Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Workflow/Rihanna

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Next week, I will be speaking in New York at this conference. For reasons I do not understand, they have asked for all the papers to be submitted in advance, and say they will give them out to whoever comes to hear the talks. To my mind, this makes the conference itself superfluous — why sit through a bunch of talks, when you can read them much more easily and quickly? But whatever.

In any case, here is my talk on “The Aesthetics of Workflow.” My initial plan was much more ambitious — in addition to speaking about Anthony Mandler’s video for Rihanna’s “Disturbia”, I was also going to discuss two other music videos: Grant Singer’s video for Sky Ferreira’s “Night Time, My Time”, and Tom Beard and FKA twigs’ video for FKA twigs’ “Papi Pacify”. Part of the idea was to discuss videos for women singers at three levels of the music industry: superstar (Rihanna), emerging (& so far) midlevel artist (Sky Ferreira), and little-known independent (FKA twigs). All three videos are poweful and challenging, but I think that the different economic scales makes for different modes of expression as well.

However, this was not to be. So far I haven’t had enough time to write about these other two videos. And even if I had, I would end up with a talk that would probably be two hours long — something much better read than delivered live. So I will leave these two additional videos for later consideration. (I should add, however, that I showed “Night Time, My Time” to my Intro to Film students. One of them remarked, in response, that he would play this video at the end of a party, when he wanted to get everyone to leave. I take this as a strong compliment to the video — and I hope that Ferreira and Singer would take the comment in this spirit as well).

As for what I have written already, I feel like I haven’t really gotten to the bottom of this. There’s a lot more to say about Rihanna; and, as always when I write about music videos, I feel self-conscious about my inability to say enough about the music in formalist terms.

But anyway, here’s the text of my talk, in two parts:

1. WORKFLOW

“Workflow” is a term that is increasingly being used today in digital audiovisual production. In the words of the film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky:

“Workflow” describes the relationship between production and post-production — shooting and editing. A workflow encompasses everything from the hard drives on which image data is recorded to the final delivery of the film for distribution. Workflow theories emphasize flexibility and maneuverability.

Vishnevetsky’s point is not just that the term “workflow” is increasingly being used by film- and videomakers themselves, in order to designate how they employ digital tools; but also, and just as importantly, that the new practices designated by the term need to be analyzed by critics and theorists of audiovisual media. Recent developments in digital technology have not only led to radical changes in film and video production methods; they have also led to new audiovisual formal structures and styles — or more loosely, to a new sort of “look and feel” for audiovisual artifacts.

Of course, this workflow “look and feel” is far from universal; and there is no necessary correspondence between technologies of production and final products. Neoliberal economic activity in general is organized on the basis of supposed “flexibility and maneuverability.” Even when they are making works that still look and sound like older, more traditional productions, Film- and videomakers employ workflow methods in order to save time and money, cut corners, and respond quickly to frequent demands from clients. There are also artists — Michel Gondry is a good example — who exhibit a laudable streak of stubborn perversity: they go out of their way to produce works in which digital-seeming effects are in fact created through older, analog means.

Nonetheless, the new technologies and production practices of workflow offer new affordances to film- and videomakers. They open the way for new expressive possibilities — even though these possibilities are often not taken up. As Stanley Cavell puts it in relation to film, “the aesthetic possibilities of a medium are not givens…. Only the art itself can discover its possibilities, and the discovery of a new possibility is the discovery of a new medium.” Similarly, the potential expressive uses of today’s new digital technologies cannot be known in advance; they can only be discovered or invented, and then elaborated, in the course of actual audiovisual production. At their best, the technologies and practices of workflow lead to a new audiovisual aesthetic.

Vishnevetsky refers to “workflow” mostly in the context of digital cinema: his article explicitly discusses recent movies by David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh. But I am more interested in looking instead at contemporary music videos. There are several reasons for this. On a personal level, working with music videos allows me to combine my enthusiasm as a pop music fan (despite my lack of musical training) with my more formal concerns as a scholar of audiovisual media. On a more distanced level, music videos fascinate me because they are so complexly overdetermined. Something like Italian operas in the 19th century, or Broadway and MGM musicals in the 20th, music videos are a hybrid, impure form — and indeed a necessarily compromised one. They almost never have the status of independent, self-subsistent works. Even more than other pop-cultural forms, they are subject to the whims of marketers and publicists. They are based upon pre-existing musical material, which usually wasn’t created with them in mind. They most often serve the derivative purposes of advertising the songs for which they were made, and of contributing to the larger-than-life, transmedia personae of their performers. In addition, music videos frequently remediate older media contents: alluding to, sampling and recombining, or unambiguously plagiarizing material from movies, television, fashion photography, and experimental art. Music videos thus always remain illustrative and externally referential — the cardinal sins according to modernist theories of art.

And yet, despite all this — or is it rather because of all this? — music videos are often deeply self-reflexive, and strikingly innovative in form and technique. They push the latest production technologies to their limits; and they experiment with new modes of visualization and expression. Precisely because their sonic content already comes ready-made, and because they are of such limited length, they do not need to conform to older modes of audiovisual organization. They are free to ignore Hollywood mainstays like narrative structures and continuity conventions. Even before the rise of digital sound and image technologies, Michel Chion noted that music videos exhibited “a joyous rhetoric of images,” made possible by the fact that “the image is conspicuously attaching itself to some music that was sufficient to itself.” Music videos are strictly speaking superfluous — and this is what gives them a space for free invention. Chion adds that, in many music videos, “the rapid succession of shots creates a sense of visual polyphony and even of simultaneity, even as we see only a single image at a time.”

If this was already the case when Chion was writing in 1990, it is even more fully so today, in the age of digital workflow. As Vishnevetsky notes, the chief characteristic of the workflow aesthetic is that it blurs the line between production and post-production. Of course, this makes it easier for film- and videomakers to change their minds, and to recast all their material even at the last moment. But workflow practices also have ontological consequences, because they erase the distinction between those aspects of audiovisual material that are actually placed before the camera and sound recorder, and those that are subsequently invented, added, or altered on the computer. The very nature of audiovisual construction and reproduction is thereby put into question.

In other words, the whole issue of cinematic realism, so fervently debated on both sides for much of the twentieth century, loses its relevance in the age of workflow. It no longer makes sense to distinguish, as André Bazin did, between a self-subsistent reality that is indexically captured by the mechanistic recording apparatus of the cinema, and an “image,” defined as “everything that the depiction of a thing on the screen can add to the thing itself.”

Rather, the real itself is always in production — just as Deleuze and Guattari already intimated in the 1970s. Sonic and visual material is continually being worked and reworked: in the physical spaces before the camera and sound recorder, in these mechanisms’ own processes of capture and transmission, in the digital transformations accomplished through the computer, and in our own subjective acts of perception, reception, and synthesis. All of these are equally “real”: they are best thought of as particular stages in the never-ending adventure of materials. Thanks to the recent digital technologies epitomized by workflow, these diverse stages of actuality now interpenetrate one another more than ever before. This does not mean that Bazin has been discredited by the non-indexical nature of digital audiovisual capture. To the contrary, he is more in the right than he even knew: “the image may be out of focus, distorted, devoid of colour and without documentary value; nevertheless, it has been created out of the ontology of the model. It is the model.”

When I teach Introduction to Film (which I do every semester) much of my effort is spent explaining to students the basic formal structures of mise en scène, cinematography, and editing. These can be understood as, respectively, that which is presented before the camera, that which the camera itself does, and that which is subsequently assembled out of the material recorded by the camera. Mise en scène, cinematography, and editing are crucial categories for film studies, because they refer at once to operations performed in the course of making the film, and to formal aspects of the completed film as it is experienced by its audience.

Now, filmmakers have often played fast and loose with these categories, exploiting their ambiguities and loopholes. Long takes by Hitchcock and Welles, for instance, work to express through camera movement and framing alone what usually needs to be conveyed by means of editing. Godard’s calculated violations of continuity editing rules depend, for their effect, upon our unconscious expectations that these rules will be maintained. But if classical filmmaking established such basic formal categories, and modernist filmmaking troubled their boundaries, the most adventurous recent audiovisual production seems to dispense with them altogether. It is not just that there are new ways of putting together moving image sequences during post-production, but also that the resulting sequences look and sound differently than heretofore, and are organized by an entirely different logic. For instance, the rapid editing of many music videos, and of “chaos cinema” action sequences, bears a certain formal resemblance to 1920s Soviet montage; but the aesthetic aims of contemporary music video directors, no less than their technological means of production, are quite distant from those of Vertov and Eisenstein.

Contemporary music videos are quite strikingly different, not just from traditional cinema, but even from the “MTV-style” videos of the genre’s first decade, the 1980s. Carol Vernallis notes, for instance, how our experience of color in music videos, and of the textures of such diffuse substances as “dust, water, smoke, and clouds,” has been transformed by the use of DI (digital intermediate), a process that only came into common use after 2005 or so. Now that color and texture can be controlled and transformed on a pixel-by-pixel basis, Vernallis says, “each element is marked off so clearly it is almost as if we were examining the video’s detail through a magnifying glass.” Digital compositing already allows for image juxtapositions that are simultaneous, instead of (as in radical cinematic montage) sequential. But DI raises this multiplicity to a higher power, rendering for us something like the perception of machines, or of insect-style compound eyes. Vernallis adds that DI also allows video directors to do things like “cut quickly” from “an extreme wide-angle shot” to “an extreme closeup,” or “cut three or four fast shots around the face at well-judged off-angles” (here she refers in particular to the work of Jonas Åkerlund). These fast edits are generally “hard to see”; but they create a subliminal sense of “deeper immersion” for the viewer.

The new workflow aesthetics affects audiovisual production and reception alike; it works equally on the level of the “subject,” and on that of the “object.” On the one hand, it simulates and stimulates new modes of subjective perception; on the other, it produces new configurations of the objects being perceived.

2. DISTURBIA

I turn now to a music video that epitomizes the aesthetics of workflow. Anthony Mandler’s 2008 video for Rihanna’s song “Disturbia” is so densely layered and cluttered and compressed that it seems to require a whole new formal language to do it justice. The proliferation of images in the video definitely gives us a sense of what Chion calls “visual polyphony.” What is more, we do not see just “a single image at a time”; the video is literally polyphonic — or better, polyoptic — in that images are continually being layered transparently over one another. However, as befits the song, this “visual rhetoric” is oppressive rather than “joyous.” It suggests visual overload, more than promiscuous multiplication.

It would be impossible to do a conventional shot breakdown of this video; images proliferate and propagate in ways that do not conform to the traditional logic of cinematography and editing. At times, Rihanna’s face or figure detaches into two images, one of which jitters and shakes as if it were trying to break free from itself — or as if the camera itself were having some sort of seizure. There are also quick movements in and out of focus. Sometimes images are doubled by layering; usually a detail like Rihanna’s face in closeup is placed semi-transparently on top of a broader scene. The overall effect is at once unstable and claustrophobic.

At still other times, barbed wire and spider web patterns are splayed across Rihanna’s skin. The video’s images fade into one another as well as appearing on top of one another. There is also a lot of rapid cutting, without fades, not only between scenes that show the singer in different locales and wearing different costumes (as is common in music videos), but also among fragments of individual scenes or set-ups. Almost everything is presented frontally (as is also a common practice in music videos), but the way that the images are both fragmented and juxtaposed nonetheless disrupts any stable sense of perspective.

The video’s setting looks like a Victorian insane asylum. This impression is reinforced by the sound effects — dissonant arpeggios accompanied by creaking sounds — in the first thirty seconds of the video, before the song proper begins. My students found the video’s visual decor reminiscent of that in the computer game and movie series Silent Hill; but I think this is a matter, not of homage or direct imitation, but simply of the fact that both works draw upon the same Victorian-asylum imagery. In the video, in any case, Rihanna appears in numerous roles: she is both the director of the asylum, and a number of imprisoned patients.

In the former role, she is seated in an enormous rotating chair. She wears a sort of Victorian bondage wear, with black dress and knee-high boots, and long nails in black nail polish. She fans herself while turning in the chair, or walks about languidly and pats the head of a docile prisoner. Rihanna is also surrounded by strong, menacing figures. An enormous man with an eyepatch and a black-and-white striped prison uniform turns some large, creaky mechanical wheels; another large man, shirtless, beats out the song’s brutal rhythm on two enormous drums. While sitting in the chair, Rihanna is also assaulted by her own double: a feral female figure, on all fours, with wrists bound together and a punkish shock of blonde hair, who snarls and lunges at her, like a bad pet.

Meanwhile, Rihanna takes on multiple guises in her role as a patient-cum-prisoner in the asylum. She is caged in a jail cell, with straight blonde hair and empty zombie eyes. In other sequences, she pulls furiously upon chains that bind her ankles together and rivet her arms to a peg in the floor; or she jerks about violently while seemingly confined within an empty bedframe. Another sequence suggests slavery, as she stands chained to a pillar, with a collar around her neck, hands bound behind her back, and grease smeared on her naked shoulder. In the latter part of the video, we see her hanging immobilized in a corridor, her lower arms stuck inside the walls, and a tarantula on her upper arm, near her shoulder. We see also her splayed out, behind latticework, making love to a life-sized male mannequin; and in other shots, wearing what looks like an Indian headdress.

Most of these images are composed in dark tones, often approaching a monochrome dark blue. The darkness is only relieved by the highlighting of Rihanna’s face. Sometimes, however, there are horizontal bars of illumination or patches of color at the back of the set. In addition, the relatively dark images are continually interrupted by vertical streaks of light that seem to erupt out of the screen; or else by flames in the foreground, that ostentatiously do not fit into the same space as the rest of the image. One recurring sequence, however, is violently illuminated, in contrast to everything else in the video: the screen is bathed from above and behind in a glaring white and orange light. Rihanna’s prone body is held up into the light by a group of backlit dancers, perhaps suggesting a human sacrifice.

The song “Disturbia” is about mental anguish: the lyrics suggest paranoia, unbearable compulsion, and other such ugly feelings. “A disease of the mind,/ It can control you,” Rihanna sings, “I feel like a monster.” And again, in a line that seems to set forth the visual strategy of the video: “It’s like the darkness is the light.” I am inclined to give this line its full weight, as a statement of via negativa mysticism. The song is an affective expression, but it isn’t the representation of a mental state. For the very condition of feelings like these is that they cannot be represented, or brought into the light of full consciousness. Rihanna — or her persona in this song — suffers precisely from the absence, and the impossibility, of illumination. And this is the ironic situation that the song and video strive to “represent.”

It is worth noting that “Distubia” was co-written by Chris Brown, who passed it on to Rihanna after originally having planned to record it himself. Even though the song and video were released before the horrific incident in which Brown beat up Rihanna, it is hard not to regard “Disturbia” in the context of this subsequent history. The lyrics do not explicitly state any cause for the compulsion and paranoia that they express; but these symptoms can easily be interpreted as the effects of jealousy or a broken relationship. Robin James, writing specifically about Rihanna’s 2012 album Unapologetic, discusses the singer’s embrace of “melancholic damage,” and her absolute refusal of any narrative of recovery and resilience in the wake of the assault. I think that such a “damaged” and willfully unapologetic stance is already evident in “Disturbia,” both the song and the video.

“Disturbia” is undeniably a very catchy song, and it was a big dance hit when it was first released in 2008. The song was even described by one critic at the time (Alex Fletcher) as “a fun-packed electro treat filled with sizzling beats and crazy vocal effects.” Another critic (Fraser McAlpine), despite admiring “the spooky, gothy sounds in the first 30 seconds of the video,” and praising what he calls “Rihanna’s icy whine,” nonetheless complains that overall “Disturbia” is “FAR too chirpy a tune to suit the parade of Marilyn Manson fetish-wear and leathery bedlam which accompanies it” in the video.

Nonetheless, I think that the video responds to, and indeed brings out, disturbing undercurrents that already exist in the song. “Disturbia” is dominated by a harsh and pounding beat, which lacks the brightness and bounciness of similarly repetitive bass lines in electro tunes (such as that in “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65, which McAlpine compares to that of “Disturbia”). The harshness of the song’s rhythm is reinforced, not only by the “Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum” repeated refrain, but even more by the video’s choreography. Rihanna and her surrounding figures dance with spastic jerks of the head or of the whole body, emphasizing the beat’s relentless, inorganic regularity. There is no smooth or graceful movement here; everything is shaped by violent constraints.

This sort of dancing works in tandem with the twitching of the camera, the image juxtapositions, and the aggressive editing. All in all, Mandler’s metamorphosing images closely respond to the musical elements of the song: both its shifts of register and its propulsive force. But the hyperactive image track also leads us to notice different aspects of the sound than we might have done otherwise. In particular, it draws our attention to the song’s treatment of Rihanna’s voice, with its Autotune vocoder-like effects, and its surprising changes of vocal register. In short, we don’t hear the music of “Disturbia” in the same way when we watch the video, as we would without it.

The video for “Disturbia” uses the resources of workflow aesthetics in order both to track the song’s rhythmic intensities, and to follow the logic of the via negativa outlined by the song’s lyrics. In other words, the video “visualizes” an emotional state that is first presented acoustically, and that — strictly speaking — is not susceptible to visualization. The video assaults our senses with too thick an agglomeration of too many images. And yet these all tend to collapse into a black hole of negativity, or a night in which all cows are black. The ultimate effect of the video’s profusion is not psychedelic plenitude, but rather an amplification of darkness and obliqueness.

Rihanna clearly has a place in the genealogy of Afrofuturism. She is a robo-diva, as Robin James describes her, picking up on a term originally coined by Tom Breihan. James sees Rihanna’s self-robotization as a gesture of resistance: a way of refusing white patriarchy’s normative identification of itself with the human per se. In opposition to this, Stan Hawkins “perceive[s] Rihanna’s subjectivizing of the posthuman body as primarily nonemancipatory.” Actually, these positions are not necessarily in contradiction with one another, since the figure of the robot in Afrofuturism has long pointed in both directions at once: towards slavery, but also towards a “machine mythology” that rejects “the human” as “a pointless and treacherous category” of oppression (Kodwo Eshun).

But the technologies of workflow, as evidenced in the video for “Disturbia,” operate, I think, in something of a transversal register, in contrast to either of these directions. For what is at issue is not just “Rihanna’s subjectivizing of the posthuman body,” but also a correlative desubjectivizing of what it might mean to perceive her body. Workflow aesthetics, in both its production and its reception, operates on a fine microlevel. It allows for the most minute perceptual discriminations: one hue from another, one grain of sound from another, one pixel or one millisecond from another. These distinctions, like Leibniz’s petites perceptions, fall beneath the threshold of human recognition and voluntary action. We feel them, we are affected by them; but we cannot grasp them or comprehend them. In this way, an inhuman, machinic mode of experiencing is substituted for our own. Pop music is always about the most basic human emotions, at least as they are validated within our culture: love and sex, romance and rivalry, hatred and jealousy, ecstasy and pain. But insofar as the medium is the message, we are now experiencing even these conditions in ways that extend beyond and beneath our subjectivity.

More on post-continuity & post-cinematic affect

Friday, October 12th, 2012

My book on Post-Cinematic Affect, and my subsequent discussion of post- continuity have received some interesting responses recently.

First of all: in the latest issue of the open-access film journal La furia umana, Therese Grisham, Shane Denson, and Julia Leyda hold a roundtable discussion on the role of post-continuity in recent cinema, with particular reference to District 9 and to Hugo. This complements a previous roundtable discussion in the same journal a year ago, in which I participated, that focused on the Paranormal Activity series of films. There are a lot of important insights here, and I regret that I didn’t have the time to participate in the roundtable myself. However, we are trying to continue and expand this discussion. If our panel proposal for next spring’s SCMS is accepted, then I will be joining the roundtable participants for more discussion on post-continuity. My own contribution to this prospective panel will be focused on the late Tony Scott’s amazing 2005 film Domino.

And secondly: on her blog It’s Her Factory, Robin James considers how my observations on developments in contemporary film might be related to recent developments in contemporary music. I have argued that certain constellations of affect, composing a “structure of feeling” that is basic to our current neoliberal moment, are reflected or expressed or generated (I do not want to choose between these verbs for now, because I think what’s happening involves a bit of each of them) by certain formal changes in film and related media. The displacement of continuity editing by editing styles that are no longer centered upon a concern for the transparency and intelligibility of narrative go along, not just with new digital technologies, but also with new forms of subjectivity that are emerging in a world of just-in-time production, precarious labor, and neoliberal techniques of quantification and management. James suggests that analogous processes are at work in current popular music production, in response to many of the same shifts in the current (neoliberal) mode of production. Music production is of course quite different from film/video (or more properly, audiovisual) production, so we should not expect any sort of simple correspondences between what songs or dance tracks do and what movies do. But in both cases, there are mutations in media technologies and in principles of formal structuration, which in both cases respond to (or index, or express, or help to constitute — once again I would like to leave the equivocation between these terms intact) the social, political, and economic changes that we are currently experiencing. I hope to get the opportunity to continue this discussion as well.

Michael Jackson

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

It’s impossible to say anything original about Michael Jackson, so I won’t even try. As a celebrity and a media presence, for so much of his life, he cannot be extricated from all the words and images and sounds that he generated, or that were (and still are being) generated about him. Just as we cannot separate his music and performance from his persona, from all the allegations and scandals and media frenzies of his later years, so we cannot separate the “real” Michael Jackson from everything that has been thought and written and spoken and speculated about him. So, I can’t write about him without quoting what other people have already written about him, both now just after his death, and over the years before.

At Jackson’s spectacular height, the time of Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982) and the subsequent television appearances and live tours, there really was nobody like him. He was a vision of ease and grace and energy, as a dancer and as a singer — but also with an undercurrent of sadness that was unusually knowing for one so young, and yet that did not sour into bitterness. Michael Jackson was a supernova; we loved him, we worshiped him, we found his appearances and performances almost godlike — and this “we” was probably one of the widest,most inclusive “we”s in the history of the world. I don’t see any reason to reject this, or ironically distance ourselves from this, or critique it in any way — although we should be aware of the social and historical contexts of this glory and this amazement. (I can’t write anything, in any case, that would match or even come close to k-punk’s post on “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” and “Billie Jean”).

But of course there was also everything that came after: Michael Jackson’s pain and pathology, and the sad spectacle that he made of himself — and that we all made of him as well. We learned about the horrors of his childhood, and uncomfortably glimpsed the more-than-eccentricities of his later years. None of this was unrelated to the genius of his best work; all of it belonged to the same economy of celebrity that formed his essence, and from which also he evidently so grievously suffered. But none of it could have simply been extrapolated from the pain of “Billie Jean” or the splendour of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” and “Beat It.”

The moment of Thriller was an emotionally charged and extremely condensed one. Ronald Reagan was President; it was the dawn of the neoliberal (counter)revolution. We knew that something had ended, or had been lost; but we still had very little sense of what was going to replace it. I could not have imagined — nobody could have imagined — the hypercommodification and hyperfinancialization of the years since then; the reign of universal cynicism and marketing plans. The deep recession of the early 1980s followed the mixed expansions and losses of the 1970s; I forget who it was who (accurately) pointed out that the 1970s represented the democratization, or generalization (in wealthy countries like the United States at least) of what had been “counter-cultural” about the 1960s; what used to be “us vs them” had become common to everyone. Later decades’ sarcastic dismissals of the excesses and bad fashions of the 70s really testify only to our current utter lack of imagination. In 1982, in any case, we were only at the beginning of understanding how incomplete the projects of the previous decades were fated to remain. Punk had come and gone, an inspiring flash in the pan; and the disco wars had revealed how deeply racially troubled things continued to be — even if the Reagan Presidency was the beginning of one of those periodic efforts to deny the existence of these troubles altogether. The period was, as we now realize, one of great innovation on the fringes of popular music; but it was also one of a consolidation in which white-centric rock ‘n’ roll (including the music of all those interestingly innovative post-punks) lost its cultural relevance; it is no accident that the triumvirate of 1980s superstars, Micheal Jackson, Prince, and Madonna, all focused on dance-oriented musical forms that remained closer to its African American sources than rock had ever done. [I should perhaps also mention the fact that the release of Thriller coincides almost exactly with the midway point of my own life to date].

This is why I find Greil Marcus’ comments on Michael Jackson (found via k-punk) so utterly insufferable. Marcus is condescending and (at least borderline) racist, as he remarks (after grudginly conceding that the Jackson phenomenon was “an event in which pop music crosses political, economic, geographic and racial barriers”) that, whereas “performers as appealing and disturbing as Elvis Presley, the Beatles or the Sex Pistols” all “raise the possibility of living in a new way,” Michael Jackson did not. The Jackson phenomenon, Marcus claims, “was the first pop explosion not to be judged by the subjective quality of the response it provoked, but to be measured by the number of objective commercial exchanges it elicited.”

Even under the most charitable interpretation, this is pernicious nonsense. Elvis, the Beatles, and the Sex Pistols were every bit as much about marketing as Michael Jackson was. It was Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, who (as far as I am aware) first invented the whole concept of the commodity tie-in for pop music (Beatles lunchboxes, Beatles cartoons, etc.), and who created the feedback loop by means of which the hysteria of Beatles fandom redounded back upon the band itself and amplified its fame and reach (something that had never quite happened in the case of Sinatra fandom, Elvis fandom, etc.). As for the Sex Pistols, how can you ever extricate their rage from Malcolm McLaren’s marketing savvy? Greil Marcus makes rather too much of McLaren’s Situationist influence, and takes no account whatsoever of the fact that Situationism itself — not inspite of, but precisely on account of, its virulent critique of all forms of commodity culture — became one of the most commercially successful “memes” or “brands” of the late twentieth century.

What it really comes down to, of course, is race. Greil Marcus, as the quintessential white hipster, can only see cultural innovation and subversion when it it is performed by white people. Marcus celebrates the ways in which “the pop explosions of Elvis, the Beatles and the Sex Pistols had assaulted or subverted social values,” but denounces Michael Jackson’s pop explosion as “a version of the official social reality, generated from Washington D.C. as ideology, and from Madison Avenue as language … a glamorization of the new American fact that if you weren’t on top, you didn’t exist.” For Marcus, black people are evidently at best primitive, unconscious creators whose inventions can only take on meaning and become subversive when white people endow them with the critical self-consciousness that Marcus seems to think black people altogether lack. And at worst, black artists and performers are, for Marcus, puppets of the Pentagon and Madison Avenue, reinforcers of the very status quo that countercultural whites were struggling so hard to overthrow.

[A sidenote: we could consider here Marcus' comments on Anita Baker and the Pointer Sisters, as unraveled here and here At the very least, African American aspirations to bourgeois respectibility, and the way this is often translated musically with a smooth, elegant style, need to be understood in the historical context of American racism and black people's liberation struggles, rather than sneeringly dismissed as Marcus does when he snidely refers to the objectionable fact that The Pointer Sisters "gave concerts with ‘Black Tie Recommended’ printed on the tickets." It is sympotmatic that Marcus singles out black artists as ostensibly representing upper-class privilege. Not to mention that the Pointer Sisters were as much about "I'm about to lose control and I think I like it" as they were about smooth elegance].

All this might seem like raking over old coals; but the intersection between mass popularity and questions of race is still a central one for American culture (note: I am including the reception of British musicians like the Beatles in America as itself very much part of American culture). In the most important respects, the Beatles and Michael Jackson were very much alike, in that they both achieved a mass popularity that exceeded all bounds and crossed over many cultural divides. If we toss out (as we should) Marcus’ white mythology, then we might even say that Michael Jackson was the end of something, as much as he was the beginning of something else. Jackson’s celebrity, like that of the Beatles before him, and of Elvis before them, was only possible in an age of “mass culture” that no longer exists. In the time of Fordist mass production and mass marketing, cultural products were also mass marketed. This reached a new level of intensity when television replaced the movies and radio as the dominant mass medium. Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson are all figures of the period between the introduction of broadcast television and the introduction of multi-channeled cable television, home video players, and the Internet. The latter technologies, together with the general shift from standardized mass production to the regime of just-in-time flexible accumulation, with its endless array of customizable options, mean that no single celebrity figure can ever be as culturally dominant as Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson were. Recent debates, among music critics and on music blogs, between “rockists” and “popists” are ultimately sterile, because both sides fail to take sufficient account of our curent culture of niche marketing, “long tails,” customization, and “crowdsourcing,” not to mention that the advertising and commercial strategies initially deployed on a massive scale by figures like the Beatles and Jackson are now increasingly prevalent on the micro-level. They are no longer just imposed from above; rather, they saturate all our media and all our interactions, oozing up as they do from below. It used to be that you could accuse somebody (as Marcus liked to accuse black artists) of being a bourgeois sellout; but today, everyone without exception is a “bourgeois sellout,” because (in the age of “human capital” and self-entrepreneurship) being such is a minimum requirement for mere survival. Today, this is a structural condition of social existence, rather than a matter of personal integrity or choice.

So I think that everything Greil Marcus criticizes the Michael Jackson juggernaut for could be said with equal justice of Elvis and the Beatles as well (and also of the Sex Pistols, although their niche-marketing and publicity-through-scandal strategies were ahead of their time, and put them in a slightly different category). Of course, none of this would matter, really — it would just be another banal self-evidence of our everyday lives, alongside Ikea and Facebook and the iPhone — if it weren’t for the beauty and the genius of all of these artists’ performances, of their music and their self-presentation to their audiences, and their overall personas. That is to say, of their aesthetic singularities, or of what Bloch or Jameson would call their “utopian” dimension. The modulations of Michael’s voice, the sinuous movements of his dancing, the way that his musical arrangements took disco and r&b and gave them both a smoothness and a slightly alien sheen, so subtly that one could say with equal justice that the sharp edges of mournful or joyous black expression had been “mainstreamed,” or that the very “mainstream” itself had been alluringly or insidiously carried away, exposed to a strange metamorphosis, allowed to blossom into a new aestheticized state in which pop crassness had itself become a rare, almost Wildean, delicacy.

The point of a successful aesthetic singularity is that it crosses over directly into the form of the universal, without all those mediations that usually come between. Something is so absolutely unique (even when we can trace all the sources from which it arose) and so absolutely, achingly, joyously or heart-wrenchingly right, or just itself, that it becomes a kind of universal value. (In philosophical terms, this is what Kant was getting at with his insistence upon the universal communicability of an aesthetic judgment devoid of cognitive principles and rules; or what Badiou is getting at when he speaks of an event; or what Deleuze was getting in his account of what he called “counter-actualization”). There was a kind of crack or a rupture, something absolutely inimitable in the way it was inscribed in Michael Jackson’s own body, and proliferated throughout that body’s performance. But balanced on the edge in this way, always just short of collapse, it was something that resonated with “everybody” (and in Michael Jackson’s case, the empirical extent of this “everybody” was larger than it had ever been before, and larger, probably, than it will ever be again, at least in any future continuous with our present).

The utopia of Michael Jackson — the universality of his music, performance, and persona, his appeal to “everybody” — had to do precisely with its challenge to this history of race in America. Jackson was “the first black superstar of the post civil-rights era,” Gary Younge writes; he was the first to make a recognizably African American cultural expression (and this would refer to his body language and his demeanor, as much as to his music) available, in a way that was neither an exotic attraction for white people, nor watered-down (as so much white rock music arguably was) — and this precisely because it was addressed to “everybody” in a way that no previous black music, not even Motown, had been before. In its singularity, Jackson’s music constructed a new “universal,” one that was very much tied in with hopes for the end of American racism (hopes that were, of course, effectively dashed in subsequent decades, even as “everybody,” or at least white people, gave lip service to the idea that they had in fact been fulfilled). So that, as Younge says, “the Jackson I was raised with” was, for him as for so many black people in the English-speaking world, and beyond it, “not just an American pop star but a global icon; not just a individual but part of a family. A black family.” Or, as Greg Tate once put it, “black people cherished Thriller’s breakthrough as if it were their own battering ram [against] apartheid… It’s like Thriller was this generation’s answer to the Louis-Schmeling fight or something.” The cultural significance of this utopian triumph, this newly produced Truth, consisted precisely in the fact that it didn’t resonate just for black people, but for what I am calling “everybody” — or, let us say, for all the peoples of the world, except for those white hipsters for whom Greil Marcus speaks, who regarded the whole Jackson phenomenon (or should we say the whole racial liberation movement?) as somehow beneath them, and which they felt entitled to dismiss with contempt. Everybody aside from Marcus and his band of white hipsters intuitively understood that Michael Jackson “raise[d] the possibility of living in a new way” at least as much as Elvis, the Beatles, or the Sex Pistols ever did.

But of course, no utopia is entirely real, or entirely realizable. There’s a forbidden apple in every garden, a worm in every apple. The utopian moment of Michael Jackson’s glory was also the prototype for the determinedly non-utopian progression of black figures beloved by white America — Cosby, Oprah, Obama — whose success has provided an alibi for the continuation of what I can only call the “racism of everyday life in America” today. And of course, this was in large part a necessary consequence of the way that Jackson (no less than the Beatles, etc., but also, I would argue, no more) was marketed, commodified, financialized. The intensified commodification of all aspects of life in the last thirty years (to a degree, as I have already noted, that I couldn’t have imagined in 1979 or 1982) did indeed start at the moment of Jackson’s triumph (though I think that Marcus’ implicit association of it with Jackson’s blackness is unconscionable). And it did have to do with the fact that utopias are especially marketable in the neoliberal era. Without that flash of greatness and genius, that moment of aesthetic singularity, there would in fact be nothing for the marketers to market (not that such a lack would have stopped them; many successful marketing campaigns have been based on nothing at all). And the way that aesthetic singularity can resonate universally, the way that an entirely novel Truth can become a condition of fidelity, is itself a necessary condition for ubiquitous commodification as well. Michael Jackson both benefited from marketing as no pop celebrity had before him; and became its victim in a manner as gruesome as it was exemplary.

The tension of singularity and universalization, and its simultaneous inextricability from, and irreducibility to, the neoliberal competitive marketization and commodification of everything, was played out by Michael Jackson in the terms both of gender and of race. Let me talk about gender and sexuality first, since this is both what always stares everyone in the face when we think about Jackson’s last twenty years, and yet it is extraordinarily difficult to parse. Ernest Hardy insightfully remarks that, even at his height of success and popularity, Jackson “resonated so powerfully precisely because he upended and shimmered beyond gender convention. It seems especially noteworthy that he cemented his solo superstar status during the gender-bending / gender-fucking era of the early ‘80s, alongside Boy George, Annie Lennox, Prince, a funkily reinvigorated Grace Jones – though he was a seasoned old pro in comparison to all of them.” In his first hits as a pre-adolescent, right on through at least Off the Wall (released when he was 21), Jackson somehow seemed knowing beyond his ease, affectively in command of the cliches of normative male heterosexuality, without any of the all-too-common signs of overcommittment and anxiety about this. But as he grew older, the normative heterosexual mask became something that seemed, for him, increasingly hollow, and therefore increasingly desperately maintained as an obvious fiction. I am really just translating the common (and accurate) observation that Jackson seemed extraordinarily mature as a child and adolescent, yet seemed to flee more and more into the fiction of a pre-pubertal childhood innocence once he actually was an adult. We speak of narcissism, of Peter Pan syndrome, of the allegations of pedophilia, and so on. But it might be worth remembering, instead, how the other dominating artists of the 1980s (Madonna and Prince) also pushed sexual experimentation in certain non-normative ways; though arguably neither of them went as far as Michael did. I remember the moment (it must have been the late 1980s or early 1990s) when many people began to perceive Jackson as being a little too “weird” sexually, so that they no longer idolized him, no longer wanted to “become” him. Of course, this was all the result of hints and vague suggestions, nothing that Jackson himself ever overtly expressed; wasn’t there something here of the “dysphoria” that Poetix has been writing about? (although of course this always remains diffuse and diffidently expressed; it never takes the form of “militant dysphoria,” there are no signs of the recognition that “personal ‘dysfunction’ must be understood in the context of this system and its (naturalised) functions”, a recognition towards which Poetix seeks to move us). In a certain sense, Michael Jackson’s diffuse expression of sexuality, which so many people have found disturbing, because it doesn’t fit into any normative paradigm, is the “line of flight” along which he continued to singularize himself, to a point beyond which universalization was no longer possible. It has a sort of negative relation to the deployments of sexuality in American popular culture today, where an evident explicitness and overtness of expression are purchased at the price of an increasingly narrow and normative range within which such expression is permissible, or even thinkable. You can be as raunchy as you want to be, as long as you remain even closer to the pre-established stereotypes of masculinity and femininity than was required in the pre-”sexual liberation” times of the 1950s. Michael Jackson’s refusal, or inability, to give more than rote lip service to this requirement, is the aspect of his persona, or expression, that is least understood today, and that desperatley needs to be more fully explored.

At the same time, of course, Jackson’s “line of flight” played out racially as an endeavor to extirpate his own blackness, and to make himself white. K-punk notes how the first plastic surgery in the service of becoming-white had already taken place in between the release of Off the Wall and that of Thriller. By 1987, at the time of the release of Bad, the self-mutilation had already gone so far that Greg Tate could write that, “Jackson emerges a casualty of America’s ongoing race war — another Negro gone mad because his mirror reports that his face dos not conform to the Nordic ideal.” There’s a bitter irony to this, when you reflect that, as Tate put it, “back when [Jackson] wore the face he was born with, black folk thought he was the prettiest thing since sliced sushi.”

Jackson’s self-remaking can only be understood as a kind of Afrofuturist nightmare, a violent (to himself) leap into the posthuman. As Annalee Newitz puts it, Jackson “turned his body into a kind of science fiction story. He became an enhanced human, using plastic surgery and pharmaceuticals to change his face and seemingly his race as well. He became whiter than most white people, and his pale bandaged skin became his trademark.” Here singularrization, or what Deleuze and Guattari call a “line of flight,” becomes indistinguishable from hyperbolic normativization. Jackson sought to singularize himself by fleeing any indication of blackness (I mean this culturally, rather than just physiologically; in the sense that the physiology is fully real, but also an index of would-be transformations on all other levels of being as well). Jackson wanted to become generically normative: which is to say, in a white supremacist society he wanted to become white. But in doing so, he only became something even more singular: a kind of grotesque parody of whiteness, a zombiefied, living-dead simulation of whiteness. He became a figure like those of the first white people: the hideous forms created by the mad scientist Yacub in Nation of Islam legend (as recounted, among other places, in Amiri Baraka’s play A Black Mass, the musical accompaniment for which was provided by Sun Ra). Of course, the truth behind this sort of transformation is that “whiteness” (like any other normative, hegemonic formation) is a pure imposture and does not really exist; it can only be instantiated as a grotesque parody of itself. Only racists actually “believe in” whiteness as being anything more than a marker of privilege and control; and only someone as delirious and demented as Michael Jackson ultimately became, and as wounded by not being able to take its privileges for granted, would ever seek to achieve it in so literalistic a way.

There is an obvious psychological way to account for the misery and self-mutilation of Michael Jackson: it resulted, undoubtably, from the harshness of his childhood, in which he was driven, by his father and his family, to perform and to become a star so intensively, and from such an early age, that he never got to know any other sort of life. But such an interpretation, even if true, is inadequate to Jackson’s genius, to the way he created pleasure and hope and utopian aspirations in the lives of so many, and to the ways that his sufferings and his strangeness are quintessential expressions of American life and society in this neoliberal age.

Experience Music Project: Pop Conference (3)

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Here are the rest of my notes on the 2009 Pop Conference. The last panel I went to on Saturday, “How Low Can A Punk Get?,” had only two speakers. Tavia Nyong’o presented an overview  of the work of video and music artist Kalup Linzy. Linzy has created a series of soap-opera videos, together with an album of songs accompanied by music videos, recounting the lives of characters whom he has created, and many of whom he plays. These characters are black, Southern, poor, and mostly gay; they play out tacky, trashy, and campy scenarios of love and desire; they enact or embody exaggerated stereotypes, sending up (but at the same time lovingly reinvesting) images of black folks that may well be racist in certain contexts. Abjection and parody thus become ways of expressing desires that have historically been debased and devalued. This is a camp strategy which has a long history among gay men in North America and Europe; but Nyong’o argued for its racial specificity in Linzy’s work, and for the way it took on a punk sneer as well as a campy sigh.

Drew Daniel is one half of the great electronic band Matmos. He described his paper, “Why Be Something You’re Not?’: The Afterlives of Queer Minstrelsy,” as the second in a series of reflections on queer punk music and culture. Daniel told the story of his encounter with the music of Hawnay Troof, who engages in over-the-top, and deliberately crude and excessive (hence “punk”), almost pornographic, expressions of gay male sexual desire. Daniel recounted his own assumption that the Hawnay Troof performer was (in actuality, or in “real life”) gay, and had fantasies on this basis, only to discover that he was actually bi, and showed up with a girlfriend for the recording session Daniel had set up. Daniel used the incident to critically reflect on those old questions of normativity and authenticity: why should a queer performer have to be “really” queer? why should a punk performing style, one that is so evidently artificial and enacted, nonetheless have to be grounded in the actual sexuality of the one who is doing the performance? It’s easy to be anti-essentialist in theory, but much harder to divest oneself of “essentialist” attitudes and assumptions in practice. Or, in more concrete terms: when is a performance of queerness by somebody who isn’t a legitimate and even powerful expression, and when is it minstrelsy in the most pejorative sense, a putting-on of the queer role by somebody in order to ridicule it and to separate oneself from it (because it is “only” a put-on performance)? By reflecting back upon, and in effect psychoanalyzing, his own initial response to Hawnay Troof, Daniel provided one of the most powerful and thought-provoking talks of the entire Pop Conference. However, I felt that the answers he gave were not quite up to the level of the dilemmas he explored. For he said, finally, that his assumption that a queer performer ought to be “really” queer was an instance of what he insisted upon calling “homonormative naive realism.” Now, this seems to me to be a bad way to criticize the tendency. First of all, because, as Graham Harman has argued (though I cannot find the precise posting), the denunciation of “naive realism” is itself something that should be viewed with suspicion. For the person who critiques naive realism is probably not thereby asserting that there is a more sophisticated sort of realism that would not be thus subject to critique; he is rejecting realism altogether, and saying that it is always naive. But as we’ve seen from Harman, from Quentin Meillassoux, and from the other “speculative realists,” the anti-realism of so much Continental theory of the last several decades ought not to be given a free pass. I’d even go so far as to say that “social constructionism” only makes sense to the extent that we are realists about “social constructions” themselves. And, given the richness of Daniel’s overally presentation, I don’t think that any sort of “realism” (naive or otherwise) is the problem; nor do I think that “homonormativity” is the problem either, even given the fact that pressures towards a kind of normativity of behavior exist in queer communities as in other social spaces, despite the non-normativity of queerness overall in relation to heteronormative society. Rather, the problem is that Daniel’s fundamental question does not have a fixed, conceptualizable answer. When do we judge a work of queer mimicry to be offensive minstrelsy, and when do we judge that it has critical and expressive power? (The same question can be asked, of course, in relation to racial and gender mimicries). The answer is that there is no answer: no criterion, no normative principle with which to make the judgment. We just have to judge this matter case by case, example by example, without being able to extract some higher principles to guide our judgment. This is what Daniel in fact was doing, as he moved through various instances of “fake” queer performativity. Case by case, the talk was cogent and compelling; it is only in its theoretical generalization that it ran into a certain amount of trouble.

I went to two panels on Sunday morning, the last day of the conference. The first panel, “Constrained Pleasures,” included my own talk on Grace Jones and Afrofuturism, which I will not discuss here. (I am still working on or revising it; eventually I will make the full text available on my website). The other talk on my panel was by Adrienne Brown, who discussed the use of music — or rather, perhaps, its non-use — on the TV series The Wire. Brown noted that, although music is ubiquitous on The Wire, usually as a diegetic feature of the scene, there is no attempt to use hiphop (for instance) thematically, even though hiphop arguably expresses much the same sorts of insight into poor black urban life as the show was striving for. Brown showed how this denial of the power of hiphop is programmatic: “The creators of The Wire have little use for hip-hop as a potential life-force, situating it as one more institution that has cut out those people whose imagery it profits from.” Affluent white suburban teenagers listen to hiphop; for the creators of The Wire, the people whom hiphop is ostensibly “about” do not have the luxury to draw sustenance from it. Listening actively to music is thus associated in the show, at best with feelings of grief and paralysis; at worst, as Brown illustrated with several clips from the show, it leads characters into trouble when their investment in music causes them to relax their street smarts and not notice what is going on around them. Brown argued both that “music intervenes in the show, in spite of itself,” in several important ways, and that the creators’ rejection of its expressive power, though justified in part, goes way too far.

The last panel I went to was called “Liminal Grooves.” Four speakers gave accounts of “lost” musical moments. Oliver Wang gave the history of what was supposed to be Betty Davis’ fourth album, Crashin’ from Passion. It was recorded in 1976, but not released, due to various factors that still remain murky, but that were both internal and external. One can only speculate as to whether the album could have given a boost to Davis’ career if it had been released back then; instead, she basically retired from singing. Betty Davis was never a truly popular and successful artist; she is probably better appreciated now than she ever was when she was actively performing. In any case, he album is now, finally, being prepared for its first proper release.

Mark Villegas was next, with the story of Joe Bataan’s “Rap-O Clap-O.” Bataan is an American artist of “mixed” ethnicity: his father was Filipino and his mother African American. “Rap-O Clap-O” was actually one of the first pieces of rap music ever recorded: it dates from before the initial successes of the Sugarhill Gang. Bataan originally wanted to provide a musical background for some Bronx rappers; but when they didn’t show up as planned, he did the rap vocals himself. He had difficulty getting the track released, and it never got noticed in the US at all; but it became a hit in Europe and South America. Villegas’ recovery of Joe Bataan exemplifies how so much musical history is a matter of contingencies and missed encounters.

Jason King examined the music of Maxwell, whose Urban Hang Suite made an impression in 1999, but whose laid-back, slacker ethos, and long fallow periods between albums, has made his relations with his fans difficult. Today, Maxwell sends out self-deprecating Twitters to his followers, and posts half-finished tracks on MySpace only to withdraw them shortly afterwards. Fans are still waiting for his long-promised fourth album. King linked Maxwell’s public performance of his persona to the themes and affects of his “ambient soul” music; he worked through “Maxwell’s radical embodiment of femininity, not only in his queer
deployment of falsetto, but also in his bohemian imaging and his
approach to original songs and covers.” All in all, this was a fascinating and deeply insightful look at a truly peculiar, and indeed wilfully self-marginalized, artist.

Finally, Andy Zax described his rediscovery, in the vaults, of a long-lost and never-released album which Chic (Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards) produced for the singer Johnny Mathis in 1981. The album is an odd one; it was not released due to its clash of styles (between Mathis’ lite crooning and Chic’s sophisticated swing). Zax only found the tapes two years ago, and hopes to release the album soon. The story of its loss and rediscovery is an exemplary one, for what it says about how the music industry operates.

All in all, the Pop Conference was an exhilarating experience. It stimulated me to think about music differently, and about different sorts of music, than would ever otherwise be the case. And although I have tried to give an account of all the talks I heard, this itself represents only a selection of what went on at the Conference. Other people, who heard other talks, may have come away with entirely different overall impressions.

Experience Music Project: Pop Conference (2)

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Saturday was my busiest day at the Pop Conference: I went to five panels. The first was called “Shock and Awe.” I came in a bit late, so I missed the beginning of David Hesmondhalgh’s presentation on “Sex, Music, Pleasure and Politics.” But from what I heard, it was a great presentation, both sweeping and brilliant. Hesmondhalgh sought to map the contours of sexual expression in Anglo-American pop music from the 1960s to the present. Starting from the evident ambiguities of how 1960s rock expressed a sexual “liberation” that was nonetheless heteronormative and male-centered, he went on to consider how more recent genres and styles negotiated the demands of both sexual pleasure and sexual propriety. Most interestingly, from my point of view, was his effort to work out forms of sexual expression and sexual pleasure that were not transgressive in the manner of so much 60s rock: precisely because transgression always remains in complicity with the laws or norms against which it is transgressing. Next, Barry Shank spoke on the relation of pop music to notions of democracy, drawing especially on Lauren Berlant’s formulation of the “intimate public sphere” — this has to do with commonalities that are affect-based (rather than being cognitive in the manner of Habermas’ normative notion of a public sphere). If pop music can be a force for democratic collectivity, it would be through its power to create communities of affective expression (this could be developed further, in opposition perhaps to the overused notion of rock concerts as being like fascist rallies). I wish I had taken better notes on both these speakers; in their different ways, Hesmondhalgh and Shank were both proposing a change, or widening, of theoretical focus that would allow us to think about popular music in much richer ways than are allowed by the customary “empowerment” vs “commodification” debates.

For counterpoint, the third speaker on this panel was David Thomas, legendary frontman of the great band Pere Ubu. Thomas delivered what can only be called a RANT. It was energetic, hilarious, impassioned, self-conscious and self-reflexive yet entirely sincere, and utterly wrongheaded. Basically, Thomas argued that (as the Romantic poets put it) “we murder to dissect.” Thomas said that all the talks he had heard in the course of the Pop Conference, brilliant as they were, in effect negated the genius of the creators whose work was being defined, delimited, and analyzed. He especially objected to any attempts to “psychoanalyze” musical creators, citing specifically Robert Fink’s discussion of masochistic sentiment in the music of Marvin Gaye (this was from a panel that, unfortunately, I missed). He also took a strong “rockist” (as opposed to “popist”) line, denouncing critics who spent their time analyzing and praising the work of pop icons like Britney Spears, whom he regards as commercial products, rather than artists of genius. His prime example, throughout the talk, was the Raincoats — he spoke of his love for this band, and said that critics who talked about them in terms of feminism and women’s empowerment were by that very fact negating and besmirching the entirely singular genius of the band and its members.

Now, I thought that Thomas’ talk was wonderful, in much the same way that Pere Ubu’s music is wonderful. A lot of this had to do with Thomas’ performativity as a speaker (or singer), the way that he seemed at the same time utterly hysterical, yet clearly in control and very precise in what he was saying. But this doesn’t mean that I buy his argument. To understand feminist empowerment as a context for the Raincoats’ music does not mean to reduce the Raincoats to being merely another instance of generic “politically correct” feminism. If done non-reductively, this sort of identification enriches, rather than restricting, our enjoyment of the Raincoats and our sense of what they are doing. All art, popular or elite, depends precisely upon the tensions between the unique or singular, on the one hand, and the generic or familiarly categorized, on the other. (This is precisely what is at issue in Kant’s notion of the aesthetic as involving universal communicability, while at the same time being singular and ungrounded). To reduce the Raincoats to their singularity alone is as misguided as to reduce them to their generic characteristics alone. If mere generic familiarity does not tell us anything new, absolute singularity does not communicate at all. The spark of aesthetic rapture can only come about when a work is at the same time both communicative (by means of being generic) and singular (or exceeding the bounds of generic recognition, by proposing something new). Thomas’ purism fails because it ignores one side of this relation — without the tension between the generic and the singular, the aesthetic force field simply collapses. In the Q&A, one person in the audience, supporting Thomas, invoked Norman O. Brown to say that we ought to be fully and bodily involved in all our experiences, rather than distanced and contemplative. Hesmondhalgh, in response, said “I hate that shit”; he said that he was fully and bodily involved when he played soccer, but he certainly didn’t want every moment of his life to be like this. And at the end of the Q&A, Robert Christgau maintained (not nastily, but just in a matter-of-fact tone) that in the last ten years, Britney Spears had produced better music than David Thomas; Thomas nodded and shrugged, but didn’t respond (instead, the moderator called for a few moments of silence so that everybody could cool down).

The next panel I went to was called “Spectacular Diva Excess” — a topic I find entirely irresistible. Maureen Mahon gave an account of the career of Ronnie Spector,  focusing on her miscegenated racial identity and on her “bad girl” image, and deployment of sexual suggestiveness, in pre-British Invasion rock of the early 1960s. (She also, unavoidably, spoke about Ronnie’s marriage to, and abuse by, Phil Spector). Mahon convincingly argued that Ronnie Spector deserves a larger place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll than she has been accorded heretofore: her singing style, and her dancing, were important, innovative, and influential alongside, and in addition to, the (more widely recognized) impact of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.” Tina Majkowski followed with a discussion of the stange identity play in Cher’s solo (post-Sonny) career. Cher’s signature songs, often performed together in a medley, (fictively) identified her as a Cherokee “half-breed” (“Half-Breed”), a Gypsy (“Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”), and as a murderess (“Dark Lady”). This led to an oddly excessive and off-kilter performance of racial and ethnic difference. Majkowsi thereby discovered in Cher’s performances and videos something that is embarrassing and laughable, but that somehow can’t simply be dismissed, because of how strongly it resonates within the racial and ethnic confusions of 20th century American culture. Lauren Onkey followed with a discussion of the vexing problem of Janis Joplin. Janis is a figure of “sexual, sartorial, and narcotic” excess, as well as vocal and performative excess. Yet her mythic reputation has turned into an irritating cliche, in the decades following her death; and the way her performance style is really a form of minstrelsy, in its imitation of African American blues singers, is all too obvious. Onkey explored various ways of rethinking Janis Joplin, rather than coming to any definitive conclusions; I found her talk compelling, because it helped me to articulate my own confusions about Joplin: I loved her and her music in my teens and twenties, but later I came to feel that I had become enamoured of her only because of my ignorance of black music. Finally, Lucy O’Brien gave a talk about “Damaged Divas,” in the course of which she looked at Amy Winehouse, both as a singer and as a figure notorious for her drug dependencies and bad behavior, in the context of a tradition dating back at least to Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf. Must female singers lead such damaged lives, and dramatize that damage publically, in order for us to regard their emotional expression as “authentic”?

In the afternoon, I was the moderator for a panel on “Viral Video.” Richard Poplak discussed the phenomenon of sexually suggestive music videos that are broadcast and seen throughout the Arab world, including especially in extremely conservative countries like Saudi Arabia. These videos seem to provide an outlet for sexual expression that is otherwise forbidden; they are hated by religious conservatives, but financed and supported by elements in the Saudi ruling class that see in them a way of managing and channeling desires that otherwise might explode. SMS text messages can be sent commenting on the videos; through these, young people are able to flirt and otherwise express themselves in ways that would be forbidden in any more open and explicit context. One couldn’t really call these videos and text messages “transgressive,” but they do suggest the complex negotiations of feeling and expression that continue to occur even in “closed” societies. Carol Vernallis followed this with a discussion of the expressive power of music videos. She first made general comments about how music videos address their audiences, and create them as audiences; and went on to exemplify this with a close analysis of will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” video for the Obama campaign. Though Vernallis didn’t use the phrase, her discussion was consistent with Lauren Berlant’s notion of an “affective public sphere,” which was invoked by various speakers throughout the conference (including Barry Shank’s presentation that I discuss above). The last speaker on the panel, Kurt B. Reighley, traced the strange history of “Papaya,” a song by avant-garde Polish singer Urszula Dudziak, which was first picked up, and danced to, by drag queens in the Philippines during the Marcos era, but subsequently, much later (starting in 2007), became a mainstream dance craze thanks to its being featured on a Philippine game show: it has now spread around the world, appeared on TV in the Us and elsewhere, and inspired more than 17,000 youtube videos. Reighley’s account of viral video proliferation made an interesting contrast to that of the will.i.am video discussed by Vernallis.

The next panel I went to was called “Sex Machine.” Charles Kronengold unearthed, and analyzed in depth, some of the strangest soul songs (from the 1970s) that I have ever heard. I can’t reproduce the full subtlety and complexity of Kronengold’s argument; but his key terms were articulation and disarticulation. In the course of articulating (i.e. expressing) feelings in these love songs, the musicians also articulated (literally — in the sense of joining together) a number of widely disparate, and sometimes even incompatible, musical elements. Kronengold took apart these ungainly articulations, and then brought them together again, in order to evoke a sense of oblique affectivity (this is my phrase, not Kronengold’s). Carl Wilson followed with a close look at the widespread use (one might even say, deliberate abuse) of Autotune software in recent pop music, especially hiphop. The current Autotune mania can be related to the use of falsetto and other sorts of voice alteration (like Zapp and Roger’s use of the vocoder in the 1980s), predominently by men, throughout the history of soul and r & b. This explicit denaturalization of the voice is affectively and erotically ambiguous, modulating machismo with vulnerability, and intimacy with robotic affectlessness and distance. I am not doing full justice to Wilson’s argument — one result of attending so many talks in a row is that I haven’t retained as many details as I would have liked — but this is another talk which, despite the fuzziness of my explicit recall, continues to resonate richly in my mind. The last speaker on this panel was Daphne Carr, who speculated on our (meaning, music critics, and more generally, writers) autoerotic love affairs with our laptops. This talk was somewhat audience-involving and performative, as Carr asked everyone in the audience carrying a laptop to turn it on, and perform certain actions on her cues. The actions ranged from playing a few seconds of one’s favorite mp3s, to allowing strangers to touch or caress one’s laptop, to encircling the laptop in one’s arms in a sort of protective cocoon. The point of all this was to think hard about how our laptops are not just tools we use, but (erotic as well as prosthetic) extensions of ourselves, and objects with which we interact in highly charged ways. Carr worked through ideas about the emotional costs, as well as the obvious benefits, of our monadic and work-obsessed (or work-avoidance-obsessed) cyborgian relationships with our machines. All in all, this was one of the most intriguing panels I attended; all three speakers spoke suggestively about how subjectivity is mediated and modulated through our technologies (including songwriting and song recording as technologies in their own right; and suggesting that there is no such thing as a pure subjectivity free of any such modulations and articulations).

I will post this now; the remaining sessions (one more Saturday afternoon, and two on Sunday) will be the subject of yet another post.

Experience Music Project: Pop Conference (1)

Monday, April 20th, 2009

This weekend I attended the yearly Pop Conference, at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. This is one of may favorite conferences — it’s been going on for eight years, and this is the fifth time I went. It is good because everyone is passionate about the music they are discussing, and because there is a great mix of academics and music journalists. There’s a certain synergy to the conference, which makes it more interesting than nearly any other one I have attended. There are discussions of an amazingly wide range of popular music, from the early 20th century to the present. This year, I went to 11 panels, and heard something like 26 presentations (not including my own). I will try to say at least a little about all of them — noting that, since there were usually up to four panels running at any single time, people who made other choices might well have had an entirely different sense of the conference than I did. This posting will be part one — it will be followed shortly by a second post.

The conference opened Thursday night with a Q&A with the great Nona Hendryx. What can I say? She was inspirational. She spoke at great length about her career, both with Labelle (as a singer and frequent songwriter) and as a solo artist. She gave a shout-out to her high school English teacher, for initiating her into the pleasures of language and rhythm; recalled her collaborations with artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Talking Heads to Bill Laswell; spoke about how the changes in Labelle’s music in the early 1970s related to the spirit of Black Power and other social and political stirrings of the Sixties and Seventies; traced the genealogy of funk from gospel to r ‘n’ b and talked about how funk is about motion plus singing plus libido. But of course it wasn’t just what she said, it was her presence, her gracious intensity, and the way she communicated the sense that music matters, that it can be life-changing and affirmative, that it isn’t just about the Benjamins. Excuse me for gushing — but this is one case where I really can’t help it. Someone asked Hendryx about her image as being ferocious or “fierce”; she responded that she was just attracted to what was dangerous, edgy, and apart from the norm. [The issue of describing unconventional black women as "fierce" -- and the question of how this adjective is applied racially -- is of course something that is equally relevant in relation to Grace Jones, the subject of my own presentation at this conference].

I went to three panels on Friday. The first, “Dance Floor Democracy,” featured my old friend Michelle Habell-Pallan, talking about Chicana punk singer Alice Bag, from the early-80s Los Angeles scene, and about the influence of “ranchera” music (the Mexican mariachi sound she listened to as a child) on her performances — a whole hidden history of women’s emotional expression and how this complicates the history of punk. The other two panelists also talked about the racial history of music in Los Angeles. Anthony Macias traced the interplay between Mexican Americans and African Americans in the popular music of East LA in the 1940s and 1950s (he played amazing samples from recordings of the period — I only wish I could have heard more). And Sherrie Tucker gave a summary of her oral history research into the Hollywood Canteen of the early 1940s: a dance hall, sponsored by the film industry, where American servicemen, off to fight the War, could meet and dance with local women. Unusally for the time, the Hollywood Canteen was racially integrated: but only to a certain extent. 65 years later, white and black people who went to the Canteen remember things quite differently — the whites tend to remember how it catered to all servicemen regardless of race, while the blacks still remember the separate and unequal treatment they received once inside the doors. Hmm. In particular, white women were strongly discouraged from dancing with black men. Tucker’s talk illuminated, not only a history that would otherwise be lost, but also the differences that persist in forms of memory in the present, as well as in the actualities of a past distant enough that there are not all that many people left who still remember it.

The next panel I went to, “Embodying Electronic Dance Music Cultures,” featured a joint performance by three DJs (Bernardo Alexander Attias from Los Angeles, Fred Church from New Jersey, and Anna Gavanas from Sweden), together with a lecture/performance/demonstration by Mark Gunderson (aka Evolution Control Committee, one of the masters of the musical mashup). Talking over a mix they had made collaboratively over the web, the three DJs (who had never met in person before the conference) talked about the nature of their work, responding to claims that Djs aren’t “authentic” musicians because they are just playing other peoples’ recordings. They emphasized the musicianship involved in what they do; and they also (rightly) critiqued the whole discourse of “authenticity.” But also, they spoke a lot about the question of embodiment in musical performance. All musical expression is physical and embodied in some way; aside from singing and slapping one’s thigh, nearly all musical expression also requires some sort of mediation, via some sort of instrument. Obviously this worrks out differently when  a DJ manipulates turntables from when a guitarist strums a guitar; and activating a digital interface on a laptop is quite different from playing an analog instrument. But binaries of authenticity versus secondary mediation, or of physical versus virtual interaction, are not really good ways of talking about this. Though Arttias, Church, and Gavanas just hinted at this, it seemed to me that they were really talking about becoming-cyborg, as they interfaced with their digitized musical prosthetics or enhancements.

For his part, Mark Gunderson displayed and demonstrated his homemade system for combining and playing samples, and thereby creating mashups live, in a manner that involved physical movement and therefore a kind of performativity in relation to the audience (unlike electronic “concerts” where the performers simply remain behind their laptops). He said that he had first tried a system in which ten rings on his fingers (sort of like The Mandarin in Iron Man comics) controlled software on his laptop, allowing him to move freely about the stage while creating mashups and mixes on the fly. His current system involves an enormous backlit board, the icons on which he could manipulate like a touchscreen, through devices worn on his index fingers. He simultaneously mixed tracks live and explained how he was doing it: his demonstration was quite impressive, as well as entertaining. I was particularly thrilled to see and hear Gunderson, because his early-1990s mashup of Chuck D with Herb Alpert was the very first musical mashup I ever heard, and really blew my mind when I first encountered it. Today mashups have become so ubiquitous as to be banal (despite their still-often-illegal status), but Gunderson reminded me anew of the potentialities of recombination as a musical form.

The third panel I attended Friday was called Rap Memes. Tamara Palmer led off with a brief discussion, followed by a 10-minute audio montage, dealing with the line “it ain’t trickin’ if you got it”, which has shown up with alarming frequency in the past year or two in raps by T-Pain, T.I., Lil Wayne, and others. Not only has this line been repeated in many songs, it has also led to a lot of controversy, with people arguing vehemently about the phrase on youtube. Are the rappers expressing a sense of sexual entitlement (since they got it, the money they spend on atttracting and dating women doesn’t count as “tricking”), or is it merely a big in-joke? Are the phrase and the sentiment demeaning to black women? Etc. No resolutions, but an interesting presentation of a “meme” that has had a significant presence in Southern rap; a microstudy of how cultural meanings are made, and unmade.

Jon Caramanica and Sean Fennessey followed this with an in-depth discussion of the career to date (i.e from late 2006 to the present) of Soulja Boy.Their presentation was both incisive and hilarious. They went through Soulja Boy’s various — and mostly successful — manipulations of the Net in order to gain attention and make money: his youtube videos, his songs, his instructional dance tapes, his crass displays of wealth and of teenboy swagger and stupidity, his inane polemics (answering Ice-T’s charge that he had ruined hip-hop, by observing, basically, that Ice-T was old enough to be his grandfather), his loopy narcissism, etc. And also some of the multitude of response videos that these displays inspired. What can you say in the face of such a minimal, low-concept, low-production-values, and yet insanely successful (in terms of hits received and even  of money received) new-media assault? I can laugh at the sheer idiocy of it all, but I cannot avoid also feeling a certain sort of admiration for the sheer gall, immensity, and (yes) success of such a DIY media assault. Soulja Boy’s egomaniacal self-expression is pretty dumb, empty, and disposable; but any high-minded denunciation of the Soulja Boy phenomenon as representing the decline of western civilization or some such would be even emptier and dumber. As Caramanica said, it may be totally ephemeral, with no lasting value — it may already be gone and forgotten six months from now, “but I’m OK with that.”

The last presentation at the Rap Memes session was an amazing performance by Holly Bass, called “Pay Purview.” This performance was about “the endless allure of booty — from Venus Hottentots to video vixens.” An announcer solicited all of us in the audience for our dollars; when enough money was collected, a curtain opened and Bass appeared, in a gold lame costume, with two enormous “booty balls” attached to her derriere, transforming her into the Hottentot Venus. She danced for a bit, mostly with her back to the audience, making sure to wiggle that immense booty; and then retreated back behind the curtain. A recorded soundtrack accompanied the dancing, informing us of the history of the Hottentot Venus, and playing musical snippets from then until now that all dealt with the big-booty theme. The ritual was repeated five or six times; whenever the announcer had collected additional  money, Bass would emerge from behind the curtain and dance a little more. Her last dance was to the accompaniment of Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”; this time she made some eye contact with the audience, which she had declined to do earlier. Bass’ performance was brilliant because of the way it instilled a sense of shame, complicity, and excitement in all of us in the audience: regardless of whether we paid or not, and regardless of how sophisticated our understandings of race, gender, and the economics of exhibitionism might have been, we could not help but being placed in this position, where the ascription of power became a source of embarrassment.

I will continue my account, describing the panels I went to on Saturday and Sunday, in another post.

Grace Jones, Corporate Cannibal

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

“Corporate Cannibal”, the new Grace Jones video (directed by Nick Hooker) is utterly astonishing. Jones is 60 years old (!); and this is the first new work she has released in close to twenty years. But “Corporate Cannibal” is anything but safe and nostalgic.

Corporate Cannibal

The video is in black and white, and the only images that appear on the screen are those of Grace Jones’ face and upper body, black against a white background. But Jones’ figure is subject to all sorts of electronic distortions. The most common effect is one of elongation: her face is stretched upwards, as if she had an impossibly long forehead, as if her notorious late-80s flattop haircut had somehow expanded beyond all dimensions. Or else, her entire body in silhouette is thinned out, gracile (if that isn’t too much of a pun), and almost insectoid. The image also bends and fractures: her mouth stretches alarmingly, her eyes bulge out and expand across the screen like some sort of toxic stain. And sometimes Jones’ figure multiplies into two or three distorted, and imperfectly separated, clones. Nothing remains steady for more than a few seconds; the screen is continually morphing, and everything is so stylized and disrupted that we don’t get a very good sense of what Jones actually looks like today. Her facial features remain somewhat recognizable — Grace Jones has never looked like anyone else — and at a few moments, we get a brief almost undistorted close-up of her eyes, nose, and mouth — but there is something monstrous as well about this individuated “faciality”; and in any case it is gone almost before we have had the time to take it in.

Corporate Cannibal

The electronic manipulation of Jones’ image throughout the video is reminiscent of the ways that Nick Hooker manipulated images in his earlier videos — except that those earlier videos are in full color, and they generally appear trippy and pyschedelic. There is nothing of that feel in “Corporate Cannibal,” which is altogether violent, ferocious, and sinister. This is due partly to the starkness of the black and white; and partly to the harsh minimalism of the video, which returns insistently to the same few distorted poses, even though it is unstable and continually in flux. Hooker’s color videos are about free-flowing metamorphosis; but “Corporate Cannibal” is about modulation, which is something completely different. I mean that modulation is schematic and implosive, rather than free-floating and expansive. The modulations of “Corporate Cannibal” don’t give us the sense that anything can happen, but rather one that no matter what happens, it will be drawn into the same fatality, the same narrowing funnel, the same black hole (again, I am not sure whether this is the right pun), the same code of electronic processing and morphing. There is no proliferation of meanings, but rather a capture of all meanings, as they are drawn down into the same obsessive grid of distortions and transformations.

Although the video’s background is white, and Grace’s figure is black (again, can we separate how this works and what it means pictorially, from how it works and what it means racially?), nonetheless the video as a whole does not suggest any sort of figure-background relationship. It is rather the case that Jones’ distorted body is a signal traversing an (otherwise blank and empty) field — there is nothing there besides this figure, no background at all. This also means that the video is not a “picture” or a “representation” of Jones’ face or body; the video image does not refer to a source or model beyond itself. Rather, Jones’ figure is itself the electronic image or signal — rather than an external referent to which this image/signal would refer. Indeed, at the very start of the video, and at certain moments within it, it is impossible to decide whether what we are seeing is a manipulation and distortion of Jones’ figure, or whether it is just “noise” or feedback, an artifact of the electronic manipulation field itself. For Grace Jones’ body and voice are themselves, already, electricity, light (or darkness) and sound, digital matrix and intense vibration. The video is modulating Jones-as-signal, rather than distorting some pre-existing image-of-Jones-as-real-body. The electronic image is itself a visceral embodiment of Jones, rather than being an immaterial picture of an embodiment that would exist elsewhere. And Hooker is not manipulating her image, so much as he is modulating the electronic signal that she already is (and, presumably, doing this at her command).

Corporate Cannibal

In this sense, “Corporate Cannibal” is the latest in a long history of Grace Jones’ reinvention of herself, via the rearrangement of her body. Jones’ performances in the 1980s can be contrasted with those of Madonna. Both singers emerged from the world of disco, and from a culture of campy performance that was largely associated with gay men. Both became gay icons, as women “performing” femininity rather than naturalizing it. Both flaunted an aggressive sexuality that was at odds with the old-style patriarchal norms of what women should be like. And both grasped the ways that this post-second-wave-feminism sexual “freedom” was deeply complicit with consumerist commodification, i.e. with the way that it was not just particular objects that worked as commodities, but that lifestyles, personalities, etc., were themselves increasingly being commodified.

And yet, despite this common ground, there was (and is) a vast difference between these two performers. Madonna put on and took of personas as if they were clothes; indeed, the clothes were often what made the persona. The brilliance of this strategy was the way it suggested that everything was postmodern surfaces, or styles. There was nothing beneath the surface, no depths and no essences. Every “identity” was factitious; and this allowed Madonna to play with them, freely and pleasurably. Because these personas were all stereotypes and fictions, none of them had any real consequences, none of them were irreversible, and none of them had any cost other than the up-front financial one.

Grace Jones’ transformations were altogether more troubling, more aggressive, and more transgressive. In a sense, these transformations were incised more deeply in the flesh, for all that they were (no less than Madonna’s) a matter of clothes and styles and the powers of the fashion world. In part, Jones’ transformations were “deeper” than Madonna’s because they had to be: without Madonna’s white skin privilege, Jones couldn’t treat her self-mutations as casually as Madonna did. She couldn’t retreat to the anonymity that was the implicit background of Madonna’s performances, the neutrality and lack-of-depth that existed (or rather, didn’t exist) behind all the costumes. Grace Jones (nee Grace Mendoza), as a black woman, is always already “marked” as a body — in a way that Madonna Ciccone is not; which means that she cannot simply dismiss depth, and present a play of pure surfaces, the way that Madonna can. She had much more at stake in her metamorphoses than Madonna ever could have had.

And so, if Madonna’s transformations were always playful and fantasy-like, Grace Jones’ transformations were considerably harder and harsher — which doesn’t mean that they were devoid of pleasure, but that Jones’ own pleasure in them was not necessarily something that she shared with her audience — her figures, unlike Madonna’s, are not necessarily ones you can identify with. (Think of the difference between the coyness of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and the Ballardian savagery of Jones’ “Warm Leatherette”). Another way to say this is to say that Jones is definitely a dominatrix, while Madonna isn’t (even if she sometimes plays around with the edges of s&m). Yet another way is to say that, while Madonna plays with the image of “femininity,” pointing out its artifice, its artificiality, and its inessentiality, Grace Jones instead blasts this “femininity” apart, blows it up altogether. Her metamorphoses always have a transgressive edge. She assaults the divisions between male and female not with a cozy androgyny, but with a cold and forbidding, ungenderable more-than-masculine hardbody. She similarly assaults the divisions between white and black by simultaneously embracing the worst stereotypes and snarling Fuck You at them. In messing so seriously with both gender and race, Jones pushes beyond the human, transforming herself (before it became fashionable) into a posthuman or transhuman, a robot; or even more, as k-punk suggests, into a chilly and affectless object-machine, whose “screams and the laughter seem to come from some Other place, a dread zone from which Jones has returned, but only partially. Is it the laughter of one who has passed through death or the scream of a machine that is coming to life?”

The difference between Madonna and Grace Jones is therefore both affective and ontological. Where Madonna is playful, Jones is playing for keeps. And where Madonna critiques subjectivity by suggesting that it is just a surface-effect with nothing behind it, Jones critiques it by actually delving beneath the surfaces, or into the depths of the body, to discover a dense materiality that is not subjective any longer. Jones no longer accepts the subordination that Western culture has so long written into the designations of both “woman” and “black”; but she does this neither by recuperating femininity and blackness as positive states, nor by claiming for herself the privileges of the masculine and the white; but rather by subjecting the whole field of these oppositions to radical distortion, to implosion, or to some sort of hyperspatial torsion and distortion.

“Corporate Cannibal” is entirely consistent with Jones’ past experiments, and in fact pushes them to a new extreme. Our technologies have ramified and changed since the 1980s, and Jones has followed them by emerging as the new video flesh (in a manner that was prophesized by Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a film that came out at the same time as Jones’ greatest hits — the early/mid 1980s — but that today, in “Corporate Cannibal,” is no longer a matter of prophecy and science-fictional extrapolation, but simply one of sheer present actuality). In the video, Jones is frightening, ferocious, predatory, vampiric. She has become pure electronic pulse, materiality of the electronic medium (which we were always wrong to consider intangible, dematerialized, or disembodied) — and she will utterly devour and destroy (convert into more image, more electronic pulse, more of herself) whatever thinks it might be able to stand apart from the process.

All this is made explicit in the lyrics to “Corporate Cannibal”: but conversely, these lyrics only have their extrarordinary effect because they have found the proper regime of images to make them operative. Jones’ voice is at first wheedling (“Pleased to meet you/ Pleased to have you on my plate”), before it turns stentorian, imperative, and threatening; and at the end of the song it modulates again, beyond words, into a predatory growl or snarl. She is telling us flatly that she will destory and devour us (“I’m a man-eating machine… Eat you like an animal… Every man, woman, and child is a target”). She is a vampire, but not a romantic one: rather, the song expresses Jones’ absolute identification with Capital as a vampiric force (remember that Marx long ago described capitalism as vampiric: “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks”). Jones sings: “I deal in the market… A closet full of faceless, nameless, pay-more-for-less emptiness… You’ll pay less tax but I will gain more back… I’ll consume my consumers.” Her lyrics absurdly juxtapose the cliches of corporate-speak (“Employer of the year”) with those of pulp horro (“Grandmaster of fear”). All this is set against a grinding, dissonant musical accompaniment, with harsh backbeats and shrieking guitars that are, however, more downbeat than metal (a number of blogs have compared the music to that of Massive Attack a decade ago, at the time of their album Mezzanine).

The overall effect is terrifying, although the terror is overlaid with an awarness of the cliches or stereotypes of that which induces terror. This is extreme expression for a world in which there are no longer any extremes, because everything can find the niche in which it is marketable. Grace Jones is forcing us to confront the way in which, today, even the transgression that might have thrilled us twenty-five years ago is little more than another marketing strategy. Or the way in which, beyond all those discourses about race and gender and “the body,” the only thing that is “transgressive” today is Capital itself, which devours everything without any regard for boundaries, distinctions, or degrees of legitimacy; which “transgresses” the very possibility of “transgression,” because it is always only transgressing itself in order to create still more of itself, devouring not only its own tail but its entire body, in order to achieve even greater levels of monstrosity. Or, as Dejan puts it, in the video “you can see directly the intimate bond between animation and the mutability of Capital,” as Jones’ electronic mutations or modulations track and embrace and coincide with the metamorphoses of Capital itself, in our world of delirious financial flows and hedge funds and currency manipulations and bad debts passed on from one speculator to the next — all of which depend upon, and indeed energize, the same digital technology that also makes Nick Hooker’s video manipulations possible. I think that “Corporate Cannibal” — with its continual modulations and deformations that are no longer just on the surface of the world but inhabit and shape its depths, and with its violent Weird energy (in the sense of post-Lovecraftian “weird fiction” with its simultaneous slight hokiness and intense anxiety and dislocation) — gives the most profound expression or articulation that I have yet come across to the affect of the vertiginous “globalized network society” we live in today.

Pop Conference

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

Since I had a great time at the EMP Pop Conference, I should probably say something about some of the talks and panels I enjoyed, in addition to my own.

The best panel I went to was called “Breaks in Time: Rethinking Hip Hop Roots.” It was really about the multiple genealogies of hip hop: the ways that various cultural elements (beats, musical motifs, dance moves, forms of presentation, attitudes, etc.), coming from disparate sources, mutated and coalesced in the South Bronx in the early 1970s to produce what we know now as hip hop. In other words, the panel was focused on how cultural innovation happens: how instances of sampling, recycling, and appropriation lead to the production of something new. This also meant showing the ways that cultural production and innovation come from “below” (rather than, as institutional art histories like to claim, from “above”), and how miscegenated, mixed, and hybrid such innovations nearly always are.

Oliver Wang started things off with a discussion of Boogaloo (aka Bugalu) a New York City Latino (and specifically Puerto Rican) dance craze or musical subgenre of the mid-1960s that is largely forgotten today (or written off as merely commercial exploitation), but that mixed Latin/Caribbean and African American funk rhythms in interesting ways, and that in turn influenced both salsa (which emerged a few years later, in the late 1960s) and early hip hop.

Second, Jeff Chang, author of the well-nigh definitive hip hop history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, looked at the evolution of the break beat, that rhythmic moment that hip hop DJs would isolate and play over and over again — which is the musical characteristic that first marked hip hop as a distinct musical genre (and not only musical, of course; since the break beat was really for dancers, even more than for listeners). Chang found Latino as well as African American/soul/r&b/funk antecedents to the break beat.

Next was Garnette Cadogan, who extended these genealogies to Jamaica. He traced the ways in which reggae and its predecessors (like ska and rock steady) appropriated and reworked various strands in North American r&b, how reggae lyrics interacted with other Jamaican sources like the poetry of Louise Bennett-Coverley, how the reggae mix then returned to the United States starting in 1969, and how Jamaican music entered into hip hop both musically and via DJ Kool Herc’s famous adaptation of Jamaican sound systems to the South Bronx.

Finally, Joe Schloss looked at how the breakdancing of early hip hop was influenced by a dance form called uprock. Breakdancing was done mostly by African American youth in the Bronx in the early 1970s; uprock was mostly done by Puerto Rican youth in Brooklyn in the late 1960s. Once again hip hop culture was shown to have miscegenated roots, and to have coalesced from a multiplicity of sources.

All four speakers played copious samples in the course of their talks — which was great, as you could actually hear what they were talking about. Joe Schloss also demonstrated the dance moves he was talking about, which was great (not to mention impressive on the part of a guy who looked like he was in his 40s, rather than being 17 or so like the original dancers). All in all, this was an exciting panel, and also one from which I learned a lot. It reached a point where academic and non-academic (journalistic) modes of writing/research/scholarship become indistinguishable from one another, and where genealogical investigations fuse with the appreciation of, and active involvment within, living culture. The panel was exemplary — as was the conference as a whole — in the way it moved transversally between deep involvement in, and critical reflection upon, popular music — something that we could well emulate in the ways we approach film, video and new media, and other forms of living culture today.

PS: there were many other interesting talks I heard at the Pop Conference; but I will only mention one more: RJ Smith‘s discussion of Destroy All Monsters, the band formed in the 1970s by Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, and Cary Loren, all of whom went on to become famous as Los Angeles conceptual artists. Smith moved between the times of the band and the murals that the group made for the Whitney Biennial of 2002, which presented a dazzling pop art monumentalization and mythologization of Detroit popular culture and the attitudes derived therefrom. It was weird, magnificent, and hilarious, and, as a Detroiter, I really appreciated it.

Wu-Tang Forever

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

This morning, at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference,, we had our panel on the Wu-Tang Clan, and I think it went rather well. First, Leonard Pierce spoke about the Wu-Tang’s, and particularly the RZa’s, embrace of Marvel comics, and how they turned the ultimate nerdy/fanboy obsession into something cool. Next, Nate Patrin gave a detailed account of the RZA’s use of southern soul samples, and how this helped change the sound of hip-hop. Then, my old friend Charles Tonderai Mudede pondered the politics of nostalgia, with particular reference to Killah Priest’s song “From Then Till Now.” Finally, I talked about Ghostface’s voice, and his use of soul samples, with particular reference to “Can Can,” a banned track that was originally supposed to appear on Fishscale. (You can find a rough, not entirely finished, draft of my paper here). The real reason the panel went so well was that we were really all addressing common questions: sampling as transformation, the relevance of the past, how soul relates to hip-hop, etc. The song that kept on coming up was “I Can’t Sleep,” from the Wu-Tang Clan album The W, featuring Ghostface and Isaac Hayes.

Top Ten — Well, Seven — Albums of 2006

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

My music listening this past year was so scattered that I don’t even know if I can do a top ten… I have trouble remembering what I heard, and a lot of albums I never sat down and actually listened to all the way through; it would be, like, three songs one day, four more the next, three more a couple of days later… But I will try. Though I seem to have come up with only seven albums, rather than a complete ten. (I could well have forgotten something; often I cannot remember if I first heard a certain piece of music four days ago, four months ago, or four years ago).

1)Burial — Burial. This haunted, dense, downbeat album is the most beautiful, and the most moving, or affecting, music I heard in all of 2006. It is hard to put my finger on just what it is about these fragmented and discreet electronic rumblings and beats that is so powerful… except that this music is insinuating something that forever remains just beyond my grasp. In any case, I couldn’t say anything about Burial that k-punk and Mudede haven’t already said better than I ever could. Suffice it to say that this music has insinuated itself into my dreams, even though I cannot consciously recall or reproduce a single melodic line or rhythm-and-bass pulse from it.

2)Ghostface — Fishscale. Even though I am in that small minority that doesn’t find this album quite as compelling as 2004′s Pretty Toney Album (which I wrote about here), this is still a powerful album, and by far the most compelling hip hop that I have heard in the past year. The wider emotional range of The Pretty Toney Album didn’t sell very well, apparently, so Ghostface went back to doing what the rap audience knows the best, and expects most readily: selling songs and stories about selling crack. Lots of critics have written about — again, better than I ever could — what a great storyteller Ghostface is, his amazing way with words and with brilliantly observed details, so that he’s like a great noir novelist one moment, a whacked-out surrealist the next, an oulipean metafictionalist the paragraph after that. I’ll just add that there’s something amazing about his rapping voice, the way it continually modulates between wacky humor and tough-guy fatalism and romantic whining. And I’ll note, once again, that his use of samples, particularly 70s-soul-music samples (regardless of who is producing any given track) is like nobody else in the business — since he calls upon soul-R&B sounds neither out of nostalgia, nor in order to give his tracks an authority they would otherwise lack, but in order to register difference and distance, to create and express disjunctions, to tear a hole in the heart of the world (the ghetto he grew up in) that he is evoking with such economy and precision. Just listen to how he samples Luther Ingram’s “To the Other Man” in “Whip You With A Strap”; or, even more astonishingly — in a cut that was all over the Net last spring, but got removed from the final album (I presume because of clearance issues) — how a really nasty, knockdown battle-of-the-sexes back-and-forth argument gets built around a lengthy sample of the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes I Can Can.”

3)Kode9 and the Spaceape, Memories of the Future. Kode9 not only produced and distributed Burial’s album, he also released this collaboration with The Spaceape (Kode9′s electronic sounds and the Spaceape’s vocals), which also reaches a rare plateau of intensity — albeit these explicitly, ironically doom-laden visions are quite different in feel from Burial’s intimate intimations. Imagine a collaboration in which Linton Kwesi Johnson is produced by Augustus Pablo, with both the former’s poetry and the latter’s production re-engineered by Deleuze and Guattari. Kode9′s heavy dub is remarkably eclectic, melding together sounds and tones from pretty much everywhere; it’s bass-heavy, of course, but there are lots of things going on that aren’t just the bass. This gives the music, how shall I put it, a kind of resonating space that nonetheless is poles apart from the ganja-induced “spaciness” that we usually think of when we think of dub. The Spaceape’s highly stylized vocal intonations, somewhere in between Jamaica in 1980 and the UK in 2006, don’t quite sound like either, but instill in the listener (or, at least, in me) a hypnotically addictive sort of chronic dread.

4)Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds. Yes, I do listen to American pop music for the masses, and not just to Brit esoterica and hiphop cult figures. Justin is kind of bland and blah as a singer, as well as as a pop icon; but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it emphatically doesn’t mean that he is talentless or awful. Rather, he displays an eerie sort of neutrality: he is really the postmodern “man without qualities,” and for this very reason he is unique and irreplaceable: anybody else who sang these songs, whether they were a brilliant vocalist or a godawful one, would bring one sort or another of an identifiable quality (a nuance, an inflection, a particularity of tone) to the music — and that would ruin everything. You might say that Justin is an entirely generic singer, just as he is an entirely generic celebrity; but he turns the very notion of the “generic” inside out, by turning it into an absolute singularity. This is why he’s the most brilliant “blue-eyed soul” or “white-boy-does-R&B” singer ever. (Even if, as I recall reading, his betrayal of Janet caused him to lose his “ghetto pass,” he has still managed to rebound where she hasn’t). — But of course, what really makes the album is Timbaland’s production; Mr. Mosely’s space rhythms and off beats and odd textures have never sounded better, precisely because Justin’s positive blankness (if I may be permitted the oxymoron) is precisely the perfect foil to set them off. (Jane Dark is absolutely right to see the album — I mean, hear it — as a sort of slash fiction or homosocial exchange “between men”). (I should add that my 4-year-old daughter absolutely adores “My Love”).

5)Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones. Apparently most fans of the band were disappointed by this 2nd album, finding it much weaker than their first (which I wrote about, way back when, here). But to my mind, it was equally strong, even if less overtly punkish, and more (er, um) “mature.” Indeed, this was just about the only New-York-area-alternative-rock album I at all enjoyed listening to this year; the new albums by Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo were well done, but they both basically put me to sleep (this may well be more my fault than theirs — I’ve loved both of these bands madly in the past, and I fear that what has happened is not that they have changed, but that I have — my sensibilities have mutated to the point where I no longer find them satisfying the way I used to. They used to be axioms for me, and now they are just… lifestyle options). (I should also mention TV on the Radio’s album, which I sort of liked OK but which never quite came into focus for me — maybe it will, belatedly, next year).

6)Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury. Lamentably, I am in agreement with the music-critic cognescenti. For what it’s worth, or for what it is, this is really good. TIght rapping, and brilliant Neptunes production, with some gorgeous and unusual timbres (I am especially partial to the harp arpeggios and snare drums, or whatever it is — I’ve never been good at these sorts of identifications — in “Ride Around Shining”). But the continual boasts/dramatizations/expressions-of-regret dealing with crack dealing (at least, for anybody besides Ghostface) and bling are way beyond tired at this late date… hiphop today is in real danger of vanishing up the crack of its own ass because all it can do is obsessively recycle with microscopic variations the narrowest imaginable set of themes… is this really the only thing that sells? the only thing that the fans — white or black? — want? Who can be satisfied in such straightened circumstances?).

7)Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar. I was just talking about incessant micro-variations upon narrow themes. I suppose that is what Ornette has been doing for the last fifty (!) years as well; but this is the first new release in a decade from the world’s greatest sax player, who is also the world’s greatest composer; and his music is as beautiful, knotty, and exhilarating as ever.