Models of Capitalist Subversion: Hip Hop or Rock?

Tomas Vergara | May 30, 2018

On the 5th of May of 2018 Gibson, one of the most emblematic guitar manufacturers, announced bankruptcy. An interesting aspect of this event, beyond its economic repercussions on the music industry, is its cultural significance. It marks the decline of rock and guitar-based music, once the dominant musical genre. Gibson’s bankruptcy opens several symptomatic questions concerning the role of music in contemporary capitalist culture: What does this shift in musical taste reflect about the dynamics of capitalist culture? Does it signal the emergence of new ideological apparatuses no longer compatible with rock music?

This cultural shift, concerning the irrelevance of rock music in the current social landscape has been analysed by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism. In this book, the British cultural theorist claims that the death of Kurt Cobain – the leader of the 90s grunge band Nirvana – ‘confirmed the defeat and incorporation of rock’s utopian and promethean ambitions [into capitalist culture]’ (10). According to Fisher, capitalist culture pre-emptively incorporates the subversive gestures against its own system (9). In this context, ‘‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ cultural zones endlessly repeat older gestures of rebellion as if for the first time’ (9). In Fisher’s view, Cobain’s death signalled the deadlock of this situation, since Cobain ‘knew that he was just another spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV’ (9).

Kurt Cobain

Rock music’s promethean and subversive ambitions, in Fisher’s view, have been replaced by the more ‘realist’ discourse represented by hip-hop music, and in turn ‘any naïve hope that youth culture could change anything has been replaced by the hard-headed embracing of a brutally reductive version of ‘reality’’ (10). According to Fisher, In hip hop, ‘real’ signifies both authentic music refusing to compromise its message to the demands of the industry and art that objectively reflects the ‘reality constituted by late capitalist economic instability, institutionalized racism, and increased surveillance and harassment of youth by the police’ (Reynolds in Fisher 10). In this sense, Fisher argues, hip-hop’s use of the term ‘real’ embodies the acceptance of the system’s dynamics and injustices, namely, the ideological ‘claim to have stripped the world of sentimental illusions and seen it for ‘what it really is’: a Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality’ (11).

Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, however, was first published almost 10 years ago in 2009, a fact which opens the question of whether his critique holds any truth in our current political and cultural landscape. The distinction between rock and hip-hop’s cultural messages can be analysed according to a different perspective to the one offered by Fisher. My main contention is that there is not necessarily a correlation between rock music and subversive utopian ambitions or between hip-hop and reactionary acceptance of capitalist dynamics. Instead, it is the mode in which this subversion takes place that has changed, that is, the stylistic and not merely discursive difference between both musical genres.

Perhaps one of the most illustrative examples of this stylistic difference between both genres is their use of instrumentation. In rock music there is clearly one instrument that stands above the rest of the band: the electric guitar. This is represented by the abundance of guitar solos in this kind of music, but also by the existence of ‘guitar heroes’, such as Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton or David Gilmour. The promethean aspect of rock music’s cultural discourse is directly related to this guitar-focused stylistic choice. As in Fredric Jameson’s analysis of modernist aesthetics, the guitar solo in rock music, like the figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, stands for the outward display of emotions: ‘the wordless pain within the monad and the moment in which, often cathartically, that “emotion” is projected out and externalized’ (11-12). This is the expressive role of the 2-minute solo at the end of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’, rendering palpable in a wordless manner the alienation portrayed by the lyrics, but also a heroic confrontation of the individual with his situation. In this sense, rock music clearly posits this stylistic element over the sum of its parts. This, I would argue, does not only stand as a merely stylistic choice, but also reflects its individualist focus and the type of subversion it promulgates.

Hip Hop

The use of musical instrumentation in hip-hop music differs considerably from rock’s guitar-centred style. Rap music is much more lyrical-based than rock music, and the stylistic use of instrumentation aptly reflects that. Hip hop does not have a mandatory array of instrumentation that it must follow in order to be considered part of the genre. Instead, hip hop artists can opt for manifold instrumental choices: piano, bass, samples, synths, drum-machines, and so on. The instrumentation of hip-hop music is mainly used as a support for the lyrical message of the song and, as such, there is not a privileged non-lyrical musical element overshadowing the rest. In this sense, within the hip hop genre, instrumental elements do not necessarily stand for an individualist model of expression unless the song dictates so. Instead, political hip hop lends itself more readily to an all-encompassing view of the social field itself: the inequalities emerging from it, police brutality, and racist discrimination.

It might be argued, as Fisher does, that the system incorporates hip hop into it as much rock music. However, this is not the point. The cultural shift from a reverence for an individualist model of subversion to a more social and all-encompassing critique of capitalism, albeit one that might not offer any emancipatory potential, is worth noting. This cultural zeitgeist and shift not only expresses the anxieties of newer generations, but also the model in which these anxieties are channelled and incorporated by the system’s mode of production. The displacement of guitar-based music by hip hop should not be simply analysed as the end of any attempt at utopian subversion, but the shifting of focus on individual expression and libidinal emancipation into a, perhaps, more analytical approach.


About Tomas

I am currently doing a PhD on the representation of melancholia as socially conditioned mental illness in contemporary works of speculative fiction. My interests revolve around the points of intersection between psychoanalysis and Marxist criticism. I am also interested in film studies, contemporary music and the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze.

Article edited by Kiefer Holland and Maria Elena Torres-Quevero.

Works Cited

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. Washington: Zero Books, 2008.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1992.


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