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The American Nonconformist in the Age of the Commercialization of Dissent


We saw this trend approaching a million consumer-miles away. It was inevitable: the Protest Generation comes of age as the Generation of Super-Consumers.

—Faith Popcorn, 1991

Thirty-five years ago, Norman Mailer first gave voice to the idea that the “hipster,” the young art-appreciating free-spirit alienated from an increasingly repressive society, was the existential hero of the day. In an America terrified by the bomb, grown stagnant from over-organization, cowed into homogeneity and conformity by red scares and the depersonalization of the computer age, the “hipster” was supposed to represent liberty and the affirmation of life. “The only life-giving answer” to the deathly drag of American civilization, Mailer wrote, was to tear oneself from the security of physical and spiritual certainty, to embrace rebellion, particularly rebellion associated with the subculture of jazz and drugs. The distinction between those who resisted mass society and those who collaborated was a clear and obvious one, Mailer insisted: “one is Hip or one is Square . . . one is a rebel or one conforms . . . trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.”

Today the opposite is true. In advertising, television, and all the other organs of official culture, the hipster is now a figure to be revered. He has become a central symbol of the technocratic system he is supposed to be subverting: a model consumer, a good citizen in a society which demands moral indifference and a perpetual patronage of the new in order to keep its gigantic wheels turning. Rather than resisting the enormous cultural machinery of mediocrity, impoverishment, and stupidity, in 1992 the hipster is its star player.

Spike Lee has made his reputation as a film innovator by posturing as a free-floating radical, as a spokesman without portfolio for the nation’s outsiders and oppressed, as a fulminator against convention and bourgeois morality. He is also a spokesman for the Nike corporation, and you can regularly see this daring and revolutionary young filmmaker on prime-time TV, selling an extraordinarily expensive athletic shoe.

On another channel the Burger King corporation confides that “Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules.” A brand of perfume named “Tribe” calls upon consumers to “Join the Uprising.” A new variety of chewing gum is cast as the embodiment of hip teen resistance to the puritanical, antifun ways of police and old people. Rock radio stations routinely promote themselves as rule-breakers of the most defiant sort while Mazda introduces us to their new models by ridiculing “Mom” and “apple pie” images and telling us that if “You’re not John Doe, why drive his car?”

Bizarre and cynical anomalies? On the contrary, these incidents are perfectly representative of our contemporary consumer culture, which for some time now has utilized images of rebellion to encourage a mindset of endless dissatisfaction with the old and a never-ending compulsion to buy, buy, buy. In 1992 the transformation of rebellion into money is the fundamental operation of our pop-cultural machinery. The commercialization of deviance is fast becoming the universal theme of American culture, the preeminent motif of the age.

And not simply because of its value in reaching the kids. The simulation of dissent we see all around us has become the preeminent image of mass culture because it reinforces an ideology focused on the eternal new and the identification of individuality with product choice. The beautiful hipsters we see in ads, movies, and malls are always celebrating their liberation, their difference, their emancipation precisely because these aspects of rebellion, American-style, make them model consumers. They have embraced a worldview of bourgeois antinomianism, an automatic scorn for anything even vaguely established, permanent, or conventional (except, of course, their own incomes), because this is the attitude they must adopt to do their part in keeping the great machine racing at fever pitch. Our young pseudo-radicals buy, eat, and discard freely and unrestrainedly, unencumbered by the repressive moral baggage of their square, tightwad elders, who didn’t buy a lot of things they didn’t need, who saved money and didn’t purchase on credit, whose dull, unliberated lives centered on producing goods rather than consuming them.

The commercialization of deviance is fast becoming the universal theme of American culture, the preeminent motif of the age.

So commercial rock ‘n’ roll music, the veritable incarnation of commercialized deviance, becomes the inescapable soundtrack of daily life, and millions of products are peddled in its wake. So American youth and its young-thinking parents fall over one another rushing to patronize the latest consumer expression of rebellion, whether it’s acid-washed jeans, leather motorcycle jackets, or multiple-pierced ears. We let our hair grow, cut it short, tie it in a ponytail, dye it, cut lines and words into it. We wear all black or don “X” caps and wait anxiously for the next hip dispensation from the East. We make sure our bandit garb has labels conspicuously displayed because we want there to be no question whether we have bought the real hot article or a cheap knock-off. We purchase every product, visit every nightclub we think will set us apart from the crowd and exemplify our daring disdain for tradition. And then a few weeks later we do it again, and again, and again.

Commercialized dissent is a condition of perpetual youth, because our identities are more flexible when young, and we can experiment with the (external markings) of many, many different “lifestyles.” It is a condition that has thrown off the restraints of tradition and values, because without these we are truly free to buy any product, appropriate any motif, obsolete it quickly thereafter, and go on to the next.

And the art world, with its traditional reverence for a hyper-alienated avant-garde, has served as a prominent model for the development of commercialized deviance. Arty hipsters appear regularly in ads and sitcoms as icons of consumer perfection. And this is hardly a media distortion: on the contrary, every movement in the institutional avant-garde scene during the last 25 years has served to reinforce the new ideology of consumption being foisted on the world by Madison Avenue. Nor is this complicity a new problem. Malcolm Cowley wrote of his Greenwich Village experiences in the 1920s that

[t]o keep the factory wheels turning, a new domestic market had to be created. Industry and thrift were no longer adequate. There must be a new ethic that encouraged people to buy, a consumption ethic.

It happened that many of the Greenwich Village ideas proved useful in the altered situation. Thus, self-expression and paganism encouraged a demand for all sorts of products—modern furniture, beach pajamas, cosmetics, colored bathrooms with toilet paper to match. Living for the moment meant buying an automobile, radio or house, using it now and paying for it tomorrow.

Today the story is the same, but the inversion of values we are faced with is a trifle more complex. Artists are given to strutting their pseudo-dissent like no other group except rock stars. Take for example Interview magazine, the preposterous Andy Warhol’s greatest contribution to American life, a showplace of commercialized deviance which is actually taken seriously south of Houston street. Warhol himself was, of course, the model consumer of his day, playing with maximum effectiveness the role of artist/nonconformist as hyper-consumer and celebrity-worshiper. His magazine carries on this legacy, whether it’s railing against the imaginary bogeyman of moral repressiveness, slavering over the institution of celebrity, or tantalizing us with visions of our purchase-lust unfettered. A lucrative testimony to all in the art/fashion/ad world that is unfailingly superficial and aggressively stupid, Interview puts forward a consistent ideal of the alienated, vaguely artistic (and always handsome) outsider as ideal consumer.


The non-advertising text of Interview has one reliable quality: the artist/celebrities which it incessantly praises are “unconventional” people. We are told again and again and again in words and pictures that they resist conformity, that they do their own thing. The ads hammer away at the same point: the rebels who appear in DKNY or Cavaricci clothing are always distinguishing themselves from the crowd, being their ineluctable selves. “Resound,” reads the caption for a recent Interview ad featuring saxophonist Maceo Parker. “It’s the thunder you create, the way that everything you choose [to buy] adds to the roar. For individuals it starts with the Gap.”

What is it about the celebrity rebel hipster that makes him/her such an effective corporate symbol? These ads are the key to grasping the whole thing, to understanding why this juxtaposition of alienation with advertising, the central pillar of the consumerist establishment, seems so appropriate and yet rings so false. It’s the same point The Baffler has squawked about for three years. Not only is big art big money in this image-obsessed age, but its most characteristic poses—the alienation, the hipness, the shockery we have been hung up on for a century now—are eminently marketable.

And not just “eminently marketable.” The commodification of dissent is the great ideological innovation of our time, the central theme and image of almost all our mass culture. Millionaire Michael Jackson pushes product by opening his latest video with classic images of youth rebellion against adult authority. An advertiser moves units by admonishing us to “Dare to be Different.” An irritating tennis guy who routinely dresses up like a rock star endorses a camera called “The Rebel” with the line “Image is Everything.” This kind of faux insurgency is almost pandemic in advertising for beer, fast food, cigarettes, radio stations, and cars. It is the hegemonic and inescapable consumerist idea of the day.

Levi’s blue jeans, which have been a standard image of faux deviance since the golden years of the 1960s, have lately revamped their appeal to the hip market by introducing their new jeans for women in a series of ads based loosely on the modernist paintings of Matisse and Picasso, those darling nonconformists loved by businessman and Villager alike. Some of the installments in this ad cycle contain enough detail that the viewer can identify the figure as a minority of some sort, signifying immediately the born nonconformist, the automatic outsider, secure in her womanhood and in her Levi’s blue jeans, the veritable emblem of individuality and rebellion.

If “being ourselves” is of the utmost importance, we must immerse ourselves in a lifelong frenzy of shopping.

In academic circles they call it “the discovery of difference,” but in simple business terms fragmentation and otherness mean that Americans must buy twenty products to avoid traditionally-sanctioned norms where just one or two would have sufficed in the conformist age of the Gray Flannel Suit. If our personalities, our “lifestyles” are no longer stable or unitary things (as we are told over and over by admen and academics that they are not), but “being ourselves” is of the utmost importance (ditto), we must immerse ourselves in a lifelong frenzy of shopping, eternally seeking the perfect embodiment of our always-already shifting individuality. And this is exactly what Americans do, prodded on by our TV rebel-heroes and the beautiful hipsters of Greenwich Village, Interview, and Vanity Fair.

Yet somehow, thanks to the hidebound mindset exemplified by Interview, the traditional leaders of dissent have failed to recognize how obsolete their simple “alienated” stance has become—how the hipster has become the favorite image of several generations of TV Americans as well as our much vaunted poets and painters. The dissent of the art world has become so toothless, so mired in textuality, that in almost every way it has become a harmless pose, an attitude they and millions of mall-mired others strike to signify “artist”—“hipster”—“consumer.”

We have failed to understand it because the hip arty ones are now well loved by admen and TV watchers alike. They have been elevated with great acclaim to the vanguard of the American way of life. In the public culture of our time the corporate artists of the “cutting edge” have come to exemplify the ideal consumerist existence, flailing endlessly at a phantom Puritan “conformity” and an imagined “repressiveness” which have long ceased to exert any significant influence on American life. Consumerism itself long ago made the strait-laced Victorian order of character and thrift obsolete: it is retained only as a sort of cultural punching bag in TV sitcoms and imaginary threats from Jesse Helms so that the consuming celebrity vanguard can rail endlessly about the daring virtues of unrestraint, about the individualism of product choices which is the prerogative only of the liberated, about immediate gratification through credit buying. The avant-garde we are taught to admire spin round and round in their blind but righteous fury, attacking over and over again the same cold corpses of conformity and complacency and morality, always new, always improved, always different, but all the while missing the real target and creating nothing that is not defined and even ordained by the economic necessities of a consumption-driven economy.

In the 1950s consumerism was a pathetic and clumsy thing, appealing openly to people’s status fears and terror of standing out. Its public face was a tired, demoralized advertising industry whose products were so transparent and contrived that they were the butt of jokes then and are quite universally mocked now. Books like The Hidden Persuaders and The Hucksters (by BAFFLER contributor Frederic Wakeman) easily shamed a business already dispirited by a stagnant “gray flannel suit” mentality.

modern tangle

Sometime between now and then the whole direction of consumerism changed, and it is not difficult to see Mailer’s essay on the “Hipster” as one of the first calls for a new consuming ideology. The last vestiges of the obsolete producer culture had to go some time, and that time was the sixties. While it challenged bigotry, autocracy, and hierarchy on all fronts, the youth movement of that era can also be understood as a consumer revolution. The greatest contribution of the counterculture has turned out to be the consolidation of a bourgeois antinomianism, a species of vague rebelliousness firmly grounded in the imperatives of mass market consumerism. And anyone who has noticed the number of expensive cars bearing Grateful Dead stickers in college towns—Saab, Cadillac, BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, all of them truckin’ up to Buffalo? can understand the appeal of the countercultural message to the TV-raised children of the middle class, can understand how the hedonist, anti-establishmentarian obsession with visual differentness of the hippies could be easily transformed into the hedonist, anti-establishmentarian commodity fetishism of today.

As Jane and Michael Stern have written, the Sixties was above all a time of lifestyle experimentation. As established cultural modes of understanding the world were discarded, the young rebels were freed to adopt any identity they chose to: their dismissal of (all varieties of) authority meant anything was possible. And their embrace of generic rebellion, their antinomianism, ensured that they would shift lifestyles as rapidly as they could. In books like the Sterns’ Sixties People the counterculture comes off sounding much more like the final apotheosis of spectacular consumerist shallowness than its implacable foe. “Our attic tells a story of many incarnations,” the Sterns write.

Its trunks contain love beads and a Nehru jacket, hootenanny song books, an empty beer keg with a fraternity emblem, a Beatle wig, a disposable paper dress, go-go boots, an “American Bandstand” souvenir book, a first edition of Sex and the Single Girl a wig done up in a flip like Mary Tyler Moore’s, a poster that says KILL THE PIGS, and a 45-rpm record of Sergeant Barry Sadler singing “The Ballad of the Green Beret.”

Sometimes we look at this patchwork quilt of discarded identities and wonder: Who were we? In fact, we probably weren’t much different than many sixties people who fell in love with the cavalcade of new identities that swept through that prodigious decade. The sixties were a time when, like so many in our generation, we craved to ally ourselves with something bigger and more momentous than our single selves: the newest cause, the latest fad, the hippest beat . . .

With identities no more stable than the Top-40 charts, the sixties was the age of postmodern fantasy and retailers’ dream, for each identity, each new phase of rebellion, necessitated a comprehensive shopping expedition. Yes, the baby boomers railed against the establishment and its ‘traditional’ values, but mainly because they didn’t want to be bound to any single identity or image: they would be rebels, poets, perky-girls, English, hippies, and playboys in quick succession. As the Sterns put it, “the sixties was a moonstruck time when people were smitten with new identities, then insouciantly discarded them in search of the next one, always looking for the true light and the real meaning of life . . . ” And, needless to say, never really finding it.

And in suburban malls across the republic the TV youngsters and their TV parents are living out that rebel dream, breaking away from the rat race, from the lonely crowd, freeing their libidos, welcoming otherness and other styles, spending unrestrainedly and staying always one step ahead of the demon conformity. They believe earnestly in Madonna and in the sixties, in the never obtainable stuff that they will someday wear and eat to define their ineluctable, intensely subjective TV personalities. They believe in the great orgasm of purchasing, they cast off their Puritan restraints, and sometimes wonder why it‘s never like it is on TV. But that’s no matter. Tomorrow they will drive a little bit farther, spend a little more, break down those hard edges with some more sensitivity training . . .