Pop Conference

The Pop Music Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle is one of the best conferences I have ever been to — I’ve gone for three of the four yearly conferences so far. It’s great because you get a whole group of people who are really passionate about talking and thinking about popular music, and because the mixture of academics and music journalists leads to talks and discussions that are far more interesting than you would get from either group alone.

The theme for next year’s conference is: “”Ain’t That a Shame”: Loving Music in the Shadow of Doubt.” (You can read the details of the Call For Papers on the site). Anyway, here’s my 250-word proposal for the conference (I don’t think I will hear whether or not I’ve been accepted until February or so):

What Will the Neighbors Say?: Girls Aloud, the Blogosphere, and Me

My most embarrassing musical enthusiasm is undoubtedly my passion for Girls Aloud. This is not just because the Girls embody “sexy” female stereotypes so tiredly stereotypical that it’s hard to imagine anyone over the age of 12 lusting after or identifying with them; nor even because the group was created on a reality TV show so crass as to make American Idol seem positively authentic in comparison. But also because Girls Aloud, although a bit hit in the UK, have not been marketed or released in the US, which means that my American fan appreciation of them is entirely mediated through the Web. I have little real sense of the cultural and media context in which Girls Aloud operate. While I think their music is great on purely pop-formalist grounds, I remain unable to place them as cultural icons. Girls Aloud are sufficiently bizarre and extreme, at least in the displaced way I apprehend them, that they seem not to take one obvious side in the old pop vs. authenticity debate, but to displace the terms of dispute altogether. I remain suspended between the various bloggers’ estimations of them I have read, ranging from Tim of The Wrong Side of Capitalism, who asserts that “Girls Aloud create a genuine crack in bourgeois ideology,” to Simon Reynolds in his blissblog, who sneers that “even their most passionate and unstintingly analytical fans cannot distinguish between the girls’ voices on record (although some seem to be able to tell them apart okay as fantasy fuckmates).” My talk is an attempt to work through these confusions.

The Pop Music Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle is one of the best conferences I have ever been to — I’ve gone for three of the four yearly conferences so far. It’s great because you get a whole group of people who are really passionate about talking and thinking about popular music, and because the mixture of academics and music journalists leads to talks and discussions that are far more interesting than you would get from either group alone.

The theme for next year’s conference is: “”Ain’t That a Shame”: Loving Music in the Shadow of Doubt.” (You can read the details of the Call For Papers on the site). Anyway, here’s my 250-word proposal for the conference (I don’t think I will hear whether or not I’ve been accepted until February or so):

What Will the Neighbors Say?: Girls Aloud, the Blogosphere, and Me

My most embarrassing musical enthusiasm is undoubtedly my passion for Girls Aloud. This is not just because the Girls embody “sexy” female stereotypes so tiredly stereotypical that it’s hard to imagine anyone over the age of 12 lusting after or identifying with them; nor even because the group was created on a reality TV show so crass as to make American Idol seem positively authentic in comparison. But also because Girls Aloud, although a bit hit in the UK, have not been marketed or released in the US, which means that my American fan appreciation of them is entirely mediated through the Web. I have little real sense of the cultural and media context in which Girls Aloud operate. While I think their music is great on purely pop-formalist grounds, I remain unable to place them as cultural icons. Girls Aloud are sufficiently bizarre and extreme, at least in the displaced way I apprehend them, that they seem not to take one obvious side in the old pop vs. authenticity debate, but to displace the terms of dispute altogether. I remain suspended between the various bloggers’ estimations of them I have read, ranging from Tim of The Wrong Side of Capitalism, who asserts that “Girls Aloud create a genuine crack in bourgeois ideology,” to Simon Reynolds in his blissblog, who sneers that “even their most passionate and unstintingly analytical fans cannot distinguish between the girls’ voices on record (although some seem to be able to tell them apart okay as fantasy fuckmates).” My talk is an attempt to work through these confusions.

Music Top Ten

So here’s my top ten albums list for 2005. Usual caveats apply (there are lots of things I haven’t heard that I well might like if I did; I can’t always remember if something came out this past year or earlier; I might well feel differently tomorrow than I do today; etc.).

  1. M.I.A., Arular. After all the controversy, still the best beats of the year.
  2. Kevin Blechdom, Eat My Heart Out, which I just wrote about yesterday.
  3. Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out. Unearthly.
  4. Missy Elliott, The Cookbook. Missy in her commercially-calculated, humdrum, unambitious middling range (as I said here) is still superior to most rappers at their best.
  5. R. Kelly, Trapped in the Closet 1-12. I know the songs weren’t released together as an album — though they were as a DVD — but this musically minimal melodrama is so ridiculously over-the-top and go-for-broke crazy, how can I not love it?
  6. Lady Sovereign, Vertically Challenged. I adore the S-O-V and her demented, tough, and smart-alecky ways. So I have to list this EP, even though the versions of the songs, in this her first American release, are inferior to the UK versions I originally downloaded as mp3s (not to mention that some of her best stuff, like “Sad-Ass Strippah,” probably the most brilliant and vicious diss ever recorded, is not included here).
  7. Fannypack, See You Next Thursday. I can’t understand why this group isn’t more popular. I find their Miami-bass-goes-Brooklyn (with a touch of ESG down from the Bronx) synthesized music, and their sassy, cartoonish, jail-bait girl vocalists, irresistible.
  8. Vex’d, Degenerate. It’s strange channeling these new London sounds — grime and dubstep, though I know there are also other names — entirely through the blogosphere, without access to the scene in any more direct way. In any case, I find these doom-laden instrumentals quite haunting. (Doom-laden isn’t quite the right word, since “doom” implies finality, but the sense that there could be an end is precisely what this dark music denies us).
  9. Four Tet, Everything Ecstatic. Quite different in feel from his previous album — this one is more propulsive, less (seemingly) “organic” — but none of the other electronic-music-without-vocals that I’ve heard this year is anywhere near as metamorphic and light- and open-sounding (not to use the obvious cue of the title and say, ecstatic).
  10. Miranda Lambert, Kerosene. I don’t listen much to country, and basically I don’t get country at all, but nonetheless I find a lot of this oddly compelling.

So here’s my top ten albums list for 2005. Usual caveats apply (there are lots of things I haven’t heard that I well might like if I did; I can’t always remember if something came out this past year or earlier; I might well feel differently tomorrow than I do today; etc.).

  1. M.I.A., Arular. After all the controversy, still the best beats of the year.
  2. Kevin Blechdom, Eat My Heart Out, which I just wrote about yesterday.
  3. Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out. Unearthly.
  4. Missy Elliott, The Cookbook. Missy in her commercially-calculated, humdrum, unambitious middling range (as I said here) is still superior to most rappers at their best.
  5. R. Kelly, Trapped in the Closet 1-12. I know the songs weren’t released together as an album — though they were as a DVD — but this musically minimal melodrama is so ridiculously over-the-top and go-for-broke crazy, how can I not love it?
  6. Lady Sovereign, Vertically Challenged. I adore the S-O-V and her demented, tough, and smart-alecky ways. So I have to list this EP, even though the versions of the songs, in this her first American release, are inferior to the UK versions I originally downloaded as mp3s (not to mention that some of her best stuff, like “Sad-Ass Strippah,” probably the most brilliant and vicious diss ever recorded, is not included here).
  7. Fannypack, See You Next Thursday. I can’t understand why this group isn’t more popular. I find their Miami-bass-goes-Brooklyn (with a touch of ESG down from the Bronx) synthesized music, and their sassy, cartoonish, jail-bait girl vocalists, irresistible.
  8. Vex’d, Degenerate. It’s strange channeling these new London sounds — grime and dubstep, though I know there are also other names — entirely through the blogosphere, without access to the scene in any more direct way. In any case, I find these doom-laden instrumentals quite haunting. (Doom-laden isn’t quite the right word, since “doom” implies finality, but the sense that there could be an end is precisely what this dark music denies us).
  9. Four Tet, Everything Ecstatic. Quite different in feel from his previous album — this one is more propulsive, less (seemingly) “organic” — but none of the other electronic-music-without-vocals that I’ve heard this year is anywhere near as metamorphic and light- and open-sounding (not to use the obvious cue of the title and say, ecstatic).
  10. Miranda Lambert, Kerosene. I don’t listen much to country, and basically I don’t get country at all, but nonetheless I find a lot of this oddly compelling.

Eat My Heart Out

I’ve been listening a lot to — OK, I’ve developed a minor obsession with — Kevin Blechdom‘s album Eat My Heart Out (iTunes) (you can also buy un-DRMed mp3s of the album from Bleep).

The songs in Eat My Heart Out seem to tell the story of an unhappy love affair: they are about being in love, trying to get over a disappointed love, being dumped and not being able to stand it, hating the person you love because he dumped you, wanting revenge, pleading to be taken back, resolving to forget him and get on with your life, not being able to forget him and get on with your life, reveling in abjection, rejecting abjection and finding strength in yourself, realizing that he wasn’t worthy of you, and so on, and so on — only in no particular narrative order. There are 19 songs in 39 minutes; individual songs range in length from 0:19 to 3:19. It feels like they just come pouring out, breathlessly, one after another, in manic, hysterical confusion. Most of the songs are fast, though a few are slow; some are harshly dissonant, but most of them sound harmonically and melodically familiar, as if turns of melody everybody knows, cliches of pop music, in great variety, have come pouring out, only somewhat distorted, and also carnivalesque, as if they had been filtered through an alien consciousness that didn’t quite “get” human emotions. Or perhaps a better description would be that it’s like children’s music from Hell, pounding away on a toy piano (though I think the instrumentation is actually all or mostly electronic) — but anyway, the music is perversely upbeat and cheerful even as it is recounting nightmares, there are these simple little bouncy, dancelike refrains cycling over and over, layer over layer, except that often the music changes tack radically in mid-song. There’s also something a bit childlike, or perhaps better naive, about Kevin’s voice, I mean naive in the way she modulates from one passion to another without any sort of transition or attempt at plausibility in the shifts, sort of like she’s singing an opera (or a movie soundtrack) whose arias are all melodramatic, and out of proportion with the feelings they recount, with heartfelt choruses and everything, but not logically connected in any way. One moment she’s sounds like she’s hyperventilating, screaming/crying, “I love you from the heart, so fuck you!!”; the next she sounds like she is gleefully reciting some twisted nursery rhyme. The effect is that of something almost naked in its intensity, and yet something totally theatrical and made up, at the same time; crediting the album with either sincerity or irony — or trying to distinguish between the two — would seem to be utterly beside the point. The rush from one song, one mood, to the next, is so frantic, and so unmediated, that it is almost as if all the attitudes, all the affects, all the possibilities, all the stages of a failed relationship, somehow coexisted simultaneously. I’ve often written about how the theatricality of melodrama makes emotions seem “real” precisely because they are distanced by being placed “in quotation marks.” I don’t quite know how to formulate this, but Eat My Heart Out seems to me like the exact inverse of melodrama, as if all its emotions seem formally patterned and aesthetically distanced, a detached and cynical game of some sort, precisely because they are so raw and immediate at the same time. If that makes any sense at all? This music is doing very strange things to my head, and I can’t stop listening to it.

I’ve been listening a lot to — OK, I’ve developed a minor obsession with — Kevin Blechdom‘s album Eat My Heart Out (iTunes) (you can also buy un-DRMed mp3s of the album from Bleep).

The songs in Eat My Heart Out seem to tell the story of an unhappy love affair: they are about being in love, trying to get over a disappointed love, being dumped and not being able to stand it, hating the person you love because he dumped you, wanting revenge, pleading to be taken back, resolving to forget him and get on with your life, not being able to forget him and get on with your life, reveling in abjection, rejecting abjection and finding strength in yourself, realizing that he wasn’t worthy of you, and so on, and so on — only in no particular narrative order. There are 19 songs in 39 minutes; individual songs range in length from 0:19 to 3:19. It feels like they just come pouring out, breathlessly, one after another, in manic, hysterical confusion. Most of the songs are fast, though a few are slow; some are harshly dissonant, but most of them sound harmonically and melodically familiar, as if turns of melody everybody knows, cliches of pop music, in great variety, have come pouring out, only somewhat distorted, and also carnivalesque, as if they had been filtered through an alien consciousness that didn’t quite “get” human emotions. Or perhaps a better description would be that it’s like children’s music from Hell, pounding away on a toy piano (though I think the instrumentation is actually all or mostly electronic) — but anyway, the music is perversely upbeat and cheerful even as it is recounting nightmares, there are these simple little bouncy, dancelike refrains cycling over and over, layer over layer, except that often the music changes tack radically in mid-song. There’s also something a bit childlike, or perhaps better naive, about Kevin’s voice, I mean naive in the way she modulates from one passion to another without any sort of transition or attempt at plausibility in the shifts, sort of like she’s singing an opera (or a movie soundtrack) whose arias are all melodramatic, and out of proportion with the feelings they recount, with heartfelt choruses and everything, but not logically connected in any way. One moment she’s sounds like she’s hyperventilating, screaming/crying, “I love you from the heart, so fuck you!!”; the next she sounds like she is gleefully reciting some twisted nursery rhyme. The effect is that of something almost naked in its intensity, and yet something totally theatrical and made up, at the same time; crediting the album with either sincerity or irony — or trying to distinguish between the two — would seem to be utterly beside the point. The rush from one song, one mood, to the next, is so frantic, and so unmediated, that it is almost as if all the attitudes, all the affects, all the possibilities, all the stages of a failed relationship, somehow coexisted simultaneously. I’ve often written about how the theatricality of melodrama makes emotions seem “real” precisely because they are distanced by being placed “in quotation marks.” I don’t quite know how to formulate this, but Eat My Heart Out seems to me like the exact inverse of melodrama, as if all its emotions seem formally patterned and aesthetically distanced, a detached and cynical game of some sort, precisely because they are so raw and immediate at the same time. If that makes any sense at all? This music is doing very strange things to my head, and I can’t stop listening to it.

Mark Anthony Neal on Jay-Z

I am happy to announce the second DeRoy Lecture of the 2005-2006 school year. Mark Anthony Neal, professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University, and author of books on hip hop, r&b, and “black masculinity,” will be speaking about Jay-Z.

The talk is tomorrow, Thursday, October 20, at 3pm, at Wayne State University in the English Department Conference Room (suite 10302, 5057 Woodward).

I am happy to announce the second DeRoy Lecture of the 2005-2006 school year. Mark Anthony Neal, professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University, and author of books on hip hop, r&b, and “black masculinity,” will be speaking about Jay-Z.

The talk is tomorrow, Thursday, October 20, at 3pm, at Wayne State University in the English Department Conference Room (suite 10302, 5057 Woodward).

The Cookbook

Some scattered remarks on Missy Elliott’s latest, The Cookbook (iTunes).

  1. Missy really is the best. Hip hop is largely a boy’s/man’s game; women are usually more successful in (and more identified with) r&b. Although there were successful women hip hop artists who preceded Missy (Roxannne Shante; Queen Latifah; Salt ‘n’ Pepa; Lil’ Kim; etc.; for that matter, I still love Sha-Rock of the Funky Four Plus One) none of them have been so successful for so long as Missy has. And I’m talking power and authority and artistic success, not just sales figures. In The Cookbook, once again, Missy (seemingly effortlessly) beats the boys at their own game.
  2. Snap, crackle, and pop. Even though there are only two Timbaland tracks this time, nearly every cut in The Cookbook is bursting at the seams with rhythmic vitality. The Neptunes outdo themselves in “On and On,” with its monster bass and its dynamic burbling/gurgling. Rich Harrison surpasses anything he’s done for Amerie with “Can’t Stop.” Missy herself produces some killer tracks, especially “Lose Control” with its transversal Juan Atkins sample.
  3. Missy insists on the links between hip hop and r&b. It isn’t just a matter of putting a rapper’s guest verse inside an r&b song, or of having an r&b chorus in a rap; but of mixing and matching the genres, and of moving fluidly back and forth between them. Mixing and matching the genres also means mixing and matching the genders. Missy insists on this fluidity by the way she orchestrates the guest appearances on the album: having Ciara sing a bar a capella in the middle of “Lose Control”; having Mary G. Blige rap instead of sing; and (moving beyond r&b to dance hall and I’m not sure what) uniting Vybez Cartel and M.I.A. on the album’s final cut. The r&b slow jams in The Cookbook, by the way, are gorgeous.
  4. Missy’s own voice needs more recognition than it has hitherto received. There are endless nuances to her tone and delivery: both between songs (compare the slyly seductive boasting of “On and On” to the hard-edged aggressiveness of “Mommy,” the song in which Missy announces that “in 2005, the industry will be pussywhipped”), and from line to line within individual songs. The beauty of Missy’s inflections is even greater than the beauty of her innuendoes.
  5. For that matter, Missy’s lyrics repay attention more than you might think. On the surface, they seem straightforward and banal: either she’s boasting about how great she is, or she’s repeating the familiar r&b themes about love and sex (the latter in moods that range from tender to raunchy). But listen closer: beneath the familiar framework, these lyrics are as filled with wordplay and dense allusions and self-reflexivity as Bob Dylan’s lyrics are. No doubt many people will find this assertion outrageous; but I think that banal obviousness plays precisely the same role in Missy’s words as willful obscurantism plays in Dylan’s: in both cases the question of meaning (all-too-clear in the one case and all-too-unclear in the other) is a red herring, a sleight-of-hand to distract us from (and thereby make us all the more vulnerable to) the real life of the songs, which takes place on a level before meaning, a level of infra-meanings and emotional feints and jabs and fluctuations.
  6. Nonetheless, I simply don’t believe the love songs on this album. Missy is just too butch for me to find the oh-I’m-so-deeply-in-love sentiments in cuts like “Irresistible Delicious” and especially “My Man” to be at all credible. As for the hymn to fellatio that is “Meltdown” — “bet it tastes like candy” — let’s just say that her ode to sex toys on This Is Not A Test fit better with her persona, as do the songs here about female sexual satisfaction, about the woman being in control (like the already-mentioned “Can’t Stop” and “Mommy”.
  7. I loathed the three “skits” interspersed into the album. The opening Latina monologue is pointless at best, and I wondered about why the accent; the one with the Asian manicurist is racist and offensive; the closing phone message is just inane and stupid.
  8. If — in spite of all I’ve said so far — I have an overall objection to, or sense of disappointment with The Cookbook, it has to do with a sense that Missy is just coasting, rather than pushing boundaries or pushing herself. Of course, from a commercial point of view, that is probably the right calculation; but I can’t help wishing/hoping/thinking that Missy has a strong enough position in the industry that she could eat her cake and have it too. The first few listens, I was inclined to agree with Julianne Shepherd that somehow the album seemed less than the sum of its parts, great in theory but not transporting the listener (Julianne or me) in practice. Now that I’ve listened a number of more times, I find that even the lesser cuts on the album tend to grow on me. But I still can’t entirely shake the sense that the whole album is too calculated, too willed, too much this-is-a-commodity-and-nothing-more. (Which is not to imply romantically that there is a category of supreme music that isn’t calculated, willed, commodified-from-the-start; it’s the “and-nothing-more” part that bothers me. There’s a certain wildness, or ecstasy, that’s missing; not that I can think of anything else released in recent months that has it…)

Some scattered remarks on Missy Elliott’s latest, The Cookbook (iTunes).

  1. Missy really is the best. Hip hop is largely a boy’s/man’s game; women are usually more successful in (and more identified with) r&b. Although there were successful women hip hop artists who preceded Missy (Roxannne Shante; Queen Latifah; Salt ‘n’ Pepa; Lil’ Kim; etc.; for that matter, I still love Sha-Rock of the Funky Four Plus One) none of them have been so successful for so long as Missy has. And I’m talking power and authority and artistic success, not just sales figures. In The Cookbook, once again, Missy (seemingly effortlessly) beats the boys at their own game.
  2. Snap, crackle, and pop. Even though there are only two Timbaland tracks this time, nearly every cut in The Cookbook is bursting at the seams with rhythmic vitality. The Neptunes outdo themselves in “On and On,” with its monster bass and its dynamic burbling/gurgling. Rich Harrison surpasses anything he’s done for Amerie with “Can’t Stop.” Missy herself produces some killer tracks, especially “Lose Control” with its transversal Juan Atkins sample.
  3. Missy insists on the links between hip hop and r&b. It isn’t just a matter of putting a rapper’s guest verse inside an r&b song, or of having an r&b chorus in a rap; but of mixing and matching the genres, and of moving fluidly back and forth between them. Mixing and matching the genres also means mixing and matching the genders. Missy insists on this fluidity by the way she orchestrates the guest appearances on the album: having Ciara sing a bar a capella in the middle of “Lose Control”; having Mary G. Blige rap instead of sing; and (moving beyond r&b to dance hall and I’m not sure what) uniting Vybez Cartel and M.I.A. on the album’s final cut. The r&b slow jams in The Cookbook, by the way, are gorgeous.
  4. Missy’s own voice needs more recognition than it has hitherto received. There are endless nuances to her tone and delivery: both between songs (compare the slyly seductive boasting of “On and On” to the hard-edged aggressiveness of “Mommy,” the song in which Missy announces that “in 2005, the industry will be pussywhipped”), and from line to line within individual songs. The beauty of Missy’s inflections is even greater than the beauty of her innuendoes.
  5. For that matter, Missy’s lyrics repay attention more than you might think. On the surface, they seem straightforward and banal: either she’s boasting about how great she is, or she’s repeating the familiar r&b themes about love and sex (the latter in moods that range from tender to raunchy). But listen closer: beneath the familiar framework, these lyrics are as filled with wordplay and dense allusions and self-reflexivity as Bob Dylan’s lyrics are. No doubt many people will find this assertion outrageous; but I think that banal obviousness plays precisely the same role in Missy’s words as willful obscurantism plays in Dylan’s: in both cases the question of meaning (all-too-clear in the one case and all-too-unclear in the other) is a red herring, a sleight-of-hand to distract us from (and thereby make us all the more vulnerable to) the real life of the songs, which takes place on a level before meaning, a level of infra-meanings and emotional feints and jabs and fluctuations.
  6. Nonetheless, I simply don’t believe the love songs on this album. Missy is just too butch for me to find the oh-I’m-so-deeply-in-love sentiments in cuts like “Irresistible Delicious” and especially “My Man” to be at all credible. As for the hymn to fellatio that is “Meltdown” — “bet it tastes like candy” — let’s just say that her ode to sex toys on This Is Not A Test fit better with her persona, as do the songs here about female sexual satisfaction, about the woman being in control (like the already-mentioned “Can’t Stop” and “Mommy”.
  7. I loathed the three “skits” interspersed into the album. The opening Latina monologue is pointless at best, and I wondered about why the accent; the one with the Asian manicurist is racist and offensive; the closing phone message is just inane and stupid.
  8. If — in spite of all I’ve said so far — I have an overall objection to, or sense of disappointment with The Cookbook, it has to do with a sense that Missy is just coasting, rather than pushing boundaries or pushing herself. Of course, from a commercial point of view, that is probably the right calculation; but I can’t help wishing/hoping/thinking that Missy has a strong enough position in the industry that she could eat her cake and have it too. The first few listens, I was inclined to agree with Julianne Shepherd that somehow the album seemed less than the sum of its parts, great in theory but not transporting the listener (Julianne or me) in practice. Now that I’ve listened a number of more times, I find that even the lesser cuts on the album tend to grow on me. But I still can’t entirely shake the sense that the whole album is too calculated, too willed, too much this-is-a-commodity-and-nothing-more. (Which is not to imply romantically that there is a category of supreme music that isn’t calculated, willed, commodified-from-the-start; it’s the “and-nothing-more” part that bothers me. There’s a certain wildness, or ecstasy, that’s missing; not that I can think of anything else released in recent months that has it…)

Underground Resistance

Tonight at Fuse-In, the Detroit techno music festival, I saw/heard the legendary Underground Resistance (performing under the name, one of their many pseudonyms, Galaxy 2 Galaxy). It was a great hour and a half (almost) of music, cool and yet bombarding the senses, with UR’s pounding rhythms and sheets of (often melodic) sound. But the set extended beyond basic Underground Resistance, as they showcased other affiliated performers (including Los Hermanos and Red Planet), and sometimes dancers, and played in a range of styles, including nods to Motown and Carlos Santana. All in all, the set was less SF/futuristic than it was multicultural/fusion: I mean a hard-edged multicultural, not the sappy corporate/liberal kind. A projection screen behind them showed/mixed images that ranged from kung fu film shots to Native American dances to stills of such figures as Frederick Douglass, Mother Teresa, and MLK/Malcolm. The set went by in a rush. At the end, Mike Banks said to the crowd, “you’ve been schooled.”

Tonight at Fuse-In, the Detroit techno music festival, I saw/heard the legendary Underground Resistance (performing under the name, one of their many pseudonyms, Galaxy 2 Galaxy). It was a great hour and a half (almost) of music, cool and yet bombarding the senses, with UR’s pounding rhythms and sheets of (often melodic) sound. But the set extended beyond basic Underground Resistance, as they showcased other affiliated performers (including Los Hermanos and Red Planet), and sometimes dancers, and played in a range of styles, including nods to Motown and Carlos Santana. All in all, the set was less SF/futuristic than it was multicultural/fusion: I mean a hard-edged multicultural, not the sappy corporate/liberal kind. A projection screen behind them showed/mixed images that ranged from kung fu film shots to Native American dances to stills of such figures as Frederick Douglass, Mother Teresa, and MLK/Malcolm. The set went by in a rush. At the end, Mike Banks (I presume it was) said to the crowd, “you’ve been schooled.”

Save CBGBs!

Action is needed now, to save CBGB’s, the club on the Bowery in New York City where American punk music really got its start in the late 1970s. I won’t pontificate like an old geezer on the evenings I spent there in 1977-1979. I’ll just say that CBGBs is part of musical history, and doesn’t deserve to be destroyed by the forces of gentrification. Nightspore alerted me to this, and he has more information here; the official “Save CBGBs” page is here.

On and On

“On and On,” the new Missy Elliott song from her forthcoming album Cookbook, is really amazing: gurgling synthesizer lines over a heavy booming beat, and the art of declamation honed sharp as a razor. Wow. Produced, not by Timbaland, but by the Neptunes, and one of their best tracks ever (enough to make you forget “Milkshake”or “Drop It Like It’s Hot”).

Attali’s Noise

Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music made something of a stir when it was published roughly a quarter-century ago (it came out in France in 1977, and in English translation in 1985). Noise comes from a time when “theory” had greater ambitions than it does today; it’s an audacious, ambitious book, linking the production, performance, and consumption of music to fundamental questions of power and order in society. I read it for the first time in many years, in order to see how well it holds up in the 21st century.

Noise presents itself as a “universal history”: it presents a schema of four historical phases, which it claims are valid for all of human history and culture (or at least for European history and culture: Attali, like so many European thinkers, consigns everything that lies outside Europe and its Near Eastern antecedents to a vague and undifferentiated ‘primitive’ category, as if there were no differences worth noting among them, and nothing that any of these other cultures could offer that was different from the European lineage). The mania for “universal history” was strong among late-20th-century Parisian thinkers; both Deleuze & Guattari, and Baudrillard, offer such grand formulations. Though I doubt that any of these schemas are “true” — they leave out too much, oversimplify, reduce the number of actual structural orders — at their best (as, I would argue, in Deleuze & Guattari, in the “Savages, Barbarians, Civilized Men” section of Anti-Oedipus, and in the chapter “On Several Regimes of Signs” in A Thousand Plateaus) they are richly suggestive, and help us at least to trace the genealogy of what we take for granted in the present, and to see the contingency of, and the possibility therefore of differing from, what we take for granted in the present. Attali’s “universal history,” however, is much weaker than Deleuze and Guattari’s; it really just consists in shunting everything that is pre-capitalist, or simply non-capitalist, into a single category.

Still, Attali offers some valuable, or at least thought-provoking, insights. Music is the organization of sound; by channelling certain sounds in certain orders, it draws a distinction between sounds that are legitimate, and those that are not: the latter are relegated to the (negative) category of “noise.” Music, like other arts, is often idealized as the imposition of form upon chaos (Wallace Stevens’ “blessed rage for order”). Attali rightly insists that there’s a politics at work here: behind the idealization, there’s an act of exclusion. The history of music can be read as a series of battles for legitimation, disputes over what is acceptable as sound, and what is only “noise” (think of the rise of dissonance in European concert music in the 19th and early 20th centuries: or the way punk in the late 1970s, like many other movements before and since, affirmed “noise” against the gentility of mainstream pop and officially sanctioned rock, or why Public Enemy wanted to “Bring the Noise,” a gesture at once aesthetic and political).

Now, the imposition of order is always a kind of violence, albeit one that claims to put an end to violence. The State has a legal monopoly of violence, and this is what allows it to provide peace and security to its citizens. This is why, as Foucault put it, “the history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning.” Attali draws an analogy — actually, more than an analogy, virtually an identity — between the imposition of order in society, and the imposition of sonic order that is music. Social order and musical order don’t just formally resemble one another; since music is inherently social and communal, music as an action (rather than a product), like Orpheus’ taming of the beasts, is itself part of the imposition of order, the suppression of violence by a monopolization of violence. Music excludes the violence of noise (unwanted sound) by violently imposing order upon sound. And music is addressed to everybody — it “interpellates” us into society. Music thus plays a central role in social order — which is why Plato, for instance, was so concerned with only allowing the ‘right’ sorts of music into his Republic; and why the Nazis paid so much attention to music (favoring Wagner and patriotic songs, and banning “degenerate” music like jazz).

Attali specifies this further by assimilating music to sacrifice, as the primordial religious origin of all social order. I find this a powerful and deeply suggestive insight, even though Attali understands the logic of sacrifice in the terms set forth by Rene Girard, rather than in the much richer and more ambiguous formulations of Georges Bataille.(To my mind, everything Girard says can be traced back to Bataille, but Girard only offers us a reductive, normalized, idealized, and overly pious version of Bataille. The impulsion to sacrifice, the use of the scapegoat as sacrificial substitution, the creation of community by mutual implication in the sacrifice, and so on — all these can only be understood in the context of Bataille’s notion of expenditure, and in relation to Maussian gift economies; only in this way can we see how sacrifice, in its religious and erotic, as well as political dimensions, doesn’t just rescue us from “mimetic rivalry,” but also institutes a whole set of unequal power relations).

In any case: music as a sacrificial practice, and more generally as a form of “community” (a word which I leave in quotes because I don’t want to forget its ambiguous, and often obnoxious, connotations), is central to the way that order exists in a given society. Music is not a mere part of what traditional Marxists called the “superstructure”; rather, it is directly one of the arenas in which the power struggles that shape and change the society take place. (These “power struggles” might be Marxist class warfare, or Foucauldian conflicts of power and resistance seeping up from below and interfering with one another, or indeed the more peaceful contentions, governed by a “social contract,” that are noted by liberal political theory). Attali argues that music is one of the foremost spheres in which the struggles, inventions, innovations, and mutations that determine the structure of society take place; and therefore that music is in a strong sense “prophetic,” in that its changes anticipate and forecast what happens in society as a whole.

All this is background, really; though music’s “Sacrificing” role is the first of Attali’s four historical phases. Attali’s real interest (and mine as well), and the subject of his three remaining historical phases, is what happens to music under capitalism. The 19th century concert hall is the center of the phase of “Representing.” The ritual function of music in “primitive” societies, and even in Europe up to feudalism and beyond, gets dissolved as a result of the growth of mercantile, and then industrial capitalism. Music is separated from everyday life; it becomes a specialized social function, with specialized producers and performers. The musician becomes a servant of the Court in 17th and 18th century Europe; by the 19th century, with the rise to power of the bourgeoisie after the French Revolution, the musician must become an entrepreneur. Music “become[s] institutionalized as a commodity,” and “acquire[s] an autonomous status and monetary value,” for the first time in human history (51). The musical emphasis on harmony in this period is strictly correlated, according to Attali, with an economic system based upon exchange, and the equilibrium that is supposed to result from processes of orderly economic exchange. Music and money both work, in the 19th century, according to a logic of representation. Money is the representation of physical goods, in the same way that the parliament, in representative democracy, is the representation of the populace. And the resolution of harmonic conflict in the course of 19th century compositions works alongside the resolution of conflicting desires through the (supposed) equilibrium of the “free market.” In the cases both of music and the market, sacrifice is repressed and disavowed, and replaced by what is both the representation of (social and musical) harmony, and the imposition of harmony through the process of representation itself. Playing on the multiple French meanings of the word “representation,” Attali includes in all this the formal “representation” (in English, more idiomatically, the “performance”) of music in the concert hall as the main process by means of which music is disseminated. The links Attali draws here are all quite clever, and much of it might even be true.

Finally, though, however important a role representation continues to play in the ideology of late-capitalist society, the twentieth century has effectively moved beyond it. For Attali, the crucial development is the invention of the phonograph, the radio, and other means of mechanical (and now, electronic) reproduction and dissemination: this is what brings music (and society) out of the stage of “Representing” and into one grounded instead in “Repeating.” Of course, Attali is scarcely the first theorist to point out how radically these technologies have changed the ways in which we experience music. Nor is he alone in noting how these changes — with musical recordings becoming primary, rather than their being merely reproductions of ‘real’ live performances — can be correlated with the hypercommodification of music. More originally, Attali comments on the “stockpiling” of recordings: in effect, once I buy a record or CD or file, I don’t really have to listen to the music contained therein: the essence of consumption lies in purchasing and collecting, not in “using” the music through actual listening. He also makes an ingenious parallel between the pre-programmed and managed production of “pop” music, and the instrumental rationality of musical avant-gardes (both the serialists of the 50s and the minimalists of the 70s). But all in all, “Repeating” is the weakest chapter of Noise, because for the most part Attali pretty much just echoes Adorno’s notorious critique of popular music. I’d argue — as I have implicitly suggested in previous posts — that the real problem with Adorno’s and Attali’s denunciations is that they content themselves with essentially lazy and obvious criticisms of commodity culture, while failing to plumb the commodity experience to its depths, refusing to push it to its most extreme consequences. The only way out is through. The way to defend popular music against the Frankfurt School critique — not that I think it even needs to be defended — is not by taking refuge in notions of “authenticity” in order to deny its commodity status, but rather to work out how the power of this music comes out of — rather than existing in spite of — its commodity status, how it works through the logic of repetition and commodification, and pushes this further than any capitalist apologetics would find comfortable.

Such an approach is not easy to articulate; I haven’t yet succeeded in doing so, and I can’t blame Attali for not successfully doing so either. “Composing,” the brief last chapter of Noise, at least attempts just such a reinvention — in a way that Frankfurt School thinkers like Adorno would never accept. Which is why I liked this final chapter, even though in certain respects it feels quite dated. Attali here reverses the gloomy vision of his “Repeating” chapter, drawing on music from the 1960s (free jazz, as well as the usual rock icons), in order to envision a new historical stage, a liberated one entirely beyond the commodity, when music is no longer a product, but a process that is engaged in by everyone. Attali doesn’t really explain how each person can become his/her own active composer/producer of music, rather than just a passive listener; but what’s brilliant about the argument, nonetheless, is that it takes off from a hyperbolic intensification of the position of the consumer of recorded music (instead of negating this consumer as a good Hegelian Marxist would do). As the consumption of music (and of images) becomes ever more privatized and solipsistic, Attali says, it mutates into a practice of freedom:

Pleasure tied to the self-directed gaze: Narcissus after Echo… the consumer, completing the mutation that began with the tape recorder and photography, will thus become a producer and will derive at least as much of his satisfaction from the manufacturing process itself as from the object he produces. He will institute the spectacle of himself as the supreme usage. (144)

Writing before the Walkman, let alone the iPod and the new digital tools that can cut, paste, and rearrange sounds with just the click of a mouse, Attali seems to anticipate (or to find in the music of his time, which itself had a power of anticipation) our current culture of sampling, remixing, and file-trading, as well as the solipsistic enjoyment of music that Simon Reynolds finds so creepy (“those ads for ipods creep me out, the idea of people looking outwardly normal and repressed and grey-faced on the subway but inside they’re freaking out and going bliss-crazy”). And if Attali writes about these (anticipated) developments with some of the naive utopianism that has been so irritating among more recent cyber-visionaries, he has the excuse both of the time in which he was writing AND the fact that his vision makes more sense — as a project for liberation, rather than as a description of what technology all by itself is alleged to accomplish — in the context of, and counterposed to, the previous chapter’s Adornoesque rant. Despite all his irritating generalizations and dubiously overstated claims, Attali may really have been on to something here. The problem, of course, is how to follow it up.

Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music made something of a stir when it was published roughly a quarter-century ago (it came out in France in 1977, and in English translation in 1985). Noise comes from a time when “theory” had greater ambitions than it does today; it’s an audacious, ambitious book, linking the production, performance, and consumption of music to fundamental questions of power and order in society. I read it for the first time in many years, in order to see how well it holds up in the 21st century.

Noise presents itself as a “universal history”: it presents a schema of four historical phases, which it claims are valid for all of human history and culture (or at least for European history and culture: Attali, like so many European thinkers, consigns everything that lies outside Europe and its Near Eastern antecedents to a vague and undifferentiated ‘primitive’ category, as if there were no differences worth noting among them, and nothing that any of these other cultures could offer that was different from the European lineage). The mania for “universal history” was strong among late-20th-century Parisian thinkers; both Deleuze & Guattari, and Baudrillard, offer such grand formulations. Though I doubt that any of these schemas are “true” — they leave out too much, oversimplify, reduce the number of actual structural orders — at their best (as, I would argue, in Deleuze & Guattari, in the “Savages, Barbarians, Civilized Men” section of Anti-Oedipus, and in the chapter “On Several Regimes of Signs” in A Thousand Plateaus) they are richly suggestive, and help us at least to trace the genealogy of what we take for granted in the present, and to see the contingency of, and the possibility therefore of differing from, what we take for granted in the present. Attali’s “universal history,” however, is much weaker than Deleuze and Guattari’s; it really just consists in shunting everything that is pre-capitalist, or simply non-capitalist, into a single category.

Still, Attali offers some valuable, or at least thought-provoking, insights. Music is the organization of sound; by channelling certain sounds in certain orders, it draws a distinction between sounds that are legitimate, and those that are not: the latter are relegated to the (negative) category of “noise.” Music, like other arts, is often idealized as the imposition of form upon chaos (Wallace Stevens’ “blessed rage for order”). Attali rightly insists that there’s a politics at work here: behind the idealization, there’s an act of exclusion. The history of music can be read as a series of battles for legitimation, disputes over what is acceptable as sound, and what is only “noise” (think of the rise of dissonance in European concert music in the 19th and early 20th centuries: or the way punk in the late 1970s, like many other movements before and since, affirmed “noise” against the gentility of mainstream pop and officially sanctioned rock, or why Public Enemy wanted to “Bring the Noise,” a gesture at once aesthetic and political).

Now, the imposition of order is always a kind of violence, albeit one that claims to put an end to violence. The State has a legal monopoly of violence, and this is what allows it to provide peace and security to its citizens. This is why, as Foucault put it, “the history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning.” Attali draws an analogy — actually, more than an analogy, virtually an identity — between the imposition of order in society, and the imposition of sonic order that is music. Social order and musical order don’t just formally resemble one another; since music is inherently social and communal, music as an action (rather than a product), like Orpheus’ taming of the beasts, is itself part of the imposition of order, the suppression of violence by a monopolization of violence. Music excludes the violence of noise (unwanted sound) by violently imposing order upon sound. And music is addressed to everybody — it “interpellates” us into society. Music thus plays a central role in social order — which is why Plato, for instance, was so concerned with only allowing the ‘right’ sorts of music into his Republic; and why the Nazis paid so much attention to music (favoring Wagner and patriotic songs, and banning “degenerate” music like jazz).

Attali specifies this further by assimilating music to sacrifice, as the primordial religious origin of all social order. I find this a powerful and deeply suggestive insight, even though Attali understands the logic of sacrifice in the terms set forth by Rene Girard, rather than in the much richer and more ambiguous formulations of Georges Bataille.(To my mind, everything Girard says can be traced back to Bataille, but Girard only offers us a reductive, normalized, idealized, and overly pious version of Bataille. The impulsion to sacrifice, the use of the scapegoat as sacrificial substitution, the creation of community by mutual implication in the sacrifice, and so on — all these can only be understood in the context of Bataille’s notion of expenditure, and in relation to Maussian gift economies; only in this way can we see how sacrifice, in its religious and erotic, as well as political dimensions, doesn’t just rescue us from “mimetic rivalry,” but also institutes a whole set of unequal power relations).

In any case: music as a sacrificial practice, and more generally as a form of “community” (a word which I leave in quotes because I don’t want to forget its ambiguous, and often obnoxious, connotations), is central to the way that order exists in a given society. Music is not a mere part of what traditional Marxists called the “superstructure”; rather, it is directly one of the arenas in which the power struggles that shape and change the society take place. (These “power struggles” might be Marxist class warfare, or Foucauldian conflicts of power and resistance seeping up from below and interfering with one another, or indeed the more peaceful contentions, governed by a “social contract,” that are noted by liberal political theory). Attali argues that music is one of the foremost spheres in which the struggles, inventions, innovations, and mutations that determine the structure of society take place; and therefore that music is in a strong sense “prophetic,” in that its changes anticipate and forecast what happens in society as a whole.

All this is background, really; though music’s “Sacrificing” role is the first of Attali’s four historical phases. Attali’s real interest (and mine as well), and the subject of his three remaining historical phases, is what happens to music under capitalism. The 19th century concert hall is the center of the phase of “Representing.” The ritual function of music in “primitive” societies, and even in Europe up to feudalism and beyond, gets dissolved as a result of the growth of mercantile, and then industrial capitalism. Music is separated from everyday life; it becomes a specialized social function, with specialized producers and performers. The musician becomes a servant of the Court in 17th and 18th century Europe; by the 19th century, with the rise to power of the bourgeoisie after the French Revolution, the musician must become an entrepreneur. Music “become[s] institutionalized as a commodity,” and “acquire[s] an autonomous status and monetary value,” for the first time in human history (51). The musical emphasis on harmony in this period is strictly correlated, according to Attali, with an economic system based upon exchange, and the equilibrium that is supposed to result from processes of orderly economic exchange. Music and money both work, in the 19th century, according to a logic of representation. Money is the representation of physical goods, in the same way that the parliament, in representative democracy, is the representation of the populace. And the resolution of harmonic conflict in the course of 19th century compositions works alongside the resolution of conflicting desires through the (supposed) equilibrium of the “free market.” In the cases both of music and the market, sacrifice is repressed and disavowed, and replaced by what is both the representation of (social and musical) harmony, and the imposition of harmony through the process of representation itself. Playing on the multiple French meanings of the word “representation,” Attali includes in all this the formal “representation” (in English, more idiomatically, the “performance”) of music in the concert hall as the main process by means of which music is disseminated. The links Attali draws here are all quite clever, and much of it might even be true.

Finally, though, however important a role representation continues to play in the ideology of late-capitalist society, the twentieth century has effectively moved beyond it. For Attali, the crucial development is the invention of the phonograph, the radio, and other means of mechanical (and now, electronic) reproduction and dissemination: this is what brings music (and society) out of the stage of “Representing” and into one grounded instead in “Repeating.” Of course, Attali is scarcely the first theorist to point out how radically these technologies have changed the ways in which we experience music. Nor is he alone in noting how these changes — with musical recordings becoming primary, rather than their being merely reproductions of ‘real’ live performances — can be correlated with the hypercommodification of music. More originally, Attali comments on the “stockpiling” of recordings: in effect, once I buy a record or CD or file, I don’t really have to listen to the music contained therein: the essence of consumption lies in purchasing and collecting, not in “using” the music through actual listening. He also makes an ingenious parallel between the pre-programmed and managed production of “pop” music, and the instrumental rationality of musical avant-gardes (both the serialists of the 50s and the minimalists of the 70s). But all in all, “Repeating” is the weakest chapter of Noise, because for the most part Attali pretty much just echoes Adorno’s notorious critique of popular music. I’d argue — as I have implicitly suggested in previous posts — that the real problem with Adorno’s and Attali’s denunciations is that they content themselves with essentially lazy and obvious criticisms of commodity culture, while failing to plumb the commodity experience to its depths, refusing to push it to its most extreme consequences. The only way out is through. The way to defend popular music against the Frankfurt School critique — not that I think it even needs to be defended — is not by taking refuge in notions of “authenticity” in order to deny its commodity status, but rather to work out how the power of this music comes out of — rather than existing in spite of — its commodity status, how it works through the logic of repetition and commodification, and pushes this further than any capitalist apologetics would find comfortable.

Such an approach is not easy to articulate; I haven’t yet succeeded in doing so, and I can’t blame Attali for not successfully doing so either. “Composing,” the brief last chapter of Noise, at least attempts just such a reinvention — in a way that Frankfurt School thinkers like Adorno would never accept. Which is why I liked this final chapter, even though in certain respects it feels quite dated. Attali here reverses the gloomy vision of his “Repeating” chapter, drawing on music from the 1960s (free jazz, as well as the usual rock icons), in order to envision a new historical stage, a liberated one entirely beyond the commodity, when music is no longer a product, but a process that is engaged in by everyone. Attali doesn’t really explain how each person can become his/her own active composer/producer of music, rather than just a passive listener; but what’s brilliant about the argument, nonetheless, is that it takes off from a hyperbolic intensification of the position of the consumer of recorded music (instead of negating this consumer as a good Hegelian Marxist would do). As the consumption of music (and of images) becomes ever more privatized and solipsistic, Attali says, it mutates into a practice of freedom:

Pleasure tied to the self-directed gaze: Narcissus after Echo… the consumer, completing the mutation that began with the tape recorder and photography, will thus become a producer and will derive at least as much of his satisfaction from the manufacturing process itself as from the object he produces. He will institute the spectacle of himself as the supreme usage. (144)

Writing before the Walkman, let alone the iPod and the new digital tools that can cut, paste, and rearrange sounds with just the click of a mouse, Attali seems to anticipate (or to find in the music of his time, which itself had a power of anticipation) our current culture of sampling, remixing, and file-trading, as well as the solipsistic enjoyment of music that Simon Reynolds finds so creepy (“those ads for ipods creep me out, the idea of people looking outwardly normal and repressed and grey-faced on the subway but inside they’re freaking out and going bliss-crazy”). And if Attali writes about these (anticipated) developments with some of the naive utopianism that has been so irritating among more recent cyber-visionaries, he has the excuse both of the time in which he was writing AND the fact that his vision makes more sense — as a project for liberation, rather than as a description of what technology all by itself is alleged to accomplish — in the context of, and counterposed to, the previous chapter’s Adornoesque rant. Despite all his irritating generalizations and dubiously overstated claims, Attali may really have been on to something here. The problem, of course, is how to follow it up.

Pop Music

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.

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.