The track “Glass,” off of Gang of Four’s 1979 album, entertainment!, guides the listener through the depressive resignation of an unsatisfied capitalist subject. This modern tale of dissatisfaction is best understood by traversing its A-B-A-B-A-B-C-B-A structure in reverse. In the final B section, Jon King wails,
Always thought life should be so easy It seems that I have misunderstood Nothing I do can seem to please me What I say don't sound so good
This accessible story of the malaise that has become a dominant expression of modern youth conveys more than the nihilist ennui found in songs like The Fugs’ “Nothing”. The word should, appearing rather strikingly instead of could or would, takes us past the familiar youthful cynicism into the realm of critique. It betrays not only a physical and factual resignation but also an ideological, existential surrender to capitalist modernity. This capture of imagination is a double victory of capitalist ideology. The decision to not resist the imposition of capitalist reality comes in tandem with its acceptance as a natural, non-contingent, brute fact—the type of conceptual category, like absolute morality or the laws of physics, which gives definitive prescriptions implied by the word should their weight. Should is so poignant because it doesn’t just concede that a good life is impossible; it represents the mental twisting that the modern subject undergoes to eliminate their desire for a good life. This granular strangeness that subverts the familiar is the genius of Gang of Four, and should serve as a technique in the production of revolutionary art, be it music, film, painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction. . .
Having unpacked this B-4 section, we see the earlier sections in a different light. In the erratic bridge (C), King mockingly advises,
If you're feeling all in, take some aspirin If you feel in a mess, put your head on a headrest Your back on a backrest, foot on a footrest Or your arm on an armrest or your leg on a legrest Your back on a backrest, if you feel in a real mess When you're feeling all in, take some aspirin (or some paracetamol)
This dulling repetition—between both the common words in ailment and cure and between cures themselves (foot [pain], footrest; footrest, headrest)—bombards the listener with a slew of advertisements for commodities that promise to ease any pain under the sun with complete precision. In spite of these perfectly-crafted apparatuses for curing any sort of discomfort, the narrator elects to “light [themselves] up a cigarette” (A-3). This subversion of the expected choices mirrors the romantic outsiderism of the cigarette, but the ultimate effect of this lyric is to connect the nature of the cigarette as a slow-killing poison to the nature of commodities as poisons which ensnare consumers in cycles of craving and withdrawal.
Hence, King’s character, after meeting his short-term desire, is left feeling “restless, bored as a cat” (A-2). A-3 begins with King, who lists the commodified solutions on offer, identifying the ailments. We are led through a loop that begins with opportunistically constructed wants, continues with the naïve belief that the satisfaction of these superficial “necessities” will soothe their real, profound dissatisfaction with capitalist modernity; and follows with the restless suffering of constant striving for implanted desire.
The first A section is a bit more cryptic: “look through the window and what do you see? / I’m looking through a pane of glass”. Kevin J.H. Dettmar suggests that a metaphorical interpretation of glass as ideology is tempting: “[w]hen it’s working well, it’s invisible: you don’t even know it’s there. . . [b]ut it’s quietly framing everything, even when not subtly distorting” (82). However, Dettmar is dismissive of this interpretation and of the track altogether, declaring that it “doesn’t really go anywhere” (82). Evidently, I disagree with his dismissal, but I do think his hypothetical interpretation is an apt one. The window provides a set point of view—its inclusion of one vantage point is an omission of all others. This squares with the implanted-desire-fuelled cycle of dissatisfaction that the character experiences: if easing the deep existential anxiety felt by the capitalist subject is framed only as the search for the perfect commodity, then the cycle is inescapable. For how distressing and pitiful the subject of the song is, they experience a moment of recognition in the B-1 section of the song: “I’m looking through a pane of glass”. They no longer observe what the window seeks to show them, but only the glass itself. “Look through the window and what do you see?” could be read as the dialogue accompanying window-shopping for commodities: by looking at the pane of glass instead, this cycle of ceaseless desire is exposed and is looked at instead of through for the first time.
This experience of untangling narrative and critical implications is not unique to this particular Gang of Four song. Part of their power as a political band—and Dettmar concurs—is their insistence on “performing, rather than preaching, [their] politics” in such a way that they “[dramatize] the process of political analysis—[forcing us] into making choices wherein our most deeply held political beliefs are revealed in the cold light of day” (21). I pulled open the trapdoor of the word should, but my interpretation is not the only one. What matters is not my interpretation as such, but the action of articulating a politics of critique through active listening. If appreciated correctly, revolutionary art is not mere consumption: it is also an act.
In TOWARD A THIRD CINEMA, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, the guerilla filmmakers behind LA HORA DE LOS HORNOS (1968), state that genuine revolutionary film introduces us to the radical arena in which the audience-member is “no longer a spectator” (9). “On the contrary, from the moment [they decide] to attend the showing, from the moment [they] line [them]selves up on this side by taking risks and contributing [their] living experience to the meeting, [they become] an actor, a more important protagonist than those who appeared in the films'” (9). In their case, the radical act was the conscious subversion of the Argentine state’s ban on viewing LA HORA DE LOS HORNOS. However, we can expand their analysis to other forms of art and de-escalate it from the point of revolutionary fervor of late 1960s Argentina. Solanos and Getino wrote that “[t]eaching the handling of guns can be revolutionary where there are potentially or explicitly viable leaders ready to throw themselves into the struggle to take power, but ceases to be revolutionary where the masses still lack sufficient awareness of their situation or where they have already learned to handle guns” (7). Tracing the reverse movement of this argument reveals that in a society where communism and class are dirty words, it is a revolutionary act to bring audiences into the sphere of class and socio-structural analysis. If with this movement comes the gathering of equally-enabled actors, the performance of such music carries with it a seed of radicality. We can look to bands like Gang of Four, The Specials, Au Pairs, and The Clash’s involvement in Rock Against Racism for a baseline example which should be learned from and ultimately superseded. Revolutionary art should find new and exciting ways to dissolve the boundary between audience and actor, to erase mere consumption from the experience of art.
Another way the consumption of music can transform into an act is through the primacy of movement. There is no artform more physical than dance, and there is no dance without music. Today, revolution feels stuck in the world of words. When the time is right, music can drive physicality back into our politics.
Another aspect of Gang of Four’s music that is so powerful is the synergy between the immediate and the theoretical. To Dettmar, Gang of Four’s critical approach was both quotidian and riveting: “everyday problems [were] analyzed with the rigor of political and cultural theory, but approached inductively, even intuitively—neither deductively or reductively” (23). The band’s was an approach which began with “theory [suggesting]. . . a fruitful line of questioning rather than definitive answers,” continued with “lived experience [presenting] problems for analysis,” and concluded with “theory [providing] a powerful framework for standing outside one’s own experience” (24). This formula often resulted in an engaging dialectic between the subjective immediate and the theoretical which brought Marxist politics into the confusion of everyday life.
In this approach, I see a radical repudiation of a dominant strain of anti-Marxist thinking that privileges the personal, the immediate, and lived experience to the detriment of abstraction, which is marked as an intellectual crime. One prime example of this type of thinking is found in Sylvia Yanagisako’s Producing Culture and Capital:
Marx falls prey to his own irony. Nothing is mentioned about the agency or desire of capitalists to accumulate capital. Instead, the social relations of capitalists, both their relations with members of their own class as well as their relations with those of others, are determined by the agency of value. A reified analytic abstraction supplants the consciousness of the bourgeoisie. Marx thus denies capitalists what he claims distinguishes human beings from animals—the ability to express a purpose or plan raised by one’s own imagination. (17)
Here, we can see that Marxism is accused of supplanting each individual’s personal desire with an abstract characterization of class interests, of regarding human beings as automatons. This is a misinterpretation of Marx, as abstraction only seeks to trace out the general motion of class struggle in a grid of social relations—it does not attempt to subsume every individual desire under an abstracted class interest. It does, however, attempt to show how these desires come into being in the shadow of social relations and class interests determined by the mode of production. When abstraction is repudiated and the microscopic personal is mounted at the highest level of importance, macroscopic class action—necessary for revolution—is renounced. Abstraction is conceptually justified because capitalist social relations do not consider the individual subjectivities of the exploited as the bourgeoisie carries out the extraction of the surplus value. Human beings are made into objects in abstract systems—the abstraction present in Marxism is only the consciousness of this fact.
Clearly, however, revolution can only be made by real people; the gap must be bridged. This is what Gang of Four excels at. From this position of lived experience, so often privileged in anti-Marxism, they introduce the possibility of this gap being traversed. In transforming this hyper-personalized primary product of capitalist ideology into a revolutionary critique, Gang of Four parallels the maneuver of the Situationist détournement, which took capitalist cultural outputs and modified them in acts of satirical critique, often through defacing billboards or altering magazine advertisements. It is fitting, then, that the cover of entertainment! features a comic strip created by the détournement of a few frames from a Winnetou Western produced in West Germany in the 1960s.
Art has not been and will not be the principal contributor to revolution, but it is indispensable to strengthening the revolutionary culture that our movement desperately needs. It is crucial for purging ourselves of the reactionary, deflating, immobilizing, nihilist, imperialist entertainment that we have been gorging ourselves on until now. Autonomy from the system in culture is critical to achieve real autonomy from capitalism. Gang of Four were not gods or Great Men, but they can serve as an example for building an autonomous movement of art which respects the audience enough to let it struggle through difficult ideas, project its own experience into the art, and feel the contradictions of everydayness. They should serve as a guide for a movement of art which renders what is familiar uncanny, which does not distract, but focuses, which breathes an attitude of critical analysis into youth culture, and which primes us for revolutionary action.
HERE ARE A FEW LYRICS FROM “NOTHING” BY THE FUGS, TO GET A TASTE OF THEIR ZERO-POINT NIHILISM:
Poetry, nothing / Music, nothing / Painting and dancing, nothing/ The world's great books, nothing. . . Fucking, nothing / Sucking, nothing /Flesh and sex, nothing. . . Carlos Marx, nothing / Engels, nothing / Bakunin and Kropotkin, nothing. . .
Dettmar, Kevin J. H. Entertainment!. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Fig. BUGA-Up. “It’s a Bore”. Refaced Billboards. 1981.
Gang of Four. entertainment!. EMI, 1979.
Solanas, Fernando, and Octavio Getino. “TOWARD A THIRD CINEMA.” Cinéaste, vol. 4, no. 3, 1970, pp. 1–10. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41685716. Accessed 7 Apr. 2023.
Fig. Shelton, Syd. Victoria Park, East London. 30 April 1978. https://www.theransomnote.com/art-culture/reviews-art-culture/rock-against-racism-riots-reggae-punk-rebellion-the-clash/
The Fugs. “Nothing.” First Album. Fugs Records, 1965.
Yanagisako, Sylvia J. Producing Culture and Capital. Princeton University Press, 2002.
BY SAMUEL REVEIZ