We are all consumers.
We all have to consume.
What we consume, however, is now determined by the external forces of multi-national companies rather than the limitations of nature. For most of us in our current society, food, warmth, and shelter are a given. Our additional needs are orchestrated by corporations. The word need, in itself, has been shanghaied for the consumerist buck. Instilling in us desires for products unnecessary for basic survival, fripperies on which to focus now that the evolutionary push has reached a plateau. And we are both spoon-fed and drip-fed: new technology is eked out in small doses, ensuring upgrades are always required.
The idea of Keeping up with the Joneses has become a national crisis of identity. Conspicuous consumerism - where status goods are demanded over and above material goods - has skewed the manufacturing industry, diverting resources away from investing in more essential products, taking us into spiritual dead ends. Our struggle to compare ourselves with our neighbours through the accumulation of goods has become a benchmark for social class, but even though most of us are aware that these goals are manmade, fabricated, the objects are just so pretty we cannot resist. Conspicuous consumerism takes away the power of the individual, harnesses us as wage slaves, directs us into buying products we don't require in order to keep companies - and jobs, our jobs - in existence. Consumerism promotes a false way of life, a means to its own end, an ouroboros that devours its own tail. In order for humanity to distract itself from reality, it has developed as a false reality - a virtual reality - another god which can be used to shy our thoughts away from the unstoppable certainty of death.
If, as the New Wave band Devo said back in 1980, freedom of choice is what we've got but freedom from choice is what we want, then we only have ourselves to blame. Our ennui of existence has numbed us to production line consumers - we are on a conveyor belt parallel to our products.
Of course, the above is nothing new. I consider myself first alerted to the insidious whisper of advertising back in 1978 when punk band X-Ray Spex released their debut album, "Germfree Adolescents" (which The Guardian described as containing "unrivalled anti-consumerism anthems"). Lyricist and singer, Poly Styrene (who choose her moniker because she was 'looking for a name of the time, something plastic') held an acerbic view of advertising, her lyrics ostentatiously adopting consumerism in an often ironic embrace ("I wanna be a frozen pea"). Listening to the album thirty-seven years on I'm struck by how relevant the lyrics remain. Poly's subsequent initiation into the Hare Krishna movement, with its focus on spirituality, indicates where her head was no doubt at when she was in the band. "Germ Free Adolescents" is a tour-de-force of individuality coupled with the musical abrasiveness of punk, and lyrically its message should be considered carefully by every troubled teenager in the hope that we might oscillate out of our unconscious consumerism.
The album opens with "Art-I-Ficial", a song about being reared with appliances in a consumer society. The message continuing to enforce concerns about how physical appearances are dictated by society rather than the individual, that what we are becoming by absorbing product is artificial.
"Identity" and "Genetic Engineering" also deal with the concept of the individual in society - its erasure and/or mutation to ensure it conforms with the consumerist template. And a welcome terrorist is the "Warrior In Woolworths", his servile innocence just the surface of an underground rebel.
But it's in songs like "Plastic Bag" where Styrene's anti-consumerist lyrics hold full sway, bemoaning that her mind is like a plastic bag that corresponds to 'all those ads'. Where she's eating Kleenex for breakfast and using Weetabix to dry tears. This dumbing down of the senses through advertising becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Television channels have increasingly catered for the lowest common denominator at peak viewing times because advertisers pay the most money when reaching a larger audience. The greater the incentive to numb the intellect, then the greater the revenue. The stupider - more anesthetised - we become then the easier it is to sell to us.
Semi-title track "Germ Free Adolescence" is perhaps the most poignant song on the album, where a relationship relies on product to survive. Styrene saw the future writ large: there are echoes here of our current obsession with celebrity and needing to look the best (all needs facilitated through the power of advertising). Finally, "The Day The World Turned Day-Glo" describes an apocalyptic descent into consumerism, with Fairy Snow, Wimpy, and man made products including nylon, latex, rayon, Perspex and acrylic all getting a look in as our bright future turns out to be an artificial florescent dream.
X-Ray Spex returned in 1991 with a second, less powerful, album, "Conscious Consumer", but as the title indicates the central themes remained. In "Cigarette" Styrene highlights the dichotomy of having health warnings on packets whilst the government simultaneously rubs its hands creaming off the tax, and "Junk Food Junkie" supports the clear line between unhealthy, addictive, food and poor lifestyle choices. Her messages might have been delivered with less angry music, but Styrene's world view hadn't changed.
If we are to avoid throwing ourselves away alongside our short-life consumer products, losing our identity as we unceasingly become branded, then Styrene's lyrics should be viewed as anti-consumerist mantras in the same manner as her Hare Krishna beliefs promoted spirituality. Otherwise consumerism will remain the new religion, unfettered by any hope of an advanced state of consciousness.