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Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Guillotine by The Coup - A revolutionary anthem for our times


All great art is ideological weaponry. The song 'The Guillotine' by 'The Coup' is a perfect example. A mixture of funk and hip-hop, it is explicitly an attack on the ruling class and can be comfortably categorised as both a 'text of resistance' and 'authentic subcultural activity'. The radical ideology that is integral to the cultural content of the song is both feminist and anti-capitalist. The characters in the music video are taken from 'The Wizard of Oz', allowing for pre-established symbolism to be used to express meanings and ideas to a greater extent than would otherwise be possible. The artists, through an independent record label, have used the internet and social media to reach a mass audience whilst being in active opposition to the 'culture industry'; thus breaking free of the material control and ideological 'hegemony' of the capitalist media corporations. The song is accessible to an audience of politically aware fans who access music through websites such as Youtube.

In the music video for the song, Boots Riley dressed as a scarecrow descends from a cross on a basketball hoop and marches down a yellow ‘flashing’ road. He is accompanied by a ‘Dorothy’, a ‘Tinman’, a (not so cowardly) ‘Lion’ and a Guillotine. The parallels with the ‘Wizard of Oz’ are clear. The characters arrive in 'Emerald City' where they find a capitalist ‘wizard’ hiding behind a large mask. The metaphor of the 'wizard's mask' can be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the hegemonic ideology that creates false consciousness amongst working people. The 'wizard's mask' is torn down, exposing that behind the 'mask' exist pure capitalist interests. Henry Littlefield argued that in the original novel 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' the characters symbolise different elements of real politics. He argued that the Scarecrow represents farmers, the Tinman; industrial workers and the Lion; William Jennings Bryan (a politician at the time). In a famous speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896, Bryan proclaimed “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Would it be fair to say that in this case, at the start of the music video for 'The Guillotine' the symbolic message can be interpreted as “You shall not crucify the black man on a basketball hoop?” The characters are taken from a context in which they are both political and representative of the working classes. A critical analysis of both the song and the music video allows us to continue to draw meaning and significance from these symbolic representations. Through the use of existing cultural symbols in an altered narrative the artists have managed to appropriate content from the culture industry and use it to convey a counter-hegemonic political message. This reinforces Raymond William's claim that hegemony “...is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged...”

Theodor Adorno argued that we live in a world consumed by 'inauthentic mass culture' and that only 'radical', 'shocking' and 'avant-garde' culture is actually authentic. He claimed that through the 'de-aetheticization' and 'fragmentation' of art that the false 'harmony' and 'beauty' of the culture industry could be ruptured, creating a space for dissonance and negation. In the song, costumes, street art, set props, dance routines and even the music itself provide clear examples of 'de-aetheticization' and 'fragmentation'. The outfits are mix and matched and look homemade. The dancers are not synchronised with the same level of precision as would be considered necessary for 'commercial' music videos. The dance routines are improvisational, irregular and off balance. The instrumental track gives the impression that the musicians are not fixed to a regular tempo but instead speed up and slow down. The location and the street art in the video are typical of industrial working class neighbourhoods; old scooters, car parts and various bits of junk are scattered around. This type of authentic artistic expression has much stronger links to the lived reality of working class people in capitalist society than the plush nightclubs and millionaire pool parties found in 'commercial' hip-hop videos. Through rupturing the ‘false harmonies’ of mainstream music the artists are reclaiming the original function of the hip hop movement as a voice of the people and a space for social criticism and political struggle.

"Theodor Adorno argued that we live in a world consumed by inauthentic mass culture"

The song openly advocates for political violence. The guillotine is presented not as oppressive weapon to be feared but instead as the as an emancipatory tool to be used by the people to execute their capitalist exploiters. It is here that a link is formed between the French Revolution and recent social movements such as ‘Occupy Wall Street’. The guillotine is an iconic tool of the French Revolution, when it was used to decapitate those condemned to death. It is possible that before the Occupy movement the ideas explored in this song might be quite ambiguous for a lot of people but in our post Occupy world millions of people are aware of the 'one percent'. Is it not appropriate to say that the capitalist wizard hiding behind the ‘mask’ in ‘Emerald City’ is a functioning symbol of the ‘one percent’ in our modern content? The support of violence is explicit in the lyrical content of the song:

“May all your guns go off if it's time to bust…
…Let's keep it bangin’ like a shotgun
We're in a war before we fought one
Now if you're tired of workin’ so they can play-
A common enemy, we got one”

It is in this continuation from social criticism towards revolutionary violence that the artists have the potential to further radicalise their audience and present the idea of revolutionary violence for debate.

The culture industry is threatening to women; in mainstream hip hop misogyny is the norm. It is common for women in commercial hip hop songs to be referred to as 'bitches' and 'hoes'. The ho-stomping, booty shaking elements of hip hop are heavily promoted by major record labels. Record companies say this is because it results in more record sales, they are just working with the ‘market’, they claim. It is interesting to note that a majority of hip hop record sales are to white, middle class teenage boys. In a lot of videos female dancers are seen as nothing more than eroticised stage props, totally submissive to the hyper-masculine rappers. In the music video for 'The Guillotine', dominant themes present in commercial hip hop such as misogyny and the de-humanisation of black women are challenged. The female dancers are not sexualised but instead take centre stage and perform break dancing routines while the male actors stand by watching. The song is feminist, in this track it is women who are threatening to the culture industry not the other way around. A young, black woman, wearing a red dress and loosely embodying Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, leads the group both vocally and literally at various points in the video. In contrast to commercial hip hop videos she is not sexualised to the point that she is more object than human being and she is not dis-empowered or subjugated. Using the Wizard of Oz allegory Dorothy represents the American people. It is in these ways that the artists are able to use their music to empower women rather than degrade them.

"The song is feminist, in this track it is women who are threatening to the culture industry not the other way around."

The song is overtly revolutionary and anti-capitalist. The lyrics speak of shutting down capitalist production as well as the justification that it's 'not extortion' (presumably because the sections of society they represent create all the wealth). They also contain a line about how all the textbooks said to give the wealth to the elite. In economics, the idea that giving more resources to the rich will benefit everyone is called trickle-down theory. Although it has been proven not to work it is still taught in many business schools.

“We'll shut your shit down - don't call it extortion
Caution - we're coming for your head
So call the feds and get files to shred
Every textbook read said bring you the bread
But guess what we got you instead”

A more subtle example of anti-capitalist ideology present in the track is when they capture the capitalist wizard and there is money flying everywhere, no one cares and no one picks any of it up, they just walk straight over it. This is a huge difference to the way in which money is obsessed over in a lot of commercial hip hop videos, where grown adults can be seen going crazy over paper currency. We live in a world of commodities, a world in which the relations between commodities are elevated above the relations between people. As money is the exchange commodity which can be used to 'buy' all other commodities the fetishisation of money is the most intense. This disregard for money demonstrates a lack of commodity fetishism which negates from the ruling capitalist ideology of our times.

The artists tell us that the police protect the bosses and that capitalists don't write their own lies. The listener is encouraged to 'get offline' and connect with 'this modem' which it seems reasonable to presume if an effort to encourage fans to get involved with the struggle. The audience is given political advice that you can't out vote the elite and that the golden rule of America (that those with the gold make the rules) still stands.

“Tell the boss to call police to escort him
You don't write all them lies, you just quote em
Get offline, plug in to this modem
No you can't out-vote em
The rules are still golden”

These verses which contain both social criticism and political advice enforce the notion that “...new forces of mass communication... [can] be turned against the capitalist relations of production and [can] be used as instruments of political mobilisation and struggle.”

The song reaches an audience of politically aware viewers who use youtube to access media content that is under artist control. Total artistic freedom is only possible using independent record labels that release music and distribute through networks without compromising the ideals of the artist. In recent years, music sales have been declining. This is indicative of the shift that has occurred from conventional means of distribution such as vinyl and CDs towards online and downloadable content. Current trends continue to reduce the profits of music corporations and increase the ability of artists to determine their own content.

This type of independently produced music contains within it the hope of reclaiming more social and cultural spaces for dissidence and resistance. In a world in which corporations have control over almost everything, the ability of everyday people to use new forms of media to voice their opinions and rally for social change is invaluable. Through the use of new networks of production, distribution and communication we are seeing more and more musicians enjoying careers outside of the ‘culture industry’. The song 'The Guillotine' by 'The Coup' is an example of how music can challenge the dominant ideologies in society such as racism, neo-liberal economics, misogyny and conformity. 'The Coup' set an example to us all of how artists can appropriate and alter existing cultural symbols to convey new messages in a modern context. The capitalist elite may fantasise of totally eliminating cultural resistance. However, whilst artists can produce anti-capitalist, feminist music that advocates for violent revolutions against the rich whilst getting 100,000s of views on the internet, the elite will have to keep dreaming.

Shane Malva - S.A.

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