Sucking Frenzy

We’ll admit to a sense of relief upon seeing Nike’s latest exercise in
subverting the subversives — a TV ad propelled along by the spoken-word,
proto-hip-hop rantings of Gil Scott-Heron’s classic “The Revolution Will
Not Be Televised.” For a few short but blissful days we hummed the song’s
percolating bass line to ourselves, and several times burst into Scott-Heron’s
memorable tag line — “the revolution will be LIVE” — while strolling down
the sidewalk. Sure, it was sad to see the ultimate anti-establishment
anthem enlisted in the service of marketing sneakers, and after William
Burroughs’ spell as a Nike huckster last year, Wieden and Kennedy’s track
record of subcultural imperialism seems more slap-in-the-face sabotage than
nudge-nudge-wink-wink media savvy. But the fact is radical posturing has
played to a mass market at least since the sixties (Columbia Records
underwrote their 1968 offerings with the slogan, “The Man Can’t Stop Our
Music”), and so Nike’s “appropriation” of Scott-Heron’s song had the effect
of a circle finally squared after too many years waiting for the deed. If “The
Revolution Will Not Be Televised” can be repurposed into a sneaker ad, then
surely all the escape-routes from consumer society must be closed off for
good — not necessarily the most appealing scenario, of course, but one
that has at the very least the virtue of “clarity,” as the Princess of
Wales likes to say.

But the dream of subcultural authenticity is the opiate of today’s mass
market, and like Marx’s old-time religion, it keeps on reinventing itself.
What’s changed, though, is the sheer velocity of the subversive-to-sell-out
cycle. It used to take an underground filmmaker or an indie rock band three
or four years to “compromise” themselves by joining the cultural
establishment. But last week’s fury over Suck — the ultra-cool Web site
that announced its new status as a “wholly owned subsidiary of Hotwired” —
demonstrated that even indie cachet on the Web follows the accelerated,
near-exponential pace of microprocessor speeds. Call it Moore’s Law of
street cred.

Let’s make a few things clear about the trahison de suck. First, we’ve
always liked the sucksters, ever since they first spammed their way into
our mailbox way back in their “cult following” days (i.e., early
September). We liked them 1) because they could write, 2) because they
maintained the most compelling bookmark collection this side of Yahoo, and
3) they made the occasional reference to semiotic theory — which never
fails to set our hearts aflutter here in the francophile Filter. But most
of all we were drawn to the mix of contempt and self-loathing they
displayed in almost every installment. If the Web was draining out into a
commercial wasteland, then Suck was part of that flow; their indictments,
blistering as they were, usually spiraled back to the sucksters themselves.
This sort of less-holy-than-thou attitude was most clearly expressed in
Suck’s self-diagnostic “autopsy of a sell-out,” the piece that announced
their newfound relationship with Hotwired (itself a strange candidate for
Establishment uncool).

As it turns out, though, the suckster’s self-reflexive cynicism was lost on
some of their peers, who seem to have mistaken them for Network’s Howard
Beale (“a latter-day prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of his age,” as Peter
Finch puts it in the movie). Anyone who wades through more than two or
three columns should know that the Suck sensibility involves fessing up to
hypocrisy as much as denouncing it. And yet Suck’s coming-out party was
greeted with a ludicrous display of synchronized hand-wringing, invariably
in the form of a visual “tribute” to Suck’s minimalist aesthetics:
four-words-a-line column widths, with a heavy Courier presence in the
title. A few syntactically-challenged cypherpunks posted anonymous
denunciations in the Hotwired Threads section, and both the Netly News and
Media Central composed wry eulogies, bemoaning the sucksters’ fall from

Being wildly well-connected ourselves, the news of Suck’s new alliance had
drifted our way several weeks ago, and we greeted its formal announcement
with mixed feelings. You can certainly make the argument that Suck might
have done better for itself by remaining a stand-alone product; we suspect
the sucksters could have pulled it off, and if nothing else they would have
made wonderful laboratory rats for the new science of Web publishing. But
thundering against Suck’s “sell-out” strikes us as being a preposterous
case of wish-fulfillment. There are no happy endings in the narrative of
subcultural authenticity, which makes us think that it’s the compromising
of principles that draws us towards these spectacles, and not the
principles themselves, whatever they once were. We don’t really want punk
rock Web sites; we want the comforting pageantry of punk rock Web sites
imploding before our very eyes. You’d think a site called “Suck” would be
immune to these purifying rituals, but in a consumption-saturated society
where every cultural act conceals a sales pitch, maybe the desire for
fallen angels is now stronger than the desire for saints. And so we prop up
and shoot down an underground icon in the time John Cale used to take to
record one of his electric viola solos. That’s progress for you. All of
which raises the obvious question: given the sucksters’ spectacular descent
from subculture heroes to pawns of the establishment, can a Nike ad be far
behind? The revolution may not be televised, after all, but its betrayal
never fails to draw a thirty share.

— S.J (December, 1995)

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