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Exit Through the Gift Shop
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Exit Through the Gift Shop

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame reminds us of the glitzy reality of much modern radicalism.

Greetings from the road.

Currently I’m in the back seat of the family truckster. We’re barreling along Route 40 out of Steamboat Springs making our way to Park City and, ultimately, Yosemite. We stopped for breakfast in Steamboat before getting back on the road. (I had the huevos rancheros with refried beans before getting back in a packed car. What could go wrong?)

I took the first shift driving. We “camped” in the parking lot of the Walmart in Fort Collins, Colorado, last night. I woke around 4 a.m. and took the scenic route because the more efficient route was blocked by a biblical snowstorm in parts of Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado—and by “parts,” I mean the parts we needed to get through.

As you may recall, last month I took my daughter on a surprise trip to Austin for her birthday. We were besieged by a once-in-a-century winter storm. Now, a second winter storm is gunning for us as we set out for a family adventure coinciding with my birthday. I am starting to take this personally. If I were of a different bent, I might suspect Mr. Snow Miser—known in earlier epochs as Ullr, Norse God of Snow and stepson of Thor—of trying to tell me something: “Yo, Goldberg, stay home!” Or, maybe Ullr is anti-Semitic, in which case my preferred pronunciation of Yosemite—“Yo, Semite,” like they say in Commentary editorial board meetings after a long weekend—could end up being overly literary.

The bourgeois churn.

On Monday, we went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. I enjoyed it, though perhaps not as much as the missus, who was always much more into music than me.

But while everything about it was impressive in one way or another, I found it all a bit depressing. All of these exhibits about the rebelliousness of rock were designed to culminate with a long exit through the gift shop.

Now, I’ve always thought that there was more commercialism in rock music than the marketers of rock claimed. (In 1968, CBS Records launched an ad campaign around the slogan“The man can’t bust our music!”) But even the criteria for induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame seems to boil down to a formula of equal parts popularity and nostalgia. Inductees include: Elvis Presley and the Bee Gees, Johnny Cash and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Cat Stevens and Kiss, Black Sabbath and Madonna, Randy Newman and Public Enemy, NWA and Joan Baez.

Note: They weren’t inducted in these pairings—though I would have loved to see NWA and Joan Baez inducted as a unit. I just paired them to highlight the contrasts. I mean, if someone asked you, “What do Randy Newman and Public Enemy have in common?” would you say, “That’s easy, they’re both rockers!”

I don’t mean this as a criticism of any of them—and besides, I must confess that my knowledge of Frankie Lymon’s oeuvre is too limited to offer any criticism at all—but this is a pretty capacious understanding of “rock & roll.”

Obviously, this is an old criticism of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which is emblematic of an even older criticism of the music industry generally. You do have to wonder what all the self-styled rebels, revolutionaries, and barbarians of yesteryear—who thought they were at war with capitalism, the establishment, and The Man—would make of the shrines and swag dedicated to them now. Would a young Jim Morrison or Joey Ramone laugh or cry upon learning that if you spend $40 or more at the gift shop you will get a “Long Live Rock!” travel mug for free? Would Kurt Cobain ask whether he got his royalties for the shot glasses?

But I’m here to celebrate the sellouts!

One of the best things about American capitalism is also one of the worst things: It’s often (though not always) corrosive of what Joseph Schumpeter called “extra-rational” ideas. He didn’t mean ideas that had an extra helping of rationality but, rather, ideas that were outside reason, like tradition, monarchy, “family values,” and religion. 

It’s true: Capitalism can eat away at the things we make no effort to preserve and sustain. There are people on the left who spend their whole lives acting as though they are the only people who understand this. There are people on the right, in every generation, who think they are the first people to discover this insight. It was an old idea many millennia before the term capitalism was coined.

What gets less attention, and a lot less positive attention, is the way capitalism corrodes radicalism even more than it does traditionalism. David Brooks identified this dynamic in his Bobos in Paradise. Everything “transgressive” gets “digested by the mainstream bourgeois order, and all the cultural weapons that once were used to undermine middle-class morality … are drained of their subversive content.”

In one of the early exhibits about rock music’s war with The Man, there’s a tribute to Frank Zappa’s fight against labeling records right next to a similar shrine to Ice-T and the controversy over his “Cop Killer” lyrics.

Now I don’t know how sincere Ice-T was about killing cops back then. But I suspect that after playing a cop on Law & Order for years, and collecting those Dick Wolf Benjamins, he’s probably got a more nuanced view. Similarly, I assume Ice Cube was very sincere in his gangster rap phase. I’m sure he’s very proud of his work onAmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, his first solo album. But now, he’s one of America’s most wanted black stars of family-friendly movies and sitcoms. Also, I’ve never really figured out how seriously to take Snoop Dogg’s early work, but I did enjoy his collaboration with Martha Stewart. And I salute his work as a vegan spokesman for Beyond Meat.

More than 30 years ago, the Beatles’ estate sold their “Revolution” to Michael Jackson, who in turn sold it to Nike, even though he was already prospering with all that Pepsi money. A few years later, Madonna peddled a documentary that showed every carefully curated rebellious and transgressive aspect of her life. The only thing the cameras couldn’t show? Her dealing with the business end of her empire. Madness’ “Our House” moves Maxwell House, while the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?” was once the official jingle for Swiffer.

There are people who would call all of this “selling out.” And to be sure, if you haven’t actually recanted some of your radical ideas while you hawk bits of your art (and your soul) to the RAMJAC Corporation, you’re certainly guilty of hypocrisy. Even so, I’d rather live in a country where young, idealistic people make some money off radicalism and rebellion for a while and then discover they’d rather keep making money than tear everything down. It’d be better if they had the courage and integrity to actually preach what they practice, but their hypocrisy is preferable to them actually practicing what they preach.

I’m grateful for the trip to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame because it clarified some stuff I’ve been thinking about a lot. Forget partisan politics for a second. Some of the most open-minded, radically original thinkers I’ve ever read or met would seem staid to people who literally wear their radicalism on their sleeves. Likewise, some of the most boring, conventional, and risk-averse people I’ve ever met are masters of the radical pose. Visiting the Hall helped crystalize how much radicalism in music (and art generally) is really just marketing. 

Consider Frank Zappa’s shrine to the evils of record labeling: For you kids out there, this was a huge brouhaha in the 1980s. Some people thought record albums with explicit lyrics in them should be labeled in much the same way movies were. Zappa—and a lot of liberals—thought this was a slippery slope to Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and The Handmaid’s Tale all rolled into one.

Over a giant picture of Zappa testifying before Congress in the Hall is a quote from him: “Rock music was never written for, or performed for, conservative tastes.”

Now I liked Zappa, and I do think his opposition was sincere, but I also think this comment was a dumb and ridiculous non-sequitur in the context of the controversy. And even if it were true, who cares? Lots of conservatives like rock music (look it up). Some have conservative tastes but still enjoy it. Others have conservative politics, but radical tastes in art. Some are radical in all regards, except in how they raise their own children. People are complicated.

But let’s not get bogged down in all that. What really stuck out to me is how ancient that controversy seems today. Nowadays, the people with “conservative tastes”—as I think Zappa meant it—are the ones speaking out the most about free speech. They’re the ones mocking trigger warnings, which I suspect Zappa would be against.

But forget triggering, which is a disputed term these days; my TV warns me about the explicit content of TV shows and movies constantly. NPR and Fox News alike warn their audiences about “disturbing” images when warranted. Staffers at elite publications get people fired because the mere presence of internal disagreement makes them feel “unsafe.”

The people who Zappa—and the curator-marketers at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—assumed were the natural allies of rebellion and sticking it to the man turned out to be natural allies of censorship. They just call it “radical” or “progressive” now, so they think it’s okay.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.