Wednesday, June 29, 2011
On American university campuses, in late August or early September (the beginning of the fall semester), poster merchants can be counted on to show up and offer their wares. The rock poster corpus is as intriguing as the classic rock radio corpus. The Stones have always outsold Jimi Hendrix rather drastically; but you will find three Hendrix posters to one Stones; and both Hendrix and the Stones outsell Bob Marley, who takes up 30% more portfolio space than Jimi Hendrix. U2 are often surprisingly absent, but not the Dave Matthews Band, begging the question— who would want to spend the semester staring at Dave Matthews on the wall? Jim Morrison posters often feature quotations from his poetry— and “Rock Heaven” posters often feature Lennon’s head along with Morrison’s and Hendrix’s. Lennon gets his own posters while McCartney doesn’t— often, the “Instant Karma” lyric “we all shine on” is affixed to them. As with the critically acclaimed album corpus, Nirvana and Radiohead are the big Alternative Revolution portfolio participants— some post-Alternative bands, like the Foo Fighters, find their way in too.
But what’s funny about the rock poster corpus is that it often seems to exclude completely the songwriting heavyweights— Dylan might intermittently show up, but no Van, Joni, Lou, Neil, and (the true shocker) Bruce. Where Springsteen is concerned, you’d think the poster merchants might have demographics in mind— that largely middle-class college students wouldn’t go, as blue-collar youths do, for the Boss. But a weird contradiction places Limp Bizkit, Cake, and Sublime into the portfolio, so that the rock poster corpus seems like a confused entity. Even across certain demographic lines, Springsteen sells more records than all three combined. Led Zeppelin dominates Kiss; and certain portfolios even place the more academically acceptable Pink Floyd over Zeppelin. Punk and glam are perpetually underrepresented— and Amer-Indie might as well not even exist. There are determinative quirks— fraternities on American college campuses tend to have a Bob Marley fetish. If there are reasons why American frat-boys find Bob Marley relaxing, it may be because he’s a mascot for marijuana consumption (just as Dave Matthews works for alcohol).
Obviously, the rock poster corpus, like the classic rock radio corpus, is not meant for aficionados. Amer-Indie aficionados tend to have fliers for gigs they’ve played and their own press clippings on their walls; older rock addicts often leave their walls bare. Almost no one, on any level, has their posters framed; framing not being only a middle-class gesture but a middle-aged middle-class gesture. Rock posters become statements of social identity, a way of claiming adherence to certain archetypes. Middling literary types will go for Morrison; those who can pick up a guitar and play a few chords will go for Hendrix. Female rock fans might feel a sense of freeze about the whole rock poster corpus endeavor— sorority girls tend to look elsewhere for decorative materials. The rock poster corpus is almost entirely phallocentric. Even other posters offered, like Marilyn Monroe, appeal to male sexual fantasies. Queerness and multiculturalism are also snubbed. This particular corpus is small and constructed to satisfy a small niche. It’s also more difficult to find these merchants at high-level universities, rather than mid or low-level ones.
Another subtext to these portfolios is that the target audience likes movies and sports as much as music. Rock has its place— Bob Marley (a reggae artist, to be sure, but an adjunct to rock) ranks alongside Reservoir Dogs and Derek Jeter. The American adolescent psyche is complex enough to have compartments— poster merchants know how the compartments fit together. The rock poster corpus is designed to fit alongside other, non-musical corpuses. It’s not self-contained within the bounds of rock culture. It’s for casual fans. As such, the spirit of the corpus is at a tangent to the ostensible spirit of the music. Bob Marley, especially, as a socially significant sign, is reduced to a tawdry caricature. It’s hard to believe Marley could find any common ground with American fraternity brothers. But once a sign is imported into a new context and rewritten, especially a cultural sign, there is often little that can be done. Marley will continue to stare down from fraternity walls, on youths that have grown up with affluence and privilege taken for granted.