Indie filmmakers seem to keep their elders at arm’s length as they experiment and reinvent that medium’s possibilities. But many musicians seem to embrace Garageband or Pro Tools as tools for emulation, not revolution.—George Reisch
Two items recently made me worry about where rock music might be headed. A screening of Pink Floyd’s The Wall celebrating the release of Open Court’s Pink Floyd and Philosophy brought in a hundred or so young Pink Floyd fans to Columbia College in Chicago. That was about 50 more than I expected. And they loved it.
A dozen or so buttonholed me so persistently about the puzzling logic of the film that I nearly missed out on the buffet table. That’s good news, of course, and not only for my waistline. A 40-something editor having serious, critical conversations with 20-year-olds about a 30-something film (The Wall was released in 1982) shows that some icons of pop culture keep on giving, philosophically speaking.
But this sustained interest in a 30-year-old film and album might also indicate something else. Item two: it’s a week later and the Foo Fighters are on my TV screen performing at the Grammy Awards. Lead singer Dave Grohl stares into the camera and challenges us with the lyric, “Who are you? Yeah, who are you?” And he’s doing it over and over and over at the top of his lungs.
I could not have been the only 40-something wondering, Does he know that the words, “Who are you, yeah tell me who are you?,” belonged to the last major hit by The Who, a song released in 1978? Is Grohl offering some kind of homage or postmodern inter-textual connection to this song, I wondered? No, it just seemed like this band, knowingly or not, was giving their all to a new song with a 30-year-old chorus. And it’s title, the emcee noted, was “The Pretender”. Hmmm.
Rock seems to have turned inward, to itself and to its past. Besides those artists who may repeat the past without knowing it, many of the most creative and indie-credible are up-front about their devotion to times gone by. On Sea Change, for example, Beck does a great Hank Williams (d. 1953), albeit with synthesizers as well as acoustic guitars. The late, great Elliott Smith was openly devoted to The Beatles (1960–1970), while Stephin Merritt (of Magnetic Fields) is a serious musical student of everything from Vaudeville to Broadway to German synth-rock of the 1970s (as you can hear on his much-celebrated 69 Love Songs). His new album, Distortion, he says, is a nod to Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy (1985). Some artists seem to invest heavily in single artists from rock’s past, such as Lenny Kravitz (Jimi Hendrix, d. 1970) or Interpol (Joy Division, 1976–1980).
As for young and upcoming recording artists we’ve never heard of, this obsession with the past permeates do-it-yourself recording magazines (like TapeOp) or the advertisements and promotional material inside any music store. The signs may forbid you to play “Stairway” when you audition a new guitar, but this industry knows that budding musicians want guitars, amps and home studio gear that will make them sound just like those “classic” and “vintage” recordings of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Of course, there are exceptions. My claim is not that all bands are stuck in reverse, but rather that an increasing number presume that rock is all about sifting through albums and finding a sound and voice that merely updates or combines styles that are established, safe and familiar. Contemporary filmmakers like Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, or Michel Gondry seem to keep their elders at arm’s length as they experiment and reinvent that medium’s possibilities. But many musicians seem to embrace Garageband or Pro Tools as tools for emulation, not revolution.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, at least right away. I’m happy with everything from Joy Division to Buffalo Springfield to The Shins on my iPod. But what is to become of rock music in the coming decades if artists continue to focus on the past and lose the desire that drove their heroes into uncharted, unfamiliar, disturbing musical territory? They might become like Roger Waters’ semi-fictitious Pink, the rock star (played by Bob Geldof in the movie The Wall) who hides from life’s uncertainties and disappointments behind his metaphorical wall. In this case, however, the bricks in the wall are the comforting and familiar sounds, chords, and even lyrics of rock’s past.
As enigmatic as the screenplay of The Wall may be, it has one clear thing to say about this musical conservatism. Pink was partly modeled after Syd Barrett (1946–2006), Pink Floyd’s founder whose musical star burned bright before he succumbed to madness and the band went on to worldwide success without him. Even though the film portrays Barrett taking emotional refuge behind a wall, Barrett always used his music to overcome and break down the various walls—of familiarity, commodification, habit and routine expectation—that separate and alienate audiences from the original artistry of music and its performance. As Brandon Forbes explains in his contribution to Pink Floyd and Philosophy, Barrett’s post-Floyd solo albums evoke philosopher Walter Benjamin’s (1892–1940) concept of the “aura” and Benjamin’s own thoughts (more optimistic than my own) about our musical future.
Below is extracted from “Submersion, Subversion, and Syd: The Madcap Laughs and Barrett between Nietzsche and Benjamin” by Brandon Forbes, in Pink Floyd and Philosophy: Careful with that Axiom, Eugene! Open Court Publishing Company, 2007.
Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility” (in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Harvard University Press, v. 4) is helpful for understanding what Barrett was doing on his solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett (both 1970). Composed in spurts throughout the late 1930s, the essay seeks to create a socialistic critique of art’s technological reproduction to help the masses see through attempts at aesthetic manipulation by both capitalists and fascists.
Consider Benjamin’s concept of the aura. Originally derived from the Greek term meaning spirit or breath, he defines the aura as the uniqueness or singularity of a particular piece of art. The aura can be “the here and now of the work of art” which marks it indelibly as a “unique existence in a particular place” (SW 4:253). But it can also refer to “the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” (SW 4:255), an idea Benjamin illustrates with a mountain range on a summer afternoon. “To follow with the eye,” he says, “a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch” (SW 4:255). The overpowering presence of singularity in an experience—not just viewing a painting on a wall or experiencing a concert, but approaching nature itself—can capture its aura.
Yet the aura was doomed by technology and modern capitalism. With their desire to “‘get closer’ to things spatially and humanly” and “their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness,” Benjamin says, the masses have embraced the “transitoriness and repeatability” of the reproduction of the work of art over its “uniqueness and permanence” (SW 4:255). In other words (to play on one of Barrett’s lyrics) we can now say that there’s “no good trying” to find singularity in mass production, especially in art—the aura is “long, long gone.”
If It’s in You, Reproduce It for the Masses
The aura may have disappeared, but Benjamin does not argue for the destruction of machines or opine for the “good ole days.” He acts the part of the realist—society cannot go back because there has been an irrevocable paradigm shift in the mode of production, one result of which has been a kind of liberation. “Technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual” (SW 4:256), he says, because art is no longer enshrined in holy secrecy and has become a tangible reality for everyone, regardless of class.
Thus, for the late 60s fans of Pink Floyd, phonograph technology meant that the sounds of the countercultural revolution could be distributed to, and heard by, everyone with access to a record player or a radio—not just those lucky enough to go to UFO or elsewhere and experience Pink Floyd’s concerts first-hand. “As soon as the criterion for authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production,” Benjamin emphasizes, “the whole social function of art is revolutionized” (SW 4:257). Instead of ritual, art can now emerge from the social and political space opened by mass technological reproduction. In this light, viewing the promotional film for “Arnold Layne” or listening to Barrett is a social event and a political experience made possible by a technology predicated on mass dissemination of art in commodity form.
What capitalism has done, Benjamin points out, is made everyone into a critic. As he puts it in regard to film camera, “the newsreel offers everyone the chance to rise from passer-by to movie extra.” (SW 4:262) Each person can not only see themselves as becoming a part of a work of art, they can see themselves as a critic of that art, as well. Capitalism has also made everyone, at least potentially, an artist—much as the way Syd Barrett encountered the Beatles on radio, records, and film, and was inspired to write music himself. Technology allows art to engender art and opens up possibilities for social and political subversion by its wide-spread dissemination.
For Benjamin the socialist, however, this leads to the crucial question. All this is made possible by an industry devoted to reproducing and distributing art purely for economic gain. And, any socialist would recognize, this results in unfair exploitation of those responsible for creating the commodities, even if these commodities are recognized as art, since capitalists keep the surplus value created by workers as profit for themselves. How then can countercultural art remain subversive once it has been incorporated and commodified within the overarching capitalistic system? In other words, is there anyway that Barrett’s solo records, despite their manufactured distribution to the masses, are more than just a sell-out?
Yes. For while The Madcap Laughs, and even Barrett for that matter, are commodities marketed by the record industry, they have qualities that challenge the overarching logic of radio and record sales. While Barrett’s record label saw his solo career after Pink Floyd as a way to capitalize on his eccentric cult of personality, the actual realization of Barrett’s art is hardly a radio-friendly way to move units. The second half of The Madcap Laughs stands out here since Barrett’s approach to recording is a far cry from Top-40 polish. On “She Took A Long Cold Look,” the microphones capture the sound of Barrett turning pages of lyrics in the background as he stutters through the acoustic strumming. “Feel” features much of the same struggling chord changes and fluctuating tempos, but it is “If It’s In You” that goes the farthest in challenging the very idea of recorded songs as commodities. After featuring some studio banter at the start, including a brief false start, the track features Barrett beginning to sing the first verse again, but stopping in mid-howl, his voice sharply breaking out of tune. By the time he gets to the third verse, he replaces his stream-of-consciousness verbiage with the strangely compelling repetition of “yum, yummy, yum,” seemingly forgoing the need for precise diction.
Here is where Benjamin’s concept of the aura can be seen as having its largest subversive appeal, albeit somewhat at Benjamin’s expense. With the bizarre recordings on The Madcap Laughs, we can see this record not just as an attempt by the recording industry to exploit the creative capacity of a man on the verge of a mental breakdown, but rather as an exploration into the possibilities of re-engaging the aura in mass form. In this light, the studio banter, false starts, and off-key harmonies can be seen not as merely pitiable moments in Barrett’s life captured for profit, but as essential moments of authenticity rife with possibility for political change. In other words, it is not Barrett’s non-sensical lyrics or his compelling childish melodies that serve as the highest subversion (though they do challenge social norms) but rather the fact that Barrett’s songs are committed to tape in their rawest form that offers the greatest critique of the capitalistic system.
Piper at the Gates of Dawn has a subversive character to it, also. But it is produced in such a way that radio-friendly singles easily present themselves. The raw, lo-fi moments throughout The Madcap Laughs disrupt this pop-song commodity formula specifically by re-introducing Benjamin’s aura, by making the songs audibly inseparable from Syd himself, and those events—the turning pages, the false starts, the forgotten lyrics—that mark their authenticity. This gives the aura a fighting chance to reach the masses, despite its technological reproducibility, and subvert the market system in which the songs are commodified.
George Reisch is the series editor for Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series. He received a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Chicago in 1995 and teaches philosophy at the School for Continuing Studies at Northwestern University. His book, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2005.
Brandon Forbes is a freelance writer in Chicago who often covers indie rock and is co-editor of Radiohead and Philosophy (Open Court Publishing Company).