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The Music in Me: I Can Name that Personality in Five Notes

The thought that they might actually be gloating in their ignorance, and thriving on the way they are denaturing signs chills me to the bone. They flaunt their power of emptiness and slowly empty our world of meaning.

The Music in Me
I Can Name that Personality in Five Notes
[7 November 2005]

The thought that they might actually be gloating in their ignorance, and thriving on the way they are denaturing signs chills me to the bone. They flaunt their power of emptiness and slowly empty our world of meaning.

France Gall
Evidemment - the Best of

by Rob Horning

Recently I had the misfortune of having to drive from Queens to Jersey City one afternoon in the midst of the weekend-escape traffic. While I was on West Houston Street by the Film Forum I had this peculiar impulse to roll down my windows, even though it was hot and muggy outside and my car's air conditioning was working fine. My urge had nothing to do with climate control. It had to do with the fact that I was listening to 1960s French pop singer France Gall on my stereo, and I thought that if the people walking down the street could hear that, they might have a favorable impression of me. They might think I was someone who knew something. They might be impressed in my taste for obscurity and realize there was more going on than would meet the eye if they just happened to spot me in my Toyota Corolla without hearing my carefully chosen personal soundtrack. I have this same ridiculous impulse on the subway, when I'm listening to music on my headphones and I see people on the train who I imagine might be bowled over if only they could hear what I have chosen to listen to.

I'm in some dubious company in this. The need to impose oneself on others in the form of some specific music you feel represents you is the same impulse that leads people to outfit their cars with deafeningly loud stereos and window-rattling bass boosters. The car stereo becomes the most efficient device for broadcasting your identity as far as the sound waves can travel.

The problem is that no music can do an honest job of representing you; it was made with no idea of your existence (in my case, before I was born). The music, as music, has no connection to the message I'd be trying to send when I start using songs for social communication rather than personal pleasure. When I play a song in the course of self-promotion, I'm trying to obviate its significance as music and make it into a mere signifier, a calling card for the identity I'm constructing for myself. All that is significant is the cultural capital it embodies -- the effort it would have taken to know about such music and obtain it -- or the sub-cultural membership it implies.

In this I have become no different than those people who wear the fake Mötley Crüe tour shirts with the phony patina or the ubiquitous Che Guevara T that gleefully destroys a once potent revolutionary symbol.

If you truly like music, you shouldn't need others to validate it for you or serve as rapt audience to your alleged enjoyment of it. Because music is non-representational in its form yet so palpably expressive, it has the potential to reach the deepest recesses of our imagination and assure us that alternatives to a sold-out existence within a commodified culture exist without our having to spoil them by conjuring up specifics. Music can inspire an abstract emotionality that transcends sociocultural circumstances and nurture a critical core that resists monopoly-capitalist society's infantilizing blandishments. But France Gall's Baby Pop hardly aspires to that lofty standard.

In the end, I didn't roll down my window, because I figured anyone I would want to impress would see through my self-advertising ruse and would immediately detect my pose. I wouldn't know how to live up to the implications of what I was advertising myself to be, and my real personality (supposing I have one) would come across as contradictory, false. Such appropriations make integrity impossible.

But authenticity dilemmas simply don't enter the fashionista's mind. Fashion revels in a kind of anti-experience, effacing the possible signs that one has actually lived through something by systematically making them available to everyone. Fashion supplants experience with appearance, destroying history and replacing it with a treadmill of trends. Fashionistas may actually revel in the destruction of integrity, delight in seeing a specific symbol, a signified, that actually means a great deal to a select group of people, be detached from its signifier and deprived of its original significance in becoming an all-purpose sign of youth or trendy up-to-date-ness. I always thought the phonies who buy the fake T-shirts would be full of a secret sense of shame, but the thought that they might actually be gloating in their ignorance, and thriving on the way they are denaturing signs chills me to the bone. They flaunt their power of emptiness and slowly empty our world of meaning.

But I could be wrong about this. Anyone who would notice my France Gall could very well be impressed in exactly the way I fear. If I could commit to conducting my entire life on that level, like a sales clerk at Trash & Vaudeville or something, and spend my life making outward displays (with the aid of some expert shopping choices) to suggest every trait I want others to think I have, I might continue to get along with these new friends perfectly well and have a whale of a time standing around on St. Mark's Place. In fact, once I started, my ruse could work all too well, and I'd be seduced into spending hours in front of mirrors, dropping a grand on louder car speakers, and a cooler car, for that matter, maybe a VW or a vintage Fiat or something. Sure, there would be pressure to keep up with trends, but that's what magazines are for. In most ways it would make my life so simple; I wouldn't have to be anything more than what was read on my surface. I wouldn't have to justify the choices, whose attractiveness or purpose would be self-evident. I wouldn't need any "depth". People would be comfortable with me immediately, since they would already know everything about me at a glance.

After all, why do I think there is a deeper level to my listening to France Gall than the idea that it might impress people with a certain notion of who I am based on what kind of eccentric tastes I have? In a society where social being is flattened out into the sum of one's tastes and shopping choices, where consumerism is the only method by which to participate in the public sphere, I can be exactly what I calculate in my pretension. In the end, it's not a pretense because there's no way to listen to music that isn't a pretense, is there? According to sociologist David Reisman, popular music exists to serve as counters, tools for marketing a certain version of the self to others that they can recognize in an instant. "I can name that personality in five notes."

We have all grown up trained to consume, and our consumption is thoroughly socialized, that is, we consume for others (to be noticed consuming by others) at least as much as we consume for our own sake. Our identity, which is constructed through our interactions with the culture into which we are born, is, in a consumer society, bound up in what we consume and what others think of how we do it. All other avenues by which we might discover who we are and express it tend to be shut off: Work for most people has been deskilled and subdivided into mostly meaningless tasks -- no sustaining self-concept to be had there. And families have generally been atomized and dispersed across vast expanses, undermining the understanding of one's place in the world that might have derived from ancestry or community.

As one of the primary things one consumes, popular music is crucial. The music's intrinsic quality is almost always a mirage, at best superfluous if it can even be established by any credibly objective point of view. Whether or not a song is intrinsically good is beside the point of whether a person likes it. As Reisman points out, "Tunes meant people: roads to people, remembrances of them." He argues further that one's preferences in songs are more important then the songs themselves -- our opinions about music matter more to us than music in its sensuous quality, in its theoretically intrinsic capacity to please. "Preferences in consumption are not viewed as a development of the human ability to relate oneself discriminatingly to cultural objects." In other words, one doesn't learn about music to appreciate it more, one learns about it to talk about it with others, to relate to others, to rank oneself against other consumers. "For the objects are hardly given meaning in private and personal values when they are so heavily used as counters in a preferential method of relating oneself to others," Reisman claims. Music is only important insofar as it makes others think certain things about you. So for me, France Gall signifies a relation with a peer, not a relation to Gall as an artist or to her music itself. Her songs are "mementos that somehow remain un-humanized by the force of a genuinely personal, idiosyncratic attachment". If I can be said to have an identity that is not other-directed, a private inner self that remains constant over time regardless of my circumstances, then the music I might listen to in order to nourish it loses all of its potency once I conceive of it as a popularity ploy.

This is why faddish music, including that of feckless would-be hipsters, is so shallow, its very popularity puts it in play in the sphere of arbitrating relationships and removes it from one which could be private. The songs can be readily abandoned when they no longer foster, signify or concretize a relationship or a sense of how one wants to be identified -- that is, when it no longer buys one admission into a certain group. One's relation to popular music is already mediated by the time one discovers it -- what it means is already assigned, so no "humanizing" or lasting relation to it can be formed; the songs can't really become meaningful to you.

Compensating for the meaninglessness are pandering, bravura displays of publicity and expenditure, of intensive and ceaseless marketing, all of which becomes more elaborate as audiences are prepared to spend less time listening to pop music attentively. Pop songs becomes elaborate pseudo-events that sweep up listeners into a contrived zeitgeist without their having to expend any effort of their own. You hear something like the new Coldplay song, and it sounds expensive: You can almost taste the promotion, you can feel viscerally in the crescendos how much effort has gone into blanketing the world with it. As Reisman notes, "Wherever we see glamour in the object of attention, we must suspect a basic apathy in the spectator." The more elaborate the pseudo-event surrounding a release, the more certain the culture industry is that no one would care about the release without the hoopla. Pop perpetually reacts to presumed listener apathy, but it doesn't seek to eradicate it. Instead, it flatters apathy into a knowing cynicism, into calculation, into hipster-ism, into a proud, transcendent, kitsch sensibility.

No matter what message you try to send through conspicuous consumption ("I'm into obscure French pop," "I'm into heavy dub reggae," "I smoke weed," "I'm ironic," "I'm very conscious of my sexuality") the real, overriding message is that you are dependent on the validation of others before you accept some notion as being really true about yourself. And this likely reassures everyone else who feels the same, who plays the same game. Ultimately, we are passionate about our preferences, but not about music itself.

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