While teaching my students about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” an idea came to me. Emerson stated that society doesn’t care for “realities and creators” but prefers “names and customs.” “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist,” he wrote. I asked my students if they thought Lady Gaga was a non-conformist. They roundly said yes. Playing devil’s advocate, I pointed out that in a way, as unique as she seems, she’s really only playing within the rules of the game – participating in the very machinations of the music industry that she might seem to subvert. She shocks and provokes, but she also entertains and makes money. It immediately reminded me of Malcolm McLaren.
McLaren may just be the person most responsible for giving rock and roll in the post-punk era its sense of gleeful irony. Whether it was trying to get the New York Dolls to dress up like communists, cashing in on the sexuality of 14 year-old Annabella Lwin in Bow Wow Wow or riding a song banned from the radio up to number two on the UK charts, his masterful tone of promotion gleefully cavorted through the music industry’s capitalist fields while roundly flouting decorum and anticipating trends. McLaren turned selling-out into high art; the audience being manipulated was as much a part of the art as the bands themselves.
While McLaren is most famous for his role as Sex Pistols Svengali, his work in the 80s is in many ways his most interesting. He hijacked Adam Ant’s band in order to start Bow Wow Wow and then set off on a race against Ant to be the first to release a rock album of the African-influenced “Burundi Beat.” In 1983 he would release his first album as an artist himself. Duck Rock was a hybrid of South and Central American, African and American music, including hip-hop tracks that would become highly influential, especially in the UK, at breaking hip-hop to a larger audience.
It was McLaren’s sharp feeling for being ahead of trends that served him so well throughout the punk and post-punk years. He wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting a character if his artistic endeavors hadn’t been so forward thinking. His creations were a Shakespearian performance art piece – dozens of characters cycling in and out, dancing to the tune of music that was always just a step or two ahead. McLaren was not the main character, but the Puckish rogue who pulled strings from every which direction. His reputation as an exploitative person isn’t undeserved, but his art was a tantalizing production. Maybe now, on his passing, we can all join hands and Robin can restore amends. words/ j neas