I’ve recently spent time doing a number of those “which (insert pop culture artifact) are you” quizzes that have been ubiquitous on social media for a while now. I find them to be an amusing moment’s diversion and an opportunity for casual banter with my friends (“You’re Pink Floyd? I got the Doors. *sigh*”). I was tickled to discover one called “Which Punk Icon Are You?” which promised to reveal my inner punk. As I was very much the young, spiky-haired anarchist during my formative years, (There may even be photographic evidence of floating around the internet. I’ll leave finding it as an exercise for the reader.) I was completely game for this quiz.
After answering a short series of deeply probing questions such as “What would you like to smash?”, I was rewarded with the insightful revelation that I am Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. Being a lifelong fan of Mr. Rotten (or John Lydon, as he is also known) I happily posted my result and moved on with my day.
I was soon dragged back to the social networks by the usual manner of comments from friends on my posting, but one of which stood out to me as a bit different:
“As a committed admirer of John Lydon, I have to be the buzz kill here and say that if you are doing pop culture identity quizzes, you are pretty much being the polar opposite of Johnny Rotten.”
Strangely, that comment lingered in the back of my head for the rest of the day, bothering me more than I thought it would. At first I assumed that maybe it was because my “punk cred” was being brought into question, but quickly rejected that idea as I haven’t concerned myself with “punk cred” for decades. But there it remained, tickling my lobes and demanding my attention. And the more I thought about it, the more I found that the central argument, that Johnny Rotten and pop culture identity quizzes were completely incompatible, was what was bothering me the most.
Why did this strike me as so wrong? I started by asking myself: what are pop culture identity quizzes really? Aren’t they just an extension of social media which is, at its heart, a DIY form of media? One of the ideas that forms the basis for the Sex Pistols and punk culture in general is the notion that you could make culture for yourself, that you didn’t need “experts” to do it for you. And, if you’ve taken any of these online quizzes, it becomes apparent that they were certainly not made by experts.
Also, although John Lydon is not a big user of social media per se, if you look at his history and relationship to the media in general, he appears to embrace media wholeheartedly, in fact, he never seems to shirk any sort media exposure. Apart from giving copious interviews to promote his work, he seems to enjoy making appearances on both serious programs such as the BBC’s Question Time, as well as pop nonsense like Jukebox Jury and Judge Judy. Why does he do so? I think his reasons can be made clear by looking at his response to the kerfuffle surrounding his involvement in an advertisement for, of all things, butter.
In late 2008, John Lydon appeared in an advertising campaign for Country Life, a British butter company. The campaign included a television commercial that he starred in, and he consequently received a lot of criticism from various camps for “selling out”. He defended himself in an interview with the Sun saying that not only was he happy promoting a British product that he truly enjoyed but that:
“It was the most maddest thing to consider doing. I thought it was very anarchic of the dairy company to want to attach themselves to me. And they treated me with the utmost respect and I love them forever as it all allowed me to set up my record label and put out this record.” (emphasis mine)
In a nutshell, he used a media opportunity to generate capital to self-finance a record label and release a new album by his band Public Image Ltd. If you look at his other appearances you’ll see a common thread: he uses the media, subverting it to his own agenda to promote his opinions and ideas about the world, and to potentially finance his musical projects. These activities are done knowingly and are done for the sake of his art.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, Lydon doesn’t appear too keen on social media himself; having said on at least one occasion that he has no interest in it. However, there are official social media accounts for PiL on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like, so I don’t think that he’s necessarily opposed to it altogether. I personally believe that social media is just something he’s unfamiliar with through lack of exposure and that he can’t be bothered with learning. And why would he, if he gets what he wants through traditional media?
But what about the young Mr. and Ms. Rottens of the world who grew up with social media and so are familiar with the ins and outs of it? I see many of them using social media as an effective tool for getting their own ideas and opinions out via Facebook groups, YouTube channels, and Twitter accounts. And if you’re serious about spreading your message, then why not use the tricks of the internet media to hopefully make it viral and reach more people? Why not make your own memes and quizzes and games? I’d be happy to take a “Which Corporate Criminal Are You?” quiz or play a round of “Inequality Crush Saga” if it meant that I could learn something more about myself and world that I live in and maybe even have some fun while doing so. And I’m sure that even though John Lydon wouldn’t partake himself, he would recognize and appreciate the spirit of subversion that lies behind it.