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What’s Hip for General Motors Is Hip for America

One of the most important elements of the culture industry’s cherished self-image as an institution of surpassing hipness is its curious historical awareness. Despite the fact that the three networks and the various Hollywood studios were founded well before World War II, the mass media trace their lineage not to the acts of their corporate birth but to the years of consumer liberation and orgasmic rebellion of the 1960s. Naturally, our leaders are aware that movies and TV shows existed before the counterculture, but philosophically the decade of the sixties is where contemporary culture began. These were, after all, the golden years of commodified dissent, the heyday of consumerism. And it is the counterculture’s simple liberationist understandings of culture and society that the media has chosen to erect into timeless truths, not the slow-moving conformity of an earlier and more impoverished time. In TV sitcoms hip characters invariably triumph over squares; in advertising it is always rock ‘n’ roll that announces a product’s desirability, not polkas. Thus when Reebok markets a new dress shoe, they take pains not to describe the shoe’s various features, but to insist that they are “not sensible,” that wearing them will allow you to retain your anti-establishment hip even when in suits. “Hey man,” the copy reads, reaffirming our cool but arousing us to the danger of dressing properly, “If you’re not careful people will be saying, ‘Hey mister.’”

And when the culture industry depicts any period before the happy years of revolution, it is invariably cast through stilted sepia-tint images of a foreign world. The 1950s, for example, are universally recognized to have been a time of dull gray sameness, of grinding domestic tyranny, of bomb shelters and ranch houses. The Man ruled with an iron fist. Fun was forbidden. When that decade appears in advertising and mass culture, it almost always serves as a foil by which to measure our own liberation, our current high state of consumer enlightenment. Thus the increasing fashion for ads with egregious historical errors, bizarre exagerations of the squareness of the past that seem designed only to annoy those bookish types who cling to any conception of pastness that defies the “new and improved” orthodoxy of consumerism.

So an advertisement for a car called Acura trundles up a stodgy-sounding aphorism attributed to Lord Asquith, the British prime minister during World War I, then deflates it with the sneering note, “But then, he wore a powdered wig.” Levi’s shows us an Asian man on a motorcycle in the desert, symbol of today’s multicultural consumerism of mindless velocity (all cultures guaranteed turned to lifestyles overnight!), musing on the visceral pleasure of “losing control” and the fearful caution of the unenlightened people of the past: “In the thirties they thought if you went over 60 your face would peel off.” Only the beats, Marlon Brando, and Norman Mailer, with his celebration of the “hipster,” stand out from the long dark night of repression as harbingers of the way to come; only people like Jack Kerouac, James Dean, and Chet Baker—not Estes Kefauver or Upton Sinclair or Norman Thomas—are suitable for the Gap’s new retro-campaign for khaki trousers:

Legendary writers, critics, intellectuals with courage. All in their cotton khakis. Casual. Defiant. Khakis just like those we make for you. Gap khakis. Traditional, Plain-front, Easy Fit, Classic Fit.

Chevrolet, though, has always had a problem with the sixties-glorifying orthodoxy of commercialized dissent. Over the years it has invested millions (probably billions) in developing a brand image that identifies Chevy with patriotism, one-to-one: “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet,” etc. The problem is, of course, that patriotism is not an attitude that comes naturally to hipsters and countercultural types, who are usually more concerned with protesting wars than celebrating their country. So for years such figures, with their rock ‘n’ roll and defiant doings, were conspicuously absent from Chevrolet advertising, giving it a distinctly backwards, unexciting feel.

But by deploying the culture industry’s understanding of the pre-1960s past, Chevrolet has finally found a way around this vexing problem. The company’s latest ads portray the invention of hip as one of the venerable and time-honored things patriotic people celebrate about America. America is now “the country that invented Rock and Roll,” and rebellious deviance has been elevated to the pantheon of American Achievements. Transgression, breaking the rules, is, like hot dogs and baseball, what we Americans are known for.

A historically-minded boy has had a “scary dream,” the Chevy ads announce: “America never invented Rock and Roll.” The nation has remained mired in the nightmarish repressiveness of the generic pre-sixties. “There are no rock stars,” no celebrities to lead us daringly down the paths of deviance. And no rebel athletes, either, to endorse the $100 tennis shoes made in the sweatshops of Asia, since people play by the old rules and “No one has ever dunked a basketball.” Even more horrifying, “There are no blue jeans,” none of the hyper-expensive clothing by which every one of us now declares himself an individualist.

There are only milkmen and accordion teachers. Imagine … No Rock and Roll.

An entire nation without rhythm.

The national speed limit is a brisk 35.

Gasp! And the poor youngster who has been granted this terrifying vision of consumer dystopia is pictured in the way he would look had Rock and Roll and Chevrolet never been “invented” to rescue us: a shirt buttoned all the way to the collar, a bow tie (!), glasses and a pocketful of pens (ah, the horrors of logocentrism!), sensible-looking shoes, and holding—not a Gibson Explorer, instrument of liberation, but a clarinet, dark and sinister tool of the big bands and their rigid regime.

But then the reader turns the page, and the nightmare is over. We’re back in the world of the consumerist present, staring at a gorgeous red Camaro, rock ‘n’ roll on wheels, “In other words, cool.”

Gawk and object all you want, there is nothing you can do besides hope the campaign doesn’t work, hope that people will remember that, all through the years of “milkmen and accordion teachers” Chevrolet was just as much a fixture of the American scene as the B-47 and Joe McCarthy. But then, historical memory is exactly the faculty ads like this are designed to destroy. And the life work of a thousand well-meaning history professors will never equal Chevrolet’s power to create bogus historical consciousness. So give an unctuous postmodern welcome to professor Detroit as he deconstructs the real.

So how will you have your past? Plain front or classic fit?