With the Joy Division renaissance going five or so years strong now, many who counted themselves as fans prior find themselves sharing a certain antipathy towards the band's posthumous stardom. This isn't just some knee-jerk reaction to popularity or fame, nor is it borne out of the adolescent belief that something needs to be out of the mainstream in order to be good. Being mainstream does not automatically discount a work of art or its creator. However, there is a reason that so much compelling art is created outside the mainstream and that is because there is a fundamental disconnect between the imperatives of the market and those of the work itself. Take a band known for setting sonically innovative minimalist music to a body of authentically bleak and moving lyrics, combine it with merchandising, and, presto, you have a running shoe. That isn't Dadaism, it's just capitalism.
New Balance's Joy Division sneaker was one of the stupidest objects produced last year, and while gazing upon it might invoke feelings of dismay with existence similar to those expressed in Ian Curtis' lyrics, one imagines this wasn't quite what New Balance intended. It was just supposed to be "cool." Likewise, I'm sure Anton Corbijn, rock photographer extraordinaire, didn't mean to continue ruining Joy Division for us. But what really is anybody supposed to think of seeing the dapper young Sam Riley he cast as Curtis modeling a $1300 high-fashion outfit in the New York Times up against backdrops evoking all the gray, somber tones of the band's songs and hometown? And while we sit and read this rather dull and pointless bio of Riley, it's hard to escape the fact that we aren't reading the Arts section of the paper, but rather the Style section.
Deborah Curtis, Ian Curtis' widow, has made no secret about her opinion of her husband's character. By her account (which of course needn't be taken as gospel), he wasn't a swell chap–so not swell, in fact, that one might even wonder how much iconization is too much. What we have is the work he left behind, which isn't at all about beautification, but rather speaks frankly about the things that are ugly about being human. They aren't songs about fitness, or jogging, or about looking pretty. They are about the dark side of love, monogamy, and fatherhood. They are about mass murder, inquisition, and despair. To pay "tribute" to such a body of work is not to take the imagery and turn it into an ad for snazzy pants, nor is it to turn an album cover into the sole of a trainer.
It is only because of Factory Records' militantly independent commitment to authenticity despite the market's imperatives that we even have Joy Division today–that we know them as a fiercely original and difficult group of musicians. Being merely independent, though, isn't in itself the highest value. But independence does allow the space for contiguity and coherence. It allows a band whose spirit is in contrast with the frill and cheer of the mainstream to express themselves with an increased measure of honesty. If the market asks you to be functional, create profit and security, be pretty and happy, independence creates the space where one can express dysfunction, misery, insecurity, ugliness, and failure. Prior to the Joy Division renaissance, this was what captured the imaginations of the band's fans. Now we've got a young, sexy Ian Curtis look-alike sporting Marc Jacobs and J. Crew. To quote the man himself, "Turn away from it all – it's all getting too much."