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Politicized pop

The most recent The New Republic has an editorial by Jason Zengerle lambasting Conor Oberst's attempt to be politically relevant. ("Trite Eyes" is a great hed, too.) Zengerle rightly points out how embarassing the lyrics are and asserts they lack the complexity and depth to transcend the moment that occasioned them. "As Dylan demonstrated, a good protest song is not simply political, nor is it narrowly confined to the issue that it's protesting. The best protest songs provide historical and artistic context for an alternative worldview and, in doing so, give legitimacy and a powerful sense of inevitability to the protest; even if the target of the protest never hears the actual song, he's ultimately unable to ignore its message and the followers that message inspires." By comparison, Oberst is "ephemeral," and "editorialist" who indulges in localized insults without ever grounding them in a overarching point of view.

While I agree with Zengerle's assessment of Oberst, I wondered about the implication that the ability to transcend given circumstances was the essence of successful protest music. Isn't the measure of its success in how many people it motivates? Is that too pragmatic a view, to measure the efficacy of protest songs in terms of how good they are as propaganda? I don't think Oberst is motivating much of anything for the same reasons Zengerle suggests; the generation to whom Oberst speaks has nothing at stake in this war, and they enjoy his performace of sincerity and concern as an entertaining gesture, a way to vicariously show concern about something they probably don't spend a whole lot of time worrying about. (It is probably pretty unfair to generalize this way.) But was the counterculture Dylan emerged from that different from the hipster scene that has produced Oberst? Were its motives more pure? Had they really reject the values of the mainstream and found a compelling way to articulate their alternative values, had they even succeeded in consciously formulating such values? (In Chronicles Dylan seems to pointedly reject such an interpretation, but he's probably not to be trusted. He stresses his alienation but refuses to root it in a set of principles. It becomes ontological; he was just born that way -- a mystification.) Or were those 60s bohemians as phony-seeming and naive as Oberst seems now?

In the 1960s folk was a politicized form, much as punk would be in 1970s. Just performing folk songs sent a message of rejecting the mainstream, even if you were singing "You Are My Sunshine". It communicated a connotation of commie sympathizing, as folk luminaries like Pete Seeger in the 50s had been branded as reds. The stripped-down aestehtic, the socialist communitarianism it implied, the rejection of "manufactured pop" it embodied all made folk a statement in and of itself then. Though its difficult to imagine now, Joan Baez was a radical figure, and her popularity must have seemed extremely threatening. (Joan Didion's essay about her in Slouching Toward Bethlehem evokes some of the paranoia she imspired.)

But now folk is just another genre, thoroughly domesticated depsite what "freak-folk" singers like Devendra Banhart and "indie folk" artists like those on K Records might be trying to do. Punk underwent a similar domestication. Once, punk was deployed as a badge of authenticity and sincerity because in being calculated to offend, it seemed as though it couldn't have been meant to be commercial. But because "punk" is now an accepted commercial genre and an understood genre description referring to a certain set of sonic tropes, it no longer has any ethical dimension and can be used by Ashlee Simpson without any intention of trying to seem sincere. I don't think adopting punk stylings is an attempt at legitimacy; I'm not so sure it is even playing with the signs of legitimacy, Baudrillard style. It seems a straightforward attempt to cater to a constituency for whom the political ideas that may have once animated punk music mean absolutely nothing.

Frank Kogan gets all worked up about these issues in this Village Voice screed about Ashlee (thanks to PopMatters writer Jon Langmead for the link). He's impatient with anyone who would try to protect punk from being "exploited" by commercial artists (much as folkie purists in the 60s would try to save folk from the likes of the New Christy Minstrels). The contempt for today's shallow hipsters, implicit in Zengerle's takedown of Oberst, here is openly proclaimed and seems to the animating force behind Kogan's writing. "Until a couple of weeks ago it hadn't occurred to me to wonder if Ashlee might be punk. If she is, it's just an impulse (emotional? aesthetic? commercial?), not a lifestyle choice. She's not in alternative's sociopostyouthical quasi-bohemia. Some people in that bohemia not only can't imagine that an Ashlee Simpson could possibly create an album that's better than the recent Hold Steady, Lightning Bolt, LCD Soundsystem (but she did, and it's better than the Pink and Avril albums that paved her way too), but they also can't consider the idea that her occasional punk moments are more galvanizing than those of the Hold Steady et al. But you know, if you go way back to the original punk rock, it wasn't just angry kids in the garage but bizzers and pros and schemers and nice girls in cubicles writing lyrics on demand and copycats trying this and that fashionable style and getting lucky on the angry stuff (that last applies to the kids in the garage too): 'Steppin' Stone,' 'Kicks,' '96 Tears,' 'Wild Thing,' 'Gloria,' 'Hanky Panky.' " Kogan's point? You're a pinhead if you care about the integrity of commercial musicians and a naive fool or a poseur if you think any indie bands have it. What is so tiresome about this is the straw man that has been set up here, the humorless and self-important fan of Lightning Bolt who thinks his fandom is some kind of important cultural statement. Such people, if they exist, don't need to be shot in a barrel so that a Village Voice writer can score some credibility points of his own. And there is nothing cool about being a cheerleader for corporate product, no matter how counterintuitive and avant a critical move one might think that is. The whole point of Ashlee Simpson records is that they don't need critical exegesis. They don't need to be defended for their audience. They have an empirical immediacy for the people who listen to them, the people who are not interested in constructing an aesethtic out of pop-culture consumption but are instead content to simply consume it and feel like part of the present moment, caught up in the zeitgeist of consumer deisre -- this is new, I want it, I have it, okay what's next. (Yes, these people are often 12 years old, but nevertheless.) If you are a critic blathering about Ashlee Simpson, to praise or condemn it, you've missed the point entirely. (Perhaps I've fallen into the same trap here myself.)

The issue here seems to be the critical fetish of authenticity. "Authentic" music is held to be that which an artist creates herself "from the heart" for allegedly non-commercial reasons. Some critics demand authenticity the way others demand originality or creativity. All these concepts seem evasive, though, slippery criteria that end up as indefinable and ineffable notions that can be used to dismiss anything the critic has a whim to reject. Authenticity is often evoked to smuggle in a moral critique of commercialism, the idea that real art should be free of taint from the conditions of its production, should appear as if by magic, commuted directly from the artist's pure intention to the audience's pure reception. But how something that is intended to be pop gets produced and distributed, why it is able to be made in the first place, is often inseparable from the end-product's substance. The proper critical subject of an Ashlee song is in some ways always the improbability of her own career. Another subject is the efficiency and time-specific chracteristics of contemporary hit-making machinery. The pop record is ultimately about what this moment thinks pop records are supposed to sound like. They are not "authentic" in the sense of having some timeless significance -- that is to say, their significance is always related to their place in time, their context and what they encapsulate about it. I think we enjoy manufactured pop because it makes us feel like we belong to the moment happening now. But there's not much room in that identification to allow for crtical commentary about substance -- which is why critics tend to evoke other criteria, which is why ultimately the only thing that can be purposefully discussed about them is the business side, what Billboard might report about such a record or what it reveals about the workings of the music industry. (I'm drawing heavily here on Pierre Macherey's A Theory of Literary Production -- it seems like his arguments about literary criticism can be extended to pop-culture criticicm generally. No sense comparing a cultural object to some idealized vision of it, no sense pretending the conditions of its production aren't critical to what it is ultimately; no sense, that is, unless you want to be spouting purely subjective mumbo jumbo and demagoguery.)

What are the politicized forms of pop music today? Does one exist? Perhaps computer-assisted music that transcends copyright and property issues and even being solidified into a final sellable object, that is imminent only in unique performance is one.

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