Friday, February 24, 2006

Whither the Philosophy of Pop?

[Crossposted (and somewhat further edited) on Long Sunday, where comments accumulate...]

    "Do you realize how ridiculous you must sound when you bring into the classroom, the place where should be taught universal truths, this [spluttering]…this rubbish. This is little more than a propoganda campaign for MTV. Pop caters to the lowest common denominator; the energy of pop is too often the testosterone-fueled energy of male adolescence; the languages of pop are impenetrable, ephemeral jargons; it locks into stereotypical patterns which relate purely to physiological artefacts and thus have no significance whatever to philosophy. Man will always have need of entertainment; this is not, however, philosophy; or even philosophically interesting. There is no philosophy, nor politics, in pop."
    -Grayson Darkling-Furniss

    "All poetry [Dichtung]"
    -Martin Heidegger

I have heard the phrases, "pop philosophy" or, "the philosophy of pop" resonate in certain corners of the 'sphere. Innumerable things really, but in somewhat over-zealous, bloghat-tipping fashion: this generous must-read transcription by Robin; (from whence the delicious quote above, and followed up by Brown Feeling on Zizek); or this post in particular by K-Punk (since followed up by many others); or, going even further back, this fascinating interview by Infinite Thought, this post by Mark Kaplan or this one by Jodi; this aesthetically-tuned and theoretical review by Steven Shaviro; or in a parallel vein this from Qlipoth; or even the recent lamentable chewing of poor Scott Esposito's furniture; or the not-so-recent chewing of Dan Green's; or my own continuing education in all matters, erm, revolutionary and musical courtesy, at least in part, of the excellent Idiot's Guide to Dreaming, and Said the Gramophone, all intermingling in a civil background (though hardly coalescing), had convinced me to re-visit an essay by Mark Greif, one whose title I would like to slightly turn.

Granted, these discussions have been taking place for awhile, and one hardly proposes to make a survey here. For one thing––if you'll permit a bit of indulgent personal digression––the present author is not qualified. He wouldn't really know Deleuze, for instance. His own musical tastes tend to be incurably melancholic, if not romantic. He confesses that their possible antiquation is a source of some pride. Such traditional, outmoded things as lyrics, melody and harmony matter to him greatly. For dissonance on most days he prefers Debussy and Schubert to Rage Against the Machine. He has been known to weep at times for Bach or Shostakovitch, or, when drunk, certain opera. He adores the late, raspy Dylan especially, Steve Earl and Greg Brown, Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams, Smog, the Bill Evans Trio, solo Monk and post-70's Roy Haynes, the early Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, and the mid-to-late Chet Baker. And yet, to recall a popular phrase handed down to Roy Haynes--incorrigable and aging hipster that he is--and that he has been known to deploy on more than one occasion: what makes these artists or composers great is, in the final analysis, neither technical mastery nor classical proficiency, but rather the simple fact that they have something to say. (To choose the obvious counter-example, at least from jazz–which is surely an antiquated idiom in some respects when it comes to pop––Wynton Marsalis is someone who quite clearly has nothing to say. Consequently, neither does Ken Burns, though that is yet another, far graver matter.) A general enough distinction, maybe, and demanding complication, but also one that might be fleshed out yet and put to some good use?

Haynes, still going strong into his eighties, seems a percussionist of infinite original things to say, though what is said hardly ever gets in the way of the saying. The saying itself largely takes place elsewhere. Or rather, he performs still in a genre--if we ignore the strictures of this word--where the distinctions between man and machine, rhythm and voice, percussion and melody are still more or less clearly, structurally delineated. In an important sense, the piano, and to an only slightly lesser degree the electronic keyboard, are percussion, and so predisposedly background instruments. They may present melody, but they hardly sing, in the sense that one's control over the note, once deployed, is no longer bound up with the body in quite the same way as is the human voice. With certain traditional instruments, the potential to carress, fall off or even abuse the note remains restricted. One gets the impression, moreover, that some singers (or trumpeters, for instance) have earned their right to say certain things, which they must prove again, at every instant, by saying it in a certain way.

But maybe this is one area, to be vulgar, where a certain paradigm--namely that of the (unified) Subject who speaks--is understood to have shifted. In any case, this facile opposition of "unity" with "de-centering" is perhaps not so simple. (But then we are still grazing along the plane of (introductory) generalities.) And if you'll indulge me a little further yet, in this occasionally ponderous and personal digression, let it be because there is something more interesting and rigorously argued in the tail (you have been warned; this is...a lenghty post).

Such distinctions, between "speaking" and "singing," or "producing" may sound outmoded today (one should resist, I think, mapping them directly onto any "competing conceptions of the subject," not least of all as "the subject" may have survived the last century just fine, somewhat deconstructed but hardly dissolved, in any case) . I wonder if they might still be turned, at least toward the questions that are most obvious. Namely, is it even possible, let alone advisable or productive, to pursue the articulation of such a thing as a "philosophy of pop" (run for the hills if you must dear Daniel Green, or reach for your special revolver, Ellis Sharp). Indeed, can the definitions of "art" and "poetry" even be bent to map onto such a "philosophy" without losing something crucial. What sort of genealogy is traceable here, and what binds it together? Also, what might be at stake in any careful distinction between 'pop' and poetry? Such big questions, and all over a bit of kid's music, you may say! Let us at least avoid getting into Husserl, Heidegger and competing phenomenologies, or the primacy vs. metaphysics vs. transcendence vs. untruth of 'the origin' all at once, as best we can!

He may be something of an elitist, though not in the manner commonly sneered. When school friends were listening to Beck and then Radiohead, his inner monologue was proudly dominated by "Visions of Johanna" and, occasionally, "Rocking in the Free World." For a brief, convoluted moment there was grunge and Pearl Jam, and The Beastie Boys of course, who will never, ever fade. (The Counting Crows, mercifully, did fade.) But like other Americans of his reluctant generation, born into boredom with a Cold War that had overstayed its welcome (and would continue of course to overstay it's welcome)––those who may or may not have kept listening to real music through the awful eighties in an unapologetically retro sort of manner, and to an odd yet politically suggestive blend of say, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Phish, Tupac and Public Enemy––well in any case, he largely missed the pop and punk and post-punk 'moments' that seem––though he may get flack for this, if not for the gratuitous eighties swipe––so formative for, and perhaps still haunting of Great Britain.

Some would of course sneer that what "pop" means today is merely displaced, or unduly dignified nostalgia (for childhood, perhaps). Others find it harmless, humorous and entertaining (everthing in moderation!) Others would lament that it is often tiresome, product strangely and menacingly out of time yet still prepackaged. Product whose adherance to our lives is therapeutic, yet dubious, product watered-down or frozen, and chemical-treated surely. "Pop" is sometimes, pretentiously or ignorantly, labeled "pure" commercialization, "pure" this or that. What is meant by this may be something very simple: that while "pop" is assumed to be sterile and formulaic, or part and parcel of a lingering "60's" or "hippies" denial, "pop" in fact belongs to none of this. "Pop" does not quite belong this way. To say that "pop resists" these things is likewise a refrain, one bordering on cliché, becuase while it does sometimes seem as though producing a "cultural phenomenon" has become merely the latest hobby of an advanced, ever-ready "hip" Capital, "pop" signifies, perhaps, a potential even greater indifference to the "culture" in which it swims. "Pop," or rather the experience of pop may be, in the end, nothing less than profoundly neutral.

"Pop" is neither good nor evil. Some people like the VH1 neoliberal "hip," after all. They think it keeps them from taking themselves too seriously, and it might! But there are after all vast expanses and sub-genres of 'pop', and 'pop' potential. A great, and yet semi-permeable membrane may separate what is mass produced on demand and what is, especially if cut-up, resampled and remixed, often more "original." Phorias and Phobias conspire against careful articulation on either side. As do people who take themselves too seriously.

The label is itself too broad, certainly. Approaching the subject, in any meaningful manner, other than with language ready-made or mere generalities, seems an impossible task. But if there is a certain timely or defiant potential––one hesitates, of course, to call it "revolutionary"––in some good pop music, ––and precision in such analysis is certainly important––a potential for resistance and for paradoxically re-claimed privacy, perhaps, then this would be a good thing to explore, perhaps philosophically, or at least to try to think more clearly and more critically about.

I would like to pull down from the printworld moon (ever-closer though it hovers), rip from its proper environment and begin to sink my teeth into this one article, wonderfully written by Mark Greif for n+1. These are, after all, some of his questions. It's a trivial point to make,
but previous forays (not to play favorites but, see especially Aenesidemus
if you have not already) –were entirely bounded and borne by lack of context. So much so that responding seemed almost beside the point. A less trivial thing to note, at least in passing, is the indeed rare manner in which the print version of this new magazine, for those who still do read, maintains an unusually persistent integrity and depth "all of its own." There is more than just economic wisdom in insisting people read this way, with care, and with an ear for the potential music of a larger pastiche or composition, though such patience is uncommon. Taken together, the pieces resist/desist in often subtle, sometimes unintentional dialogue with each other. Certain proper names are summoned (though rarely ever cited) at once discreetly and with discrete concentration, under penetrating barbs of light. It is, in other words, a damn fine literary/philosophical little magazine. And, what is more, it is both highly intelligent and dedicatedly, concisely readable. But don't take my word for it. Albeit yanked from it's brethren, and although his particular choice of an "important" band may jar with certain people's sense of taste (it did with mine–though Radiohead does grow on me), Mark's piece is a very worthy contribution to these debates. (I wouldn't deign to call it "serious," since you will remember, as good readers of Derrida, how that particular distinction finds its limits.)

[The obnoxious, then quickly falling silent running commentary, within brackets and in color, the emphasis in bold, and anything not in blockquotes, are of course my own. Everything else is more or less Greif's.]

I've wondered why there's no philosophy of popular music. Critics of pop do reviews and interviews; they write appreciation and biography. Their criticism takes many things for granted, and doesn’t ask the questions I want answered. Everyone repeats the received idea that music is revolutionary.—Well, is it? Does pop music actually support revolution? We say pop is of its time, and can date this music by ear with surprising precision, to 1966 or 1969 or 1972 or 1978 or 1984.—Well, is it? Is pop truly of its time, in the sense that it represents some aspect of exterior history apart from the path of its internal development?[...]

[...]Songs are what we consume in greatest quantity, they’re what we store most of in our heads. But even as we can insist on the seriousness of value of pop music, we don’t believe enough in its seriousness of meaning outside the realm of music, or most of us don’t, or we can’t talk about it, or sound idiotic when we do. And all of us lovers of music, with ears tuned precisely to a certain kind of sublimity in pop, are quick to detect pretension, overstatement and cant about pop—in any attempt at a wider criticism—precisely because we feel the gap between the effectiveness of the music and the impotence and superfluity of analysis. [one cannot help wishing a few more people maybe felt this] This means we don’t know, about our major art form, what we ought to know. We don’t even agree in what sense the interconnection of pop music and lyrics, rather than the words spoken alone, accomplishes an utterly different task of representation, more scattershot and overwhelming and much less careful and dignified than poetry [than most poetry]—and bad critics show their ignorance when they persist in treating pop like poetry, as in the still-growing critical effluence around Bob Dylan. [the thought of Radiohead being called "poetry" in thirty years, and by anyone, nevertheless amuses]

If you were to develop a philosophy of pop, you would have to clear the field of many obstacles. You would need to focus on a single band, to let people know you had not floated into generalities—to let them test your declarations. You’d have to announce at the outset that the musicians were figures of real importance, but not the “most” anything—not the most avant-garde, most perfect, most exemplary. This would preempt the hostile comparison and sophistication that passes for criticism among aficionados. [beware, aficionados!] Then you should have some breathing room. If you said once that you liked the band’s music, there would be no more need of appreciation; [yes!] and if it were a group whose music enough people listened to, there would be no need of biography or bare description. So let the band be Radiohead, for the sake of argument, and let me be fool enough to embark on this. And if I insist that Radiohead are “more” anything than some other pop musicians—as fans will make claims for the superiority of the bands they love—let it be this, that this band was more able, at the turn of the millennium, to pose a single question of pop precisely: how should it really ever be possible for pop music to incarnate a particular historical situation?

Radiohead belong to “rock,” and if rock has a characteristic subject, as country music’s is small pleasures in hard times (getting by), and rap’s is success in competition (getting over), that subject must be freedom from constraint (getting free).

Yet the first notable quality of their music is that, even though their topic may still be freedom, their technique involves the evocation —not of the feeling of freedom—but of unending, low-level fear.

The dread in the songs is so detailed and so pervasive that it seems built into each line of lyric and into the black or starry sky of music that domes it. It is environing fear, not antagonism emanating from a single object or authority. It is atmospheric rather than explosive. This menace doesn’t surprise anyone. Outside there are listeners in, watchers, abandoned wrecks with deployed airbags, killer cars, lights going out and coming on. “They” are waiting, without a proper name.—Ghost voices, clicks of tapped phones, grooves of ended records, sounds of processing and anonymity.

An event is imminent or has just happened but is blocked from our senses: Something big is gonna happen/ over my dead body. Or else it is impossible that anything more will happen and yet it does: I used to think/ There was no future left at all/ I used to think. Something has gone wrong with the way we know events, the error leaking back to occurrences themselves. Life transpires in its representations, in the common medium of a machine language. (Arrest this man: He talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge, his voice is like a detuned radio.) A fissure has opened between occurrence and depiction, and the dam bursts between the technical and the natural.—These are not meant to be statements of thoughts about their songs, or even about the lyrics, which look banal on the printed page; this is what happens in their songs. The technical artifacts are in the music, sit behind our lips, and slide out when we open our mouths—as chemical and medical words effortlessly make it into the lyrics (“polystyrene,” “myxomatosis,” “polyethylene,” “melatonin”).


[...]Here you reach the best-known Radiohead lyrics, again banal on the page, and with them the hardest mood in their music to describe—captured in multiply repeated little phrases, stock talk, as words lose their meanings and regain them. “How to disappear completely,” as a song title puts it—for the words seem to speak a wish for negation of the self, a last singularity, nothingness and non-being:

For a minute there
I lost myself, I lost myself

I’m not here. This isn’t happening.

A description of the condition of the late 1990s could go like this: At the turn of the millennium, each individual sat at a meeting-point of shouted orders and appeals, the TV, the radio, the phone and cell, the billboard, the airport screen, the inbox, the paper junk mail. Each person discovered that he stood at one knot of a network, existing without his consent, which connected him to any number of recorded voices, written messages, means of broadcast, channels of entertainment, and avenues of choice. It was a culture of broadcast: an indiscriminate seeding, which needed to reach only a very few, covering vast tracts of our consciousness. To make a profit, only one message in ten-thousand needed to take root, therefore messages were strewn everywhere. To live in this network felt like something, but surprisingly little in the culture of broadcast itself tried to capture what it felt like. Instead, it kept bringing pictures of an unencumbered luxurious life, in vacation sensuality, and songs of ease and freedom, and technological marvels, that did not feel like the life we lived.

And if you noticed you were not represented? It felt as if one of the few unanimous aspects of the network was that it forbade you to complain, since if you complained you were a trivial human, a small person, who misunderstood the generosity and benignity of the message system. It existed to help you. Now, if you accepted the constant promiscuous broadcasts as normalcy, there were messages in them to inflate and pet and flatter you. If you simply said this chatter was altering your life, killing your privacy or ending the ability to think in silence, there were alternative messages that whispered of humiliation, craziness, vanishing. What kind of crank needs silence? What was more harmless than a phone or a billboard? The messages did not come from somewhere; they were not central, organized, intelligent, intentional. It was up to you to change the channel, not answer the phone, stop your ears, shut your eyes, dig a hole for yourself and get in it. Really, it was your responsibility. The metaphors in which people tried to complain about these developments, by ordinary law and custom, were pollution (as in “noise pollution”) and theft (as in “stealing our time”). But we all knew the intrusions felt like violence. Physical violence, with no way to strike back.

And if the feeling of violent intrusion persisted? Then it added a new dimension of constant, nervous triviality to our lives. It linked, irrationally, in our moods, and secret thoughts, these tiny private annoyances to the constant televised violence that we saw. Those who objected embarrassed themselves, because they likened nuisances to tragedies—and yet we felt it, though it became unsayable. Perhaps it was because our nerves have a limited palette for painting dread. Or because the network fulfilled its debts of “civic responsibility” by bringing us twenty-four hour news, of flaming airplanes, and twisted cars, and blood-soaked screaming casualties, globally acquired, portioned out between commercials, at which it was supposedly our civic duty to look—and put this mixture of messages and horrors up on screens wherever a TV could only be introduced on grounds of “responsibility to know”—in the airport, and the doctor’s office, the subway, and any waiting room. But to object was demeaning—who, really, meant us any harm? And didn’t we, truly, have a responsibility to know?

Thus the large mass of people, huddled in the path of every broadcast, who were really only those who were spoken for, who received and couldn’t send, were made responsible for the new Babel. Most of us who lived in this culture were primarily sufferers or patients of it, and not, as the word had it, “consumers.” Yet we had no other words besides consumption or consumerism to condemn a world of violent intrusions of insubstantial messages, no new way at least to name this culture or describe the feeling of being inside it.

So a certain kind of pop music could offer a representative vision of this world while still being one of its omnipresent products. A certain kind of musician might reflect this new world’s vague smiling threat of hostile action, its latent violence done by no one in particular; a certain kind of musician, angry and critical rather than complacent and blithe, might depict the intrusive experience, though the music would be painfully intrusive itself, and it would be brought to us by and share the same avenues of mass-intrusion that broadcast everything else. Pop music had the good fortune of being both a singularly unembarrassed art, and still a relatively low-capital medium in its creation—made by just a composer or writer or two or four or six members of a band, with little outside intrusion, until the money is poured into the recording and distribution and advertising of it. So, compromised as it always was, music still could become a form of unembarrassed and otherwise inarticulable complaint, capturing what one could not say in reasonable debate, and coming from far enough inside the broadcast culture that it could depict it with its own tools.

historical paradox of rock has been that the pop genre most devoted to the idea of rebellion against authority has adopted increasingly more brutal and authoritarian music to denounce forms of authoritarianism. A genre that celebrated individual liberation required increasing regimentation and coordination. The development could be seen most starkly in “hard rock,” metal, hardcore, and a current rap-metal—but it was latent all along.

Throughout the early 20th century, folk musics had been a more traditional alternative to forms of musical authority. (The ambiguous other alternative was avant-gardism, in serialism and bop.) [?] But amplification alone, it seems, so drastically changed the situation of music, opening possibilities in the realm of dynamics and the mimesis of other sounds, that this created avenues for the musical representation of liberation that had nothing to do with folk music’s traditional lyrical content or the concern with instrumental skill and purism. Specifically, it gave pop ways to emulate the evils liberation would be fighting against, to go along with folk’s righteous indignation or celebrations of the good times of those the music was for. Pop could become Goliath while it was cheering David. One aspect of amplification by the late 1960s stands out above all others: It opened up the possibility, for the first time, that a musician might choose to actually hurt an audience with noise. The relationship of audience to rock musician had to be based on a new kind of trust. This was the trust of listeners facing a direct threat of real pain and permanent damage that bands would voluntarily restrain—just barely. An artist for the first time had his hands on a means of actual violence, and colluded with his audience to test its possibilities. You hear it in The Who, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix. In the 1960s, of course, this testing occurred against a rising background of real violence, usually held in monopoly by “the authorities,” but being manifested with increasing frequency in civil unrest and police reaction as well as overseas war. This is sometimes taken as an explanation. But once the nation was back in peacetime, it turned out that the formal violence of rock did not depend on the overt violence of bloodshed, and rock continued to metamorphose. The extremity of its dynamics towards metal during the 1970s—and some connected this to industrial collapse and economic misery. Later it was refined in punk and post-punk, in periods of miserable political defeat—and some connected the music’s newest violence and lyrical alternations of hatred of authority with hatred of the self to the political, economic, and social outlook. Maybe they were right. But this is perhaps to give too much automatic credence to the idea that pop music depicts history almost without trying—which is precisely what is in question.

To leap all the way into the affective world of our own moment, of course, would require something else: electronic sounds. To reproduce a new universe, or to spur a desire to carve out a life in its midst, a band might need a limited quantity of beeps, repetitions, sampled loops, drum machines, noises and beats. “Electronica,” as a contemporary genre name, speaks of the tools of production as well as their output. The laptops, ProTools, sequencers and samplers, the found sounds and sped-up breaks and pure frequencies, provided an apparently unanchored environment and a weird soundscape that, though foreshadowed decades earlier in the studios at Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne or the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, didn’t automatically fit with the traditions of guitars and drums that pop knew. But the electronic blips the music used turned out to be already emotionally available to us, by a different route than the avant-gardism of Stockhausen, Berio or Cage. All of us born after 1965 had been setting nonsense syllables and private songs to machine noise, then computer noise, since the arriving sounds first reached our cradles. Just as we want to make tick and tock out of the even movement of a clock, we wanted to know how to hear a language and a song of noises, air compressors and washer surges, alarm sirens and warning bells. We hear communication in the refined contemporary spectrum of beeps: the squall of a microwave, the chime of a timer, the fat gulp of a register, the chirrups of cell phones, the ping of seatbelt alerts and clicks of indicators, not to mention the argot of debonair beeps from the computers on which we type.


It is crucial that they [Radiohead] were not innovators, nor unusually competent electronically, nor did they ever take it further than halfway—if that. They were not an avant-garde. The political problem of an artistic avant-garde, especially when it deals with any new technology of representation, has always been that the simply novel elements may be mistaken for some form of political action or progress. Two meanings of “revolutionary”—one, forming a turn-about in formal technique, the other, contributing to social cataclysm—are often confused, usually for the artist’s benefit, and technology has a way of becoming infatuated with its own existence.

Radiohead's success lay in their ability to represent the feeling of our age because they did not insist on being too much advanced in the “advanced” music they acquired. The beeps and buzzes never seemed like the source of their energy, but a means they’d stumbled upon of finally communicating the feelings they had always held; they had felt, so to speak, electronic on OK Computer with much less actual electronica. And they did something very rudimentary and basic with the new technologies. They tilted artificial noises against the weight of the human voice and human sounds.

Their new kind of song, in both words and music, announced that anyone might have to become partly inhuman to accommodate the experience of the new era.

hom Yorke’s voice is the unity on which all the musical aggregations and complexes pivot. You have to imagine the music drawing a series of outlines around him, a house, a tank, the stars of space, or an architecture of almost abstract pipes and tubes, cogs and wheels, ivies and thorns, servers and boards, beams and voids. The music has the feeling of a biomorphic machine in which his voice is alternately trapped and protected.

Yorke’s voice conjures the human in extremis. Sometimes it comes to us from an extreme of fear, sometimes an extreme of transcendence. We recognize it as a naked voice in the process of rising up to beauty—the reassurance we’ve alluded to in the lyrics hope—or broken up and lost in the chatter of broadcasts, the destroying fear. In the same song that features a whole sung melody, the vocals will also be broken into bits, and made the pulsing wallpaper against which the vulnerable pale voice of the singer stands out. Only a few other popular artists build up so much of their music from sampled voice, rather than sampled beats, instrumental tones, or noises. The syllables are cut and repeated.—A “wordless” background will come from mashed phonemes. Then the pure human voice will reassert itself.

A surprising amount of this music seems to draw on church music. One biographical fact is relevant here: they come from Oxford, England, grew up there, met in high school, and live, compose, and rehearse there. Their hometown is like their music. That bifurcated English city, split between concrete downtown and green environs, has its unspoiled center and gray periphery of modest houses and a disused automobile factory. Its spots of natural beauty exist because of the nearby huge institutions of the university, and standing in the remaining fields and parks you always know you are in a momentary breathing space, already encroached. But for the musically-minded, the significant feature of Oxford is its Church of England chapels, one in each college and others outside—places of imperial authority, home to another kind of hidden song. The purity of Yorke’s falsetto belongs in a boys choir at evensong. And then Yorke does sing of angels, amid harps, chimes and bells: Black-eyed angels swam with me./ . . . And we all went to heaven in a little rowboat./ There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.

And yet the religion in the music is not about salvation—it’s about the authority of voices, the wish to submit and the discovery of a consequent resistance in oneself.
It is anti-religious, though attuned to transcendence. The organ in a church can be the repository of sublime power: a bundling of human throats in its brass pipes, or all the instruments known to man in its stops. You can hear your own small voice responding, within a musical manifestation of the threat of that voice merely being played mechanically and absorbed into a totality. To sing with an organ (as Yorke does at the end of Kid A) can be to discover one’s own inner voice in distinction to it; and at the same time to wish to be lost, absorbed, overwhelmed within it. A certain kind of person will refuse the church. Even one who refuses the church will not forget that feeling.


The most important grammatical tic in the lyrics, unlike the habitual lyrical “I” and apostrophic “you” of pop, is the “we.” We ride. We awake. We escape. We’re damaged goods. Bring down the government—they don’t speak for us. But also We suck young blood. We can wipe you out – Anytime. The pronoun doesn’t point to any actually existing collectivity; the songs aren’t about a national group or even the generic audience for rock. So who is "we"?

There is the scared individual, lying to say he’s not alone—like the child’s “we’re coming in there!” so imagined monsters won’t know he’s by yourself. There’s the “we” you might wish for, the imagined collectivity that could resist or threaten; and this may shade into the knowledge of all the other listeners besides you, each in their rooms or cars alone, similarly singing these same bits of lyric.

There’s the “we,” as I’ve suggested, of the violent power which you are not, the voice of the tyrant, the thug, the terrifying parent, the bad cop. You take him inside you and spread him over the others who—somewhere singing these words for just a moment—feel as you do. You experience a release at last, so satisfying does it feel to sing their unspoken orders out loud to yourself, as if at last they came from you. You are the one willing the destruction—like Brecht and Weill’s Pirate Jenny, the barmaid, washing dishes and taking orders, who knows that soon a Black Ship will come for her town, bristling with cannons. And when its crew asks their queen whom they should murder, she will answer: “Alle.”

So the characteristic song turns into an alternation, in exactly the same repeated words, between the forces that would defy intrusive power, and the intrusive power itself, between the hopeful individual and the tyrant ventriloquized.

It has to be admitted that other memorable lyrics sing phrases of self-help. Plenty of these important lines are junk slogans from the culture, and part of the oddity of pop is that the junk phrases are moving, they do their work. In a desperate voice: You can try the best you can – you can try the best you can – the best you can is good enough.” “Breathe, keep breathing. – Don’t lose your nerve. “Everyone—everyone around here—everyone is so near./ Just holding on. Just holding on. On the page, these make you cringe, unless you can hear them in memory, in the framing of the song. Again, one has to distinguish between poetry and pop. The most important lines in pop are rarely very poetically impressive; frequently they are quite deliberately and necessarily the words that are most frank, unredeemable, and melodramatic. And yet they do get redeemed. The question becomes why certain settings in music, and a certain playing of simple against other more complex lyrics, can remake debased language as art and restore the innocence of expression. (Opera listeners know this, in the ariose transformation of “Un bel dì” [One fine day] or “O mio babbino caro” [Oh my dear papa].4 But then opera criticism, too, has a longstanding problem with lyrics.)

I think, in the midst of all else the music and lyrics are doing, the phrases of self-help may be the minimal words of will or nerve that you want to hear.

he more I try to categorize why Radiohead’s music works as it does, and by extension how pop works, the more it seems clear that the effect of pop on our beliefs and actions is not really to create either one. Pop does, though, I think, allow you to preserve certain things you’ve already thought, without necessarily having been able to articulate them, and to extend certain feelings you have only intermittent access to, in a different form, in which the cognitive and emotional are less divided. I think it allows you to steel yourself or loosen yourself into certain kinds of actions, though it doesn’t start anything. And particular songs, and bands or careers you like, dictate the beliefs you can preserve and reactivate, and the actions you can prepare—and which songs and careers will shape your inchoate private experience, depends on an alchemy of your experience and the art itself. Pop is not a mirror nor a Rorschach blot, into which you look and only see yourself; nor is it in general a lecture, an interpretable poem, or an act of simply determinate speech. It teaches something, but only by stimulating mutation and preservation of things that you must have had inaugurated elsewhere. Or it prepares the ground for these discoveries elsewhere—often knowledge you might have never otherwise have really “known,” except as it could be rehearsed by you, then repeatedly reactivated for you, in this medium.

ut is the knowledge that’s preserved a spur to revolution? There is no logical sense in which pop music is revolutionary. That follows from the conclusion that pop does not start beliefs, or instill principles, or create action ex nihilo. It couldn’t overturn an order. When so much pop declares itself to be revolutionary, however, I think it’s correctly pointing to something else which is significant but more limited and complicated. There is indeed an anti-social or counter-cultural tendency of pop that does follow logically from what it does. That is to say, there is a characteristic affect that follows from a medium that allows you to retain and reactivate forms of knowledge and experience which you are “supposed to” forget or are “supposed to” disappear by themselves—and “supposed to” here isn’t nefarious, it simply means that social forms, convention, conformity, and just plain intelligent speech, don’t allow you to speak of them, or make them embarrassing when you do. Pop encourages you to hold onto and reactivate hints of personal feeling that society should have extinguished. Of course this winds up taking in all classes of fragile personal knowledge: things that are inarticulable in social speech because they are too delicate or ideologically out of step, and things that are not allowed to be articulated because they are selfish, thoughtless, destructive, and stupid. That helps explain how these claims for “what I learned from pop” can go so quickly from the sublime to the ridiculous and back to the sublime. It explains why we are right to feel that so much of what’s promised for pop is not worth our credulity. But, again, risking ridiculousness, I think the thing that pop can prepare you for, the essential thing, is defiance. Defiance, at its bare minimum, is the insistence on finding ways to retain the thoughts and feelings that a larger power should have extinguished.

The difference between revolution and defiance is that between an overthrow of the existing order and one person’s shaken fist. When the former isn’t possible, you still have to hold on to the latter, if only so as to remember you’re human. Defiance is the insistence on individual power confronting overwhelming force that it cannot undo. You know you cannot strike the colossus. But you can defy it with words or signs. In the assertion that you can fight a superior power, the declaration that you will, this absurd overstatement gains dignity by exposing you, however uselessly. Unable to stop it in its tracks, you dare the crushing power to begin its devastation with you.

Power comes in many forms for human beings; and defiance meets it where it can. The simplest defiance confronts nature’s power and necessity. In the teeth of a storm that would kill him, a man will curse the wind and rain. He declares, like Nikos Kazantzakis’s peasant Greek, “You won’t get into my little hut, brother; I shan’t open the door to you. You won’t put my fire out; you won’t tip my hut over!” The will is not Promethean, simply human.

In all forms of defiance, this little contingent being, the imperiled man or woman, hangs on to his will—which may be all he has left—by making a deliberate error about his will’s jurisdiction. Because the defiant person has no power to win a struggle, he preserves his will through representations: he shakes his fist, announces his name, shouts a threat, and above all makes the statement that “I am,” “we are.” It becomes even more necessary and risky when the cruel power is not natural, will-less itself, but belongs to other men. Barthes gives the words of the French revolutionist Guadet, arrested and condemned to death: “Yes, I am Guadet. Executioner, do your duty. Go take my head to the tyrants of my country. It has always turned them pale; once severed, it will turn them paler still.” He gives the order, not the tyrant, commanding necessity in his own name—defying the false necessity of human force which has usurped nature’s power—even if he can only command it to destroy him.

The situation we confront now is a new necessity, not blameless like wind or water and yet not fatal as from a tyrant or executioner. The nature we face is a billowing atmospheric second nature made by man. It is the distant soft tyranny of other men, but wafting only in diffuse messages, in their abdication of authority to technology, in dissembling of responsibility under cover of responsibility and with the excuse of help—gutless, irresponsible, servile, showing no naked force, only a smiling or a pious face. The “they” are cowardly friends. They are here to help you be happy and make fruitful choices. (“We can wipe you out—Anytime.”)

At its best, Radiohead’s music reactivates the moods in which you once noticed you ought to refuse. It can abet an impersonal defiance. This is not a doctrine the band advances, but an effect of the aesthetic.
It doesn’t name a single enemy. It doesn’t propose revolution. It doesn’t call you to overthrow an order that you couldn’t take hold of anyway at any single point, not without scapegoating a portion and missing the whole. This defiance—it might be the one thing we can manage, and better than sinking beneath the waves. It just requires the retention of a private voice.

One of the songs on Hail To The Thief, the last album released (at this writing, the band is back in Oxford, working on new material), has a peculiar counter-slogan:

Just ’cause you feel it
Doesn’t mean it’s there.

To sense the perversity of the appearance of these words in a pop song, you have to remember that they occur inside an art-form monomaniacally devoted to the production of strong feelings. Pop music always tells its listeners that all their feelings are real. Yet here is a chorus that denies any reference to reality in the elation and melancholy and chills that this chorus, in fact, evokes. Yorke delivers the lines with an upnote on “feel” as he repeats them, and if anything in the song makes your hair stand on end, that will be the moment. He makes you feel, that is, what he’s warning you against. Next he sings a warning not to make too much of his own singing: There’s always a siren – singing you to shipwreck. And this song, entitled “There There,” was the first single released off the album, pressed in many millions of copies; and it was played endlessly on radio and MTV.

The purpose of the warning is not to stop feelings but to stop believing they always refer to something or deserve reality, or should lead to actions, or choices, or beliefs—which is, of course, what the messages you hear by broadcast like you to make of them. The feelings evoked by a pop song may be false, as the feelings evoked by all the other messages brought to you by the same media as pop songs may be false. You must judge. If leading you to disbelieve in broadcast also leads you to disbelieve in pop, so be it; maybe you believed in pop in the wrong way. You must distinguish.

The broadcast messages are impersonal in one fashion. They pretend to care about you when actually they don’t know or care that you, as a single person, exist. Impersonal defiance is impersonal in another way; it encourages you to withdraw, no longer to believe that there is any human obligation owed to the sources of messages—except when they remind you, truly, of what you already have subtly sensed, and already know.

You can see a closed space at the heart of many of Radiohead’s songs. To draw out one of their own images, it may be something like a glass house. You live continuously in the glare of inspection, and with the threat of intrusion. The attempt to cast stones at an outer world of enemies could shatter your own shelter. So you settle for the protection of the transparent house, with watchers on the outside, as a place you can still live, a way to preserve the vestige of closure—a barrier, however glassy and fragile, against the outside. In English terms, a glass house is also a glasshouse, which we call a greenhouse. It is the artificial construction that allows botanical life to thrive in winter.

Radiohead's songs suggest that you should erect a barrier, even of repeated minimal words, or the assertion of a “we,” to protect yourself—and then there proves to be a place in each song to which you, too, can’t be admitted, because the singer has something within him closed to interference, just as every one of us does, or should. We’ll all have to find the last dwellings within ourselves that are closed to interference, and begin from there. The politics of the next age, if we are to survive, will be a politics of the re-creation of privacy. +

-Mark Greif, n+1 issue #3

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There is something of the authentic hipster in the good 'pop', yes? A part of himself killed-off? Something in the gaze turned not exactly inward, and not looking for anything / in anybody's eyes.

And something of the parrhesiaste as well.

Do Greif's remarks begin to live up to their somewhat fanciful promise? Do they present a sugestion of, or belong to a philosophy?

I confess to finding these last words deeply compelling, and while this post seems to have grown a bit lengthy, I'd like to risk veering into supreme overstatement and even the realm of unwitting self-parody (it may all be deleted shortly) by adding, very loosely and generally, some of my reasons.

The re-assertion and re-vival of a place of possessive privacy strikes not a few familar (and distinctly USian) chords, to be sure. And not all of whose horizons are maybe closed (if chords may have horizons). For me, speaking bluntly, and again risking the ridiculous in such a context, the articulation of this 'place' might certainly suggest more a simplicity and solitude in the 'face' of 'death' than any (again, USian) delusion of fiercely reactionary or antagonistic conformity––one belied as always, and as is inevitable, by a banal and increasingly homogenizing culture of individualization (c.f. Ulrich Beck)... Quite simply, if we don't begin from this solitary 'place' of nurtured privacy, or if we presuppose it or ignore it, "we" don't begin at all; we are only ever play-acting at being human~animal, or truly open to others. But, what marks this 'place' exactly?

Well, I could go even farther off the deep end. I could say that my conception of, and indeed solitary belief in death, and in this un-foundational solitude stripped of origin, and in relation to a death that is never one's 'own,' is informed more by Blanchot and by Derrida than it is by Heidegger. That, properly understood, death (strictly as the im-possible) is what binds me to the other, though always in a nonrelation amongt strangers and enemies, a non-relation, as Blanchot says, from which no-one is excused. We may as well call these strangers to us, with a brave and sober welcome, to open our arms widely and hospitably, as potential friends, in-amicus!

One could conceivable turn Mark's closing words into a Heideggerian defense of poetry as origin (one could turn them any which way really), but along with others I prefer to think of poetry as concerned with a loss of origin, and I think this could be mapped onto the experience of Radiohead as well (they do grow on me, you know).

There is a risk of melodrama, always. One cannot feel this intensity of friendship and lost origin all the time––that way lies madness! Either madness or compulsory seclusion away behind a heavy door, or off in the woods somewhere. Better to put on a pair of earphones, and remember what it first felt like to be alone, from time to time, and though, in the end, it will be no substitute for touching.

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Greif's last words seem to speak to the example of Bob Dylan most of all...a performer and storyteller just like any other, surely, but one who doesn't feign superior status in any falsely-posited hierarchical community (he never mocks the imposition of an iconic status merely), however superficially and cynically glossed the community or culture may become. Rather, a singer whose deliberation in songs insists on a certain anonymity and distance if it insists on anything at all. (It is unfashionable these days to speak of a "voice from the outside," especially with any hint of a linguistically conflicted, overdetermined relation with one's subconscious––but in Foucault's and Blanchot's profoundly less than psychoanalytic reading, this is nevertheless what I have in mind.) Call Dylan's prose poetry if you must––it is often utterly banal if not flat on the page, often composed of literary theft and pastiche, always borrowed and handed-down (just as the singer's voice, or rather the place from which he speaks, is in a sense already handed-down, and addressed, in a language of slightly other-worldly register, to a community of both living and the dead). Dylan's is a voice at times almost unbearable sentimental (though often he is so cute), at times viciously cruel, at times tender and vulnerable and loving––but it is never fully graspable as one's own. To address an irriducible "you" or a singing-voice "you" as if speaking merely to oneself is to resort to the laziest of mimetic violence (and to signal the need for a gaze turned not superficially but truly outward).

But what is it that is said in such singing? Nothing of course purely didactic, or direct. The said is inextricably bound up with, contaminated and ultimately left aside by the saying. The patience (Blanchot, or Levinas might call it "infinite") with which the anonymous 'it' speaks (and yet, never quite patiently enough), seems to spring from an almost untouchable, if not hollow and contradictory place with-in the artist (Dylan, you'll recall, once referred to it as "ruthless"), and as such it is permitted, sometimes, to 'touch' on some-thing deeply intimate, and deeply other. The future, also. Well that is saying lots and lots, and so maybe very little. How about this: within a tradition of roots extending back to folk and blues, and beyond, perhaps, and risking cliché as it may be to say so: the song itself resists/persists/desists despite the artist but not despite the ears of others.

There is a rhythm and sense of time, a listening as if always alongside itself, that may be more accurately said to condition the song alone, and remains irreducible to the artist. When it comes to the listener (including, perhaps, the artist hirself), the 'author' may as well be speaking from another planet. It is this quality, one of distance and ultimate inaccessibility, that the song alone gives back as it's peculiar (or perhaps not so peculiar) form of uncertain intimacy, or un-common presence.

If there is a space for a "we" made or cleared away by this anonymity (a space among half-embarassed, half-defiant listeners?), one is tempted to agree that it is only present to itself in brief flashes, or flickers, and that it remains by necessity and definition a "we" devoid of any permanent, founding or universal essence. Well that is perhaps all vague enough. Let us flick the remote on this particular paragraph and allow it to deservedly fade.

Kevin Hart remarks in his essay, "The Experience of Poetry," though hardly as a final definition, and only "as a placing shot...that poetry answers to what consciousness registers, not to what is actually lived through, and that it opens onto the truth that experience does not mean the same thing in every region of being."

And so maybe, if 'pop' is really to be considered art, then in this expansive and yet elegantly simple sense, (if still a bit too noble), Bob Dylan and Radiohead may both be said to give voice to a sort of poetry after all?


Gem Hudson said...

Au but the devil will tell you more than his lie. You will live out in his lies.

Matt said...

Care to elaborate on that at all, Gem?