commodifying the radical
The Olympics draw near to us, and on Australian television screens we are confronted with an advertisement for the Games featuring a truly horrifying rendition of the classic Australian ballad “Waltzing Matilda”.
The gruesome transplantation of Waltzing Matilda into a corny, overblown, adult contemporary pop song is an affront to Banjo Paterson’s work – the narration of an itinerant worker setting up bush camp by a billabong, thieving a stray sheep for food, being confronted by the police and the sheep’s ostensible owner, committing suicide and haunting said billabong.
Whatever we make of the story of this swagman, we should surely conclude that the version currently on rotation is a world away from its more radical intent.* And this is not even to mention the commercialisation of the Olympic Games…
These are merely examples of a more widespread phenomenon – the commodification of the radical. By this I mean that in our world of incredible consumerism there is an incredible tendency to take what is radical and make it marketable to the masses.
Whether it be the reduction of activism to a wristband or a spray-on deodorant called Anarchy.
Waltzing Matilda is not a lone musical example. Fifteen years ago it was pop-punk that corroded the anti-establishment spirit of punk music. Before that hip-hop, an art form originally representing urban racial minorities and addressing mainly social issues, had begun to be commodified into an often violent, misogynist and cash-driven genre. More recently the renaissance of folk music takes obvious stylistic cues from its progenitor, the 60s folk revival, but almost entirely without the stirring socio-political commentary of that era, thus gutting the folk spirit from folk music. I’m sure others could add more about the commercialisation of countless other genres including gospel music, jazz, blues, rock and grunge.
Whether the commodification of the radical is an intentional dousing strategy, or simply an opportunistic grab for a dollar is impossible to tell, and it may differ from case to case. What is certain is that it is a common pattern: the radical thing is clutched in the claws of the market and watered down to a form palatable for the masses. When this happens the radical intent of the original is tamed, left pacing the cage of plastic wrapping that surrounds it.
There is much that could be said about the commodification of social justice, but it always runs the risk of sounding smug. More appropriate may be a caution to never imagine that buying products can solve the problems of the world – don’t be sucked in by the great machine!
Christian worship has most certainly been commodified. What could be more radical in spirit than worship, the declaration that Jesus is Lord of the world over-against all other claimants? The socio-political ramifications of such a claim are significant. but of course worship itself has been largely reduced in some sectors of the Church to an annual album, a digestible download, a status symbol, a consumable commodity. Do you have the latest and greatest? is a more common question than what does this mean?
More importantly for Christians is the commodification of Jesus – “Jesus is my homeboy.” When Jesus is contorted to support the status quo you can bet he has been made palatable for a mass audience. Looking around churches today you would hardly be able to tell that Jesus came to turn everything upside down by way of his kingdom alternative to the imperial systems of the world. The fact that in many circles Jesus has become the divine problem-solver – “Jesus is the answer!” – is a sad indication of the level to which Christian faith has been deradicalised to look more like a motivational movement à la Chopra or Winfrey.
I suppose the challenge is how to reclaim Jesus from the cogs of the machine as he reclaims us from the jaws of the dragon.