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.

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