Kurt Cobain sweater

Nirvana on MTV Unplugged, Nov. 18, 1993

The Kurt Cobain sweater and the two solitudes of late capitalism

What the worth of a junkshop cardigan says about society + new tracks by LEYA, JOYFULTALK, black midi and more.

JOYFULTALK, “Part II – Pixelated skin,” A Separation of Being (Constellation)

I am not even finished reading the introduction of Agnès Gayraud’s new book, Dialectic of Pop, when I come across this devastating passage:

“If pop was once a kingdom, it is now crumbling. In the early 21st century there is no universal King of Pop, only a myriad of little kings and queens, ruling over the patchwork countries of a segmented mainstream.

The ‘underground’ exists on the same monopolistic platforms as the most prominent artists, the only real meaning of the word being relative weakness in the marketplace. As a result of this collapse, music, once lucrative when it found an audience, has no value and costs nothing. Up until the moment when no one is interested anymore, pop will just continue to perform, for free, its historically allocated task: entertaining consumers.”

LEYA, “Wave,” Flood Dream (NNA Tapes)

I toast to the crumbling of Pop music’s kingdom. What even were the Michael Jacksons and Madonnas but consumer-entertainers doing their schtick to hypnotize the punters of this sleazy hotel-casino of late capitalism?

This system of Kings and Queens made these people alien to us and to themselves, unable to wear their own faces, their marred and misshapen bodies tossed aside whenever they were no longer useful at seamlessly separating capital from the subject. Or when they were worth more dead than alive, when they became liabilities to the consumer entertainment industries. To lament the loss of this kingdom would be to waste our tears upon torturers.

Punks wore mohawks and leather and studs and tattooed their faces and pierced their noses so that they wouldn’t be able to fit into society, so that they could honestly show up to an employment office or job interview and be pretty much assured of not having to work.

“We could refer here to Dick Hebdige’s notion of ‘confrontation dressing’,” wrote the cultural theorist Paul Mann in his 1995 article “Stupid Undergrounds,” an article to which I keep returning.

“(Actually, Vivienne Westwood’s phrase), epitomized by the punk swastika, riot grrl grunge and middle-class girls decked out in the ‘sluttiest’ gear (hooker chic, or underwear worn as outerwear, made famous and hence evacuated by the stupid icon named Madonna).”

black midi, “Sweater,” Sweater (Rough Trade)

There is nothing, though — no article of fashion or personal adornment — that epitomizes punk, poverty and the passage of time quite like a moth-riddled sweater. The Johnny Rotten special, replete with safety pins. A quick Google search today for original Seditionaires mohair sweaters returns a number for sale, from around $2,000 to $7,212.51 — quite a specific number for something that once signified a certain kind of carelessness. A very careful carelessness.

Punk fashion is especially overripe fruit for the picking, the last of the margins to be recuperated into the centre — the centre which is neither margin nor centre — in this post-Kingdom Pop era. The green sweater Kurt Cobain wore during the MTV Unplugged performance, sold last October at auction for $334,000 U.S. The sweater’s previous owner had purchased it in 2015 for $180,000, meaning that it had almost doubled in value in five years.

Zoë McPherson, “Tenace (dogs road),” States of Fugue (SFX)

The crass absurdity of the meteoric rise in price of a junkshop sweater worn by Kurt Cobain is emblematic of the two solitudes of late capitalism. Not only the economic but also the existential gap between us, the 99 and the top 1 per cent, is almost untraversable. It is only through rarefied items such as Cobain’s sweater that the membrane is punctured, when something worthless all of a sudden becomes priceless. The object of value here is not a product of the artist’s creativity, nor is it even necessarily a product of creativity in general.

It is not music, nor is it a musical instrument. It is a mass-produced and utterly banal object, neither purposefully fashionable nor especially functional. And the dirtier it is, the more it’s worth.

We have skipped over the entertainment portion of tonight’s show and moved directly to the consumption segment. Entertainment is no longer necessary to grease the wheels of capital. Capitalism might even prove more efficient in entertainment’s absence. Kurt Cobain could have saved himself a lot of headaches, not to mention heartaches, had he only been given an early clue that his calling was not, in fact, the rebellious musician, perhaps the last King of Pop, albeit a reluctant monarch whose head forever lay heavy beneath the crown, and was simply to be a human mannequin, nothing more than fashion’s latest face, the imperfect visage of an anti-Pop fashion which functioned as the yang to Pop fashion’s yin.

Daniel Avery & Alessandro Cortini, “Illusion of Time” Illusion of Time (Mute)

The only thing separating the worthless from the priceless is time. If the 20th century’s greatest contemporary theorist Andy Warhol was to be believed, it is just a matter of time in this post-Pop system before each of us will have our very own priceless moment before plummeting back into worthlessness. Yet time is one thing that capital has not found a reliable way to transcend; there is no technological solution to a temporal problem.

Science and technology historian Rosalind Williams wrote in her foundational book Notes on the Underground that civilization has two fears for the future. “The first fear is that humanity might get its wish and devise marvellous technologies that conquer nature and fulfill every conceivable need … The second fear is that such technological progress will not be realized … Either by conquering nature or by not conquering it, humanity will degenerate.”

The question remains: when will we lose interest in our degenerative delights? ■

See previous editions of Play Recent here.

See Nirvana perform on MTV Unplugged (feat. the Kurt Cobain sweater) here.