Empire Records Analysis: Or, Anarcho-Syndicalism Rocks!

I first watched Empire Records in 2000. I was in college and a movie about young, edgy people working together in an independent music store sounded fun. At first blush, the movie comes off as a bunch of posturing young people that aren't comfortable in their own skin. That element is there, to be sure, but to treat the movie as "Just Another Teenage Movie" would be to miss out on a powerful under-riding narrative of collectivism and anarcho-syndicalism.

In the movie, the Empire records store was established with what lines up fairly closely with the beginning of rock and roll. (blues and jazz predate rock, but the important aspect is the anti-authoritarianism of rock that functions as the ethos of the store and its employees).

But it's not a pure attack on conformity and authority. Anti-authoritarianism cuts both ways in the movie. The rock star who's come to town represents a pure kind of anti-authoritarianism. Yet, he's also "the man" that the good folk at Empire Records discover they want to stick it to. Consider the star's name--Rex Manning--which means king of men. Rex is the king of Rock. Rex is the essence of rock ’n roll. When Corey, the Harvard girl, seduces him and he obliges, saying “Rock ’n Roll,” she realizes she doesn’t want to cast off all of society’s constraints. She discovers that she’s really looking for a more traditional relational model. Something more stable.

Enter Joe, the anti-authorial manager of empire records. He operates as a protector for all the troubled young people that work for him. His version of rock ’n roll is less anarchic than Rex’s. Yes, he plays the drums, smokes cigars, drinks beer, and even hits one of his employees--Lucas, but he also flouts the rules, turning in a bank bag stuffed with paper to cover for the very kid he hit.

So, the balance here is not a complete rejection of authority; rather, the question is what type of authority is allowed/allowable. Unlike Rex’s "anything goes” approach, Joe provides loose guidance, even presiding over a group therapy session when the youth under his watch need it.

Essentially, the Empire Records store presents a sort of utopia. The chief rules with reason rather than emotion. When confronted by the bodies of the young women that work for him, he is stoic. He offers them counsel, not himself. When money runs out, everyone pools their resources to ensure their way of life can continue.

It is potentially confusing why Lucas is put in charge at the beginning of the action. But Joe makes this decision because he is at a loss of how to move forward with the issues of power and finance that threaten the store.

Joe tells Lucas not touch the cigars, beer, drum sticks. Joe knows that all of his rules will be broken.
He wants Lucas to break the rules. Joe needs Lucas to shake things up because Joe is incapable of making a non-rational decision. Consider that Joe never calls the cops on Lucas. This is because he put Lucas in charge for a reason. The reason is the good of the Empire Records community.

There’s a sort of anarcho-syndicalism there.

From Wikipedia:

"Anarcho-syndicalism is a political philosophy and anarchist school of thought that views revolutionary industrial unionism or syndicalism as a method for workers in capitalist society to gain control of an economy and thus control influence in broader society."

Through the records store, the employees are able to change their society. They regulate what is accepted/acceptable. For instance, they judge that Rex Manning is a threat, a figure that aggrandizes himself only, and they cast him out. 

Empire Records is the sort of place where quarters are glued to the floor. Money is less important than the community. It's the sort of place where the down and outs can go and get a job, get friendship, as evinced in "Warren Beatty's" episode. He comes in with a gun and a lot of anger. But his desire is merely to be accepted. Importantly, police haul Beatty away from the store on two occasions, but their authority is limited. Warren returns to the store after the police take him away both times. Traditional measures of discipline are meaningless in the world of Empire Records. Punishment doesn't make sense in a society that takes care of those at the bottom. Once the individual becomes part of the collective, though they still have their problems to work through, they are supported and operate in a space where they can freely express themselves. They have a space of self-expression protected by their collective unity.

Now, if you want to watch a really good movie, you're probably better of watching Hi-Fidelity than Empire Records. It's also highly likely that the film-makers didn't mean to write in an anarcho-syndicalist collective. Likely, the writers were going for a "Save the Farm" or "Save the Orphanage" kind of plot with a Gen X angle. But anarcho-syndicalism sounds so much cooler, doesn't it?

End Transmission