Flash is Fast, Flash is Cool

Dom Rottman

1 September 2022

I’ve been on an 80’s kick lately. Maybe all of the proclamations that this is “literally 1984” in response to things that are quite only metaphorically 1984 have seeped into my subconscious to the point that I am embracing things that actually are literally 1984, such as, well, Van Halen’s 1984. But there does seem to be a miniature 80’s renaissance happening–though this may be colored by my fascination with the aesthetic, being a sucker for neon lights and bright purples. Muse’s 2018 Album Simulation Theory takes not only musical but visual and thematic inspiration from the decade, and is but one example of this renaissance across all forms of media: 2020’s Black Ops: Cold War is filled with everything from Ronald Regan to bad historical and science fiction tropes. Stranger Things, its supernatural kindred spirit, is currently keeping Netflix on life support, and cyberpunk continues its legacy as a struggling genre.

Struggle is an appropriate term for cultural developments such as this renewed fascination with the 80’s. The culture industry succeeds in its goal: dispensing ideology and making shitloads of money doing so; that the aforementioned cultural commodities are only exemplary of a phenomenon that has multiplied is a testament to this success. Regardless of the public’s general interest, this development is ultimately of its own making. But each cultural development, each trend, is a struggle. Despite how proficient the culture industry may be at producing culture as commodities, it still produces “culture” regardless of quality or suppression thereof. Culture, in its truest sense, would not put forth what it claims to be the good life–rather, it questions that which claims to be the good life. Thus the culture industry, though it seeks to maintain the present order through ideology, cannot help but also produce that which seeks its downfall. The same industry which capitalizes on trend to produce multi-million-dollar blockbusters such as Wonder Woman 1984–complete with an A-list superhero, 80’s flair, and one of the most abominable opening sequences in modern cinema–is just as vulnerable to that same trend.

The Boys is a cultural artifact that would scorn the conditions and environment of its birth. The height of the “superhero” dark comedy/satire’s most recent season was certainly not the 3-way action finale at the top of the company tower. Nor was it the final scene of Homelander murdering an innocent man and receiving thunderous applause. Rather it was an opening in the middle of the season, an enchanting scene of Soldier Boy singing the rock band Blondie’s “Rapture."

It was the first time I had ever heard the song, and I imagine this was true for many other viewers as well. Out of interest, I looked up the song proper. In the video’s description I was shocked to learn that this was the first “rap song” to appear on MTV. Really? Surely something like the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” ought to have taken that title. It seems rather odd, even off-putting, that a white pop/rock group was getting credit for the first hip-hop or rap video.

In actuality, the song is a fine example of genre-blending in music rather than something like Led Zeppelin’s long track record of ripping off blues and early R&B. The members of Blondie are well aware of the burgeoning hip hop movement of the late 70s in the Bronx and other underprivileged areas of NYC. The “Fab Five Freddy” and Grandmaster “Flash” of “Rapture’s” Lyrics were the names of artists of that movement, with whom the members of Blondie associated and knew personally–not in sterile recording booths or talent agency lobbies, but at those Bronx block parties and underground bars themselves, “toe to toe/dancing very close/barely breathing/almost comatose.” They encountered not only the rhythms, beats, and lyrics, but the material conditions which produced them, the context and environment of the dispossessed. “Rapture” is a most appropriate expression of this encounter, Lyrically (well, the first 30% anyway) and sonically. Aside from the rap verses, there is little in common between “Rapture” and hip hop or rap music both old and new; certainly not enough to launch lawsuits or a cultural crusade. If the song is still a bourgeois expression, it is at least not terrible or detrimental, and does due–even great–diligence.

But a bourgeois expression is a bourgeois expression all the same. The culture industry would not have us remember history in this way. MTV revolutionarily aired the first rap video on TV, and it was of a rock song recorded by a bunch of white people in Los Angeles. The video itself, at least, was shot in NYC–on a soundstage in the upper west side of Manhattan–with figures of the hip hop scene–in the background, mute. Blondie is to be celebrated for the advent of rap and hip hop, not rap and hip hop artists themselves.

“But surely,” it might be argued, “the group does deserve some credit for introducing the genre, paving the way for hip hop and rap artists to enter the music scene at large so that the genre can come into its own. It would not have been otherwise possible for such music to enter the mainstream had it not been for Blondie.”

This is the very false interpretation of history the culture industry would have us believe–that it could not have been any other way. Were the conditions of racism and the music industry at the time truly so immutable that hip hop artists could not break through of their own accord? Could better justice not have been done to these artists? Was there truly no other way to introduce this culture to the masses than through the culture industry–and if not, did the culture industry’s spin have to be so strong? Could it not have been resisted better? Let’s put it bluntly: Why did white people have to introduce the music of people of color, and why are we forbidden from imagining otherwise?

In the case of “Rapture,” its content was not strong enough to overcome the trappings of the culture industry. Precious few listeners could actually give two shits about the material conditions of the music of the dispossessed; “Rapture” is just another song to be lapped up uncritically. Even the most explicit rap lyrics today, which can tell the most haunting struggles and stories, are repeated by the young bourgeoisie in Olympic feats of ignorance. In such cases they at least act as mouthpieces for narratives otherwise unheard. But as the mind of the consumer is able to wipe away not only the context, but content, of the rhythm and beats of even these songs, how much more easily can history be obfuscated behind a rock composition and utter nonsense about a car-eating man from Mars?

So the gilded veneer of the culture industry would stand as unvarnished history. Until now, in its performance on The Boys.

For those unfamiliar with the show, The Boys, as a superhero dark comedy and satire, is the most believable and realistic superhero media–all of the “superheroes” are egotistical maniacs who are owned and marketed by a massive pharmaceutical corporation, and are responsible for various crimes and human rights violations, etc, etc. This is all successfully hidden, of course, by the media, marketing, and the culture industry, which constantly recapitulate the image of superheroes as paragons of morality, justice, and general badassery. Soldier Boy was the first of such heroes. A good ol' boy from a humble blue collar upbringing in south Philadelphia (this was a lie, he was the son of a wealthy steel baron and shipped off to boarding school), this war veteran fought for Truth, Justice, and the American Way–by power hosing civil rights activists in Birmingham and mowing down anti-war protestors at Kent State.

So when Soldier Boy swaggers onto the stage of a famous 80’s variety show–called Solid Gold, no less–accompanied by dancing girls, it is the culture industry at its finest, but here, represented. With the knowledge of who Soldier Boy really is and the nature of the corporation behind him, this spectacle cannot be taken with a lick of seriousness. Diving right into the rap section of the song, his flow is off–but only just. It is coherent and fluid enough to give the impression, were he to be granted the benefit of the doubt, of a genuine performance. But the audience who would feel that something is not quite right is vindicated, especially when comparing this cover to the original song. This inkling begins the thought that something is very wrong indeed–the performance, the song, his honeyed baritone, the bodies, the conventional sexual appeal, the conventional aesthetic appeal, the whole show is just one massive ruse to bury history and maintain the present order.

Here, “Rapture” gains critical capacity, not as it could have been, but as it can now. As the culture industry’s initial presentation of “Rapture” brushes away the history of the song and history itself, so this representation of the song stains that fabricated history with critique. The half-sincere and offbeat rapping of nonsense about a man from mars coming from the mouth of a conventionally attractive white male supersoldier who has casually committed various crimes and moral wrongs allows everyone to hear the song for the first time, not as the culture industry intended it, but as the way they made it.

Renewed in popularity, both the original and Jensen Ackles renditions of “Rapture” have entered cultural consciousness for better and worse. That it has become a TikTok trend signifies that critique in culture can be missed, its content recuperated again. Thus a critical breakthrough in culture is doubly difficult, and requires constant, vigilant activity in order for it to be preserved–hence, struggle. But such breakthroughs have never before been more needed. It Is no longer sufficient to uncover and recount history as it truly was. Only when culture itself is met with critique can culture and history in their truest senses be brought forth. It is therefore appropriate to return to things like the glamour of the 80’s that we might remember or imagine so fondly, only to find that something was not quite right then in ways we can only understand now. Only in revisiting cultural artifacts in a critical manner can they be appreciated in the way that we thought we had–for their own sake. It is perhaps justified to hesitate for fear of being blinded by nostalgia, especially when it is nostalgia which enchants today’s cultural commodities. But only after the myth is busted, the idol smashed, is that spell actually lifted.