Plastic Bag: Xray Spex as critique of Katy Perry’s liberal individualism

I was listening to Katy Perry’s most recent single “Firework,” and I noticed that this song used a “plastic bag” metaphor to connote the supposedly alienated, mass-produced subject of post-industrial consumer society. This then reminded me of one of my favorite punk songs, Xray Spex’s “Plastic Bag.” Here, Poly Styrene also plays on the image of a plastic bag: rather than being full of her own “original” ideas, her mind is full of the detritus of consumer culture. Let’s take a listen:

Katy Perry, Firework:

Xray Spex, Plastic Bag:

The crucial difference between the two is that where Perry’s song is ultimately about how special and unique each one of us is (thus affirming the mythology of liberal individualism), Styrene’s song lacks any such affirmation of wholeness, authenticity, or inherent value. “Plastic Bag” can be read as concurring with or following from the other songs on Germfree Adolescents that affirm “I’m a Cliche” or “I’m a Poseur and I Don’t Care.” As Poly Styrene’s stage name evinces, there is no true, unique individual self in Xray Spex–just mass-produced junk.

Perry’s lyrics tell the story of a true, unique, inner, special Self that just needs to “shine through” for everyone else to see how great, extraordinary, and worthy of value you are. Here’s a condensed transcript of relevant lines:

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind…?”; “Do you know that there’s still a chance for you, ’cause there’s a spark in you you just gotta ignite the light and let it shine. You just gotta own the night like the Fourth of July, cause baby you’re a firework, show them what you’re worth…Baby you’re a firework, come on let your colors burst…You don’t have to feel like a wasted space, you’re original, cannot be replaced. If you only knew what the future holds, after a hurricane comes a rainbow…Even brighter than the moon, it’s always been inside of you and now it’s time to let it through

So, even if you feel as mundane and irrelevant as a plastic bag, you’re really “good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like you.” What’s particularly interesting here is the connection of the liberal individual self with US nationhood (i.e., the 4th of July). The exceptionalism of the individual Self is a microcosm of US exceptionalism.

For Styrene, there is no exceptionalism, just clichés. “Plastic Bag” describes an irredeemably alienated, postmodern self. Again, here’s a condensed sample of relevant lyrics:

My mind is like a plastic bag! 1977 and we are going mad! 1977 and we’ve seen too many ads!…My mind is like a plastic bag that corresponds to all those ads. It soaks up all the rubbish that is fed in through my ear…My mind is like a switchboard with crossed and tangled lines…I don’t know what’s going on anymore; that’s the operator’s job, not mine, I said…

Viewed through Xray Spex, the world lacks redeption; these lenses don’t allow us to be duped by the mythology of liberal individualism. There’s nothing “inside of you” to “let shine”—just rubbish. We can see that even though capital mass-produces us in the same way it mass-produces commodities, we’re still capable of critical, creative agency—Styrene’s song is evidence enough of that. She may be a cliché, but she knows it. She’s not guilty of the bad faith that Perry’s song promotes; she doesn’t attempt to claim a false sense of uniqueness. Styrene knows she’s not original, and that she can be replaced. Interestingly, she complements the plastic bag metaphor with an image of a neural network of sorts: there’s no transcendental ego here, just a bunch of connections.

Styrene’s “Plastic Bag” is an example of what Judith Halberstam calls “political negativity.”* Political negativity is a rejection of liberalism and its imperatives to “life, liberty, and [most of all] the pursuit of happiness.”** Halberstam explains,

In a liberal realm where the ‘pursuit of happness,’ as Jamaica Kincaid might say, is both desirable and mandatory and where certain formulations of self (as active, voluntaristic, choosing, propulsive) dominate the political sphere, radical passivity may signal another kind of refusal, the refusal quite simply to be (150).

Styrene’s clichéd self is not active (“that’s the operator’s job, not mine, I said”), not voluntaristic, and not propulsive. Styrene isn’t trying to pull herself up by her bootstraps, and she certainly isn’t trying to be “happy.” Her “rage, rudeness, anger, spite, impatience, intensity, mania…incivility, brutal honesty, and so on” (Halberstam, 152) imply a rejection of liberalism and its mandates. For Halberstam, liberalism’s main mandate is that the authentic, whole, active, bootstraps-loving Self pursue happiness. Political negativity, as critique/rejection of the liberal Self and its imperatives, does not valorize the autonomous individual triumphantly conquering obstacles and realizing dreams. Instead, political negativity is at once collective (political rather than individual) and contrite. This contrariness can come in the form of refusal (passivity, e.g., Xray Spex’s “I Can’t Do Anything” or the Sex Pistols’ “Lazy Sod”), violent rejection (perhaps best expressed in Xray Spex’s most famous track, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”), anger and spite (how bout The Clash’s “I’m So Bored with the USA”?), and many other forms of not being “nice” and not valorizing happiness above all else (e.g., “Hate and war are the only things we have today. If I close my eyes, it will not go away. We have to deal with it. It is our currency,” from The Clash’s “Hate and War” – I’m going to post more on that song at a later date.) Political negativity is the inverse of the (Kantian) Kingdom of Ends (more on this later, too).

So, while Perry gives us the liberal Kindgom of Ends, where we’re all unique, special ends-in-ourselves, Styrene gives us…the blank generation, less than zero, hate and war, lost in the supermarket, working for the clampdown, I wanna destroy passerby, I kill children, chemical warfare, genetic engineering, boredom, final solution, she’s lost control, albatross…all sorts of punk expressions for the dregs of post-industrial society. Styrene gives us political negativity.

I’ll leave you with Xray Spex’s “I’m a Cliché”:

* Halberstam, Judith. “The Anti-Social Turn in Queer Studies” in Graduate Journal of Social Science, 2—8, Vol. 5 Issue 2, 140-156.

** Halberstam intends political negativity to be a critique and/or middle ground between Edelmanian anti-relational negativity and Munoz’s relational utopianism. Importantly, Halberstam notes that political negativity, as strategy and as affect, is a key component in much feminist theory, art, and activism. I think political negativity is also strongly resonant with Beauvoiran ethics (again, more on this in a later post). As you can see, I think political negativity is a really important concept, and hope to develop my case as to why in subsequent posts.