“Be an individual!” It’s a radical concept. Dangerous, even. But then I was raised as a rebel. A no-good iconoclast setting out to blow minds, smash the system and show Mr Government and the brain police exactly where they could stick their conformist plastic straightjackets. That’s what I realised watching television the other day… but we’ll get to that.
In order to get to that point I’ll have to present to you a stilted history of the music industry and popular culture that is encapsulated by a single song that I somehow remember my mum singing to me. Although I have no images or other associations attached to that memory, so it may have never happened and is actually screen memory created for some strange unconscious purpose. That song was this song, “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds:
Reynolds was part of the 1960s folk revival that, through the likes of Bob Dylan, ended up introducing adult material into pop/rock music which had previously been made up of songs aimed at young teenagers. Before all that, however, it was part of a larger movement associated with equal rights, pacifism, and left-oriented ideas that was ostensibly about revolting against America’s morally bankrupt contemporary ideals but, except for some notable exceptions, was more rightly about a sense of individualist authenticity being preferable to conformism. Notably, the song rose to popular fame after this happened:
Pete Seeger represents the ultimate in liberal-socialism: big hearted and concerned for his fellow man (and occasionally women, why not?) whose enemies are things like big business and pollution. Seeger smiles at you from your TV and has a little joke at the expense of those other people. It’s never you. I mean you don’t live in a ticky-tacky house do you? No, I didn’t think so. Thanks to Peter Seeger, we could all agree that we were individuals and, after all, isn’t that what really matters? Of course, once we’ve established that we’re all individuals then those bourgeois individuals who own the music industry can begin pumping out cheaper, more appealing renditions of that message on records that, thanks to the individuals whose labour they purchase for a few dollars an hours, can turn them a healthy profit:
So eventually the demand for this particular brand of sanctimony is met and the world moved on. The bourgeois individuals come to win their hard fight to “be themselves” and accumulate wealth, becoming the dominant social class whose notions of individualism now form neoliberalism. These individuals now be themselves by cutting back the government that wastes their hard-earned taxes on keeping the working class in those much-maligned ticky-tacky boxes who – thanks to the insight that Pete Seeger gave us – can only possibly be living those lives because they refuse to be individuals. They must be stupid or lazy or hate freedom or something.
Of course, some of these individuals now start to realise that the people in the ticky-tacky boxes are having a hard time of it, so they decide to make a sitcom that can help attract advertisers to recommend these people things to buy. Maybe that’ll help them to be less conformist, I don’t know… So they make the TV show Weeds about a mom who is forced into growing dope because only being a radical dope-peddling individual will save her from the poverty that conformism inevitably leads to. To drive home this point, a number of radical new bands - all carefully branded in order to represent a certain facet of the “selves” which their consumers are “being” – come along to cover a song from back in the day when people were probably more authentic or something for some reason nostalgia… the most hilarious of which is this ditty from the impeccably named “Rise Against”:
Perhaps inspired by this particular little “meme” (not to undermine their obvious creativity which is, after all, what individuals specialise in) a group called “Walk off the Earth” that specialise in being individuals online devise a video abounding in the symbolism of the individual. Cardboard – not like the nasty cardboard that they have in warehouses and things, the nice cardboard from playgroup – is rolled and cut and sticky-taped and glued into a twee approximation of what a ticky-tacky house might look like if people were only as imaginative and individual as this band. They wear coloured T-shirts that show they’re different… but all the same really! (which is deep) And they play instruments that are made out of boxes which manage, like themselves, to be superficially original whilst fulfilling all the qualities that constitute what everything has been all along. Plus, if you like this kind of thing you might enjoy 02 products, because it was their idea all along:
So, eventually we reach the point that those revolutionaries dreamed about so long, long ago… where we can all sit back in our NON ticky-tacky houses and watch our NON ticky-tacky televisions where we can see the best NON ticky-tacky corporation to purchase mobile phones from in order to call all our NON ticky-tacky friends and do stuff that free, creative individuals do in a world without conformity, because conformity was something that happened in the long, long ago… like poor people.
And finally, in this apotheosis of mediums – the Youtube Ad – we can finally hear the last verse of this song that has brought us all the way to this point:
What is the point in this odd bracket-word of “love”? It’s a valuable commodity, but only in its blandest depiction as an objective set of clichés. Hollywood could save a lot of money by only making one “rom-com” and then digitally replacing the stars’ faces every few months, I don’t think the minor variations in storyline would be missed. Similarly, I don’t think a popular love song has ever been written about an actual person. In fact, if one has then I feel rather sorry for that featureless object of reheated second-hand platitudes…
One way of interpreting this could be the capitalistic need to meet every audience’s demands: the lowest common denominator argument. If this was truly the case though, why would one of my favourite “love stories” be Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby when I find the character types portrayed in it really quite repellent and certainly don’t “empathise” with them at all? No, I imagine it probably comes back to the “courtly love” angle. The love of Petrarch that is readily applied to any woman willing to go along with it. Phantasmic descriptions of characteristics that no individual actually has, but is only seen to have by another – delicate, innocent, motherly, whatever…
It’s no wonder that popular love songs are as clichéd musically as they are lyrically. The bowel-rumbling major-minor sequences with hyperbolic key changes barely hiding the metronomic not-quite-a-rhythm. It is less music than an audio assault, an emotional response trigger pre-programmed by innumerable moments of movie pathos, the overwhelming effect of which is, to me, claustrophobic disgust. The pure self-centredness of the whole thing, its courtly quality, is reinforced only through its very loudness. It’s not hard to see Don Quixote mixed up in it all, bellowing unspecific love to the fair Dulcinea.
There’s a reason then, other than it just being obvious, why blues has always survived as a superior musical style. If the emotional Dionysianism of music has to be inherently self-centred, blues’ self-pitying lyrical themes are a perfect match. At the core of blues stories (far more varied and individual than love stories) is a kernel of inexpressible sorrow that only the wordlessness of music can come close to. Blues music unites people through a form of mutual masochism; a triumphal joy at the expense of the rest of the world.
It’s for this reason that I similarly find Venus in Furs to be one of the most interesting love stories out there. Sacher-Masoch’s own portrayal of masochism is, perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the perfect anti-masochist text. The sexual object that initially fulfils the role of dominatrix ends up as a sadist; the illusion of the dominatrix’s power is actually fulfilled, leaving the masochist actually powerless, a position completely opposed to their desires. To be powerless, the masochist must always be the one in control, just like Petrarch’s weeping lovers – but then his Venus in Furs acts for herself… Laura starts to speak. Of course, as soon as The Loved One speaks, the Real intrudes and horror ensues; but does it need to?
In writing The World’s Wife, Carol Ann Duffy “gives a voice” to forgotten women back throughout history; the point being that it is her voice, of course. The silent woman cannot be made to speak after she is dead… or atleast not without some rather macabre ventriloquist schtick anyway. The trick was all in her subjectivity, her Self. Yet the connection, like music, exists out in the Dionysian wilderness between subject and object. It’s in this sense in which the core of human relationships, of any kind, is deeply schizophrenic at its core… its decentred core of jagged, inexplicable fragments…
Just ten seconds ago, which is now no longer ten seconds ago, I was pointlessly trawling through a website of people’s “favourite lyrics”. Yes, the internet is a useful method of finding what people like without actually having to talk to them. The thing I tended to find though, was that all of these songs were either at slower tempos with powerful music, such as Pink Floyd or Radiohead, or they were the sort of “youth anthem” packed with power chords and shouting.
As anyone who’s ever read a teenaged girl’s MSN screenname will know, lyrics tend not to make sense without the music behind them. Have you ever read the lyrics to Dark Side of theMoon? They’re pretty awful… until you put the record on of course. That’s why anyone that says that something “is like poetry” really grates on my nerves. A poem evokes meaning out of nothing but words. Lyrics layer meaning atop an emotional core already created by the music. I’m not saying that poetry is better than lyrics, simply that they fulfil two completely different functions.
“Everything under the sun is in tune, But the sun is eclipsed by the moon.”
Now that’s awful poetry, but it ranks with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on my favourite musical climaxes. It’s probably also why I found it so exasperating to read through a list of lyrics of which I knew none of the accompanying music. Also, it’s why I truly appreciated the well-named “CaptinBeefheart” referencing,
“Mad Dan Superman and Henrietta Holocaust introduce to you what’s new on the humanoid scene”.
Just one of a million brilliant lines from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Da Band (track: Humanoid Boogie). The band plays nothing but dodgy ‘60s R&B and even dodgier music hall, but the late-great lyric writer Viv Stanshall somehow turns the ridiculous into the sublime. Thinking about it, all my favourite pop/rock bands (as opposed to jazz) have this same quirkiness: Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Jefferson Airplane, etc. There’s something da-da about them that makes them far more brilliant than anybody that takes themselves seriously could ever be.
Although maybe I don’t get it. Studying literature everyday I find myself stuck on one side of the signified-signifier divide, capable only of viewing words as words. Music directly influences the soul, that’s why people who sing about love can pretend to be politicians; both singers and politicians have no faith in the meaning of words but simply what feelings they can evoke.
These sort of people are moved by a song like that “light up” one by Snow Patrol. To me it just sounds like one note bashed over and over as if a metronome’s got abit full of itself, then some meaningless words over it. To some it’s “life affirming”… I assume they must have something called a “heart”. Not me though. Give me complex rhythm, crescendos of dissonant, rambling notes, and elaborate quasi-metaphors every time. Music you have to work out, that’s what I like,
“Inside a broken clock, Splashing the wine with all the rain dogs!”
PS/ A “rain dog” is a dog that has gone too far from home, it’s started raining, and has therefore gotten lost as it can’t smell its way back. See – learning is fun!
‘Tis the season to be spending… spending time with family, spending money on presents, and now apparently spending to make a stand against commerce. Thanks to Facebook, “killing in the name of” by Rage Against the Machine is now set to make Christmas number 1 over the record by whoever won X Factor. According to the blog-o-sphere it’s “about music choice”. That it’s a choice between two Sony moneyspinners is apparently beside the point.
Indeed, Facebook itself is a useful metaphor for this embodiment of cultural hegemony. You can express exactly who “you” are inside the rigid boundaries of convention; “I” am a date of birth, a few schools and set of fleeting images, just like everybody else. But that isn’t the intention of course. You’d probably say I’m not “in the spirit” of it. Facebook, Christmas, both places where the individual “spirit” is expressed through communal norms.
Even the narrative structures of Christmas films and rock music videos are similar. They both follow the model of totemic fantasy: rock stars, pop stars, gangster rappers, cowboys, space men, elves, Jedis, those with “Christmas spirit”, and many more, all embody the juvenile fantasy of the individual’s omnipotence of thought over society. Call them an archetype if you will. They all emerge from hostile surroundings (the desert, the hood, a reality show, a world without Christmas spirit) and triumph over it, exerting their will over others and becoming the new leader of the tribe.
I’m tempted here to add Hitler and the Nazis to this list as they too embody this archetype of triumphant will, and people do love them, even if they must kill them. Although each of these characters must die, the joy of the totem-leader partly lies in the knowledge that you will eventually kill and eat them. Who are our heroes? Kurt Cobain, 2-Pac, Jessie James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Gandalf, whatever…
But why not the X-Factor winners? Why not the boy that believed in Santa when no-one else did? Here we see the difference of social complicity. The person still celebrating Christmas in August – mad. The person still idolising Gareth Gates – mad. Indeed, the period of carnival after their election of tribal chiefs is the same in duration as the “rise” of the others; it represents the time of coming to power, dominance, and thus the attainment of immortality… and even if that “spirit” of immortality quickly moves into another vessel, it remains the same immortality.
So, after all, it’s fitting that “Killing in the name of” is Christmas number one. We celebrate the spirit of the individual and its apotheosis into immortality. Gather around Yggdrasil, the life tree, and sing of the father’s murder that we may see ourselves in God anew through our totem-priests. Rage, we shed our life’s blood, cash, upon your online altar that our collective spirits may deliver us from evil and death. You suffered for your place amongst the stars, and we too may join you there if we offer you our sacrifices and let our Christmas spirit become part of the one great unity, the Christmas Number One.