New York Dolls

So, I listened to the new New York Dolls album, so-called: One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This. David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain are the only living members of the “original” New York Dolls, so the identification is a bit notional in any case. It might be more accurate to say that this is a New York Dolls cover band, which happens to have the original singer.

In any case, on its own terms, the album is pretty good. Albeit a bit retro, as might be expected of a revival of a band that originally played in 1973-1975. The album is skillfully played, cleanly produced, R&B-inflected hard rock, with catchy riffs (that wouldn’t be out of place in 60s pop productions) alongside churning guitars and Johansen’s mannered, ironically self-dramatizing vocals. Nice, if you like that sort of thing.

Which is just the problem. I am part of this album’s target audience. That is, I’m a “boomer” who loved the original band. (Actually, I never saw them live, or heard them when they were still playing as a band — but I became addicted shortly thereafter, in 1976-78, the early punk days, when the Dolls looked like the immediate ancestor of nearly everything exciting that was going on. I caught Johansen’s solo act several times in that period; every six months, he would further de-fang his sound and his band, making it sound less like the Dolls and more like a suburban New Jersey metal band. But I digress…).

The (original) New York Dolls were tense, intense, and sloppy. The hardcore, driving rock sound (evidently cloned off of the Rolling Stones) was both fueled and warped by the high-camp theatricality (arguably also something whose initial source was the Stones, though also post-Factory-Warhol New York). This duality was embodied by the contrast or tension between Johnny Thunders and David Johansen. Thunders clearly wanted to be Keith Richards; his devotion to pure rock ‘n’ roll was equaled or surpassed only by his love for heroin, which eventually killed him — he couldn’t sustain either Richards’ virtuosity, or his lifestyle — though arguably the former, the basicness of his guitar chops, was largely responsible for what was so great about the Dolls’ sound, a sound far more down ‘n’ dirty than the Stones ever had, with an intensity born of desperation, an energy that kept on building but never broke through into ecstasy, and was all the more impassioned for that. As for Johansen, I can’t add to what I have already written about him here. Suffice it to say that his campy excess, his over-the-top theatricality, though it channeled Jagger as much as Thunders’ performance channeled Richards, did so in an entirely different way. For (out-Jaggering Jagger’s own sense of derisive, ironic cool) it bespoke a cool irony that, while it was not above having fun, really marked the death of any sort of passionate committment. It was ultimately just a shtick — or even just a job, a way of making a living.

The synergy between Johansen and Thunders — the confluence, not of opposites, exactly, but of incompossibles, that nonetheless occupied the same stage at the same moment — is really what drove the Dolls. It’s what made them so powerful, and at the same time — how do I say this? — so devoid, even refusing, of transcendence (so unhippie-ish?); in Robert Christgau’s lovely phrase, “the Dolls’ raucous antiswing promised all the deliverance of the BMT at rush hour.” The Dolls really were (as the cliche goes) fast, cheap, and out of control. What’s more, they seemed to inhabit a place in which questions of authenticity or not, sincerity or not, committment or satire, passion or performance raucous excess or calculated effects… simply made no difference. In this respect, they were perhaps the first “postmodern” rock band. (Though far more conventional in terms of sound than the early, Warhol-associated Velvet Underground, they went places affectively and conceptually that the VU never reached). (And the impossible amalgam of Johansen and Thunders is not the complete explanation of this accomplishment, only its symbol and condensation. These two didn’t bring their already-existing differences into the band; rather, it is only retrospectively, after the band broke up, that their polarity can be said to have come into being).

Now, the initial point of this post was to say that the new, pseudo-Dolls album, for all its technical polish, and partly because of this very polish, is utterly hollow and unsatisfying compared to the “original” Dolls, as we hear them on their two albums actually recorded and released in the 1970s. The new album is an unsatisfying simulacrum. Because Thunders is dead, and instead of the tension between him and Johansen, all we have is the one-dimensionality of Johansen plus a competent backup band. Or because the attempt of someone in his fifties to recreate what he did in his twenties, in a very different world and a very different social and cultural context, is bound to come off lame. Or because, like all the other musical reunions we have witnessed lately (the Sex Pistols, the Gang of Four, etc. etc.) the new work is nothing more than a cynical attempt to cash in. And so on.

Except — and here’s where things get both difficult and interesting — that my (overly obvious) criticism of the latter-day Dolls would seem to depend precisely on the categories of originality, authenticity, etc., which I praised the original Dolls for rendering thrillingly irrelevant. (Johansen himself has made his lifelong career out of a virtuoso series of chameleonic impersonations, of which this is merely the latest). What’s more “postmodern,” after all, than cashing in on a reputation for rebellion by branding it, corporatizing it, stereotyping it, and multiplying its simulacra, in order to get money out of the pockets of 52-year-olds such as myself, who are led by this very branding to think back to when we were 22 instead of 52? I am frequently disgusted by the market-driven nostalgia our culture is filled with at the moment, most strongly of course when I find myself the very target of such nostalgia marketing. But isn’t my resistance itself a form of such nostalgia, a clinging to a mythical past in order precisely to evade the challenges of the present?

The point of this self-questioning is not to negate my initial aesthetic distinction, and to say that in fact there is no significant difference between the New York Dolls of 1974 and of 2006. I insist upon this distinction unreservedly. What’s at fault, or at least insufficient, is the way I have articulated grounds, or reasons, for making the distinction. Now, in itself, this is not surprising. Kant points out that aesthetic judgments are always singular and non-cognitive. But grounds, criteria, and arguments are always cognitive. Grounds and criteria are used (and probably need to be used) to justify aesthetic claims, but they are never the sources of such claims — they are only applied post facto — and they are never adequate to the claims in whose support they are cited. Yet we can’t avoid invoking grounds and criteria, because (as Kant also says) part of the very process of making aesthetic judgments includes wanting to share them, wanting to communicate them, wanting to convince others of them, or rather to gain the assent of others concerning them. Kant phrases it strongly: in expressing an aesthetic liking, “we require everyone to like the object,” and “we permit no one to hold a different opinion,” even though we have no cognitive or conceptual grounds for our liking. And this is why, Kant says, “one can quarrel about taste (though one cannot dispute about it).” We can’t dispute, for that would mean referring to objective grounds, which are altogether lacking here; but we can, and do, quarrel endlessly about our aesthetic likings and “preferences.”

Kantian aesthetics thus insists, on the one hand, on absolute singularity and incomparability; and on the other, on universal communicability, exchangeability, and equivalence. The paradox here is formally identical to the paradox Marx postulates as the presupposition of capitalism: singular objects must be rendered commensurable, through the equivalences established by exchange value (and hence commodity fetishism); singular acts of human effort and creativity must be rendered commensurable through the equivalences established by their translation into determinate quantities of “labor power,” which is sold and purchased as a commodity. Only under these presuppositions is capitalist exploitation possible. The pivot point, for both Kant and Marx, is the process of translation whereby things that are singular and incommensurable are nonetheless rendered universally communicable and thereby exchangeable in a common currency (whether of concepts, for Kant, or of money, for Marx). This formal identity between Kant and Marx is one of the key issues that I am trying to explore in my book in progress The Age of Aesthetics.

I seem to have drifted entirely away from The New York Dolls. The point I was trying to make was this. By any of the criteria we use to define “postmodernity” — including the rejection of myths of authenticity, the strategic recycling of already-existing cultural cliches, the cynical acknowledgement of the work’s commodified status, the placing of all emotional expression “in quotation marks,” and so on — there is no way to distinguish between the original New York Dolls and the current retread. For all these characteristics are features of both. The aesthetic difference between the 1970s Dolls and the 2006 model is non-cognitive and singular, and thus very difficult to express. Kant would have said it is a matter of genius, but this is a word that, for many reasons, some of them dubious but others of them quite good, we are reluctant to use today. If postmodernity has taught us anything, it has taught us to resist equating this sort of difference with the notions of genius, originality, authenticity, and so on. Indeed, to use these ideas or words is precisely to recuperate and efface the barely-existing, almost-nothing singularity, the nearly-inexpressible difference, that they are meant to designate. In cognitive terms, there’s nothing that differentiates the Dolls of 1973 from the Dolls of 2006; but this nothing is precisely the most important thing. It is precisely such a nothing that the early Dolls, with their rejection of transcendence and deliverance, expressed so powerfully, expressing the inexpressible, affirming the absolutely singular — and that the new album fails to express at all. It’s the very postmodern experience of non-originality and non-authenticity that the early Dolls make into a positive experience, while the new version simply takes it for granted as a negation.

I should add that it is from the point of view of this aestheticism, which is ultimately an aestheticism of nothing, that I resist and refuse the current calls, from the likes of Badiou and Zizek, for us to reject postmodern multiplicity, perspectivism, relativism, artifice, and value-negation, and instead make some sort of return to the universal. There is more than a whiff of nihilistic desperation in Badiou’s and Zizek’s universalism. Such universalism is much more Nietzsche than Hegel, with its willful invocation of the Event as the point of a life-changing affirmation. This is precisely to turn the singularity of the Event, which is aesthetic and incomparable, into an ethical imperative, thereby destroying the singularity, making it into an exchangeable standard, in the very act of supposedly affirming it. This means asserting one side of Kant’s antinomy of aesthetic judgment — the universal communicability and compulsion to extort agreement — while entirely forgetting the other side — the continuing incommensurability of the singular aesthetic experience.

11 Responses to “New York Dolls”

  1. Ken says:

    Wow! I have to say this is really, really a dazzling piece of writing. I was daydreaming along, vaguely recalling the very little I ever even heard about the New York Dolls (never really my thing — surprise!) and ready to click out when you revealed the (non)relationship of this idiosyncratic piece of music criticism to rather “universal” concerns. I would love to hear more about Marx in relation to this Kantian antimony as you illuminate it here. One quibble (can’t be too gushing) on the conclusing allusion to Badiou and Zizek and their “likes”, imploring you to preserve some incommensurability: I think you are a bit harsh on Badiou. As you suggest, his notion of the Event is actually not that different from the “absolute singularity and incomparability” of the Kantian aesthetic moment… of the reasons he struggles so to locate and talk about “authentic” Events. They are few and far between in his scheme of things and he struggles continuously with distinguishing between them and simulacra — his rendering precludes volition. In his rendering the Event is not a willful invocation at all. Indeed, he struggles to preserve the very Kantian antimony (in toto) you say he ignores, pointing out again and again how the singular (the One) makes possible the universal (and thus the appearance of a vice versa). The singular continuing incommensurability of the event is preserved in the tear or cut it makes in the void of Being. Zizekian explications of Badiou are your rightful target. But, again, simply a wonderful and exciting post.

  2. May says:

    Sorry, this comment has nothing to do with the album you are reviewing.
    My question is: why “Pinocchio” theory?
    I know Collodi’s story but perhaps it is not enough to understand…

  3. May, “The Pinocchio Theory” is the name of a song by Bootsy Collins and Bootsy’s Rubber Band.

  4. May says:

    I see. Thank you. They must have read that story.

  5. faust says:

    I love your writings (including Doom Patrols and Connected, truly brilliant books), but I really don`t understand you tastes in music that seems to focus only on mainstream stuff. Maybe I`m wrong, maybe you just use New York Dolls and Missy Elliot to make your theoretical digressions and than listen to obscure progressive doom albums all day long, but if I`m not, well, music has never been as good as today and the merit goes entirely to independent labels and to thousands of underground bands. I know they are hard to find if you are not into a specific scene so here are some good ones, you know, if you ever feel like trying something new. I wrote down band name, album and a song reference if you want to download something. These all fall under the big post-hardcore genre:

    Circle takes the Square__Album: “As the roots undo”__Song: “Non objective portrait of karma”

    Majority rule__Album: “Interviews with David Frost”__Song:”XOXO”

    City of caterpillar __Album:“s/t”__Song: “Maybe they`ll gnaw right through”

    Converge__Album: “Jane Doe” (ok, this is not exactly undergound, but still, very postmodern)__Song:”Jane Doe”

    Mouth of the architect__Album: “the ties that blind”__Song:”None wished to settle here”

  6. Nate says:

    hi Steve,

    Great post. I don’t really know the Dolls, but I have the same feelings about the reformed Misfits and the Dead Kennedys.

    I can’t speak to Zizek but I disagree with you on Badiou. Badiou’s pretty good on retaining multiplicity in what I’ve read of him, such that universality instead of multiplicity is not the move he makes. Your aestheticism of the nothing might also be read fruitfully in dialog with Badiou’s insistence on the centrality of the void.
    There is a real difficulty here which stretches back at least to german idealism (and this stretching back makes claims to novelty under postmodernity less convincing). The identification of phenomena as fitting under the term ‘singularity’ means that those phenomena are at least in one register not singular and different from each other – they have in common with each other their having almost nothing in common (perhaps the minimum possible amount of in-commonness) with anything else. They also have in common with everything their having of predicates and belonging to some category. This means “absolute difference” is a performative contradiction. To my mind, all of this is an argument against talking about things and being and instead talking about subjects and judgments of relations between things-for-subjects.

    All of that aside, I found two things you may be interested in re: Marx and (in)exchangability, and Negri. The first is rather long but the passage I’m thinking of isn’t so much, it starts under the heading “Simple Labor”. That piece is here –

    The second is here –

    take care,

  7. May says:

    Since I read this post, I stumbled into two newspaper articles concerning this band.
    Sometimes one is not able to observe things until someone tells him/her that they exist.

  8. henrik says:

    Hello Steven,

    This might be a bit off topic, since its not in any way related to the dolls.

    Its been a few years since I read Kant now, but one thing I’ve been wondering about since then is if there are any studies on the relation between Kants conception of trancendental subreption in On the trancendental ideal in CPR (of course theres also §27 of CJ on the sublime)and Marx’ conception of commodity fetishism. I’ve looked around (but I can’t say I’ve searched very thoroghly) but I havent been able to find any articles etc. It seems to me there are certain interesting similarities (and of course obvious dissimilarities) in Kants elaboration on the substitution of regulative for consitutive principles and Marx the fetish. So could you point to some books/articles and is this perhaps something you adress in your upcoming book?

  9. Henrik, thanks for this suggestion re: Kant and Marx. I’ve been mostly working with Kojin Karatani’s Transcritique, which suggests links between Marx and Kant’s Antinomies from the 1st Critique. I think that the other parts of the “Transcendental Dialectic,” i.e. the Paralogisms and the Ideal (as you suggest) are very much worthy of a look as well in relation to Marx.

  10. This is really really great music writing, the kind I like to read — a combination of personal taste and insight, music history, and theory. If you haven’t already seen it, you may want to check out the documentary New York Doll — It’s one of the better music documentaries of recent times.

  11. May says:

    A quiz for the owner of this blog: “Bauhaus” was originally the name of a band or of something else?

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