My introduction to the Beatles’ “Revolution” was probably the controversy surrounding its use in a 1987 Nike commercial. It was the first Beatles song to be licensed in that way and there was some outrage by fans, and the three surviving Beatles themselves tried to sue to keep it from happening, but as Capital-EMI Records and ATV Music Publishing (owned by Michael Jackson) owned the rights to the Beatles’ music there was nothing to be done. While many fans and the Beatles themselves objected to the explicit commercialization of the Beatles’ message to sell running shoes, two things remain obvious about this use of the song: 1) As Yoko Ono suggested, the use in the commercial exposed a new generation to the Beatles’ music (this certainly was the case for me, along with the release of the Beatles’ catalog on CD at the time), and 2) the song’s message is actually anti-revolutionary and implicitly supports the status quo, and as such its use to shill for Nike is not as egregious a misuse of the music as some would have us believe (and that I, too, once believed). In fact, the Nike commercial is simply a recapitulation of the song’s co-opting of revolutionary affect to sell popular music itself as a commodity and line the Beatles’ pockets.
“Revolution” was released in 1968 as the b-side to “Hey Jude,” even though it was recorded after the slower blues-ier version (entitled “Revolution 1”) that would appear later that year on The Beatles (aka the White Album). The single version—the version used in the Nike commercial—rocks. From the moment that machine gun-like distorted electric guitar comes in on the right channel and John Lennon lets out that now iconic scream (at least it sounds like John), the song grabs hold of the listener, speaking directly to us with a sense of angry immediacy through its use of the first-person singular tense. Its message, however, not only belies the affect of the musical delivery, but it uses rock n’ roll’s rebellious energy to sell bourgeois support of the status quo in the guise of the 1960s counter-culture movement with which the Beatles became synonymous. It represents the hollowed out last gasp of that era, an abandonment of any real hope of change in favor of a cynicism that—unlike some would have us believe—is actually as likely to emerge from earnestness as from irony.
The song’s first verse begins by addressing the ostensible desires of the listener and anti-establishment sentiments more broadly: “So you say you want a revolution? / Well, you know, we all want to change the world.” The lyric suggests a jaded view of the world in which there are as many different desires in terms of how we all want the world changed as there are people. The response to these desires seems more than reasonable when interpreted from the perspective of virtuous non-violence: “But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out.” However, when it is considered in relation to the refrain “Don’t you know it’s gonna be / Alright” the song seems to suggest that the risk of violence and destruction is not worth upsetting the status quo—eventually everything is going to be “alright.” But “alright” for who and when and how? Among all these conflicting desires about “changing the world,” whose desires will win out given what we know about how the world is already organized? Even the most optimistic perspective on history cannot deny the on-going presence of violence in the world and that it is most often committed by the powers that be against the most marginalized and vulnerable portions of the population, and/or using the mass of people in conflicts involving struggles for power that regardless of the platitudes regarding “freedom” and “democracy” or “destiny” never seem to grant a better life to those who do the majority of the fighting. In other words, there is already destruction. It is not as if revolution invents violence, or participation in destruction is avoidable if one refrains from fomenting revolution. It is true that in later interviews (like this one from Rolling Stone in 1971), Lennon was much more thoughtful about the possibility of (violent) revolution, but those interviews and his thoughtfulness don’t change the song as it is experienced by most listeners.
Just to be clear, I don’t like violence either. I find violence to be abhorrent and counter-productive in the sense that violence begets violence. In addition, attempts by the state to preempt violence are often violent in and of themselves. Certainly protest can turn violent, but more often than not that violence is a result of the efforts to quell protest or a result of oppressive and violent means to disperse protest (if not a direct result of agent provocateurs). Police batons cracking open the heads of young protestors, like we saw outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention is certainly violence, but that was a police riot—i.e. the police caused it, and if some of those cops ended up getting their heads busted open, too—well, I can’t say I am too sympathetic. Violence is typically the weapon of those in power and to not resist that power for fear of it evoking that violence is a form of deep social neurosis. It is a kind of revolutionary self-loathing that blames itself for the degradations it endures.
The eruptions of violence that accompany social protest movements and calls for revolution probably had some influence on the shift in the ideology of the so-called Left from the 1960s to the 1970s and finally into the 1980s and beyond—in the West at least—a shift from social concerns to personal concerns in the guise of spirituality. The third verse makes this the clearest: “You tell me it’s the institution / Well, you know, you’d better free your mind instead.” On a recent listening it was this lyric that infuriated me and inspired this post. It strikes me as beyond clueless to ascribe to this notion that the institutionalized systems of power that ensure inequality and injustice will go away when enough people reach personal spiritual enlightenment. I know of no better way to describe that than a fucking cop-out. Or, perhaps if I am in a more generous mood, I might simply say it is painfully naïve to believe in the attainability of a kind of universal bliss that will overcome the weight of history. Sorry, John, but there is no “Instant Karma” (as much as I love that song, which by the way, was also used in a Nike commercial in 1992).
To make things worse, the use of the image of “carrying pictures of Chairman Mao” in the third verse reduces the revolutionary spirit to the kind of caricature that the Right might use in making their strawman arguments. It suggests that our choices are between the status quo and the kind of bloody and oppressive Cultural Revolution of late 1960s China. For the record, however, in a 1972 interview Lennon did allegedly say “”I should have never put that in about Chairman Mao,” though I cannot find a reputed source for that quote. He said that, however, out of sympathy for Maoists, not because he was trying to express the ability to desire revolution and repudiate Maoism.
Ultimately, “Revolution” is no different from songs like The Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” which posits that all “a poor boy” can do is “sing for a rock n’ roll band.” The feeling of revolution that comes from playing rock n’ roll—or failing that, listening to rock n’ roll—has to be enough, and they’ll sell it to you, both as a commodity fetish in the form of your Hot Topic “Question Authority” or Ramones t-shirt, and as a general idea to aspire to in order to drive the sale of more “revolutionary” merchandise—individual consumerism replaces collective action.
The version of “Revolution” found on The White Album, “Revolution 1” is interesting in that rather than sing “count me out” of destruction, John sings, “count me out…in.” This addition to the song (not included in the liner note lyrics) suggests some ambiguity on his part, but otherwise does little to mitigate the song’s position. In fact, it is the slower tempo and shuffling feel of this version that makes it seem like its sentiment is being reluctantly expressed. It evokes a weariness with the revolutionary sentiment of the 60s, and as such, really evokes a blues-feel. In that vein I am more sympathetic to the song as it is performed on The White Album, but unfortunately it lacks the verve of the single version, and so I find I do not like listening to it as much.
My critique of “Revolution” is nothing new. When the song came out the dedicated political left (like Ramparts Magazine) was unhappy with it, but what I really want to suggest is that the juxtaposition of the music and the message in the song encapsulates “the commodification of dissent.” The transformation of rock n’ roll into an explicitly reactionary pop music form emerges from its ability to separate itself from its origins by means of its “crossing over” to provide a site where its resistant sounds, rhythms and themes are appropriated to represent first an adolescent dissatisfaction with the sense of disempowerment that often accompanies those years, and then a generalized sense of personal dissatisfaction. It lays the groundwork for rock n’ roll’s cognitive dissonance, the kind that eventually allows for white rockers to make claims regarding the authenticity of their music by pointing to a particular form of racialized past as a way to resist a particular and diverse musical present—like Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” and its beef with disco. What is that song but a rebel pose that disguises a reactionary position?
The seed of that rock n’ roll contradiction was present all along, and advertisers discovered it when they determined that teenagers represented a group that could be marketed to and rock music became the resource for doing that—moving from selling records to selling cars to selling running shoes. The linking of the rebel pose with a reactionary attitude remains a marketing mainstay and has pushed the expansion of extended adolescence that allows for people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond to continue to be marketed to like teenagers. Buying things allow us to continue to feel like rebels while fitting in. As such, Nike’s use of the Beatle’s “Revolution” makes perfect sense. It represents a zenith in the counter-revolutionary successes of capitalism. It sells an atomized notion of revolution that it equates with physical success which it links to a commodified spiritual enlightenment that reduces the social necessities of working towards a better world to the ability to get the dudes with which you’re playing a pick-up game of b-ball to run a pick-and-roll.
“Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”
In other words, the outrage over the use of “Revolution” is the perfect case that exemplifies Louis Althusser’s definition of ideology: “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” As such, it makes perfect sense that these days most folks don’t seem to care about the use of iconic pop and rock songs in commercials—any “revolutionary” feeling associated with those songs (or even personally held political ideals) has been totally subsumed into the realm of entertainment, of which it had always been a part of, anyway. It is for this reason that despite that sudden moment of anger at the song’s message I can still love this song, as if some part of myself, deeply indoctrinated into a passive consumerist idea of revolution, resounds with waves of pleasure at hearing it.
4 thoughts on “So, You Say You Want a Revolution? It’s Gonna Be Alright, Just Buy Something.”
Great read but surprisingly easy to take that song apart. I don’t remember not knowing about the Beatles because my mom had a couple of their albums and I have always been a big fan.
I think perhaps the raw energy of the song makes the lyrics easier to subsume into the edgy feeling of the music without realizing how pro-establishment the lyrics are.
” It sells an atomized notion of revolution that it equates with physical success and linked to a commodified spiritual enlightenment that reduces the social necessities of working towards a better world to the ability to get the dudes you’re playing a pick-up game of b-ball with to run a pick-and-roll.” <– One of your best sentences ever. ;)
But seeing it isolated like that I think I need to slightly revise it.
” It sells an atomized notion of revolution that it equates with physical success, which it links to a commodified spiritual enlightenment that reduces the social necessities of working towards a better world to the ability to get the dudes you’re playing a pick-up game of b-ball with to run a pick-and-roll.”
Love the article! I may be simplifying things too much but a lot of Lennon’s work sounds like he is dealing more with personal issues than public ones even in songs like Revolution. He was such an angry young man who used mental and physical cruelty even among those he was close to that I think he looked at Revolution as a turning point (i.e. post Yoko) that his life was going to be alright. The irony of Lennon being murdered after finally finding peace in his personal life (as close as he was ever going to get anyway) has made me reevaluate a lot of his Beatles songs and see the connection between those songs and his solo output. When he wasn’t doing Lewis Carroll inspired songs, he was mostly trying to work out his inner demons.
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