Primitivism, the artistic representation
and celebration of ancestral or colonized "tribal" peoples,
plays an important role in American popular culture and gains its
momentum from the philosophy that technology and technological progress
is alienating or destructive and that primitive peoples, who have
remained closer to nature and thus further from the damaging effects
of society, are more noble and pure. Such varied cultural artifacts
as "caveman" films (such as One Million B.C. and
Cavewoman)—Hollywood's versions of African and pre-Columbian
Native American life, novels (such as Jean Auel's Clan of the
Cave Bear), and the macho mythology of the "Men's Movement"
all belong to the tradition of American pop primitivism. The avant-garde,
psychobilly, cult band The Cramps uses this symbolic archive of
primitivism to critique middle-class white life and the world of
work and social responsibility.
In 1976, The Cramps, known for their kitschy stage show, began a
music career in New York City. There they created their unique rockabilly
sound combined with strains of instrumental rock, surf, sixties
punk, and pychedelic music. Lux Interior and Poison Ivy, the band
leaders, call their music the "Big Beat from Badsville"
and have recorded it at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios and, more recently,
on Epitaph. The lyrics of songs performed by The Cramps, are often
explicitly concerned with primitivism's generic "vision of
Tribal Life . . . an internally homogeneous society located somewhere
out beyond the frontier of the Civilized World" (Price 54).
In different Cramps songs, this wilderness inhabited by primitives
may be situated in Africa, on some quasi-Polynesian isle, or in
Neolithic times, but these primitive environments are always at
the same time signified as Middle America. The metonymies of primitive
identity by which the natives are designated as other are connected
with European American cultural phenomena, as in the juxtaposition
of pagan cannibal archetypes with suburban American feasting ritual:
Well, they're doin' a dance that no one's ever seen
And they're barbecuin' real human beans. ("The Natives Are
Similarly, links are established between the
contemporary American social order and the primitive's tropical
Well, the city is a jungle
And I'm the beast. ("Goo Goo Muck")
Tarzan drove his Stingray
Through the fiberglass jungle
Swung from high-tension wires. ("Saddle Up A Buzz Buzz")
Not only is the city a jungle, but the
jungle is a city; in "The Natives Are Restless," the cannibal
persona's home is referred to as "my neighborhood." The
Neanderthal persona who sings in "Caveman" uses mass transit
Cave train down town
Caveman get down.
Primitive and civilized worlds become mutual
signifiers; in some way, white Middle America becomes the site of
The Cramps' evocation of a primitive "night-world" is
closely related to their exploration of a hidden life that is explicitly
American, in which the erotic and diabolic coexist with the familiar.
Beneath the visible phenomena of American life seethes a hidden
cosmos of experience:
Well, there's more things in Tennessee
Than's dreamed-of in your philosophy. ("Cornfed Dames")
The Cramps' vision of this secret America
corresponds with primitivism's "standard rhetoric of fear,
darkness, pagan spirits, and eroticism" (Price 37). Their colligation
of American sexuality, violence, and demonic spiritualism should
be read in the context of what Price terms "the night side
of man" (37). In The Cramps' lyrics, images of diabolism, violence,
sexuality, all characterize a night that is structurally opposed
to culture or civilized law:
Oh, when the sun goes down and the moon comes up
I turn into a teenage Goo Goo Muck . . .
Yeah, I'm the night head hunter looking for some head
With a way-out body underneath that head. ("Goo Goo Muck")
In the American night of this song, sunset
precipitates a lycanthropic transformation into a being whose name
suggests at once a 1950s B-movie monster, something like The Blob,
and a kind of personified semen appropriate to the verbal conjunction
of oral sex with "primitive" and murderous headhunting.
Sex, violence, monsters, night. Sexuality is figured as demonic,
When I shaked my hips in the Inner Sanctum
Satan gave me tips and then I thanked him. ("Creature from
the Black Leather Lagoon")
Gonna get lei'd with that fire round my neck
And those She-Devil kisses, oh, hell, what the heck. ("Aloha
Although names from Protestant mythology
are used for the conventional evil spirits of primitivism, their
presentation to the exclusion of the redemptive spirits of that
mythos returns these familiar western mythologies to a "pagan"
frame.Familiarity with the erotic and the diabolic is an index of
maturity and sophistication in The Cramps' terms, of privileging
knowledge rather than the benighted ignorance with which "civilized"
western ideology generally codes primitiveness. The Cramps' pop
primitivism does not privilege as enlightened the condition of the
civilized subject; instead, the diurnal world of faith and reason
is coded as naive, and the superstitious understanding of eroticized
violence and darkness is understood as wisdom:
Well, you might think
The world is sweet and fine as sugar candy,
But I myself believe in
Whatever comes in handy. ("Daisys Up Your Butterfly")
As a song of innocence and of experience, "Daisys
Up Your Butterfly" inverts the usual hierarchy of primitive
and civilized epistemologies. Images of the commercially manufactured
"cute" or "innocent," particularly in the formulation
constructed to signify the virginal experience of young girls—daisies
and butterflies—become sexualized images of penetration: "daisies
up your butterfly." The song interprets nature not as pure
and stainless, but as wild, brutal, and reproductive; in other words,
the primitive cosmogony, rather than the worldview of civilized
people, is an accurate and useful model of the universe. This revelation
figures the special access to the "real" available to
the American primitive; this construction of the primitive worldview
as an accurate depiction "a so-called civilized world"
("What's Inside A Girl?") lays the foundation for pop
primitivism's elaboration of what may be termed "primitive
This primitive privilege is a pivotal component
of The Cramps' negotiation of pop primitivism. American pop primitivism
describes a mythical relation to the world of work and exchange.
The "night side of man," as Sally Price describes the
subject matter of primitivist representation, is a sphere diametrically
opposed to the working day. Georges Bataille contends that sexual
activity and violence are both forms of disruption of the work-process,
which become associated with the noumenal world because of this
perceived transgression of the labor imperative (41-48). The characterization
of the nexus of eroticism, violence, and monsters from the spirit
world—the three central subjects of Cramps lyrics—points to the
ideological function of pop primitivism as mythic form of escape
from the matrix of labor and exchange.
The American primitive defines himself as the
non-laboring hedonist: "No, I ain't no farmer, that's no fun
/ Run some tractor till the work's all done ("Cornfed Dames").
Instead, the American wilderness of night in which the Cramps' primitives
are situated is a vacation-world, a place given over to the gratification
of the desires necessarily deferred in work socialization: "Most
of the time work is the concern of men acting collectively and during
the time reserved for work the collective has to oppose those contagious
impulses to excess in which nothing is left but the immediate surrender
to excess, to violence, that is" (Bataille 41).
Thus it should appear as no surprise that the
night world of man is often figured explicitly as a vacation:
Gonna take a week off, gonna go to hell,
Send you a postcard, "Hey, I'm doin' swell,
Wish you were here, Alo-ho-ho-ho-ha from hell." ("Aloha
This identification of "the night world
of man" with touristy vacations, and therefore with the hospitality
and travel industries, reflects the widespread use of pop primitivism
to mythologize commodified leisure. Primitivism is used to construct
leisure not as an industrial sector, but as some primal, pre-capitalist
experience outside the world of work, commodification, and reification.
The hedonic rewards of the trip to the Polynesian-theme bar or Hawaiian
island are inflated commensurately—as categorical escape from the
market and the world of reified labor. The primitivist mythopoetic
force with which leisure is imbued is ideology in the sense of "a
'representation' of the imaginary relationship of individuals to
their real conditions of existence" (Althusser 87). The fictive
representation of individuals' relations to leisure, and specifically
to the potential for leisure to permit a temporary escape from the
world of commodification and exploitation, signify the operation
of larger ideological structures concerned with repackaging for
people their own relations to the inescapable logic of the market.
In the ubiquitous pop primitivism created by
the travel industry to promote its products, the vacation-site is
not just another territory, but a magical utopia. The Cramps explicitly
reconstruct this very myth, while travel ad Hawaiian-style music
plays in the background, in a song about the mystic isle of Kizmiaz:
Flamingoes stand easy on bended knees
Palm trees sway over tropical seas
While azure waves and lazy breeze . . .
It lies on the horizon in a golden haze
No one believes their eyes, the legend says. ("Kizmiaz")
This, then, is the lost horizon of the domain
of primitive privilege; rather than be constructed as a subordinated
and despised condition, primitiveness here is imagined as a utopian
paradise where work is unnecessary and exchange replaced by simply
taking what one wants—in short, the American primitive's condition
is more representative of extreme wealth than any other relation
to the world economic order.
Just as the primitive world is constructed
as outside the system of coerced labor in late capitalism, so it
is also represented as being substantially external to the world
of reified value and the market of exchange. In opposition to the
civilized individual to whom he speaks, the self-identified "primitive"
persona enjoys pleasures that have not passed through the market:
The things I do, you'd never try
What I get free, you have to buy. ("Primitive")
This quatrain connects the primitive's illicit
sexual knowledge with his participation in practices not contained
within the matrix of market exchanges. In traditional primitivism,
the inability of primitives to calculate material value in the same
way in which official appraisals are conducted in the West is the
sign of the ignorance and evolutionary backwardness of the native—one
of the most important stories in the creation of primitivist mythology
of all kinds is the story of the very bad trade the primitives made,
giving away some precious resource for only a few trinkets. This
is itself a sign of the primitive world as a kind of escape from,
as a zone outside, the grid of material practices common to the
"developed" capitalist regions. In The Cramps' "Jungle
Hop," there is such a story:
Trade the skins of ten giraffes
For one beat-up phonograph
Now they dance and do the bop
They rock all night to a jungle hop.
What is significant in this tale is the exchange
of labor for leisure; a close examination reveals that the primitive
world certainly is subject to the contingencies of collective work
(giraffes must be hunted and skinned) and the paradigm of trade
The ideologically disruptive dimension of The
Cramps' utilization of the traditionally conservative discourse
of American pop primitivism consists in their avant-garde practice
of making the seams show; in their manipulation of the representational
practices governing the primitivist imagining of the leisure industries,
The Cramps ultimately laugh not at the escapist fantasy they propose,
but at the civilized, hardworking listener's prospects of participation
in the dark paradise: "You could swim all the way from Alcatraz
/ To Kizmiaz " ("Kizmiaz"). Should the listener make
the miraculous swim between these islands, escaping from the penal
institution that operates as a metonymy for all the practices of
repression and reification from which the latter Polynesian fantasy
isle promises utopian sanctuary, the joke is still on the fugitive:
"kiss my ass." This vision of the offered primitive world
of leisure repudiates the idea that the civilized worker can enjoy
that primitive life for a month each year or two evenings each week,
that the night-world is available as a reward for a job well-done
as citizen and employee.
There is nothing subversive or satiric, however,
about The Cramps' presentation of the other half of the mutual signifier
equation—African or Polynesian "primitives." The paradigmatic
mutual signification of the city and the jungle, of the "civilized"
and the "primitive," while never ceasing to brand as "other"
any member of an African or Polynesian culture, assimilates the
imagined experience of such people to the categories of urban or
suburban American life. Pop primitivism has the rhetorical power
to marginalize and de-humanize the individuals and cultures branded
with the mark of the native; while primitive privilege is very much
the valued cultural property of the American bourgeoisie, this prerogative
is in no way shared with the "primitive." Pop primitivism
reinscribes the subaltern tribal individual as possessor of neither
subjectivity nor history.
This fact is particularly visible in light
of the pop primitivist assertion that, in effect, primitives have
no language, except insofar as they can use names stolen from civilized
language and therefore articulated as a kind of broken English.
In "Caveman," a song whose lyrics constitute the persona
of a contemporary neolithic man, The Cramps utilize "the syntax
of babies and 'primitives' in racist discourse" (Haraway 146):
Look man, make tool
Caveman no fool . . .
Beat rock, hunt meat
Caveman rock beat.
When a primitive like the Caveman persona speaks,
it is without saying "I"; instead, a proper name appears,
demonstrating that the speaker does not possess self-reflexive consciousness,
but instead relates even to himself or herself as a feature in the
civilized subject's index of alien names. Alternatively, the objective
case "me" is substituted for "I," signifying
the primitive's permanent inscription as the acted-upon other, even
in his or her own speech: "Me Tarzan, you Jane." Primitives
are linguistically incapable of constituting a subjectivity.
Additionally, primitive speech may be distinguished
from our own civilized language by the absence of verb conjugation—there
are neither persons nor tenses, made still more evident by the disjunction
with the projected third-person identity of the speaker ("Caveman
rock" not "Caveman rocks"). Primitives exist in a
world without history; events cannot be related in time to the speaker
or to one another. Primitive life is a changeless, ahistorical relation
to physical survival ("Beat rock, hunt meat"). These two
conventions of primitive speech deny the speaker the power to constitute
an identity or to occupy a historical position.
The superposition of primitive and civilized
cosmologies in Cramps lyrics gives rise both to a critique of conventional
representations of leisure and to a conservative reaffirmation of
the racist and imperialist codes of primitivism as an artistic mode.
Pop primitivism, even in its avant-garde formulation through The
Cramps, never confronts the original systems of racial, cultural,
and national hierarchy that primitivism represents and structures—indeed,
while this discourse may be appropriate to oppositional representation
of some aspects of the culture and political economy of America,
it is inherently unable to assess critically the relations of dominance
that the developed nations and multinational corporations have established
in their encounters with indigenous peoples.
Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses."
Theory. Ed. Dan Latimer. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. Trans.
Mary Dalwood. San Francisco:
City Lights Books, 1986.
Haraway, Donna J. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in
the World of Modern
Science. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Price, Sally. Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Chicago:
U of Chicago P, 1989.