Craig Schuftan: How L7’s corporate clout brought punk to the people

Los Angeles alterna-punks L7 used “mega distribution” to get their message to the masses – but at what cost, writes author and broadcaster CRAIG SCHUFTAN in this excerpt from 2011’s ‘Entertain Us! The Rise and Fall of Alternative Rock In The 90s’. Schuftan will be bringing the book to life with words and music at The Toff in Melbourne on February 13.

Kurt Cobain believed that Geffen’s corporate clout could help bring punk to the people. “That’s pretty much my excuse for not feeling guilty about why I’m on a major label,” he told the NME. Jennifer Finch, of the LA-based punk group L7, agreed. The band had recently moved from Sub Pop to Slash, an indie shopfront owned by a Polygram subsidiary. “We wanted mega distribution,” Finch explained in a 1992 TV interview, “so everybody in really small towns could get our record as well as in big cities.”

For Finch, as for many in America’s indie underground, there was no contradiction in being a punk band on a major label. Indie had never really been anti-consumerist, but had rather promoted what Simon Frith refers to as a “people’s version of consumerism”, founded on the idea that record buyers had a right to real choice outside of market manipulation. “People are tired of listening to the stuff they usually have to listen to on the radio,” Finch told triple j’s Michael Tunn. “They wanna hear new, different stuff – a variety, as it were.” If music by great bands was now widely available in stores and on the radio, this could only be good news for artists and consumers alike. “It’s great,” said Finch. “It’s about time we can walk into a 7-11 and hear something cool.”

But the transition from the underground to the surface still had to be made with care. However pure L7’s intentions might have been, the band knew how it looked, so they made sure that their audience knew that they knew this too. Like Nirvana, the members of L7 became masters of the delicate art of ironically pretending to sell out in order to defuse the accusation that they might have sold out. They played the New Music Seminar – a series of music industry showcases that were held in New York each year – but reserved the right to call it names afterwards on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball: “New Music Slime-inar!” “New Music Semen- hour!” “New Music Schmoozin’ ‘er!” Jennifer Finch and Suzi Gardner gleefully riffed on the corporate rock showcase’s handle while host Riki Rachtman tried to get the interview back on topic. “What was that like?” he asked. ”’Cause you guys started in the ‘underground scene’, so …” “Yes,” Finch interrupted, all too aware of what was coming next. “We manipulated the underground scene and took everything we could for what it was worth, and moved on.”

“L7 had abandoned the underground in order to sell more records – not to make more money, but to spread the message those records contained.”

This was a joke, but also true in a sense. L7 had abandoned the underground in order to sell more records – not to make more money, but to spread the message those records contained. Meeting the band in March 1992, Steven Wells found a group with “a good deal more political integrity than one might initially expect”, with a set of beliefs formed during the conservative Reagan years, and given an extra kick by the fuss made over “family values” in the wake of the LA riots. The band made no secret of these beliefs. “Get George Bush out of office,” said lead singer Donita Sparks in another MTV interview, “and more bush in office!”

In the back-to-the-fifties doctrines espoused by Bush and Quayle, L7 heard a declaration of war on those who didn’t fit the Republican vision of family – in particular single mothers. They also felt that such rhetoric would only encourage the actions of extreme right-wing groups such as pro-lifers Operation Rescue: “Human rights violators,” according to Sparks, “who block off clinics so women can’t get in to have abortions.”

The band had, in late 1991, organised and played at the first Rock for Choice benefit. Their new album, Bricks are Heavy, contained a number of odes to those the band felt were fucking up the world, including ‘Wargasm’, a furious swipe at Bush’s bread- and-circuses politics, and ‘Shitlist’. “When I get mad and I get pissed,” warned Sparks, “I grab a pen and I write a list/Of all the people who won’t be missed/You’ve made my shit-list!” The album was preceded by a single, ‘Pretend We’re Dead’, a rock anthem pulled off with all the cool-as-shit insouciance of Joan Jett, who the band loved.

The song, Sparks explained, was about “people not caring, not paying attention to what’s going on, politically, socially”. It railed against middle-class conformity and the politics of average America (“they’re neither moral nor majority”), but saved its real fury for a teenage nation that would rather say “never mind” than get involved. The song insisted that it was possible for the band and its fans to “turn the tables with our unity”, but warned that nothing would happen if they maintained their stance of sullen detachment. “They can’t hear a word we’ve said,” sang Sparks, “when we pretend that we’re dead.” The song’s central image of a zombie-fied nation revived an old horror movie cliche to give shape to a real fear – that a generation that couldn’t learn to think or act for itself might already be dead. L7’s anthem insisted that to unthinkingly accept the messages of politicians and the media they abuse was to “say ‘no’ to individuality”.

“Think for yourself,” was, as music journalist Michael Azerrad has argued, a central tenet of punk philosophy in the eighties, and perhaps the only slogan that bands as diverse as Black Flag, Minor Threat, Fugazi, Sonic Youth and Big Black might all comfortably rally around. The exciting thing about 1992 was the way that this message seemed to be spreading: the idea that the popular music of the nineties might be using mass-media channels to encourage free thought rather than to suppress it. The new bands were attracting bigger and bigger audiences. But their suspicious attitude toward authority figures – rock stars and politicians alike – compelled them to encourage these audiences to determine their own thoughts. “To just go out and follow someone in some stupid band thinking he’s the spokesperson for a generation,” said Krist Novoselic, “hey, you should try harder man.” “My politics are: be yourself,” said Sindi Valsamis of the Lunachiks in 1991, “and hope everybody else wakes the fuck up.” Talking to Riki Rachtman on Headbanger’s Ball, Jennifer Finch seemed confident that conformity was on its way out in the nineties. “Do you think there’s bands that are gonna try to copy L7?” asked the TV host. “No,” replied Finch, “because I think the trend right now is to be unique and individual.”

“There was no contradiction in being a punk band on a major label.”

Those in the media who were being paid to spot trends had already been following this one for some months. Mega distribution had made alternative music mega popular, and the individual, non-conforming fashion of its non-rock stars was becoming fashionable – the cut-off fatigue shorts and flannel shirt that Eddie Vedder had been escorted out of Harrods for wearing in 1991 were already on department store mannequins by the summer of 1992. “Out of the mosh pit, onto the catwalk,” wrote the UK style magazine i-D, “designers in New York have gone grunge crazy.” The story went on to describe how the fashion capital’s designers had “bowed to the US’s fastest-growing subculture and embraced the buzzsaw guitars of Sonic Youth, Unsane, Helmet and the Lunachicks”. Diesel’s campaign slogan for the new season was “The Alternative Energy”, and Henry Rollins appeared in a series of ads for Gap clothing, which, the copy insisted, was “for individuals”.

It was now popular, it seemed, to be different. But the contradiction inherent in this was immediately apparent, and Rachtman, in his interview with L7, spotted the problem right away. Finch had claimed that it was fashionable to be an individual. “But if everyone’s trying to be unique and individual …” said Rachtman. “Well,” Finch interrupted, “then they’re copying that trend!” Here, the interviewer and his guest pulled back slightly, as if from an abyss. The problem was an impossible one – how could youth reject middle-class conformity without the rejection itself becoming a kind of conformism? How could the constituents of the alternative nation turn the tables with their unity without saying no to their individuality? “Aaaaah,” said Rachtman with a smile, aware that things had become too serious, “I don’t wanna analyse this stuff!”

Currently living in Berlin, Craig Schuftan has written three books on music and popular culture: ‘The Culture Club’ (2007), ‘Hey! Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone!’ (2009) and ‘Entertain Us! The Rise and Fall of Alternative Rock in the 90s’, which was published in June 2012. Tickets to his talk at The Toff in Melbourne next Wednesday (February 13) are $10 on the door.