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The Myth of the Rebel Consumer

Rob Horning

One can use the thrift store purchase of a Herb Alpert record to express dismay at the current state of the music industry, and use the coffee grinder at home to thumb one's nose at Starbucks and somehow feel righteous about such seemingly savvy shopping methods. But expressing one's politics through what one buys is no politics at all; at best it is but a vote of assent for the existing economic arrangements.

As this column will be devoted primarily to an exploration of consumerism, it seems appropriate to first explain what I mean by "consumerism". First, though, I should probably apologize for using the term at all. As Raymond Williams, in his analysis of advertising, points out, the very word reinforces the tendency to ignore the various uses people find for the things they buy. Calling a person a "consumer" suggests that whatever that person acquires is somehow destroyed in its acquisition; it is used up, "consumed" the way a banned book may be said to be consumed in a bonfire. The term "consumer" figures a person as fundamentally wasteful, as one who takes the productivity and creativity embodied in a material object and makes it vanish. Without potential for productivity or creativity themselves, "consumers" can only be seen as passive (See Raymond Williams, "Advertising: the Magic System," in Problems in Materialism and Culture, Verso, 1980).

So to talk of consumers, consumerism, or our consumer society implies that good, ordinary people like ourselves constitute the "masses", that ignorant or philistine breed of sheep that does what it is told, desires what it is programmed to desire, and busily goes about reproducing the existing mental structures required to perpetuate the hegemony of multinational corporations. Of course, that's not what we are. We are all creative and sensitive people. So what should we be called, particularly if we wish to maintain the position that we are not simply interpolated as consumers by advertising, mass media, outlet malls and superstores? (See Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements, Marion Noyers, 1978)

Williams finds it preferable to conceive of ourselves as "users", rather than "consumers"; individual users that acquire goods in order to put them to creative use to fulfill our social needs. Such a designation corresponds well to that trend amongst cultural studies theorists for celebrating the creative potential inherent in buying things (See Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, 1984; John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, Unwin Hyman, 1989, or Paul Willis, Common Culture, Open University Press, 1990). Our purchases can express subversion, radical appropriation, or collective affiliation. That's right: I can use my thrift store purchase of a Herb Alpert record to express my dismay at the current state of the music industry, and you can use your coffee grinder at home to thumb your nose at Starbucks. We can make important demands for social change by restructuring our collective consumer demands. We can use our dollar to demand free-range chickens and hormone-free milk; and if that doesn't succeed in transforming America into a more humane society, we can even write a letter to Mother Jones to voice our frustration.

But by making pseudo-political statements through the manufactured artifacts of our culture, through the exercise of our free choice, are we truly users, or are we simply being useful? Expressing our politics through what we buy is no politics at all; at best it is but a vote of assent for the existing economic arrangements. Were we to value such a debased notion of freedom, we would be celebrating the way capitalism tries to cheat us out of more meaningful freedoms, foremost of which is the freedom to question the way modes of production are organized. If we forget that what we buy is insignificant as long as we continue to buy something, then we fall prey to one of our society's favorite myths: that corporations actually value their customers as individuals, that they really believe that the customer is right.

Perhaps we are right when we complain to Frito Lay that a bag of potato chips is stale; but we are assuredly wrong if we question whether potato chips should be served to children in public schools. Perhaps we are right when we return a broken DVD player to Best Buy; but certainly we are wrong if we organize our neighbors against such big-box warehouse-store monstrosities opening up in our neighborhoods. And we are always right when we ask for no pickles on our Big Mac; but we are definitely wrong if we pause to lament the rapid disappearance of restaurants that don't serve french fries.

So when we use our purchasing power to try to enfranchise ourselves, we are simply being used. But that's probably not what cultural critics have in mind when they celebrate the potential for creativity in consumption. French sociologist Michel De Certeau has in mind the off-label uses individuals often devise for the otherwise stultifying and homogenous products made available to us. He argues that "the procedures of contemporary consumption appear to constitute a subtle art of 'renters' who know how to insinuate their countless differences into the dominant text." (ibid). We are thus "at play with the order that contains" social activity, exploiting the "innumerable connections between manipulating and enjoying."

The general absence of examples of this kind of exhilarating play makes it difficult to imagine what De Certeau means, but I would guess he wants to celebrate triumphant moments such as these: when the underclass devalues the status symbols of the privileged few by wearing gaudy and flamboyant imitations of its preferred brands; or when fraternity boys wear rugged work boots to demonstrate how glad they are that they will never really need to wear them; or when pseudo-intellectuals (like myself) watch reruns of sitcoms on television not to laugh with them, but to laugh at the shows' crudity and to measure their own supposed superiority to the "regular" audience by the critical distance they are able to maintain.

Perhaps all these subversive acts should be celebrated, though it's hard to imagine who would feel threatened by it. In truth, this view aligns with the pluralism that modern corporations themselves have come to endorse. One needs only think of the proliferation of cable channels or the user-driven commercialized infotainment available on the Internet. Subversive uses and appropriations are already incorporated into the structure of these systems — corporations don't mind how you play as long as you play on their field.

For as long as we play on their field, we continue to be the sorts of people their industries require. And for my purposes, that is what consumerism is: a series of behaviors that identifies us to the existing order and fixes us in it while granting us a sense of identity that feels natural, that feels autonomously constructed. Never mind if these identities seem conformist or mass-produced — we won't know enough about anybody else besides ourselves to notice. Our access to goods allows us to build an identity without the hassles of dealing with actual other people. Again, we are all creative and sensitive people. The unique, imaginary playpens we each construct for ourselves in our narcissistic world of goods proves to ourselves just how creative and sensitive we are. Consumerism is the driving social force that seeks to ensure that each of our playpens remains isolated from the others; it is the wet nurse that comes when we cry, hungry for real experience, only to feed us more formula.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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