The light came through the window,
Straight from the sun above,
And so inside my little room
There plunged the rays of Love.
In streams of light I clearly saw
The dust you seldom see,
Out of which the Nameless makes
A Name for one like me. Leonard Cohen, Love Itself )
Its not clear cut. The lines are blurred, and there is an overall sense of ambiguity when literal and objective facts meet myth and image, as in the case of John Lennon….
“Rock is the first musical form to be totally commercial and consumer-exploitative. It is largely produced by adults specifically to exploit a vast new adolescent market whose consciousness it tries to manipulate through radio, print and television… But, ambiguously built into rock’n'roll is a self consciousness that it is a commercialized form and thus is not to be taken totally seriously by the teenagers who listen to it”; … ”Rock is the first commercial form of music that contains this self conscious knowledge of contradiction within its structure”. ( Dan Graham )
The cruelest irony of John Lennon’s death was that it occurred at a pivotal moment when Lennon seemed finally to be making peace with the world, and, more pertinently, with himself. He seemed to have found an equilibrium, a shelter, in which he belonged to neither an individualistic counter culture nor to mass culture.He had found a place that could be best described as a passage, an interval, the space between, where he understood; the intricacies of his place as an artist in rock music; and that rock is a dynamic, the dynamic of change: with Lennon himself the central icon that embodied all the contradictions of the genre.
The central question is not one of origin. To ask whether rock is a commodity manufactured and imposed by cultural industries or the authentic offspring of popular culture is pointless. In any case, it takes both to make rock commercially viable as well as artistically exciting; a commodity which doesn’t rely on a popular taste is bound to flop. What makes rock so special is its volatile and radical nature. It is actuated by a tension, the necessary resistance to an unavoidable commercialization, which creates new forces, prompts new talents. By regularly breaking free from cultural industries, by opposing the individual to the community, by questioning its involvement with mass culture, rock manages to stay alive. It may then resume its position within this culture with a renewed potency, until the next break:
Lennon was the first rock star to grapple with the often emasculating contradictions of the job: the tricky tightrope walk between celebrity and street credibility; the conundrum of how to sing with conviction about rebellion and injustice while inured to both by lavish and indulgent lifestyle. ‘John Lennon offered an insoluble paradox,’ wrote George Melly in one of the few trenchant pieces published in the immediate wake of Lennon’s death. ‘His huge fortune reduced the value of his gestures (he and Yoko once arrived in a white Rolls Royce to fast on the steps of a church), and yet without his fame those gestures would have passed unnoticed.’ The inevitable linkage between rebellion and style and commodity.
…The political Lennon did his best, and more than most, to straddle the contradictions of his celebrity. In the early Beatles days he was a natural iconoclast and rebel, constantly undercutting the clean-cut image insisted on by their manager, Brian Epstein. As MacDonald pointed out in his final book, The People’s Music, Lennon’s onstage persona – ‘legs planted wide … knees bent, grinning lasciviously as he st
ed’ – was ‘defensive to the point of belligerence’. In nearly every bit of early footage of the group playing live, Lennon is the one undercutting the established performing ritual, mugging for the cameras, pulling silly faces and acting the monkey between songs. It is as if he already senses – and wants to alert us, the audience, to – the absurdity of his calling….
If cultural production was to become a profit making niche, it required the implementation of a mass market. Now, cultural artefacts have no intrinsic worth, their use value is purely hypothetical. Their consumption depends on their symbolic value based, in rock music as in the motion pictures industry, on the star system which rationalized consumer demand. This is why, as David Buxton put it, ”the consumer must be created alongside the product.” Hence the setting up of various middlemen, “gate-keepers,” such as critics, DJs or radio announcers whose task it is to launch new fashions and mold public taste; which implies a lot of soulless corporate product, generic music, but does not exclude authenticity.
Though they were all natural wits, Lennon was easily the edgiest, most unpredictable Beatle, the one, as MacDonald puts it, ‘who first knocked the door of propriety off its hinges’. It was Lennon who famously quipped during the Beatles’ Royal Variety Performance in 1963: ‘Will all the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? The rest of you just rattle your jewellery.’ It was Lennon who sent back his MBE. And Lennon, too, who, at the height of Beatlemania, offered in interview the offending words, ‘We’re more popular than Jesus now’, a self-evident truth that precipitated an orgy of record burning and recrimination across the American heartlands. ( Sean O’Hagen )
Today, This organization of the record industry brings to light an essential ambiguity of rock music. If most new musical trends result from the criticism of mass consumption-including of music-, they seldom resist very long the relentless attacks of the industry and its
assimilating powers. The most unorthodox practices are rapidly popularized and made palatable, losing in the process their radical
character. Rock music is never counter cultural for long. As a rule, after a short period on the fringes, each new style becomes a mass countercultural movement, before eventually joining the mass culture merry-go- round. Mass industry cares little about the subtle differences between culture and the counter culture. In fact, its essential feature is precisely its ability to digest any form of deviancy or marginality.
He even turned up, with Yoko in tow, at a ‘Troops Out of Ireland’ anti-internment rally in London in August 1971, where, unbelievably, he held up a placard that read, ‘Victory to the IRA Against British Imperialism’. This, just a few months before ‘Imagine’ was released. (The following year he released ‘The Luck of the Irish’, a hamfisted protest song that included the non-ironic line, ‘If you had the luck of the Irish, you’d wish you were English instead’. It was outdone in its radical posturing only by McCartney’s ‘Give Ireland Back to The Irish’, Wings’ debut single from the same year.)
Lennon, then, more than any other pop star before or since, was a mess of contradictions. It is easy in these post-ideological times to poke fun at his invariably short-lived commitment to a variety of often seemingly paradoxical causes, just as it must be difficult for a teenager of today to even imagine a time when a rock star could be so politically active as to be perceived as a threat by the FBI. But Lennon was that rock star, even if he admitted later, with his characteristic candour, that he had never really been convinced by any of the causes that claimed him as a figurehead. ( O’Hagen )
As Glenn Gass puts it, rock’n'roll has become “respectable”,”crammed into tuxedos at awards ceremonies, embraced by middle-ages babyboomers, exploited by Madison Avenue as an effective marketing tool and fast achieving the ultimate stamp of legitimacy as a subjectfor college classes.” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Classroom?”,in Present Tense, rock & roll and culture, Anthony DeCurtis ed., (Duke University Press, 1992)