Dissonant Notes

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Realpop – An Introduction

What is Realpop? Realpop is an approach to music criticism which accepts as reality the corporate and capitalist mechanisms which control and manipulate pop music. It imposes limits in terms of what is acceptable and reasonable discussion, and delegitimises anything which falls outside the limits of acceptability. In order to be successful, Realpop has to be internalised to the point where those who adhere to the principles of Realpop do so without knowledge of their actions. They would swear under duress that no such philosophy exists and even if it did they are not one of its adherents. This is vital, as only those who deny its existence can vehemently defend its principles without fear of conforming to an ideology. The main aspects of Realpop which need to be understood are who its advocates are and what tools they will use to deligitimise their opponents. Both of these aspects will now be made clear.

Realpop – Its Advocates
Those who espouse the fundamental principles of Realpop will more often than not fit a very specific category. They will be young (as their careers begin), highly educated and left-wing. Youth speaks for itself, inasmuch as the young are typically eager to find a grounding through which their personalities can unfold. Those with a higher education will have internalised the principles of the “limits of acceptability”: the limits of acceptable speech, the limits of acceptable opinion. In higher education, success depends on internalising these limits. Left-wing thinkers are essential as the “boots on the ground” soldiers of Realpop (those of the right-wing persuasion will be the ones making money from the process). They must internalise the principles of Realpop to the point where right-wing dogmas become the cornerstone of left-wing thinking. This is done by adding an ideological tinge to the idea of pop.

Pop music represents the tastes of “the masses”. The general public must be thought of as the proles, the exploited masses struggling to make ends meet. As far as the general public and their tastes are concerned, the enemy is not some corporate CEO but the archetypal snobbish critic who dismisses the superficiality of pop and therefore the preoccupations of everyday working people. In this context the Realpop writer is a defender of the masses in the acceptable left-wing tradition. With a mere flick of the switch, the left-wing firebrand becomes a defender of market principles and does so without believing themselves to be compromised in any way. Quite the opposite. Realpop writers are Old Labour in thought but New Labour in deed.

Realpop – Its Application
Once the corporate reality of Realpop is internalised, then any criticism of pop which includes a critique of the corporate nature of pop music can be dismissed as an asinine act of naivety and obviousness. The corporate reality is so ubiquitous that to point it out is unnecessary. This presents an unarguable limit on the ability to critique the corporate structure of pop. Given that Realpop writers are left-wing, they are able to dismiss critiques of the structure of corporate pop with relish, and with more bite than any right-wing writer could summon up. This is because the left-wing writers view themselves as principled, educated individuals who have merely accepted the reality of our current situation. They are well read in Marx, in post-structuralism, in Žižek. Nobody need point out the capitalist nature of pop to them. Realpop writers alone will decide when it is acceptable to use political theories to attack the corporate agenda behind pop music. That time is never.

Even though pop music has scored countless cultural victories and has billions of dollars to market and defend it, the image of the snobbish critic must hang over proceedings and colour how people interpret attacks on pop music. The Realpop writer will employ terms such as ‘easy target’ when delegitimising critiques of pop music as pop must always be viewed as the underdog. The angry voice which questions the mechanics of pop will be metamorphosised into the disapproving cry of the out-of-touch, elitist professor who refuses to see value in pop music, or they will be accused of shooting fish in a barrel, taking obvious, uncontroversial stances against music that is enjoyed by “the masses”. Those who condemn pop become the objectionable voice of the establishment, a reactionary, an enemy of the people, safe in their ivory tower but cut off from the tastes and opinions of real working men and women.

The fact that Realpop writers are highly educated here becomes an extra benefit. They face pop music detractors with a feeling of knowledgeable pride. These people who dare to criticise pop don’t know that it is the Realpop writers who define the terms of the debate. Realpop writers will flaunt their higher education in the defence of pop, thereby showing enemies that they have one foot in the academy and the other on the street. They will shame the ignorance of those who slander pop, they will out-namedrop the snobbish critic, and they will paint all dissenters as orthodox and ordinary. Alternately, they will attack the obsequious and immature mind of the student, labelling ideological attacks on pop music to be “sixth form” in nature. This is not the time for your angry, half-thought-out political rhetoric. The privileged and classist nature of higher education can always be invoked to score ideological points and derail potential criticisms, but the corporate reality of pop must remain unmentionable. This is pop music, the music of the masses. The left-wing ideologue also becomes class enemy.

The Realpop writer knows when to employ the right kind of smear. By ignoring the content of all attacks on the pop establishment and instead carefully shuffling them into boxes marked “sexist”, “reactionary”, “sixth form”, “snob”, or “hipster” the Realpop critic retains the moral high ground and remains the reasonable voice of the people. All attacks become laughable and predictable. Endorsement of pop remains refreshing and unexpected. If too much anger is shown by a pop detractor they will be portrayed as wildly hysterical and unreasonable. It is, after all, only pop music. Even though the images of pop culture dominate our lives and fuel exploitative industries that reinforce stereotypes of race, class, gender, and sexuality, these are but the realities that the Realpop writer knows they must overlook. Compared to the calm, nuanced reasonableness of the Realpop writer, outbursts of anger, frustration, and disappointment seem furiously out of proportion. It’s only pop music, and nothing is at stake. A pop song isn’t going to change the world. The soothing voice of the educated, left-wing, concerned Realpop writer tells us to simply accept and endorse.

The Realpop writer must perform with limited interference or censorship. They must internalise the principles of Realpop so that their writing appears fresh and enthusiastic, without the strain of fabricated zeal that renders propaganda inept. The Realpop writer will endorse or they will not exist. On other topics and in other writings they may reveal their true political leanings but corporate pop must remain off-limits. Realpop writers will not be paid very well (they are the left-wing footsoldiers not the right-wing capitalists) but they will be given free drinks, they will mingle with the stars, they will wander the streets of London with the knowing look of the insider, the tastemaker, the cultural ambassador. They will live with the knowledge that an intern would gladly write their articles for free to get a foot in the door, so they must continuously reaffirm the Realpop agenda if they are to secure that book deal which they dream of. No censorship, no arm twisting, just a willingness to be accommodating and reasonable.

On the surface, it may seem like Realpop depoliticises the mechanics of pop, but this is patently untrue. Realpop has politicised the mechanics of pop so that they may be defended and endorsed from a left-wing perspective. Realpop as an approach was never invented, it emerged from the trauma of left-wing capitulation to market forces. It was birthed by the same type of people who now endorse it. In pop, as in politics, reality should be our guiding principle. Realpop defines reality by what it endorses, and by what it excludes, and one does not make the choice as to whether one is in or out. Choice implies cynical acceptance. The Realpop writer believes every word they write. This is the single most important aspect of Realpop. It succeeds because those who endorse it are enthusiastic and sincere. Opponents seem cynical, egotistical, and unreasonable by comparison. Censorship becomes obsolete under the guiding principles of Realpop. The Realpop writer remains ever loyal to the people, knowing that opponents of the capitalist mechanisms of pop are merely class enemies in disguise. The tastes of the masses must be elevated to the level of dogma. Realpop still has work to do.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Non-Anniversary Writing - 'Ceremony' by New Order

What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.

'The Devil’s Backbone'

So the last shall be first, and the first last.

KJV, Matthew 20:16

Like the legend of the phoenix. All ends with beginnings.

Daft Punk - 'Get Lucky'

‘Ceremony’ by New Order is an enigma turned into sound. Like New Order’s monolithic slab of dance angst ‘Blue Monday’, it took several recordings before the definitive version emerged but, unlike ‘Blue Monday’, it was always the same song being recorded and not old songs mutating into something new (Both ‘Everything’s Gone Green’ and ‘586’ are essentially ‘Blue Monday’ practice runs). Recorded first by Joy Division and then twice by New Order, it is the second New Order version which remains the most familiar and the one that plays in our heads when we think of the song.

Why is ‘Ceremony’ an enigma? It is both a Joy Division and a New Order song. It is the last words of one group and the first of another. It is both words from beyond the grave and the first noises emerging from a newborn. It is death and rebirth. Never has a song so perfectly played into mythological archetypes yet defied categorisation completely. It sits uneasily with the rest of New Order’s catalogue, yet tacked onto the end of Joy Division’s it would seem out of place. ‘Ceremony’ exists solely on its own terms and in its own self-created context.

The lyrics are written by Ian Curtis which means they qualify as the best set of lyrics in a New Order song. This is not to suggest that Ian Curtis was a flawless poet given that many of his early lyrics fall flat and, in retrospect, reek of juvenalia. Yet he continued to refine and improve and the words to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ are startlingly mature and world-weary for a 23 year old, leaving behind the abstract existentialism of Unknown Pleasures to paint an earthbound portrait of domestic unhappiness. The words to ‘Ceremony’ are perhaps an unrevisable work in progress and an unalterable point in time, nonetheless they speak of mystery and unbearable visions. The enigma of the lyrics matches the conditions through which the song emerged. The inscrutable is often mistaken for depth but, in the case of ‘Ceremony’, it is nigh on impossible to dismiss the words as throwaway. Their inscrutability occasionally gives way to discernable emotions that tease the listener into thinking that some solution to the enigma might be found. For all that, the song remains stubbornly undecipherable. This is understandable given that they are among the last remnants of speech from a man who could not bear the weight of his own existence.

While temporarily staying with Bernard Sumner, Ian Curtis engaged in some past-life regression therapy with Bernard as his guide. A recording exists of Curtis talking in a detached voice about reading a law book and being aged 28, an age which Curtis never came close to. With ‘Ceremony’, the roles are reversed and Sumner is singing words from a past-life with Curtis as his guide. It is left to Sumner to utter these lyrics from beyond the grave, the same lyrics that will introduce New Order to the world. The voice of Ian Curtis was a pitch black cry of desperation. In contrast, the voice of Bernard Sumner has a lightness of tone and an unstable pitch which lends the words of Ian Curtis a measure of humanity often lost in the music of Joy Division. The blank existential chasm which opened up whenever Curtis sang meant that the emotions being expressed often struggled to escape the black hole at the heart of each song. On ‘Ceremony’, Sumner’s delivery make the words seem like both an invitation and a question mark, as opposed to a full stop. As his quivering inflection lets out the words “Heaven knows it’s got to be this time” it lends the song a tearful quality as Sumner’s frail voice enables underground reservoirs of emotion to seep out through the cracks.

‘Ceremony’ is old/new, dead/alive, first/last. It is a kind of phantom caught between worlds, a frozen moment in time that represents neither the music of Joy Division nor New Order. It exists in an artistic shadow-realm that was captured on tape and as such can be repeated at the listener’s pleasure. ‘Ceremony’ retains the same intense musical simplicity that was the hallmark of Joy Division. Nothing more than two chords, the song is held together by the most basic of guitar lines married to a sparse drum sound, and the song peaks in ferocity as a rhythm guitar frenetically slashes away at those same two chords. Something has changed, however, and as such it feels and sounds different from any Joy Division song ever recorded. As for New Order, their music would soon change to embrace electronic music and dance culture. For a while Sumner attempted to emulate the lyrics of Curtis by writing words that implied something dark and ominous while struggling to make sense. He eventually settled in as a chronicler of domestic irritation and contentedness, shedding the existential doom to emerge as the everyman Wallace Shawn of New Order, in stark contrast to Ian Curtis’s spiritually tortured Andre Gregory. As such, ‘Ceremony’ stands alone, inhabiting a barely discernible borderland that could only have been created by events and circumstances beyond the control of the music-makers. It is the sound of wheels turning endlessly, turning forever towards that one moment in time. A moment that was both an end and a beginning. It served its purpose as an escape route into the future and, from the wreckage of tragedy, New Order constructed something that comes close to perfection. New Order escaped, but ‘Ceremony’ reminds us what they escaped from. It has kept its power, its mystery, and its vitality. Few moments in the history of modern music vibrate with such intensity. Listen again, the wheels are still turning.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

‘Blurred Lines’ and the Banality of Male Sexuality

I’m going to be honest here, I initially tried to ignore the criticisms of ‘Blurred Lines’. After ‘Get Lucky’ I was hungry for another pop smash and ‘Blurred Lines’ seemed to fit the bill. Then I picked up on the rumblings of discontent. According to one commentator the song was “kind of rapey” and played around with ideas of consent. After a few listens I couldn’t deny the song’s inherent creepiness, yet it seemed to me that deciding whether or not the song was an endorsement of rape (I don’t think it is) was not the only thing up for discussion. As far as I can see, the song seems to revel in some very dubious and also thoroughly predictable elements of male sexuality, and worst of all it does so with an unshakable sense of self-assurance.

Some people may question why anyone would be upset in the first place. Didn’t Odd Future build their career with songs about rape? Yes, but there’s a vital difference. Odd Future knew they were courting controversy. It was part of their appeal. Same with an artist like G.G. Allin. His intent was to shock. Robin Thicke seemed totally unprepared for any criticisms of ‘Blurred Lines’. It didn’t even occur to him that anybody would be upset. He genuinely believes the song is sexy. Say what you will about someone like Eazy-E but I’m betting he didn’t pen ‘Nutz On Ya Chin’ because he thought it would bring a little romance to the evening. Part of the problem with ‘Blurred Lines’ is that it unquestioningly accepts its own worldview. It doesn’t think it’s controversial. The song overflows with the confidence of the straight male who is perfectly secure with his place in the world. Yet in doing so it betrays a narrow-minded, regressive, and unimaginative idea of human sexuality.

First off, the lyrics are not sexy. Not in any way, shape, or form. Thicke’s idea of sexiness is getting “blasted” and smoking some weed. We already have a problem. Here is a song that thinks it’s ‘Kiss’ by Prince but is in fact ‘Why Don’t We Get Drunk’ by Jimmy Buffett. Why exactly does Thicke want his lady friend to get wasted? So she can lose her inhibitions. So she can let go of the “good girl” that stops her from truly enjoying sex and tap into her inner animal. So basically Robin Thicke’s sexy, playful song is about taking a “good girl”, getting her drunk/high, and then fucking her. No mention of the pleasures she will receive. Nothing about 23 positions in a one night stand. She’ll be wasted. She’ll have sex. One thing’s for sure, Robin Thicke knows she wants it. Is it rape? Perhaps not, but it certainly doesn’t sound like seduction. It sounds like bad sex. It sounds like a man getting off on the idea that a “good girl” finds him attractive. It sounds like a man with some very clichéd views about what women, and men, want from any given sexual encounter.

Why exactly does he want a “good girl” anyway? What is a “good girl”? This aspect of the song seems to tap into one of the most overused and objectionable ideas about female sexuality. A woman is either a virgin or a whore. A good girl or a bad girl. Many men want good girls because it gives them a feeling of conquest and power and because the idea of a mature, sexually experienced woman terrifies them. ‘Blurred Lines’ revels in the idea of the male liberator who frees the frigid woman by getting her wasted and fucking her. Deep down, that’s all she needed. For some reason many men approach the idea of female sexuality with the one thought that women are too uptight. They need to let their hair down. They need to let themselves enjoy things. Things like sex. The problem can’t lie with the man or his limited technique. If the woman would just relax she would enjoy a man taking charge and giving her what she needs. The man knows that ultimately she wants it.

We are at the point where (I hope) rape is seen as repugnant by the majority of men and the idea that, deep down, women desire to be raped is met with real disgust. Yet the idea that a straight woman desires a masculine man to take control and simply give her a good, hard seeing to is one which continues to have credibility. Even though Morrissey claimed that he spent his teenage years in the feminist section of his local library he still felt the need to include the line, “It took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead, to really, really open her eyes” in The Smiths’ song ‘What She Said’. It passes for wisdom and insight to insinuate that the conflicted female merely wishes to give up control and be used as an instrument for male sexual satisfaction. Only through female surrender can either party achieve true fulfillment.

Underneath the cocksure strut of the masculine straight male, however, there lies fear. Repeating “I know you want it” over and over sounds more like something to make the man feel better than the woman. It gives the man confidence in his sexuality. The pornography industry is built on the idea of unlimited male sexual power and its appeal lies in its portrayal of the man being the one who, in the majority of cases, holds the power in sexual matters. The reason Thicke, and a large percentage of men, hate these “blurred lines” is because they yearn for simplicity and uncomplicated sexual relations. Can’t we stop with the discussions about gender roles, gender confusion, gender as a societal construct, and just let a man do his thing? Feminism has by now sown so many seeds of doubt into the male mind in regards to WHAT WOMEN WANT that for many the solution is to get back to basics and just revel in antiquated ideas about sexuality and ‘natural’ male superiority.

The fact that anyone still entertains any kind of notion about ‘what women want deep down’ is an embarrassment. Some men get off on the idea of being cheated on. Does anyone think that’s what all men want deep down? Some men get off on wearing nappies. Some men get off on being humiliated by a whip-wielding dominatrix. Yet only women’s sexuality is ever brought back to the same basic idea: women are uptight and when all is said and done they want a man to be the boss in the bedroom.

Is ‘Blurred Lines’ about rape? No. What it’s really about is how banal mainstream male sexuality is. No sensuality. No femininity. No wit. (The song’s only real attempt at humour is the line “What rhymes with hug me?”. Oh, I don’t know… drug me?). Just boring, vacuous strutting. Get drunk and have sex. Although inspired by Marvin Gaye, it contains none of his tortured sexual pleading or promises of physical pleasure. It merely says “Let me fuck you, I know you want it”. It’s not cheeky; it’s just pathetic.

Honestly, I love blurred lines. Human beings are complex, inscrutable creatures, and that complexity is about the only thing that makes life interesting. There seem to be constant complaints about the modern world and how we address issues like gender, identity, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. Some want to run from this, yearning for a simpler time when any kind of deviation from the norm was suppressed and brushed under the carpet. Yet, for those who rejoice in expressions of freedom and the enhancement of individuality, these modern times are a period of great unfolding. The straight white male stranglehold on the Western narrative grows weaker every day. It’s sad that people still have to explain to the Robin Thickes of the world exactly why ‘Blurred Lines’ represents such a problem. Despite its overwhelming success, Thicke seems resentful that the moronic, witless, blundering worldview of ‘Blurred Lines’ should even be questioned. I will say this: if your idea of a good time is getting a woman blasted and tearing her ass in two, then do everyone a favour and stay home tonight.

I confess that every time ‘Blurred Lines’ comes on the radio, I stay on that station. I find the music to be unbearably catchy. On the surface it feels like a fun song. The music and melody have an undeniable pop appeal that can almost make me forget the words. Almost. Yes, I realise there’s an irony in the fact that, despite my criticisms, I still enjoy it on some level. Perhaps the greater lesson here is that if Thicke wasn’t such a dullard, if he had shown a bit more wit and intelligence, then I could have enjoyed the song unconditionally. Every time the song ends I feel like there’s been a missed opportunity, that the whole experience could have been so much better. Listening to the lyrics, I’m sure this is something Robin Thicke is more than used to hearing.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Beck – Song Reader (Faber/McSweeney’s) (Review)

Before this review begins in earnest, I must warn the reader that the writing is not, and does not attempt to be, unbiased. Beck bothers me.

It’s not just that he uses music from African-American sources to provoke laughter yet raids every white singer-songwriter cliché when he wants to get serious. No, it’s more than that. From the beginning, he has more often than not won approval for being some kind of cultural barometer, a sign-of-the-times, this-is-where-we’re-at artist that allowed alternative fans to enjoy ‘modern’ music while also feeling superior to it. This is no place to dwell on Beck’s overall shortcomings, though. Today I must narrow my gaze and focus on his most recent endeavor.

Beck’s latest release is Song Reader, a book of sheet music. When is the actual album coming out I hear you cry? Hold on to your hats, dear reader, and prepare yourself for a bombshell. There is no ‘album’. This is it. Twenty songs of sheet music. No recorded music, just the musical blueprint. This release has provoked much excitement, and generated massive amounts of press interest, due to its unorthodox nature. What was Beck thinking? What’s your opinion of it? With most modern marketing campaigns we are almost forced to have an opinion. To cite one example, many people probably just wanted to shrug at the idea of Radiohead releasing an album free but as internet chatter went into overload many of us felt the need to contribute. Even if it was just to say that we felt like shrugging. In this instance I do have an opinion on Song Reader. I think it’s bullshit.

First off, there’s nothing interesting about releasing sheet music, even in this day and age. It happens all the time. The reason people are interested is because it’s Beck. The concept tickles their fancy. Throw in the fact that it is being released as a limited run via McSweeney’s, that maker of readymade collectibles for the discerning indie fan, and you can practically see the pools of saliva forming all over America. And that’s the problem. Most copies of Song Reader will undoubtedly remain unopened. It will sit proudly on a shelf as a sign of excellent taste and, as available copies double then triple in price on the internet, the various owners can congratulate themselves on the fact that they placed a bet on a sure thing.

Next, Beck is a terrible songwriter. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he doesn’t have any good songs. What I am saying is that his songs rely more on how they were recorded than anything inherently musical. I have no problem with the studio being part of the writing process. I embrace it wholeheartedly. I don’t think songs have an idealised Platonic form that naturally comes out in the studio. I think the craft of the song matters, but so does how it was recorded, and so does the studio performance. Stripped of their performance aspect, Beck songs are sorry affairs. Lyrically, melodically, and harmonically they are uninteresting. Beck selling sheet music is like McDonald’s selling a recipe book. “Hey, we’re not going to sell you the Super-Ultra-Mega Big Mac, but you can buy our recipe book and make your own version.” Those recipes might even look complex on paper, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t consuming garbage.

There’s also a terrible egotistical aspect to this whole thing. Beck really can’t wait to hear what you’ve done with those Beck songs. I’m sure he’ll listen and humbly state that he would never in a million years thought of arranging his songs that way. Well done, anonymous musician. Beck is pleased. Wouldn’t it be better to have people write their own songs? I don’t understand what’s inherently exciting about people recording Beck songs. If he really meant this as a democratic process then surely he would have released the songs as actual sheet music that was available at a reasonable price. $34 is a lot of money. It’s more than double the price of a new CD and, unlike CDs, a used copy of this book will not decrease in value. You can even pick up a lovely signed copy for $50. Democracy should be cheaper than this.

In truth, Song Reader is nothing but a cleverly marketed product for a particular subset of Western consumers. It is guaranteed to sell out and it hasn’t even been released yet. My anger isn’t just about the fact that Beck is releasing a book of songs instead of an album. It’s also the fact that he’s doing it via McSweeney’s, a company whose philosophy exudes a kind of smug, post-modern sense of elitism. I’m sure Dave Eggers could pen an essay on why he thinks Fifty Shades Of Grey is both underrated and culturally important (thinkers like him train themselves to defend the most culturally abhorred product), but when it comes to the McSweeney’s customer, Eggers knows only a certain kind of artifact will satisfy. Expensive, limited, and decorated with comfort-inducing images and stylistic touches from days gone by, Beck’s Song Reader fits all the criteria. There’s nothing populist or democratic going on. This is just a well-executed marketing campaign.

For Beck fans who can’t read music and/or play an instrument, there’s nothing to be gained from this exercise other than perhaps a feeling that Beck is still relevant culturally. They may seek out cover versions but the whole thing will be a nine-day wonder. For people like me who dislike Beck and his antics, it’s irritating to see him being applauded for indulging in such risk-free exercises. To those who point out that by even talking about Song Reader I’m giving it attention, I would restate that it was guaranteed to sell out from the moment its existence was announced. To the people who say that since it has gotten people talking then it must be good, I’d say find the nearest pen and stick it in your eye. One, it’ll stop you from thinking such idiotic thoughts and two, it’ll give people lots to talk about next time they see you. I’m an optimist at heart though, and as such I always want to take something positive from whatever life throws at me.

In this instance I have found something to be very optimistic about; at least I won’t have to hear Song Reader.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)