Sean "Diddy" Combs recently launched his new business venture, Revolt, a cable music network that joins a long list of businesses who've hijacked terms like revolt, revolution, or rebel to appear relevant to hipsters' countercultural tendencies. This has always been a trend. Well-known examples of this sort of appropriation include the American Tobacco Company's 1929 "Torches of Freedom" marketing campaign, which fused smoking cigarettes with the women's political liberation movement, and Nike's 1987 "Revolution in Motion" spot, which used the Beatles' song, "Revolution," to sell shoes. While I wish Diddy success, I take issue with any corporation — especially one that was formed by the merger of massive organizations like NBC and Comcast — that cloaks itself in a word that's more justifiably associated with Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mao Zedong, and the invention of the printing press.
A revolt is a radical departure from the old to the new. By distorting the term into a catch phrase to hock merchandise, corporations turn dissent into a commodity. To revolt or rebel has become synonymous with wearing a specific brand or buying a Mac instead of a PC. Apple's 1984 campaign embraced the imagery of George Orwell's 1984 and announced Apple as the emancipator and leader of a new world order, but how is the exploitation of developing-world labor and off-shore tax havens a radical departure from the past?
Branding has achieved the transformation of "revolution" into an almost purely cosmetic term, promising consumers diversity and individualism through the purchase of mass-produced goods. Probably the biggest culprit of this commodification of dissent is the iconic image of the revolutionary Che Guevara that has been stamped on clocks, bikinis, T-shirts, and a host of other goods. The anti-capitalist has been turned into a piece of pop art — a fashion statement to buy and sell, which has been spotted on everyone from Homer Simpson, to Jay-Z, and Prince Harry.
Semantic weakening is a phenomenon that occurs when the meaning of a word loses its force or power. Marketers have taken revolt and the images associated with the word and plastered it across society like ugly and repetitious wallpaper. When members of the United Kingdom's royal family start consuming and sporting images of South American revolutionaries, then the original anti-establishment message has lost some of its luster. The genius of capitalism is that it provides space for the expression of dissent within the prevailing socio-political structure. This dissent, always in demand by some segment of the market, evolves into a traded commodity that allows the consumer to revolt against the system without changing the system. In fact, in the process, such counter-culturally inclined consumers support the system.
"A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery;" Mao wrote in 1927, "it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another." Whether or not you agree with the latter part of this quote, the first part is undeniably accurate. Revolutions are more than just a change in our consumption behavior.
Diddy proclaims that the "revolution is here," but will another music channel from Sean "remix sampling/80s rip-off" Combs really reinvent the way we listen to and interact with music? We must ask ourselves, who benefits from the diminishing value of words like revolt? The answer are those men and women who, like Combs, have made a fortune in the current system and want to see that system thrive.