September 18th, 2008

operesque

Punks and mavericks, fuck off forever!

It's been a week when our own culture -- the decadent, collapsing West -- has been at its ugliest and most insecure. On top of the greed-toppled financial sector, there was Damien Hirst calling himself a "punk" and John McCain calling himself a "maverick" and saying economic fundamentals are "strong", before trying desperately to redefine "economic fundamentals", "strong" and "are".



But it's the claim of very rich and conservative people to be "punks" and "mavericks" which really infuriates me. Here's Damien at his Sotheby's auction, where he raised an unprecedented £95m on work he's made -- parodies of his already-kitschy old stuff -- in the last couple of years.

Looking more like Phil Collins than Johnny Rotten, dressed in tummy-bulging Bono-black, with stubby skull rings dotting his stubby greedy piggy fingers, Hirst justifies his obscene wealth with a reference to the massively more socialist and egalitarian Britain of the 1970s.

"I was a punk, I guess," he explains. "I was a bit young to be a punk, I was 12 in '77, but I quite like it when you do things like this. People say you can't do this, you've got to wait to go into an auction house. But I think at the end of the day I knew it would upset quite a lot of people and I quite like that."

Punk rock, for him, then, is about upsetting people, enjoying it, and making lots of money in the process. We're not talking Wire's Pink Flag here. More like red top, red rag. It's the tabloid end of punk Hirst likes, the "filthy lucre" end, the "malady-not-the-remedy" end. It's obnoxiousness-as-virtue. It's "I've got mine, screw you, but love me while you hate me!"

Hirst really has got his. Your house may be being repossessed, but this is his house, Toddington Manor.



If you're a maverick, you need hundreds of rooms. You need to charge around all that empty space like a stag, headbutting tapestries, snorting and whinnying. You need to store dead animals in the Regency Suite and formaldehyde in the maid's pantry.

Of course, you could just say "I'm very rich and getting much richer, as the super-rich tend to do in today's Britain, and as nobody else does. Oh, and I live in a castle." But no, that would never do. You have to say "I'm a punk". It's the respectable way, these days, of being evil, irresponsible and annoying. It earths all resentment. "Hands off Mr Skull-Fingers Hirst, he's a bit podgy and looks like Phil Collins, but he's a punk!"

In my essay Nasty, British and Short (written just after I moved to New York in 2000), I tried to tackle what "punk" means to Britain. I think essentially it's become shorthand for the beginnings of Thatcherism, and for a preference for local maladies over international remedies. In a way, punk has come to stand, in Britain, for the domestication of evil:

"Lydon's evil cackle at the beginning of 'Holidays In The Sun' reveals him as an innocent who has decided to incarnate a malevolent view of human nature in the classic manner of the Dickensian pantomime villain," I wrote. "In The Sex Pistols, Lydon incarnates the British contempt for human nature. He becomes a parody of the malady, and is an immediate success in Britain. When, later, he and his nemesis McLaren try to embody the remedy to the Brutish disease, making records like 'Metal Box' and 'Duck Rock', the Brutish stay away in droves, fail to buy, and use bargepoles when parlaying. Bow Wow Wow with their sexy Eiffel towers and their odes to Louis Quattorze and home taping stiff too. The Brutish do not want the remedy. They want the malady. The remedy is always foreign, it involves a loss of identity. The malady, however horrible, is forever Brutish."



And this brings us to McCain, and my fear that he will win on November 4th. When I see McCain, pretending -- as in this recent ad -- to be a "maverick" and yet representing more-of-the-same, I see the malady of America. When I see Obama, I see a remedy for America, a chance for it to redeem itself. And I'm afraid, like the Brutish British, the Americans (or a big chunk of them) are going to plump for the malady over the remedy. Because the malady has come to define their sense of self. The malady -- like punk rock -- is national, whereas the remedy -- like reggae-inflected post-punk -- is international.

The claim that more-of-the-same McCain is a maverick is laughable, of course. The idea that McCain and Palin "fought Republicans" while being Republicans is a ludicrous piece of mental gymnastics. But posing as a conservative "maverick" is likely to play as well in America as posing as a rich "punk" does in Britain. It might just work, because this mythology -- no matter how blatantly paradoxical -- is embroidered deep in the culture. Put it this way, when I think of the parallel world in which McCain and Palin win, it doesn't seem far-fetched or alien. In fact, it's a world which shares the values a lot of Americans have right now. It's who they are. It's the malady, the one they know, the one they like.

"Winners and losers are both mavericks," I wrote two years ago, recording my first impressions of America after Japan in a piece entitled Never Blend In. "They resemble each other here in their refusal to play by the rules. Some end up in jail, others running companies. My flight has featured lots of personal announcements from the founder and CEO of Continental, telling us how he started the company, how everyone working for it is exceptional. Mavericks. Give 'em a big tip! Because they're individuals, and so are you. There follows a song with so much virtuoso soul melisma the singer manages to put 12 syllables into the word "I"."



And here's Marvin Gaye -- tragic, alcoholic Marvin, shot by his own father during a row -- embodying the maverick in a poster campaign which Obama could well copy, if he wants to appeal to the malady heartlands rather than the remedy coasts. Never blend in, Obama, it's hell out there!

As for me, I'll be happy if I never hear anyone calling themselves a "punk" or a "maverick" ever again. Give me a world without rich punks and conservative mavericks and it's beautiful inside my head forever.