V.I. Lenin was wrong: The Gang of Four sell out (maybe)

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[1] 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.

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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

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[1] The band’s name actually came from the Gang of Four Communist Party of China officials who were responsible for some of the worst excesses of Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution.

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  • At the risk of revealing secrets of my youth, I will state that I am not overly familiar with the Gang of Four’s music. I was more a classic rock kind of girl. My friends and I shunned all things punk or post-punk. Sadly, in my youth, I was not concerned with things such as communism, capitalism or anything but me-ism. So while this band is on your desert island list, it is not on mine. (I suppose I could stay on the other side of the island with my Aerosmith, Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Jefferson Starship and hundreds of other then albums, now MP3s.) But now that I have read your blog and “studied” a little, I will say that while Gang of Four may promote themselves as “anti-capitalist”, I would submit that they are anything but “anti-capitalist”. The desire to make music certainly comes from the heart, but the desire to make record deals (and Microsoft licensing deals) comes from the pocketbook. One can buy their catchy songs on Rhapsody and amazon.com. You have to buy them. They aren’t free to the masses. (Napster got in trouble for giving the songs away a few years back). I didn’t see anything online about Gang of Four’s songs being free or cheap for the masses. That money goes somewhere. It has since they started selling records in the 1970s.

    I would also submit that most communist leaders live extremely well, aka as capitalists, while the masses in their country “share the wealth” on a much lesser scale (ie bread lines). Like all political movements, the politics serve to keep the leaders in power and does little for the folks at home. This is true in the US even now. I have maintained (since I gave it thought 20 years ago or so) that communism goes against human nature. The human race started out in this world (whether created or evolved) as survivalists. We hunted, gathered and “profited” even as cave people. The whole sharing thing only works if it is voluntary. Otherwise, folks just give up and don’t work. They just sit around and wait for the check to come on the 3rd. Eventually there is nobody left working to earn the money for the check. Communisim is a wonderful idea on paper, it just doesn’t work in reality. My mother once stirred up her Sunday school class by commenting that Jesus was a communist. We see how that turned out for him! All that peace, sharing and love thy neighbor stuff really did not sit well with a lot of folks. But I digress, as I tend to do on your blog. Sorry.

    What works and what should work is personal responsibility. We have gotten too far away from that. We need to take care of ourselves, educate our children to take care of themselves and quit depending on any government for handouts. It also helps for the government to be accountable for how it spends our hard earned money. The failure to be responsible with the people’s money ultimately led to the French revolution. I mention that because of the You Tube clip.

    As for Microsoft, I recall that the Rolling Stones sold them a song back in the 90s. I think it was Start Me Up. That was a first for the Stones. Microsoft has never apologized for being a capitalist company. They are in it to make money. The more money they make, the more folks they hire, and so on. And Bill Gates gives heavily to charity, voluntarily.

    I would say that Gang of Four didn’t sell out. They have always been capitalists. They just did it more openly this time. I guess that is what a recession will do for a material world. I hope they made a pile of money! They certainly didn’t help to hang communism. “To each according to his need, from each according to his ability” just doesn’t work. Communism was doomed before it started.

    • Roger

      There’s a whole range of economic systems between communism and capitalism – just because the former hasn’t worked doesn’t mean we have to have naked capitalism.

  • Jarrett

    Thanks for the article

  • r_mutt

    I stumbled upon this post after a search re: Gang of Four’s commercial for MSFT. I should of known it would be the blog of a lawyer, suit and all, in Charleston of all the progressive crazy liberal cities in the world, in which I find such a thoughtful critique. Then I see Temple, and it all makes sense. As a native Philadelphian myself, I know that anyone who goes to Temple ain’t gonna end up your typical lawyer-type. Bravo on the post. Entertainment! is a classic (and I was BORN in ’76), and of course GOF are capitalists – they never had a choice born in Britain. Gotta eat. The critique in their lyrics may have the ring of youthful naivete and vigor, but it doesn’t make it any less interesting or powerful, IMHO. And the irony struck me IMMEDIATELY upon hearing the familiar choppy guitar funk thru the tv – how strange a sight! No doubt the admen/women who proposed it knew what they were up to. They ruin a lot of great songs by forever engraving images of their own choosing in our minds as we mindlessly watch the tube. In the end, however, if more 12 year old kids hear it and find the GOF records and listen, all the better – GOF wins, twice.

  • Roger

    Also googled after I heard the sound of GoF selling out. Interesting article and comments – some justification, but I’m still upset.

  • JK

    You took the words right out of my mouth! (I must be your age, because I too was reading Marcuse when I came upon the revelation of Entertainment!)

  • lindsay

    I think the concept of consumerism as a form of social control is very relevant to this particular advertising campaign. Here we have a product that provides a simulation of things people used to do together in public. It takes away the communal aspects of something like playing sports and the simple, restorative act of breathing fresh air and replaces it with even more staring at a TV screen in your living room. I would argue that this product is actually very isolating and malignant when you compare it with what it is proposing to replace. I suppose this is why it feels like such a disappointment that Gang of Four are being used to advertise it.

    The reason it’s being used is another question. I think it’s down to the ‘creatives’ in charge of the campaign actually being fans and knowing exactly what this song and the band stand for. It’s another example of everything being looked at through the lens of irony, no doubt a way for said creatives to live on a daily basis with their own selling out (i.e. I’m still clever/I’m being subversive while working for ‘the man’). But instead of subversion, this relentless march towards irony actually just renders everything meaningless. The fact that they haven’t used the lyrics is a case in point. The lyrics might make people think or questions things. Just using the guitar riff means they’ve managed to turn an overtly political post-punk song into nothing more than another corporate jingle.

    But I completely agree that the impact of Entertainment is in no way diminished by this. After seeing the commercial for the first time last night, I had to put on the album this morning and here I am yelling the lyrics and drumming along on my desk as I sit in front of my computer.

  • sethfromMaine

    MJ Goodwin’s position is understandable, but I think not correct. At least in my version of socialism- and I, now a lawyer too, in my 50s, have promoted it since my early high school days – small private businesses are to be encouraged. MJ mentions taking personal responsibility – well, working for a living is part of that. To their surprise Gang of Four were able to make their living making art. Had Warner Brothers in the US, EMI and Fast Product in the UK put them on stipends so that the analog music – there was essentially no free music recording or distribution technology 30 years ago – could have been released for free then GoF might have done it. They famously turned down a spot on the TV show TOP OF THE POPS that would have increased their exposure and wealth exponentially because the producers conditioned their appearance on changing some lyrics. Now a brand name, but during their first incarnation GoF took much heat for being too political, and refused to compromise to any degree. Listen to their first (only) dance hit “I Love a Man In a Uniform” and tell me that is a band shilling for the oppressors.

    Having not seen the movie about Marie Antoinette I can’t comment on the appropriateness of “Natural’s Not In It,” though if the intent was to comment on conspicuous consumption I’d say that natural is in it indeed. But Microsoft is a horse of another catastrophe. It is not simply one of the biggest capitalist engines on the planet, it is renowned for anti-competitive practices. There is open-source, and there is Microsoft. I’d like to think that the Gang of Four who turned down Top of the Pops would have turned down Microsoft too. I’d like to think that the band that warned us – as mindless punk and new wave were breaking out all over – that we thought of ourselves first at our own peril would have turned down Microsoft. Unlike MJ I did cut my teeth on the new sounds scaring the middle classes – by 1978 I could identify every Ramones song by the second chord, and still consider the Gang of Four/ Mission of Burma show at Boston’s Rat far more important than anything I learned in my college or law school classes. I’m not conflicted at all about GoF shilling for Kinsect. I turned down jobs with the corporate world that were mine for the asking because that world was bad for the planet. I turned down jobs with major radio that, as program director and DJ on a Boston-market college station could have been mine for the asking (my classmate founded College Media Journal) because that world was bad for independent music. I’m not special, I just happen to have ideals and try to live by them.

    And it pains me – almost physically – that people who once had principles that looked at more than individual success have traded integrity for cash. Spin it all you want, but while one can still be a Marxist and make a living as a musician one can not still be a Marxist and license one’s music to help Microsoft increase its profits unless one donates every cent derived therefrom to people and groups in need AND assists all the little start-ups Mircrosoft will destroy in its quest for its next billion.

    This heaven gives me migraine.

  • sethfromMaine

    From an Andy Gill interview about the MS deal I found after my post above:

    “It gets the Gang of Four stuff in front of a lot of people. As I said, we don’t write songs that are tailor-made for commercial radio or in order to sell mega-truckloads of records. Our songs are not designed like that and we need all the help we can get, and if this means an Xbox commercial, that’s great. Some people mold you into what they would like you to be, and I think some people want us to be kind of like sackcloth and ashes and don’t like the idea of us living in the real world and doing the things everyone else does. People have some sort of bizarre idea of aesthetic purity or political purity and what Gang of Four has always been about is the complexity of political and socioeconomic relationships and structures.”

    The complexity of political and socioeconomic relationships is not the point. Not all arrangements affect people and the world in the same way. Finding the optimum arrangement is likely impossible, but avoiding the most parasitical arrangements is fairly easy. As Michael Franti says: don’t make deals with the devil. Andy Gill did not have to choose between sackcloth and ashes and spreading the Microsoft message – that’s total bunk. Huge numbers of people hate those who look different or pray to a “different” god; huge numbers of people support wars that destroy lives and economies. I don’t want just Gang of Four to not do what everyone else does – I don’t want anyone else doing it either. And I most certainly do not want people who once understood the difference to plead ignorance now. Andy is fiddling while Rome burns, and if he doesn’t know this know he did 30 years ago.

  • I too am of the generation that listened to Gang of Four religiously. Entertainment! is on my desert island list. I know every lyric of every song. In college I worshipped that album, and still do (I still have my original vinyl copy!). And oh how it pains me when that Kinect commercial comes on and I hear the intro to Natural’s Not In It! The fact that my generation’s music is being used to peddle everything from cheeseburgers to automobiles is painful enough (How Soon is Now, anyone?), but I always thought Gang of Four was above it all. They were, after all, PRINCIPLED. They had a message. They mocked consumerism. Sigh. Andy Gill can argue all he wants that this commercial is introducing Gang of Four to a new generation, but ultimately what must have motivated them is money. The dirty irony is killing me.

    One of the commenters (lindsay, above) suggests that the “creatives” behind the commercial must have known what the song is about, and that somehow drove their decision to use it in the commercial. I have to disagree. I think all they heard is a cool guitar riff, and they had no idea what level of sacriligious act they were committing.

    Mostly I’m just sad about the whole thing. I guess the reality is that we all have bills to pay :( …and now I suppose I’ll put on my Nikes, hop into my BMW and drive to 24 Hour Fitness, where I’ll listen to Gang of Four on my iPod.

  • sethfromMaine

    I know I’m the tree falling in the forest – no one is here to know whether I’m making a sound or not. But I’ve never found the “off” button for my outrage.

    The promise of punk was never amateurism or colored or sculpted hair – it was challenging preconceptions and traditional barriers. The Ramones ignored convention; the Sex Pistols attacked it. But neither group went after the fundamental underpinnings of the capitalism that regulated both the US and the UK. The Ramones may have been indifferent, the Pistols were after whatever they could grab. The true punks were Gang of Four – they challenged not just the aesthetics but the basic philosophy of society. Except for liking animals (“Meat is Murder”) the Smiths were largely a-political – Gang of Four smelled rats where rats were and said so. That Gang of Four were intentionally not just different from most of their peers but more principled is why the present licensing situation is so distressing.

    There is no possibility that Microsoft didn’t know what Gang of Four were singing. One of the wealthiest, most strategically-driven corporations did tons of due-diligence before making “Natural’s Not In It” their soundtrack. They calculated that enough of the public would not know what Gang of Four were singing, even those members of the public old enough to have listened to GoF in the 70s. It was brilliant marketing by MS, contributing to Kinect being the biggest seller out of the blocks of any product ever.

    You never told a generation that they could do smarter, Tamera. GoF have transformed themselves from part of the solution to part of the problem. That’s a case of anthrax we don’t want to catch.

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