As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Juan Carlos Donado looks at David Buxton’s “Rock Music, the Star-System and the Rise of Consumerism,” from Telos 57 (Fall 1983).
From its origin to its social significance, almost everything about rock and roll music remains steeped in fierce debate. Exactly when and where was it born? Who, if in fact there is one only, is rock’s founding figure? What exactly did it and does “rock and roll” mean? Although all of them amount to approximations, certain answers have become commonplaces: it was born with bluesman Robert Johnson, with Chuck Berry, with Jerry Lee Lewis, with Elvis Presley, in the Mississippi Delta, in Memphis, and its sound was crafted by means of the technological breakthrough of the electric guitar. It signifies the rebelliousness of a generation, the nonconformity of the young, the break with the status quo. Yet rock and roll’s relationship with capitalism cannot be more complex.
In his “Rock Music, the Star-System and the Rise of Consumerism,” David Buxton attempts to examine precisely the latter of these oddities. How could both Eldridge Cleaver and a multinational record company like Columbia proclaim “the central importance of rock as a radical cultural force?” (94). Buxton’s answer is not simple, but a clear thesis is arguably present throughout his analysis: the essence of rock’s relationship to capitalism must be sought while elucidating the meaning of that which allowed rock and roll to become a major capitalist phenomenon: the record.
So what is a record?
To say it is but a compilation of songs would, of course, exude naïveté (what is a song anyway?). Buxton therefore relies on Jean Baudrillard’s reading of the notion of use value in order to understand the artifact’s cultural significance. Baudrillard’s main contention against Marx’s understanding of use value is, in Buxton’s own words, its naturalism. Baudrillard argues that “use value today should not be understood as something ‘natural’ or even as being broadly determined by historical and social factors, but as a fluctuating, variable factor within the abstract code of signs which regulate social use value in general” (95).
The key concept here is that of the code of signs. By inscribing the record within a framework that allows the notion of use value to be enhanced (Buxton’s name for it is quite simply enhanced use value), Buxton paves his way toward understanding how a commodity with so little functional value can occupy such a central role. Once the semiotic code’s hierarchies are culturally determined, the record can be understood as the recipient of a highly symbolic charge. Its value, therefore, largely depends upon establishing its semiotic significance. Buxton’s analysis is radical, even to the point of diminishing the worth of the recorded music itself: “This argument implies that the accession of the record to mass status has been a consequence of the symbolic strategies invested in it, rather than any inherent quality of the music recorded on it” (95).
By associating it with the capitalist production of celebrities, Buxton’s next move will place the record at an even more disquieting crossroads. His logic is provocative and begins with a definition presented as the reverse image of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: the star system’s essential precondition is that the star or celebrity, “unable to see outwards and exposed in intimate detail, is the object of the relentless gaze of an anonymous mass society” (100). Considering that the record actually registers one of the most intimate aspects of the self—i.e., the human voice—Buxton’s main critical thrust is almost made audible: we know the star through his or her own recorded voice, but the star does not know us. As the celebrity is fabricated by becoming the representative of a lifestyle that must be sold to the public, the record—in Buxton’s eyes—achieves its exemplary status as a commodity where such a lifestyle is, quite literally, given a voice.
Although Buxton’s analyses provide a robust conceptual arsenal to tackle the relationship between music and mass media, almost thirty years have elapsed since the article’s publication and several of his observations seem to have been proven radically wrong: “There is evidence that the star is a declining force today,” states Buxton, also explaining such decline as related to “the emergence of computer technology in music, which bypasses the relation between musicians and traditional instruments on which a large part of the star mythology was based” (104).
Contrary to Buxton’s analysis, the star-system, feeding itself on the fodder of electronic media, seems to have grown today to the discomforting size of a supergiant. In an age where the single is often said to have replaced the record, and where the survival of the record itself is a looming question, such growth cannot be attributed to the record’s preponderance. The issue of the voice, therefore, becomes an even more urgent question, due to the fact that the star, not playing an instrument or even obligated to go to the studio to record, is made a star solely through his or her voice. Are we in a stage before the supernova explodes?
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