Fax Home: The ’80s According to Malcolm McLaren
January 2, 1990
Never has there been so much attention on girls. The ’80s were very female, and about females’ desire to do everything a man could do. In the end they realized that it wasn’t such a brilliant idea, because what men do is mostly stupid. To wear trousers, carry briefcases, and be in jobs — most of it’s rubbish, really. It’s all replacement for men’s inability to go fishing. So women look to change men in the only way they possibly can — and that’s to make them more feminine. It’s a more feminine world that will ultimately preserve the planet.
“Pretty” is a word that men always had to fear to use and now desperately are finding ways to bring back. “Pretty” is about a nuance that men have always dismissed. It’s either black or it’s white; you don’t go into a room and say, “Oh, this is pretty.” Only girls do that. Girls know the nuance. Men are trying to find a way to understand that nuance. I think the ’90s are going to be a period when men are going to realize that they are not as interesting as women.
The art of conversation will come back in the ’90s. The art of letter writing with the invention of the fax will come back. Now you no longer have to burble and blather and inarticulate yourself over the phone. You can dutifully spend time reinventing the language. If your girlfriend is across the ocean, you write her a fax. When you write, every word on the fax has to have intention, and it is read. When you read a letter, you really believe it. And so, words count. Now, every word has to have intention. You can make love by fax. You can basically court again. The world of Emily Post might have a major comeback. Lessons in deportment, manners.
Manners are something that will immediately determine what a good politician is. We already know that Gorbachev has far better manners than George Bush, so therefore we’ve got to believe he’s more worthy, more intelligent, more sexy, a better friend, someone to take notice of. Manners become important, because the cardinal principle of etiquette is to address yourself to thinking about the effect of your actions on others. That will go a long way to changing the world.
It’s definitely going to come back, the art of monogamous living. Men are going to become conscious of what they represent in society, the bull charging at the gate, and be a little guilty. Some will act vigilantly. Perhaps we’ll have green patrols. And women will become more like animals and be quite proud of it — to be associated with a dying breed.
And men have to become more feminine. That means sitting back a bit more, that means taking care, learning to live with less rather than more, being more economical, and ultimately, I think it just means common sense. I’ve noticed that style and music are definitely trying.
In fashion there’s movement toward things that are very soft and overtly feminine.
Architecture is going out of business. Who wants to build anything? Isn’t there enough? Who wants to tear things down? We’re desperately trying hard to preserve — and that’s a very feminine thing.
Music’s a Little harder, because musicians are generally very coarse people. They can’t help but be. You can’t live in a room and look at the frets on a guitar or the keys on a piano and know what’s going on. Only the visual artists know what’s going on. Musicians always have to be catching up. The pack is led by the visual artists.
That’s the reason the art market has soared here. It’s the last holy watering place because the artist never lies. People say it’s because art can somehow turn gold into more gold — I’d rather not even think about that, because to think about that is misery. You’re really better off to say the reason they’re paying these fortunes is because art’s the only truth, in this world, as we know it, that still remains intact.
THE GREEKS had it right when they created all these different gods — men and women who could walk among us and we could knock them down. And they could commit terrible crimes and then go back upstairs. That’s why opera has become so popular in the ’80s — because it’s so much about things pagan. And ultimately that’s very much about what rock and roll was supposed to be about too, but we lost it. Rock and roll in the ’60s and early ’70s was all about those irresponsible urges we adored in the gods of Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley. And when the gods became baroque and mannered — and ultimately corporate — we got bored with it. They didn’t live seven lives; we couldn’t be as awestruck.
From the time we were very young, we believed that pop culture would free us from everything, liberate us from the old world that we decided was repressive. Rock and roll made us jump out of all that and it gave us a culture we could understand and use — very easily. It was a tremendous call to arms. If Elvis Presley was like Henry V, shouting “into the breach,” we’d sign up instantly, because it sounded so great. “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Jailhouse Rock” or “Summertime Blues” or “Anarchy in the UK” or Jim Morrison shouting “I want the world and I want it now” — they’re all brilliant anthems. We were all ready to sign up. The culture was undisturbed and the movement was very clear.
But as we got older, we started to look at the inside of it. We realized that rock and roll really wasn’t about what we dreamt it was about when we initially heard it. It had turned from something very entrepreneurial and cowboyish into a modern corporate machine that sold us not freedom, but Coca-Cola and Donald Duck.
We were caught between two worlds in the ’70s. All the freedom that was purported for us to grab, all the culture that was thrown like footballs at our feet, was taken away. It didn’t really exist. And the ’60s, that whole dream, had gone. We suddenly saw the cracks in Andy Warhol: the notion of good art is good business and bad art is bad business suddenly left a bad taste in our mouths. We didn’t like the hardness in him. This whole goddamned pop culture that America sold — and that we adored to buy — was demystified as a huge vacuous lie. We were left with the only worthwhile thing, which was finding a way to break it all down.
Now, we’re trying to bring it back if we can. We’ve decided to believe, just for the sake of it. It’s the reason for the nostalgia for the Rolling Stones. It’s a fundamental thing — this wanting to believe in things again. Today people are trying desperately to be naïve. Desperately. The long dresses, the softer curves, the pasty faces, the whole nocturnal ideal of a ghostly image, or looking like something from the 19th century. People are trying to taste again a little of the ’60s. Perhaps they could reinvent the pose, the homespun, the do-it-yourself, the flagrant dismissing of the word career. Today take away the notion of career and people walk around empty, scared stiff, because it’s vested in the ’80s if you don’t have a career you’re an irresponsible bum.
I THINK AS WE entered the ’80s we gave in, totally, and started to believe in this business of selling a perfect way of life, this capitalist dream. Most people decided, having thrown all their ideas that they were originally born with into the dustbin, they might as well get on and make money. And they did. And we came to the end of this decade realizing we’d got the money, but there’s nothing to fucking buy. Nothing there. We didn’t make anything, really.
So we must go in search — for the memories, for the parts of the culture that we’d completely destroyed. Do we have to go to the valleys of El Salvador where they cleared out peasants’ houses, having machine-gunned all the inhabitants down? Will we find it in some old chair that has some history, and that’s got half its paint rubbed off? How can we appear romantically old and decrepit and still beautiful because somehow we’ve managed to retain something of our past that we now care about? Because pop culture — we don’t care about that any more — it’s part of the world of the artificial.
It’s extraordinary that the fashion of the ’80s is all these broken-down chairs and half-painted tables and stuff that looks like peasant furniture from the Third World, that this is a great chair because it actually stood in Guatemala City. There’s this capitalistic determination that we will inevitably put on the wall someone else’s grief.
And so I think this mad hoorah hoorah for the demolishing of the Berlin Wall is a fabulous metaphor, because what the Berlin Wall represents is probably the best art monument that the West ever had, and the fact that they’re tearing it down suggests that everything that came after it wasn’t worth very much at all. So to have a chip of the Berlin Wall is to actually have a bit of this culture — it will be as good as having a print of Andy Warhol or anything else.
The interesting thing now is that Europe is decidedly selling its whole culture, and the biggest part of it is yet to come. Which I think is what the tearing down of the Berlin Wall is going to be all about. Because the other side, luckily in some respects, has preserved the old. We’ll be seeing Vogue on the streets of Prague. Those East European faces, buildings, attitudes, are something that people are going to want to be part of. The idea of the broken-down, the imperfect, the crumbling — fashionable people decided that’s attractive. It’s what they searched for on every holiday they ever embarked on — something real. And the most real place today is Eastern Europe.
And the funny and most ironic thing is that the Communist bureaucracies in the Soviet states were able to retain the old culture much better than the capitalists. They may not realize what jewels they possess. It’s a little like the U.S. selling whiskey to the Indians — because you’re going to be trying to sell Coca-Cola and MTV to the Poles. And in return try in some way to enslave them to your system and make them consume the dream that no longer is selling anywhere else. ■
The Crack-Up: The Decade of the Quick and the Dead
by Barry Michael Cooper