Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

"This generation got no destination to hold"

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Monday, Apr 4, 2011
I tend to listen to the same handful of albums over and over again and hope that constitutes a nullification of the imperative to seek and enjoy novelty for its own sake through the medium of popular culture.

I enjoyed the essay about the “iPod era” by Nikil Saval in the new n+1 (excerpt by Slate here), which considers the ramifications of solitary listening for political action. I thought it would cover the same ground as sociologist Michael Bull’s book about the iPod, Sound Moves (which I wrote about here), but it turned out to be something quite different.


I don’t accept Saval’s claim that the music of the 1960s was “an incitement to social change” without a lot of qualifications that are not supplied in the essay; I think the music was shaped by political ferment that preceded it rather than vice versa, and most politicized pop was cashing in on the zeitgeist. The explicit merging of politics and youth music culture in the popular mind undermined political action, diverting it into self-neutralizing spectacles like Woodstock (funny how that more or less heralded the end of radicalism for many of its participants even as they claimed it was just the beginning; instead it was as if they knew they had achieved the goal of having participated in something “historical”).

  
I’m more persuaded that the surge in politicized pop in the 1960s was a demographic phenomenon, a Baby Boomer thing. There is always music for youth expressing a rejection of certain aspects of the status quo; when there was more youth, there was more of it, and it was more prominent culturally, as that bulge of young consumers made what they consumed significant to the entire capitalist system. There was no golden age when music could be put to good political use. All music conjures a feeling of solidarity, I think; iPodization has just made the vicariousness of the process explicit.


What I liked best about Saval’s essay was the survey of pop music sociology: Saval suggests Adorno and Bourdieu offer “the two most considered attempts to connect music and society” and contrasts them: Adorno held out for traditional aesthetics and the importance of high culture as a form of resistance; Bourdieu rejected musical taste’s autonomy from the social order, arguing that it reflected status rather than an appreciation for something transcendent. I’m glad Saval takes some tentative steps to refute the idea that Adorno was “wrong” about popular music (I’ve written about that before for what it’s worth), but still seems to want to emphasize the autonomy of the consumer in an administered consumer system. However, the essay makes this excellent point:


The danger now is different. The man no longer needs a monopoly on musical taste. He just wants a few cents on the dollar of every song you download, he doesn’t care what that song says. Other times he doesn’t even care if you pay that dollar, as long as you listen to your stolen music on his portable MP3 player, store it on his Apple computer, send it to your friends through his Verizon network.


Popular culture is already subsumed by capital; this is not different from the situation in the 1960s. RCA didn’t care what kind of polemic Jefferson Airplane put on its albums, because the company just wanted to sell records. The radical sentiment was already commodified and neutralized; what it inflamed in listeners was to a degree already contained, already likely to express itself as radical chic, vicarious fantasy, and scenesterism rather than radicalism. And scenesterism is good for the culture industry; it enriches the value of products with new, valuable meanings for customers. It builds brand equity.


Saval suggests Bourdieu is a “philistine” who asserts the “falsehood” that “music is the ‘pure’ art par excellence. It says nothing and it has nothing to say.” I don’t think that’s false at all; I think it is a recognition that music, like any other form of art, is not an untarnished container for humanistic pieties about what constitutes “greatness.” But music, like asbtract art, more easily masquerades as such because it seems “purifed” of interpretable content and presents audiences with the higher truth of form qua form.


Bourdieu, Saval claims, refuted Adorno, but I think that Adorno and Bourdieu have complementary perspectives; both see popular culture as manifesting the failure of popular culture to be autonomous from capitalism and the classes it structures to support itself.


Saval’s essay concludes, probably ironically, by recommending silence as a mode of resistance, as a means of steering between the Scylla of Adornesque snobbery and the Charybdis of Bourdieuian identity self-consciousness:


One radical option remains: abnegation—some “Great Refusal” to obey the obscure social injunction that condemns us to a lifetime of listening. Silence: The word suggests the torture of enforced isolation, or a particularly monkish kind of social death. But it was the tremendously congenial avant-garde gadabout John Cage who showed, just as the avalanche of recorded music was starting to bury us, how there was “no such thing as silence,” that listening to an absence of listener-directed sounds represented a profounder and far more heroic submission than the regular attitude adopted in concert halls—a willingness to “let sounds be,” as he put it ... Silence is the most endangered musical experience in our time. Turning it up, we might figure out what all our music listening is meant to drown out, the thing we can’t bear to hear.


That seems like a Baudrillardian fatal strategy to me: “against the acceleration of networks and circuits, we will look also for slowness,” he wrote in Fatal Strategies, in 1983. “Not the nostalgic slowness of the mind, but insoluble immobility, the slower than slow: inertia and silence, inertia insoluble by effort, silence insoluble by dialogue. There is a secret here too.”


The dilemma Saval diagnoses is painfully familiar to me; I am always trying to find a way to “really” hear music, stop instrumentalizing it. But I probably won’t ever choose silence or to “Enjoy the Silence” or even listen to Hymns to the Silence. My strategy recently has been repetition. (Insert obligatory citation of Derrida and/or Lacan here.) I tend to listen to the same handful of albums over and over again and hope that constitutes a nullification of the imperative to seek and enjoy novelty for its own sake through the medium of popular culture. Right now (god help me) one of those albums is Wings’ Wild Life.

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