Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

GROOVE, by Mark Abel

Monday, November 16th, 2015

Mark Abel’s book Groove: An Aesthetics of Measured Time, recently published in the Historical Materialsm book series, offers a new musicological and philosophical account of groove music — which is to say nearly all popular music, in the US and the Americas, and increasingly in other parts of the world as well, for the past hundred years — since at least the start of the 20th century. Ultimately, Abel offers an Adornoesque defense of the very mass-industrially-produced music that Adorno himself despised. This in itself is incredibly useful, given how much of a stumbling-block Adorno has been for decades when it comes to thinking about music — you simply can’t dismiss him, but there are good reasons for refusing to go along with him.

However, Abel’s book aims for a comprehensiveness which means that it actually does much more than that — while I am unwilling to follow Abel all the way, I find that he contributes powerfully to my thoughts about music (given, of course, that I am not a musician, and lack all but the most rudimentary musical training).

Abel starts by giving an overall definition of groove music — one that goes well beyond the relatively feeble attempts at definition that he cites from musical encyclopedias and from past commentators. According to Abel, groove is characterized by four crucial elements:

  1. Measure, or metronymic time
  2. Syncopation
  3. ‘Deep metricality’ or multi-levelled meter
  4. A backbeat

All these characteristics are crucial. Much traditional music from around the world is rhythmical, but not metric. Traditional West African music, for instance, is polyrhythmic (many rhythms going on at the same time), but not metric; there may be an implicit pulse, but there are no measures, and there is no underlying organization of strong and weak beats. Only European music of the last five hundred years or so is really divided into measures, with a strong emphasis on the first beat of each measure (one-two-three-four). And Western music tends to exhibit fractal patterns (though Abel doesn’t actually use the word “fractal”) of metric organization on multiple levels (think of four-bar blues, or of ABAB song forms). Beyond this, neither syncopation (playing against the regular pattern of the beat) nor a back beat (actually a particular form of syncopation, “an emphasis on the off-beats of the bar (beats two and four) and often the off-beats of other metrical levels as well”) would be possible: if the music is not metric in the first place then it cannot play against the regular meter. This means that polyrhythms in funk and other African American music actually work quite differently from polyrhythms in traditional African music, the latter not having metric regularity in the first place, and therefore not having syncopated violations of this regularity either).

On this basis, Abel rejects common claims about the fundamentally African source of American popular music – he says that there are multiple hybrid sources, and that it is essentialistic to insist upon African sounds in particular. This is one of the instances where, even though Abel has a point, he greatly overstates it, protesting way too much against attributions of Africanness to blues, jazz, funk, etc. Abel’s underlying point is the Marxist one (which I don’t disagree with) that modes of production are determinant in the last instance — but here he could really use a bit more flexibility before getting to that last instance. Indeed, Abel is so over-the-top in his denial of there being any sort of specifically African vibe to groove music that he goes so far as to rank the Average White Band as highly as he does James Brown when it comes to funk (in one of the exceedingly rare cases in the book where he mentions particular musicians at all). Many readers will understandably be ready to throw the book down in disgust at this point; which would be unfortunate, since the book really does have a lot to offer.

Abel’s definition of groove is exceedingly broad; and this is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because it enables him to make wide-ranging observations about popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries, ones that hold across multiple genres. But a weakness as well, because it means that he is unable to recognize or acknowledge the many singular inventions that, within this broad framework, have diversified popular music so remarkably over the past hundred-and-some-odd years.

Abel’s other major point, which I find entirely convincing, is his demonstation (citing a wide range of historians and theorists) of how metric time — time conceived as an empty and homogeneous linear successions — is a product, not just of modern scientific technologies (like the ever-more accurate clocks that have been made since the 17th century), but specifically of capitalism, with its ubiquitous organization of commodity production, its appropriation of labor power as a commodity, and its need for the close measurement of time both in order to discipline workers, and as a mesure of value more generally (since the value of labor power, and of all commodities, is determined in the last instance by “socially necessary labor time”).

Abel makes the historical case for detailed time-measurement as central to capitalist relations, to the point that capitalism could not function without it. This argument is enough of a commonplace that Abel spends a lot more effort and pages on it than is strictly necessary (but I guess what seems a commonplace to anyone with any sort of even semi-Marxist intellectual formation might not be so to others). The importance of the argument is that the underlying structure of capitalism can explain why metric organization is so central to Western music of the last five hundred years or so, while it is absent from other historical forms and traditions of music. Metric organization is central to European classical music, and it is picked up with a vengeance in the groove of popular music ever since sound recording techniques became widespread.

This gets to the heart of Abel’s argument with and against Adorno. 20th- and 21st century philosophies of music necessarily rely on a kind of metaphysics of time that has been central to modernity. Abel says that the time theories of Bergson, Husserl, etc., are idealist, because they do not bring their understanding of time back to the capitalist conditions that generated it. I am much more willing to accept a certain sort of metaphysics than Abel is — thinkers like Bergson and Husserl are vitally important in the ways that they articulate how we experience time, and how this subjective experience relates to other, “objective” modes of registering time (including the scientific and capitalist-industrial ones). Musical experience necessarily involves time-experience on a deep level; and Abel in effect acknowledges this by going over Bergsonian and phenomenological accounts of temporality in great detail.

Both Bergson and Husserl (the latter of whose ideas about time are extended into the consideration of music especially by Alfred Schutz) contrast an authentic inner time sense to the external and spatialized objective measurement of homogeneous, empty time by the sciences. Abel argues that Adorno’s observations on modern art music and popular music (two damaged halves of what should be a whole) are in fact organized by this metaphysical distinction. (I am here using “metaphysical” in a non-pejorative sense, even if Abel is not). The authenticity of personal, inner time is violated by the way that industrial monopoly capitalism subjects everything unremittingly to the commodified standardization that rests, on its deepest level, on the homogenization of measured time. Adorno views 19th-century classical music (Beethoven above all) through the way that it resists homogeneous time, and insteads opens up the experience both of real inner time (which is ultimately Bergsonian duration) and of historical time (which capitalism suppresses by installing an eternal now, and a temporal repetitiveness which denies that the future can be in any real sense different from the present).

[The question of how inner time as duration, and historical time as collective experience, can relate to one another is itself an additional difficult one — I don’t find Abel’s attempts to resolve this entirely convincing, and I don’t think anyone else has really resolved it either. Most Marxists have tended to disdain Bergson on the grounds that his idea of duration is an ahistorical one; but I think that Abel is right in implying — though he never says this directly, and might well reject it — that no modernist defense of any richer sense of time than the empty capitalist one can avoid taking an at least partly Bergsonian stance].

For Adorno, 20th-century classical music struggles, with greater or lesser success, with the same issue of time experience. To simplify a little, for Adorno 20th century classical music at its most successful (e.g. in the earlier Schoenberg, according to Adorno), resists the universal capitalistic imposition of metrical time by refusing meter as much as possible, and by drawing on (or retreating to) the few areas of culture that have not yet been entirely overwhelmed by metrical regularity. For Adorno, all popular music — everything that has a groove, in Abel’s terminology — capitulates to the regularity of meter, and this is what ultimately stands behind Adorno’s criticisms of popular music as conformist and formulaic, as merely filling up a pre-existing form, as offering only trite and inconsequential minor variations which never affect the basic underlying tyranny of meter as commodified or Taylorized time, etc.

Abel’s counter-argument to all this is that it is precisely by being metrical with a vengeance, by using meter in a far more intense way than classical music ever did, and therefore by proliferating syncopations against a metric beat which is the dialectical condition for these violations of metrical logic to take place — it is by doing all this that groove music at its best is able to subvert homogeneous clock time or commodity time.

Thus it is by means of Adorno’s own dialectical logic that Abel defends the emancipatory possibilities of groove music; and even suggests that the 20th century classical music that Adorno at least ambivalently championed only represents a conservative retreat, since it simply disengages from metric time rather than working inside it to challenge it. Groove music at its best

provides an antidote to Adorno’s, and indeed Jameson’s, pessimistic position that resistance to reification can only emerge from spheres of humanity which have not yet fallen fully under the sway of commodification, of which there remain precious few, by directing our attention to the possibilities of fracture from within.

[Abel’s argument parallels my own argument as to why rapid-editing lowbrow films like Gamer and Detention are much better responses to our 21st century media situation than are the slow cinema films championed by many cineastes].

Abel’s thesis seems to me to be essential for any understanding of the multifarious modes in which popular music works today (as well as how it did in the past century). This remains the case even though Abel declines to give anything in the way of specific examples, or even to differentiate between the somewhat different strategies of different popular-music genres, as well as of the increasingly prevalent hybridizations among these genres.

And, to make it as specific as possible: Abel’s thesis makes a lot of sense in the specific case of Afrofuturist music, and more generally of Afro-diasporic music of the Black Atlantic — and this despite Abel’s refusal to attribute any particular degree of “Africanness” to groove music. Note how Afrofuturism calls on science fiction both to describe the experience of oppression (the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans was like an alien abduction) AND to describe future prospects of liberation (Sun Ra’s vision of outer space; George Clinton’s Mothership; etc.). And these are not matters just of discursive elaboration, but are also built into the musical structure of grooves, which both make you a “slave to the rhythm” and offer dancing as liberation, as both body expression and as the experience of funky syncopations.

This is why it is too bad that Abel limits the scope of his argument by rejecting or ignoring not only any privileging of African musical traditions, but also any form of theorization that calls upon this. Abel’s own theorization of how the groove can provide liberation from metric enslavement precisely by intensifying it, by turning the eternal now of capitalist realism into an experience of overfull NOWNESS, draws on Walter Benjamin’s notion of Jetztzeit (nowtime). Abel concludes that,

in contrast to non-groove pulsed music, where many notes occur between the beats, every musical event in groove music is also a beat at some level of the metric hierarchy. This gives each event/beat the character of intense, pregnant presentness — a nowtime — which is lacking in the narrative-style art music tradition.

All this seems fine to me; but Abel would only have strengthened his own argument if he were willing to draw upon formulations like James Snead’s understanding of the way repetition works in black music (he explicitly rejects Snead, and doesn’t even mention thinkers like Tricia Rose and Fred Moten).

There is also the problem — for me, at least — that Abel contends that his own vision of the liberatory temporal potential of the groove “is interestingly at odds with the vision of temporal freedom which emerged earlier from Bergsonian thinkers like Deleuze as well as Jameson’s celebration of temporal incommensurability.” I would like to see more of a confluence than an opposition here — for reasons that I will conclude by explaining.

At heart I remain, as I have long been, a Deleuzian. But to my mind the absolutely worst thing about Deleuze — both in his solo works and in his works with Guattari — is his anti-metrical (and therefore anti-groove) bias when it comes to music. Even when D & G deal with musical repetition in the “Refrain” chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, they insist that the deterritorializing thrust of music must come from the rejection of meter; they insist upon a fundamental opposition between rhythm and meter, instead of allowing for the metric (and also, therefore, cross-metric and anti-metric) rhythms of modern popular music. Their ideal is the pulseless time of Aeon, manifested to a degree in such French modernist composers as Messaien and Boulez. Deleuze and Guattari have no room in their vision (or should I say their audition?) for funk or the groove. Abel rightly traces this position back to Bergson, and shrewdly notes that Deleuze’s high-culture modernism in this respect is actually quite similar to Adorno’s.

One might wish that Deleuze had applied the insights of Difference and Repetition to an analysis of groove music. But unfortunately, any sort of metrical repetition is necessarily, for Deleuze, something like what Bergson denounces as the spatialization of time. (Deleuze rescues the cinema from this aspect of Bergson’s polemic, but he never similarly rescues funk or post-1960 dance music, or even rock ‘n’ roll).

I think that, as Abel explicitly suggests, the problem goes back to Bergson himself. Bergson’s musical analogue for duration (durée) is always melody, which he describes as a continuity that cannot be broken without changing its very nature; it cannot be quantified without altering its qualitative being. Groove music is, as Abel argues, both intensive and extensive, both rhythmic and metrical, both qualitative and quantitative; it breaks down the oppositions between these pairs that Bergson and Deleuze both so strongly insist upon. Their formulations imply a line of flight from capitalism’s imposition of linear, empty, homogeneous time; but for that very reason, they never engage with it directly.

As an alternative to these sorts of formulations, Abel refers to a musicologist whom I had never previously heard of, Victor Zuckerkandl. According to Abel, Zuckerkandl is also deeply influenced by Bergson, but he moves in a very different direction than Deleuze does (or than Adorno does, for that matter). Zuckerkandl agrees with Bergson’s major thesis that time = duration = indivisible change. But he applies this insight to rhythm and meter, as well as to melody. That is to say,

Zuckerkandl argues that the conventional explanation of meter is wrong. Meter is not produced from a pattern of strong and weak accents as it is conventionally explained, but is much better understood as oscillation. Psychological experiments show that a series of equally spaced pulses are perceived not as 1-2-3-4-5 etc., but as 1-2-1-2 etc. where ‘2’ is not number two but ‘away-from-one’. What this implies is that at the heart of meter is a cyclical motion or wave comprising a motion of ‘to-fro’ or ‘away-back’, and that the standard understanding of causality in meter must be reversed: ‘it is not a differentiation of accents which produces meter, it is meter which produces a differentiation of accents.’

This means that meter cannot be opposed to free rhythm in the way that Bergson does implicitly, and Deleuze does explicitly. Rather,

There are forces at work within meter which impart to a tone a different rhythmic impulse depending upon which phase of the metric cycle it falls and which make the counting of beats unnecessary. Metrical order is a dynamic order so that while, as we have seen, for Zuckerkandl, ‘melody [is] motion in the dynamic field of tones, rhythm [is] motion in the dynamic field of meter’.

In short, meter is a wave phenomenon, and “like other kinds of wave, metric waves are not about equality but about kinetic impulse.” In this way, when meter — however much its origin lies in the capitalist homogenization of time — is taken up, not only by Western concert music, but even more so by jazz, funk, and other sorts of groove music, it releases an energy that no capitalist expropriation of surplus value is able entirely to contain. [This is the answer, incidentally, to the question that the FBI agents ask Sun Ra when they kidnap him in the movie Space is the Place: “C’mon, Ra, how do you convert your harmonic progressions into energy?”].

In effect, Zuckerkandl deconstructs the duality between rhythm and meter, or between intensive and extensive, by Bergsonizing (if I may use that expression) the latter as well as the former. Meter is a field and a wave, rather than an emptily homogeneous form of measurement. Zuckerkandl even says, following this, that “The wave is not an event in time, but an event of time.” To listen to music is to experience time itself (in a way that seems to anticipate what Deleuze says about modernist cinema, the cinema of the time-image. But just as we experience time in its pure state, not only in Antonioni’s long takes, but equally (though I am not sure that Deleuze would have accepted this) in Tony Scott’s hyperactive editing, so we experience time in its pure state not only in Boulez’s floating, non-metric melodic lines, but equally — or I would want to say, even more intensely — in the pulses and syncopations of Miles Davis’ On the Corner, my candidate for the greatest piece of music ever recorded.

Obviously I need to read Zuckerkandl. I should note, though, that there are other paths beyond Bergson, which maintain his insights about intensive time without thereby accepting his dualism of time and space, or of intensive and extensive. Another one, not mentioned by Abel, is that of Gaston Bachelard in his books Intuition of the Instant and Dialectic of Duration. Bachelard argues that duration is radically multiple and discontinuous, rather than being the unbreakable continuity insisted upon by Bergson. Bachelard proposes the analogy of duration as rhythm, instead of Bergson’s duration as melody. By insisting on the multiple repetitions and variations of rhythm, Bachelard makes it possible for us to unite rhythm and meter in the ways groove music does, instead of making Deleuze’s absolute opposition between them.

Steve Goodman takes this up in his important book Sonic Warfare, in the course of dealing with the ways that bass and rhythm in dance music are at once despotic and liberating (rather than being only the former, as a strict Deleuzian argument would have to maintain). Goodman also proposes a Whiteheadian ontology of vibration, in place of the Bergsonian ontology of light that we find in Deleuze’s Cinema volumes.

I may seem to be drifting far away from Abel’s book at this point. But the virtue of Groove is precisely that it pushes us to consider groove music in a new manner, one that can accommodate the insights of both Deleuze and Adorno without having to embrace their incompletions and biases. I would add here, that we can read and benefit from Groove without having to embrace Abel’s own incompletions and biases either; I refer not only to his rejection of Afrofuturist currents, but also to his unfortunate claim that “‘dance music’ composed on computers” cannot be liberating in the manner of other groove music, because supposedly it “is blind to the concept of individual parts and tends towards total centralisation.” Here Abel evinces the same Adornoesque prejudice that he rightly demystifies elsewhere.

I won’t deny that Groove is sometimes a frustrating book. I wish that there had been more (or indeed, any) concrete examples, and that there had been less citation of some not-all-that-relevant theorists (like Postone and Sohn-Rethel). But I still found Groove a thought-provoking and stimulating book, one that is highly relevant to my own search for the secrets of “Funkentelechy Versus the Placebo Syndrome.”

FKA twigs, Papi Pacify

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

“Papi Pacify” is a song from FKA twigs’ EP2, which was released in 2013. The song is produced by Arca (who has also recently worked with Kanye West, Björk, and Kelela). The music video for “Papi Pacify” is co-directed by FKA twigs and Tom Beard (who has worked with twigs a number of other times, as well as directing videos for Florence and the Machine and other indie British bands). The song might be described as a ghostly hybrid of trip hop and r&b. The synthesized music features a lot of rumbling sound in the bass register, together with violent and irregular percussive banging. But “Papi Pacify” is also rather slow in tempo; this makes it feel close to ambient music — with its suspended, floating quality — despite the insistent punctuation of the percussion. Like a lot of recent EDM (electronic dance music), the song is devoid of tonal shifts; but it moves between different gradations of intensity, building to a climax through changes in timbre and a thickening of the sound.

In “Papi Pacify,” as in most of her music, FKA twigs’ voice is heavily processed, so that it resonates like yet another electronic instrument. She sings in a high register, contrasting with the instrumental sound. Her voice is also drawn out and amplified, with considerable reverb. There’s a breathless, floating intensity to twigs’ singing, which moves beyond actual words into drawn-out cries of “mmm” and “ahhh.” I cannot avoid hearing this voice as if it were speaking in a near-whisper — even though it stands out, quite loud, at the forefront of the mix.

The emotional tone of the song fluctuates between plaintiveness and outright pleading. The lyrics are deeply ambivalent: twigs begs her lover to “pacify our love,” and “clarify our love,” by assuring her of his faithfulness even if he does not mean it. Empty, lying reassurances are better than none at all. The song is thus about deception and dependency. The singer wills herself to continue trusting her lover, even though she knows that he has already betrayed her. In this way, twigs simultaneously disavows and fuels her own erotic-romantic disquiet.

I cannot really imagine dancing to a song like “Papi Pacify,” despite its formal similarities to EDM. For twigs’ and Arca’s music is just too rhythmically irregular and disruptive — not to mention too slow and depressive — to be easily danceable. The off-rhythms convey imbalance and tension, even as the song’s overall tempo, and its harmonic stasis, create a sense of paralysis.

However, dance is central to FKA twigs’ art, and especially to her music videos. “Papi Pacify” is not literally dance-based, in the way that many of twigs’ other videos are. But the play of the figures on the screen — the movement of their bodies, and even of their hands — is highly rhythmic, suggesting a sort of dance. Even if the gestures and postures in this video are not actually arranged by a choreographer, they still seem to be “choreographed” via cinematography and editing.

The music video for “Papi Pacify” is shot in black and white. It is composed entirely of images of the faces and upper bodies of FKA twigs and her male partner. (I haven’t been able to find any credits identifying this performer). The only bright lighting in the video shines directly on twigs’ face, and on her elaborately sculpted nails. Though the male partner is never illuminated as brightly as twigs is, we do get to clearly see his face and torso. His sexy, muscular, and athletic bulk stands out against twigs’ thin and flexible body. The crisp, gorgeously high-contrast black-and-white cinematography brings out the flesh tones of the two performers. Both twigs and her partner are black; but she is relatively light-skinned, while he is much darker. The video’s up-front beautification of black bodies stands in deliberate opposition to the traditional cinema’s almost exclusive obsession with pale white skin (and its concomitant myths of white female “purity”).

Like many music videos, “Papi Pacify” alternates between two separate series of images. The first series shows twigs engaged erotically with her partner. The second series, in contrast, shows twigs by herself; she wears an ornate necklace and her body is covered with glitter. The first series is confined to medium shots that show us the performers’ faces and upper bodies. But the second series varies from extreme closeups of twigs’ eyes to shots that show us her entire face and torso.

However, these two series of images do not correspond, as they often do in music videos, to two separate locations. This is because the video as a whole offers us no sense of location. In both series of images, the human figures emerge from a murky, undifferentiated background. The darkness behind them is too vague and undefined to seem like any sort of actual place. In other words, the video has no settings, whether real or simulated. The action of the human figures can only be situated within, or upon, the electronic screen itself.

This means that the video is effectively non-diegetic. We respond to the bodies we see, as to the music we hear; but we cannot take what we see and hear as a represented action (or series of actions) in a delimited space. We are rather presented, I would like to say, with a mode of digital and electronic presence that cannot be translated or resolved into analog, representational terms. The bodies of twigs and her partner are not absented in favor of their signifying images, as would be the case in a movie (at least according to traditional film theory). Rather, these bodies impinge upon the screen, and thereby present themselves directly to us, precisely as forces and pulsations.

The video is intensely erotic, even though it doesn’t show us twigs’ breasts, or the genitalia of either actor. For much of the video, the man either has his hands around twigs’ throat, or else sticks his fingers deep into her mouth and down her throat. At times, twigs almost seems to be on the point of choking. In the YouTube comments to the video, there are fierce arguments as to whether this is a representation of abuse, or whether it is rather a positive depiction of consensual BDSM. But as my students pointed out when we discussed it in class, what the video actually shows us is fairly mild, in terms of the actual practices of consensual BDSM.

If the video feels so visceral and intense, this is not just because of the actions that it literally depicts, but also because of the extreme intimacy that it expresses. In every shot, twigs is close to the camera. In the shots that include the male partner, he is always positioned just slightly above and behind her. There is almost no physical distance between the two of them; he is always holding her. They also stare into each other’s eyes, and seem closely attentive to each other’s sightest movements and gestures.

But twigs does not just exchange glances with her partner. At other times, though he continues to look at her, she closes her eyes in apparent sexual abandon. And even more frequently, she stares directly at the camera. This means that there is also no sense of distance between twigs and the viewer. She seems to be imploring us, or even perhaps exchanging glances with us: in any case, she include us within the video’s flows, its acts of bodily exchange.

Some YouTube commentators say that twigs looks desperate and begging for rescue, and that this is why she stares into the camera. But I myself am unable to see it this way. For me as for many other commentators, twigs’ gaze and facial expressions rather imply trust and acceptance. Indeed, they sometimes come close to ecstasy.

The video is all about intimacy and proximity: between twigs and her partner, and also between twigs and us. There isn’t enough distance between twigs and the viewer to allow for the objectifying effect of the usual cinematic gaze. Video bodies operate according to a different — and more immediate — logic than film bodies do. We are just too close to the lovers to be able to respond voyeuristically to what they do.

Extreme intimacy can of course be suffocating, as much as it can be ecstatic and fulfilling. The video, like the song itself, expresses both of these at once, in a sort of oxymoronic tension. The music and the images lack any forward movement towards a conclusion; there is rather an intensification that at the same time stands in place. At the same time, the sounds and images alike are too tense and off-kilter to suggest any sort of equilibrium or stasis.

The video’s presentation of physical contact to the point of suffocation may well go along with what I have called the breathlessness of twigs’ singing. It is worth noting, however, that the video mostly avoids lip syncing. There are some moments when twigs mouths the words — or nonverbal cries — of the song, but more often she does not. Most music videos (except for the ones that directly document or mimic live performance) tend, in varying degrees, to self-consciously call attention to their use of lip-syncing. “Papi Pacify” pushes quite strongly in this direction. The occasional moments of synchronization fix our attention on twigs’ face and figure. But because she only lip syncs occasionally, we are spared both the pretense that she is actually performing the song, and the opposite pretense that the action of the video is somehow “really” happening independently of the song. This is yet another reason why I consider the video to be non-diegetic and non-representational.

All these tendencies are further amplified by the complex editing of the video. Instead of progressive action, we are given what might be called a series of jump cuts, presenting the same scenes over and over again from a variety of slightly different angles. The camera sometimes modifies its position very slightly, but otherwise it never moves. A lot of the action — the touching and embracing — seems to take place in slow motion. A few times there is extremely rapid cutting and flashing, which gives an oddly disjointed rhythmic effect in contrast to the overall slowness of the song.

Most strikingly, many of the shots in the video are run in loops, forwards and backwards a number of times, sort of like an animated GIF. This seems to happen especially when the partner is pushing his fingers into twigs’ mouth and down her throat. This looping repetition results both in a sense of dreamlike slowness, and in the impression that these actions are not just done once and for all, but rather are repeated over and over. The effect is something like that evoked by the use of the imperfect tense in many languages (though, unfortunately, this form does not really exist in English).

“Papi Pacify” leaves us floating in a strange erotic time, which is not the time of everyday life, but also not the “time in its pure state” of Bergsonian duration. It is rather an uneven, pulsed time, which ebbs and flows in irregular waves. It’s a highly sexualized time. But it is also quite emphatically not the time that leads teleologically to the culmination of male orgasm. We are in a realm of different sexual practices here: one that we might well call “feminine” — but perhaps not, since it is too irregular, too uncertain, and also too intimate, to fit easily on either side of the conventional male/female binary. I would like to say, also, that this is a kind of digital and electronic time: one that is not intrinsic to our new technologies in any essentialistic sense, but that could not have been accessed without them.

Allie X, “Catch”

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

Jérémie Saindon’s music video for Allie X’s “Catch” is a Surrealist assault on the senses. We see Allie X in numerous discomfiting poses, all within a sleek, mininal, faux-modernist space. At some points in the video, Allie X’s body is buried in a pile of intertwined, and seemingly inanimate, nudes. At others, her body hangs suspended from the ceiling in what looks like an art exhibition space, pierced by many long spikes. At still other points, she stands nude on a pedestal like a sculpture on display, with her hair draped entirely over her face.

We also see Allie X lying splayed out on a dissection table, half of her body replaced by a life-size plastic anatomical model — the kind that opens up to display replicas of the internal organs. And once, just before the video’s three minute mark, her body appears strewn all over the floor, sliced into four separate parts — head and torso, midriff, thighs, and lower legs — all of which are twitching on their own. At other moments, Allie X stands naked except for a sort of white veil or headdress, extending upward in a cone, and completely covering her face. There is just one opening in the headdress, for her mouth; a viscous white fluid oozes out from it. In still other shots, Allie X lies on the floor surrounded by overlaid images of butterflies. At the end of the video, another butterfly emerges from a sort of metallic coccoon in her mouth.

The video is also deeply concerned with eyes, and with vision. In many shots, Allie X wears sunglasses, or else eyeglasses whose lenses have been replaced by a dense pink flowery growth. This is consistent with Allie X’s previous videos and art projects, in the course of which (according to James Rickman) the singer “never… revealed her eyes” at all. At certain points in the “Catch” video, Allie X finally does unveil her eyes to the camera. But these eyes don’t stare soulfully out at us. Rather, they blink; or else they glare, or ponder without expression. There are several shots in which Allie X lies on a couch, wearing a leaf-print onesie jumpsuit; she looks towards a replica of herself reclining on the floor, whom we see from the back. Then she closes her eyes and opens her mouth wide, holding a replica eyeball between her lips.

I’m reminded, of course, of other Surrealist aggressions against vision, starting with Buñuel’s razor slicing an eyeball. The Surrealists were also obsessed with the nude female body, which they often depicted dead or dismembered or bound in abject poses (think, for example, of Hans Bellmer’s dolls). Allie X detourns these Surrealist tropes for her own ends. Although her body is mutilated and abjected throughout the video, it is not presented as a spectacle for some sadistic, controlling “male gaze.” Rather, Allie X clearly remains in control; she positively assaults us with these grotesque body images. Even when she is naked, we are denied access to her body and her eyes. However uncomfortably near to us this body comes, and even as it is literally and metaphorically opened up, it remains entirely opaque and unreadable. And the circuit of the gaze between her and us is blocked, even when her eyes are visible.

In the video, Allie X only lip synchs occasionally; her efforts to do so are deliberately formulaic and desultory. Because of this, her voice does not seem to be grounded in her body; even when it soars, it is just another layer of the electronic mix. Allie X’s singing is expressive, but also at the same time oddly detached. On all levels, and despite its aggressive display, the music video refuses contact. We are neither able to identify with Allie X, nor objectify her as a sexual figure. We are made all too familiar with her agitation and distress; but at the same time she denies us any intimacy.

The video picks up all these qualities from the song itself. “Catch” is a synth pop tune. It is bouncy and propulsive; but it is not warm. It walks a thin line between mechanical repetition and gleefully upbeat expression. Renato Pagnani aptly describes the song as “a relentless and immediate sugar rush with a slight metallic aftertaste.” The lyrics speak of being victimized by a lover who toyed with the singer’s affections: “turns out you shut me up for fun/ You got away with murder/ Leave me at a loss for the words/… I was devastated by the pain.” But the song does not wallow in romantic lament. It’s too fast and jittery for any such sentiments. Rather, Allie X compares sexual obsession to heroin addiction. “You stuck a needle right into that vein,” she says to the lover who callously abandoned her after getting her hooked. In any case, she doesn’t want to get clean, but only to find a more reliable source for the drug that takes away her pain: “I’m screaming, begging for the one/ That won’t just shoot me up for fun.” And in the song’s coldly exultant refrain, Allie X promises revenge on her betrayer with the incessantly repeated phrase: “just wait until I catch my breath.”

I still haven’t mentioned the most intense and powerful thing about the music video, which is its relentless, jittery visual rhythm. The image is never still. Nearly every sequence consists of images that quickly loop like an animated GIF, or that flash back and forth between two stills like a stuttering repetitive jump cut. (Indeed, Allie X has posted a number of animated GIFs from the video on her Tumblr). On close examination, the organization of the video is quite complex. Sometimes the entire image loops; sometimes the looping figure is composited into a background that remains still, or that loops with a different rhythm. Sometimes the looping figure moves around in a circle, while other times it jerks back and forth, and still other times it just twitches faintly. Then there are the times when Allie X’s figure does not itself move; but the camera pans violently one way and then the other, or the background flashes from one configuration to another and back again, or two separate images are alternated rapidly.

The video thus renders for us a world in continual agitation. The motion is sometimes more violent and sometimes less; it is sometimes more all-embracing and other times restricted to a few figures. But the image is never completely still. The video for “Catch” is in constant, tumultuous motion, even though it doesn’t take us anywhere, but remains within the same physical space. It is almost as if the video were extending our vision beyond the human scale, by making perceptible to us the incessant molecular turmoil that underlies even the most stable objects. (This helps to explain why the video, like certain films by Kubrick, Cronenberg, and Palfi, combines visceral body agitation with inhumanly icy, formalist distancing effects).

In general, the video for “Catch” effaces the difference between movement by figures in the frame, movement of the camera itself (reframing), and movement effected through fast montage or alternation of frames. Bodies may move, or the camera may move, or motion may be added by means of digital compositing and scanning. Digital processing muddies the conventional distinctions between mise en scene (what is captured by the camera), cinematography (what the camera itself does) and montage (what is done to the material recorded by the camera afterwards). However these movements are produced, they are all equivalent in the spectator’s experience.

The video is almost a compendium of the various ways that images can be looped, alternated, and set into motion. In this way, it exemplifies the database aesthetic that Lev Manovich describes as central to digital media. There is no linear progression among these visual forms, but only a combinatorial display of different configurations, one after another. The underlying logic of a database, as Manovich argues, is spatial rather than temporal. The many possible permutations can only be presented one at a time, in succession; but in such a “spatialized narrative,” there is no rationale for any one particular order rather than another.

This spatialized visual logic is of course complicated by the way that music is an irreducibly temporal form. The video for “Catch” has no storyline, and no logic of development, aside from that provided by the song’s lyrics and its verse-bridge-chorus structure. But the rhythm of the video’s visual jerks and twitches is closely related to the beat of the music. While the visual twitching doesn’t coordinate precisely with the song’s bass line, it does remain closely attuned to it, in a sort of visual syncopation. For this reason, the video’s loops and repetitions do not produce anything like a sense of stable cycles. There is no suggestion of underlying regularity, but only a continually throbbing pulse. We might well say, following Deleuze, that “the unequal in itself” is the only thing that gets repeated, or that returns, in this video. Both sonically and visually, the unevenness of the beat keeps on coming back and pushing us forward.

Saindon’s video exemplifies a new regime of audiovisual images. Time is not just the measure of motion, as is the case in the films of what Deleuze calls the movement-image. But neither is time unveiled in its pure state, as happens in the films of what Deleuze calls the time-image. Rather, we find a different articulation of time and space — and also of sound and vision — than is the case in either of Deleuze’s two image regimes. Time and space are intricated together — and even exchange their roles and characteristics — in the course of the music video’s twitchy rhythms. “Catch” jams the sensori-motor circuits of the movement-image, but it also undermines the “pure optical and sound situations” of the time-image. Instead, it drags us into a strange new realm of micro-perceptions and micro-affects, all subordinated to the song’s and video’s underlying pulse.

Labrinth, “Let It Be” and the third image

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

For the last several years, I have been trying to think about the ways that relations of time and space, and of sound and image, are altered as a result of new digital technologies. I have pondered this by looking at and listening to both recent movies and music videos. One big difference, of course, is that with music videos the soundtrack always comes first; while this is rarely the case in movies. But I think that both movies and music videos in recent years have given more weight to the sonic dimension than was the case before. I try to work through the issues of time/space and sound/image systematically, more or less, in my discussion of Eduoard Salier’s video for Massive Attack’s “Splitting the Atom.” And, in my discussion of Joseph Kahn’s film Detention, I consider how this rearticulation of space and time leads to the need for a new, third sort of image in Deleuze’s taxonomy, after the movement-image and the time-image. The Spanish film theorist Sergi Sanchez suggests calling this new kind of image, that results from digital technologies, the “no-time image.” Although it arises out of Deleuze’s time-image, in which “time in its pure state” is liberated from movement and made present in its own right, this third image treats time quite differently. Digital video is a medium of simultaneity, not only because it allows for instantaneous transmission, but also because (even when it is not broadcast and viewed instantaneously) it tends to replace montage (temporal juxtaposition) with compositing (allowing for disparate things or images to be placed together in the same frame). (Besides Sanchez, Lev Manovich has also written extensively about this). 

There is definitely a sort of temporality to the new digital-video image; space dominates time, in a way, but without being reducible either to the “spatialization” of time denounced by Bergson and Deleuze, or the durational time exalted by Bergson and Deleuze. The temporality of the new digital audiovisual image  is quite different from either the temporality that is measured by movement (Deleuze’s movement-image) or the temporality that frees itself from movement and presents itself as pure duration (Deleuze’s time-image). David Rodowick is not wrong to claim that the digital does not really involve duration; he is only wrong to condemn it for not doing so, instead of trying to work out what the digital audiovisual image does do. There’s a weird split, because it takes time to present, or to explore, the composited screen of the “no-time” image; and because, in this situation, modulations of sound (which is unavoidably temporal) take precedence over modulations of vision. Hence the curious time-of-no-time rhythms we find in “Splitting the Atom”, and in the 19-years-of-detention sequence of Detention

I think we find another, inventive instance of this in the beautiful new video for the song “Let It Be” by  Labrinth (Timothy McKenzie). (The song has no connection, as far as I can tell, with the classic Beatles song of the same title). The video is directed by the duo known as Us (Christopher Barrett and Luke Taylor). The video consists in an apparent single take, which moves through a single warehouse space. The camera glides and stops and zooms in and circles around and twists and turns and swoops, as it moves through this space. In different parts of the warehouse space, we have different groupings of fixtures and furniture, like the decors of various rooms in a home and in a recording studio, but all incomplete and without walls or ceiling — each setting is just a certain amount of furniture, surrounded by empty expanses of floor. In each of these spaces, we see Labrinth and his bandmates and friends engaged in various activities, ranging from composing the song, to recording it in multiple stages (singing, guitar, drumming, and horn section, all separately, to having a business pitch meeting, to buying a car, and then shooting a music video that features the singer getting out of the car, to people just hanging in the living room. There is even a scene of a postman delivering mail by putting it through a slot in the front door (but the front door stands by itself in one section of the warehouse); and another of Labrinth standing alone in his kitchen drinking coffee, with the sink filled to the brim with dirty cups.

All these events must have been dispersed in time and space when they “really” happened; but in the video they are all happening at once in the same location, with the secondary temporality of the camera exploring them. Usually the camera just contemplates one of these scenarios at a time, but sometimes (and especially when the camera is gliding between them) we see several scenes on the screen at once, or other scenes in the background when one is in the foreground. A whole history — the singer’s life, on the one hand, and his specific experience of composing, pitching, recording, producing, and making a video for the song, on the other — is compressed (or better, composited) within the confines of the warehouse (which provides, as it were, bare-bones simulacra of all the locations), and within the confines of the video itself, as we watch it unfold in its single camera movement. The camera never holds still for very long; it is usually gliding, but it is always steady and never jerky or agitated. (Presumably, the videomakers used motion control to shoot all of the parts of the video separately, but make sure they could be composited together seamlessly — as is suggested here).

The song itself is a beautiful, heartfelt and expressive neo-soul number. It starts plaintively, but builds to a dramatic conclusion. The lyrics suggest a mix of struggle and fatalism — the singer has done his best, but he doesn’t have total control and reaches a point where he just needs to “let it be” and have whatever happens, happen. At the end of the video, lights go out and then flash on and off — all the other scenes have disappeared, and the camera zooms in on Labrinth, standing alone, in a circle of spotlights in the otherwise dark space. We are left with just the performer, performing — after having seen all the layers of work, preparation and construction, and subjective experience that made the performance possible. Everything is framed within the temporality and rhythms of the song, with its repetitions (verse and chorus) as well as its build-up to a crescendo of culmination; though the video begins before the song does (the camera glides across the floor before the music starts), and continues to zoom in and then hold on the image of Labyrinth lit up in the otherwise darkness for a few seconds after the music ends.

There’s a whole nexus of feeling and experiencing here — but (as Rodowick might well say) it cannot be characterized as duration in the Bergsonian and Proustian and Deleuzian and Antonioniesque sense. It’s a quite different mode of temporalization, or of “experience” — though one for which I don’t have the right words yet. It’s implosive rather than expansive, not “a bit of time in its pure state” (Deleuze paraphrasing Proust) so much as a concatenation of things and processes that don’t really fit together or “harmonize” (literally or metaphorically? I’m not sure) with one another, and yet somehow coexist nonetheless. I would want to resist a phenomenological vocabulary here as well as a Deleuzian one — there is none of the “commutative reversibility” between spectator and screen described by Vivan Sobchack, or “attunment” evoked so powerfully by my colleage Scott Richmond. It’s rather something both more abstract, and yet less reflexive, than any of that. I’d want to think of it, rather, in terms of the (often non-human) affordances of new digital technologies, in the ways that (for instance) Mark B. N. Hansen has been looking at — but I don’t quite see the way of working this out yet. In any case, I think that “Let It Be”, like “Splitting the Atom” and Detention, is a harbinger of a new sort of techno-social sensibility — one that (to paraphrase what Deleuze wrote in a different but analogous context) we may at least hope will not prove worse than the previous ones.


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:


“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.


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’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 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.