Domesticating Dissent: Consuming Johnny Cash
In 1957 Johnny Cash played a concert at Huntsville State Prison in Texas, the first of Cash’s roughly 30 prison concerts that railed on the American penal system and cemented Cash’s populist politics. Two these concerts were committed to vinyl: Live at Folsom Prison was released in 1968 and At San Quentin a year later, and the set lists are a masterful musical confluence of messages of religious redemption, the challenges of love, and the sobering realities of prison life. Cash cultivated a rebellious image that has expanded since his death, but he never spent more than a night in jail (all for misdemeanors); nevertheless, he is now painted as a hard-living, stylish, and thoughtful renegade expressing resistance to inequalities and repressive social values.
Cash secured pop culture stardom by the time of his death in 2003, and since his death Cash has become a compelling mass-consumed symbol. One of the most famous images of Cash was taken at the San Quentin concert, when photographer Jim Marshall requested “a shot for the warden” and Cash gave him the finger. The image has been endlessly reproduced, including ads run by Cash’s label in 1998, tattoos, smartphone cases, posters, stickers, and numerous t-shirts.
The universal show of contempt and disrespect, the middle finger resides at the margins of civility, an insulting if not obscene gesture that is today an increasingly commonplace expression of disrespect. Wearing the millennia-old insult on a mass-produced t-shirt violates some bourgeois behavioral standards, but it is perhaps more difficult to challenge in the hands of musical genius expressing heartfelt contempt for authority. Spencers, for instance, sells several versions of Cash shirts, and each of them implicitly justifies the vulgarity by linking it to Cash with his name or his trademark phrase “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” The mall chain likewise sells a shirt with Tupac giving us the finger flanked by Biggie standing in silent support. The two rappers’ warning to “Trust Nobody” perhaps assumes some credibility in the wake of their deaths.
A shirt with Johnny Cash flashing the bird is a theatrical but ambiguous irreverence for social order, reducing Johnny Cash’s politics to style. We might cynically view such commodities featuring a historical figure’s rebelliousness simply as canned revolution. The San Quentin image was largely ignored until an American Recordings ad in 1998 used the picture to complain about country radio’s failure to play Cash’s music. The image subsequently became a commodified icon hawking righteous indignation. It is likely that at least some people viewing or wearing the Cash shirt do not have an especially clear understanding of Cash’s prison activism. Nevertheless, such shirts are symbolically productive things that spark reflection and conversation, even if they have no especially fixed meaning or concrete politics.
Cash’s iconic digit has a guise of authentic emotion, but the marketplace risks reducing that genuine indignation to a meaningless cliché. Marketers embrace the aesthetic of “edginess” and circumspectly offer goods that reflect distinction without openly acknowledging the structural inequalities that foster various forms of alienation. Indeed, Cash railed on the American Justice system in 1969, but in the hands of one marketer, Cash’s righteous anger has been reduced to a shallow “thumb’s up.” In this telling, Cash advocates for acquiescence and even approves injustice instead of expressing his and our contempt for it.
It is cynical to conclude that consumer culture reduces all distinction and resistance to style, but marketers certainly do exploit the ambiguities and richness of popular cultural symbols. Johnny Cash is of course a genuine historical figure, but his iconic aesthetic and the symbolism he and his handlers cultivated during his life cannot be easily unraveled from Cash’s place in music heritage. As a symbol in the contemporary marketplace, Johnny Cash can mean many things, but it seems unlikely many consumers will allow his meaning to be reduced to a simplistic sanction of bourgeois discipline and law-and-order.
Leigh H. Edwards
2009 Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
2013 “The Way I Would Feel About San Quentin”: Johnny Cash & the Politics of Country Music. Daedalus 142(4):64-72. (subscription access)
2009 Sells Like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture, and Social Crisis. New York University Press,
2004 Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece. Perseus Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
2011 The Resurrection of Johnny Cash: Hurt, Redemption and American Recordings. Outline Press, London.
2011 Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. Continuum International Publishing, London.
Jim Marshall picture of Johnny Cash giving finger image from NME
Johnny Cash Thumbs-Up image from Shirt Nerdery
Spencers Johnny Cash shirt image from Spencers