if you put a logo into public domain without any protection, don’t be upset if it comes back to you in a form you don’t want. Ultimately, if you want your scene to be sacred, protect it properly.
An example of this is from 2005 when Nike SB sponsored a skateboarding tour and devised a marketing strategy that used the front cover of the Minor Threat LP, with ‘appropriate’ changes, Minor being changed to Major, and the young punk’s boots replaced by SB branded shoes. When this started circulating there was an outcry of Dischord records selling their image to Nike, whereas in fact they had simply stolen the front cover with no regard for copyright laws. Inevitably Ian MacKaye and Dischord did everything in their power to have the advertisements removed and sought compensation for the issue. Also worth noting on the subject of merchandise is that Fugazi do not have official t-shirts made, and Dischord records sell nothing but records (and the occasional book and DVD). Most importantly Dischord protect appropriation by not appropriating themselves through commodification.
Have a quick shop around the SST website (in fact called the superstore) and you can find yourself a healthy selection of iconic t-shirts, from The Bars to other great bands like Descendents and Minutemen. My personal favourite? ‘Corporate Rock Still Sucks’, by the way, buy the t-shirt!
The next thing to note is Raymond Pettibon’s design of The Bars. Based on the flag for anarchy, to correlate with Black Flag’s themes on rebellion and provocation, it is arguably hardcore’s most identifiable symbol. But how much does Black Flag’s lyrical content have to do with anarchy? As someone who has gone through periods of obsessing over their music, and I still think they’re one of the best every punk bands, I empathised with their themes of alienation, suburban terror, boredom and the need for any action. Of course with songs like ‘Police Story’ and ‘TV Party’ Greg Ginn was also concerned with contemporary issues of state violence against punk concerts and institutionalised brainwashing, but as an individual with no experience of police antagonism nor did I watch much TV as a youth, I can’t say much about these songs, and such political themes in Black Flag’s music are scarce compared to the lyrics surrounding internal strife. To me, the Black Flag Bars are more significant relating to immediacy, street art and promotion than the actual politicization of the band. Black Flag as a band weren’t exactly beacons of morality, not just through the obvious of ‘Wasted’ and ‘No Values’, but that in their later years they were jacked on acid, whilst Henry Rollins was continuously aggravating and was aggravated at shows. Pettibon as an artist was more concerned about creating the aura for Black Flag and getting the word out in LA than spreading the anarchist message; the Bars are nothing more than an irreverent sign for the band.
However, as with most important eras in popular culture we both thrive in and suffer from hindsight and idolatry. We now see Black Flag, along with Minor Threat and Bad Brains as the big three of hardcore, all untouchable examples of how bands should be. Minor Threat probably come out most unscathed, having inadvertently started Straight Edge culture, however through means that the band wasn’t in control of their message led to elitism, then into Hardline scenes, whereas Bad Brains slipped into Rastafarian zeal and moments of extreme homophobia will eternally sully a band that could have become by far the best and most important band of the hardcore movement. These bands were not aware of their importance in the line of rock music, let alone pop culture, how could they know that 20 years later an icon like Fergie would wear something that means so much to millions of people?
The benefit of Twitter comments and small online punk communities is that members of throwaway discussions have a wealth of contextual knowledge regarding Black Flag, hardcore and the DIY aesthetic, but (this may come across a bit flippant) have no knowledge of Fergie. For sure we all know the Black Eyed Peas are a multimillion selling act that were the first group to product place in their lyrics, appear in many commercials, and their lyrics are (as far as us punks can see) about partying, sex, and generally having a good time. But we have very little knowledge of who Fergie is (other than she has knees of an 80 year old, not that hardcore fans are so shallow and objectifying, although shows are sometimes sponsored by Front Magazine), but a quick wiki and we learn she was a smart and diligent student at school, and then went on sex and drug benders when she turned eighteen, again, not that anything like this happens in the hardcore community. Fergie then overcome a crystal meth addiction before joining the Black Eyed Peas.
The above fact finding could well be portrayed as mildly obsessive if I spent some more time researching about her life, but these obsessions are no different to the ephemeral detail about our beloved hardcore bands. In reality I’d rather forget about Black Flag’s violence and drug addiction and remember their willingness to experiment in hardcore, same with Minor Threat’s holier-than-thou attitude and their importance on community, and then Bad Brains’ bigotry traded in for their self-titled, one of the most blistering records of all time. Pop’s ignorance towards hardcore can only be seen as reciprocal. Start putting Black Eyed Peas at face value and perhaps they can start being judged by producing some of the most forward thinking pop and R&B records of the past 10 years. (I’m unfortunately no BEP fan, I’m merely speculating) but back to the t-shirt…
An interesting spin-off to this debate is Last Witness’ t-shirt displaying Lady Gaga wearing a see-through t-shirt, and her breasts covered up with the band’s logo, itself a play on the Supreme Clothing brand. It’s got a fair amount of mainstream coverage, with Sienna Miller’s beau caught wearing the shirt at a nightclub. The t-shirt recently sold for well over 4 times its price on eBay recently. The t-shirt brings up several questions itself. Firstly, for a band of the hardcore community using a symbol of popular culture, how does the mainstream feel about this? Does the hardcore scene take it as a light-hearted prank on the bastardisation of our symbols, a vein attempt at the band trying to become commercially successful by creating a media buzz, did they actually give that t-shirt to Sienna Miller’s boyfriend, does he like Last Witness, is it a great design? Are Last Witness objectifying Lady Gaga and women in general, or holding up a mirror against the sexualisation of the music industry?
OR IS A T-SHIRT JUST A T-SHIRT?
Last Witness’ label Holy Roar records aren’t exactly a label, or group, or scene, whatever you want to call it, to shy away from self-promotion, exposition of how the music industry works and their willingness to work within the confines of the culture industry, be it through putting their records in HMV, having their bands endorsed by musical instrument companies and energy drinks or simply the UKSWELL hashtag. Every band has a t-shirt and aesthetic ready to sell to the scene; label co-owner Alex Fitzpatrick remains a controversial member of the hardcore community, having released some of the best UK bands such as Crocus, Maths and Rolo Tomassi, yet has been seen in a few metal magazines, notably the one where he’s naked save for a few tastefully placed records. Fitzpatrick is also the first to admit that Holy Roar looks to champion certain bands for financial gain (as well as the belief of the bands being good) to reinvest in bands that are equally as good but more experimental and esoteric. Holy Roar also supplements their income by selling auxiliary merchandise. Although not exactly admirable nor idealistic, such business models are tried and tested and in the long run perhaps beneficial to the smaller bands who would otherwise not be as exposed with other labels. But we have to remember Holy Roar, regardless of their place in the hardcore scene are a business, how is this any different to SST? The legacy of their roster is a selling point as much as the music, SST themselves haven’t released anything of note since the 90s.
Legacy is a source that hardcore has been using for too long. Not only in having the safehouses of the old 80s hardcore scenes, but also in the whole aesthetic itself. At your typical hardcore stall you’ll undoubtedly find yourself by the merchandise stand at some point. This ranges from the rare cute and innovative crafts to huge batches of American Apparel printed, multi-toned professionally screen-printed ‘crucial’ t-shirts, boxes of shrink-wrapped records that the band hope in vein will be sold out by the end of the tour and other useless ephemera to make a quick buck for beer. No doubt this is just about DIY, but so far removed from crudely photocopied album sleeves, cheap CDr records, and creative designs for creativity’s sake that you doesn’t exactly scream ‘you can do this too!’ But most worryingly of all is hardcore’s expectation of iconographic material, needing to create a logo as important as the bands beforehand, creating an aesthetic that will stand the test of time, professional designs so whenever you turn a corner in the street the average Joe will take the time to look at the artistic rebellion displayed by your band. Compared to Pettibon’s Black Bar stencil, Bad Religion’s crossbuster, or even ‘Minor Threat’, it puts into perspective today’s anxiety to make a mark on the scene via graphic design. So don’t be sorry if in 20 year’s time your favourite bands’ logos are rehashed for the next sexed-up autotuned pop star, the last thing they can take from you is your music, if it’s radical enough. This isn’t to say that visual creativity is not welcome here, it’s just to say, if you care about the uses enough, cover yourself correctly and don’t play yourself into commodification.
As for the sanctity of the hardcore community, the lines have blurred, there are more non-hardcore bands involved in radical anti-commercial activities and conversely more hardcore bands succumbing to the capitalist model of the culture industry. Whether it’s a good or bad thing is besides the point, but it’s harder to galvanise a scene through a sound or how you dress, but what we’re experiencing now is something more exciting: a convergence of communities not through superficial resemblance but through a sharing of ideology regarding the function of art and politics. Until then petty discussions about the sanctity of old hardcore will haunt the scene so long as people grasp to the old notions of authenticity and mainstream rebellion.