Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Goon Squad is Coming to Town, Beep Beep.

That David Bowie’s flirtation with fascism coincided with his creative zenith has been problematic for music critics and Bowie fans alike for years.  While it’d be great to believe that he was defacing the primary urges of the fascist mindset with crass irony or warning of the far-right impulses returning to the event horizon of the Overton window, all signs to point to either this definitely not being the case or to Bowie being so coked up at the time that there’s no earthly way of knowing what his intentions are.  That these gestures were at best super clumsy and at worst intensely callous and harmful seems to be the only determination worth settling on.

Regardless, Bowie had cleaned up enough by the early 1980s to be cognizant of what came next.  The wake of his 70s oeuvre saw a series of Bowie fanboys wrestle for cultural attention and chart domination.  The punks gleaned bits from his Ziggy hair dye and glam’s stripped basics-to-basics aural package, the latter itself derived from the raw energy of 60s garage and 50s fast, cheap and out of control rock n’ roll jolts.  New Wave took the sci-fi presentation and art as persona/death of the author vibe of the Spiders from Mars mythos and infused it with both the futuristic kosmische sounds of the Berlin trilogy and the strained white plastic soul of Young Americans/Station to Station.

In their haste, some of these zealous youngsters also dragged in tow the baggage of Bowie’s aesthetic extremism.  Some, like the industrial acts Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle seemed to be making some grander statement about the extents of human cruelty and it how and undercurrent of Nazi sadism seemed to linger long after the Geneva Convention in the daily lives of control societies.  Others like Sex Pistols Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious probably just thought it cool to piss off the squares.  On the other hand, Joy Division, through their moniker allusions to a secret (and fictional) Nazi sex slave unit from a 50s novel and, in their early incarnation, to the Warsaw ghetto uprising, seemed to sympathize with the victims of fascist atrocity, but also were comfortable in Mosley blackshirt attire and scrapbooked Nazi propaganda for the sleeve art of their debut EP, An Ideal for Living.  Meanwhile, Gary Numan adorned a sort of proto-cyberpunk appropriation of what the future’s fascism might look like.

Conventional wisdom grants that these artists were responding in part to the degeneration of the liberation project of the hippies, which had become so entangled in self-importance and indulgence that it had completely dropped out at a time when powerful forces seemed to be tightening.  Yet, as Lester Bangs made clear in his essential essay “The White Noise Supremacists”, the punks, even when not openly racist, were molding their scene into an environment more comfortable for white supremacists than for people of color who weren’t “hip” to their “free speech” tyranny.  Numan and Joy Division’s Ian Curtis are both known to have voted for Margaret Thatcher, the Tory leader who responded to the rise of the National Front by absorbing parts of their platform, and breaking from socialist dogma in ways that earned her the respect of former punk Niall Ferguson.  This unhealthy and uneasy relationship continues to the far right this day; Ur-punk John Lydon has defended Brexit and Trump and Angela Nagle in her book Kill All Normies has documented how the alt-right uses the punk-like transgressiveness of being “Anti-P.C.” to nurture the white supremacist tendencies of alienated extremely online male teens. 

If Bowie did issue a response to his imitators, it would have been in “Fashion”, which at first appears to be about the frivolity of the fashion world, but on closer listen clearly seems to draw parallels between the march-step of the homophonic “fashion” and “fascism”, despite Bowie’s own protests that this was not the case.  Bowie sees culture as fundamentally reactionary, rather than substantive, reallocating itself every few years like a model walking down the runway (“Turn to the left! Turn the right!”).  Most telling are the lines “We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town/Beep beep”, which seems to signal to the new wave crowd, coming in to crimp on Bowie’s stylistic cues, not least of which being the superficial adoption of fascist wear.    All these youngsters wearing the noveau dictatorial getup and cosplaying the fall of Western civilization (some have suggested the “Beep beep” is a nod to Numan’s hit “Cars”) appeared to noodling with dangerous ideology as dress-up garb, so cavalier in their pursuit of absolute freedom that they had fetishized its antithesis. 

I tend to side with the likes of Corey Robin in thinking that if Trump were interested in consolidating power, he’s too dumb or incompetent to really pull it off.  Like Sid Vicious, Trump seems to get too much joy out of pissing people off to ever garner the complete unwavering loyalty he seeks, commanding the leakiest ship ever set adrift from Pennsylvania Avenue and overseeing a mass of firings and resignations so regular that they’ve become routine.  However, there’s no denying that Trump loves a good dictator, whether it’s keeping a book Hitler quotes under his bed, praising the Philippines’ murderous President Duterte, or his persistent glowing adoration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin.  His mentor was Roy Cohn, a man famous for gleefully sending the Rosenbergs to their death and strongarming leftists and gay men out of office with his buddies Hoover and McCarthy.   As such, Trump wants to adorn the garb of the fascists, the tough words, the lavish hagiographic praise, the frequent rallies, the law and order rhetoric, the ineffective and meaningless border walls, and, now, a military parade.  Yet, it’s obvious that a man who doesn’t believe in exercise, watches TV and tweets all day, hasn’t bothered to appoint the bulk of his federal positions, and can barely string a coherent sentence together lacks the discipline and work ethic of the fascists of yore to make all but his most superficial aspirations come to light.

So, Trump may just be the goon squad coming to town, ready to turn to the left with a marketized paid leave program or a corporate giveaway disguised as an infrastructure plan before swiftly turning back to the right, but like Bowie and the punks we can expect a long tail of consequences from his strongman role-playing.  In particular, the whole of the Republican Party and their disillusioned white base seems poised to rebel against democracy, for years undermining voting rights, instituting mass surveillance, threatening free assembly, and stirring up a frothing hoard of militant, heavily armed scumbags with violent intent towards immigrants, minorities, and women demanding their rights.  Meanwhile the marketplace and accessibility of alt-right iconography far exceeds the reach of punk event at its heights, giving the fashion of fascism a better shot at staying power than if it were to linger in and underground Oi! trough.  An avowed holocaust denier has even been given a platform as a GOP Congressional nominee in Illinois.

First as farce, then as tragedy? Beep beep. 

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