Long Days, Long Months [5]

15 August:
Both the essay I've nearly finished - about Punk and the concept/ fad of "Post-Punk" - and numerous other discussions over the past few years, in person and online, have made the way the word, "pop," has come to be used troubling and annoying to me. Pop of course began as a shortened version of popular music; and as such means anything that's not European Classical music or folk music - except that with Jazz music's elevation to "art" status, it also came to mean non-Classical music that's also not Jazz (until Fusion introduced some complications into the matter).

Yet, in recent years "pop" has become a sort of ideological construct, whose believers revel in the good times supposedly guaranteed by the wide-reaching popularity of certain kinds of music: the dance parties, the singing-along with friends, the warm sensation of joining millions of others in something, even if just a song often completely forgetten in a few months. But most of all, I say the term has become ideological because it indirectly gives central place to two kinds of music: (1) that which happens to be have enjoyed commercial success, often quite randomly; (2) genres and movements that generally don't get counted as "pop" belaboring to sound and act dumber and more cheerful, as in "Indie Pop." The defenders of the latter will ignore its origins and say it's just "pop" - as if rendering the music unsusceptible to any sort of critique. In other words, if you don't like it, you're just a sourpuss who wants to ruin other peoples' fun and denigrate the artistic pursuits of sweet young kids with good intentions.

As for the first category, an intellectual development more pernicious is at work. The music categorized as "pop," because of the implicit connection to the concept of popular music, displaces music we don't think of as "pop" from any consideration whatsoever. If it's not "pop," then maybe it's not popular music as well... But alas! Court musics and academic musics (that is, classical music) hardly have the same prominence they did before the 1960's. What most listeners would call "art music" - redundant , as all music is art - is in fact created by individuals working in the realms of popular music. In other words, we've gotten to the point where the bifurcated world-view that lead to the concept of popular music in the first place (the classical-popular divide) has become irrelevant. Yet, oddly, all this talk about "pop," always referring to an incredibly-narrow range of music, suggests that the world of popular music has grown smaller!

In such a cultural milieu, are we surprised by the vogue for the word "noise"? After all, if that ornery fellow is not making "pop" music (the only important consideration, as far as some are concerned) surely it must be that he's just causing a scene, making a racket, engaging in a child-like maneuver to attract attention, just making some "noise."

Once upon a time (that is, the 1990's) I often found myself defending artists who were said to have "pop" influences, or a "pop" style (say, the Elephant Six artists here in Athens, or the "Brit Pop" bands) but in this decade I've come to find the word, "pop," anathema; hearing it being used, I sometimes get nauseous.

I understand that the twenty or so persons who might read this essay might demur, pointing to the massive amounts of experimental music being made, by and in a large swath of people and places that now includes South Korea, China, and Turkey, or - a particular example - to the surprising success of a band like Animal Collective here in the U S A. That said, I'm not sure if all those experimentalists escape the "noise" ghetto anymore so than so-called "noise" artists - or they do so financially not philosophically. Animal Collective, though certainly popular music, do not fit the confines of the "pop" countless journalists and bloggers speak of. And no, to counter their potential counter-argument, a group like Animal Collective does not force us to redefine what "pop" means by virtue of their success, and certainly doesn't prove the inherent inclusiveness of "pop." Instead, they embody a certain combination of varied traditions created by a particular combination of individuals that by chance reached a mass audience. Commercial success on the part of true artists usually arises from a complicated web of events; such was the case with Nirvana as much so as with Animal Collective. The "pop" model, in contrast, demands submission to its methods. Its ubiquity in current times suggests it's also demanding an utter de-aestheticization of popular music.

16 August:
Of course, this argument that "pop" has become an ideology is not a rebuke of "pop" as an idea. Any naming of an artistic movement performs an ideological function: it states what is, and what is not, Punk, or Country, or Rock, or Indie, or Hip Hop, and so on. We should not associate ideology only with government actions, and politicos who don't know how to have fun.

The rebuke comes when "pop" advocates deny any sort of set identity, unwittingly mimicking capitalism's oft-proclaimed non-ideological status. As the "neo-liberals" say, if the marketplace is left alone the self-regulating mechanisms of supply and demand take care of the allocation of goods. And of our hopes and desires as well? "Poptimists" do not to have an "ethnic" identity. Nor do they make any particular demands upon the marketplace - what it offers, they'll surely accept as something worthy of comment, something that brings people together, to party. They don't want any demands placed upon them, and thus they surely wouldn't dare to tell the hit parade (either the listeners or the money makers) what it should accept or embrace. Doing so, they would have to acknowledge an ideology they claim not to have.

In a "pop" world, the place of "noise" is akin to that of terrorism. "Cultural terrorism" reacts to that which has closed off alternatives, thus accepting the ideology of "pop," since of course the alternatives have not been closed off. Real terrorists arise from desperate situations - say, Palestine. In contrast, "cultural terrorism" and "noise" = laziness.


Began reading Alain Badiou's Metapolitics, which offers an interesting take (literally interesting, given Badiou's own active involvement) on politics, especially the need to avoid defining one's goals vis-à-vis the state and to understand that politics goes on regardless of philosophy's tendency to judge its successes and failures, evaluate its worth.

And reading Clinton Heylin's Babylon's Burning, a sort of updated, expanded variant of From the Velvets to the Voidoids. An idea presented in the Postlude of the 2005 reissue of the latter became the impetus behind this new book:

"Almost as intriguing personally - if beyond my self-imposed remit - was the idea that such explosions happened simultaneously around the world without reference to each other. If pub-rock was a trial run for punk in England, then it would be fair to say that in the spring and summer of 1974 there were bands in the south of England (Dr Feelgood, Brinsley Schwarz, Kilburn & the High Roads); Sydney, Australia (the devastatingly underrated Radio Birdman); New York (Television, Blondie, the Ramones, Patti Smith) and Cleveland (Mirrors, Electric Eels, RFTT), wholly unaware of each other, yet sharing a common vision, and wanting to make music along essentially parallel lines." [Original emphasis.]

Now, though, that "self-imposed remit" has been cast aside. Good for Mr. Heylin, and good for us! After reading only the first few chapters - including descriptions of how The Saints ended at at a style similar to The Ramones, and reviewing the evidence that the likes of the "Four Johns" and Joe Strummer were inspired by Dr. Feelgood and Ian Dury, not the C B G B bands (who'd they not heard yet) - the book's already a unmitigated pleasure.