Friday, November 27, 2009

What Would Poly Styrene Think Of Black Friday At Walmart?

I got up at 4:30 AM today to go to my neighborhood Walmart to buy a laptop during this year's post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" sale. I survived but I purchased my computer at Radio Shack instead.

As I've been rereading Jon Savage's masterful England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond -- having just hit the first mention of X-Ray Spex too -- the prescient lyrics of Poly Styrene were in my mind as I strode into the heaving, packed Walmart at 5:00 AM.

There is something ironic -- sad really -- about so many underpaid American workers queuing to buy electronics manufactured by grossly underpaid Chinese workers. An added irony that I was queuing to buy the computer to take with me on a trip to China was not lost on me.

I'm not going to go off on an anti-corporate rant -- Walmart does provide cheap goods to poor people in America, right? Right!?! -- but I will comment on the scene there.

There is a reason that people use the term "the great unwashed" as the majority of people in this place reeked of cigarette smoke and body odor. Now, I'm not exactly David Niven myself but I tend to bathe and launder my clothes after wearing them. And I've never been a smoker.

So the "event staff" security guards were herding us in through the barricades like we were going to a rock concert and I finally pushed my way back to the electronics department.

As I noticed mothers rifling through boxes of the day's $2 and $9 DVD specials -- not even stocked, the titles were just out on a shelf in big boxes direct from the manufacturers! does anyone need a copy of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009) for even $2? -- I spied three lines in the department. It was an unorganized scene -- were these people waiting for the laptops and big screen TVs or what? I finally flagged-down an employee -- an older woman, clearly a smoker, with the wrinkled skin of a woman twice her age -- and she said -- at 5:05 AM! -- that the laptops were already gone!

Five minutes after the "Black Friday" sale began and the hot item was already sold out!

So, I pushed myself to the front of the store and tried to get through to the exit -- the lines to pay for merchandise were already long and twisting back into the aisles of monster-sized bags of potato chips and football-team quantity boxes of Pop-Tarts -- as even the spectacle of cheap Diet Pepsi products could not tempt me to stay in this madhouse.

Yes, I love American pop culture, junk food, and junk TV but I love it -- usually -- from a perspective of scorn and derision. And even I have my limits.

Walmart at 5:00 AM is not my bag. So I drove down the highway to Radio Shack; I'll gladly pay an extra $50 for a similar laptop if it means I only have to jostle my way in with 20 people.

So, what would the one true punk think of this? What does the woman who wrote "Warriors at Woolworths" think of this kind of consumerism?

I say one true punk because, let's face it: the Sex Pistols were a pop group. I don't say that as an insult but the whole pop spectacle business of the group's rise-and-fall never felt like the story of a real band but more like the story of a media experiment. Surely Lydon was enthusiastic, possessing a wit and intellect most of his peers were sorely lacking, but, in the end, the McLaren-led enterprise didn't promise anything more than destruction.

The Clash? Love 'em but, by the simple virtue of the fact that frontman Strummer was a journeyman rocker from a few pub rock bands pre-Clash, I can't see how one could call them real punks.

The term to my mind applies to only a few of the British 1976-1977 punk movement and without a doubt in my mind Poly Styrene was one of the real ones.

In a punk scene that as early as 1977 was splintering into Boy's Own-style machismo-fantasies -- Thanks Sid, you fucking sad moron -- it took colossal courage for a fat, braces-wearing, mixed-race, 19-year-old young woman to take the stage.

As the years go by my admiration for the lyrics on the first X-Ray Spex album only increases. First single, "Oh Bondage! Up Yours! seems now 30+ years later to be one of the great rock singles.

"Chain-store chain-smoke
I consume you all
Chain-gang chain-mail
I don't think at all"

- "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!

And the full-length album, Germ-Free Adolescents, manages to contain similar gems. Sure, it prefigures the whole riot grrl thing a bit too neatly but let's forget about that.

The purity of intent is what still staggers the imagination. In a pre-MTV world, a 19-year-old girl wrote these precise words that skewered consumerism at every turn.

And unlike the lyrics of later bands with similar intentions, they are funny!

"I wrenched the nylon curtains back
As far as they would go
And peered through perspex window panes
At the acrylic road...

I drove my polypropylene
Car on wheels of sponge
They pulled into a Wimpy bar
To have a rubber bun."

- "The Day The World Turned Day-Glo"

So, Walmart at 5:00 AM in near-riot conditions is an accurate picture of American consumerism and the herd mentality.

Without Poly's wit, the Manic Street Preachers hit the nail on the head for me as I literally had to fight my way out of the shopping crowd:

"From feudal serf to spender, this wonderful world of purchase power..."
- "Motorcycle Emptiness, Manic Street Preachers