Artistic Rebellion is for the Rich
Revolutionary art is a luxury only the wealthy can afford
by Ryan McCulloch
Few things bring me as much pleasure as telling people why I don’t like 1997 rock musical Rent, so when I joined The Gaudie’s writing team it felt like time to immortalise my frustrations in print. However, this is a newspaper and Rent isn’t news. It was barely relevant in 2005 when they hauled back most of the original cast for a movie adaptation. Nevertheless, the ‘countercultural musical’ that Rent has come to epitomise—with Hamilton being our most recent example—is an oxymoron in terms.
Producing Broadway shows is demanding. High demand plus limited showings drives up the value of a ticket through “dynamic pricing”—standard for the industry. At its peak, tickets for Hamilton, the hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, sold for $15,000.
However, Rent never achieved those levels of success. No musical has ever achieved those levels of success. That the demand for Hamilton could rise so high yet continue to thrive is impressive. To focus on the content of Hamilton and Rent, there’s nothing radical there. The message of these blockbuster musicals—each decade has at least two—is not to question power nor to call to arms, as they might have you think.
Rent wants you to think it’s about struggling artists who just want to live and create art. There are LGBT characters, and a trans woman dies. It’s all very sad. The production’s hook is in that sadness: empathise with individual humanities and offer an appeal to emotion instead of using the subject matter to explore the systemic neglect by the Reagan administration of the thousands who died.
Rent’s characters refuse to operate within the system which they feel sets them behind, but they’re playing at poverty, not living it. Mark could return to his well-off parents if he was ever in any real danger. He photographs homeless people and offers them nothing. He turns down well-paying jobs because he doesn’t want to “sell out”.
Mark’s selfishness is not examined. It is simply presented without a framing device or any attempt to draw attention to how his actions are selfish. This course of action—the appeal to sentimentality over completely necessary life-saving work—cannot work in the real world. Rent is not countercultural: it reinforces the status quo by reducing its rebellion to, “Don’t pay your rent because your landlord’s a sellout”.
Similarly, Hamilton is more concerned with individual questions of legacy than a response to injustice. The locations and characters could have been compelling visions of tackling injustice, but they can’t be: musicals, especially successful musicals, are out of reach for most consumers. Of course, this issue does not exist in film, where ticket prices are standardised and placed firmly within reach.
Similarly, Hamilton eschews convention and expectation with its casting and musical direction, but the storytelling itself is not radical. It is the tale America has been telling about itself for years: the United States is the land of the free and the brave. Like Rent, it deals with a social underclass that feels left behind, with - in the case of Hamilton - the United Kingdom’s elitism and absolute monarchy hanging around their necks.
There’s very little attempt made in any of these cases to take a step back and consider the vacuum of creating these shows. Although Hamilton (and Les Misérables, too) deal directly with revolution, the hook is one of pure emotion. Hamilton wants you to think about what rebellion means, but it’s also insistent on an ideal version of America and what it means to be American. If the medium is the message, then Hamilton has to consider itself as more than simply a story, but as a product. In both cases, the musicals must straddle a delicate line of representing a vulnerable underclass while appealing to the rich. There is a disconnect: these musicals cannot genuinely advocate social change because real change is threatening to those who already have power.
Perhaps those who could easily line up $15,000 to watch a musical that takes the system to task are, in effect, moderating what kinds of musicals can even be viable. Hamilton, Rent, and Les Misérables are all musicals that by all accounts do this. But the people who are intimately familiar with all forms of injustice aren’t the ones who create demand for the shows or bring it to wider recognition. They found success because of people who had money.
I like the tunes and the cast as much as anyone, but this article came into existence because I don’t like what Rent is selling, and I had to adapt to a medium with different demands than simply posting things online. In this way, “countercultural” musicals come with very specific criteria: they should not alienate, but uplift. They should give the masses something to strive towards, but not at any real cost for those who are already living the dream—the American Dream.
And if $15,000 is the cost of flirting with rebellion, then I certainly can’t afford it.