One of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s more astute observations about capitalism was “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” The recent agreement by British post-collegiate, post-punk band The Gang of Four to license their song “Natural’s Not in It” to Microsoft to sell Kinect, its new motion sensitive controller for its Xbox 360 gaming system, indicates the Lenin might have had it backwards about who would be selling rope to whom.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVI2YI9ocVo&feature=player_embedded#!
When I was in college, The Gang of Four’s debut album, Entertainment!, which includes the song, “Natural’s Not in It,” was one of my most listened to LP’s. As a political science major, I was reading Herbert Marcuse’s “One Dimensional Man,” which remains, in my opinion, the first compelling critique of modern Western capitalism. Rather than arguing that communism could do a better job bringing material plenty to the masses–an argument that I had occasionally encountered but personal observation indicated was fallacy–Marcuse criticized consumerism as a form of social control. The genius of Entertainment! is that over music combining punk guitar momentum with angular harmolodic funk, the singers inhabit the personas of working class and middle class Britons suffering from the contradictions that Marcuse’s book describes. The songs enact the conflicts these protagonists feel living in a society in which leisure and sex are turned into commodities, and marketers deliberately use anxieties about status and the body to sell product.
One can understand Microsoft’s interest in using “Natural’s Not in It” to sell Kinect. The opening lyrics perfectly describe the “problem” of occupying leisure time and the thrill of a new purchase: “The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure/Ideal love a new purchase/A market of the senses.” The social and physical aspects of motion sensored gaming systems such as the Wii (and now Kinect) are relatively benign forms of leisure activity–in contrast to many leisure activities that are isolating or expensive–and this music parallels the energy of such gaming activity.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5pleZFUa4M
However the purchase in “Natural’s Not in It” gives The Gang of Four’s protagonist no lasting pleasure, as the lyric continues, “Economic circumstances/The body is good business/Sell out, maintain the interest/Remember Lot’s wife/Renounce all sin and vice/Dream of the perfect life/This heaven gives me migraines” and “Coercion of the senses/We are not so gullible/Our great expectations/A future for the good/Fornication makes you happy/No escape from society/Natural is not in it/Your relations are of power/We all have good intentions/But all with strings attached,” before slamming into a chorus that simply repeats “Repackaged sex your interest.”
The thirty years since the release Entertainment! has done nothing to lessen its impact: it remains one of my desert island discs. Though the term “hedonic treadmill,” which compares the pursuit of happiness to a person on a treadmill who has to keep working just to stay in the same place, didn’t exist when Marcuse wrote “One Dimensional Man” (1964) or when The Gang of Four released Entertainment! (1979), these critiques of Western capitalism anticipate that experience. I am convinced that the recent worldwide economic collapse can be explained by a 30 year period in which consumers attempted to speed up the “hedonic treadmill” in the face of stagnant wages by incurring geometrically increasing levels of debt.
So who’s selling out and who’s getting taken when Mircosoft purchases this music to sell product or when The Gang of Four licenses its critique of consumer culture to sell consumer products? Others have noted the levels of irony built within this song: Sofia Coppola used it in her soundtrack for Marie Antoinette to highlight the lavish decadence of the late 18th century French aristocracy.
Is The Gang of Four selling capitalists the rope to hang themselves on hyperconsumerism or is this anti-capitalist band actually helping hang communism by allowing its music to celebrate consumer culture? Ironies abound.
An appreciation I wrote fifteen years ago for the Charleston Post & Courier contrasting the radicalism of The Gang of Four’s Entertainment! with the merely liberal populism of Bruce Springsteen is still available online: Two new albums highlight the competing histories of rock