Monday, May 25, 2009

21st Century Breakdown

"Green Day Lashes Out at Wal-Mart Policy"

The above was a headline to a recent news story. Before I even read the story, I chuckled in amusement. I like how utterly timeless the headline is; it could easily be from 1995. Against all odds, of all the bands that rose to prominence in the 1990s, Green Day is probably the most relevant today. Meanwhile, musicians have been "lashing out" at Wal-Mart since before anyone had ever heard the word "Dookie." How many people remember the 1996 controversy when Wal-Mart refused to stock a Cheryl Crow album because it contained lyrics alleging that children could buy guns at Wal-Mart? (Probably about as many people who will remember the Green Day story 13 years from now when another story will surface about Wal-Mart refusing to stock some band's mp8 multi-media package).

But by the time I finished reading the article, my smile had faded, and I was left with a sense of discontentment. Something wasn't quite right here. The basic story is that Wal-Mart has a (longstanding) policy of not selling CDs with parental advisory stickers. Bands have the option of cutting a "clean version," which Wal-Mart dutifully stocks. Apparently the band now feels that they have enough clout to force a reversal of this policy (they don't), or perhaps they were just (successfully) exploiting a PR opportunity.

The article quoted two of the three band members (apparently Tre Cool was unavailable at press time). Bassist Mike Dirnt went on the record with this assertion: "As the biggest record store in the America, they should probably have an obligation to sell people the correct art." One doesn't need to be a lover of Wal-Mart to nonetheless take issue with the suggestion that a private retailer has any "obligation" to stock particular merchandise. There's obviously a chilling slippery slope here. If it's not the retailer, who makes the decisions about what should be sold? And again, one doesn't need to be a fan of Wal-Mart practices to acknowledge that if they are the biggest record store in America, they to some extent understand the record-buying marketplace, and they give people the kind of "art" that they want to buy.

Obviously, beneath the veneer of this rhetoric is an obvious tension point in the "culture wars." We have a rigidly conservative corporate giant who arbitrates matters of propriety and taste. We have a rock band with their own ideas of what is proper and tasteful. And this is probably how it should be; out of the resultant dynamic we can get a dominant and an alternative vision of culture, with both informing and shaping the other. Each side is useful to the other in forging identity and values.

But what is problematic for me is that the rock band might be closer to the corporate giant than they would admit. Consider the reaction of Green Day singer and songwriter Billy Joe Armstrong: "If you think about bands that are struggling or smaller than Green Day ... to think that to get your record out in places like that, but they won't carry it because of the content and you have to censor yourself...I mean, what does that say to a young kid who's trying to speak his mind making a record for the first time?"

In other words, never mind any personal agenda the band has here to sell product. What this is really about is the kids-- those poor kids who will now be forced to learn how to express themselves in their own words without falling back on lowest-common denominator schoolyard vernacular. Of course, the irony here is that "the kids" are the very reason why Wal-Mart will claim that they can't stock Green Day's CD.

But what perhaps bothers me the most of all here is another implicit message for the kids in Billy Joe's quote. Since when did getting stocked in a Wal-Mart become the objective for a "young kid who's trying to speak his mind"? Lest we forget, Green Day has their roots in the punk community. At one time, any punk band who would sign with a major label was considered to be a "sell out." Now, not only do these bands want to sign with big business, they actually want their merchandise to be available at Wal-Mart, to the very mainstream culture that they eschew in their lyrics. Now that's what I call a 21st Century Breakdown.


Blogger Eileen said...

I agree that artists shouldn't have to censor themselves in order to be sold at certain stores, but if Green Day were to really stick to their punk roots, they wouldn't want to be sold at wal-mart in the first place. they have enough money, I don't want to hear them whine about not getting more.

2:50 PM  
Blogger The Hungary Traveler said...

Wal-Mart has what economists call monopsonistic power (from the root word monopsony, meaning "one buyer") in the market for music (as well as most other goods it sells). This is a form of market failure and the result is Wal-Mart purchases less than the free market would dictate and for less than free-market prices. Once a firm holding monopsonistic power becomes entrenched it is very difficult for the free market to self-correct. So, your claim that "one doesn't need to be a fan of Wal-Mart practices to acknowledge that if they are the biggest record store in America, they to some extent understand the record-buying marketplace, and they give people the kind of "art" that they want to buy" may fall short of the mark.

2:41 AM  

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