Gang of Four: Pop Music as Marxist Critical Theory

On their second album Solid Gold, the postpunk rock group Gang of Four openly assert their intention to approach pop music as critical theory with a song titled, appropriately enough, “Why Theory?” In answer to their own query of why critical theory should have a place in rock music, the band sings “Each day seems like a natural fact / And what we think changes how we act.” The critical theory that Gang of Four present in their music is a Marxist one centered on the premise that before revolt can take place, one must first penetrate through the consciousness that is determined by capitalistic ideology in order to understand why a revolution is necessary.

Gang of Four locate their Marxist theory in the Althusserian notion of expressing resistance through the contradictions inherent in the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) of the corporate-controlled rock music industry, and the way in which Gang of Four express their theory of Marxist thought is by inducing in the listener an alternative consciousness achieved through contradictions and disorientations that serve to mirror the very sense of disorientation and contradiction that capitalistic consciousness creates.

According to neo-Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, an ISA is the site in which the class struggle takes place and Gang of Four grandly engaged in this contradiction by proudly signing a contract with the huge multinational conglomerate EMI as well as by choosing to ironically title their first album Entertainment! and then serving up a collection of songs that critique the very idea of entertainment being used to propagate an ideology with which the band disagrees. In a footnote to his essay Althusser somewhat fails to present a concrete view of how contradiction within an ISA actually works, but a hint of what he’s trying to say is expressed when he writes “the class struggle extends beyond the ISAs because it is rooted elsewhere than in ideology, in the Infrastructure, in the relations of production, which are relations of exploitation and constitute the base for class relations.” The contradiction inherent in the music industry is that a company like EMI can only exist by making profits off its acts and Gang of Four presented themselves as a potentially profitable band despite their dissident theories.

But what reason could a devoutly Marxist band have for signing with a devoutly capitalist entity like EMI? Realizing that signing with any company constitutes an exploitative relationship in which it is the artist that is exploited, Gang of Four consciously decided to enter the belly of the beast, reveling in its implications. In the booklet accompanying the band’s compilation album 100 Flowers Bloom guitarist Andy Gill says, “From the beginning, we picked EMI as being a perfect label for us to be on; one of the biggest industrial conglomerates in the UK-a huge multinational, trading in everything from arms to entertainment. If we’d been on Rough Trade [another record label], it would have been a far less potent juxtaposition.” Gang of Four clearly sought to delineate in their theory the Althusserian notion that everyone is complicit in accepting the ideology, that there is no point in trying to escape responsibility. By signing with Rough Trade or any other smaller record company Gang of Four would in effect have been accepting an imaginary relationship as their “real conditions of existence.” By signing with EMI and juxtaposing their radical politics with a hugely successful capitalistic behemoth, Gang of Four attempts to bypass an “imaginary relationship…to the relations of production and the relations that derive from them.” Potent juxtaposition in order to expose that complicity in an imaginary relationship and to raise awareness of it in the listener went far beyond deciding which company to sign with, it became a staple of their message to the rock world.

The critical theory that Gang of Four attempt in their music is not one that didactically hammers away that Marxism is the only path toward living wages and a better life, but rather draws the listener in as subject/object of the lyrical ideas, forcing him to re-examine the consciousness that he has come to accept as natural, presenting him with the idea that he is complicit in the power structure and must come to accept that responsibility. The lyrical content is remarkably consistent with Marx and Engels’ exhortation that “consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.”

Contradictions and disorienting juxtapositions are a staple of Gang of Four’s songs: at home one feels like a tourist; falling in love is like contracting anthrax; our future is in the past; bloody war coverage on TV is presented as entertainment; a housewife’s home is a factory. The lyrics can be cryptic, often epigrammatic, and usually require multiple listenings to understand their point. In this sense, the critical theory being engaged in is quite reminiscent of the plays of Bertolt Brecht or the films of Jean-Luc Godard. The point of their version of Marxist theory is not to hit their audience over the head and rattle the chains of revolution like The Clash attempted, but to induce awareness of consciousness more subtly. As Andy Gill points out in Greil Marcus’ definitive portrait of the band republished in his iconic book Lipstick Traces: “it’s a lack of subtlety and thinking which leads to clumsy theory and bad practice. If you’re not aware of the processes and thoughts by which you arrive at a statement about a situation, if you’re not aware of that, then you probably can’t sufficiently analyze the situation.”. Gill is coming very close here to restating Marx and Engels when they write, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

Gang of Four’s Marxist theory is particularly preoccupied with determination of consciousness. Although many of their songs rail against specific targets, the bulk of their message centers on the conceit of becoming aware of the political implications that inform the reception of ideas and opinions about those targets. Gang of Four’s music is concerned primarily with the classic Marxist concern about capitalistic consciousness, but the lyrics don’t treat that consciousness as being false in the classic Marxist tradition. What the band sees as false is the acceptance that any separation really exists between the personal and the political, and so they inform their lyrics minus any dividing line between the two, encouraging the listener to question his motivation in accepting an ideology that would cultivate such a deception.

Gang of Four’s lyrics consistently present a vision of society whereby this deception works through the successful interpellation of members of the working class as consumers rather than workers, consumers who can then more easily measure their own value by the degree of consumption they can attain. Gang of Four’s approach to this interpellation is quite similar to what Roland Barthes writes when he observes that “the bourgeoisie is constantly absorbing into its ideology a whole section of humanity which does not have its basic status and cannot live up to it except in imagination, that is, at the cost of an immobilization and an impoverishment of consciousness.” The kind of immobilization Barthes is talking about is addressed by the band in the song “Call Me Up” from Songs of the Free:

“Children of the pleasure culture

Who must be grateful for what we’ve got

Happy smiles in sunny climes

So don’t upset the ice cream cart.”

Gang of Four’s fixation on exposing the fact that what appears to be natural is not necessarily always so is also mirrored by Barthes when he writes, “the further the bourgeois class propagates its representations, the more naturalized they become.”

The predominant song ever produced by Gang of Four that serves to critique the influence of consumerism is probably “Natural’s Not In It” from their first album. Sung from the point of view of someone who has been completely interpellated as a consumer, the song begins as a complaint about having too much leisure time and wondering what to do for pleasure. The singer confronts the fact that items produced for pleasure are in actuality a means of coercing his senses. He allows himself to hold fast to great expectations of a future for the good but this dream of social revolution is diverted by sexual advertising: “Repackaged sex keeps your interest.” He realizes that the products he’s been buying are not natural outgrowths of his desires, but precisely manufactured bourgeois temptations designed to, in the words of Marx and Engels, “create a world after its own image.”

In creating this world of conforming to the pursuit of a generally unattainable bourgeois standard of living, capitalism increasingly does away with the need for Repressive State Apparatuses by instilling in the working class the idea that they must possess leisure and entertainment products to elevate their value. The ruling class subtly subverts the occasions for serious questioning of what is going on in society beneath the surface. This is the kind of questioning that Gill is speaking of when he criticizes the ability to properly analyze a situation by being unaware of the thought process behind the analysis. In a way the band’s approach to Marxist theory is very much in line with Edmund Wilson when he writes that in applying Marxist principles “the purport is not a simple message, but a complex vision of things, which itself is not explicit, but implicit.” There is nothing explicitly Marxist in the closing lines from the song “Glass” off the band’s first album.

“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.”

In the context of the songs that surround those lines, however, the implicit meaning does become explicit: Having been complicit in the capitalist ideology that has formed his consciousness, the singer is beginning to realize that the ideology he has bought into isn’t making him happy. In fact, he is beginning to feel imprisoned, reflecting Marx and Engels’ theory that “From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.”

In a system that engages in the use of ideology rather than force to control its underclass and that engages in the practice of diversion through the type of distraction that Walter Benjamin discusses, the danger for that system lies in the realization of discontent by its inhabitants. When the discontent rises to a pitch and the diversions of entertainment no longer occupy the mind, that is when the alternative consciousness can be raised. Once again Gang of Four reveal their ability to exploit contradiction by engaging in the diversion of leisurely entertainment in order to raise awareness about the discontent that a happiness that is dependent on consumption of leisurely entertainment ultimately brings. Reaching the point at which this awareness of why one finds himself discontent despite owning so many things he was assured would make him happy is what ultimately concerns Gang of Four and is the cornerstone of their theory.

In interpreting Marxist thought through rock and roll, Gang of Four approaches critical theory in a first person context in which the singer first becomes aware of his interpellation into ideological consciousness and then conducts a battle within himself between rebellion against the negative effects of that consciousness and the desire for accommodation. Marx and Engels write that “Empirical observation must in each separate instance bring out empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production” but for this to happen all mystification must be penetrated. The problem, of course, is that ideology is predicated upon mystification. Gang of Four’s most cogent address of this situation is revealed in the lyrics to “A Man With a Good Car” from their album Hard. The principal voice, confused about in whose hands his fate rests is provided an all important clue when asked by a second voice,

“I know that you think that you know what I said

But do you realize that what I said’s not what I meant?”

The second voice is, in essence, the voice of practically every Gang of Four song. But, of course, so is the first voice because the band makes it clear that they realize they are just as much interpellated as anyone else. The combination of both voices, often within the same song, is the driving force behind the band’s attempt at turning rock music into critical theory. Until questions are raised, an alternative consciousness can never be formed. And even when questions are raised, revolt may not necessarily ensue because the desire will always exist to accept the status quo. Accommodation or escape from the responsibility is an issue in many songs. In “We Live As We Dream, Alone” from the album Song of the Free: “Some fall into fatalism / As if it started out this way.” From “What We All Want” on the album Solid Gold: “Could I be happy with something else / I need something to fill my time.” From “At Home He’s a Tourist” on the album Entertainment!: “She said she was ambitious / So she accepts the process.”

The fundamental key to Marxist critical theory as practiced by Gang of Four revolves around the question of whether one can appropriately choose to accept the process or not. There is no room for questioning whether one is part of the process or not, that everyone is and that everyone shares complicity in the process is established. Gang of Four attempt through their songs to raise awareness about what the process actually is, how it works, what it means. The lyrics never set out to answer the question of what can be done to change the process except in a very subtle, implicit way. For Gang of Four, the revolution must wait until awareness about what one is revolting against is satisfactorily understood. Only when one understands why they are ambitious can one truly decide to accept the process.

Or not.