Monday, May 12, 2008

Land of Toys

In America, if not much of the western world, the rock star is a symbol of success. Television programs are dedicated to showing the rock star’s lavish, extravagant home—his living room, his kitchen, his swimming pool, his backyard, his stables, and so on. One is presumably interested in the rock star’s special kind of conspicuous consumption--his expensive collection of automobiles, his many motorcycles, his woefully expensive hobbies--because these objects all exemplify various types of material acquisition, an external token of success. Perhaps it is time to devote a collection of rock songs to the life of the rock star, a collection of songs to be sold as a single compact disc, to be titled, perhaps, Life in the Pleasure Dome. The cover image might consist of a picture of Elvis taken in the last six months of his life.

What is called an opulent lifestyle is in fact the wasteful expenditure of something to honor a particular set of cultural values. In the case of the rock star—actually, all stars, movie, television, and otherwise—the particular cultural values are those of extravagant, wasteful expenditure and material acquisition. The two go hand in hand. Drawing upon the theory of sacrifice as explored in Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share (1949) and his essay, “The Notion of Expenditure” (1933), Life in the Pleasure Dome will be dedicated to celebrating the fundamental American cultural principle of wasteful expenditure as exemplified by the rock star. In the aforementioned works, Bataille explores what he calls “the principle of loss.” Bataille considers sacrifice as a form of non-productive expenditure rather than of (productive) “limited economy.” A “limited economy” attempts to maintain a zero-sum balance of profit and loss, while in contrast wasteful expenditure consists of “considerable losses.” Examples of unproductive, wasteful expenditure include:

luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity (i.e., deflected from genital finality)—all these represent activities which...have no end beyond themselves. (118)

We can consider rock music as one of the “arts” Bataille mentions above. For Bataille these various activities constitute a group “characterized by the fact that in each case the accent is placed on a loss that must be as great as possible in order for that activity to take on its true meaning,” that is, a loss that must be both considerable and extravagant. (118)

Stated in another way: For any cultural activity to have real value, the loss must be maximized—excessive. For example, the value of diamond jewels to their owner is determined by how great is the loss in terms of financial expenditure: the more unreasonable and extravagant the expenditure, the greater the value of the diamond jewels. Bataille writes: “Jewels must not only be beautiful and dazzling (which would make the substitution of imitations possible): one sacrifices a fortune, preferring a diamond necklace; such a sacrifice is necessary for the constitution of this necklace’s fascinating character” (“Expenditure” 119). The same principle justifies the inevitable continuation of warfare: as losses, i.e., deaths and maimings, increase, a nation’s stake in a war escalates. As the deaths remorselessly accumulate, the easier it becomes to justify the war’s continuation because the stakes have grown higher. By the continuation of the war, the nation consequently becomes increasingly indebted to those who have died and have been severely maimed in battle; the acknowledgment of this mounting debt ensures that the soldiers’ sacrifices are not in vain, or have become a form of unproductive expenditure.

And yet, despite the fact that extravagant, unreasonable wasteful expenditure is an essential activity of American culture—extravagant luxuries premised on over-consumption such as the heating of huge homes and supplying fuel for gas-guzzling SUVs; millions of gallons of water to keep lawns green; sports and spectacles (e.g., “half-time” shows of “Super Bowls”); NASCAR races dedicated to the consumption of vast quantities of expensive fuel; gambling (the emblem of which is Las Vegas, dedicated to the massive consumption of coal for electric lights and slot machines); prostitution; pornography; and especially warfare—the types of wasteful expenditure (of which a just few are listed here) are consistently denied, degraded, or repressed.

The function of the CD collection Life in the Pleasure Dome is to recognize the repressed or degraded categories of loss, to honor an unacknowledged or repressed set of values that are such an essential, defining feature of American life and culture—success as wasteful expenditure, the indulgence in perverse sexual activity, and the appetite for Romantic self-destruction.

The songs can be conveniently grouped under the following thematic headings (an individual song might fit more than one grouping):

Wasteful Expenditure: The life of the rock star is celebrated because the rock star is an emblem of success: fame and fortune. Success requires a life of excessive, wasteful expenditure, of conspicuous over-consumption, one that consists both of unreasonable financial expenditures as well as vast consumption of natural resources.

Self-destruction: The Romantic myth of the self-destructive artist, one who lives a life of excess (primarily of drugs and alcohol), one of chronic dissipation—“It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.”

Failure: Failure is the anti-myth of success. If the star is a symbol of success, the anti-myth is the failed attempt at stardom, hence the reason why the failed rock star, or the fallen and flabby former rock star, is so contemptible to many Americans.

Perverse Sexual Activity: The sexual excess of the sexually fetishized rock star is exemplified by the phenomena of the “groupie,” the courtesan, the sexually available female whose provocative promiscuity must be both celebrated and degraded at the same time.

1. So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star (1966) – The Byrds 2:05
2. Lodi (1969) – Creedence Clearwater Revival 3:11
3. Working Class Hero (1970) – John Lennon 3:51
4. Superstar (1971) – The Carpenters 3:51
5. The Mud Shark (1971) – Frank Zappa and the Mothers 5:22
6. Ladies of the Road (1971) – King Crimson 5:32
7. Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (1972) – David Bowie 2:58
8. Star Star (1973) – The Rolling Stones 4:25
9. We’re an American Band (1973) – Grand Funk Railroad 3:26
10. Workin’ for MCA (1974) – Lynyrd Skynyrd 4:47
11. Turn the Page (1975) – Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band 5:05
12. Beth (1976) – Kiss 2:45
13. Life’s Been Good (1978) – Joe Walsh 8:57
14. Burnin’ For You (1981) – Blue Oyster Cult 4:30
15. Money For Nothing (1985) – Dire Straits 8:26
16. Rock Star (1994) – Hole 2:41
17. Rockstar (2005) – Nickelback 4:12 (Total time: 76:03)

Consider the above the liner notes for a CD you yourself burn.

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