The yearly Pop Music Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle takes place this weekend. I’ve gone to all the previous conferences, and they have been great, but unfortunately this year I am unable to attend, due to family circumstances. I was supposed to be giving a talk on the Kleptones, but I had to cancel.
The conference has always had a wide and open definition of “pop” — pretty much anything goes — but this doesn’t really address the question of what it might mean, in somewhat narrower terms, to talk of “pop” as a genre (alongside, and only partly overlapping with, genres like rock or heavy metal or alternative, or hip hop or crunk or grime or reggaeton. These days, invoking “pop” is inherently problematic: in some contexts, it sounds like a dated term from the 1960s; and in others, it bears a weight that certainly is not innocent, when it is invoked in relation to “rockism,” or when it is contrasted to music that is deemed more adventurous, more experimental, or more authentic.
Woebot raises the question with his usual sharpness and polemical verve in a thread on dissensus. I suppose it is a bit crass of me to respond with my thoughts here, instead of joining the dialogue there; but I need the space the blog affords me — rather than the rapid fire of post and response — to really work things out to my (at least semi-) satisfaction.
Anyway: Woebot doesn’t find the term “pop” to be either coherent or interesting; he works through several possible definitions, and finds them all to be lame, self-contradictory, and (to the extent that they do articulate any sort of identifiable tendency) worthy only of being resisted. It’s too vague, he says, to define “pop” as whatever music is in the charts, or to think that the Top Forty any given week somehow mirrors with precision what is happening in (American or British) society that same week. And it’s tired and unilluminating to trot out the old cliches of high culture vs. low. That doesn’t explain, Woebot says, what the positive appeal of “pop” — of defining “low” or “mass” culture in that populist way — might be, given so many other ways of working through the issue.
Which leaves the most polemically charged of Woebot’s possible definitions of “pop”: he suggests that it is just a marketing term:
When I discovered that by Pop music people meant “music for imaginary rather than real communities” I was depressed for about a month. That people could consume Grime as “Pop”, that they could do the pick’n’mix shake and vac ting and “consume” something oblivious to its source, well for me it just didn’t bear thinking about. That all music could be subjected to the whim of the consumer like this, that there were people out there for whom all music was essentially reducible to a quotient of it’s entertainment value (a mark out of ten, an “A” minus, a four star rating in their iPod ratings menu)…… sad innit. Each song becomes a unit, an equal unit, stripped of anything approaching life. How murderously void.
I think that there is a real issue here, an unavoidable one, since recorded music today really is on the leading edge of consumerist commodification. (A situation that is not really undermined by the nonetheless delicious irony that I, like millions of other people, choose on principle to download music for free as much as possible; I’ll spend hours of my time to find a song that I could order almost instantly from the Apple Music Store for 99 cents. This is not out of penny-pinching — since the time I waste tracking down the song is worth far more to me than 99 cents — but out of a kind of Kantian categorical-imperative sense that it is morally wrong to remunerate the record companies and the current copyright system).
Getting back to the main point: the fact is that music is one of the most social of all human activities (I risk this assertion despite the fact that all human activities are social, that ‘human’ and ‘social’ are virtually synonymous). Because music is so social and collective an activity, it is inevitably tied, in modern societies, to money and the commodity form (which capitalism makes into the primary, if not exclusive, conduits of sociality). Which paradoxically means, in turn, that music today is close to being the most reified and privatized of all human activities. I take myself as an example: a quintessential music consumer (even if I often don’t pay). I download music online, or order it over the web — I’m scarcely ever in one of those quaint old places formerly known as ‘record stores.’ I don’t listen to vinyl, or even very much to CDs: I rip whatever music I get in CD format, and listen to music almost exclusively over headphones, on my laptop or my iPod. Though I live in Detroit, a center of musical activity and production, I’ve never even gone to a live gig here, which means I’ve never listened to music here in the company of other people. What’s more, most of my favorite genres of the moment — grime, reggaeton, baile funk — are produced geographically far away from me, for audiences with whom I will probably never enter into contact (for reasons of race and class and age as well as geography). What’s more, I’ve ‘softened’ considerably since my twenties and early thirties, when I would never listen to music that was less grating than the Sex Pistols or Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, or less hardcore than Run/DMC, or less dissonant than Sonic Youth. Now I’m at the point where I listen to a lot of “pop”: my favorite songs of the moment include (alongside a bunch of heavy grime tracks) things like Amerie’s “One Thing” and Tweet’s “Turn Da Lights Off” and Tori Alamaze’s “Don’t Cha” and M.I.A.’s “Pull Up the People.”
I suppose this makes me into Woebot’s “Online Pop Straw-man”, listening to all sorts of cultural detritus indiscriminately while being ignorant of its particularities and its provenance, “cautious about aspiring to belong to subcultural groups (like, er, Grime) on the basis that he’s Middle Class, White and Old,” and ultimately only willing “to accept something less-threatening and fake in some compromised quasi-ironic manner. To give up on the real because it underlines the uncomfortable reality of one’s own situation.”
The very fact that I like M.I.A. so much pretty much convicts me of these charges. (“In fairness,” as Jerry Springer likes to say, Woebot never makes this point explicitly; but blissblogger — Simon Reynolds, I presume? — pretty much does, later on in the thread. Referring to the M.I.A. controversy, he complains about “the tone of sheer indignation voiced” by M.I.A.’s supporters responding to the criticisms of her: “how DARE you interfere with my pleasure, how dare you pose any impediment to my unproblematic enjoyment of this thing… that debate was so fierce because of a displacement involved… they weren’t defending M.I.A.’s right to be a dilettante-producer, they were defending their own right to be a dilettante-consumer… pop is invested in so intensely i think because it’s about the right to consume, and in this day age consumerism, that’s one of the few areas of power and agency anyone has”).
An anecdote: a couple of years ago, in a class I was teaching, a student gave a presentation on “underground hip hop,” and the dangers of its co-optation by the commercial manistream. His definition of what made the music “underground” was pretty vague; I pressed him, and he ultimately came to the position that it had to be music that I (as an outsider, from an older generation) had never heard of, let alone actually heard. But when it came down to listing specific examples of what he considered “underground hip hop,” it turned out all to be stuff that I was familiar with, and even had on my iPod.
My point in recounting this story is not to boast of my extensive musical connoisseurship (which really isn’t all that extensive, anyway). But rather to suggest that the widespread dissemination (precisely via reification and commodification, enabled by the global communications networks of transnational capital) of all sorts of music (together with all sorts of other things, from sexual fetishes to images of celebrities) makes any sort of “alternative” or “underground” position untenable. Even if you accept (as I am pretty much inclined to) that NOTHING is ever invented by Capital, that creativity is ALWAYS from below, from outside, from “the streets”… and hence in the public sphere, in that very “society” whose existence Margaret Thatcher denied — still, at the very moment that creativity is first expressed, it has already been privatized, commodified, locked up as “intellectual property,” and sold by massive corporations to individualized/privatized consumers worldwide. It has already become solipsistic jouissance, or what blissblogger describes as “the absolute denial of the producer’s existence — the absolute blanking out of the actual material origins and conditions of existence of the pleasure-source you’re enjoying — something for nothing.”
To decry this situation — as blissblogger and woebot seem to do — and to suggest there is a more acceptable alternative to it, is really to contribute to the very myths (of authenticity, of “realness”, of plucky underground inventiveness at odds with mainstream pop) that support the situation of capitalist appropriation and bourgeois-consumption-as-private-jouissance in the first place. Which is why I don’t accept woebot’s maxim that “meaning is always dwindling in Pop, it’s never accreating in the way it does in the underground rhizomes.” Rhizomes aren’t underground anymore; it’s the whole Net, the whole so-called “market”, that is now a rhizome (or, more accurately, that is now rhizomatic). And movements of both accretion and diminution are pretty much going on everywhere.
Or again: blissblogger says, summarizing the situation: “everything that once exploded into public space, becomes interiorized, corralled, quarantined from the world, insulated from ever changing anything.” Here it’s that “once” that I’m suspicious of; the same way I’m suspicious when Guy Debord writes that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” The point being, not that things are always the same, but that — in both blissblogger and the translation of Debord — the “once” has no historical applicability, for it is merely a back-projection from, and inversion of, our current circumstances. It’s a fictive negation of the oppressive circumstances of the present; it provides no path to freedom, no “line of escape,” for it is only a reflection and a symptom of the oppressive circumstances.
Which is why, though I don’t really think of myself as a devotee of “pop” — and in cultural politics terms I am not in the least a populist — I am also unable to join the anti-pop bandwagon. Brecht said somewhere that we shouldn’t start with the good old days, but with the bad new ones. I seriously think that the only way out is through, and that we have to find some way of working through the paradoxes of solipsistic, hedonistic consumerism, pushing them to their limit, rather than moralistically condemning them by refusing to listen to M.I.A. or go to Starbucks.