the Rollins paradox

Was Rollins doing the Gap ad a “sellout” move, or is it time to forgive?

-Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie an Answer

‘Sup GGGaA,

Let me take a sip of this black coffee — I woke up thirsty and miserable  — and endure my life of pain so as to clock in to this arbitrary new job I’ve given myself. I used to spend a fair amount of time thinking about Henry Rollins, because my ex-boyfriend Jacob was really into Blag Flag and Rollins’ later-in-life outings into stand-up comedy or spoken word or whatever the hell it was that Jacob paid $100 to take us to go see at Town Hall (the kind of staid venue where you go see David Sedaris) in…I want to say 2002? (It was a funny show, and I thank Jacob for the tickets.)

Also, I will readily admit that Rollins is a Grade-A silver fox, and I definitely would, and always would have, but it is also possible that one of the chief reasons that teenage Rebecca the inveterate narc who didn’t even have a sip of beer until after she graduated from high school and never really inhaled the pot could have the hots for Henry Rollins was that how scary and punk could he be if he did that Gap ad in 1991? (NB: he looks fly as hell in that Gap ad.)

Rollins Gap

But yes, Black Flag fans were livid about the Gap ad, and then an entirely new generation of Blag Flag fans (perhaps the hastily-conceived children of the original Black Flag fans?) were just as livid when Rollins — 55 years old at the time and technically barely a Gen-Xer himself — started shilling for Calvin Klein in 2016. Sellout! they cried (on Twitter, a website that mines your entire life for marketable information and provides an ample, comfortable platform for precisely the sort of Neo-Nazi garbaggio that Blag Flag formed to sing mean, scary punk songs about).

Rollins himself has thoughts on what it means or doesn’t mean for a punk artist to “sell out.” Check out this YouTube clip from 2009 (you know you’re old when even YouTube is old):

Rollins says he gets a lot of people writing to him angry that one of their favorite “small of fame” bands — the Buzzcocks, the Fall, the Stooges — has just been featured in an automobile ad or the like. “What a bunch of sellouts!” Blargh! Sellouts! “I understand their anger and loss,” he says, “when they feel one of their well-kept secrets has become a part of the corporate structure.” But, he says, that’s not selling out. Selling out, Rollins says, “is when you make the record you’re told to make, instead of the one you want to make.” (It’s a bit overkill to italicize Rollins, I realize, since essentially the man talks in all-caps italics all day.) “Do you have any idea what some of these bands went through to make this music?” he asks. “The fact that there might be some money in it all these years later? IS GREAT.”

Arguments over the “integrity” of punk rock — wherein something truly punk is supposed to be utterly devoid of ca$h money in homage to its progenitors’ limited means, when in reality punk was a protest cry from people with limited means, against Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan or whatever, for sticking them with those limited means in the first place — are generally made from the comfort of someone’s home by clothed and fed people who have enough fucking spare time to argue about something so ridiculous.

So, this all begs the question: Did Henry Rollins wear the crisp black Gap sleeveless tee and/or Calvins he wanted to wear? And so it’s not “selling out” at all? Is someone like Rollins only a good punk role model if he insists on suffering even if he doesn’t have to, just to please his audience? Isn’t that selling out?

Granted: Henry Rollins once did a blog about how he read The Castle and didn’t see what the big deal was and thus Kafka sucked, and on the two-sentence basis of that dismissal, my ex-boyfriend Jacob also decided Kafka sucked, despite any number of respectful entreaties about my own dissertation work, which makes me somewhat more knowledgable on the life and work of Franz Kafka than an aging punk icon who shills for Calvin Klein.

And so the larger question here is: What, if anything, do our icons of authenticity owe us? What do we feel they owe us? What does that actually say about us? Was Kafka a sellout, too?

I don’t know how Rollins feels about Ludwig Wittgenstein, but I’ll take the liberty of conflating the two and say that these may be the wrong questions to be asking in the first place. And that of which we cannot speak, we must rise above.

Now, please enjoy the ads on this website.


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