Late Stage Counterculture: Airheads (1994)

 

I’m not sure if this is still a thing today, but when I was growing up it was very possible to see movies over and over again on accident and never actually see the entire thing start to finish. These were movies that were “TV Favorites” that aired in the middle of a Sunday afternoon on TBS, I’d never see the beginning and if my parents had the remote I might not see the end either. For a little while Star Wars was like this, Back to the Future, the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Airheads, the 1994 comedy with Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi, and Adam Sandler pre-Billy Madison. I have no idea how many times I’ve seen the middle 40% of this movie but it was a lot. Airheads is a movie about a cultural apocalypse, the death of a perceived movement in a pre 9/11, pre columbine but post-Reagan era. It is a movie about the self aware melting of “youth culture” specifically the idea of “youth culture” as a subversive new order that would bring about the end of Western Civilization or at the very least change it into something alien and unrecognizable. It fits into a pattern of storytelling I’d become familiar with but never needed to name until now. I’m not an expert, but I like to call this genre:

 

LATE STAGE COUNTERCULTURE

 

Yes I am talking about the same Airheads in which a heavy metal band holds up a radio station with real looking water guns and demands to have their demo tape played on the air. In 2017 the idea that a heavy metal band could hold an FM radio station hostage just for exposure is a very pre-internet problem, and that it would turn into a huge party/concert/riot with all the tough young kids coming out of the woodwork to cheer on the terrorists is something right out of the collective imagination of a generation that had grown up in the shadow of the 1960’s.

Upon my rediscovery of Airheads I noticed that it was resonating with me in a very familiar way, the themes of this story were a lot like a repackaged version of several other movies from this era, a little micro-genre I’d like to call “Late Stage Counterculture”, which is a genre that deals with several important themes in recent American history up to the turn of the century. They include;

  • The search for meaning or validation in the aftermath of the Counterculture movement.
  • Reflection on the real time melting or merging of the social values of a generation in their youth to a generation’s values in adulthood.
  • Coming to terms with the ideology that a person’s job title is an essential feature of their character, or the futility of living for yourself in a world where your peers will always judge you
  • Converting revolutionary impulses and movements into “critique” that merely point to society’s flaws and maladies but never challenge it’s structure.

Airheads has an answer to all these questions in some form or another and many other movies and TV shows of the era do as well.

Brendon Fraser’s character in Airheads goes on a spiritual journey to commune directly with the spirit of Rock n Roll, and the audience witnesses this against the backdrop of terrorists taking over a radio station with the main demand that they get to play their demo on air to kickstart their career and the entire time are cheered on by an ever growing crowd of metalheads and misfits who by the end storm the radio station in and rock out in support of the band.

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The search for meaning or validation.

Chazz has at the start of the story found meaning, but is alienated from that meaning by a lack of validation. In the early scenes as he defends his lifestyle to his live-in girlfriend the filmmakers don’t seem intent on having us doubt Chazz’s sincerity, to him sneaking into record studio offices to promote his band’s demo are totally justified uses of his time and he does so in order to earn the social validation that what he does is worthwhile. The record contract is the elixir that turns a metalhead amateur into brilliant musician and unemployed slacker into millionaire. This is happening because…

 

A generation’s values are merging into something else in real time.

 

Five years ago Chazz would be super cool, super rebellious and had a lot of social capital. He was at the time according to his social values doing the exact right thing for himself, he was a nerd who loved metal so he went headfirst into being a metal musician. But now the historical forces of change are forcing the kids who grew up with the counterculture to trade it in and up for enough security to get married and have fun on the weekend. The conflict comes in that this is referred to by the cool kids as “selling out”. Chazz spend the entire movie in the pursuit of selling out, but wants it masked in the idea that its his art that is being validated and offered the contract, and that he does it for his music’s sake not his own. The music becomes this psychological barrier between Chazz and selling out, it’s a philosopher’s stone that will turn selling out into being a true rock star.

 

Coming to terms with your job being your identity

 

The alchemy performed by the music in this movie is its way of trying to ignore directly addressing this question that really permeates the entire movie, which is the theme of your job will dictate your identity. This is most directly suggested in the early argument that Chazz and his girlfriend have, she says that she has a boring job but wants the rock and roll lifestyle as much as she wants anything else. It nowhere mentioned in the script that she is a musician in any way, in fact she’s not much of a character and more of an externalized anxiety that Chazz has about his duty to land the record deal and perform the alchemy of going from slacker to real rock star. Something about having the job at all is not seen as something to be celebrated because its presupposed that your job is your life and your life is your identity. If you want to be a square, you live like a square, if you want to be rock and roll, you live like a rock star. This is a huge departure from reality today or in 1994. No one is out there physically stopping anyone from being any big quilted collage of a person, nothing prevents stock brokers from playing Anthrax on their walkman, doctors from playing Pink Floyd during surgery, or metalheads having desk jobs. Thats not to say that the fear of having a career that doesn’t match up with your aspirations is something to not be concerned about, there is a whole other genre of people who wake up at 50 and realize they missed out on their earlier dreams. But like it or not, the moral universe of Late Stage Counterculture dictates that you must “be” what you are and yet insists that if you have a boring job you too must also be boring.

 

Converting Revolutionary Impulses into “Critique”

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Airheads like others in this genre are concerned with putting at ease the fever dream of “the youth” or “the revolution” or the lofty ideological goals of the recent past and how to let go of them or recontextualize them into something else, a “critique”. The fact that the only thing uniting the metal masses in this movie is the singular phrase “rock n roll” and thinking its so cool eeks by to qualify as what I mean by “critique”, in this case critique is taking subversive or rebellious imagery and copying it into a social statement that does just that; make a statement but not an argument. If your statement can be boiled down into just the phrase “fuck you”, your movement has ceased to be revolutionary and is merely counter-reactionary. I think t     he disconnect is that these characters want the freedom from alienation that can only be promised by socialism but have been politically defanged. Brendon Frasier has no agenda, he is born in a generation after the counterculture revolution should have made way for his dreams but reaches adulthood and realizes that somehow, silently the revolution ended and a new synthesis, the hybridization of capitalism and modernity with the aesthetic signs of rebellion. This is an effect that can only happen in an era when the dialectic of history moves faster than the time it takes for human beings to reach adulthood. When before future shock only happened to old people now future shock effects even the young, going forward no one is living in the same world, all of society will never be anchored in one or even two or three major shared paradigms for cultural values. What does wearing a leather jacket and listening to Judas Priest signify, in Airheads it signifies wearing a leather jacket and listening to Judas Priest. There is no movement for them to join in 1994, no Vietnam to protest, no Voting Rights Act to support, no opposing geopolitical ideology to support at home, by 94 even hip hop was losing its rough edges.

All that has been said so far are descriptions of the genre from the perspective of its main characters, but characters are not aware of their presence in a story, much less of the genre conventions of that story, the real target for genre conventions is the audience and the writer him or herself. The imagery of metalheads, young people, the sets, the police, the radio station workers, and the record label executives play directly into the collective imagination and memory of  its early 90’s writer and audience. The band members look like they come directly from the set of a hair metal band, the soul patched Gordon Gecko if he thought he was cool record label exec works in a building that looks like its as soul crushing and imposing force as a soviet administration building. This contrast is designed to remind the audience of a division that they already had in their minds from the last two decades of American culture; The Man vs The Youth. Tradition and innovation, preservation and sabotage, reified order and radical freedom. From early on the movie wants us to understand that the institution of the record label is meant to extract value, monetary and cultural, from creative young people who are reduced to marionettes who dance and sing in the likeness of authentic “rock and roll” but who perpetuate a safe ideological status quo for the interdependent capitalist economy. In his 1944 essay The Culture Industry Theodor Adorno wrote about this cultural conflict under capitalism.

 

The decorative industrial management buildings and exhibition centers in authoritarian countries are much the same as anywhere else. The huge gleaming towers that shoot up everywhere are outward signs of the ingenious planning of international concerns, toward which the unleashed entrepreneurial system (whose monuments are a mass of gloomy houses and business premises in grimy, spiritless cities) was already hastening…. But any trace of spontaneity from the public in official broadcasting is controlled and absorbed by talent scouts, studio competitions and official programs of every kind selected by professionals. Talented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in. The attitude of the public, which ostensibly and actually favors the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system and not an excuse for it.

 

Even if the name Adorno had never passed through script writer Rich Wilkes mind, this idea of the antagonistic relationship between culture and postwar modernity permeates the themes of Airheads. The plot of Airheads is the fictional battle of Waterloo for the counterculture movement, where the specter haunting America is the coming generational tide of the youth who will, either bring about a revolution in consciousness and usher in an age of artistic authenticity or will be the final disaster to befall a civilization teetering on the edge of internal collapse. But by 1994 the writing was on the wall for what was left of the counterculture, like Ken Watanabe’s character in The Last Samurai the Lone Rangers will go down fighting for a life that is both culturally authentic and gives them the means to live in The Man’s world; A record contract.

The record contract is the poisoned gift, its the final test for Chazz and his band mates. taking the record contract without the executive even listening to the tape means that in order to get out of the situation they sacrifice their spiritual goal of rock and roll authenticity. They can drink the cure that poisons, the Greek pharmakon, and resign them selves to live in the sphere of infinite resignation, they will pursue their rock and roll careers with the dead look in their eyes that can only be found in the face of one who has given up their higher purpose and known they were willing to do other wise. They would live as what Kierkegaard called the Knight of Infinite Resignation, a stage of existence opposed to but just prior to the stage of true faith, true belief in a contradiction. Kierkegaard gave a few examples of this in his books, the famous one being Abraham who was willing to kill Isaac in the instant just before the angel intervenes, but I like the dilemma of resignation brought on by record contract. The apotheosis moment for Chazz and the band then is  when they are at the end able to hold an amazing rock concert by refusing the play, instead of literally pantomiming rock and roll their refusal to appease the record company inspires the already uncontrollable crowd of metal heads and misfits to storm the stage in chaotic solidarity. The scene immediately fades to its epilogue with the band performing in prison and the text narration says they were let out early and their  album is wildly successful.

It would be tempting to say that the miracle of Chazz is that he could transmute the poisoned cure of the corporate record contract into genuine rock and roll success on his own terms, and maybe in the fantasy of the story that’s what happened but this is really an illusion. The problem posed by the record contract and the thematic dilemma of success on your own terms vs selling out isn’t really settled. To sell millions of albums, stage a concert in prison, and follow it by a massive tour requires a retreat into the past notion of what a rock star is, and all this stadium rock multi million dollar success is entirly predicated on collaborating with “the man” or the culture industry and its dependence on capitalist institutions. We don’t see who their new record label representative is for a reason, the movie takes us in the moment of true existential authenticity for our hero and gives him exactly what he wants ex nihilo like a pumpkin turned into a majestic carriage by a fairy godmother. Whats happening isn’t that Chazz’s personal sacrifice for rock n roll scares off the cultural vultures with a wave of imagined youth storming the stage, what happens is that the story is presenting the same dilemma, the same pharmakon from the inverted perspective. The story shows us all the trappings of heroic rock star success and seemly getting what you want for doing the right thing but the poison within the cure can’t be separated so easily. The Lone Rangers signed a contract with some guy in a suit, they play concert to sold out crowds, sell millions of albums and all of that didn’t stop the perceived decline of stadium rock and roll that the entire movie is commenting on. In real life 1994 there is no future like this for a band like The Lone Rangers, the movie has probably unknowingly given us an epilogue that ties our earlier sympathy with the bands struggle with the inverted ideology of the soul patched record representative.

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Airheads ends as a fantasy panacea for the cultural anxiety of people still concerned with the legacy of the cultural power of the sixties and the ensuing era of music. Its a story about the dangers of selling out, full of observant critiques of the then current late era of heavy rock and roll music culture and the problems that mainstream success has brought but ultimately performs an illusion, a magic trick of inverting the ideological perspective at the last moment to shield its audience and probably the writer as well from the unsettling truth that the behavior of some truly authentic, self actualized, no sell out, rock and roll ubermensch wouldn’t be palatable or realistic without writing an alternate history and world for them to inhabit at the end of the story.

 

Post Script: This was going to maybe be a video essay and it might still end up as one but I didn’t want it languishing any more days as a draft so here is text version. I saw Spider-Man Homecoming a few days ago and I do have a short write up for that but don’t expect some big out there interpretation like with Guardians 2, it will be smaller scale.

Cool new music for cool new readers.

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