Punk Preempts the Post-Popstar Age
Prosumption and Celebrity within Neoliberal Economics
“maybe they’re born with it. maybe they watched loads of YouTube tutorials.”
So reads the SoundCloud page description of Internet-native photographer, artist, and musician Arvida Byström. In the 1977 issue of the UK fanzine Sideburns, the punk movement was once instructed, “this is a chord, this is another, this is a third, now form a band.” Today, Byström’s statement seems to be a perfect DIY call-to-arms for the contemporary online “prosumer.” Forty years after punk called on music listeners to ditch the major record labels and “do-it-yourself,” a new platform-oriented entertainment industry actively encourages the unpaid creative work of users, offering the reward of becoming a visual artist (Instagram), a filmmaker (YouTube), an actor (Vine), or a musician (SoundCloud), with the lines between these practices increasingly blurred.
Punk willed the end of the popstar spectacle. It was ordinary people forming their own bands. We now live in a post-popstar age in which the meaning of fame has radically changed. The line separating celebrity and civilian is no longer an impenetrable silver screen, but rather a two-way touchscreen. Here, I consider how punk predated “prosumption.” In so doing, I show how the end of the popstar in its twentieth-century sense is an essential condition of today’s democratized — yet exploitative — fame economy, an economy in which the cultural production of everyday people is imperative.
Writing in 1976, the year that punk was born, French economist and theorist Jacques Attali argued in his book Noise (published 1977) that changes in music culture have been historically prescient of broader shifts in the political economy. Attali also makes a claim for an emergent shift from the Fordist mass production of records to a “prosumption” — the merging together of production and consumption — among music listeners. Attali’s music-as-prophesy argument is bold. Yet, when we consider the rhetoric of the punk movement and its DIY ethos, we are hard-pressed not to identify in it something of a cultural barometer for the coming prosumption of the social media age. Now, decades later, DIY punk cries such as Honey Bane’s “You can be free, the real you” (1979) seem startlingly similar to neoliberal advertising rhetoric.
In retrospect, Attali’s predictions of prosumption were just one of many. In “Constituents of a New Theory of the Media” (1970), essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger presciently wrote,
It is wrong to regard media equipment as mere means of consumption. It is always, in principle, also means of production and, indeed, since it is in the hands of the masses, socialized means of production.
Enzensberger is advocating for agency among consumers and the potential for radical democracy as a result of broadcast (and later digital) media. In the same essay, Enzensberger forecasts the future trajectory from early “California ideology” optimism to today’s prosumption. He warns,
Anyone who imagines that freedom for the media will be established if only everyone is busy transmitting and receiving is the dupe of a liberalism which… merely peddles the faded concepts of a preordained harmony of social interests.
Much has been said of the way in which post-1968 activism and anti-Fordist rhetoric found its way into the neoliberal reform of the past few decades. For instance, in The Spirit of New Capitalism (Verso, 2005), sociologists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello provide a sweeping observation of business management literature of the 1960s through to the 1990s that reveals clearly the parallels between capitalism’s “new spirit” and the rhetoric of freedom, individualism, and creative expression that were characteristic of the post-1968 New Left. Considering the narrative of punk’s cooptation, in particular, let’s turn to cultural studies scholar Angela McRobbie.
In “Second-Hand Dresses and the Role of the Ragmarket” (1989), McRobbie addresses the way in which subcultural scholars — in wishing to emphasize authentic class rebellion — had consciously ignored the entrepreneurialism of the punk movement, particularly with regard to fashion. In the present, we should reconsider the fact that punk led the way in taking the post-1968 sentiment and translating it directly into a course of entrepreneurial action. Through punk, we can see a model for a new democratized relationship between consumers and fame for the twentieth-century political economy.
That punk’s antithesis could be found in the mass record industry popstar or rockstar opens up the space for considering punk’s prescience with regard to another important shift in cultural ideology with the neoliberal age — namely, that our relationship with the concept of fame has been turned on its head. It is not that there is no stardom in the digital age, quite the contrary. The stars of today must navigate a single social media space with consumers. For those ordinary consumers not yet famous, the unpaid digital labor of using social media is remunerated with the cultural capital of a new kind of fame, measured quantifiably by follower-counts.
Importantly, it is not simply the individualist ideology of neoliberalism that keeps users hooked on social media platforms, but also a new abstracted notion of fame. That is, fame is not something separate from ourselves, to observe behind glass; rather, fame is both accessible and a common measure of success in our post-wage everyday life. In a hypercompetitive digital environment, not only do people desire fame, but they are also expected to become a sort of public figure. This notion of fame could not exist without the twentieth-century binary between celebrity and mere mortal. Ironically, punk’s model of democratized anti-popstar unwittingly provides a solution to the dialectic.
After punk, we live in an unpaid economy of cultural capital, and Warhol’s most famous prediction has amounted to people having more than just their 15 minutes of fame. Our strange relationship with public life is complicated by the fact that the media of communication have for decades been developing toward a deeper retreat into private life and working from home. For instance, when multi-track cassette recorders grew in popularity throughout the 1980s, advertising rhetoric for these products identified a shift in the site of cultural production from the public sphere to the home, or the bedroom. By the late 1980s, Steve Jones notes in “The Cassette Underground,” advertisements such as one for the Yamaha MT2X multitrack recorder encouraged consumers to “Go to your room and play” and added “So if you’ve been wondering where you’re going to get your first big break in music, now you know. At home.”
The abovementioned practices of Arvida Byström, which span an Instagram account, a SoundCloud page of bedroom pop music, as well as commercial work for magazines, offer an archetypical example of the contemporary cultural producer. Byström is in some ways a bedroom artist; her practice is personal and diaristic. Yet, she is also exposing her work to the enormous public of social media. Molly Soda, another artist and previous collaborator of Byström, has also developed a practice rising to prominence via platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and SoundCloud, where she shares her DJ mixes.
That the cultural labor of young women is front and center in these examples of the new fame economy is significant. As McRobbie argues in Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries (Polity Press, 2016), the gender of post-Fordism is female. This observation speaks to both the prevalence in post-Fordist work of “feminine” affective labor (regardless of the gender identity of the worker) and to the rising engagement of female workers who have been drawn increasingly since the 1970s to the agency afforded to them in a career away from traditional working-class values. The rub, however, is a new precarity, insecurity marked by lack of unions or wage guarantee.
In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (Free Association Books, 1991), philosopher and science studies scholar Donna Haraway noted the following observation of the growing neoliberal turn already under way by the mid-1980s:
Work is being redefined as both literally female and feminized, whether performed by men or women. To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labor force; seen less as workers than as servers; subjected to time arrangements on and off the paid job that make a mockery of a limited work day; leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out of place, and reducible to sex.
Since then, as scholars such as media theorist Tiziana Terranova in Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (Pluto Press, 2004) have pointed out, digital labor via the Internet only exacerbates these conditions for workers. Conflictingly, the online is at once a site for unheard voices to be received with autonomy and authority, but also a space for the exploitation of feminized free labor. Such is what we see among the young polymaths of this new DIY fame economy.
After decades of neoliberalism, young people have scarcer, more precarious opportunities for paid employment. And yet, the experience of millennials remains culturally productive and creative, even to the point of fatigue. A new kind of democratized fame, one that was culturally ascribed with value by the superstars of the twentieth century, but newly accessible in the twenty-first, creates an anxiety to create content for platforms without wages. This is the DIY fame economy, a precarious market that pays most of its participants in cultural capital alone.
Decades after punk, consumers participate in a dizzying array of subcultures upon subcultures, in which identities are made, remade, and discarded. Today, every social media consumer is in some way an artist, a musician, a writer, or simply a “creative.” Strangely, in this environment, to denounce this contemporary fame and instead value being a part of the anonymous collective masses may offer a new sense of self-worth.