Categories
Music Politics

Utopia at the Weekend

“Can music change the world?” is the question that dogs me more than any other at the moment, and suffice to say, as Simon Reynolds acknowledged during this years Mark Fisher memorial lecture, it has no simple answer. There is always the risk of a kind of theory-based wish fulfilment fantasy when addressing this, as evidenced by countless incidents wherein we will place whatever we are concerned with at the heart of some world-shifting rupture, as not only a method, but a central mechanism of change. Because my investment in music comes from a well of emotion it would be all too easy to progress from a confident affirmation of emancipatory power, to insist from the off that music is a revolutionary force as if this is a given. When I place importance on the question of music and political change, it is to avoid this assumption, but to commit to a certain confidence, perhaps misplaced but difficult to dislodge, that music is of importance, that it deserves more than we give it, and that in fact, the very act of writing about music still has a point.

This last point is something that I unambiguously take a side on, for good or ill, if only through my subjective experiences of music writing as an expansive tool, whether as a reader or writer. Without the idea, found largely in writing, of new worlds and experiences heralded through music, I probably wouldn’t have started this blog or rediscovered the value of theory in the first place. Whether it is in the form of a linking of ideas to cultural production or the heightening of emotional potential in the very sound of the music itself, the prism of the music-writer has continued to prove invaluable to me. This is something that has emerged for me particularly upon reading through Agnes Gayraud’s Dialectic of Pop, David Wilkinson’s Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain, and attending the Simon Reynolds lecture, three “events” which have intertwined and coalesced into a series of concerns and questions.

Reynold’s lecture in particular channelled a lot of my reading through what was a stimulating if meandering excavation of Mark Fisher’s engagement with music and what it entails, as well as more specifically surprising engagement with bands like the Jam and the counterculture of the 60s, which earlier on had come under some notable ire in a few K-Punk posts. The evocation of the power of music here, and its utopian tendencies [even as often this utopia is deferred, the weekend is constantly on the horizon, the revolution is always tomorrow] emotionally channelled a lot of what I’d read not too long prior from Gayraud. Dialectic of Pop, notably, is far from an unambiguous culturalist defence of pop as utopian force, or even a defence of pop as artform as such, something that I would argue barely needs saying today, rather it is an invigorating philosophical engagement with pop-as-artform via a critique of its most famous detractor Adorno. The implications of the work I think demand further engagement, and I’m curious as to how this emerges in time, but for me it begged further questions regarding the implications of production.

By addressing technology, mediation and production as the central components of pop as a musical form, Gayraud immediately hits at something I think is key to addressing it, whether we do so as a critic or an academic or both. Derrida didn’t make an appearance in the book explicitly, but in addressing the inherent deferral of authenticity in recorded music and expression, I couldn’t help but think of him. What Gayraud implicitly deals with through her addressing of a paradoxical “grounded authenticity”, as well as her account of both pop and music concrete being arts of “fixed sounds”, defined not, as in prior forms in which the “object” was prefigured, symbolised by a score, by the particularities of the performance itself as inscribed on the recording. In this way, the idea of the authentic expression, the grounded, the lone bluesman pouring out their soul on the porch, is mediated as soon as it is played, even as its image is reproduced in the recording, the presence only occurs in its absence.

This seems to prefigure what Reynolds draws from in Fisher and others, the reference he made during the lecture of music forming identity, heralding new worlds, all in a way opposing the old conception of music expressing an authentic “soul” or emotional bedrock, rather pointing to it as a locus of production, of the new. It’s not often here that I’ve referred back to the CCRU, partly as its already such an overbearing reference point in online theory circles, but the most interesting thing about that moment today I think is how it was tied together with a cultural one. Reynolds, when talking about it, will never fail to mention how the CCRU was practically inseparable from its musical influences in Jungle, seeing in the heightened, machine-gun proliferation of drum-hits made possible via new technological openings a kind of cultural blueprint for the ideas that would eventually become attached to the name accelerationism. Whatever value we attach to that label now, and whatever’s in a name [I myself became so frustrated with the online discourse around it a while ago that I instigated a clean break on this blog, not something I’d do again but not something I regret either], the presence of jungle in the 90s as a kind of supposed sign of things to come is a marker of the ambiguous power of music. It can be argued I think that even as the excitement of new electronic forms of music, of audio-technological possibilities opened up, that power of the new failed utterly to connect with the socio-political moment, in which Blair, Britpop and a reconstituted mashup of 60s references was the order of the day.

So even as we maintain that music has power, that it can indeed herald other worlds, new possibilities, utopias, we have to question the implications of this power, and hence the implication that music is somehow inherently revolutionary or a force for change. The power it holds is one that is tied up in the changes of the day both material and abstract. As Fisher often pointed out and Reynolds reiterated, there is an uncertainty and a seeming contradiction in the kind of “realism” we sometimes find in Hip-Hop, where at the same time as being at the forefront of a contemporary modernist impulse sonically, tends towards reinforcing capitalist realist tendencies in its lyrics and relations. This, when we look at jungle, seems to manifest in the simultaneous acceleration and deceleration that occurred at that time, and what we could perhaps now see as the disappointment of that moment, that the much-vaunted heightened abstraction of capital, the kind of accelerated ruptures to the outside heralded by the intersection of cyberpunk, jungle, Lovecraft and the other host of reference points the CCRU drew from, never materialised, the 2000s instead becoming dominated by the kind of flaccid indie-pop-rock continuum that couldn’t stand in greater contrast with the rhythmic psychedelia, as Kodwo Eshun dubbed it, of Jungle, and the possibilities it suggested.

That was 20ish years ago, and now we exist in the world which seems to be the fruit of that moment, not as a kind of vivid auto-destruction of capital, but a stasis of effect. Rather than a lurid eroticism of machines, a technological rupture, the future is that of google and facebook, the reterritorialised thrill of machinic abandon made manifest instead in the billionaire figure, the tech guru, the data manager around which we gather in worship. The underground promise of technological mutation promised through genres like jungle, and the much-mythologised moment of the CCRU, remained just that, a myth, a teleology some still cling to even while we live in its manifestation. This all paints a somewhat hopeless picture, and in fact I would hold that we shouldn’t shy away from, to some degree, acknowledging a certain degree of pessimism, an emotional air of failure, in the present, not only from the left, but from the counterculture, wherever that can be found.

The flipside to this is the questioning of purpose. Something I’ve come to realise is a certain turmoil of believing in, and committing to, an emancipatory politics and some kind of future. Especially in the current climate, outside influences make themselves known, voices consistently asking you “what’s the point?”, on some level you wonder if it wouldn’t all be easier if you gave up hope, simply threw in the towel and accepted perhaps that culture doesn’t mean anything, that there really isn’t any escaping. It is here that, speaking personally, but also as something of a justification for my interest in theories and politics of aesthetics and culture, culture, and in this instance especially music, holds open the door. The “heralding of worlds” enabled through pop music must be more than a simple ability to ignore the world as it is.

This is something that, especially given the somewhat archival nature of Reynold’s lecture, and my current reading on post-punk, appears not simply in some ineffable thought-realm, but on a spatio-temporal level. When I was discovering swathes of new sounds each presented to me a world with which I wasn’t familiar, a kind of fantastical apparition of the period from which it came. I referred previously on this blog to the Pop Group as appearing like a kind of transmission from elsewhere, and indeed a lot of the music I discovered felt the same way. Gayraud puts a large amount of emphasis on the development of recorded music, describing how recordings were in those early days sometimes treated with suspicion, how upon being played a recording of a song, the voice might be regarded as a spectre, something unnatural being brought back from the grave. This sense never truly goes away from recorded music, the particulars of each recording being inscribed technologically rather than dissipating with the singer/musician. On some level, the pop song, the recorded piece of music does give us a transmission from somewhere that no longer exists, or doesn’t exist here.

This is both the hope and the melancholy of pop, the moment that it promises something else while deferring it. Something Reynold’s referred to, specifically in conjunction with a song by “the Australian Beatles” the Easybeats, was this idea of “Utopia at the weekend” contained in their lyrics, the infinitely deferred promise of good times, without worry, always appearing as soon as they disappear. This is a conflict I’ve found within the form of songs repeatedly, whose sounds and forms encourage langour, enjoyment, dance, a kind of moment in which you are encouraged to remain… yet the song finishes, it can’t not, to lead onto the next. The euphoria always prefigures the downturn, the revolution is always tomorrow. Nonetheless the promise remains.

And what does the music writer have to do with all this? Is writing about music like dancing about architecture? No more than making music itself is like talking about paintings. That ridiculous canard should have been done away with a long time ago, not simply because its a case of “apples and oranges” but because it belies a constraint, a straight-jacket on music as well as writing, which assumes that one sphere simply lies apart from the other, that any imposition of writing or thought must necessarily lessen the impact, cheapen the music itself. I have to contest this on a personal level; I would never have, for instance, listened to the cracked ceramic majesty of the Associates Sulk had the presence of their music not been drawn up in such a compelling form in Reynold’s Rip it Up and Start Again, and in this instance it ceases to matter whether the writing itself resembles the form of the music, it was never about that, but the conjuring of its spirit, its emotional resonance in the listener.

This is, to tell the truth, what I objected to for so long in the music reviews I found in the guardian, which I encountered more regularly than any other paper, in which professional critics would time and again proceed to review from a supposed position of cynical distance, where they couldn’t be seen to be too invested, where even praise came with the insistent and mind-numbing implication of white-middle-class-cool heaped on top of it, as if I was being lectured by the frontman of the latest mediocre indie-rock outfit week after week. It is the bind of the man who simply grunts in response so as not to break his uncaring facade, the same that grips the hipster, the cool-police who stalk newspaper columns everywhere and deliver packaged and manufactured snide remarks on the latest pop single not because it has any bearing on anything, but because they need to make snide irreverent comments on something lest they lose their edge.

This form of criticism is an anathema to the power of music, it aims to lessen it, to dismiss it. Even what’s good is only so because you enjoy it, or because it fits a certain standard of irreverent cool to be a credibility-booster for the critic in question. The idea that music could in fact do something, that talking about it might be something more than recommending the best product for an audience, is laughed at, hit with the same insufferable hipster cool as everything else. In contrast to this, the best music writing, encapsulated for me in the past year in Ian Penman’s It Takes Me Home, This Winding Track, holds on, not to some artificial sincerity, but the weight of culture, the commitment to its power. To oppose the empty nostalgic commodification of Mod today is not simply an exasperated old man-ism, as if they “aren’t doing mod right” or something, but an acknowledgement of the wider implications, the nostalgia-porn for instance hanging around punk and, most bafflingly today, Britpop, isn’t simply something not to be liked, something distasteful, but a sign of something broader, something powerful.

The power of music remains an ambiguous one, to be handled with care and critically, but its existence is precisely why this critique is necessary, why despite the ineffability of sound, music and music culture deserve to be taken seriously. To not do so is to let this power bend to others, to give up the ghost, to leave music at the whims of the hipster critic is to leave it to the whims of political change. If we are to accept, as we should have realised long ago on the left, that politics operates through emotional means far before it does analytic ones, then the emotional pull of culture, the establishing of its power, has its part to play. By saying this, I don’t want to insinuate a call for some kind of “left culture offensive” in the manner of Red Wedge or Grime 4 Corbyn, both of which not only failed but subscribe to the logic that only explicit political messaging and content matters. Rather, it is for a re-alignment of how we criticise, talk about, address music. We need to assume that it matters regardless of content, that the future of music has something to offer, and that the dream of a re-invented structure of feeling presented by the history of its form still lives on, in whatever form this may take.

Categories
Music

Criticism and the Discontinuity of Pop

“Who?” – Billie Eilish

Who is Van Halen? To some not knowing the answer to that question is unforgivable, a mark of disrespect to ones elders, what came before you, to these guardians of music history there is a right and a wrong way to listen, talk about music, and it invariably arcs back towards the pull of the self-evident classics, the ones we all know are immortal, game-changing and iconic. Not knowing one of these monoliths is a failure in this sphere, and immediately places you lower down in the hierarchy as the head of the pack shows off his gleaming credentials, going off on one about their favourite Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Black Sabbath records, potentially even displaying them in pride of place like trophies.

So when Billie Eilish recently received inordinate amounts of heat from people indignant that she didn’t know who Van Halen was, it was hardly surprising, all these I-used-to-practically-live-in-a-record-shop-and-knew-who-the-velvet-underground-was-when-I-was-3 music trivia buffs with all the right reference points, these arbiters of rock heritage who ensure that you like all the right kinds of things and if you don’t will make damn sure they tell you are just waiting for opportunities like this. Old rockers schooling the youth on good music taste is a cliche by this point, but as it turns out they are only too happy to oblige, passing on a musical canon as if it were a divine pantheon, carved into the rock of an ancient temple and passed via myth from father to son.

The patriarchal aspect to such indignance is more than a passing comment; there is a distinct masculine posturing at the heart of this heritage culture, the kind we may encounter within the usual pissing contests between men over cars or equipment, the phallic subtext behind the competition, the display of craft and ability, is a Pseudo-Darwinian Fantasy of Capital, the howling of the alpha-male into the valley, the ability to dominate your surroundings. This is at the heart of so much of the crude rock-classicist fantasy, whether it be that of the omniscient record collector or the gruff, denim-wearing man hefting a guitar, that reactionary cynicism towards ones surroundings serves as an excuse to elevate yourself above the rabble, to be the beholder of true value in the world. And all so you can interject into conversations in mock-outrage [this behaviour is usually masked behind a kind of jokey demeanour] that someone doesn’t rate the Clash or Bob Dylan, and how you know how to appreciate what your elders gave you, or in other words what you are supposed to listen to.

This exists in constant tension with its supposed enemy, that of the pop-hedonist, the “there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure” injunction to enjoy, the effacing of oppositions as a radical transgression. The dominant tone of, say, some in the Guardian music pages for some time now has been one of flaunting the very fact that you like pop as if you’re sticking it to the high-culture snobs, who in fact exist in tandem with these critics, their perfect mirror. Beyond this facile dynamism however, both tendencies within music criticism, now firmly embedded in our critical institutions and publications, fall into the same trap. What is completely effaced is any kind of excitement or indeed, reason to get excited, concerning the music itself. The Big Other is always present, the non-existent arbiters of taste who have to see how correct you are, and in this context demand your authentic credentials as a writer. Hence we see a reflexive disavowal, a stepping back from strong positions, and a maintained detached “cool” that forecloses any kind of embroilment in the vicissitudes of fandom or enthusiastic prose.

The flat plane of anhedonic positivity that results never manages to escape the stale hallways of heritage [it ends up invariably raving about the unimpeachable and timeless perfection of the classics alongside everything else], but it is against this that the guardians of the ancient rock gods can maintain any sense of “outsiderness”. In truth, their reactionary pull towards the past has masked a distinct lack of adventurousness in the present, but the idea that the disruptive impulse of rock may have calcified into a museum exhibit itself never occurs to them. As accomplished as IDLES are for example, musically they are about as innately transgressive as a Hovis advert. The sound of blaring guitars has been taken as a marker of punk subversion tout court, where one might gradually find the sounds of dance and electronic music causing far more consternation among certain well-to-do suburbanites . The problem with “punk rock” now is, frankly, that its all bit too together, the freakouts are too co-ordinated, the stage invasions too glossy.

So if I call back again to that opening salvo from Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun, it is now to point towards the privileging in the way we talk about music of the immaculate, the pre-determined and the carefully combined whole, as a continuity. The power of Afrofuturism [or even its relative in the Hauntological] is not in some kind of straight vector from the past to the present to the future, rather in breaks, stutters, cuts, remixes, scrambled time. I’ve spoken before about how the most exciting music tends to exist in a kind of tension, where you get the sense its hanging together on a thread, ready to fall apart at any minute, or about to fade from view. This has far more in some sense to do with how we write or talk about music, as in doing so we communicate what we prioritise, we choose what to amplify about it in our language. The tendency has been to elevate the finished, the rounded, the whole, while denigrating the partial, trailing or fractured. Where music might exist in fraught oscillation with its underside, with its own characteristics, we prefer to think of it as an uncomplicated presence.

Pop music, at its best, is always anything but uncomplicated, always compromised, broken, frayed. This might not be what’s most often celebrated in her music, but this inchoate translucency lies everywhere in the lurid dreamland of Lana Del Rey. Her latest album Norman Fucking Rockwell! was subject to some frankly huge misfires that tried to jam the baroque mystique of the record, where the abstracting vortex of the american cultural imaginary pulls us into an eerie calmness, into some “necessary” “important” commentary on the american dream. A common tactic among the critiquarium, the open vein of desire and fantasy that might spray over the walls are insistently reined in, closed off, dialled down into the most banal examples of “important” art, the vivid power of pulp collage sidestepped in favour of a neatly packaged “message”. To do so, to insist that art stands or falls on its ability to either be read as a pure slice of hedonist utopia or as a serious, unalloyed political comment, is, once again, that old tired attempt to tie off loose ends at all costs, cauterise affect, avoid anything that might cause too much consternation.

But if we’re not being even slightly unsettled, if there is no tension, no risk, then what is there to be excited about? In truth, what turns writers away from the uncertainties that spark the engine of popular culture is the degree of spikiness, the presence of the forbidden, the there be dragons of inscribed opacity. Once we’re out here, there are no maps to guide us anymore, so we have to rely on our own navigation. The constant appeals to the correct way of doing things, the deflection to the Big Other, are easier than committing to any kind of encounter with the discontinuity of affect, rather take refuge in the whole, where contradictions are neatly plastered over and the abstractions of experience calcify into the kind of mummified discourse that has defined all too many “intellectual” engagements with pop culture. To talk about pop, or pulp, we must engage with its surface, its colours, forms, rather than continue to deliver the hackneyed hagiographies of the genteel critical class.

Categories
Archaeology of Cultural Space Music

The Future Wears a Mask

A problem with the future is that everyone wants to be the one to find it. Just as the music press has often prided itself on having found “the next big thing”, we all want to be the ones to have picked up on the emergent strand, that one element of the present which presents a radical break, the coming of the new. Recently, I’ve noticed some grappling with this, partly in Simon Reynolds [worth reading] piece on “Conceptronica” and some of the murmurings surrounding it and associated acts. Reynold’s piece asks “Why so much electronic music this decade felt like it belonged in a museum instead of a club”, which in itself is not an uninteresting point of inquiry, one that he does his bit to look into; yet I feel there was something missing here. Past all the careful investigation, it comes back to that tagline and the failure to really address it.

One of the artists featured in the piece was Holly Herndon, specifically regarding her latest album, PROTO, an album which from the outset dreams big, in itself no bad thing, about the potentials of AI and technology, attempting to bridge the gap between choral, folk and more traditional musics and the collective ecstasy of the rave via the means of a collective pooling of voices into a kind of personified construct. The ideas swirling around the project scream the future, they grapple with emergent technological issues that may come to effect us all, and seem to point to potential new forms of collectivity through the medium of these very technologies. The problem for me, however, starts when we pass from the script, the blurb, and into the music itself, despite having the impression it was somehow supposed to be everything I’m interested in, a cultural attempt to scout out new futures, a bridging of subjective and objective gaps via music… The thing was, however, that the music left me completely cold.. it came off like a vaguely interesting series of experiments but nothing really imprinted itself beyond some particularly beautiful/ugly passages. It was at point of contact that the ideas, the concept seemed to dissipate into what may have been an impressive technological leap but just came off like a series of vocal glitches and effects, a sound that just didn’t conjure what it said it did. There existed a fundamental disconnect here between what was supposed to be happening and what actually was.

This isn’t a universal problem with all the artists Reynolds mentions, but it is something that I find is also present precisely in the museum press releases and statements he evokes, something that continues to dog contemporary art shows everywhere and lends to this general sense of disappointment or emptiness. The false idea has long been that the main problem with such writing is simply that it is “pretentious waffle” that it is incomprehensible, that it is simply a kind of pseudo-deleuzian art-speak babble that serves to alienate viewers. This may be true, but it’s only half the story, the other being the distance that is covered between the writing, the build up or blurb, and the art itself. Countless times I have read about what a piece of art is supposed to do but been encountered immediately by its failure to actually do it. It takes the same form as a narrative dissonance where we are told what kind of character we are watching or reading about while that character fails to materialise in the story itself, and the times we may have encountered someone who tells us one thing about themselves while enacting the very opposite. It’s not that its actively or maliciously misleading, but rather that it skips the unskippable beat, that it gets ahead of itself, beats itself to the finish line, and insodoing, unmasks itself.

It perhaps shouldn’t bear mentioning, but music directly positioning itself conceptually around the future does not make it of the future any more than lasers and androids are the sum of science fiction as a genre. It is possibly the largest mistake we can make about culture to assume that its proclamations of concept, that its evocations form the whole of its content and form. In other words, music that arrives in a cloak of future imagery and technological innovations does not automatically evoke such ideas in its execution. What I find here is that the mistake is a assumed prioritising. Similarly to the Logocentrism of western philosophy attacked by Derrida, here the content of words is placed above their form and textures in a cultural context, lyrical content above the timbre of voice, speaking above writing and photography above painting.

This brings me to something brought up by both Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun, and that is the place of the cultural critic not simply as a tastemaker, expert or institution, but as an intensifier. It is through such writing that sounds and images, are libidinally heightened, that they are interpreted in some sense and amplified. It also makes me think of the way Ian Penman, specifically in the essay on Sinatra included in his recent collection but throughout his work, puts so much focus not merely on what is being sung, said or we could say even written, but how. Sinatra took a significant amount of influence in his singing from observing horn players and their inflections, pauses and emphasis, and here we begin to see a fundamental rift that often persists between music writers and musicians themselves [where the whole “dancing about architecture” canard arises]. While you will find many music writers searching for a kind of explanation, an exposition of language-born meaning to the music, indeed this has developed into a blatant overvaluing of “pure” lyrical content itself, on contact with a musician, for all their ideas and concepts it quickly becomes apparent that all this is in service to the sound itself.

In a recent piece on Debussy in London Review of Books, Nicholas Spice mentions how Adorno found distasteful Debussy’s supposed Fetishism of the materiality of sound, and the way in which Schoenberg himself mocked Adorno’s championing of him [“Was macht die Musik?” “Sie Philosophiert”].. both of these indirect interactions between musician/composer and philosopher speak something of the above disconnect, of a certain misunderstanding that the critic or theorist in their pomp might stand to make in demanding a certain conceptual rigour from the work they’re addressing. It leads to writing and analysis that for all its complexities, for all its length or reference points, often fails point blank to evoke the power of the music itself, functions at a kind of arms length from its subject, refusing to actually delve into the murky worlds of sonic texture and rhythmic communication, the cracking of the voice or the artificiality of an instrument. It is probably worth mentioning in the same breath here Susan Sontag’s call for an “Erotics” over an “Interpretation” of the arts, something that feeds into a sense that what music writing so often abandons is a sense of precisely of the materiality of its subject. For all Adorno’s disdain for the formulaic nature of pop, he missed an important element of it, and that is the effect of the sound itself.

This isn’t to evoke some kind of sublime here [something that most obviously Sontag argues against], some kind of primal spiritual presence or romanticised purity of the material, rather something of the opposite, that the writer can here function as something of an interpreter or amplifier for its effect. Some of the best sleevenotes I’ve found for instance have served just such a purpose in channelling the intensity of sound, the atmosphere of it, rather than providing a bone dry exposition of content. This is the last point at which we want to find a scientific thesis, but a plane of the poetic elaboration, of the power of masks and theatre. Rather similarly to the way in which we use clothes and makeup to construct rather than hide ourselves, it is in the resonances of the surface rather than a phantasmic pure nugget of authenticity beneath that we encounter the complexities and conceptual potency of art.

In a post about Japan’s Tin Drum, Mark Fisher asked, after Deleuze in Logic of Sense, “why, if superficiality is defined as lack of depth, is depth not defined as lack of surface?” This question still bears a good deal of consideration today, even as in response to the overload of signs and information the modern world heaps upon us we continue to find recourse to fantasies of some pure existence away from “modernity”. Here it is assumed that there lies an ideal sublime underneath the trash of the everyday, that if we scrape away the layers of makeup we find the real identity beneath. Such attempts at a kind of demystifying ambition, where we find a kind of absolute space or identity lurking beneath its surface, belies that it is precisely in this surface that an expanse of complexities and unspoken resonances emerge. It is the mask worn by the actor, the makeup and the costume, that construct the character, and is there anything gained by searching for the scaffolding beneath in the hope of an instructional document, some unadulterated truth? Indeed rather than an era of superficiality, might it be just as apt to ascribe to this current moment a priority of transparency? It’s something we’ve come to expect in all things that they remain true to themselves, real. You do you, just do your own thing… I’m just a normal bloke like you… isn’t this transparency, this injunction to bare all at all times, the constant deference to the authentic, the problem?

So rather than try to either ground or justify the music via the concept underpinning it, the kind of writing and exposition Reynolds talks about in relation to “Conceptronica” might be better served if they didn’t take as a point of assumption the music-as-thesis, art as pointing towards resolution, recourse-to-explanation of the museum piece itself. Against the backdrop of a kind of widespread disavowal of surface in favour of a supposed depth, it seems that the only way we can think of communicating complexity of ideas is via an accompaniment, by something beyond or above. The vicissitudes of futurity are that of the event, that of retrospective causality. Pointing towards a future potential in an artist due to their technological or conceptual proclivities says nothing in truth of the future, something which always lies masked. It is not in the process, in the conceptual underpinnings of a musical project that we might seek to place it in some kind of alternative canon, some kind of potential future form, but in its textural qualities and effects. If we wish to perceive the reverberations of as yet unheard futures, then it is to be found in the material of sound, the performance and surface, and the ambiguities and spectres held within this echo chamber of affects. If the future always wears a mask, then only an examination of masks, a serious approach to superficiality, will tease out its fragile strands into the light of day.

Categories
Music Politics

You Too Will Learn to Live the Lie – The Pop Group’s Subterranean Transmissions

“It had everything that I thought rock and roll should have. It was violent, paranoid music for a violent, paranoid time “

The shrieking, disjointed funk of the Pop Group is something I distinctly remember discovering via a Nick Cave interview at some stage, during a long trawl through the archives of youtube in which I spent a great deal of my time. Indeed a similar quality immediately excited me in the Pop Group to much of the earlier Bad Seeds output, and it comes back to this sense that it was all on the verge of falling apart. Cave is at his best when the music and his singing exhibit an almost unbearable tension between fantasy and contact with reality [I am reminded when I was playing Tender Prey once and a friend remarked that it sounded like “bad karaoke”, YES, exactly]. The tight rhythmic stabbing and falling-apart dub-noise crescendos of the Pop Group existed on a level of tension which was far more formal than character driven, driven by a kind of abandon which you can only imagine some kind of stuffy muso calling “sloppy”, you get the constant sense that the sound hangs together on a thread. You can FEEL the tears and cracks in the recording, through which bleed the paranoiac screams of a political present.

A political present not of now, but of the 80s. When Cave called it “violent, paranoid music for a violent, paranoid time” could he have been referring to any other moment? Indeed, its interesting to note that for many the 80s, and in fact the 80s of our ballroom-decadence-consumer-wonderland fantasies, the entire simulacrum of neon, shoulder pads and analogue synthesizers, it is anything but violent and paranoid. The 80s which we now experience, lifted from its moorings and floated somewhere out into the ocean of time-locked pathologies, is one drained of this paranoia, a grainy VHS filter on a time of excess where the political and social horrors of Thatcher and Reagan become at best historical markers, at worst just a kind of background fuzz to the never ending carnival of glitzy fitness regimes and faded primary colours. The Pop Group seem then to speak more to a subterranean unrest, and indeed existed as a vestige of anger and refusal of this sickly-sweet vision that we can now recognise as the dreamscape of the new capitalism, the promise of a future of endless neon, shoulder pads and synthesizers becomes the vanguard of a stifling regime of individual competition.

Mark Fisher pointed to the Pop Group as holding on to art as Marcuse’s “Great Refusal” of the status quo, as something that still contained something of that negative power against the increasing realist dogma of acquiescence. When I found them in the sprawling bootlegs and leftovers of the internet it was, like so much I found there, like a kind of radio transmission from a subterranean, buried history. The jagged, screeching lines of the dub-cracked, distorted guitar tones, the voice like some kind of detournement of not only political but ontological proportions, burst through the earth. A sense of urgency that still resonated in that expansive chamber that couldn’t be entirely extinguished, a thread of an impulse could be drawn out of the well and couldn’t simply be hung on the wall as a museum piece without reducing it to an empty simulation, a diorama in a glass case.

Part of this is the simultaneously open-ended yet sharp and contained nature of this sound, the apparent contradiction that keeps it in motion, that tension.. Its something that few groups now allow themselves, that level of disjunction, perhaps even inventiveness, where each musician comes from a different corner and what seems like it shouldn’t work combines into a tight yet cacophonous textural schizophrenia [a similar loose-discipline can be found in the Fall’s best material]. The best thing about the Pop Group, and what really got me about them back then, was that element of refusal, the refusal to recycle or replicate, the refusal to allow a kind of simple reconciliation with the pop mainstream and commitment to marginal pop appeal, a refusal to iron out tension and hence to dull an edge which is so needed to slice through the thick, muggy atmosphere of the present. Their “violent, paranoid music ” is something that seems to act like a kind of spatio-temporal disuption of sorts, its yelped proclamations and warnings, fractured dub funk and driving confrontation seeming more, not less immediate, as if these transmissions from a lost underground have appeared through the radio static, directly beamed from some remote outpost on another planet into the violent, paranoid present.. they become part of a barely-perceived scattered world that lies concurrently to this one, where subversion was still something that could convince.

Isn’t the problem today that subversion has become something of a hobby, like satire? We have a free reign to subvert, as long as we don’t get anyone into trouble, as long as we do fall within the lines enough to dissolve any actual confrontation into a meaningless bonhomie and stultified politeness; it’s ok to throw things about a bit on Jools Holland as long as you don’t go too far and undermine the structure of the show, the idea of punk transgression, at some point still believably a powerful spectacle of detournement, fully assimilated and thrown back up as another riff, another tic, another form we can endlessly throw up onto an audience. It is demanded that we become caricatures, that we play towards the so-called authenticity behind the mask, the iconoclasm we are supposed to have believed in wafting and mingling with the clouds of stupefaction and similitude. Even Punk has to grow up, right?

The distinction here is what is implied by “grow up”. It isn’t that there is no value in a kind of slowness and reflection that comes with.. well, living, but that this is expected to arrive with a kind of ubiquitous cynicism, the implication that we used to be idealists but then found out about the reality of the world. This is why in putting our ears to the rock and hearing these buried transmissions, in perceiving the vibrations of something that now seems impossible or hopeless, an important metamorphosis can be attempted. The paradoxical intersection of time, space, of entire worlds, begins to weave a tapestry of galvanized potential. It is indeed in rejecting this association of age, or life with disenchantment, from rejecting the incompatibility of a youthful rebellion and an aged reflection, that we can begin to piece together these fragmented broadcasts, and re-orient ourselves not only culturally but in time and space itself.

Categories
Books Music

Drifting… Reflection; on Ian Penman’s “It Gets me Home, This Curving Track”

“One morning you awake and all the time has melted away: no more hotel bedroom afternoons, light moving like seaweed over the pale impersonal walls. All your life, dreaming of the other side of the mirror, where the colours all reverse, and now you finally remember what it was you saw in that dressing room mirror, so long ago: clouds, full of rain.”

Ian Penman’s new collection of writing, what feels like an exquisitely chosen sequence of essays already published elsewhere but here forming so many cross-continental, cross-colour threads; a slight volume, it feels perfectly formed in its open ellipsis, dicing repeatedly with characters who we like to think of in trite, closed-off semiotic terms, as icons. Indeed, the subjects of the essays here read when listed off like a dusty pantheon, a museum of objects no longer invested with any kind of current or force today, devoid of lasting tension or relevancy. Elvis? Sinatra? Mod? Surely all bygones, remnants kept by rusty elders in the shed, mouldering in a box for the last decade?

What is absolutely remarkable about Penman’s approach here is that these symbols, characters, icons, subject elsewhere to text after bulging text of fawning empty platitudes and heritage fluff [let’s be honest, do we really gain anything from one more write-up going on at length about “iconic musical genius” or “trailblazing influence” et cetera], open up into a complex mesh of uncomfortable and uncertain threads, here emerging as pathetic man-children and there as existential melancholy personified. Above all it must be noted that on even the most surface level consideration, Penman’s is some of the most essential and electric music writing around at this current juncture, and that is despite his status as an “elder” of the British music press by this point. While younger writers toil ceaselessly at outlets like Pitchfork churning out barely-readable attempts at ego-fulfilment-fantasy, Penman’s work, while undeniably rooted in his own predilections, practically rolls off the page in a cascade of riveting prose, something which barely conceals the glint of a hard-edged analysis.

Indeed, links can be drawn here to Barthes and Derrida, even if they don’t appear in the text itself. Instead of explicit reference or extensive footnotes, here these influences are implicit, woven into the text but never weighing it down. James Brown as a figure is dissected as a mess of contradictions and unresolved tensions, between his militaristic approach to his music and image, and the lack of control over his own impulses. Everywhere here we find such tensions, whether it be between the perfectly groomed set of signifiers of their iconic status and their unavoidably unpleasant personal behaviour or for example between the modernist, pan-european hipness of Mod as an emerging phenomenon and its current iterations as saccharine, empty, postmodern shell.

It would be easy to simply tie the essays together through the “Home” of the title, but this seems to do it something of a disservice. Ostensibly what emerges is what Penman describes as a “cross-colour” collision of culture, a threading together wherein Black and White commingle and again move across the Atlantic. Within this however we find that symbols like Mod and figures like Elvis must be unwrapped, prised open into their component parts. Yet what we hope to achieve with such dissection, a closure, to finally uncover the core nugget of “soul”, leave bare the “me” underneath the constructed persona, or retrospective vision. Thankfully, or not depending on your disposition, the opposite occurs here. Instead of the pretence of some questionable uncovering of the true spirit of Sinatra, we find Sinatra from the ready-and-set-showman-glitz-mafioso-darkness dualism that we all know, fan out into into a cornucopia of unfinished sentences/an intermingling of threads.

It is this intermingling wherein we find the home, both its excess and lack. As we find through the exploration of Prince and his meticulously controlled excess and demand, notably for perfectly curated hotel rooms, “Look in the mirror children: each and every space is simultaneously fantastical, but also an endless repetition of the same. Nothing ever changes in Prince world … everywhere is home, nowhere is home”. Similarly with Elvis we enter a world of oedipal supply and demand, where every wish is catered for and it bloats, fattens, dulls.. even if, as it is pointed out, the immortality of Elvis itself does need some solid explaining given his deeply inconsistent catalogue of work.

Home ultimately always comes down to the music, and the relationship between the music and the people who produced it is something that doesn’t escape complication here. Much is said, in the form largely of slightly uncomfortable soundbyte discussion, of “removing the art from the artist” with regard to the deeply unpleasant behaviour of an artist we may admire or respect. Penman here makes no such easy concession, and both the essays on James Brown and John Fahey deal directly with the [in different ways] troubling nature of their personal conduct, and how this effected or made itself known in their work. Here we find a temporal drift, attempts to rediscover, reform, claw back, keep alive, a constant “re”, whether this be the retrospective nostalgia-porn of today’s Mod or the rat-a-tat-tat of Charlie Parker’s heroin fuelled virtuosity, what Penman points to in his music as the lack of drift, of reflection. The figures here in many ways attempt to escape home but are continuously drawn back towards it, whether this is the finality of death/old-age, the empty museum pieces of retro or the immortality of heritage, supposed “influence”, the undead.

The problem of course with drift and reflection, something in short supply in the midst of the semiotic tidal waves of cultural consumption today, is that we find things we might rather ignore. When we visit, for instance the British museum, can’t we just be left to marvel at the immaculately carved marbles, the array of objects from various slices of geography and history? To unambiguously do this of course requires the kind of suppression, we must, the museum itself must at all costs draw our attention away from the blood soaked into the stones on display, that we also find in our attempts towards some “pure” enjoyment of past cultural objects. If we simply don’t allow ourselves to drift backwards, keeping a kind of perpetual present in which everything simply exists in one place shorn of its bedrock like a plant cut off at the stem, then the uncomfortable, the ambiguous and the downright disturbing remain where they belong and we can make some kind of pretence of “art without artist”, fantasise about the past without complication.

When it comes down to it, Penman’s beautiful de-constructions of a certain, carefully chosen pantheon of figures is simply a small antidote, an important gesture at a time seemingly still dominated by the ideal constructions of past moments. Where the dominant mode of writing about figures like this is one of cloying reverence, writing like this remains essential and valuable, wherein rather than a cut-and-paste revue or ego-bloating attempts at virtuoso analysis we find a short and sweet series of thoughtful and propulsive, simple yet deeply complex, affecting yet biting essays. IF you want to delve into a single example of music writing at all this year, or the next even, I can think of no better than this.

Categories
Music

“You Don’t Know How to Act”

Peppered throughout the new track from Algiers, “Can the Sub-Bass Speak?” are conversation-pieces, quick-fire statements, on the bands music, on the classification of Black music and the Black experience, a direct quotation from a negative review of the band’s last album on that gleaming bastion of taste-making “cool-kid” pluralism Pitchfork. “The effect is weirdly impersonal.” The track is unlike anything the group have made before, and cements their status as a genuinely exciting and exhilarating imposition on the musical landscape, an overwhelming machine-gun fire montage of re-contextualised snippets, a re-construction of experience and a conflation of segments surging through a justifiably venomous savaging of absurd outbursts of criticism, a re-framing of ugly behaviour and points of reference that might otherwise slip past the field of vision.

“The effect is weirdly impersonal.” Indeed, impersonal, it’s not about you. Weirdly impersonal is the unique capacity of art to re-frame subjectivity, not the tired cliche of “wearing someone else’s shoes”, but a genuine deconstructive tendency that probably owes more to the developments of modernism than the fluffy ironisms of PoMo culture. It’s the stage at which, rather than simply aiming to reflect an experience back at us we are struck roundly by a barrage of disconnected snippets threaded together into a narrative dis-continuity. It is not a no-nonsense account of real life we are faced with here, but in its overwhelming scattershot sprawl we find a certain worldview, each place it appears cut-and-pasted into the next, spread across the floor before us in a single line and only then being projected full force back towards us. There is a necessary violence to the track, a broadside directed at safe platitudinous assumptions around the supposedly “unified” Black experience. It’s supposed to be hip-hop, or soul, or one thing or another, “You don’t know how to act”.

The construction of experience, is it “weirdly impersonal?” Is this a problem? Is it in fact a mistake to assume we need to broadcast the personal to have an effect? What is contained in the assumption that a deeply political expression of urgency is “impersonal” in a negative sense? Isn’t it the impersonal, the dis-continuous, the cross-referencing, here that precisely gives the track its power? It is indeed not about the individual subject but about an experience, a very real, material experience, but one we don’t all share, that is not a unity, that lies fractured on the planes of subjectivity… what emerges on this track nothing a searing statement of anger and intent. It’s fast, its disconcerting, its profound and its a deep and unassailable cultural-political flash of energy in the best way possible..

Categories
Music

Natural’s Not in It; Militant Otherness in Music

A dark, inscrutable passageway into the undergrowth…

.

Scratchy, anxious sound, ready to burst at the seams, lurching in sputters and starts until it crashes into another rhythmic contortion. Shimmering, skating, pummelling, staggering, slippery notes, squeezing into and past each other, squirming into the cracks in the firmament, the orifices in the mask.

.

Stilted, empty, the third eye, plastered over the brain, reveals nothing but frothing slime and writhing tentacles, hagfish escaping the clutches of a predator, latching onto a carcass and burrowing into the meat hanging from its bones in loose strips. Disappointed, the priest switches on the television, only to see the same thing.

The only music program that had anything worth watching on it as I was growing up was Later With Jools Holland, and if that isn’t a damning indictment on the state of music culture in the 2000s then nothing is. If I’m honest, it was pretty dire, and it came down to a matter of desperately scratching for and hoping for something notable to knock me out of my seat from dull episode to dull episode; maybe something would every once in a blue moon, but there was always the feeling that this was despite, not because of the characterless production and impossibly enthusiastic old-school-showman-esque flapping of Jools himself to introduce each artist.  Worse than this was perhaps the interviews.. oh the interviews! Those sickly, chummy, trite performances of friendly banter with wrinkly old stars and veteran rock musicians. In fact the whole show often felt as if, when something worthwhile DID show up, Jools would burst up out of the stage in the centre of it and foist some kitsch boogie-woogie piano into the mix, imposing himself on the act with a little bit too much glee.

Later with… as I experienced it was in retospect the apotheosis of the de-othering of music culture, its full incorporation into a middle class bourgeois respectability that burbles on in the background while people talk about how nice the weather is. Any performance that dared to be somewhat confrontational [I might note that Sleaford Mods made an appearance], stuck out like a sore thumb to the extent that these performances where in fact marginalized, receiving far less airtime than the arid desert of larger acts and often being presented in such a way that they kind of fade away in comparison to the huge spectacle afforded the other guests. The stricly regimented and controlled nature of a Later episode foreclosed any real confrontation with the TV audience at home.. all could be neatly packaged so we could sit on the couch and receive a glossy slice of entertainment removed of any danger that it might come out at the screen at us and pull us protesting from our living rooms. 

“There is a future and we’re trying to build one”

Many might place this sense of “danger” firmly in the camp of a certain Rockist mindset, that classic rocknroll mythology, all drug-emaciated bodies, trashing hotel rooms and unchecked misogyny, the male ego allowed to run riot in the name of transgression and anti-authority posturing. This, needless to say, isn’t what I mean, not purely, anyway. The Sex Pistols for instance may have been marketed by McLaren via this mythology of danger and transgressive intervention, but when it came down to it their music is remarkably safe. Listen to Never Mind the Bollocks today, and what’s remarkable about it is how well produced clean and actually non-edgy it really is, with its thick distorted power chords and simple rock tunes.

Where the real radical element of punk came into play, as Simon Reynolds importantly made the case for in his document of the post punk event Rip it Up and Start Again, is in what happened afterwards. The real intervention wasn’t the Sex Pistols as much as it was John Lydon’s deconstruction of Johnny Rotten and the forming of Public Image Limited, drawing not from the tired simplicities of rocknroll but looking more towards the distinctly un-rock horizons of dub reggae and disco to inform their sound. Indeed, if Lydon is to be believed if he had more input on Never Mind… it would have been far more oriented in this direction, something difficult to imagine now. Placing Never Mind the Bollocks next to PiL;s towering post-punk work Metal Box illustrates quite how much of a push into the unknown the latter group was in comparison. Where with the Pistols one finds a thickly produced warm fuzzy wall of sound PiL delivers screeching, deconstructed high-end guitar tones not so much soaring as scattering over dub/disco infused bass/drum rhythms, Lydon’s lyrics plumbing not some image of him as this destructive antichrist come to destroy society but exploring deeply unsettling and strange currents in the sound through imagery and his unpracticed dissonant wail.

What manifested in post punk, despite all its wild variations and conflicting approaches, was the conviction that music culture must look forward. If Punk had been this attempt to strip back to a raw simplicity it was important in inspiring a pushback, many groups such as Magazine and Gang of Four expressing a disappointment in what Punk had actually produced, John Lydon’s own disillusionment leading him to effectively sabotage Malcom McLaren’s dreams of cultural terrorism, famously uttering the lines “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” before walking off stage. What resulted, in a lot of the acts concurrent to and following 1977 was a riotous cultural ferment leading from the meeting of art school bohemia and the working classes into a kind of cultural meeting of high and low culture, what Mark Fisher called Popular Modernism, a popular culture that didn’t feel the need to be populist, that in some way treated its audience as intelligent rather than as cattle ready to be herded into the entertainment playpen.

Reading through Reynold’s book, I’ve re-listened to a lot of music I knew about and discovered a lot I didn’t, and it became more astounding throughout precisely how forward reaching and militantly adherent to ideas of newness a lot of this stuff was. Listening to Gang of Four’s Entertainment! for instance really hits home how absurd it is that the band are reduced to a footnote, influences on groups who are effectively delivering a warmed over non-political microwave-meal version of their sound. These are sounds that aimed to create the future; a modernist impulse infused within its structure that for Gang Of Four also manifests in their politicized content, but in other groups remained an ambiguous but no less militant drive to generate something unlike what had come before.

What I’d propose comes with this is a distinct and actively maintained position of otherness. Much of music culture of the time presented itself as alien, removed, cold.. and yet it drew people in with a non insignificant degree of fervour. Culture within the neoliberal framing of late capitalism predicates itself on a kind of faux-familiarity, a chummy, friendly, real-talk approach one can see in the bloated edifices of Britpop and the YBA movement in the 90s, the music culture of the post punk period often explicitly rejected what many saw as the trite and false appeals to authenticity of rock music, towards “letting it hall hang out” and being “real”. A rejection of this generated a kind of alienated otherness that really allowed the artists to manipulate and play with public image in a kind of demystifying coldness typified really in the name “Public Image Limited” the band’s concept as a corporation, the simple stripping back of typical “album” accoutrements and ease of use to produce the packaging of Metal Box, an effective deconstruction of the music commodity in its blank metal sheen [and yet, in this demystification, all we find is more mystique…] .

“The Way Out is Through the Door…”

This otherness within the music of the late 70s-80s specifically carried through to the image making potential realised in pop music, the spirit of Glam persisting through the generation of countercultures, most notably Goth, predicated on an arch coldness and impersonal wearing of masks, replicable appearances where the individual is subsumed within the culture they embrace, breaking down identity into the signifiers that define it to be remixed and blended at will, but providing a mould, a template that can be used to quickly repeat the same image. Music culture becomes identity thresher and production line simultaneously, a cut-and-paste collage of subject which in breaking down effectively the chain of elements that produce who we are understands our identity not as a concrete anchor keeping us tethered to the spot but a spinozist machine, wherein understanding its workings allows us autonomy over our own lives. The calculated presentation of image becomes taking control, an enacting of autonomy and a resistance of desire.

“The way out is through the door, how come nobody uses it?” asks Mark Stewart of The Pop Group on “Where There’s a Will”, the squalling free-jazz sax solo peppering itself all over the disco driven funk of the music beneath, an explicit formalisation of the implicit assumption of the time, that a new future was just past the next impasse, music was being made with the excited fervour of people who believed that the new was possible and who absolutely were not content with what they were given. There was the door, all we needed to do was use it, cross the threshold… The Avant Garde invading the stage of pop was symptomatic of this approach, the presence of this “other” of sometimes harsh, always strange experimental influence, even the taking up of the mantle held previously by the notably more exclusive Dada and Fluxus movements and translating it to popular forms, appearing as decidedly unsettling and weird presences in the mainstream.

None of this is to say by any stretch of the imagination that the 70s were some perfect utopia, some kind of nostalgic plea to return to a lost age; it is more of a call to rediscover futurity, find our way back to the way out. A certain militant otherness within post punk, an expression of affinity with the outside and through this fidelity to the future, is something that requires nurturing and fostering within the cultural milieu. Indeed we can trace much of this de-othering to what can be percieved as the failure of New Pop, the reduction of music to pure entertainment that resulted from the entryists and proponents of pop music in the mid-80s and their hope that by courting the mainstream they could subvert it. The mistake was to underestimate ultimately the ways in which ironic reflexivity and deconstruction can easily revert to the very things it intends to subvert. While early pioneers of New Pop such as Heaven 17 still maintained a distinct element of post-punk demystificatory ambition, the presentation of their music effectively acting as one big pop meta-commentary, the speed at which these sentiments reverted to the pure hedonist acquiescence of Wham! and Duran Duran is alarming in its totality.

Of course, in a sense, this de-othering effect ties directly into the increasing inability to imagine an outside. Glam, Post-Punk, Art Pop, all of their science fiction imaginings, dystopias and utopias both, dismissed like the silly fantasies of a child under the singular umbrella of late capitalism. While New Pop initially intended to infiltrate and destabilize, or that was the idea, it became a shibboleth of Thatcherite consumerist fantasies, the legitimate appeals to the alien and the other found in a group like The Associates with their absurdities, mystery, the impossibly sumptuous atmosphere of an album like Sulk, eclipsed entirely by Madonna’s material girl, redolent and shining in the status afforded her by the capitalist fulfilment of desire. This sense suddenly that the pop star is simply us without the wrinkles, a perfect image of an ordinary person, became the archetype, the universal standard.

Fangs Bared

So far I have discussed both the Rockist and Popist approaches to the kind of complex transgression that consists in this militant otherness. Of course this word, transgression is held up often as the core spirit of rock music, but what this actually means seems to evade the grasp of the concrete. Sure, if we look towards the situationist upheaval of punk, the shockwaves it left behind such as the No Wave movement in New York we can note a distinct focus on attempts to transgress social norms. No Wave was arguably such a short lived and brief phenomenon because it was rooted in this self-nihilating trangression, something that in its very nature cannot maintain itself, but in truth if anything defined post punk it is precisely this lack of concrete definition, this image of shifting sands, each grain proceeding to replace the last as the topology shifts again and again, refusing to settle.

Refusal to settle is precisely the situation many post punk acts found themselves in; more than this, refusal to retreat. Capital bakes into its libidinal systems this desire to return, to organic wholeness, to idyllic suburbia, the final defeat of the horror villain so everything returns to the perfect, unbroken utopia of the beginning. Of course, if we are to look towards Jameson’s understanding of the dialectic as a narrative, this becomes a distinctly different exercise, one undertaken if anything by the horror villain themselves, the act of unsettling the natural state of affairs, in order to return to something that is changed, different, a wrenching apart of reality to put it together in a different form. The cultural condition we can call postmodernism, with its stale repetition of historically distended forms, one that reached its apotheosis in a series of “revivals”, of 80s synthpop, of “post-punk”, of house music, eurodance… is in a sense a constant return to the natural state of affairs, the idyllic homestead, the perfectly preserved image of the picture postcard village suspended in a timeless collage.

While the temptation, as the PR narrative of Capital would have it, is an attitude of unbound optimism or even temporal chauvinism, to see not a stale desert of ghosts, but more variety. The ahistoricity of music culture becomes transformed into a flat pick’n’mix of musical styles, the supposedly exciting marketplace of cultural objects, lifted from their socio-historical backdrop and placed against a corporate void.

Reject this. I want to set out carving a path against culture as nothing more than consumer choice. Surely the strange sounds that tore me out of my boredom induced slumber and presented me with a way out mean something more than a damn industry paycheck, surely music is more than its “contribution to the economy”. I’ve long had a burning, simmering distaste for the word “industry” tacked onto things it has no business being associated with. When Adorno and Horkheimer railed against the “culture industry” were they predicting a world in which people think nothing of defining themselves as participants in the “creative industries”? The sheer stultifying de-libidinizing intensity of this linguistic tendency to reduce all to its contribution to capital cannot be understated, and it the fight to return to culture an idea of otherness is criminally undervalued.

Of course, the fact that such militantly outsider culture develops in tandem with the socio-economic situations that allow for its production emerges as something of a hurdle here. The re-emergence or reclaiming of DIY as a form of cultural production is somewhat key here I have come to believe, and something Simon Reynolds has argued; for all the claims of new pop, for all its entryist ambitions to deform from the inside, its submergence in glossy hedonic abandon ultimately gave credence to the social order of the day, and contributed indirectly to the crushing of the systems that made these self-sufficient outer breeding grounds of popular modernism, of experimentation and forward-looking sound-making, possible. It is where we are allowed to develop our ideas for the world, to set forth our manifestos and react to the world around us, that culture thrives again.

The internet at some stage provided a key bastion of hope for this, and for a time it saw a legitimate upsurge in the DIY spirit, of people producing wildly ambitious content from their bedrooms. Of course, the cold fingers of capital couldn’t let this lie for long, and now, and to some degree the dream of completely self sufficient underground culture on the internet crumbled, increasingly driven by the cogs of advertising, monetization and endlessly vapid similitude. Even if such initiatives CAN still be found on the internet, I would in fact emphasise the importance of fostering such an attitude in the flesh, as while the internet is a fantastic tool in some respects, of dissemination, of discussion [sometimes], it also stand consistently in between us and action. The unending low level stimulation of 24/7 connectivity might be marketed as some modernising, forward looking cyber-dream, but it manifests as a constant anxious presence on the edge of our thoughts, a creeping tic, any free time really beset by the constant FOMO … the twitch of the hand towards the phone in the pocket.

To distance ourselves from these deadening tentacles, to reclaim our time… to generate once more an outside, or a sense that there could be one. Even, to move forward with the conviction of our own otherness, may be possible again. To identify with the alien precedes the discovery of new worlds…

Otherness – Playlist

Categories
Capitalism Music

The Positivity Injunction

I lose count of the times I’ve heard someone claim they don’t like a piece of music or a film because it’s “too depressing”. What this means I have yet to find out, but I’ve become aware over the years that it seems to apply overwhelmingly to a lot of my own cultural library, and so tend to be somewhat irritated upon hearing it, even if directed at something that I myself am not terribly keen on. The implication here is clear, all that is not positive begone, we have no need for your emiserating antics.

This attitude is something that has taken its place at the opposite end from the apparent doom-mongers and naysayers, the party-poopers and orgy-ruiners of the world who just want to ruin everyone elses good time. You must be fun at parties goes the line as if being fun at parties was some kind of marker of good humour, as if so many of us were plunging ourselves into a hedonic haze and careening through muddy fields on amphetamines because we’re just so fun to be around. Put away that book it might make you depressed… copious levels of alcohol on the other hand…

To be clear I’m not anti-pleasure and I don’t want to come across as some puritan finger-wagging priest delivering a moral sermon, in fact quite the opposite.. what I want to point out is that it is this positivity injunction which itself functions in this way, denouncing any of us who dare criticize what we are supposed to enjoy. Picture a scene where a group are discussing a fast food outlet. Going around the room they can’t get over how amazing these burgers are, and the superlatives are flowing. Then it gets to you. You… don’t really think much of the place and you have a few words to say on it, so you say so. Silence. Everyone kind of looks at you strangely before someone says “yeahhh but it’s really good isn’t it” the conversation continues as if you had not spoken. Say on top of this your reason had to do primarily with the way the fast food outlet functioned, marketed its food, or produced it. Here, the injunction to be positive becomes an injunction to stay silent and conform. All the keep-calm-carry-on mugs and tea-towels in the world seem to be saying “Pipe down and let us have our fun”.

This all seems to point towards a refusal to think beyond the pleasure principle. Mark Fisher describes something in Capitalist Realism he terms as “Depressive Hedonia”; where depression is generally held as the inability to find pleasure in anything, what we find in Depressive Hedonia is the inability to do anything besides the pursuit of pleasure. Specifically given the breakdown of certain structures within education, the lack of resources or content, students will often find themselves sitting in their rooms getting high consuming entertainment because there’s nothing of interest to do… anything that is not connected to pleasure strikes us as worthless, something we’d have to really force ourselves into. This is connected in my mind to the positivity injunction, something that can be found just as much in the anxious and depressed communities of students as it can people “climbing the job ladder” and in the world of business. Among people my own age and younger however, there seems increasingly to be this attitude that if you are critical of something that provides us FUN then you are de facto ANTI-FUN. You’re slapped with a sticker that announces to everyone that you’re some miserable stick-in-the-mud, you have no time for the good life.

In my own experience this has emerged through my disdain for festivals. I was somewhat excited by the idea of the festival when I was younger for the novelty aspect, but gradually it becomes increasingly evident that festivals are where punk comes to die, events of staggering cultural emptiness predicated on the idea that nobody who goes to them actually cares, or will be too off their face to care, about what’s actually going on there. Even essential or exciting acts are drained of potency in the open fields, the whole sorry affair being a muddy slice of flabby carnivalesque bourgeois boredom alleviation designed not as a cultural event but a way to forget. Just camp out in a muddy field, take some drugs, forget about everything and enjoy Foster the People won’t you? The headline acts are often non-acts, non-culture, Marc Auge’s non-places in the form of bands, an airport waiting area on a musical stage, going through the motions of performance but having given up any attempt to carve out anything beyond a flat, meaningless success in a continuum of similitude. At it’s worst the festival is in fact a cavalcade of awkward nostalgia, the geriatric rolling stones still desperately pulling the same old shit despite the valorisation of youth suiting them now like… well like leather trousers on an elderly Mick Jagger. When did anything of any import really happen at a festival?

Well, suffice to say I don’t really think much of the festival environment, predicated as it us on the reduction of culture to museum, even worse, to a kind of repeating wallpaper design in front of which we drool over the settee in a ketamine haze. I’ve found this however a notably unpopular thing to say, the enjoyment of festivals being taken as something of a necessary, why WOULDN’T you enjoy this, you puritan.. the expectation here is that we just draw our mouths into a grotesque smile and just get down with everyone else. Hedonism here can be taken as some kind of Bataillean limit experience, the thing that provides the rest of our mundane lives with some exit, an outside where we don’t have to worry about paying the rent. As soon as we take those amphetamines or drink those beers, we enter a headspace away from all that miserable shit, all that politics, the boring stuff. It is like some kind of transcendental move, a heavenly experience … is it any surprise that festivals have become intertwined often with a kind of typical new age mysticism, the kind of religion where we can engage in its practices while simultaneously feeling above them.

And so the positivity injunction is a call to accept this state, to simple go ahead and dope yourself up, become numb to the world for a few days, accept mediocrity, accept the state of affairs as long as you can purge it temporarily, accept the endless waiting room, the repetition, the cultural logic of late capitalism, it’s all worth it for this moment of transcendent bliss, knocking down a few pints in a miserable field of desperate people on a cocktail of drugs and believing wholeheartedly that this is the best life will offer us. In this way the festival, and the positivity injunction itself, becomes a stagnant river, heaving with waste. It is the place where culture comes to a standstill, repeats itself due to the lack of will to accept anything could be better. Judgement, negativity is the ultimate sin, surely you can accept that all eras have their bad parts, nothing is inherently worse about now … except it is, there is an air of deprivation, and as much as we may hope against all hopes that really this is just how things are and it’s just different, no worse or better, there are concrete political reasons for this negativity.

The consistent dismantling of social security, the demonization of the unemployed & the working classes, the lack of cultural urgency [brought on non insignificantly by our subsistence on a diet of cyberculture and connectivity, the strange temporal effects of having access to a seemingly endless and overwhelming stream of data, described by Franco “Bifo” Berardi as Overload]. We have more than sufficient reason to be pissed off, and it’s about time to draw a line under this kind of forced positive attitude. Culture is more than entertainment, and as long as we insist that the only recourse we have is to a hedonistic escape from this earthly domain, we continue to reinforce the hegemony of Capitalist Realism and neoliberal theology. What we need is not some kind of neo-spiritual affirmative love-solves-all positive oppressive injunction, but a renewed sense that this is not all we can muster. We have a lot to care about, and if we didn’t care we wouldn’t spend all this time trying to suppress it; dare to think beyond the pleasure principle, and maybe we can build new forms of collectivity.

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Music

“See You Don’t Bump His Head”: Scott Walker’s Anti-Mythology

While plucking feathers from a swan song, shit might pretzel Christ’s intestines” intones Scott Walker with operatic fervour on the opening track of his final 2012 album Bish Bosch. It surprises even myself that this sprawling and utterly strange avant tract of absurdity grotesquery, ugliness, beauty, horror was my introduction to Scott Walker, but in truth a section of it may have been the first material I ever heard of his. It is only after stumbling like a blinking stranger into the terrifying chasms of this album that I really took sight of his astonishing career trajectory, the uncompromising leap into the weird he undertook at the tail-end of the 70s and maintained for the rest of his life. By that point, the damage was done, Scott Walker had rewired my perception of what music could be.

So it was with some sadness I read this morning that he had passed away, considering really in light of that how important his music really was to me, the sheer cliffs of sound and violent lyrical contortions of Bish Bosch, as well as the majestic terror of Drift, staying with me like little else I’d heard and really percolating through all the music I loved thereafter. In a more general sense Walker is important because he stands in contrast that could barely be starker against the trajectory of most stars of his generation, collapsing into a tragic capitulation to mediocrity in the latter years of their lives, simply falling into reiteration and pastiche of their former selves.

Instead, the music Walker produced was in any sense of the imagination a hundred times more adventurous and alien than anything being produced by people less than half his age. Listening back to his material, out of chronological order, it strikes me also how his uncompromising tendencies, to produce what he wanted the wishes of the record companies be damned, can be seen as far back as records like Scott 3, and especially in Scott 4, not only in his choices of song topics but in the overt influence he takes from Morricone on the latter album, breaking with the explicit crooner stable and moving firmly into his own lane, an album of masterfully executed string arrangements and atmospheric and affecting song progressions where he sings about, among other things, Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Stalin.

This kind of confident breaking with form is something we need more of now than ever, and I cannot think of a better example than Scott Walker of someone who resolutely refused to submit to the injunction to be harmless, safe, homely, especially towards those who we enter into a dusty old hall of statues where they are to be endlessly ogled as elder statespeople of rock and pop and never disturbed. Scott Walker, from a background of 60s pop crooning, moved ever away from this mythologizing influence, the staid, calcified remnants of something exciting, culture become museum artifact. Scott Walker’s mysterious alien presence, where fame is concerned, was a kind of anti-mythology; musically he occupied a place of constant, wrenching uncertainty, where, ultimately the profoundly beautiful meets the nonsensical and the visceral where an utterly absurd line could lurch out of an atmospheric majesty. It is somewhere in this place where we all reside, and in that Walker really hit close to the bone of experience through the medium of phantasmatic weirdness.Indeed for a man who appeared often like a phantasm, appearing every now and then followed by a blast of bafflement and exhileration in equal measure, his presence will be deeply missed.

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Music

Imagine a World like That…

A song that has stuck with me in particular lately, not merely due to a catchy hook but for its distinctive pathos, is Imagine, from Ariana Grande’s magnificent new album Thank U, Next. With the song Grande paints an idealised picture of a relationship with the romantic subject undercut constantly with the refrain, a plea to “imagine a world like that”. The lyrics maintain a certain ambiguity, presenting multiple possibilities; That the world she describes is possible yet the subject cannot imagine it, that the world is not possible and the subject cannot imagine it, that this world comes into being through imagining it or that it cannot, but must be imagined regardless. Within these possible readings lies a pathos of unrequited fantasy, a symbolic ideal that remains out of reach.

This might the point where I come out with some pseudo-nihilist statement, coolly staring into the middle distance as I proclaim that love is just a chemical reaction maaan, it doesn’t exist. This, however, is only half the point. To be in love is to imagine, to dream. The mistake is to proceed from this to claim that love doesn’t matter. The fact remains that at some point we experience the strange and discomforting feeling that none of this is real, and in a sense we are correct. Nothing about this is as it seems, something we can ascertain as soon as we move past transcendential explanations for affects; the reality we all experience is founded upon a collectively consensual dream, the raw, unvarnished reality merely revealing itself as a further servant of the symbolic under scrutiny.

So love, in a Spinozist sense, is a series of affects given symbolic form.. this is only a step away from the “love as chemical reaction” statement, indeed shares with it a kind of cold analysis of human emotion, and yet does not in the manner of this former trite framing render it somehow less important as a result. To live is to dream, as it is to love and to feel. As such, Ariana Grande’s call to imagine becomes both a call to imagine something inevitably unfulfilled, and to express love in its true form, for the romantic subject to submit to the fantasy world of the relationship. This element of gossamer thin tension lies between the twin subject of a relationship and its outside, the point at which both enter the immersion tank and a new symbolic reality forms from the affects generated by their interaction.

So romance, love, becomes the formation of a symbolic reality. It is to “imagine a world” in a true sense, as any collaboration with another human being is to generate affects with symbolic resonance, creating each time a new microcosm of further effects. Love is necessarily a kind of imaginary world, the horizon of which defines its possibilities. To love someone or something is to create between two things a desiring multitude of effects, and in this sense one can easily refer to the DeleuzoGuattarian multiplicity, that within such a relationship is not merely two actors but a many more in the branching effects produced.

To imagine a world then, is to love. To engage in a romantic coupling is an unconsciously desiring production of reality, and this in turn maintains itself through the contradictions of the imaginary and the symbolic, the symbolic representations of affects becoming the imaginary worlds of containment. Love is a swarm. It is a re-alignment of perception, a psychedelic invocation. This renders what begins as a realisation that love is predicated on fantasy and catapults it towards a singular power more potent than any transcendental conception of love as a spiritual force. The transcendent is removed, inarticulate; it contradicts its own attempts to lend power to worldly affects through its own rendering of them as ethereal nonentities. In truth, as anyone who has experienced any kind of emotion might have realised, it is in affects we find that which profoundly alters our experience. To imagine is to love, which is to re-align the vectors of perception itself.