When I first started visiting Japan, I loved the drinks machines. Open all hours, they lined every street, spilling white light into public space. It was impressive that they could sit there day and night without getting smashed, robbed or pissed into. I wasn't just impressed that Japan was a society safe and stable enough to have these benign coin-operated machines on every street, I also liked what they contained: drinks without too much sugar, or beer or green tea.
In Japan, even the Coca-Cola corporation was selling bottles and cans of green tea alongside Coke and Fanta. Pure, super-healthy green tea, without additives, without sugar. It seemed like an object lesson in the nature of capitalism -- capitalism didn't have to be inherently toxic. It didn't have to put too much sugar or salt in stuff, or sell you drinks that made you fat.
Japanese record shops seemed to encode the same message. Even when the stores were called familiar things like "Tower" and "HMV," they carried more sophisticated and varied stocks than the branches I'd visited in the West. I rode the escalators to the fourth floor of the Shibuya HMV store and discovered a section called Avant Pop. There, next to obscure records by Bruce Haack and Dragibus, they'd planted an Italian lounge magazine called Il Giaguaro
and a book of interviews with post-modern San Diego literary critic Larry McCaffery
. The book was called Avant-Pop
too. I opened it and read:
"One of the good things about capitalism is that it's blind to what it sells. It's willing to sell anything.... The system isn't really the enemy. It's blind, all it wants is to replicate and do more things."
McCaffery, a literary critic, was replying to a certain punk or alt rock puritanism which says that innovation and integrity can only come from indie labels, margins, fringes. He cited Elvis Presley, and the transformative power he had, and how his emergence on RCA in the mid-'50s threatened the establishment.
As I learned more about how Japan operated, I became less sure that it was simply the case that consumers were in charge of the wholesome or sophisticated products I was seeing on sale everywhere. I heard about cartels, anti-competitive practices, yakuza control, government regulation. And somewhere along the line I stumbled on the ideas of economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who said in his 1966 BBC Reith Lecture:
"The modern industrial society, or that part of it which is composed of the large corporations, is in all essentials a planned economy. By that I mean that production decisions are taken not in response to consumer demand as expressed in the market, rather, they are taken by producers. These decisions are reflected in the prices that are set in the market, and in the further steps taken to ensure that people will buy what is produced and sold at those prices. The ultimate influence is authority."
So was McCaffery right that consumers could create a grass-roots revolution (for instance, rock 'n' roll) by buying what they wanted (for instance, Elvis records)? Or was Galbraith right to say that freedom of choice was mostly illusory, dictated by decisions made by producers, distributors, retailers, advertisers and authority? (I suppose "authority" in the 1950s might still have wanted consumers to listen to Elvis records rather than "race music," though the usual line here is that the conservatives were backing Pat Boone.)
A recent post in David Byrne's blog on the subject of payola made me think again about those two opposing views of how capitalism works. Byrne described how he discovered there'd been payola money behind the Talking Heads' hit "Burning Down The House." Audiences at live shows greeted the song with rapture simply because radio was playing it, and radio was playing it simply because the radio stations had been paid "under the table" with cash, coke and women.
"I wondered if every pop song that had moved me on the radio, from when I was in my teens, had been paid for," Byrne mused. "Oh jeez! Therefore, other than a few free-form stations around at that time, I was being treated like a Pavlovian dog -- what I had believed were my subjective passions and discoveries were actually the result of a concerted program to pound certain tunes into my innocent brain. I had been totally manipulated! What I thought were decisions and loves that were mine and mine alone had been planted in my head by sleazy characters I could barely imagine." Mark one up for Galbraith, I guess.