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Crash & Carry? The Supermarket In Pop Culture In 2014
Jazz Monroe , December 15th, 2014 11:06

It's been a rum old year for Tesco and Sainsbury's, but supermarkets have once again been a source of inspiration for pop culture. Jazz Monroe is on the checkout

"The supermarket is an expression of our times, the pop art of everyday life." This is the gospel word of Karl Lagerfeld, fashion designer and creative director at Chanel, passed down from on high at the brand's salubrious AW14 show this past March. Staged in Paris's Grand Palais, Lagerfeld's show - a nod to 1964's NYC pop-art exhibition The American Supermarket - stocked a made-to-spec supermarket with authentic, Chanel-branded groceries and models. Rihanna and Cara Delevingne wheeled each other about in trolleys, and it's perhaps thanks to them that the event spawned 2014's eminent micro-trend, 'normcore'.

But what haunted me was that little quote: "the pop art of everyday life." Does this statement mean anything? It's impossible to say, but I had to like it. There's a naive, mystical wisdom at work there. Clearly pop art imitates mass production rather than vice versa, but with his quote Lagerfield makes a thrilling postmodern statement, namely that art, commerce, the media and reality have so tightly intertwined that to talk about an authentic original is authentically impossible. The product is the advert is the desire. As Babette Gladney quips in Don Delillo's White Noise: "It's all a corporate tie-in. The sunscreen, the marketing, the fear, the disease. You can't have one without the other."

Lagerfeld's subversion of art-commerce logic is just one way artists this year have re-presented the supermarket-as-symbol. It comes as the major supermarkets themselves start to feel heat, and not just from headline horrors like meat adulteration and Tesco's £263m accounting scandal. Asda has described a "shockwave" of sales drops, glancing nervously at discounters like Aldi and Lidl while price-slashing to the tune of £1bn. Same goes for Morrisons and Tesco, whose new boss Dave Lewis is making structural changes so profound he won't tell anyone what they are, lest he tip off rivals. This threat to the big stores' tyranny has aroused a patriarchal pride, sparking a new phase of chain warfare in which aggressive marketing and hyper-visibility are ensuring the big three's swinging corporate dicks gain pace and breadth. But what if the model fails, as the Guardian and Goldman Sachs suggest - or at least migrates online? Might we one day feel nostalgia for the mighty chain grocer?

There's something in the idea. Ever since pop art, supermarkets have intrigued left-leaning artists, the idea being that, as 'lifestyle showrooms' full of class symbols, they generate liberal capitalism's social order. As such they make a handy symbol of class oppression: notably The Clash got "lost in the supermarket" ("I came in here for a special offer / A guaranteed personality") and Pulp's 'Common People' reaffirmed the aisles as class warfare's true arena. But recent years have revealed a new angle: instead of flat-out rejecting the supermarket, much of the new generation takes a nuanced stance against consumer culture, one in which corporate reality and corporate illusion can peacefully coexist.

Happily on board are Siinai, a Finnish clan who this year recorded an entire album of arpeggio-heavy Krautrock named Supermarket. Its merry single, 'Shopping Trance', has a one-take video that depicts an oddly entrancing grocery trip from the trolley's POV. 'AEIOUYÄÖ', resplendent in swells of choral ecstasy, induces a pheromone count that approaches radioactivity. Not until closer 'Exit', which sounds like Eduard Artemiev strolling importantly round a Co-op Funeralcare, does the air of tingly reverence abate. It's easy to admire Siinai's concept: there's an unexplored kinship between the autobahn, which early Krautrock soundtracked, and the supermarket, a place where dense highways of domesticity form a similar array of images, logos and price tags flittering by as your eyes scan over at hyperspeed.

Supermarket conveys a desire to transfigure the weekly shop into something inspired or nostalgic, and there's a similarly cautious euphoria to More Than Any Other Day, Ought's debut LP. At once reserved and anthemic, the Montreal graduates bust indie-rock's epidemic of irony by applying self-aware spirituality to cynical post-punk. On one track, 'Today More Than Any Other Day', the singer undergoes a spiritual reckoning in the dairy aisle. Suddenly he's "prepared to make the decision between two per cent and whole milk." His consumer empowerment, or enlightenment, is infectious. He seems to suggest that actually enjoying the supermarket as a temple to western consumerism might not be totally insane.

A similar kind of revelry imbues the video for Allie X's 'Bitch', a spin on Stepford-esque female subjugation. Cut with archive TV and video game effects, the video sees the shaded star put a double-edged sword to doomed domesticity - "I'm your bitch, you're my bitch," she chants - while tossing and catching grapefruit in front of packaged noodle displays. In the aisles, backed by products stacked with superficial serenity, she projects a heightened sense of self. This reflects something vital, the empowered levity of shopping for products, expertly packaged and enhanced, that represents our core Freudian urges. Throughout the video there's an eery surface mood, but the cool self-importance, big-scale uniformity and bullshit-free lyrics conspire to generate something close to rapture.

Elsewhere, however, our latent horror in capitalist comfort manifests with intriguing abruptness. At Chanel AW14, lurking among Lagerfeld's groceries and household products were freakier items: by one model's feet lay an idle chainsaw, at another's packaged motor oil, all branded with the special Chanel 'C'. The dark aberrations bring to mind a verse on Sun Kil Moon's Benji, from 'Pray for Newtown', in which news of 2011's Norway massacre trickles down to the narrator during a trip to Safeway. In the track, like the Chanel set, the proximity of catastrophe and commodity suggests suffering itself has become a consumer product, its campaigns, news reports and appeals packaged and sold like shampoo.

Deeper into pop's psyche, the air thickens. Here the stacked shelves might spell captivity or repressed guilt. On Neneh Cherry and Robyn's 'Out Of The Black', fuzzy shots of glitchy goods, piled-up products and tabloid racks contextualise Cherry's admission that, "I got my blinkers on so bad stuff I can't witness." In the sparsely chilling 'Rain', Ashlee paints her consumer malaise in broader strokes: the low-lit video trawls the supermarket before concluding with blandly typed messages like 'anxiety', 'loneliness' and 'let it wash over u'. To end, it fades to white at the checkout with the phrase: 'u r free'.

Making a more lingering impression is Gazelle Twin's Elizabeth Bernholz. In her 'Belly Of The Beast' video, a hooded Bernholz ghosts through the frozen food aisle pursued by a police officer with a mysterious folder and disc. Later, CCTV footage shows a tremor sending tins toppling from shelves. Again, there's scant subtlety in its message: the video and track have a tension, horror and sci-fi mystique that represent the psychological flipside of advanced consumerism. Asked about the song, Bernholz has described "the cold, fluorescent reality of a developed capitalist society." Here, the shopping trip is no less than a question of "survival - but survival for the most menial reward. You're not running from a lion, you're just trying to get out of the supermarket after buying some dinner."

Lipgloss Twins - Wannabe

Caught between dystopic panic visions and consumer thrills are cute, nouveau-kitsch groups like Kero Kero Bonito, who concede on 'Small Town' that "supermarket deals can be quite fun if there's nothing else to do." More topical are their contemporaries PC Music, the juicy London collective headed by 23-year-old AG Cook. Cook has said he uses "kitsch imagery" to create "an immersive world of ideas and references", but more than retro-manic necrophilia, the pleasing effect of his experiment is to invert the capitalist logic that mass-production of bourgeois products (which is what creates kitsch) necessarily strips them of class value. Instead, PC Music's hard, funny hyper-pop deliberately glorifies the kitsch, turning class symbolism on its head. In this light you clock the subversive motive of cold, semi-generic PC Music tunes like Lipgloss Twins' 'Wannabe' ("fake Prada, fake Lilly, fake Zara"), which flirt with a kind of Marxist iconoclasm.

Forgetting how complexly it's expressed, our discomfort with yappy, unbridled consumerism is apparent right across the map. To some degree it makes sense that as supermarkets panic-sell, the centre-left tentatively re-examines socialism and sweatshops creep into our consciousness, our consumer anxiety heightens. This capitalist self-awareness sweeps from Lorde (whose sceptical, post-materialist pop sells in decidedly unreserved numbers) to the grimly ironic Lego Movie (where a cup of coffee's setting you back $37 is "awesome!"). It ripples out to EMA and Adult Jazz who, in '3Jane' and 'Spook', have released heartwarming 'anthems' this year about how dastardly it feels to write anything heartwarming. And most tellingly there's Chance the Rapper's 'No Better Blues', which sees the honey-toned charmer step back from posi-everything culture and literally list everything he hates. This is the dark undertow of our culture of excess, which itself represents a losing struggle against the reality of death. In a sense Lagerfeld was right: the character of our times is rooted in supermarket aisles. How our artists approach them reveals the core conflicts of our reality.