Complete control

completecontrol.jpgThere’s an exhilarating moment in the middle of the Clash’s “Complete Control” when, during Mick Jones’s brief, skittering, anarchic solo, Joe Strummer screams, “You’re my guitar hero!” The song is, along with the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” and X-Ray Spex’ “Oh Bondage Up Yours!,” one of the perfect expressions of the punk ethos of regeneration through degeneration, of accelerating the machinery of pop until it disintegrates, liberating, at least momentarily, both band and listener, and Strummer’s scream is the song’s climax, perhaps the climax of the entire punk anti-movement. Strummer, by turning himself, through his scream, into both the object and the subject of fandom, frees the fan from his prescribed identity as consumer, subverts fandom by turning fandom into an act of subversion. The band is the fan, and the fan is the band, and both stand as one outside and beyond the producer-consumer dynamic that would contain them.

“You’re my guitar hero!”

It’s a fleeting act, though, as Strummer well understood. When the song ends so does its spell. We’re “in control” – or, more precisely, “out of control” – only for three minutes. Then the prescribed identities reassert themselves. When the single came out, late in 1977, my friends and I would play it over and over again, renewing its promise and its illusion. We wanted to be uncontrollable – or at least to feel uncontrollable. But we were smart enough to realize that listening to “Complete Control” was also, and already, an act of nostalgia. The song was, as Jon Savage writes in England’s Dreaming, “a hymn to Punk autonomy at the moment of its eclipse.”

Strummer died in 2002, sparing him the despair, and humiliation, of seeing “Complete Control” turned into pure merchandise, a complete parody:

This is the perfect subversion of the Clash’s subversion, anarchy turned into routine, complete with a score-keeping mechanism. Now when Strummer screams “You’re my guitar hero!,” it’s an act of distancing rather an embrace. It’s also, bewilderingly, an act of advertising, the cynical come-on of a hawker. Strummer’s scream becomes a moment not of mutual liberation but of deep creepiness. The ironies are piled so high that the only way out is to ignore them, as Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones have learned to do so well.

“I’ve been puzzled by the popularity of the game Guitar Hero,” writes Rob Horning at PopMatters. “If you want a more interactive way to enjoy music, why not dance, or play air guitar? Or better yet, if holding a guitar appeals to you, why not try actually learning how to play? For the cost of an Xbox and the Guitar Hero game, you can get yourself a pretty good guitar.” Horning, apparently, doesn’t quite get the point of prosumerism; its joys are lost on him. He continues: “I can’t help but feel that Guitar Hero (much like Twitter) would have been utterly incomprehensible to earlier generations, that it is a symptom of some larger social refusal to embrace difficulty.”

What kills me about Twitter is how this perfect consumerist tool, this nifty agent for packaging intimacy as a product, for simplifying self-expression out of existence, can’t discover a business model to justify its own existence. Marx must have had something to say about this.

Speaking of which, Horning quotes the Marxist theorist Jon Elster in explaining the way that trivial, if diverting, pursuits like Guitar Hero provide an easy alternative to the hard work of self-realization:

Activities of self-realization are subject to increasing marginal utility: They become more enjoyable the more one has already engaged in them. Exactly the opposite is true of consumption. To derive sustained pleasure from consumption, diversity is essential. Diversity, on the other hand, is an obstacle to successful self-realization, as it prevents one from getting into the later and more rewarding stages.

“Consumerism and its infrastructure,” observes Horning, “keeps us well supplied with stuff and seems to enrich our identities by allowing us to become familiar with a wide range of phenomena – a process that the internet has accelerated immeasurably. (I encounter a stray idea, digest the relevant Wikipedia entry, and just like that, I’ve broadened my conceptual vocabulary! I get bored with the book I’m reading, Amazon suggests a new one! I am too distracted to read blog posts, I’ll check Twitter instead!) But this comes at the expense with developing any sense of mastery of anything, eroding over time the sense that mastery is possible, or worth pursuing.”

Distraction is the permanent end state of the perfected consumer, not least because distraction is a state that is eminently programmable. To buy a guitar is to open possibilities. To buy Guitar Hero is to close them. A commenter on Horning’s article writes, “To me, the radical move that Guitar Hero makes is to turn music into an objectively measurable activity that is more amenable to our Protestant work ethic. It brings the corporation’s focus on quantitative performance indicators to the domain of music, displacing the usual mode of subjective enjoyment.”

Who’s in control?

3 thoughts on “Complete control

  1. Charles

    I recently discovered that Guitar Hero was invented and written by a couple of guys here in my little town in Iowa. I want to go over to their shop and give them a pitch for my new idea “Mosh Pit Hero” and demonstrate Slam Dance Mode on them. Maybe that would knock some sense into them.

    My area has a large music scene, which I attribute (surprisingly) to it being in the midst of a large Amish population. The Amish considered Art to be sinful, it was useless and unproductive, and as such, did not honor god. But music was the exception, as it could be used for hymns and other holy musical expressions. Even today in communities that shun TV (like the Amish) it was a sign of self-sufficiency that a family could entertain themselves with self-generated music and song (when you’re done with your bible reading, I suppose).

    But of course this sort of music is still a mechanism of social control. Even the Methodists (twice-removed from the Amish) called themselves “The Singing Preachers,” songs could easily be used to inculcate christian doctrine amongst rural, illiterate people who could not read the bible.

    But I digress. Guitar Hero bugs the crap out of me. I do find its appeal totally incomprehensible, but then, I grew up in an era when playing guitar was in itself a subversive act (well, at least we punks thought). Whenever I hear of Guitar Hero, I think of an old slogan I used to see on matchbook covers back in the ’70s, advertising correspondence courses in guitar playing. It boldly declared, “Spend an hour learning the basics. Spend a lifetime achieving mastery!” That could be a motto for almost anything we try to achieve. But I see no achievement in spending hours mastering a “performance” in Guitar Hero.

  2. Tom Lord

    That’s a nice piece. Some unsolicited advice:

    You don’t need any over-arching “who” is in control. When you ask “who is control” either you are trying to pull aside the curtain and expose the man beside it or you are trying to incite some a-hole to assume control or both. The main use of a question like “who is in control” is to lay it down and then point out its negative utility.


    What are the mechanisms of control? What behavior is the result of intervention vs. what behavior is the result of self-expression?

    “Control” (let’s say, if we must) is free floating. “Power” (so to speak) has a mind of its own.

    I can be perfectly and inhumanly and inhumanely controlled without their being a single, solely responsible point of control. Oh, sure, there are legal liabilities that are duly apportioned, there can be intentionalities behind the interventions that are realized or not. For any particular example of a controlling intervention we can trace back a series of proximate causes. And yet, in a lot of cases (and thus “in general”) there is no “mastermind” per se, except where we specifically find one. You can have control, subjugation, oppression — causes for resistance of all kinds — without any need for a specific enemy any larger than simply “the state of affairs in my society”.


  3. Michael Moncur

    I know I’m taking the Devil’s Advocate position here, but I think Guitar Hero is a good thing. I never played the guitar, but I enjoyed GH for a while. Eventually I found it frustrating that it wasn’t a real instrument. So I bought a Stratocaster. Now I’ve taken lessons for a year and I can play pretty well.

    I’m not the only one. Go into Guitar Center and there are about 10 books devoted to teaching how to play the songs from GH and Rock Band on a real guitar.

    People are going to do mindless things. It’s how we’re wired. At least GH is a mindless thing that can act as a potential gateway to a more mindful activity. It’s a way to approach kids whose entire world consists of video games and put them in a situation where the only way to go to “the next level” is to learn to play a real guitar.

    And hell, playing Guitar Hero is more interactive and less mindless than buying an album and playing it over and over…

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