Malcolm McLaren: the punk Svengali as forecaster

First published by Design, August 1981
Associated Categories Designers interviewed,Forecasting Tags:
Malcolm McLaren

Thirty-six years on, the famous British impresario is entirely prescient here – about the infantilisation of adults, the cult of play, and the rise of selfies

They say that Malcolm McLaren can anticipate trends in youth culture two years in advance and make money out of them from then on. One-time specialist in fetishistic fashion, part-inventor of punk clothes and punk jewellery, ex-manager of the Sex Pistols (and thus the man responsible for putting the republican single God save the Queen at the top of the charts in Jubilee week, 1977 a notable marketing coup), author of the Pirate Look, begetter of the New Romanticism and inspiration to Adam and the Ants, McLaren, 34 years old and once a painter, knows a thing or two about the way kids think.

But that, he says, isn’t important any more. Why? Because in McLaren’s latest vision of the future, generation gaps don’t figure at all. ‘This stuff about ‘teenage rebellion’ is an old-fashioned myth. The seventies marked the end of pop as subversive medium. Johnny Rotten was perhaps the last in in the Presley line – somebody whose records you bought but hide from your Dad. Now we’re entering a period in which fathers can be as childlike as their sons. Children will be teaching their parents at least as much as they learn from them’.

People of all ages, McLaren argues, have been forced by the recession to adjust to the prospect of permanent insecurity and unemployment. The work ethic is being undermined and, in its place, fresh attitudes to leisure are evolving. McLaren approves of this. ‘People want adventure whether they’re 14 or 40. Thatcher tries to make you feel guilty if you can’t get a job. Benn tells kids that millions of jobs are round the corner but that they’ll have to behave more responsibly and get into politics in order to create them. The whole thing’s ridiculous. Everybody knows there’s no chance of us either getting or creating jobs any more because we lost the Industrial Revolution 50 years ago. People say that’s terrible, but I don’t.

It was a great idea, but it went against the grain. We’re an eccentric race full of ideas, but though we can make one thing well we can’t make lots of things reasonably – like the Japanese can. Why try?’

People, McLaren says, will vote for the politician who can give them the best technology with which to enjoy their free time. ‘They’re not interested in careers – they’re interested in having a lifestyle which combines work with play. All that stuff in the Sunday Times Business News about ingenious British exporters is just imbecilic – very few people can follow their example, and who wants to anyway? What’s the point of working hard at school when your older brother has got a Cambridge degree but is queuing for the dole just like everybody else?’

This is where the New Romanticism, which McLaren defines as the revival of sensuality in life through cheap technology, comes in. ‘Being out of work doesn’t mean you have to feel bad, that you can’t make a fool of yourself. It’s a time to dress up, to look in the mirror, to get much more involved in your surroundings’. McLaren thinks that rock music will only function as a kind of aural wallpaper in the 1980s: what will be much more important to people will be the way their rooms look, riding bikes out to the country and having picnics and making their bodies strong and using them to the full. To prove his case, he cites the enormous interest in sport that’s emerged in the past few years.

In the 1970s, McLaren says, new technology allowed kids to shoulder guitars, bring out singles and even start up independent record labels on the cheap. It was this that put an end to the phenomenon of the rock star. In the 1980s, McLaren believes, videocameras, recorders and players will likewise destroy the authority of television: ‘Now you too can be your own TV hero. Instead of your daughter learning German in class, you’ll be able to borrow a video camera from your local library and go off to Germany with her on your bike with a Walkman under your helmet to make movies there and absorb the language and culture first-hand. And instead of Big Brother watching you, you’ll be watching Big Brother. Because the new class that’s springing up, the non-working class, will be the most skilled at handling information. Indeed it’ll be that­ class which takes the lead in establishing tomorrow’s culture’.

It doesn’t matter, McLaren says, that the delights of the future will be simple ones. ‘So what if you go to Spain with only dole money in your pocket, an old tent to sleep in and a council house to return to as a base? Just as safety pins were equal to diamond tiaras as far as punks were concerned, so improvising from rubbish is still valid. You can make your style as rich as you like – it’s only the persistence of attitudes based on status that prevents it from being acceptable’.

McLaren may be a master of Style. But that is only because he has a very precise view of it. ‘The only reason I’ve survived in fashion is because I’ve understood that style can never be sustained unless you clarify what is subversive about it. Style only becomes something done for effect, something decadent, if it lacks content’.

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