"We live always underground". New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies (1983) as an Ode to the Independence Ethos and Melancholy as an Aesthetic

Term Paper, 2020

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents:

1. Independence as a Paradigm in Power, Corruption & Lies

2. Independent and Mainstream Divide of Popular Culture

3. Manchester During the 1980s: Factory Records and The Hagienda

4. Theoretical Framework

5. Analysis of Power, Corruption & Lies

6. New Order as Pioneers of 'Madchester' and Rave Music

7. Bibliography

8. Appendix

1. Independence as a Paradigm in Power, Corruption & Lies

Power, Corruption & Lies is the sophomore album of Manchester band New Order. The album was released in 1983 on the independent label Factory Records, and is considered a key release for continuing post-punk and new wave’s momentum in the 1980s. The group, who had met at a Sex Pistols gig in 1976, was previously known as Joy Division (Crossley, 2011, pp. 152-153) . Joy Division forged a legacy by introducing the marketability of gloom to popular music (Simpson, 2019). Following the suicide of singer Ian Curtis in 1980, the remaining members reformed as New Order (Lowndes, 2016, p. 111). New Order pioneered the fusion of guitar music with synthesisers and electronic music, and thereby laid the foundations for the UK rave movement, ‘Madchester‘ (Crossley, 2011, p. 169; Nehring, 2007, p. 6). The band is considered one of the most well-known acts of the 1980s indie scene (Hesmondhalgh, 1999, p. 38).

Power, Corruption & Lies conveys New Order’s strong sense of identity and originality, while demonstrating independence as their leading paradigm in artistic and non-artistic expression. They provided an alternative to Theodor Adorno’s declaration that all popular music is a part of the “culture industry”, which is said to commodify culture and regulate taste, with music consumers rejecting the unknown (Rich, 2015, pp. 19-21). To support this argument, New Order’s position within the independent and mainstream divide of popular culture will be examined by looking closely at their immediate surroundings and motives. The album’s significance to popular culture is demonstrated through an album analysis and the synthesis of adequate academic literature and interviews of associates. The analytical tool of semiotics will be applied, as proposed by theorist Michael Riffaterre, in order to create meaning from the album’s lyrics.

2. Independent and Mainstream Divide of Popular Culture

‘Indie’ is an abbreviation of ‘independent’, and was the first genre to take its name from its structure. It found its roots in Britain in the 1980s and emerged as ‘alternative rock’ in the United States and the rest of the world. Cultural industries researcher David Hesmondhalgh claims indie developed from (post-)punk’s alternative network of distribution and the technological advancements which decreased studio and instrument costs. Amateurs were able to take control of music production, which promoted an aesthetic founded upon accessibility rather than skills or financial resources. The so-called ‘jangly’ guitar sound and sensitive lyrics are typical elements of indie. The indie market was seen as the melting point of commercial and artistic freedom by the cultural milieu of post-punk. By the end of the 1980s, the term indie had gained popularity and was used to illustrate the change of politics in alternative music in Britain (1999, pp. 35-38). Through terms such as indie, folk or any number of subcultures and countercultures, the binary terms independent and mainstream were derived, leading to pivotal publications such as Subculture: The Meaning of Style (Hebdige, 1991) or Club Cultures (Thornton, 2013) (Taylor, Bennett and Baker, 2013, pp. 6, 40, 163).

According to popular music lecturer Adrian Renzo, mainstream has wrongfully been embraced as a description of unauthentic, easy marketable or “feminized” products, rather than simply popular music (Taylor, Bennett and Baker, 2013, p. 140). Renzo draws from theorist Sarah Thornton’s argument stating that “feminine culture” is considered imitative, while “male or gender-free culture” enjoys authentic values. The perception of (non-)mainstream can vary, depending on the subcultures or gender the listener identifies with (Thornton, 2013, pp. 102-105). In her study of club culture, Thornton calls this binary thinking problematic as it favours unreasoned judgements and assumptions. The mainstream sphere of production is composed of different musical styles and mass- oriented to ensure profit (Shuker, 2012, pp. 6, 162-163). Mainstream is targeted at the masses while being portrayed as phoney and conservative. By contrast, the identified values of independent music include resistance, the ‘do it yourself’ ethos and its appeal to youth and minorities (2013, pp. 113-114). In her view, mainstream is an abstract concept played upon by the media industry. Accordingly, this imaginary construct exists primarily for independence and the desire of those involved in this culture to be part of the opposition. This opposition allows community growth and identity formation (Taylor, Bennett and Baker, 2013, pp. 77-78). This categorisation of the mainstream as a “myth” is criticised by sociologist Arnold Toynbee. He argues that the mainstream is an evident phenomenon which provides common ground for people from different social and cultural backgrounds. He describes the mainstream as a process driven by three key factors: hegemony, an aesthetic agreement and an economic current (1992, pp. 1-2).

In Subculture: The Meaning of Style, a landmark book for cultural studies, theorist Dick Hebdige explains how mainstream is in fact hegemony, based on the aforementioned opposition of the youth towards the mainstream (1991, pp. 15-17; Taylor, Bennett and Baker, 2013, pp. 6-7). He points out the initial power of the resistance of subcultures against normalcy declines over time and turns to conformity when the mainstream eventually acknowledges and implements subculture’s manners. Herein, mainstream is simply what the opposition is not. It is devalued as the imitative, the moderate, the dunce. In short, the other, which articulates issues instituted by the divide once more (Taylor, Bennett and Baker, 2013, pp. 7-8).

3. Manchester During the 1980s: Factory Records and The Hagienda

New Order’s social, business and political surroundings in the 1980s played a vital role in situating the band within the independent and mainstream divide. New Order (and Joy Division) were signed to the independent label Factory Records based in the “supposedly miserable city” of Manchester (MoneyWeek, 2007; Crossley, 2011, p. 168). Factory Records emerged in 1978 from the first-ever Manchester post-punk club night “Factory”, created by TV presenter Tony Wilson. That same year, Wilson founded Factory Records with other key players of the emerging Mancunian indie scene, such as Joy Division manager Rob Gretton or Peter Saville, who designed New Order’s and Joy Division’s record sleeves (Lowndes, 2016, pp. 110-111; Grundy, 2011). The ‘DIY’ ethos in independent music was inherited by Factory Records. Aside from having an in-house producer, they gave no advance to the artists, unlike the major labels. Instead, the profit was split 50/50, which released the artists from having to repay large amounts of money and enabled artistic freedom through trust, instead of legally-binding dependency (Lowndes, 2016, p.111). Other “anti-business decisions” were made, such as designing the cover of the band’s single ‘Blue Monday’ in such an expensive manner that it never turned a profit, even though it was the best selling 12-inch vinyl ever (Crossley, 2011, p. 176).

The album was released during Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of the Conservative Party as the United Kingdom’s prime minister from 1979-1990. In contrast to her anti-communist and “encouragement of selfishness” approach, bass player Peter Hook recalls the label’s strong sense of community: “It felt like us against the establishment” (Nehring, 2007, pp. 1, 15; Lowndes, 2016, p. 111). This statement coincides with Thornton’s conclusion most clubbers and ravers took on positions opposed to the mainstream (2013, p. 98). Cultural studies expert Angela McRobbie affirms subcultural operations were an ‘‘empowering experience’’ rather than a capitulation to authority (Nehring, 2007, p. 16). In 1982, New Order, Wilson and Gretton opened their venue, “The Hagienda” (Crossley, 2011, p. 155). This was a response to “The Hacienda must be built”, a quote taken from a utopian text by Ivan Chtcheglov, member of the group of social revolutionaries 'Situationist International'.

Here, he expressed the desire for a place where emotion would be superior to need (Whitney, 2019). The Manchester club was financed through New Order’s earnings and served to strengthen the local feeling of social belonging (Lowndes, 2016, p. 112). For independent artists, it was common to be closely tied to certain locations and scenes within these (Novara and Henry, 2009, p. 818).

By the end of the 1980s, the consumption of ecstasy had reached a dramatic high, which peaked when a 16-year-old died of an overdose in The Hagienda. Excessive drug use and financial problems were responsible for the club’s closing in 1997. The club had enjoyed the reputation of being a “Mecca for dance culture”, and was a centrepiece of Manchester’s emerging rave scene (Nehring, 2007, p. 6; Crossley, 2011, pp. 155-156). Hook remembers not wanting to run the club as a business, but as “a playground for us and our friends“ (Lowndes, 2016, pp. 112-13). Factory Records served as a key post-punk institution until its bankruptcy in the early 1990s, due to the economic recession and the fall of indie music’s popularity (Hesmondhalgh, 1999, pp. 38-39). This corresponds with Hesmondhalgh’s prognosis: as an indie label “you either get bought out or die“ (1999, p. 51). Wilson gave a similar quote: “you either make money, or you make history” (MoneyWeek, 2007).

4. Theoretical Framework

The chosen analytical method is semiotic analysis. This “science of signs” is an approach to making sense of communication, instituted by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in 1916 (Felluga, 2015, p. 275). Saussure stated that the signifier (association of physical object or action such as sound or image) and the signified (idea or notion) are mutually dependent and arbitrarily connected, ergo the sign creates meaning by default if both exist (Li, 2017, p. 524). His contemporary Charles Peirce, however, claimed there is a third component: a sign can only be understood and therefore exist if the signifier and signified are linked by an interpretant (Felluga, 2015, pp. 277-278).

Peirce’s approach was modified by Riffaterre, who used semiotics as a tool to interpret a work’s “subtext” by identifying the portrayed symbolism in his publication Semiotics of Poetry (1978). For Riffaterre, the interpretant connects mimetic and poetic language by executing several stages (Bäckström, 2011, p. 6; Felluga, 2015, p. 157). In the first, heuristic stage, the reader makes a first cursory interpretation of the text. The second retroactive or hermeneutic stage is to make sense of the observations made in the first stage, taking the implications of language into account and transforming these into meaning. This ratiocination leads to the construction of a matrix of semiotic unity, formed by repetitions of a “hermeneutic constant”. From here, the hypogram, an underlying keyword or theme and the work’s intertextual relations can be uncovered (Hopkins, 2016, pp. 3-4; Makaryk, 1993, p. 457).

Taking literary scholar Per Bäckström’s critique of Riffaterre’s ignorance towards visual or sound aesthetic into consideration, these factors will also be studied (2011, p. 17). The researcher Mahardika Lesmana applied Riffaterre’s approach to her analysis of selected of selected The Beatles lyrics. While Lesmana lay her focus on detecting signs tied to the concept of love, this study focuses on proving independence and melancholy as the driving forces of the album and hereby giving meaning to New Order’s lyrical poetry (2018, p. xiii).


Excerpt out of 18 pages


"We live always underground". New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies (1983) as an Ode to the Independence Ethos and Melancholy as an Aesthetic
University of Sussex
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
-includes semiotic album analysis of Power, Corruption & Lies Appendices are not included due to copyright reasons.
New Order, High culture, Low Culture, Popular Music, New Wave, Madchester, Post Punk, Joy Division, Factory Records, Album Analysis, Michael Riffaterre, Semiotik, Independent, Indie, Theodor Adorno, Sarah Thornton, Club Culture, Charles Sanders Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure
Quote paper
Leona Walter (Author), 2020, "We live always underground". New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies (1983) as an Ode to the Independence Ethos and Melancholy as an Aesthetic, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/962696


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