Traveling the I5 today, I picked up snippets of the Zimmerman verdict from checkings of facebook at various rest stops. A friend of mine changed her profile picture to the silhouette of a hoodie. My first thought was “would the same thing have happened if he hadn’t been wearing that hoodie?” Then I realized how similar this line of thinking was to another line of thinking with which I am intimately familiar. And I was sad; sad for myself, and incredibly sad for this world. When you’re a girl, your parents tell you not to dress certain ways, lest people get the wrong idea. Society tells you that men can’t control themselves, and so you need to plan for that. You don’t wear skirts of a certain length, you don’t walk alone, you don’t don’t walk certain places or with certain people. We’re taught to be fearful of groups of men walking together, even if they’re co-workers. It is so ingrained that, even now, as I get older and thus less of a target than I was when I was young and fresh, these things subsist. So I asked myself a really hard question. If I see a man alone, and he’s on the same side street that I am I, will I cross the street? Would I cross the street if he was white? Would I cross the street if he was black? Would I cross the street if there were more than one of them? Or two of them? Where are my lines? Where are the ugly places in my head? The answer, as much as my conscious mind could come to it, was “it’s based on how they’re dressed.” I ran through different scenarios in my head, and the consistent factor was presentation. If a man in a suit is walking down the street, I might not cross. If a young man in baggy jeans and a hoodie who is slouching is walking down the street, it is almost guaranteed that I’ll cross. All things being equal, the presentation is most important factor. And then I thought of Trayvon. Had he been wearing a button-down shirt, would this have happened? Did his parents not give the speech? “You have to be careful where you walk and how you dress, or people will think you’re asking for it.” Did Trayvon’s father give him the speech my father gave me? “I’m not worried about you. I trust you. I’m just worried about everyone else.” Did his mother not say “Looks like rain! Wear your raincoat. Looks like scared white men with itchy trigger fingers! Don’t be black. Or at least wear a button-down shirt.” Is his mother berating herself now, because she didn’t adequately prepare her child for the world in which we live? The fucked up, horrible world in which we live, the world that says that you have to protect yourself because of your appearance, because people can’t be trusted? I am so accustomed to living in fear of walking down the street, as is every woman I know, that I forgot to consider that there are a million applications of this, alive and well in this world. I realized I had been as surprised by my black friends feeling this way as my male friends are to hear my perceptions of the world.
Every time a familiar, beloved song turns up hawking Hyundais or British Airways, the cries begin. The cries are never more pained, more rife with perceived betrayal, than when a favored subculture icon’s music is doing the hawking.
Not when their face or voice is used; not nearly as much. Then, it can be about the individual – they needed money. No one cares that William Shatner is selling insurance, or that Kevin Spacey is selling Hondas. Nope, no one cares about the people behind them. But take a song to which someone has personal attachments, one that represents something to them, and use it to sell something to which the listener has no association and you have committed a grave personal injustice.
“What a sell-out!” you’ll hear from the assaulted when they hear Joy Division as the musical backdrop for the latest hair treatment.
What they’re saying is – that was my thing. I loved it first. It represented a time in my life when I was first learning to buck the system. Hearing it used to sell mass-produced items is indicative of end times! It can’t mean both. If it means both, then it means that I wasn’t original, that some marketing lackey figured it out.
These thoughts, these sentiments, rarely if ever spring from the lips and keyboards of people who are supporting themselves as artists. Artists are often mum on the subject. Why? Because their job is to sell. If they hadn’t sold in the first place, you’d never have heard them at that club when you first made eye contact with that boy with eyeliner and that memory would never have been created for you to feel insulted that it was defiled. And, guess what? Artists aren’t picky about who buys their stuff because we can’t afford to be. Sure, in a perfect world, only kind people who donate to the right charities and who have never beaten their wives and who rebel against the same aspects of the establishment that we do would buy our wares. But we don’t get to be picky; selling our goods as-is to the highest bidder means that we get to continue to create on our own terms; it means we didn’t have to change the nature of what we did to become attractive to deeper pockets. Changing what we do, the kind of art we create, our statements, in order to attract that kind of buyer? That is selling out. It is gross, it alienates the original fan base and, to be honest, isn’t appealing to that aforementioned marketing lackey. You know. The one who sourced this music in the first place and sold it to his higher-ups, the one who wore the eyeliner in the club 20 years ago, who thought “If I love the Descendents, maybe other people will, too. And they could probably use the money. At least it’s not Britney.”
It’s a fine line – Morrissey songs being used to sell beef would smack of hypocrisy. But, in most cases, we can take a moment. Sit back a moment and appreciate it. Appreciate that someone whose art you respect (or their heirs. we are getting older as moments go on.) is, finally, making a bit of money from their efforts. Appreciate that, perhaps, this will mean more music of the kind you enjoy, produced by artists you support. Take a moment of glee in saying “I remember dancing to this 20 years ago…” Free yourself from the attachment to who else might enjoy this (and allow yourself to bop your head in time to the latest U2 if you like it without beating yourself up about it while you’re at it). Realize that your perceived uniqueness in enjoying subculture artists is, at best, a misconception and, at worst, an ancient, adolescent, clung-to lie that fits you about as well as acid-wash.
Enjoy the ride – enjoy the 20-or-so year span during which you are most marketed-to – it wasn’t happening when you were 15 and when you hit 60 no one will care about you anymore. Remember that artists and marketing lackeys are people, too, and we all have to eat, and create, and produce. And maybe, just maybe, some 14-year-old kid in suburbia will hear that ad on their parents’ wide-screen and think… I HAVE TO FIND THAT BAND AND BUY ALL OF THE THINGS. And the cycle of life will be complete. And hey. At least it’s not Britney.