1. The most important thing to remember about the Monkees is that they were asked to play themselves, and their “real” identities were slowly scripted away from them. The Monkees simultaneously existed as a real touring band, a fictional TV band, and as four actors playing roles, which were outsize versions of their own personalities. It’s no accident that the show’s pilot sold only once they put the actors’ screen tests at the beginning, to convey a sense that they were somehow being more “real” than the performers in ordinary sitcoms. This realness was seen as corresponding to the “honesty” of the emerging pop-rock music and hippie culture of the period. Honesty was captured as a product through the ambiguous presentation of their personalities.
2. This scripting/stealing of their identities also made them popular, gave their identity brand equity, which they would later use as leverage against the music business pros who wanted to steer the Monkees entity to safely conventional and commercial prospects. The Monkees acting as themselves created the confusion, made the project about authenticity and identity and self-branding and integrity and so on. They were actors playing actors acting, which invited all sorts of compelling ambiguity about how the line separating reality from performance is drawn. There is no line. Art, popular or not, readily moves across it, transcends it.
3. The Monkees were thus trapped in an absurdist nightmare where the characters they played became more real then the people they were outside the show. The root of their authenticity got irreversibly flipped, and what was reflected in the program became more real than the behind-the-scenes reality of their lives. There was no way to keep the mirrors from pointing at each other. This anticipates the condition of identity construction in social media. You play yourself into existence and obliterate whatever allowed you to conceive of playing yourself that way in the first place. There is no more outside of the role. You can’t tell how well you are playing yourself, but you know it’s all fake all the same.
4. The Monkees were cast in part because their real-life identities seemed to lend credibility to the show’s premise of a vaguely countercultural band struggling to get by in square, straight society. The show was marketing cool, marketing a spirit of resistance even as it was exploiting it, taming it, selling it out. The Monkees were an early example of the phenomenon Thomas Frank chronicles in The Conquest of Cool, of culture-industry players being in on the counterculture and excavating its marketing potential. The illusion of the Monkees being somehow outside the entertainment machine was integral to the aura of novelty the show banked on — what was novel was the “hip insider” attitude, the genial cynicism of selling out without compromising integrity, since you are selling out with your own obscure agenda in mind, in the same vein as pop art. “Popularity” is treated as the medium rather than the corrupting, corrosive aim, and it can be toyed with in pseudo-critical, provocative ways, all while remaining accessible to the “straights” who want vicarious enjoyment of the youth-culture lifestyle.
5. The question of complicity is inescapable in the show and the Monkees phenomenon. It’s frequently taken up as a theme of episodes that want to critique the artificiality of the entertainment business while trading in it. It’s entertainment that interrogates the presuppositions of entertainment,the mechanisms that secure attention, the potential for “brainwashing” and spreading “irrational” fads. There is nothing mysterious about the show’s premise (actors pretending to be a band) but the show makes obvious, conscious, the sorts of suspensions of disbelief that vicarious participation requires, prompting a kind of retroactive mythologizing as defense mechanism. Viewers need to feel betrayed by the Monkees (how dare they pretend to be real!) to protect the efficacy of vicariousness.
6. The Monkees could be regarded as regaining “creative control” of their music career through an organized labor action: a threatened work refusal, a strike. They were in the peculiar position of refusing to be themselves unless they could be themselves in a new way they believed constituted their suppressed, real selves. The success of their fake music career gave them the power to develop a real music career, because the music company pursued the strategy of selling the Monkees-branded music as an “authentic” expression of the emerging youth consumer counterculture, with the characters on the show as integral aspects of the listening experience, enhancing it. (The music company could have instead foregrounded the songwriters and billed it as a soundtrack to the show rather than a real product of the band magically emanating from the fictional universe of the show.)
7. The Monkees thus become labor heroes of a peculiar sort, fighting against a particular kind of deskilling — against management control over the means and ways of their identity production, of their represented creativity. Ownership of the work process ends up being dramatized as entertainment in the plots of the show and in the Head movie, even as the fight was “real.” Leverage in this fight came collectively — none of the Monkess had leverage as individual performers but only as the group; they were interpellated as a collective subject. The collective developed brand power of its own that could not be reduced to the apparatus structuring it, to the show constituting their identity. They transcended their prescribed function in the Monkees machine Are there lessons here for all of us personal brands in the “social factory”? Is there a way to bend social media into constituting us as collective, collaborative subjects rather than atomized ones?
8. What would the Monkees have tried to seize control of if their music career wasn’t there as a possibility? It was the opening that leaked into the real — the myth and commercial value of pop music authenticity. The success of the “inauthentic” music created a contradiction that allowed the actors who didn’t play it to demand a music career commensurate to the success their doppelgängers were supposed to have.
9. The Monkees start from the position of being sold out and then claw back their integrity. On the show, they serve as role models for how to cheerfully inhabit the demographic you come to be aware you are slotted in, that your every action will help better define rather than disrupt. It models the zaniness that remains possible, or perhaps is even generated by the recognition that identity is not unique but contained within a marketing profile, a segment.
10. The Monkees were pioneers in demonstrating the quasi-artistic usefulness of selling out as a medium, of orchestrating the commercial sphere itself into a kind of critique of itself. They are pop artists without the ambivalent pretensions; their pretensions, as they emerge, are incorporated into the image of them as “real” pretenders. Their pretensions can’t even be genuine, critical.
11. The Monkees were perhaps the first postauthentic band, able to operate at frontier of creativity because they were already beyond selling out and needn’t be determined by that fear, by the limitations imposed by the performance of ersatz integrity. They were at once “themselves” and “fake”; they were genuine to the degree they embraced the fakeness of their understood and promulgated personas. This is now becoming a general condition, that we seem more “real” when we acknowledge and embrace our constructedness, our total alienation from spontaneous identity. Our having sold out must be foregrounded to earn any trust from those we hope to convince of our potential genuineness.
12. “Ditty Diego—War Chant” from Head lays out what is presumably the band’s autocritique, a point by point mockery of the identity laid out in the show’s theme song.
Hey, hey, we are the Monkees / You know we love to please
A manufactured image / With no philosophies
We hope you like our story / Although there isn’t one
That is to say, there’s many / That way there is more fun…
We know it doesn’t matter / ‘cause what you came to see
Is what we’d love to give you / And give it one, two, three …
For those who look for meanings
In form as they do fact
We might tell you one thing
But we’d only take it back
Not back like in a box, / Not back like in a race
Not back so we can keep it / But back in time and space
You say we’re manufactured / To that we all agree
So make your choice and we’ll rejoice / In never being free
Hey, hey, we are the Monkees
We’ve said it all before
The money’s in, we’re made of tin
We’re here to give you more
It’s a template for an analysis of the Monkees as performance art project, as a proto-LaBoeufian attempt to abnegate all integrity as a claim to ultimate integrity. It’s an enactment of a sort of fatal strategy, a search for freedom through control and contingency, through “rejoicing in never being free” because every move will appear scripted, whether it actually is or not. But complicating this interpretation is the fact that this song itself was script; the Monkees themselves didn’t write it, it was Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson’s take on the Monkees, their effort to use the Monkees as a means to build countercultural credibility, construct a counterweight to the square East Coast pop entertainment establishment that the music publishers represented. The Monkees became pawns in a power struggle between the film and TV people and the music people, and then were badgered into committing career suicide (in Head, literally in the film itself, and its uncommerciality) to help launch Rafelson and Nicholson’s on surer sophisticated footing.
13. The Monkees was a show about work and nonwork. (The original call for actors stated that candidates “must have the courage to work.”) It intentionally and explicitly dramatized improvisatory ways to try to survive, Virnoesque virtuosity of a sort. The show built the characters and plots in the editing room ex post facto after shooting lots of footage, much as contemporary reality TV show is put together now. (In a sense this is where the actors identities were stolen as their value as brands was built — much in the way it happens to reality TV participants today, who sometimes complain about being radically misrepresented by the shows’ editing.) The producers tried to “break rules” in the ways the cast, wrote, and shot the show (appropriating French New Wave techniques, casting nonactors, blurring fiction and nonfiction, shooting with loose scripts, cutting and recutting the same footage into the running time, embedding non-narrative “romps,” proto-music-videos, abrupt fantasy sequences, etc.), and show how rule breaking could be domesticated as innovation, as entertainment.
14. The show is structured as an ongoing audition, with the band trying to get gigs while remaining ambivalent about work: A sign reading “Money is the Root of All Evil” is the first thing one sees on the wall of their fictional crash pad. Auditioning is represented as entertainment, not its precursor. The auditioning never ends, just like for precarious workers or, if you prefer, free agents in the neoliberal gig economy.
15. The Monkees offered a congenial fantasy about defiance and transgression; that it would be sweet and fun when all was said and done — not to be feared but to be watched with delight and laughed at. The ethos of the counterculture — do your own thing — was ironically illustrated by people whose real identities had become scripted, and was shown to be ultimately harmless. Defiance was mere whimsey.