Monday, August 25, 2008

The Wisdom of Johnny Rotten, pt 3

By Hanno

At age 15, in 1971 (!), when to be cool was to be a hippie, have long hair, wear bell bottom jeans, etc., Rotten was told by his Dad to get his hair cut. He got it cropped, and turned it bright green. This, of course, at a time when no one is doing anything like that. No group of similar weirdos to hide with, no context for others to make any sense of his act of rebellion. One can only imagine the reaction.

By the time I grew up, someone might have gone punk in my school, (we did have a few), but they already had the context of punk to all others to make sense of what they were doing. You were being a punk. Joining a specific group. And the people who were the target of Punk ire used to (with a good bit of justification) charge that the punks claim to be so individualistic, but really, they just join a different group, and then work hard to fit in.

When Rotten does this, however, it is totally new, totally outside conventional and even conventional non-conventional behavior. To be sure, anger is the fuel. Rules in a society that make it so that as poor Irish kid in London has no future, and instead of accepting that, he strikes back with any weapon he can find.

I'm not a revolutionary, a socialist or any of that. that's not what I'm about. An absolute sense of individualist is my politics. All political groups that I'm aware of on this planet seem to strive to suppress individuality. They need block voting numbers. They need units... If a homosexual inside the [ gay Liberation movement] dares stray away from what then term as the norm, then they victimize that person. Its replacing the same old system with a different clothing. I hate all groupings, any kind of gathering. It destroys personality and individuality. Maybe a roomful of people having very different ideas is chaotic, but its wonderfully chaotic, highly entertaining, and very educational... I don't suppose my kind of world can exist because there are so many sheep that need leaders. Let them bleat among the flock, that's not for me. I'd rather be the lone sheep out there fending off the wolves. It's much better. When you grow up in a working-class environment, you're supposed to stay inside and follow the rules and regulations of that little system. I won't have any of that. It's all wrong, equally bad. (p. 309)

There are good points and bad points in this psychology. One thing is clear: it can shake the world. But how desirable is it? In one person? In a society? Is politics possible with such a view? Ethics? Is community possible? Perhaps such an individual is the gadfly, like Socrates, that shakes up a society. But a society of gadflies cannot exist.

12 comments:

Josh said...

But how desirable is it? Very.

In one person? Not very.

In a society? At the extreme: anarchy (isn't that what Johnny wanted to be?)

Is politics possible with such a view? Libertarianism.

Ethics? Yes, but not one I would subscribe to (everyone for him/herself)

Is community possible? No. Yet, that is exactly what punk is about (at least certain strains of it: brotherhood)

Anonymous said...

Is community possible? No.

That seems like BS. Of course community is possible. This is precisely the sort of community you get at certain underground club scenes. Everyone is tangentially related, but everyone has their own personal favorites. You have many small cliques who are all centered around a hub.

To use H's term: hyper individualism seems to, honestly, be nothing more than individualism that does not accept compromise. But when you have people (as inevitably you will) who more or less agree with you, and choose to live as you do, you are bound to (eventually) craft a sort of community. Sure, you'll find points of contention and conflicts will arise, but the vast majority of them will be insignificant. You'll have skirmishes, but no war (since you lack the ability to fight one).

Hyper individualism doesn't destroy society. It destroys large societies. It doesn't negate community. It minimizes and isolates communities.

Is politics possible with such a view? Libertarianism.

Which punker at which time? I think most will be far too egalitarian with their thinking, and thus most Libertarians will likely not hold to it. Some might, but that's like saying some Republicans aren't morons. True, indeed, but only trivially so.

Josh said...

Hyper individualism by its definition does not allow for community. To put it in Rotten's terms, a person who wishes to be the lone sheep fending off the wolves will also fend off like-minded sheep. Hyper individualism only allows for 1...though, it takes 2 make a thing go right or to make it out of sight according to Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock.

To be in a community, whether big or small, means solidarity of some sort. Solidarity is the opposite of hyper individualism. You can't have one with the other.

Rotten might have fashioned himself a loner, but the punk movement was/is bigger than any one person. Solidarity amongst societal outcasts is the ethos of punk. Take Rancid's lyrics from "Avenues and Alleyways" off of the album, "Out Come The Wolves":

No one understands each other/
He's a different color/
But we're the same kid/
I'll treat him like my brother/
He will treat me like his

Punk engulfs everyone on the fringe of society and unites them under a banner of solidarity. If you continue to act only on your own behalf and neglect others in the same struggle you become part of the system you despise.

We live in a society that is hyperindividualistic. The answer is not to respond in kind, but to join your voice/anger/rage with the voices of a thousand others. In other words, forge a community.

Hanno said...

If we take the music industry in the mid 70's as an example, we can see how the lone sheep metaphor plays out. Being nice, playing by the rules forces you to be somebody else's toy, both financially, and artistically. You had to fit a mold before you could be signed, and you had to be signed to make it. McLaren, to his credit, thought the situation was right for a group to shake things up. (He thought by his forming the band, choosing the members, etc., it was his band. He made the brillaint choice of Rotten for lead singer, but had no idea what personality he was picking, that such a personality would never stay or be McLaren's toy. Bernie Rhodes had far more success with the Clash, but even that didnt last long.)

So Here come the Pistols, who not only do not shy away from offending people, but take delight in it, who don't give a f**k if you dont like what they do, who dont live, act or dress in conventional ways, but play with an intensity that, when they were on, blew people away. they shake up the system by being different and unafraid.

And this allows the audience to be different, and makes other people start to think about what they want to do. And it works for a while. The music industry is shaken, doesnt know what to do. New bands like the Clash form (It was a Pistols performance that made Joe Strummer cut his hair and want to be a punk... a pistols show AFTER Sid replaced Matlock, so the band had already made its songs, had a following, in other words, late).

But that doesn't work if everyone is Johnny Rotten. You cant blow up rules if there are no rules. You cant shake things up if they are already shaken. You cant offend if everybody is offensive. rotten is well known for being a jerk (substitute a harsher term for that], but a smart jerk.

And Rotten isn't amoral, only in it for himself. He wants to destroy aristocratic notions, of any sort, rules that keep the working class down... after all, he sees himself as a lone sheep... but one that fights the wolves. He fights by making the sheep uncomfortable with sheep-hood, shaking things up so much you cannot follow, and then find your own way. He fights by sarcasm, and laughter.

Anonymous said...

Hyper individualism by its definition does not allow for community.

By definition? Now, that's just cheap.

We live in a society that is hyperindividualistic.

And now you're contradicting yourself.

He wants to destroy aristocratic notions, of any sort, rules that keep the working class down... after all, he sees himself as a lone sheep... but one that fights the wolves.

Which is rebellion, not individualism. I don't see why the two need necessarily be intertwined.

Hanno said...

Uh, yeah... Punk is rebellion.

You cannot separate Rotten's individualism from his rebellion. Individualism is both what he is fighting for and his weapon to fight against. he is rebelling against a system that gave him no future. The rules of the group keep him without a future. So not following the rules is his weapon against the lack of hope. But it is also who he is, the lone sheep (not the wolf!). He says at one point that the part that makes him most proud is the freedom that his audience had in the early days, before the stereotype, before the group-think infects the scene, to be themselves.

Josh said...

"And now you're contradicting yourself."

contradiction-dodging insertion: We live in a society that is hyper individualistic "in theory"

nothing like ambiguity, ha.

Anonymous said...

Uh, yeah... Punk is rebellion.

Which seems to go against the entire concept of Punk. You're defining it, and defining it rather rigidly.

You cannot separate Rotten's individualism from his rebellion.

Doesn't the fact that I did seem to indicate that I can? Regardless, it's irrelevant. Rotten is not the end all and be all of punk, nor is he the same for rebellion or individualism, hyper or otherwise. End point.

contradiction-dodging insertion: We live in a society that is hyper individualistic "in theory"

Well, damn, I guess I can give you that.

Rob said...

"though, it takes 2 make a thing go right or to make it out of sight according to Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock." Indeed; truer words have ne'er been said, Josh.

And Hanno, when did you take the wrong path? When did you pick up a philosophy book instead of a guitar? It seems a shame; you're name could even nicely lend itself to being a band name. It's never too late, you know.

kb said...

I have nothing to add to the arguments here.. but I love the way J Rotten put this: "Maybe a roomful of people having very different ideas is chaotic, but its wonderfully chaotic, highly entertaining, and very educational..."

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