You may have noticed a slight double standard in the media lately. While even the mainstream outlets got behind the Russian call-girl band Pussy Riot — after they burst into a cathedral and sang “obscenity-laced” songs near the altar, offending the Christians who had gone to worship — it’s more or less blamed the man behind the Innocence of Muslims “movie” (whatever his name is) for sparking riots across the globe. Why no support for him? Why isn’t that free speech, too? True, the movie can only be described as utter trash. Frankly, I thought it was a joke when I first watched a clip. But, I guest that’s why virtually no one had watched it prior to the burning os US embassies.But, the media double standard is intriguing. Of course, part of the reason why Pussy Riot won instant support is that the all-girl band looks attractive and resembles a commercial, indie US band — think, maybe P. J. Harvey (who I like a lot, incidentally). We feel at home with them. They’ve got the look. But, equally important, their brand of rebellion isn’t controversial outside of Russia. I’m not a Christian, but, to be truthful, insulting Christianity in the US or Europe is old news, and doesn’t shock anyone. And calling for Putin to stand down isn’t going to upset anyone in America. “I’m not going to be the person I’m expected to be any more.” It’s the sole phrase uttered by the hero — or central figure, if you prefer — of Chanel’s new ad for its cologne, Bleu. But the somewhat sulky expression tells us a lot. The ad begins with the hero chasing a blonde woman down the streets of what looks to be either Brooklyn or Queens. Apparently, he’s upset her. The rest of the ad shows the hero, and one or two women, striking sulky poses, rolling around on the floor in slightly suggestive — but certainly not shocking — poses. Whoever the hero is, he’s famous, and utters the tag line of the ad at a press conference, before storming off.
Rebellion sells, but it’s conformity that the ad — and the image of the rebel in the media generally — offers. One of the incredible successes of advertising, media, and even politics, is that it has made the bourgeois rebellious, and the rebellious bourgeois. The hero of the Chanel ad has no personality, no history. He’s essentially empty. He doesn’t want to do what’s expected of him, but the movie cuts off so that the advertising company doesn’t have to show us what acting in an unexpected manner would look like. Would it really be buying relatively expensive cologne? Or something else?The conformity of rebellion is sold to those lower down the economic level, too. A decade or so ago the British bank Natwest used an image of the original rebel without a cause — James Dean — in its advertising. But, we can see it today. “Your life is your life,” so the voiceover of Levi’s 2012 riot-chic ad announced in a husky, frothy voice. We’re supposed to believe that we’re listening to someone wise; someone who’s lived life and contemplated its mysteries — beyond why some jeans make you look fat and others don’t, that is. Yet, these, the opening words of the company’s ad, are only the beginning of what turns out to be one long string of pret-a-porter-Zen inanities.
Against the visually-rich and politically-loaded footage of the ad, the words are like verbal wallpaper, made in the 1980s, and peeling at the edges. But its this juxtaposition that elevates the words from the banal to an almost Orwellian height.In one scene, from the waist down, we see a group of Levi’s-wearing, immaculate, and slightly skinny men walk into a riot scene very much molded on anti-capitalist (although not actually Occupy Wall Street), anti-globalist, and pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel protests of the last few years. Although a few neo-Nazis have turned up at such demonstration — and I emphasize a few — the ad’s imagery has not been modeled on “Right-wing” protests, such as those of the Tea Party in the US, or anti-Islamic and anti-immigration protests in Europe. It’s toned down, to be sure, but the token red flag in the center of the shot, and the following scene of red smoke billowing over cobbled streets portray a highly romantic vision of Left-wing demonstrations, and — considering some of the scenes of the Levi’s ad — Left-wing violence. Levi’s would tell us that the ad is about freedom. The opening shot is one of crashing waves. And there are far too many scenes of young men and women reaching, in a Sixties-type way, into the air, the sky, and the multicultural aether. But, it’s also the aestheticization of a particular political worldview, and, indeed, the selling of that worldview.
After the riot scenes we see a girl in a bikini; people swimming and people playing music, and dancing in a way that parents wouldn’t like. “There are ways out,” the voice continues. It’s all faintly reminiscent of that 1970s cult classic Logan’s Run, where “Runners” are constantly attempting to flee a fascistic future state in which everyone is beautiful, but executed at thirty. Like the Levi’s ad, these rebels escape tyranny and regulation for nature and the brotherhood of man.
“You are marvelous,” the Levi’s voiceover continues as a man in a leather jacket and jeans raises his arms, gesturing at riot police — part challenging, but mostly posing. Then the scene changes into one of a young woman — his doppelganger — ams also raised, overlooking a forest or park. It seems to suggest a cosmic bond between them. He will get the girl if he can fight off the riot police. People will make love, not war, once the state apparatus has been broken. In reality, of course, the opinions of average government in the West are in line with the young people in the Levi’s ad. They believe that the state has oppressed people, historically, and that to trample down Western history — especially in education — is for the good of the modern, politically correct society.
“There is light somewhere. It may not be much light, but it beats the darkness.” The ad goes on. ”The gods will offer you chances. Know them. Dig them.”
I don’t want to seem like a prude. The Levi’s ad is artistically shot. It’s sexy in parts. And, try as it might, it’s not offensive. It’s simply, that it’s really political transvestism. The rebels in this ad are conformists.
Some time ago, I ran across Taqwacore — Muslim Punk. Love it or loathe it, while rebellion has become a bourgeois pose for so many in the West, Taqwacore has captured the original spirit of punk, in using deliberately provocative names for bands and songs, and in trying hard to insult everyone that listens to it. Maybe it’s a little juvenile. But it has energy and guts, and really did do something new and shocking. There are other ways to be shocking, but when protests are repackaged to sell jeans, we an be sure that those protests are very much a part of “the system.”
Regardless of the politics of Punk (which have sometimes been on the extreme Left and extreme Right), its spirit of making a culture for itself, and of speaking the truth as it sees it — regardless of whether it offends people or not — is badly needed in the West today.
Angel Millar is an author and journalist, and the Cultural Editor of People of Shambhala.
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