…For most people under twenty in Europe and North America, the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue. Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the unthinkable. Jameson used to report in horror about the ways that capitalism had seeped into the very unconscious; now, the fact that capitalism has colonized the dreaming life of the population is so taken for granted that it is no longer worthy of comment. It would be dangerous and misleading to imagine that the near past was some prelapsarian state rife with political potentials, so it’s as well to remember the role that commodification played in the production of culture throughout the twentieth century. Yet the old struggle between detournement and recuperation, between subversion and incorporation, seems to have been played out. What we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead, their precorporation: the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture. Witness, for instance, the establishment of settled ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ cultural zones, which endlessly repeat older gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time. ‘Alternative’ and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream. No-one embodied (and struggled with) this deadlock more than Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it was a cliché. The impasse that paralyzed Corbain is precisely the one that Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, [where] all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum’. Here, even success meant failure, since to succeed would only mean that you were the new meat on which the system could feed. But the high existential angst of Nirvana and Cobain belongs to an older moment; what succeeded them was a pastiche-rock which reproduced the forms of the past without anxiety.
Cobain’s death confirmed the defeat and incorporation of rock’s utopian and promethean ambitions. When he died, rock was already being eclipsed by hip hop, whose global success has presupposed just the kind of precorporation by capital which I alluded to above. For much hip hop, any ‘naïve’ hope that youth culture could change anything has been replaced by the hardheaded embracing of a brutally reductive version of ‘reality’. ‘In hip hop’, Simon Reynolds pointed out in a 1996 essay in The Wire magazine,
‘real’ has two meanings. First, it means authentic, uncompromised music that refuses to sell out to the music industry and soften its message for crossover. ‘Real’ also signifies that the music reflects a ‘reality’ constituted by late capitalist economic instability, institutionalized racism, and increased surveillance and harassment of youth by the police. ‘Real’ means the death of the social: it means corporations who respond to increased profits not by raising pay or improving benefits but by …downsizing (the laying-off the permanent workforce in order to create a floating employment pool of part-time and freelance workers without benefits of job security).
In the end, it was precisely hip hop’s performance of this first version of the real – ‘the uncompromising’ – that enabled its easy absorption into the second, the reality of late capitalist economic instability, where such authenticity has proven highly marketable. Gangster rap neither merely reflects pre-existing social conditions, as its critics argue – rather the circuit whereby hip hop and the late capitalist social field feed into each other is one of the means by which capitalist realism transforms into a kind of anti-mythical myth. The affinity between hip hop and gangster movies such as Scarface, The Godfather films, Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction arises from their common claim to have stripped the world of sentimental illusions and seen it for ‘what is really is’: A Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality. In hip hop, Reynolds writes, ‘To “get real” is to confront a state-of-nature where dog eats dog, where you’re either a winner or loser, and where most will be losers’.
- bold emphases mine.
Fisher goes a little stodgy old white British guy with his take on hip hop and "gangster rap" here, but aside from that I like his points. I wonder about the phenomenon of white suburbanite kids listening to the more extreme rap - is this a phenomena wherein they are listening to the mainstreamed presentation of a message that is framed as non-mainstream and representative of experiences outside of capitalist success (even as the rap artists are successful businessmen or trying hard to be) - an act of listening and consumption which is intuited to offer some sort of 'corrective' or mimetic recapitulation via empathy that (so the intuition goes) enables the suburban white youth to get an 'authentic' taste of 'real' humanity (thus escaping the banality of his suburban existence) by embracing this 'fuck the man' message of a man getting paid well by the man? Of course such an activity prepares that white suburban youth to become a good servant of a corporation, even as the youth 'feels' the very opposite.
So many fully operative contradictions, leaving us embracing what we didn't mean to embrace at all.
Now think of the hipster PBR drinking phenomenon (next it will be trust fund kids making a point of hanging out at Walmart on Friday nights) - because drinking microbrews carried an anti-macrobrew self-awareness to it that was easily co-opted and capitalized upon, you have the phenomenon of hipsters drinking macrobrews to reject the microbeer drinking qua social rejection of macrobrews. The important thing isn't the beer, it's the rejection, which, of course, is nothing more or less than an embrace. Now, I have friends who will protest "I've always enjoyed both macro and micro beers - I've always embraced both!" [They usually follow this up with the apples and oranges language - They like each for different reasons, etc., sort of like how these same folks wear Levi's for one occasion and Dockers for another.] Great, in the end you've drunk a lot of both macro and micro beer, as has the hipster, drinking micro in his first rejection and macro in his second (or more than likely drinking both all the time like you, the micro to suit his bobo tastes and the macro to suit his fashion, changing rejections to suit the occasion). The perceived social/commercial "tensions" between macro and micro beers, and even the consumer choices "between" the two, are superficial. The choice between macro and micro beers is a new variation on the "tastes great! less filling!" debate - it is a "debate," a social/commercial tension, manufactured to increase sales - no matter what you choose, your money goes to capitalists who sell a product, and whose one immutable goal is to make a profit selling a product.