Verisimilimusic: Synthesis of the Real

Posted by , February 3rd, 2013
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[All the songs within this post can be downloaded in this zip file.]


All musical sound carries with it a development of sensations that are already familiar and exhausted, and which predispose the listener to boredom in spite of the efforts of all the innovatory musicians.
Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913)


Only 24 hours in a day
Only 12 notes a man can play

Beastie Boys (“Shadrach”, 1989)


At the beginning of the 20th century The Futurists, a group of artists from the Italian avant-garde, launched an “insolent challenge to the stars,” aligning themselves with the spirit of youth. The musicians of the movement lead an audacious revolt, realizing the noise of the Industrial Age had drowned out Beethoven’s Eroica, and watching as the sound of old masters was hung around the necks of music students like an ideological noose, renounced the past in an attempt to forge a future free of “the absurd swindle that is called well-made music.” In 1910, Francesco Balilla Pratella offered his Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, attacking music academies and conservatories as snares that intended to render impotent any artistic insight, perpetuate traditionalism and combat any effort to widen the musical field. Pratella declared inexorable war on everything that repeats, prolongs or exalts the past at the expense of the future. Calling on the recklessness of youth, Pratella hoped to steer future generations away from convention because he believed schools prostituted the glories of the past and were used as “insidious arms of offense against budding talent” that limited study to a “useless form of acrobatics floundering in the perpetual last throes of a behindhand culture that is already dead.” Futurism displayed an ever-growing hostility towards the exhumation of old works that prevented revolutionary innovation.

Following in Pratella’s footsteps, Luigi Russolo offered his own Futurist manifesto, The Art of Noises, outlining a way to liberate music from the confines of religious reverence, pleasantry and grace, and instead, supplant the comfortable melodies of the orchestra with the noise of trams, steam engines, foundries and printing presses. Russolo believed that substituting noise for sound would enrich the imagination of the listener, challenging him to experience new unexpected sensual pleasure. Rather than considering a symphony as music and the roar of industry as noise, Russolo created new instruments that intoned noise, allowing musicians a limitless range of new sounds that strove to incorporate the noise of everyday life rather than attempt to drown it out. The abrupt shock of a car backfire or a hammer fall, once synthesized into the Futurist paradigm, could lose its footing as an intrusion, and instead, become a crescendo in a new assemblage of sounds. The potential of transforming noise into art obviously went beyond the novelty of a printing press acting as a rhythmic device or steam pipe replacing the brass section of an orchestra. For if the province of music could include rather than exclude the noises of the day, and if the natural harmony and rhythm of those noises could be synthesized into a new musical language, it could aestheticize aspects of the everyday, transforming banalities into agencies of transcendence and distractions into ecstatic relays. The revolutionary aspect of the movement wasn’t in creating a proto-industrial band out of factory machinery; Futurist music was revolutionary in its call for the proletarianization of sound.


The liberation of individual musical sensibility from all imitation or influence of the past, feeling and singing with the spirit open to the future, drawing inspiration and aesthetics from nature, through all the human and extra-human phenomena present in it.
Francesco Balilla Pratella (Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, 1910)


We want the airwaves
We want the airwaves
We want the airwaves, baby
If rock is gonna stay alive
The Ramones (“We Want the Airwaves”, 1981)




In their annihilation of the old masters, the Futurists displayed precognition of the “schools” that would follow them. Electronic, punk, industrial and sample-based music all include aspects of Futurism. Just as those who came after them created their own instruments, Luigi Russolo created intonarumori, or “noise intoners.” These acoustic noise generators were parallelepiped wooden boxes with a conical speaker and crank, operating as a basic proto-synthesizer. Borrowing design elements from the loudspeaker, drum and the phonograph, Russolo designed the intoners to offer a range of pitch and amplitude, which were classified according to noise family and register (e.g., roars, whistling, murmurs, beating, shouts, screeching, creaking, etc.). The first concert of Futurist music in April 1914 caused a riot, which is evidence of a strong opening salvo in the Futurist’s inexorable war on past traditions. Unfortunately, further Futurist conflicts went unrealized as concerts around Europe were cancelled during the outbreak of World War I, and many of Russolo’s intoners were destroyed or lost.

There are a number of musicians who were directly influenced by the Futurists, most notably Varèse, Stravinsky and Antheil, but corollary is clear in those who may have been unaware of Russolo and Pratella, but who approached music with a re-creative point of view that is comparably Futurist. Likewise, the methodologies employed in music are progenies of Futurism. While the individuals and their techniques may all be different, they all share in the Futurist desire to explore new realms.


The variety of noises is infinite. If today, when we have perhaps a thousand different machines, we can distinguish a thousand different noises, tomorrow, as new machines multiply, we will be able to distinguish ten, twenty, or thirty thousand different noises, not merely in a simply imitative way, but to combine them according to our imagination.
Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913)


Bring the noise!
Public Enemy, 1987


Russolo’s intonarumori and two examples of  industrial music that similarly intoned noise:
»» Luigi Russolo — “Intonarumori: Ronzatore (buzzer)” (1914)
»» Einsturzende Neubauten — “Abstieg & Zerfall” (1981)
»» Throbbing Gristle — “Hamburger Lady” (1981)



The earliest innovations in electronic music were made by engineers who, sharing in the vanguard impulse of Futurism, didn’t stop in a desire to create new instruments but created an entirely new form of music. In the 1940s, Pierre Schaeffer developed musique concrète, a practice of abstracting recordings (concrete sounds) into a musical form. This was a complete departure from the traditional practice of notating ideas and having those notations performed by musicians armed with instruments. Schaeffer’s process disregarded notations, musicians and instruments. Like the Futurists before him, Schaeffer intoned the noise around him, but instead of creating an acoustic instrument to mimic noise, he manipulated electronic recordings.

Pierre Schaeffer was neither the first, nor was he alone, in the development of electronic music. There are a number of early electronic instruments—Clavecin électrique, Theremin, Telharmonium, Ondes Martenot—dating back to the mid 1700s, but it wasn’t until the advent of synthesis that the metaphysics of music, the notion of what music is, took on plasticity.


»» Pierre Schaeffer — “Masquerage” (1948)


The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none.
The simulacrum is true.

Jean Baudrillard (Simulacra and Simulation, 1981)


Your persona’s drama, that you acquired in high school in actin’ class
Your whole aura is plexiglass

O.C. (“Time’s Up”, 1994)


To think about synthesis today, is, largely, to think about synthesizers, which is due to the fact that audio synthesis has itself been synthesized. In other words, most people think of the sound that comes from a synthesizer as synthesis itself. To appreciate the significance of where sound can come from today, we should remember a time when synthesis was a process of building a sound from scratch and not just, as we know it today, a matter of turning the device on. There was a time when there was no device; there was only a process, a way of bringing sound into being, creating a platform from which sound slowly materialized.

Early forms of synthesis involved building: using an oscillator to generate a waveform (sine, square, sawtooth), controlling the frequency of the generated waveform (variable pitch v. fixed pitch), controlling the amplitude (volume), and creating any filters that may shape the tone. Once a single sound was created, it could be recorded onto magnetic tape (saved) and either looped, spliced or played in conjunction with another created sound. The process of creating sound was revelatory, but laborious.


»» John Pfeiffer — ”Orders” (Electronomusic, 1968)
[Pfeiffer was an engineer for RCA Records, responsible for producing many of the labels classical recordings. In addition to working on other's records, Pfeiffer recorded an LP of his own audio experiments. The record featured an orchestra of sound produced by instruments that he built: Inharmonic Side-Band, Contraformer, Parametric Blocks, Metric Transperformer, Alphormer, Duotonic Transform, and Ordered Simpliformer.]





Many of the early commercial releases of electronic music were offered, thematically, as astrological or science fiction works: Forbidden Planet, Apocalypse, Fantasy in Space, Silver Apples of the Moon, Le Voyage, etc. And the record labels were right to liken the new sound of electronic music to aliens visiting earth, because the music shared very few auditory commonalities with anything heard prior. To make matters more petri dish-ish, electronic music was presented like a scientific dissertation. And rightfully so, as most of the electronic musicians were audio engineers who looked more like lab researchers than members of the avant-garde; just as most of the equipment was available only to audio professionals, academics or researchers. Those early recordings sound studious, methodic and analytical precisely because the people making the recordings were studiously analyzing the methods of synthesis and presenting their findings as such.


»» Henry Jacobs — “Sonata for Loudspeaker” (1957)



In the 1960s companies began making commercial synthesizers. The earlier modular synthesizers, such as the Moog, were difficult to transport or tour with, as the size, weight, set-up time and erratic operation caused by temperature fluctuation made the units impractical. But as the devices became more accessible to musicians, there was a widespread appearance of synthesizers in popular music. No longer relegated to the inquisitive scientist, electronic instrumentation turned up in works by artists such as Herbie Hancock, Genesis, The Doors and many others. Synthesizers, whether integrated into popular music or presented alone on novelty albums such as Switched on Bach, were still obviously not “real” sounding, and were not mistaken for traditional acoustic or electric instruments.


I almost think that in the new great music, machines will also be necessary and will be assigned a share in it. Perhaps industry, too, will bring forth her share in the artistic ascent.
Ferruccio Busoni (Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, 1907)


A police car and a screaming siren
A pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete
A baby wailing and stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and lamp light blinking
That’s entertainment…

The Jam (“That’s Entertainment”, 1981)


Synthesized music slowly outgrew a position of novelty during the ’60s, from being used as a spooky backdrop to being functionally integrated into musical repertoires. Stevie Wonder was a big promoter of synthesizers and used a large variety in his music. Pink Floyd made synthesizers a part of their milieu, convincingly blending the new sounds with traditional electric guitars. Kraftwerk embodied synthesis both in sound and persona. And it was this widespread use that made it possible for the synthesizer to become available to the household consumer.

As newcomers took the synthesizers, a new set of needs developed. No longer the domain of the electronic engineer versed in the operation and design of sound, the process of audio synthesis proved inaccessible to the novice, and so, manufacturers developed pre-programmed sounds that required no creation. Banks of sounds were stored in the synthesizer allowing players to toggle from one sound to another, on top of the former function that allowed creating sounds from scratch. This either/or ability afforded the luxury of experimentation as well as standard, reliable sounds at the touch of a button. Today, every synthesizer includes a “preset” bank of sounds created by the manufacturer as well as a “user” bank — empty placeholders for new sounds created by the user. This is precisely where metaphysics emerge.


Although it is characteristic of noise to recall us brutally to real life, the art of noise must not limit itself to imitative reproduction.
Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913)


Now I close my eyes
And I wonder why
I don’t despise
Now all I can do
Is love what was once
So alive and new

Billy Idol (“Eyes Without a Face”, 1984)


In The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes established that the author was a modern figure that emerged from the Middle Ages with empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation. In our age of capitalist positivism the single attributable voice behind a creation has found ultimate prestige, has been supremely epitomized, in the personification of the author. Much of how we understand a creation comes from what we understand of the creator—his life, his passions, his tastes—and our criticism of that work is a criticism of him. It’s easy to think of a written work, to borrow a line from Barthes, as a “tissue of quotations” drawn from innumerable sources, developed through culture, an anterior multiplicity that eventually becomes a cohesive original whole.

If we think of music the same way, as a tissue of quotations, and the music made from someone is the product of their learning, their interests, their surroundings, then surely the disjointed intrusion of “preset” sounds seems significant, if only as a source completely dislocated from the creator’s life, passion and taste. The implications seem insignificant on an individual level, as a composer is free, and should feel free, to use any instrument at his disposal, and a synthesizer is as likely a candidate as a guitar or piano. However, if we consider the implications of manufactured “preset” sounds in toto, it’s worth raising an eyebrow.

It behooves a company to be dominant in its respective field, to saturate the market, making its product the product to own. A high volume of sales is a sign of healthy business. In the case of a synthesizer, saturating a market with a product containing preexisting sounds means that the manufacturer has a share, as a kind of de facto collaborator, in whatever compositions result from its device.

Of course other instruments besides the synthesizer have consequential impact on sound (“she plays a Rickenbacker“, “he’s got that Marshall sound”, “it’s a Leslie speaker”), and the design and implementation of the manufacturer is, to some degree, entangled in the resulting composition. Where the ontological scale begins to tip is in the shift from sound that operates as sound, and sound that imitates other sound.



Those who talk about originality the most are the ones who most object to deviation, and in a few years it may be the other way around. Some day everybody will think just what they want to think, and then everybody will probably be thinking alike; that seems like what is happening.
Andy Warhol (interview with Art News, 1963)


I was beat, incomplete
I’d been had, I was sad and blue
But you made me feel
Yeah, you made me feel
Shiny and new

Madonna (“Like a Virgin”, 1984)


In his 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility, Walter Benjamin describes how reproduction makes the act of creation ubiquitous, thereby rendering indistinguishable the specific time and place of a work of art, changing not only its context, but also its “aura.” As an example, Benjamin differentiates between a painter, who renders and environment onto the pictorial plane by hand, and a photographer, who using the eye in favor of the hand, renders the environment in an instant. Since the eye can render faster than the hand, the process of creation was significantly accelerated. With the technological advancements of today, creation usurps process, moments of rendering are infinitesimal, and, in the case of Barthes’ theory of the death of the author, there remain very few traces of the creator in that which is instantaneously created.

Reproduction acts as imitation, standing in for creation. Andy Warhol’s art was revolutionary by virtue of its ontology. In elevating a reproduction to the status of an original, the “fake” nature of the work critiqued authenticity, asking, “What does it mean to be real?”




That same critical examination of being is embedded in the synthesizer. Once the device shifted from offering the ability to create sound to an already existing sound, a mimetic process stood in for a creative one. Synthesis took on a Warholian fake-as-real existence.


You’ve got to roll with the punches to get to what’s real
Van Halen (“Jump”, 1983)
[The first preset on Oberheim OB-XA synthesizer, "A1", was the sound used for Van Halen's #1 hit single, "Jump"]




In capitalist societies profit comes from production, and the worth generated by goods and services is correlative to the efficiency of the exchange process. The means of production, then, are most beneficial to the system when they are streamlined. It makes sense then that mass production, industrialization and repeatability function well in the capitalist system. It’s also logical that such efficiencies would extend beyond markets, or create markets where none existed before, as capitalism thrives on growth, which explains turning everything from education and prison to DNA and medicine into private property.

Capitalist logic is at work in music as well. Not just in the obvious way, such as manufacturers trying to control the market, buying out competitors and mass-producing their goods, but in more subtle ways, such as how we think of creating music. As the recording industry became a Leviathan in the sea of sound, the process by which recordings were made began to change. In a studio, one of the most laborious processes is recording the drums. A drum kit has several pieces, each piece makes a sound, there are dramatic differences in frequency and volume of each piece and, depending on how many microphones are used, the synchronicity of multiple sound waves must be in phase or the sound will be incoherent. Not to mention the physicality of a drum kit. More than any other instrument, a drum kit is really played, with swinging arms and stomping feet. It’s a tight arrangement that encircles the player, and trying to discreetly place microphones to optimally capture sound can be tricky. Setting up an arrangement of microphones on a drum kit can take an entire day. Microphones are often thwacked by an errant drumstick or damaged by powerful bursts of air. The amount of time, the cost of damaged microphones and the unreliability of the resultant sounds all weigh on the means of production. A capitalist answer to such a situation would be to industrialize the drummer.

The Linn Drum, while not distinguished as the first drum machine, nevertheless set itself apart by becoming ubiquitous in music. As a machine it had the ability to do what it’s human counterpart could not. The Linn Drum was consistent in tempo, volume, dynamics, and required very little set-up time. Further, the device used digital samples of real drums in an effort to sound natural.

The advantage offered by the Linn Drum on the record industry’s means of production is quantifiable by its use value. There were countless songs released in the 1980s featuring the device. It proved better than a drummer, and so there was a paradigm shift, machines replaced humans in the cycle of production, and drummers, scared of losing their jobs, quickly became “programmers” instead of performers. Metaphysics gets its hooks in at this point, as the likes of Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson and ABBA all adopt machinery in place of humanity, significantly altering what Walter Benjamin would call the “aura” of sound. Interestingly, as the Top 40 was inundated with the Linn Drum, and as hit after hit was built from the same identical “real” sounding rhythmic foundation, an existential anxiety developed, however unconscious, in the language of popular music.





The historic causality in art’s will-to-form, or what art historian Alois Riegl termed Kunstwollen, is embedded with the world in which art exists. Human volition shapes man’s relationship to the world, and we witness the mechanic will of the Linn Drum forming in the ’80s pop hits it took part in creating:


Now the day has come
Soon he will be released
Glory hallelujah!
We’re building the perfect beast

Don Henley (“Building the Perfect Beast”, 1984)


I hear it all the time
But they never let you know
On the TV and the radio

Falco (“Der Kommissar”, 1982)


If they say why, why?
Tell them that it’s human nature

Michael Jackson (“Human Nature”, 1983)


I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand

Prince (“I Would Die 4 U”, 1984)


The drum machine colonized part of the musical landscape, both in sound and idea. The titles of the songs that employed the Linn Drum—”Take On Me”, “Maneater”, “Don’t You Want Me”, “Danger Zone”, “You’re the Voice”, “Borderline”—share in the historic causality.

The capitalist solution to the bottleneck in production, replacing the drummer with a machine, solved the problem of time and money, but introduced a series of new problems. Specifically, the Benjaminian “aura” of the music of the ’80s was noticeably transformed. The drum machine gives the perfect drum performance: consistent tempo, flawless execution, balanced dynamics, and, as a result, the perfectly authentic performance makes it sound completely inauthentic, devoid of a human “aura.”





Musicians must substitute for the limited variety of tones possessed by orchestral instruments today the infinite variety of tones of noises, reproduced with appropriate mechanisms.
Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913)


 Ahhh, this stuff is really fresh!
Fab Five Freddy (“Change the Beat”, 1982)


As the era of Synth Pop blended with the era of hip-hop, the looping function of the digital sampler replaced the preset sound banks of the synthesizer. Looking back at the larger cultural developments that coincided with the sampler, we find Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, a theory of the hyperreal. Just as an operation manual provides instruction on how to use a sampler, Baudrillard’s treatise provides instruction on how to think of the sampler. [And, by way of a footnote in historic causality, when Linn Electronics went out of business, Roger Linn—inventor of the Linn Drum—went to work for the Akai Company, the pioneer of the digital sampler.]

Baudrillard describes the hyperreal as an allegory of death, reinforced by its own destruction, no longer an object of representation, but a fetish of a lost object. The hyperreal exists where the difference between the real and imaginary is effaced. “The unreal is no longer that of dream or of fantasy, of a beyond or within,” but a hallucinatory resemblance of the real with itself. Today, it is reality itself that is contaminated by its simulacrum.

A sampler operates in the domain of verisimilitude, or, to flip the Baudrillardian postulate of the simulacrum: the substitution of “fake” sound is never that which conceals the “real” sound — it is the “real” sound which conceals that there is nothing real. “Fake” sound is real.





Imitation always involves selecting something from the continuum of experience, thus giving boundaries to what really has no beginning or end. Mimêsis involves a framing of reality that announces that what is contained within the frame is not simply real. Thus the more “real” the imitation the more fraudulent it becomes.
Michael Davis (The Poetry of Philosophy: On Aristotle’s Poetics)


She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love

Radiohead (“Fake Plastic Trees”, 1995)


Photography “freed the hands” of the graphic artists in the same way that synthetic music has “freed the ears” of musicians. The mimetic function of electronic music has enabled auditory stand-ins to do the work formerly required of their human counterpart. Just as the Linn Drum replaced drummers, the digital sampler replaced musicians.

Ours is a time of “verisimilimusic,” where meta-sound functions as sound. As it is reproduced, verisimilimusic becomes not only that which can be reproduced, but that which is always-already reproduced. Never extinguished or totally absorbed in one another, verisimilimusic and actual music overflow into one another at the level of simulation. An example of how this affects music:

»» The Charmels – “As Long as I’ve Got You” (1967)
»» Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M.” (1993)
»» El Michels Affair — “C.R.E.A.M. instrumental” (2005)

The leitmotif of the Wu-Tang Clan’s song is a sample taken from The Charmels. This we can call the first order simulation: a song that samples another song. The initial creation (Charmels), and the secondary creation (Wu-Tang), which colonizes the first, resulting in two “original” creations. Next, the El Michels Affair, a funk revival band, perform an instrumental versions of the Wu classic, which is essentially an imitation of the initial creation (Charmels) in the arrangement of the secondary creation (Wu-Tang), rendering a third “original” creation, and, a second order simulation.

The El Michels song is hyperreal, as it functions beyond representation in the realm of simulation, swirling in its own en abîme, like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, following his enemy into the hall of mirrors only to find himself surrounded by reflections.




But this does not mean that sound and meta-sound are in some sense extinguished through total absorption in one another. Hyperrealism is their mutual fulfillment, a reciprocal overflowing, which functions within the realm of simulation. Returning to Baudrillard, “Like the distancing effect within a dream, which tells one that one is dreaming, but only in behalf of the censor, in order that we continue dreaming, hyperrealism is an integral part of coded reality, which it perpetuates without modifying.” To look at the hyperreal inversely, today, reality itself is hyperrealistic.


We’ll always be together
However far it seems
We’ll always be together
Together in electric dreams

Giorgio Moroder (“Together in Electric Dreams”, 1984)


We’ve got no future
We’ve got no past

Pet Shop Boys (“West End Girls”, 1984)



John Lennon was onto something, though a perpetual simulation of that which represents what once was real probably wasn’t what he had in mind when he sang, “imagine no possessions.” But in our digital age of simulation, where possession itself is superfluous, we are being forced to imagine no possessions. The digital paradigm has allowed the intangible to simulate the tangible, making it possible to listen to an album without touching it, without seeing it, without it being. And isn’t that incorporeality a perfect realization of the essence of music? The beauty of music is its ability to express ideas that can only be expressed through sound. I am old, from a generation of vinyl-loving Luddites, but I concede that the untouchability of digital music makes a perfect analog (excuse the pun) for the spectral beauty of conveying ideas unhampered by a tether to the terrestrial plane.

Of course, making digital ghosts of your music collection wreaks havoc on capitalism, evidenced by the language that addresses ownership. Today, a “pirate” is someone who listens to music they don’t own. The action hasn’t changed: we still listen to music. The problem, of course, is the digital paradigm lends itself to the idea of simulation, replication, plasticity of being, making possession both intangible and irrelevant. Ownership is fluid, and just as the Walkman made music portable, digitalization made music immaterial. We’re living in the uncomfortable age—the teenage years—of technology transcending the capitalist system. Our economy functions by way of ownership of goods, with profit generating from production of such goods. The glaring fault in referring to someone listening to a digital song as a “pirate” is in the difference in the means and modes of production. A physical piece of music (an LP, CD or cassette) involves material, a factory, the transport and storage of the product, and, of course, the labor involved. With the non-physical, a single mouse-click entails all of the previous physical forces, without the material, without the factory, without the labor. The physical world has been outsourced in the digital music paradigm. Everything is simulation. And to most people, that isn’t worth much, however valuable it is.

While everyone was largely in agreement that the cost of a compact disc was too high, the idea that it should cost something was agreeable. It was forged from material, through labor, into a product, resulting in profit that was then returned to the forces of production. The difference between that and anyone clicking “copy” is glaring. It’s a huge difference. Just as there was fear that people would stop attending the symphony when sheet music was printed, just as there was fear that recorded music would replace live music, just as there was fear that blank cassettes would kill the record industry, there is fear that digital reproduction is quashing the rights of possession—making pirates of everyone. The question that causes discomfort in our culture today goes beyond the idea of what an intangible object is worth, the bigger question lies in the evolution of the idea of ownership. In a time when we’re being asked to renounce our privacy, so goes with it the property of what is private.

The answer isn’t simple, and our age demands thought if we are to reconcile simulation and the irrelevance of originality with the capitalist notion of private property, but clinging to the past has historically proven to be injurious, and, what’s more, is usually the province of the despotic.





A musical example of arguing simulated ownership presents itself in the beef between the Beatnuts and Jennifer Lopez:

»» Barrabás — “Hi-Jack” (1974)
»» Enoch Light — “Hi-Jack” (1975)
»» Beatnuts — “Watch Out Now” (1999)
»» Jennifer Lopez — “Jenny From the Block” (2002)

With their 1999 song “Watch Out Now,” the Beatnuts sampled a disco song, “Hijack” from Enoch Light’s 1975 LP, The Disco Disque, which was a cover of the song “Hi-Jack,” originally written and recorded by the Spanish band Barrabás in 1974. In its manifestation as a Beatnuts composition, “Hijack” was already three generations old. Then, Jennifer Lopez, in a 2002 effort to solidify her hood-born credibility, combined a sample from “Watch Out Now” with the 1987 classic rap anthem “South Bronx,” by Boogie Down Productions, in her “Jenny From the Block.” It’s arguable whether Lopez convinced anyone of her street credibility, but what’s certain is the fact that she angered the Beatnuts by biting “Watch Out Now,” who fired back at her with a diss track, “Confused Rappers.”


Can’t forget to stay real
To me it’s like breathing

Jennifer Lopez


See, you sorta like a bird
And you like to repeat

The Beatnuts


Both Lopez and the Beatnuts behave like analog privateers in a digital world of simulated reproduction, clinging to outmoded ideas of ownership. From its foundation, “Watch Out Now” was a mimetic function, a former reality reabsorbed into a simulated hyperreality. The antecedent of “Watch Out Now” was “Hijack,” and when the Beatnuts heard their simulation re-simulated by Jennifer Lopez, they entered into the Droste effect, a hall of mirrors, an endless loop.


Freeze! Nobody move
And this here sounds like nobody’s groove
Original, straight from the studio
I ain’t trying to sound like the next estúpido

The Beatnuts


I’m real, I thought I told you
Jennifer Lopez


What would possess you to use
My records, like I’m here for you to abuse

The Beatnuts


Nothin’ phony with us
Jennifer Lopez


It’s an Aristotelian clusterfuck of mimesis. The Beatnuts act as Bruce Lee, chasing their enemy, Jennifer Lopez, into the hall of mirrors, which is the capitalist idea of private property, and once inside, they are surrounded by a Barthesian tissue of quotations and a Benjaminian mechanical reproducibility, which makes everything ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless and free.





The human condition is analogous to the digital sampler. The sampler allows taking a snapshot of audio and rendering it as an endless loop, a repetitive re-telling of the past, inviting new interpretations of past truths — making the solid fluid again. The human condition is a struggle to evolve, a constant movement, an unabated desire for change, amidst the same recurring fundamental questions of being. A constant un-gluing and re-gluing of reality; testing the ontological hold on perception, scanning the horizon of beliefs for the next wave in awakening that will shudder our hold on what is real. The whole process acts as a mise en abîme, a scene within a scene, constantly recurring.


Because you’re empty and I’m empty
And you can never quarantine the past

Pavement (“Gold Soundz”, 1994)


We can act like we come from out of this world
Leave the real one far behind

Men Without Hats (“The Safety Dance”, 1983)


At the end of 1857, in Notebook IV of The Grundrisse, Marx drew a similar analogy with regard to how crises form in capitalism. Using a Hegelian dialectical treatment of the nature of limits on growth and expansion, Marx shows how limits are more ideal than real through annihilation of space by time.


For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a mean of production. In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old way of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production. But from the fact that capital posits every such limit as a barrier and hence gets ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it, and since every such barrier contradicts its character, its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited.
Karl Marx (The Grundrisse, 1858)


Our cultural development — as the result of capitalism, or, as the cause of capitalism — behaves much the same way with respect to limits. That is to say, we cannot abide limits, we must turn them into barriers which we can circumvent or transcend. This is clear in music: the acoustic guitar was a barrier overcome by the electric guitar, which in turn was a barrier set ablaze by Jimi Hendrix, while today the real, actual physical guitar is superfluous, as its sounds can be simulated or sampled digitally. The same is true of the limits revealed by the Futurist prospect: the Futurists sought to transcend the barrier of the orchestra by intoning noise, which resulted in a widened spectrum of available sound sources; That variety of sound sources later became a barrier to the idea of a sound source, which was overcome by synthesis, or, the open-ended creation of sound rather than generated sound; finally, the all-inclusive synthetic starting point, ironically, became its own barrier that was circumvented with the sampler’s ability to reconstitute the real into the simulated hyperreal.


The liberation of individual musical sensibility from all imitation or influence of the past, feeling and singing with the spirit open to the future, drawing inspiration and aesthetics from nature, through all the human and extra-human phenomena present in it.
Francesco Balilla Pratella (Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, 1910)


Yo, just give thanks it’s the new shit
For y’all to ever try to sleep on this is stupid

The Roots (“Act Fore”, 1999)


The fact that music, like the culture it comes from, cannot abide limits means that the process of music will constantly transcend by imagining the limit as a barrier, and, as Marx warned, never actually overcome the limits. Put another way, desire is most satisfied by unsatisfied desire. Every obstacle to desire generates a desire for an obstacle. The feedback loop.

The pursuit to shrug convention, to find new sounds, to overcome barriers, to change and adapt, can be seen on one hand, as an ouroboric cycle, endlessly frustrated, and on the other hand, as an immanent impulse that strives for purity. However, purity itself can exist as contradiction constantly overcome and constantly posited, which is often where we find the line blurred between the real and the imagined.

Think of how advertising slowly transformed the view of beautiful women by way of presenting an image of a beautiful woman. Growing out of this ideal image of beauty, photographs of actual women were then metamorphosed, first through airbrushing and later through Photoshop; the ideal was simulated. Today, actual women are simulating the ideal by surgically reconstructing themselves, making themselves an imitation of something that was never real to begin with. In record numbers, people are getting plastic surgery, following Bruce Lee, the Beatnuts and Jennifer Lopez into the hall of mirrors…

Commercial jingle for Lightworks Cosmetics written by electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott, along with the re-simulation of “Lightworks” by hip-hop pioneer J Dilla:

»» Raymond Scott — “Lightworks” (1967)
»» J Dilla — “Lightworks” (2006)


I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know

Velvet Underground (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”, 1967)


Don’t know how to take it, don’t know where to go
My resistance running low
And every day the hold is getting tighter and it troubles me so
I’m nobody’s fool and yet it’s clear to me
I don’t have a strategy

ABBA (“Under Attack”, 1981)


Because music exists in the meta-reality of imitation, reproduction, and the Barthesian “tissue of quotations,” the resulting distanciation flummoxes our bearing on what is real and what is imaginary. It’s within these coordinates that a song like Selena Gomez’s “Love You Like a Love Song” is grounded. No longer in the realm of actuality, the Gomez song binds itself to reality not with anything actual, but with that which stands-in for actual, a simulation. Rather than a limitation of physical distance, as in the example of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” the distance that Gomez has to conquer is metaphysical, and by expressing her love, in turn, through an expression of love, she dwells in the domain of the unreal, the age from which her song arose. The “love song” she references is a reflection of love, making her song a reflection of a reflection.





We will be forever in debt to the Futurists for making a critical crack in the façade of the idea of what is “well-made” music. By intoning noise the Futurists prepared the world for new ways of thinking about music, new forms of music, and a wider field of musicians. Everyone from Schönberg to the Bomb Squad is visible in the viewfinder of the Futurist forecast. Where the foresight of the Futurists fell short, however, was in their complete dismissal of the past. It reveals a nascent fascistic tendency to think the past can simply be exterminated and a new, past-less future can be born. The Futurists likely could have imagined the synthesizer as something to grow out of intoned noise, but the idea of a new machine primarily reconstituting what once was, a kind of past intoner, was outside their ideological wheelhouse.

Examining the volition of a culture — the will-to-form of creativity forged in the developments of the era — provides a much more detailed picture of that culture. Thus, the Industrial Revolution begat the Futurists, who consequently thought the past was dead as they were witness to man being replaced by machine. The age of the drum machine was nestled between the Space Age and the Digital Revolution, a time marked by the disillusionment of the Cold War, dubiousness regarding the promises of a Jetsons-esque future, and the early signs of consumer fatigue in a never-ending cycle of planned obsolescence. Looking at culture in this broad view, seeing the embedded historic causality and how that shapes mankind’s relationship to the world, we can examine today’s culture with a critical appreciation not only of what’s at work in forming thought, but, what the idea of the future looks like through such a formation of thought.

Just as surely as we are living in what Roland Barthes predicted as author-less times, we are living in times where technology has outpaced our belief systems. Considering that the establishment of the author emerged with rationalism, which also saw the emergence of capitalism, it would stand to reason that technology today has overrun the constraints of our economic system. The Digital Revolution has returned us, in many ways, to an era of the commons. The ironic short-circuit of such a broad view is that capitalism has all but replaced communism throughout the world, while at the same time, the volition of the author-less age is, essentially, communistic. That is to say, we are practicing a digital form of communism within a system of capitalism.


There’s a new game
We like to play you see
A game with added reality

Depeche Mode (“Master and Servant”, 1984)


Tell me how do I feel
Tell me now, how do I feel

New Order (“Blue Monday”, 1983)


Just as the Futurists couldn’t foresee the sampler making bricolage of the past, the architects of the digital paradigm couldn’t envision a wide scale usage of the technology that turns everything into a commodity while, at the same time, turning every commodity into free source material. It’s a digital feedback loop. Just as the camera freed the hand of the painter, and the synthesizer freed the ear of the musician, digitalization freed the creator from the process of creation. Pink Floyd, dude, “welcome to the machine.”

The pop charts are dominated by songs that act more like commodities than songs, while those exploring new ideas are plagued with the baggage of limitation, often resulting in “new” music that sounds reminiscent of the old, if not an imitation. The deadlock is that while we have the ability to reach far beyond what we know, we’re limited by a belief system, or a mode of production, or a constellation of being, that has no way of comprehending the environment in which it operates. Though our practice contains the intimation of a new era, our way of thinking is bound by old beliefs. Marx already provided us with the proposition to resolve this: “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (“they do not know it, but they are doing it”). It was in Capital that Marx offered this classical concept of ideology as a false consciousness, misrecognition of social reality which is already a part of reality itself. It’s this constitutive naïveté that creates the feedback, generates a blind spot in our view of the future, and keeps us in the Droste-like loop of repetition.

What I propose is not an answer, but instead, a shift in view, an inversion: to approach the author-less times with a refusal of fixed meaning, a refusal to discover, a refusal to think of ourselves as discoverers. The problem with trying to discover something new is the continued result of discovering something old, because to discover is to locate a limit, to determine an endpoint from which to return to the beginning. As a “new” logical procedure, as illogical as it may seem, we should invert discovery, and instead focus on the receiver, the listener. The listener is the space on which all the elements of creation are addressed. The multiplicities of a sound find unity not in the origin but in the destination. The destination cannot be personal because it is without the history, passion and taste of the creator, but the notion of the creator was born of the notion of private property, which in our new ever-social world is invalid. It seems counter-intuitive to think of music as something other than a stream that flows from a creative source to its recipients, but that is exactly what’s required of us. This new way of thinking harkens back to the Futurist’s revolutionary proletarianization of sound. Appropriating the directional flow is the equivalent of the workers taking control of the means of production. In this new system, free of the fixed idea of authorship, allowing a multiplicity of being, a horizontal field of view that perceives the “tissue of quotations” as part of the whole comes into focus, and the proletarianization of sound makes plural what has thus far been singular, allowing all things to be simultaneous.

My proposal is not something new, nor is it an answer. We are already practicing a new paradigm — art in the time of author-less commons. All I propose is that we start to believe that that is what we are practicing. Our worldview has been framed in the epoch of private property. It would be extremely shortsighted to construct a framework to free us from this, because it is precisely the idea of framework that limits freedom.


Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?
They won’t help me survive
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace
The burning keeps me alive

Transmit the message, to the receiver
Hope for an answer some day
Talking Heads (“Life During Wartime”, 1979)


Identify yourself with the infinite and wander freely in the unfathomable
Zhuangzi (4th century BCE)








Looking back at the Future: In 2009 Luciano Chessa reconstructed Russolo’s noise intoners for a centennial celebration of Futurist Music. A video of the evening of intonarumori performances at Town Hall in New York City can be seen here: “Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners

The past is back: For several years now, modular synthesizer enthusiasts in Portland, Oregon have been meeting to share and build sounds. A kind of pioneering-the-past avant-garde movement.

The past is “back in a big way”: The 2013 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show, where industry professionals unveil all the “new” gear of the year, had a multitude of new modular synthesizers on display.

The past foretelling the future: I went to a local electronics store yesterday looking for an iPod dock for my wife, and right next to the newfangled iPod accessories found a cache of mini-modular synth kits, complete with patch cables and carrying cases.

Finally: Here’s this “Buchla Beat” I can’t get enough of.




Mark Morrison – “Return Of The Mack (Acapella Of The Mack)”

Volume Two: “Oh My God!” 

Mark Morrison – \”Return Of The Mack (Acapella Of The Mack)\”

“…you can see yourself trying to find your way in the darkness, lighting the hall and staircase with a miserable lamp, dragging along tied to you as part of yourself, the corpse of your memories, of your wrongs and failures, the murder everyone commits at some time of his life—you can never free yourself of your past, you have to carry the corpse while Life plays the drum…” – Max Beckmann

Several years ago I was listening to some NPR feature about Chicago radio, and there was a piece about a brand-new radio station that had just started broadcasting a couple weeks before. The initial focus of the NPR piece was on the new station’s dubious decision to plug itself right from the beginning using taped man-on-the-street testimonials. The examples played in their authentic-seeming and fully background-noised trebliness: “Oh, yeah–WXWhatever is my favorite station!” “WXWhatever plays all the best music!” “WXWhatever is the only station I listen to, at work, at home, and in the car!”  The NPR commentator pointed out the inherent ridiculousness: The station was brand new; no one in Chicago had (or could have) yet heard a minute of it, so it was logistically impossible that it was anybody’s favorite anything. There was an audible smirk, and then a pregnant pause during which I naturally assumed that he was getting ready to go in on the absurdity of commercial radio. What came next was surprising: He said that the longer he thought about it, the more human their approach seemed. He compared it to the first day at a new school, when all anybody wants to do is to seem like they belong, or at least to not seem like they don’t belong. You concentrate your efforts, he said, on pretending that you know where everything and how everything works, making sure that–in this place you’ve never been before–you don’t look out of place. Even stepping outside your own body and seeing how idiotic you look and feeling the excuses turn to ash in your mouth before you can even make them, it’s tough to fight that instinct. What? Me? No, I’m not new. What do you mean? I’ve always been here. 


“We manipulate memory / To make things free” – Lisa Robertson

In the summer of 1989, days before the start of our sophomore year of high school, my friend Ethan and I were lounging in our other friend Andy’s family room, watching MTV. Our semi-rural town’s conservative and overwhelmingly religious leadership’s decade-long lobby against the inherent turpitude of Music Television–and said leadership’s subsequent strong-arming of the only cable provider in town–had only just relented a month or so ago. We’d all already spent years listening to as much music as possible, reading about it wherever we could, and watching on other networks whatever “video shows” we could find, and even if we’d read enough Maximumrocknroll to know that MTV was of course totally meritless corporate bullshit (of course), it still felt like a new mainline had opened up, and its pull was irresistible. Wherever two or more of us were gathered we watched with a thirsty reverence our new cathode-ray Fatima, looking for signs, for connectors. When De La Soul’s “Me Myself & I” came on, we watched it in the riveted way we watched all of them, but about halfway through the video, Ethan jabbed a finger at the screen said with great portent:

This–this is going to be us this year.”

we've formed an image

Right up until the second before he said that, it would never have occurred to me, but in the way that can only happen once someone else’s failed check on their teenage obviousness gives you tacit permission to unleash your own, I immediately gave myself over fully to the inevitability of his assertion. Yes. Clearly, this was our new template, our re-up, this year’s model of the outcast pose we’d cribbed from punk the year before (and from thrash metal the year before that, and from horror movies the year before that, and from comic books the year before that, and from weird cousins all the rest of our years). By the end of this goofy little post-“I Wanna Rock” melodrama, wherein the asymmetrical and unfashionable De La dudes slouch their way unobtrusively through a school day while being endlessly taunted by the popular and conventionally-dressed archetypes who mug nonstop in their periphery, we were certain that the new path had been shown. In the life of the artsy teen, there is a design that must needs be renewed every day, a pattern of positive and negative, assertion of what you are and denial of what you are not, criticism and embrace, creation and rejection. But the greatest of these is: Fabrication. Complete and utter fabrication.   

My friends and I were not outcasts. We did not register in the social structure to enough of an extent that anyone felt the need to cast us out of it. Generally speaking, I think we were at this point pretty much nonentities to everyone except each other. This is why wholesale identity-jacking was attractive in general. What made the identity offered in the “Me Myself & I” video so attractive in particular was the blasé air that we perceived about the protagonists: As reflected in all our previous models of marginality as well as in our own mirror, here were weird dressers with indistinct physiques and hair issues and who felt they were suffering fools daily; but instead of responding with traditional anger or violence, they responded with a kind of soulful fatigue. Where the cycles of dissatisfaction and retribution–enacted by The Exploited, “Institutionalized,” Nail Gun Massacre, that Aaron kid who ended up going to juvie (he was a year ahead of us–remember? had a single mom who was kinda cute?), The Punisher, et al.–had been circuits that we could only ever complete symbolically (and even then, unconvincingly), here at last was a front that we could ride all the way. It wasn’t the giant leap that all those other things had asked us to make, it was just a step–a step so small that it didn’t even register as a lie. It was a fantasy that was made so seductive by seeming so close to where we already were, and we took that small step, overlooked that lie, jettisoned the history we’d never wanted in favor of the history we’d never had, and said “yes” to all of it.

Yes, this too had been our struggle, and yes, it had made us weary, too, and yes, it had left us too as cranky protectors of the true faith. By taking the awkwardness and misanthropy and social discomfort that we had defaulted into (and sometimes affected) and recasting them as instead conscious responses to our daily battle with the morons, we were able to take our almost wholly passive collective history and spin it into a narrative in which we were deliberate agents. By insisting that our middle-teenage selves were not (as we deep down knew them to be) loose and blurry collections of familial traits, social constructs, and recent cultural influences, but were in fact these eccentric, elusive, and uncategorizable things of grace that flummoxed and enraged the simple and the socially identifiable, we were able to effectively subvert our own memories and see in our circumscribed situation the open territory. 

black medallions, no gold

But then, that kind of thing is pretty exclusively the province of teenagers. What seemed at the time to be a slip of the yoke of memory, looking back, seems more like the kind of transubstantiation that can only happen in the time before memory. We were fucking kids, you know? It was a great unburdening at a time when we had almost nothing to shed.

So much has happened since, and history, memory, and circumstance are not so easily escaped. We are grown now, and now, in our time of the corpse and the drum, that open territory seems to always recede before us. We come to understand that in the end, videos, music…these kinds of things, they never mean as much as we want them to; they are beautiful but they are uninhabitable and they cannot stay, any more than we can. Ultimately, in the dark of the night and dark of the head and dark of the heart, there can only be the self–the true, unblinking self, the one we do not get to choose–and when stripped and thrown back before that most dreadful witness, will you still have a song to sing?


“Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville


“Don’t call it a comeback!” – LL Cool J

Every Mark Morrison music video I’ve ever seen makes at least one truly awful fashion statement. “Crazy” has a guy chatting inna doo-doo raggamuffin stylee from behind an infrared cyborg eyepatch; “Let’s Get Down” has Mark himself in various configurations of a mismatched buffalo-check shorts set, worn cholo-style (with just the top button done) and topped off with a clip visor worn backwards; in “Trippin’,” he’s flanked by bored-looking huskies and wearing a turtlenecked vest (to the casual observer who might wonder whether this wouldn’t simply be a sleeveless turtleneck, all I can say is that it’s like those dreams where you’re in a house and it’s nothing like your house and yet you instinctively know that it’s your house: I just know it’s a turtlenecked vest, okay?); that other video (“Moan & Groan”) where he’s at the microphone stand emoting broadly while shackled with gold-plated handcuffs, so clearly wearing them not as props but as an earnest attempt at, you know, a look. In the video for “Return Of The Mack,” the statement is: door-knocker earrings for men. And the whole video is characterized by similarly questionable aesthetic decisions, decisions that leave it feeling like New Jack City staged five years too late and shot like a perfume commercial. The storyline is hazy, but it has something to do with Mark–in open rebuke of the café au lait honey who dissed him for some bobo-dread scrub in an entry-level bubble goose–posse’d up with two additional computer-generated versions of himself and striding through a dramatically lit chunnel toward the future, with black leather trench coats and dookie chains and door-knockers for all three of them/him. There is also a snake, which I believe represents the scheming ex-girl who herself shows up partway through the video to confront the three Marks in their postindustrial office suite while draped in a black leather trench coat that she seems to have borrowed from one of them. Whew. Nonlinearity aside, the video’s triumphalism is contagious and undeniable. It floats from its first second to its last on a luxury of mist and party-over-here type atmosphere that blurs all edges and blunts all objections. Truly, the mack has returned.

at least two pair

The music is similarly seductive. It’s simultaneously muscular and spongy, slabby and sassy on its own slow-roll majesty. Hip-hop in its approach but smooth-jazz in its self-satisfaction, it is chromed and confident and doesn’t mind moving just a little bit slower than you’re hearing it, hanging back a little even as it swells forth on a three-and-a-half-minute wave of cork-pop and bubbly gush. Every bar is measured in the same wet starburst of picked guitar, and peppered with samples and stabs that sound as though they’re imported from some faraway magical kingdom of Rap Music. There’s no bass presence to speak of, just kick, snare, and sparkle that weighs a ton. Underneath the whole thing is a vastly satisfied professional buzz, the purr of a giant robot cat that has eaten all the money, and can now doze.

But as good as the video looks, it’s also a lazy absurdity of convoluted clichés and a train-wreck of disconnected posturing. And as good as the music sounds, it’s also an meaningless juggernaut of gloss that never leaves the showroom. They both operate in complete fealty to history, memory, and archetype, and evaporate as soon as you look away.

The acapella, though, is the work of a free man. Taken in its full musical (and, if you like, visual) context, the singing registers chiefly as one long torrid ululation–good, but nothing crazy; typical r&b overemotion refracted through an eccentric vocal approach multiplied the fake crying from “La Di Da Di” and divided by the fact that dude’s a couple years late with all this. But when cut loose and taken on its own, you can hear the mania bloom.

“The guy just goes out and thinks, No one’s gonna understand what I’m doing except for me, but I’m a fuckin’ genius.” – Matt Damon

Far from ahistorical, its first note is a clarion of continuity, the kind of ascendant and hanging “Ohhhhh” previously given vessel in Frankie Beverly, Jackie Hogg, Lenny Williams, Charlie Wilson, Aaron Hall, and on and on. And this voice’s very ribs reach forth from the lineage of messianic anguish and megalomania and entitled eccentricity and willful abandon knotted with complete control that passed like a coiff- and larynx-borne virus from Captain Ahab to Larry Blackmon to Grace Jones to Bobby Brown to Shabba Ranks to anyone else who ever flamed weird and fearless from their mouth and had hair that was all fucked-up on one side. And what this vocal here does is take all that lineage, all those continuities, and lets them pile and pile and pile, indulging each of them in their turn, running through all that history so fluidly that the individual images of the originals get subsumed into ever-accelerating zoetrope flicker. In this heedless cycling-through, it all moves. The old is made new, time vibrates against itself, and the pretender is made real.

The vocals of the full version include a mid-song break during which we hear a woman’s voice, English-inflected and sleepy (or maybe just tired): “Mark, stop lying about your big break…For god’s sake–I need a real man…Stop letting me down…Stop letting me down…” It’s a humorous little moment, and a somewhat pivotal one, in the way that its “Oh yeah? That’s not what she said…” humanizes slightly this preposterously over-the-top figure and eases him back from the brink of pure caricature, and also in its sly acknowledgement (“stop lying about your big break”) of the commercial fact that when this song came out, almost nobody in America knew who the fuck Mark Morrison was or why his “return” from anywhere would mean anything to anyone. (It’s telling that the single/radio version includes only the “big break line”; admitting to your pop audience the realities of the market is one thing–copping to personal shortcomings your first time out is, I guess, another.) 

The acapella gives no quarter to such outside perspective. This is a universe of one. Morrison vipers heedlessly from machete-chop dancehall cadence to silk degrees of loverman confession to the betrayed bleating of a still-glistening man-child kicked too soon from his butter-leather womb. Here his voice is Caribbean, here throaty and Pendergrassian, here adenoidal. Now his accent is from Jamaica! London! Atlantis! And the deeper you listen, the weirder it gets. If the music were around, its glittering batter would ooze through and smooth the song into its familiar braggadocio, moneyed and middling. But the music is not here, and in that vacuum we are left alone with a voice that operates only at the far poles of drama, with no use for anything resembling medium cool. There are only Best Things Ever and Worst Things Ever. Godly and lowly. The shining victor and the abject loser. It is complete immersion in rotating archetype, until every line is a comment that reflects on a reflection that was already a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of something that was a copy in the first place. It becomes a demented hall of mirrors housing both The Mack, high on powdered pharaoh brain and fat on the meat of eagles, bestride the whole world, mile-wide smiling and licking his champagne fangs, and The Pariah, a mock-necked Caliban wracked and bawling like all three members of Jodeci bound into one monstrous body and informed that one head must now eat the other two.

One could argue that singers in general and r&b singers in particular tailor their vocals to the nuances of the musical backing they’re singing against; when stripped from that backing and isolated, pretty much any vocal is gonna sound a little unhinged. To me, though, the “Mack” acapella goes farther. Formally, it doesn’t have the spaciousness of most isolated vocals, nor does it exhibit much sense that it is meant to exist as one part of a full musical production; all of the auditory space is filled with vocals and choruses and back-ups and ad-libs, all sung by Morrison and all delivered as if each part represented a distinct character, and as if Morrison alone was responsible for (and worthy of) populating the entire track. And creatively, it is just so unabashed and frontal, so devoid of any non-extremity; for dude’s maiden voyage towards a wider American audience, he delivers a vocal that not only explodes with contradictory eccentricities–You’ve never heard of me before…but all hail my return! I’m the ne plus ultra ladies’ man…but I lost my girl! This is my big moment, right here…but I’ll be back!–but that also demands to have its story swallowed whole.

What makes this last insistence so audacious is the faint but deep feeling of fugazi that runs through the vocal. The entire performance revolves around Morrison’s ability to sustain the idea that he’s got all the moves. And to a point, he convinces; it’s a strong vocal, plenty of range, expertly structured, and invokes enough established r&b signifiers (The Voice, The Man, The Girl, The Lie, etc.) to get through the door without a hassle. Soon, though, there comes that uh-oh feeling. It’s not unlike when you’re scanning the dial and enjoying an unfamiliar song for the minute or two before its suspiciously non-committal pronouns make you wonder if you’re accidentally listening to something religious, or flipping through channels and coming to rest on some interesting-seeming show whose slightly scrubbed and behind-the-times quality prickle your suspicion that you’ve been tricked into watching a little bit of something Canadian. That feeling of Everything is here, all the right switches get flipped, everything is right where it should be–why does this still seem…off?

Again and again, Morrison gets the substance right but the details wrong: He starts in immediately with the kind of that-boy-can-sang vocal flexing that so often in r&b acts as an annunciation, but he takes it too far too fast; in the few seconds comprising opening vamp–“Ohhhhhh / Come on / Oooh yeah”–he uses three different voices (adopting an ecstatic clarity for the “Ohhhhhh,” a weird nasality for the “Come on,”  then a smooth quaver for the “Oooh yeah”), pushing past “range” and into “schizophrenia.” Beginning in these same early seconds and continuing throughout, it’s made clear that he’s studied the furious entitlement of later-period Michael Jackson and its attendant belief that sheer presence can trump intelligibility, that if your phonetics are visceral enough, the listener will bend their understanding to accommodate your intent (call it The Shah-Mown Paradigm): he swallows both the beginning and the ending of the “Come on!” so that we only really hear what bubbles up in between, something that sounds like “I’m oh!” It mostly comes off, but there remain these moments where the smeariness and indecipherability exceed the pocket, making the listener conscious–in a way that a more orthodox, sonically grammatical approach might not–of the liberties being taken and of an unearned identity being asserted; mid-nineties Mark Morrison is not, after all, mid-eighties Mike Jackson, and while it took until the what’s-up-with-that? observational-humor boom of a few years later (possibly even until the hey-remember-the-8os? talking-head shows of more than a decade later) to really shine a light on the bizarre qualities of MJ’s fevered ad-libs and gravid exhalations, it’s almost impossible to hear Morrison’s vocal even once and not be struck immediately by its overweening self-indulgence, by just how fucking weird this jiggy no-name pop aspirant sounds from the very first listen. Far from any kind of middle finger, though, it is not an act of rebellion but is instead a formal and aesthetic reverence so slavish and inflated that it becomes a kind of disregard for accepted reality.

The vocal’s highness-on-its-own-supply-ness is driven home in the acapella’s last thirty seconds. In this final stretch, there are three iterations of the chorus–each consisting of the title phrase sung three times, then buttoned with the chronologically and thematically muddled threat/promise, “You know that I’ll be back!”–with Morrison ad-libbing between each line to form loose couplets: “Return of the mack! (My little girl!) / Return of the mack! (Once my pearl!) / Return of the mack! (Up and down!) / You know that I’ll be back! (’Round and ‘round!)” and so on. Every “Return of the mack!” is sung identically, but every round of ad-libs is sung in at least two different voices; taken cumulatively, they lay bare every color in his palette, willfully and jarringly exposing the work as just that: a work. But then, the listener’s suspension of disbelief has by now become irrelevant. Morrison has created his own universe, a universe in which he plays all the parts, every one which he’s repurposed from somewhere else, and he stopped worrying about you a couple verses ago, straddling with impunity worlds of pure artifice and worlds of no artifice at all, and he will insist on his authenticity even as he lets you see him change costumes right in front of you.

Why I’m still able to draw inspiration from this in 2012 is perhaps mostly a matter of scale. As the self-doubt and isolationist tendencies of my adult self do nothing but intensify my feelings of withdrawal, there is a steady erosion of my belief that any freedom from the hulking corpse of memory and the martial drumbeat of life is truly possible. All the solutions seem to rely upon the outside world’s acceptance of your particular strain of kayfabe, or at the very least upon some fellow travelers among whom you can circulate your counterfeit without fear of exposure. And I have a hard time trusting in any solution so dependent on the willful blindness of others. But this is not that. The “Return Of The Mack” acapella is not a fledgling radio station trying to snow a whole city, nor is it my friends and I scanning the dial for our next amnesiac waterslide out of suburbia. Though its aims are just as delusional as either of those, its pursuit works through not exactly the former’s denial of wider histories, nor exactly through the latter’s denial of personal histories, but through gorging on the poses of history and memory until rupture is achieved, leaving a space in which a different self might emerge, a self born not of negation, but of explosion. It is, ultimately, just one guy who realizes himself not by cutting loose from that which he is and that which he cannot forget, but by burrowing into it so deeply that he comes out the other side, emerging as something new.
In Aimee Bender’s story, “The Girl In The Flammable Skirt,” the narrator has for reasons unexplained inherited from her father a massive backpack that is made of solid stone and which she cannot take off. She goes to school and talks to her teacher:

It’s so heavy, I said, everything feels very heavy right now.
She brought me a Kleenex.
I’m not crying, I told her.
I know, she said, touching my wrist. I just wanted to show you something light. 


haiku buoyantly resolved, 2012

Posted by , January 9th, 2012
Category: Abstraction Tags: ,   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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Rise Like Lions After Slumber

Posted by , November 11th, 2011
Category: Recognition Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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Smiling still a despot dies
For he knows, on his demise

New hands wield the tyrant’s power
It is not yet freedom’s hour
Heinrich Heine (King David, 1848)

Amidst all the fervor and misinterpretation surrounding the Occupy Wall Street movement, there is, largely, a presumption that the binary political system can atone for the inequities that have so angered the unruly, leaderless mass. The occupation process, however vague and “directionless,” is a spontaneous display of what Benjamin Tucker called “unterrified Jeffersonianism” — an exercise in non-hierarchical, transparent democracy that moves sideways through linear time, and, as such, remains largely “unseen” by traditional viewpoint. It’s not so much “directionless” as it is moving in all directions simultaneously. The occupation has gained popular support in no small part because of its honesty, behavior that is a novelty and stands in contrast to the immorality of political theater. As Heinrich Heine so poetically described, a tyrant can die smiling because he knows that after his death, power only changes hands, and tyranny has no end. The duopolistic structure of left and right party politics acts as its own counterbalance, its own safety net, trading power between tyrants. What this occupation does is short circuit that binary process of continual transfer of power, voiding the presupposition that the answer lies within politics as such, and asks instead, “if not this, then what?”

In 1976, Jean Baudrillard forecasted both Occupy Wall Street and the false sense of free choice within the structure of democratic capitalism:

The system of the ‘advanced democracies’ becomes stable through the formula of the two-party system. The de facto monopoly remains in the hands of a homogenous political class, from the left to the right, but must not be exercised in this way. This is because single party rule, totalitarianism, is an unstable form which drains the political stage and can no longer ensure the feedback of public opinion, the minimal current in the integrated circuit that constitutes the transistorized political machine. The two-party system, by contrast, is the end of the end of representation since solicitation reaches its highest degree, in the name of a simple formal constraint, when you approach the greatest perfect competitive equation between the two parties. This is only logical: Democracy attains the law of equivalence in the political order, and this law is fulfilled by the see-sawing of the two terms, which thus maintains their equivalence but by means of this miniscule divergence allows for public consensus and the closure of the cycle of representation: a theatre of operations where only the smoky reflections of political Reason continue to function. Democracy’s credo of the individual’s ‘free choice’ effectively turns into its exact opposite….
Jean Baudrillard (Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976)

Isn’t it exactly the illusory nature of binary democracy — limited to a preordained duopoly, offering miniscule divergence, a simple format of constraint — that functions as “free choice” today? It’s this illusion of choice, a choice between the lesser of two evils, between an already narrowed field of left and right that is growing more homogenized each election cycle, that intensifies the occupational rage.

After the Cold War, the two-party structure of “good” and “evil” was effectively defunct, as democratic capitalism reigned supreme, a Heine-esque King. As Baudrillard explained, such an autocratic system is an inherently unstable form that drains the stage, leaving the political theater of choice anemic, an unconvincing performance. With the attack on the World Trade Center, and the wars that followed, there’s been resurgence in simulated opposition. Baudrillard offered eerie prescience about the financial collapse in his architectural survey of the World Trade Center:

Why has the World Trade Center in New York got two towers? All Manhattan’s great buildings are always content to confront each other in a competitive verticality, from which there results an architectural panorama that is the image of the capitalist system: a pyramidal jungle, every building on the offensive against every other… The buildings stand next to one another like the columns of a statistical graph. This new architecture no longer embodies a competitive system, but a countable one where competition has disappeared in favor of correlation. This architectural graphism belongs to the monopoly: the World Trade Center’s two towers are perfect parallelepipeds, four hundred meters high on a square base; they are perfectly balanced and blind communicating vessels. The fact that there are two identical towers signifies the end of all competition, the end of every original reference. Paradoxically, if there were only one, the WTC would not embody the monopoly, since we have seen that it becomes stable in a dual form. For the sign to remain pure it must become its own double: this doubling of the sign really put an end to what it designated.
Jean Baudrillard (Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976)

With the collapse of the World Trade Center came the collapse of the tactical division of the monopoly, and, in hindsight, it seems inevitable that without such a symbolic division, the totalitarian single-party marketeers would steer us straight towards instability.

The obvious question remains: what the fuck does this have to do with music? It is both unbelievable and unmistakably clear; there is a curious correlation between Occupy Wall Street and the punk band Crass.

Do They Owe Us A Living?” (The Feeding of the 5000, 1978)

Do they owe us a living?
Of course they fucking do!

From 1977 to 1984 Crass took the anarchist impulse from the first wave of punk and followed it to its obvious fulfillment: a completely different way of living. As a band, they articulated their rage completely outside the rock ‘n’ roll arena, manufacturing their own records (to circumvent censorship), avoiding conventional concert halls and operating without any business apparatus (managers, lawyers, PR, etc.). Despite any popular fanfare Crass not only managed to sell tens of thousands of records, but more importantly, they forced the government and the public to deal with issues they raised (the Falklands War, nuclear disarmament, globalization, animal rights, environmentalism). As a social force, Crass was remarkable. The band lived all together at Dial House, a collective home with an open door policy that recognized no ideology: anyone was free to come and go and the house was used as a free space to realize creative endeavors.

Musically, Crass not only stood in stark contrast to other punk groups like the Sex Pistol and the Clash, who enjoyed commercial intercourse with the entertainment industry, but they sounded different than other punk bands. While the Sex Pistol were a slightly rough-around-the-edges variation on rock ‘n’ roll, Crass used sound as a function of their praxis. Under traditional criteria, e.g., melody, harmony, timbre, pitch and rhythm, Crass could be described as unbearable. Listen to any Crass song and it should be abundantly clear, the sound is ugly, and the sound has less to do with entertainment or sing-a-long-ability and more to do with acting as a conduit for their message of total rejection.

Theodor Adorno denounced protest music, explaining that by coupling the voice of dissent with entertainment, the music and the message is doomed. “The entire sphere of popular music is inseparable from consumption,” Adorno explained, and “taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable makes the music unbearable.” The idea of the inseparability of entertainment and consumption, and how that is at odds with the subversive intent of punk, seemed to be clear in the Crass “sound.” Being “terrible” at music made Crass that much better as a punk outfit. In the Adornian sense, Crass did what it set out to do musically, to be perfectly horrendous. And the fact that the band operated as an informal non-profit, turning their earnings to investments towards other anarchistic endeavors, insured not only that they remained broke, but that their practice never involved intercourse with the culture industry.

Understanding Crass — ugly, loud, discordant — as an anarchist movement is quite easy, one only needs to hear them, or see an album cover to reconcile some vague idea of anarchy with the band. Beyond the noise, Crass promoted ideas of individual freedom and autonomy, which, when viewed through the skewed lens of Western understanding, is usually seen as “disorder.” What’s missing in this view of anarchy vis-à-vis disorder is precisely the thing that makes anarchy so compelling: love. And more than anything, Crass were compelled by love. It’s hard to reconcile the ugliness of Crass with the hippy image of them living together, tending their organic garden and promoting love, precisely because their existence rejects the presupposition of such binary regulations.

The same inability to amalgamate seemingly contradictory practices is at work in the perception of Occupy Wall Street. The term “anarchy” has been frequently thrown at the occupation as a way of slandering the intention, painting the anger as juvenile spectacle instead of warranted response. This tactic is a throwback to McCarthyism, in much the same way that the term “socialist” has been slung at Obama’s presidency. For anyone with an understanding of the Cold War, it’s not only clear that communism failed completely, but the only state to propagandize communism more than the Soviet Union was the United States. That is because to paint the Soviet Union as an example of “true communism” only strengthens America’s claim to being the leading exemplar of “true democracy.” The false choice of communism or democracy offers two options in a binary operation not unlike the preordained duopoly of the political theater of left versus right. What Occupy Wall Street does, is, first, reject the premise of such a binary presumption, and second, instead of being one among many to offer answers to today’s political problems, the occupation asks, “if not this, then what?” and by doing so, redefines the problems of today’s politics.

That same redefining of problems was apparent in Crass, who screamed their anarchic message of love through songs of cacophonous noise, which were contained on records that were covered in vile imagery. When detractors and reactionaries demand the occupation answer such charges as, “are you just an anarchist who hates America and capitalism?” the impulse should not be to answer within the binary regulation of yes or no, but instead, to reject the premise of such a notion. The refusal to submit to being a single-issue protest renders Occupy Wall Street “uncoverable” in conventional media terms. There’s no single sound bite, there’s an overabundance of sound bites. The egalitarian structure makes every interviewee just a participant and not a spokesperson. Rather than listing issues that can be addressed by the current system, the occupation cites the system itself as the single-issue problem. Here, again, the movement shares likeness with Crass, who practiced a form of anarcho-syndicalism:

Liberalism and Democracy were pre-eminently political concepts, and, since the great majority of the original adherents of both maintained the right of ownership in the old sense, these had to renounce them both when economic development took a course which could not be practically reconciled with the original principles of Democracy, and still less with those of Liberalism. Democracy with its motto of “equality of all citizens before the law,” and Liberalism with its “right of man over his own person,” both shipwrecked on the realities of the capitalist economic form. So long as millions of human beings in every country had to sell their labor-power to a small minority of owners, and to sink into more wretched misery if they could find no buyers, the so-called “equality before the law” remains merely a pious fraud, since the laws are made by those who find themselves in possession of the social wealth. But in the same way there can be also no talk of a “right over one’s own person,” for that right ends when one is compelled to submit to economic dictation of another if he does not want to starve.
Rudolf Rocker (Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, 1937)

It’s in this moment of spontaneous “unterrified Jeffersonianism” that the occupation, hearing Jefferson remark, “that government is best which governs least,” shouts back Thoreau’s anarchist retort, “that government is best which governs not at all!” And it is here that we find ourselves at the deadlock of capitalism. That is to say, crisis is inherent in capitalism. There is a sign that frequently appears at occupy rallies, “capitalism IS crisis,” which perhaps best summarizes the entire movement. And yet, in just three words, the apparently simple redefining of the problems confronting us has no equally simple answer.

Taking Sides (Yes Sir, I Will, 1983)

We must be prepared to oppose them on every level,
To fight back in the knowledge that if we don’t
We will have failed in our responsibility to life itself.

We must not be intimidated by the authority that they appear to have.

In an interview, Penny Rimbaud said of the Crass agenda, “We got out on the streets and we really tried it out — and we failed.” How did they fail? Crass deliberately presented their music not as a sound commodity but as a natural extension of their way of life. Through shared living at Dial House, and the community centers and actions they funded with proceeds from the band’s activity, Crass assumed other punks and anarchist equally invested would do the same. The idea of thousands of Dial Houses all over England was an early dream of Crass, and that is all it ever was, a dream. Rather than hearing “There is no authority but yourself” and taking those words as a call to autonomous action, the listeners, for the most part, acted like fans, and sang along, just as they would with the Sex Pistols. Rather than being inspired to create their own autonomous, anarchist squats, most punks adopted Crass as a badge, an ideology, and preached it. Crass was quite successful as a band, selling records, garnering followers, influencing other groups, but failed in that by becoming a force of the underground, they managed to create an alternative binary system rather than uproot the existing binary system.

There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.
George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia)

Crass disbanded in part due to a division between members who believed in pacifism and those who believed in reactionary violence. Is this not also an antagonism in the occupation? As the balaclava-clad bloc came out during Oakland’s General Strike, though overwhelmingly in the minority, it can be seen as the logical conclusion to the “if not this, then what?” question. As Occupy Wall Street, echoing Rudolf Rocker, undermines democratic capitalism’s credo of rights and equality, revealing the perpetual state of shipwrecked-ness, the “then what” is the face-off between society at large and those in possession of social wealth. We only need to look back at the history of radicalism to see that going head-to-head with the controlling minority has rarely been able to, as the rallying cry pleads, “remain non-violent.” The history of reactionary violence — tens of thousands guillotined during the French Revolution, burning the Tuileries palace to the ground during the Paris Commune, systematically destroying the churches in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, Molotov cocktails hurled in every direction during May ’68, the poison and bombing campaigns of “propaganda by the deed” individualists — finds itself in the same frustrated deadlock time and again, as the issues central to radical protests (liberty, equality, fraternity) have never been resolved within democratic politics. The realization that civil rights, gender equality or suitable living conditions for all are among the many issues that remain perpetually unsettled return again and again as a statement of war against what Rudolf Rocker called the “pious fraud” of the minority (i.e., the 1%) in control of social wealth.

Crass was instrumental in organizing a proto-Occupy Wall Street in the early ‘80s, called “Stop the City.” Without permit or notice to authorities, thousands of activists occupied the area of the London Stock Exchange, preventing brokers and bankers from getting to their offices. Protestors were, in turn, truncheoned and tossed into paddywagons, only to return in record numbers the following year to do it all again. Before the anti-globalization movement was identified as such, Crass was a part of it. Nearly three decades before people were willed to fill public squares en masse, Crass had the same idea.

There’s a tendency, likely born from a combination of suspicious wonderment and jealous misdirection, that’s common among the view from outside the occupation, which extends beyond the name-calling and jokes of hygiene and hair color, to reveal a hesitation that should be considered a vote of confidence. Because it’s within this impulse to apply a title to the character of revolt, to look upon protestors and call them madmen, where true identity is revealed, where what is unbearable is being uncategorized. So by designating oneself “sane” in the act of calling the other “mad,” we can see the locus of illusion: by insisting the other is under the illusion of madness, the sane one falls victim to the ironic illusion of his own madness. Or, to use a Lacanian aphorism: “If a man who believes himself to be king is mad, a king who believes himself to be king is no less mad.” The impulse to denigrate, which is in abundance with critics of Crass and the Occupy movement, should be seen clearly as an impulse towards solidarity masked by contemptuous envy. It’s this sign of discomfort that signals the slow overturning of public conscience, when the tenuous link to the belief that there is an answer to the problems slowly turns to the realization that the problems themselves should be redefined, as the previously specious set of beliefs is put to torch.

Le roi est mort, vive le roi. “The king is dead. Long live the king.” When one king dies, another king is crowned, and the kingdom continues…  until it doesn’t.

Banned from the Roxy” (The Feeding of the 5000, 1978)

The government protecting their profits from the poor,
The rich and the fortunate chaining up the door.

Afraid that the people may ask for a little more

Than the shit they get. The shit they get.
The shit they get. The shit they get.

While there are plenty of parallels to draw between Crass and Occupy Wall Street, the two are fundamentally different in their intent. Crass operated as an underground movement while the occupation specifically aims at the majority, the ninety-nine percent. This principal distinction, paradoxically, makes the two more similar than separate. While Crass subscribed to a punk ethos, operating as a subversive counterweight to popular culture, the occupation aims at the subversive counterweight that maintains cultural social order, that is, the plutocratic minority that bang the drum of democratic capitalism against the better judgment of the majority. Crass was critical of the Sex Pistols singing, “I believe in anarchy” alongside “there’s no future in dreaming,” because, for Crass, the only future was in realizing the anarchist dream. In much the same way, the occupation endeavors a monumental overturning of everything; instead of banging the drum of cynical partisanship, which sees no future, the movement, instead, asks for a waking up from this nightmare, allowing another impossible dream to be dreamt.

However unconscious, it seems the occupation has learned from the mistakes of Crass. Rather than operating as a traditional organization, with a figurehead easily toppled, the occupation’s egalitarian approach offers an answer to Crass’s failure to become one among many collective anarchist groups operating around England. And it’s no coincidence that the brave souls who camped out at the very beginning of this occupation, those very same people that current supporters of the occupation are quick to relegate as not indicative of the whole, who critics continually point to as typical examples of the occupation, are the very stripe familiar to Crass fans: the dreadlocked ‘n’ mohawked, Mad Max looking gutter punks. Among those first to feel the swing of a police baton, the first to familiarize themselves with the taste of pepper spray, the first to be hauled off in cuffs, the first to become dispossessed of their reasonable expectation of privacy, the first to volunteer to sleep in a park, the first to march fearlessly into a confrontation with police knowing it ends with a ride in the paddywagon, are those who look like extras cast in a Hollywood-produced “tell-all” Crass biopic. No coincidence. Like Crass, let’s not disregard them just because they are unbearable.

Those who are willing neither to suffer nor to possess the means of oppression, who want freedom both for themselves and for others — they, in an age that poverty or terror condemns to the excesses of oppression, are the seeds beneath the snow of which one of the greatest among us spoke.  Once the storm is over, the world will live off them.
Albert Camus (Resistance, Rebellion and Death, 1960)

Crass has largely been left out of the history of punk rock, because much of that history has been produced to satisfy the evidence of the very forces Crass sought to overthrow. In the Adornian sense, history, commissioned through industrial institutions (government, entertainment, academic) that further the obligation to consume, makes Crass not only unbearable, but also irrelevant. However, as Camus points out, Crass act as “seeds beneath the snow,” and the occupation we see sprouting “out of nowhere” today can be easier comprehended as the later part of a gestation period that found genesis with Crass and their ilk.

With respect to the Great Recession we find ourselves in today, we can use an instrument of “financial innovation” as an analogy for how we view the historic authenticity of Crass and Occupy Wall Street. A financial derivative has no independent value; its value is derived from the value of an underlying asset. In the case of Crass and the occupation, the underlying assets are peace, resistance, autonomy. This impulse towards human welfare is both monumental and desired, but you can’t sell something that is free, ergo, such an impulse is out of place in our society. The West has slowly created a historical practice that describes itself to itself while erasing all that does not satisfy its rules of evidence. And while there are many noble elements found within Crass and Occupy Wall Street, both derive their value from outside the laws of democratic capitalism, not only positioning themselves to be constantly misconceived, but to become historically inauthentic within Western historicity.

The Five Knuckle Shuffle” (Yes Sir, I Will, 1983)

If there was no government, wouldn’t there be chaos
Everybody running round, setting petrol bombs off?
And if there was no police force, tell me what you’d do
If thirty thousand rioters came running after you?
And who would clean the sewers? Who’d mend my television?
Wouldn’t people lay about without some supervision?
Who’d drive the fire engines? Who’d fix my video?
If there were no prisons, well, where would robbers go?

And what if I told you to fuck off?

Aren’t we seeing, as a natural side effect of the occupation, a slow dismantling of those rules of evidence that shape Western historicity? Throughout the first month of the movement, the restrictions, corruptions and outside interests, mediated through Western historic authenticity, promised to be the death knell of the occupation. They can’t sleep outside indefinitely? They can’t survive being co-opted by outside interests? They can’t resist the violence and crime inherent to such groups? The snow came, and the occupiers found a way to sleep. The unions, teachers and marginalized infested the occupation, and found a welcoming ear for their concerns. The gas-powered generators were confiscated, and the occupiers found a bicycle-powered alternative. Violent elements inserted themselves into Oakland’s General Strike, and the occupiers, echoing the declaration adopted by the Amsterdam anarchist international convention in 1907, acknowledged that, “such acts, with their causes and motives, should be understood rather than praised or condemned,” and not only worked to repair the damage, but debated the acts at their assembly. As each new challenge presents itself — police agent provocateurs, right wing saboteurs, a rise in homeless, crime and sexual violence visited upon encampments — the occupation defies those rules of evidence that satisfy ideas of Western newsworthiness. The problem the mainstream media faces is that the occupation resides in a blind spot, outside the view of Western historicity, and so, situations such as sexual violence or homeless visiting the encampments are reported as outside problems thrust onto the occupation. Instead, we should view the occupation as a microcosm of a different history being made, one that operates through egalitarian consensus, and such issues (sexual violence, crime, homelessness) are elements within the culture that are addressed, debated and hopefully, further prevented. A human approach, instead of the Western binary us versus them.

The mainstream media — by reporting issues discussed at general assemblies as “dilemmas” or “arguments,” by “building narratives” of the occupation through interviewing individuals rather than observing assemblies — reveals its blind spot to methods foreign to Western historical practices that don’t satisfy its rules of evidence. When such questions came framed with a blind spot (“If there were no prisons, well, where would robbers go?”), Crass answered in kind (“And what if I told you to fuck off?”). The occupation’s open-ended, anamorphic culture of love is a similar “fuck off” to traditional Western historic authenticity.

The Austrian art historian, Alois Riegl, sought to change the manner in which history was authenticated, and, in some measure, shared the Crass worldview. Riegl’s theory of Kunstwollen, or the artistic will-to-form, worked to unite activities in high and low art with the culture of its time, which was contrary to the anthropological impulse of history to excavate and separate, dividing material culture from mental culture. Rather than separating ideas from things, Riegl chose to see history as a sequence of ideas and materials that were formed by the same interconnected culture. The history we know is a history already mediated through cleaving of that cultural continuum, restructured through the tools of historic efficiency, derived from its value to the body commissioning such a history. What Riegl sought was a view of man’s will to see the world as he imagines, and everything — art, law, science, philosophy, craftsmanship — is an obligation to meet such a desire.

Beg Your Pardon” (Christ – The Album, 1982)

I don’t believe the things you say
You make bullshit of the truth
The game you play’s offensive
And your life’s the living proof

Taking a Kunstwollen view of Occupy Wall Street, it is much easier to see how seemingly contradictory ideas of peace and anarchy, anger and love, autonomy and organization, form the character of the will contained in the occupation. The genesis of the movement is found as much in the financial collapse as it is in the resurgence of interest in anarchist movements, underground music and hacktivism. Wikileaks, Anonymous and the Arab Spring can be seen as societal forms that are mirrored artistically in, as an example, the rash of recent reissues of subversive music from the past (e.g., Crass, Faith, Void, Death, East of Underground, The Ex). Similarly, in film and literature we find an abundance of new material about the Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhof, May ‘68, the Black Panthers, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, the Situationists, as if we’re experiencing a spontaneous will-to-form of reconsideration for those radical movements, looking forward to our future through a re-informed hindsight, trying to determine if similar actions can derive their value from something other than the violence that brought an end to past radicalism.

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -– (applause) — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.
President Obama, 2011 State of the Union Address

Obama’s call for “our generation’s Sputnik moment” was a retooling of the binary regulation that sustained the ideology of the Cold War. There is a Baudrillardian “theater of operations” in phrases such as, “research and development,” “information technology” and “biomedical research,” which seem harmless in their hopefulness – or hopeful in their harmlessness, but such phrases usually signify other, more harmful, more hopeless, phrases: “defense contracts,” “NSA eavesdropping,” “pharmaceutical lobby.”

Obama’s acknowledgement of our slump in innovation is tied to our slump in human development, equality, literacy and quality of life. What if there is another way to view such statistics? What if our slump is, in itself, a sign of a nascent resistance, a will-to-form, however latent, against turning our Sputnik moments into tools for the de facto homogenous ruling class to use against us, or people elsewhere who are like us? Perhaps it is too optimistic a view, but can’t our dire statistics also be seen as a sign of change, as an unconscious un-tethering from Western hegemony?

Democratic capitalism functions in much the same way as religious fundamentalism. The people act as pious adherents, sacrificing themselves in support of divine principles, which are suspended by faith. In the case of capitalism, the faith resides in the belief that heavenly judgment will reward devotees with a bounty of riches. The inconvenient truth, paradoxically, is that while the majority of devotees work, a small minority is richly venerated, and while this cycle continually repeats, the faith of the poor, devoted majority remains unshaken. Heaven is reserved for the minority, and on the ground, the reality is faith functions as a belief in a freedom that’s never free. Or, as Baudriallard said, a democracy whose credo of free choice effectively turns into its exact opposite, an obligation to consume. Perhaps we can view the rise in self-described atheists as a nascent resistance to democratic capitalism?

Demoncrats” (Stations of the Crass, 1979)

They believed in democracy, freedom of speech
Yet dead on the flesh piles I hear no breath

I hear no hope, no whisper of faith
From those who have died for some others’ privilege
Out from your palaces, princes and queens
Out from your churches, you clergy, you christs
I’ll neither live nor die for your dreams
I’ll make no subscription to your paradise

This obligation to consume was made clear in the death of Steve Jobs. Westerners far and wide revered Jobs like a deity, and praised his innovation and brilliance in bringing the world to our fingertips. Much noise was made of him being a genius, dropping out of college, having a propensity to indulge in crazy ideas, tripping on LSD and his Christ-like ability to convert followers with his “reality distortion field.”

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Apple, “Think Different” advertising campaign, 1997

It’s this anti-establishment idolatry that Steve Jobs originally intoned upon twentieth century personalities that was, in turn, intoned upon him, creating a horrendous Adornian coupling of consumption and innovation. Just as Exodus reminds us, “You shall have no other gods before me,” the unlimited freedom that Jobs brought to us, mediated through consumption, as a derivative of Apple’s profits, has an unsightly, dare I say ungodly, obverse. The idolatrous legacy of Steve Jobs that we celebrate, that “pushed the human race forward” and was “crazy enough to change the world,” is sustained by Chinese workers committing suicide in the factories that produce Apple products, mass graves in Kashmir where multinational mining and infrastructure corporations vie for land rights, the rape of Congolese women and children by militias who control the export of minerals needed to produce our “smart” devices.

Perhaps it’s too optimistic, but maybe what’s forming now, amidst the occupation, is a will to think differently about our “Sputnik moment.” We’re “suffering” a spontaneous disentanglement from our involvement in the inhumane practices that sustain our “freedom.” Perhaps part of the question, “if not this, then what?” involves questioning the worth of insurmountable debt in pursuit of an education that leads to a profession where the best ideas are commandeered by the government for purposes of “defense,” “finance” or “intelligence.” Perhaps we’ve grown tired of seeing our ideas turned into killing machines, financial instruments of greed and tools to invade privacy. Perhaps the political theater is finally being rendered irrelevant. Perhaps we’re beginning to see the blind spots in our history. Perhaps our “Sputnik moment” is not developing something new, but rejecting old presuppositions: that we can’t stay safe and still make awesome affordable things, that it’s impossible to have health care, education, social security and a stable economy, that we must always be at war, that we need kings or leaders or cops at all.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers…

Where Next Columbus?” (Penis Envy, 1981)

Do you watch at a distance from the side you have chosen?
Whose answers serve you best? Who’ll save you from confusion?

Who’s your leader? Which is your flock?
Who do you watch? Who do you watch?

Lil’ Louis – “French Kiss (The Original Underground Mix)”

Volume One: “Can you tell me if I’m doing it right?”

This is not the minute—this is the day. This is not when they come—this is when they call to say that they’ll  be coming. This is not the knowing—this is the wondering. This is not the sex—this is…

…the kiss.

Lil’ Louis – “French Kiss (The Original Underground Mix)”

Sex is terminal. Kissing is not. And in that absence of a clear goal, of an end of the line, variation becomes everything: The warm drift sustained by a wet concentration, muted sensations pricked with the occasional pop, maroon formlessness perforated by a softly clicking jaw, the seeking out, the reeling back, the push, and the pull, all moving back and forth in the wooziness of the blood. In its way, endless.

Existing as it does entirely in this shared bruit, this closed, waltzing pulse, the true kiss—the kiss, that is, that is not actually Something Else—can have no real release. And so the drums throughout keep a capped, tamped-down quality. Allowing for no exterior outside of this room, outside of this song, outside of our bodies, it is transportation between low-ceilinged places; it is being locked inside of the vast TJ Maxx of desire that exists just outside of consummation—muzzy, overstuffed, and almost. Lingering in that hour between the dog and the wolf. But if it is neither possible nor necessarily desirable to rise above, to leave, the song stretches and presses, revealing fissures that become new things, possibilities into which we could fall and stay. There are inexpert and over-anxious peeks of pitch-shift and tempo wobble to remind us that all of this has been put in place by human hands, and there is a Moiré effect where every subtle shift in alignment creates a new pattern: the synth twists around inside and refracts the straight 4/4 pound into an irresistible little bounce; the beat lolls for half a second and slips from being the rush itself to being something important brought along for later; keyboards scatter as ideas from an anxious mind, and all is velvet murk except for the hi-hats that brighten and feint like a little bit of fresh air caught from the corner of the mouth. The whole thing throbs like a jarful of hearts beating somewhere just on the other side of the tongue, and between here and there it’s just you and you, joined in a maze of endless head. 

(Right around the midpoint are a couple minutes of simulated ecstasy that perch atop the song like a phony janus head of bad loving: too audible to sound like a good kiss and too monotonous to sound like good sex, it does little but over-show and distract. And you know what, let’s not think about all that right now.) 

Distraction can be fatal, though, and by the time you’re wondering whether maybe all this has gone on too long, it has gone on too long. With the constant permutation comes a bluntedness. But, but, but: Isn’t there a sustainability in the edgelessness? Is “comfort” the word? Is this almostness where we learn to postpone, to prolong? No matter—when all the available combinations seem to have been explored, exhaustion yawns out ahead, and the plush anticipatory ripple at the beginning is by the end beeping out in monotony, a homing signal. This dark, sweet thing and all of its seamy potential has turned surprisingly fragile in its overextension. Blinking in that light, it becomes clear that preserving any of this into the next day or the next room will mean carrying it there like a completed jigsaw puzzle.

Or maybe instead of hanging on to it, instead of trying to turn it into something, maybe it’d be better just to start over, do it all again. Soon. Yes. Yeah. For this, too—no, this especially—is the kiss.     



 - cf. Debbie Harry’s “French Kissin’ In The U.S.A” (I watched her sing this on some show back then, and remember nothing except the blindingly bright pin-spot of glare off of her ludicrously over-glossed lips; it felt like my own tv was burning a hole in my chest with a magnifying glass), Julia Fordham’s “What chance did I stand / How could I resist / your American arms and / your French kiss?” and especially Lucinda Williams’s “I can’t stay around / ’cause I’m going back South / but all I regret now / is I never kissed your mouth.”  

- See also: the deep-reverb lip-smacking that begins: “Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?”

- A while back, I was trying to figure out why “French kiss” (the phrase) sounded so antiquated, so...quaint. Then I figured it out: No one qualifies a kiss anymore to specify that it was heavy; they do so only to specify that it was light. In the parlance of my young youth, “French kiss” was useful for distinguishing between a regular kiss and a capital-K Kiss. In these faster and heavier times, though, I think every kiss is assumed to be a Kiss unless it gets modified downward: “Oh, it was just a little/light/fast/quick kiss.” I cannot think of the last time I heard “kiss” modified upward. Even the singer on the Vocal Mix of “French Kiss” kinda pulls back/hurries past the titular phrase, as if she—a grown-ass woman—is a little embarrassed to have to structure her whole performance around this bit of grade-school phrasing.

- I am not now nor have I ever been a heavy house-music dude, but around the time “French Kiss” came out, I read so many breathless write-ups of it that I was on a crazy mission to hear it. I was in my mid-teens, and thus still had the wide-eyed outlook and the stamina to want to chase every rabbit down every hole, but I was also living in semi-rural South Carolina at the time, and access to that kind of music was limited. So, I started leaning on friends to see if anyone had the hook-up with an older sibling or a cousin at college or sister’s boyfriend at the record store or whoever: “Seriously, a tape or a dub off the radio or anything—I just wanna hear it!” My dear friend Pruitt didn’t really like to dance all that much, but his girlfriend did, and she knew some spots; namely, a gay club (“It’s called ‘The Crystal’ or ‘The Crystal Castle’ or ‘Crystal Palace’ or something like that”) in a town forty-five minutes away that “definitely plays that kind of music.” She didn’t feel like going, and I couldn’t drive yet, so—in an act of generosity that you’ll have to believe me when I say was contextually gargantuan—Pruitt said he’d take me. He wasn’t gonna dance, but he’d hang out and listen to some music, sure. (You’ve gotta understand: upstate South Carolina was still finding its way with this house shit, and it wasn’t yet non-stop jacking; it was still completely permissible for dudes to chill at the bar until they found their comfort level.) So once we get inside, I go up to the first person who looks like they might know and ask them, trying to be cool but really just square as shit, “Hey, excuse me, um, do you think they’ll play ‘French Kiss’—uh, the song  ’French Kiss’—here tonight?” This was like 1990, and while “French Kiss” may have been over elsewhere, it was just peaking there in the slow-to-receive red-clay districts, and the response I got was, “Honey, they’ll probably play that stuff ten times tonight!” And indeed, in the couple of hours before I had to leave to make curfew (I am saying: square as shit), we heard it twice. If it didn’t exactly change my life, it definitely changed the way I listen to music, which as much as anything informs the way I think about life. So, sincerest thanks to my man Pruitt, without whom. I think of you all the time, brother, and hope you’re doing well at home.    

- A few years after all this, Lil’ Louis put out the excellent Journey With The Lonely, complete with liner notes outlining briefly but potently his take on 1992 gender politics in a tone located somewhere post-Prince and pre-Tyler Perry (e.g. “My Queens: Judge me not because of what your father did at home / Judge me not by your past lovers / Judge me not by what damaged souls tell U / Judge me not generally, but individually”). The whole package comes recommended. 

- Some of the best advice I ever got: “Don’t lean on the doorbell.”


Posted by , July 26th, 2011
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The great art style of any period is that which relates itself to the true insights of its time. But an age may repudiate its real insights, retreat to the insights of the past — which, though not its own, seem safer to act upon — and accept only art that corresponds to this repudiation; in which case the age will go without great art, to which truth of feeling is essential. In a time of disasters the less radical artists, like the less radical politicians, will perform better since, being familiar with the expected consequences of what they do, they need less nerve to keep their course. But the more radical artists, like the more radical politicians, become demoralized because they need so much more nerve than the conservatives in order to keep to a course that, guided by the real insights of the age, leads into unknown territory. Yet if the radical artist’s loss of nerve becomes permanent, then art declines as a whole, for the conservative artist rides only on momentum and eventually loses touch with the insights of his time — by which all genuine artists are nourished. Or else society may refuse to have any new insights, refuse to make new responses — but in that case it would be better not to talk about art at all.
—Clement Greenberg
(“The Decline of Cubism,” 1948)

To begin a treatise on rap’s retreat into republicanism with a quote on Cubism from the ‘40s seems absurd, but it’s these absurd corollaries that allow us to see through the glare of everyday assumptions. If we take Greenberg’s argument, strip it away from Cubism, can’t we apply the forecast to rap in general? That is to say, is there a widespread retreat to past insights in rap music today? Is rap careening towards the conservative right? Have the artists in rap suffered a “loss of nerve”? Are those at the forefront guided by real insight, and exploring “unknown territory”? Surely we’re living in a time of disaster. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we look closer at what is deemed “radical” and “new”?

From a broad socio-economic perspective, we can look back at the history of rap and see that, for decades, it’s been on the career path of conservative co-opting and commercial interests where it finds shelter today. There has been no shortage of histories published about hip-hop, and it seems appropriate that a book currently enjoying success, The Big Payback, deals primarily with the business of hip-hop. As is outlined in the book, rap music underwent a subtle shift, from being rooted in the culture that produced it to being estranged from its culture by the huge business interest that was able to take rap, as E-40 says, from the ghetto streets to the executive suites.

Looking at rap’s mode of production from a Marxist perspective, hasn’t the economic machine propelling music conditioned the consciousness of the music?

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.
—Karl Marx
(Critique of Political Economy, 1859)

I don’t like to dream about getting paid…
(Paid in Full, 1987)

[As a quick, clarifying aside, and in defense of the lost cause that is the argument I’m making, let me first articulate what this article is not: I understand that while looking at rap through a Marxist lens I run the risk of coming off as a collegiate dickwad, or worse, the writing can read clinical and disconnected. I’m not interested in making a value judgment on rap, or setting some moral compass. In fact, this article has nothing to do with subjective interpretations of rap; what’s “good” or “bad” about the music. The focus of this writing is a critical examination of the series of subtle shifts that sustain the ideological underpinnings of how we understand and relate to rap. The point of this article is not to solve the problems of hip-hop’s materialism, violence and misogyny, but to redefine those problems.]

At inception in the late ‘70s, hip-hop abided many stripes (gang members, disco freaks, momma’s boys, fatsos, black nationalists, Blondie, etc.) and the music reflected the culture from whence it came, with non-sequiturs and ugly truths bundled in a compelling new form of self-expression. From the earliest rap recordings one can hear the seedlings of today’s violence, homophobia and materialism, but what’s most noticeable in hip-hop’s forefathers is their innocence. That is to say, the violence then was more reactionary — violence as a direct result of oppression — where today’s violence is formulaic, or worse, manufactured. The oppression still exists, but it’s been mixed with commercial incentive, a reward sustaining the conditions of oppression.

Through the Wild Style-era, rapping functioned mainly as a party-starting device (“lemme hear you say hooooo!”) or was simply a toast to the deejay running the sound (“Grandmaster! Cut Faster!”). After the popularity of “The Message,” a style of ghetto reportage became standard. Certainly, the unspeakable conditions of inner city life were familiar in every corner of the world by the late ‘80s. The exposure of oppression became a profitable expression, and this shocking “revelation” (America’s ghettos were one of its worst kept secrets, after all) is where we find the first subtle shift in the culture of hip-hop.

Much of what was rapped about then, as now, was from the standpoint of the marginalized, and as such, could be hard to swallow. And it should be, hearing the uncensored voice of the oppressed is shocking and uncomfortable. However, the shock of the it’s like a jungle sometimes-type raps acted as a spectacular report of ghetto conditions (similar to that of an embedded reporter), and it was this exploitable byproduct that piqued the interest of the business world. Surely, by the late ‘80s, gangsta rap not only made hip-hop commercially viable, but truly a spectacle. And isn’t it here, amidst this vulnerability, that we see a marginalized culture pushed further into the margin by becoming a commodity?

While there are certainly rappers that deal drugs, gangbang, or are involved in nefarious activity, it’s precisely the commercial reward of that activity which shifts our understanding of that lifestyle from a symptom of life in the ghetto to a successful mode of business. Melle Mel rapped about ghetto life with a genuine emancipatory intent (“Don’t push me ‘cuz I’m close to the edge”), and that intent to see change has been transformed into a mode of production, a financial recipe that relies on such conditions to continue. This is clear when we look at the figures that ignited the ambition of rappers in the beginning, and how they’ve shifted as rap’s mode of production changed. In its commercial infancy, rap invoked black radical leaders (“Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp!”), while today rap looks to captains of industry, crime bosses and self-serving capitalists (“You lookin’ at the black Warren Buffett”).

Capital exists as capital only in so far as it passes through the phases of circulation, in order to be able to begin the production process anew, and these phases are themselves phases of its realization — but at the same time, of its devaluation. Circulation can create value only in so far as it requires fresh employment —of alien labour in addition to that directly consumed in the production process.
Karl Marx (The Grundrisse, 1858)

‘Cause violence is contagious, it got me bustin’ gauges
The ’95 Larry Davis and I’m wettin’ niggas for wages

B1 (“Take ‘Em To War”)

Rap has made millionaires of many, but as the pages of The Big Payback have informed us, the commodification of rap has conditioned the culture of rap. We don’t need Marx to see that the result of selling the world ghetto raps was not an improvement in conditions for those living in the ghetto, but instead, a means of production was developed to sell the condition of the ghetto by simultaneously sustaining those conditions.

Rapping offered those of us outside ingress to slum life, and, instead of change, our interest brought mass-market media and Hollywood (Colors, Boyz N The Hood, New Jack City, Juice, South Central, Menace II Society, Strapped, Dead Presidents). At least for hip-hop’s first decade, this exposé surely had a shocking effect, but three decades later, shouldn’t we consider the culture of rap a commercial for a contributing cause of oppression? As rap culture became a valuable commodity, the characterization of the rap persona became overdeveloped: mansions, being fully iced out, Pablo Escobar-sized tales of drug trafficking, etc. An illusory lifestyle was manufactured, with implications that all rappers of note were millionaires. Certainly, a few rappers became rich, but of course, most weren’t. Stories surfaced of rappers we thought were millionaires going broke or declaring bankruptcy. Tupac’s mother, for instance, sued Death Row Records because, although his last albums earned hundreds of millions of dollars, he had a mere hundred thousand in the bank when he died and no substantial assets. The façade of rap show business is glitzy, and if we watch the behind the scenes documentaries, we see the yachts, mansions and cars in the videos are leased, the video vixens are paid models, and, all told, the bill for services rendered is subtracted from the artist’s royalties. We learn time and again, as Marx warned, that commercial circulation requires labor otherwise it suffers devaluation. The commercial character of rap, then, requires rappers to personify gangsters and millionaires whether they are or not, otherwise no one makes money, and the field goes fallow.

In Capital, Marx talks of the “process that goes on behind the backs of the producers, and, consequently, appear to be fixed by custom.” Isn’t the shift from rapper-as-reporter to rapper-as-retailer an equivalent process that went on “behind the backs” of rap and its community? An authentic criticism against alienation turned into a simulated reenactment. Also worth exploring is rap’s treatment of authenticity and alienation throughout its history.

There was great contestation between authenticity and alienation through the ‘90s. Authenticity acted as a sovereign province, OGs, “hood niggas,” keepin’ it real, etc. The credo: “the game is sold, not told.” Authenticity was access, and being from the projects, serving time in prison, getting shot or dealing drugs lent credence to one’s authenticity. In contrast, alienation was a consequence of one’s inauthenticity, and was leveled as a judgment against anyone who wasn’t hood. Looking at authenticity and alienation through this lens — a balance of demonstration and defense of hood status — explains the beefs and crew conflicts that made ‘90s rap so volatile. This demarcation, “original gansta” v. “studio gangsta,” was fiercely defended; authenticity brought fame and record sales (“Recognize nigga, I’m straight from the street”), while alienation left carpetbaggers defenseless (“You all alone in these streets, cousin”). Paradoxically, as Marx knew, both positions become part of the production process and they are consumed (inauthentic gangsters become real gangster or get killed, and real gangsters who were elevated out of criminal life return to their past life in defense of their new life). Both sides become laborers in service to capital circulation and the process itself, behind our backs, appears “fixed by custom.” Capital wins.

On the basis of political economy itself, in its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, and thus the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form; and that finally the distinction between capitalist and land owner, like that between the tiller of the soil and the factory worker, disappears and that the whole of society must fall apart into the two classes – property owners and propertyless workers.
Karl Marx (Estranged Labor, 1844)

First they your rings
Now they my rings

Ice Cube (“Amerikkka’s Most Wanted”, 1990)

By 2000, rap was sick with a host of Marxist socio-economic contradictions, and the balance between authenticity and alienation grew irrelevant as the character of rap became symbolic, fetishized, with everyone acting as though the character is real. The authenticity becomes secondary, and, in another subtle shift, being a mogul becomes the benchmark, the thing that keeps rappers from seeming like another wretched commodity. As shootings and arrests became damn near pedestrian, street fame was eclipsed by a graduated sense of crime boss-cum-tycoon (“Everyday I’m hustlin’”). While proving what you’ve done once reigned supreme, showing what you’ve got became the way to be crowned king. And wasn’t it here, amidst this age-old conservative money-grab, that the scope of interest narrowed? Think of all the different styles of rap that competed up through the ‘90s (conscious, D.A.I.S.Y/hippie, gangsta, revolutionary/afrocentric, “jazzy,” underground, trip-hop, boom bap, random rap, glitch hop, etc.). The most rewarded form was gangsta rap, and consequently, the function of rap served as a surrogate for the American dream: get rich or die tryin’. And rap’s inarguable function today, is “all about the cheddar.” Is it not clear that, exploring unknown territories (however thankful most of us are to be done with jazzmatazz!), and the nerve to pursue genuine insight, have all become secondary to the business of making money?

I dumb down for my audience
And double my dollars

Jay-Z (“Moment of Clarity”)

Everybody want to know why the album was late
I was waiting for whitey to get my fucking paper straight

UGK (“Don’t Say Shit”)

See, I love to freestyle, but if I can’t get paid
At the end of the day I’m like, “¿No comprende?”
Cause if keepin’ it real is being broke
Fuck this rap shit, I’m going back to full time slangin’ dope

— WC
(“Rich Rollin’”)

I move rhymes like retail, make sure shit sell
(“Incarcerated Scarfaces”)

Conservatives practice a bootstrapping, trickle down, self-interest philosophy that works against marginalized, underrepresented communities (gays, ethnics, atheists, environmentalists, free-thinkers, the poor and hungry, etc.). In much the same way, rap, once it’s commodified, goes for delf. This laissez-faire policy aligns rap with the right wing: anti-gay, anti-woman, pro-money, pro-business, etc. With rappers as moguls, their business ventures (fragrance, clothing line, real estate, sports franchises, Vitamin Water, etc.) overshadow their music, which, in turn, overshadows their connection to their community, and they find themselves in alliance with the class who were once their oppressors. Kayne West apologized to George Bush, for fuck’s sake. The “cash rules everything around me” policy allows the two of them to find camaraderie while despising one another.

And is the lack of posse in today’s rap a coincidence? The subtle shift is clear when we compare going for dolo to the history of democracy’s relationship with barriers.

In the past, totalitarian powers were the ones who enclosed themselves behind walls, actual or symbolic (the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain) in an effort to shield themselves from the influence of democracy. Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin ruled with propaganda, military might and, in the worst cases, gulags and concentration camps. In any era, artists were among the vanguard that risked their lives to undermine established power: Otto Dix, Víctor Jara, Jacques Vaché, Simone Weil, Bertolt Brecht, Fela Kuti, Malachi Ritscher, etc.

Today, it is democracies that are building protective walls to preserve their “freedom” from the hordes of immigrants, fundamentalists and the penniless. Whether the barrier is actual or not (the wall at the US/Mexico border, secured airports and seaports, corporations with more rights than people, laws that restrict entry of people from specific countries, etc.), democracy is being walled off. If oppression was only possible behind the Iron Curtain, freedom is only possible today behind the wall of democracy, away from the tired, poor, huddled masses. From the light of the liberty lamp we see clearly that not everyone is welcome. Can’t we be sure that, whatever is practiced behind walls must function as an oppressive force?

Getting past the wall, that is, conquering pennilessness and becoming part of democracy today, one goes through a process of expropriation. In order to achieve within the competition to accumulate capital, a citizen is dispossessed of his natural citizenship, his sense of belonging, and is sublated into “security.” He graduates, mints up, and is effectively removed from his former surroundings (“From rags to riches nigga, I ain’t dumb…”).

There’s an oft-levied judgment against the materialism inherent in rap, that the ostentatious opulence is in bad taste and somehow a mark of the uncivilized. On the other side, the defenders of the flamboyant quip, “Can a nigga eat?” or, “Get that paper!” What both sides miss are the roots of this materialism, specifically that they don’t exist within “civilized” economy. From the beginning, blacks have been excluded from the economic process in America. First, through slavery, blacks weren’t even treated as human, much less rewarded economically. Later, through institutional means, blacks were excluded from privileges that were commonplace to the rest of us. When we think of the iconic image of a rapper, draped in gold, surrounded by symbols of his wealth (clothes, girls, cars, mansions, etc.), we should see this as a wall, similar to the one democracy builds up around itself to preserve “freedom.”

I’m sportin’ rings and things
That’s what money brings

Ultimate Force (“I’m Not Playing”, 1988)

I’m wicked for digits, forgive me God for the truth
But I fiends for cheddar like a smoker with a sweet tooth

WC (“Cheddar”, 1998)

Rap is of the cash and carry school of economy. Like the pimps and hustlers that influenced the music, the lifestyle was not one of banking, investing, stocks and property because blacks have historically been denied those activities, so it seems only logical to find blacks dubious of such prohibitive institutions. Rather than behaving “civilized” then, we see black entrepreneurs wearing their rewards, literally, around their neck. And doesn’t this façade of riches act, on one hand as a placard of wealth, but on the other, as a barrier against inclusion into “civilized” society? Doesn’t the cash and carry behavior function as a setting apart of one lifestyle from another? Even the simplest example — such as pulling a wad of bills out of one’s pocket instead of producing a credit card — serves as inference that one is not “civilized.” To witness someone producing a huge roll of money inspires suspicion, thoughts of criminal activity and the idea of “dirty” money, while payment on credit ennobles the payer with uprightness and trust. Therefore, the unjust double standard continues, as rappers are seen simultaneously as rich and untrustworthy. They are dignified by their worth, but demeaned by how they “choose” to exercise it.

Today, rappers occupy a place in civilized business, as owners of sports franchises, property developers, shareholders, spokespersons for corporations, and other such noble business figureheads. In an ironic twist, however, as rappers have been sublated into the corporate machine they’ve been doubly distanced from their achievements. First, the issue of “civilized” money having not been addressed, a rapper’s richness is seen as “dirty” or ignoble. While they are rich on paper, it’s largely, whether conscious or not, seen as a “separate but equal” type of rich, somewhere south of “clean” rich. The Forbes 400 Summit with Jay-Z and Warren Buffett is a perfect example of such a tendency. Of course the summit was on Buffett’s turf, and in the language Buffett is accustomed to, and throughout their discussion we witness Jay having to cater his response to the dominant paradigm. Besides reminding us that the extremely wealthy are unavoidably blind to the lives of the majority, we see how little of Jay’s street fame plays in his tycoon status (where’s the swagger?). The secondary way in which rappers are distanced from their achievements is, in the process of accumulating wealth the rapper is removed from the culture whence he came and, unavoidably, becomes a robber baron. A plutocracy must exercise control over the masses in order to remain in power, and so we see rappers siding with business interest over the interest of their culture.

People’s feelings get hurt
When they figure out what I’m worth
Paul Wall
(“Still Tippin’”, 2005)

Chrome looking more classy than the Transco Tower
Car drippin’ candy paint like it just came out the shower

Like ‘Face I got the money, the power and the finesse

To roll around one deep with hundred-thousand round my neck
I’m looking real shiny, you can see me from a mile away
Thought you was doing it until I came and took your smile away

Bun B (“Draped Up”, 2005)

In reality, a small percentage of rappers are as wealthy as they claim. And isn’t it in this way that the idolatry of rap tycoons shares the same function as the American dream? It also explains why it’s no surprise that tax cuts for the richest Americans don’t cause instantaneous riots among the ninety-nine percent who don’t meet the requirement for the cuts. Isn’t the lure of the American dream the illusion that it’s available to anyone? The lower class can’t disavow tax cuts for the rich without disavowing their belief that they too, someday, may have the chance to be a millionaire and enjoy such a tax cut. This ideological indoctrination drives the democratic illusion. And doesn’t this indoctrination leave a perceptual blind spot in our enjoyment of rap music? That every rapper boasts of stacking paper and being a trillionaire, and such claims are deflated in reality, doesn’t disavow us of our participation in the idea of rap’s plutocracy. Even if we know the yachts, Bentleys and mansions are leased, the girls are paid models, and the rapper is living large on credit from a transnational entertainment corporation, we still can’t renounce ourselves of the truth that it’s literally one percent of all rappers who found the “scheme to get the seven-figure cream.”

This ain’t a figment of my imagination
This is where I live


I’m the opposite of moderate

Can’t a parallel be drawn between the newly sublated bourgeois and the portrayal of the rap character? In the case of the bourgeois, coming from rags to riches, the cultural fear of foreigners competes with his own newfound feeling of being a foreigner. The mixture of jealousy and fear he feels towards the foreigners “surrounding” him contains resentment for what he has lost. He can’t help envying the ethnic neighborhoods where, in spite of the enormous problems, there exists a bit of communal spirit, a sense of solidarity, a life outside control of the state, and an informal economy. This is clearly demonstrated in how the bourgeoisie are fascinated with the “authentic” cuisine, “artisanal” goods, and “rustic” lifestyle of peoples of the lower class. They routinely pay extra for an “authentic” experience, such as eating locally grown food; a “style” of eating 900 million people in the world are starving to experience.

The same equal parts fetishism and denial exist in our understanding of rap. A music that clawed its way out of the oppressed underbelly of culture, finding success only in reenacting the conditions of oppression. Or, as Greenberg said, retreating to past insights. Rap has become a blue chip investment for levelheaded fetishists. Capitalists (a class that now includes rappers) bank on profits from rappers who enact their own oppression. And shouldn’t we be dubious of why the style of rap that’s most detrimental to blacks remains the most valuable? There is an uneasy precedent for the oppressive class enjoying the suicidal pastimes of the oppressed.

The disqualification of black resistance is not unrelated to the peculiar and long-standing cross-racial phenomenon in which the white bourgeois and proletarian revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic can allegorize themselves as revolts against slavery, while the hemispheric black struggle against actually existing slavery and its afterlife cannot authorize itself literally in those same terms… The metaphoric transfer that dismisses the legitimacy of black struggles against racial slavery while it appropriates black suffering as the template for nonblack grievances remains one of the defining features of contemporary political culture. That notable black academics, artists, and activists participate in this gesture is nothing new, of course, but their increasing degrees of self-consciousness and virulence in so doing signal the hegemony it presently enjoys.
Jared Sexton (People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery, 2010)

This ain’t something new…
This is something old

Ol’ Dirty Bastard (“Raw Hide,” 1995)

Can’t we add to Sexton’s idea (the hegemonic disqualification of black resistance) the role of the rapper in the ideological indoctrination into capitalism? The way for a rapper to make money is to “play the role” of gangster. Whether he’s even done any dirt is immaterial; regardless, the role to play is not some nickel-and-dime hustler, but a Pablo Escobar-level kingpin (“I know Pablo, Noriega, the real Noriega/ He owe me a hundred favors”). And this simulated reenactment makes sure that all successful rappers are seen as murderers, drug dealers, and misogynists. Put another way, rappers are elevated out of oppression by becoming pawns of oppression, by becoming part of oppression. The built-in repudiation is that, when pressed, the rapper will say of course he’s not a killer or crime boss, it’s just a character he plays, he’s speaking for the people he came up with. In the same way, us fans of rap engage in the music (murder, drugs, bitches, etc.) with a similar built-in repudiation (“I don’t believe it, I just like listening to it.”). Rappers inundate their work with hating faggots, beating bitches and killing niggas while not genuinely believing what they say, and we listen with an equal distanciation. Is this not how ideology functions, as blind adherence to a practice, against one’s own principles? This is where fascistic tendencies take root.

As an example: An average worker doesn’t believe in the political process or the business propaganda (“work hard and everything will be fine,” “your loyalty will be rewarded,” “the system is fair,” “the government is looking out for you,” etc.), but he follows the rules, pays taxes, and participates in a system he doesn’t truly trust or believe in. Thus, illusion of a democracy is democracy. A similar process is at work in rap: The listener, through fetishistic disavowal, doesn’t actually believe the rap, but engages anyway. And the rapper, enacting a persona in pursuit of profit, gives the people “what they want” knowing that’s what sells. On the surface it’s strictly business, normal and harmless, but through this cycle of resigned anti-participation, rap is ideologically underpinned with values that don’t genuinely belong to anyone involved. Thus, the illusion of rap is rap. A self-engendering cycle…

It’s clear then, that the solutions to problems that plague hip-hop do not reside in hip-hop as such. It’s here where we should remind ourselves of Derrida’s gesture of deconstruction. All too often when we discuss the inherent violence and materialism in rap, the issue is diverted, either by accusations of racism or the notion that those who are critical are disconnected or somehow “don’t get it.” It’s an uncomfortable, offensive conversation to have, and most people steer clear. I contend that it’s a conversation worth having precisely because of the offensive and uncomfortable deadlock it creates. By deconstructing such an argument we can reveal the artificiality that, through conceding such a premise, naturalizes the condition. “The gesture of deconstruction is to not naturalize what isn’t natural, to not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions, or society is natural.” The “answer” then, to the problems of hip-hop is always-already at work within hip-hop. The answer is in redefining the question.

I’m hip to all the tricks of the trade
Killin’ and stealin’ and gankin’ niggas to get paid

Scarface (“Trigga Happy Nigga”)

So I gotta get paid, fully
Whether it’s truthfully or untruthfully…

Ol Dirty Bastard (“Raw Hide”)

People of color have long been the pawns of imperialism. And what drives imperialism more than the incessant accumulation of capital and concentrated ownership? Is it not the case that rap has adopted the intention of its master — even while it voices its distrust of the businessmen holding the purse strings? It’s a case of the colony transformed by the colonizer. Consider how the Reagan administration intentionally infested black communities with crack cocaine; how scientist in Tuskegee, Alabama infected poor black sharecroppers with syphilis to test the results of the disease over time; how black leaders were systematically assassinated and defamed throughout the civil rights era. Of all we’ve learned about the crimes the government perpetrated on people of color (and, assuming there are many more undisclosed truths), should we not be just as dubious of the implicit market forces that control blacks today as we were of the explicit institutional forces that controlled blacks of yesterday? Through these struggles (crack, disease, assassinations) blacks today are seemingly free from tyranny and free to speak openly. The paradox is, the symptoms of the fight for independence are largely what shape the language of the independents, which is to say, crack, murder and acts of oppression dominate the subject matter of rap. In this way rap resembles many post-colonial states — the colony’s independence signifies not a return to pre-colonial conditions, but the adoption of that very form of destruction brought by the colonizers.

It’s the ghetto life, yea I celebrate it, I live it
And all I got is what you left me with
Nas (“I Want To Talk To You”)

I’m here to deprogram you
Don’t forget what they made your great grandmamma do
What they made your great granddaddy do
Without a dollar or a penny or a thank you
The same motherfuckers wanna gank you
Cause they hate you and the pussy that you came through
Can anybody tell me that it ain’t true?

Ice Cube (“Pressure”)

From this perspective, isn’t the way in which rappers are “rewarded” similar to the systematic destruction of Native Americans in the US? After overt genocide became “unfeasible,” a series of laws and treaties isolated tribes to near extinction. Adding insult to injury and further exploiting the sovereignty of tribal land, outside interests began building casinos on reservations. Today, mobsters, lobbyists and various multinational corporations make millions from the casinos and leave the tribes to deal with the side effects of exploitation. For anyone who spends time at these casinos, the opulence of the gaming areas, hotels and restaurants is made that much more apparent by the surrounding slums of Native Americans struggling with their “sovereign” poverty, addiction and displaced territory. Though they “benefit” from the unique business opportunity of the casinos, the reservations suffer among the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, welfare dependency, school dropout and alcoholism of any community in the US. Rather than honor their treaties, we gave them casinos. In the same way, don’t we pruriently reward the self-destructive endeavor of rappers with money and fame? Rappers are made rich and famous as a resistance to being taken seriously.

It’s jiggaboo time
The Pharcyde

If you grew up with holes in your zapatos
You’d celebrate the minute you was having dough
Jay-Z (“99 Problems”)

I’m reminded here of Surrealist André Breton’s 1943 introduction to Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, Aimé Césaire’s book-length poem exploring the troubling results colonization had on Martinique. Breton, questioning the “reason” and “common sense” of colonizing a people, said, “If the slave traders have physically disappeared from the face of the earth, we can still be assured that they continue to ravage our minds where their ‘pieces of ebony’ are our dreams, more than half our nature plundered.”

Because we hate you
and your reason, we claim kinship

with dementia praecox with the flaming madness
oft persistent cannibalism
Aimé Césaire (“Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”)

Capitalism is like a spider, the web is getting tighter
I’m struggling like a fighter, just to bust loose

It’s like a noose asphyxiation sets in

Just when I think I’m free it seems to me the spider steps in

This web is made of money, made of greed, made of me
Of what I have become in a parasite economy

The Coup (“Not Yet Free”, 1993)

Considering how the colony adopts the culture of the colonialist, hasn’t the genuine intent of hip-hop been diverted? What’s more, in light of how quickly hip-hop culture was commodified by the entertainment industry isn’t this diversion two-fold? However incongruously, hip-hop found it’s footing as a marginalized youth movement (suffering racism, injustice, poverty, drugs, etc.) that was quickly transformed into a commodity, therefore its voice developed amidst a schizophrenic disassociation from itself. By evolving out of oppression, and constantly trading one object of desire for another (creating a new form of music, getting out of the ghetto, new copyright laws created to criminalize sample-based music, the prospect of social equality, fame and riches, etc.), the “state of hip-hop”, in many ways, has been in a constant state of trauma. Thus, haven’t we been living with a post-traumatic hip-hop since its birth? Nas declared Hip-Hop is Dead, but in actuality, hip-hop is undead: a living being disembodied from life.

I’m a walkin’ memorial
Jay-Z (”Hustlin’”)

You can’t kill me, I was born dead
Big L (“Put It On”)

Isn’t it exactly this schizophrenic state of dissociation that keeps rap locked in repetitious role-play? By trading one desire for another, or by constantly re-defining itself within the circulation of commodity, hip-hop is continually postponing its arrival at what it is. This is what Lacan referred to as objet petit a — the unattainable object of desire. When we confront the object of our desire, more satisfaction is gained by dancing around it than by directly engaging it. That is, desire is most satisfied by unsatisfied desire. The paradox of this kind of desire is that it is both impossible and unavoidable: it is never fully achieved, but simultaneously, never eliminated. Every obstacle to desire generates a desire for an obstacle.

How does this two-fold diversion effect rap? First, there is a conditional causality that enforces (by reward of success) the character role-play of rappers as drug dealers, killers and pimps. Second, a seductive commodfication facilitates the selling of this “character” of black culture. The effect of this double diversion leaves genuine expression lost. As a result, hip-hop, one of the most popular forms of expression in the world today, is, as Greenberg said, without innovative insight, without any investigation of unknown territories.

We be talking about the real
Motherfuckas know, that we know,

That they know, that we know the deal.

Now the originality of our principality

Is that we don’t play the pimp

But the reality of our locality (and you’ll learn this gradually)
Is that motherfuckers do this shit to pay their rent
But here’s a hint: how we gonna get it straight when we bent?

Boots Riley (“Streets of Oakland”)

How could he know what the fuck he never knew
Method Man (“Raw Hide”)

I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.
Jay Z (“Diamonds from Sierra Leone”)

So now you back in the trap… just that, trapped
Go on and marinate on that for a minute

Outkast (“SpottieOttieDopaliscious”)

Rap exists in the uncomfortable locality of racism, shame, privilege and indifference. Those who interact with rap (a group that includes most people) should pursue a Derridean deconstruction of what “appears fixed by custom” and is falsely naturalized by the conditions of history and institution. The uncomfortable, “naturalized” truth for white people is, simply by being white, we experience privilege in society, and this privilege is often assumed as a “neutral” state. Of course whites hold sway over everyone else. It was done by force and intimidation for centuries, and now it’s done by momentum of history, by institution and societal norms. To deny this is to ignore the obvious. With power and privilege comes the responsibility not to be callous and demeaning to everyone else, particularly not the single class (black Americans) who have been the target of abuse and discrimination for our entire existence as a nation.

Rap is caught within the coordinates of inequality, naturalized privilege, and historic reinforcement of false constructions. It is further complicated because the consumers, largely white, finds rap a source of entertainment, while the rappers themselves, largely black, find it a source of economic self-reliance. This relationship, as dubious as it is, is only made worse when considering the most “rewarding” form of rap is that which is the most harmful to blacks. Shouldn’t we see this “reward” as a more tolerant, though comparably devastating continuation of the momentum of oppression? As beneficiaries of racism — whether overt or institutional, explicit or unconscious — we whites are, sadly, not pressed to change the coordinates within which racism operates. Where there was once, in the civil rights era, a radical propulsion to dismantle the system that allowed racism to exist, today, we practice tolerance, which assuages our guilt without us having to give up any of the benefits we enjoy—benefits that directly result from centuries of racism.

This is a complicated and uncomfortable issue to disentangle, and it’s precisely entangled through capitalism, a cultural condition that shapes our consciousness. While it is an ugly endeavor for each person to undertake, the more one untangles nourished racism vis-à-vis economic exploitation, the clearer the view of his position within capitalism’s ideological indoctrination.

The fact is that in guerrilla warfare the struggle no longer concerns the place where you are, but the place where you are going. Each fighter carries his warring country between his bare toes.
Frantz Fanon (Wretched of the Earth)

I come correct and I won’t look back
Cause it ain’t where you from it’s where you at

Rakim (“In The Ghetto”)

In a coincidental convergence of real life and fiction, the character of Omar Little is a virtual retelling of the life of Dhoruba bin Wahad. The story of these two men is nearly identical; the only thing missing from Omar Little is the radical intent we find in Dhoruba bin Wahad.

Wahad, a member of the Black Panther Party and co-founder of the Black Liberation Army, served nineteen years in prison for the attempted murder of two NYPD officers before being exonerated. The conviction and its subsequent overturning was a long, complicated ordeal in which Wahad was first tried for robbing a South Bronx social club, then tried three times for shooting the officers (the first trial ended in a hung jury, the second a mistrial, until the third, final conviction). While serving his sentence, Wahad learned of a Congressional hearing that disclosed the existence of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, a covert program designed to infiltrate and destroy black radicalism in the US. In 1975, Wahad filed a lawsuit from prison, which was responsible for the disclosure of documents that detailed the activities of the COINTELPRO and much of our understanding of how corruptly involved the government was in the wrong side of civil rights. From infiltrating the Black Panther Party, to assassinating black leaders, extensive surveillance and misinformation campaigns, the COINTELPRO operated as the transgressive force that worked in conjunction with, but “behind the backs” of the government. It took fifteen years after his lawsuit was filed for Wahad’s conviction to be overturned.

The late ‘60s ushered in a new black radicalism, which simply rejected the status quo. That rejection took the form of explosive violence and riots all over the country. People of color were finished with the systematic oppression that sustained poverty, racism, intellectual pursuits, etc., and looked instead towards Marxism, socialism and communism. While the illegal operations of the COINTELPRO worked against blacks in secret, government agencies such as FEMA worked against blacks openly. Today we think of FEMA as an agency that responds to natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes, but it belongs to a dubious governmental history that allows the president to enact marshal law, seize control of transportation, resources and media, suppress dissidents and create indices of suspected dissidents who can be rounded up during social unrest. In other words, FEMA acts, on one hand as an agency deployed to assist in emergency situations, and, on the other hand, deployed to suppress in emergency situations. The key, then, is how emergency is defined and who defines it?

Five damn days, five long days
And at the end of the fifth you walkin’ in like, “Hey!”
Chillin’ on his vacation, sittin’ patiently

Them black folks gotta hope, gotta wait and see
If FEMA really comes through in an emergency
But nobody seems to have a sense of urgency
Now the mayor’s been reduced to cryin’
I guess Bush said niggas been used to dyin
He said, “I know it looks bad, just have to wait”

Forgettin’ folks who too broke to evacuate
Niggaz starvin and they dyin of thirst
I bet he had to go and check on them refineries first

The Legendary K.O. (“George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People”)

Gunned us, stunned us, exploited and they hung us
I’d like to take a moment to say, “Fuck Columbus!”

Millions off my back, the black on black crisis is a myth

The crack that did this to us was the one from the whip

The record skips cause my voice is kinda scratchy

From yelling, “Oh shit!” when Five-0 comes to harass me
They never pass me, no one to go and tell, bro
Trying to kill the movement with the new COINTELPRO

The Coup (“Dig It”)

It was people like Wahad, and organizations like the Black Liberation Army that sought to unveil the ideological underpinnings of “civilized society.” John Kennedy proposed the Civil Rights Act and championed equality, and vowed to “pay any price, bear any burden” to insure liberty, and that included covert operations such as The Bay of Pigs invasion, designed to destroy anti-capitalist movements.

The obvious problem, then, was that groups like the Black Liberation Army saw capitalism itself as the root of oppression, and Kennedy’s explicit pledge to “pay any price” for liberty implicitly included black nationalists as part of that price. Just hours after Kennedy made his famous address on civil rights, the black civil rights activist Medgar Evers was killed in his home. Is this not an extremely vulgar display of the “worth” of liberty? Kennedy demanded that it be

possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the streets

without fear of reprisal, and that

We have a right to expect that the Negro community will be responsible, will uphold the law, but they have a right to expect that the law will be fair, that the Constitution will be color blind.

And so the coordinates were set: blacks should be free to participate economically within the capitalist system while being confined within the law. Kennedy, later in the same speech, shed light on the history of how equality was enforced:

One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.

Thus, the speech that enacted the Civil Rights Act also signaled a subtle shift in the oppressive forces at work within the capitalist economy. Just as Lincoln ended slavery and injustice found a way to flourish, Kennedy proposed a solution for injustice that contained a similar loophole, allowing justice to remain unjust. For liberals it seemed like a win, blacks could vote, spend money in “white only” businesses, and justice would be a little better, if not just.

Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
John F. Kennedy (1961 inauguration address)

Ask not what you can do for your country, but what in the fuck has it done for you?
Watts Prophets (Rappin’ Black in a White World, 1971)

Amidst the year it took for the Civil Right Bill to pass, Malcolm X delivered his famous speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

You don’t have a revolution in which you love your enemy, and you don’t have a revolution in which you are begging the system of exploitation to integrate you into it. Revolutions overturn systems. Revolutions destroy systems.

For Kennedy, equality meant blacks being fully integrated into the capitalist system, while, for black radicals, equality meant completely destroying that system. For liberals comfortable within the democratic system, the “revolution” was getting the Civil Rights Bill passed, and for radicals the revolution was overthrowing the system that needed such a bill at all.

For people such as Dhoruba bin Wahad, the civil rights struggle was not a demonstration asking for a change in the law or the hope that fellow citizens recognize their rights within democracy, theirs was a total rejection of the premise of what their fellow citizens understood as democracy. And as such, their work included armed struggle. Wahad’s initial arrest, the robbery of a South Bronx club, was an Omar Little-style robbery. Wahad and the BLA were engaged in efforts to rid the inner city of drugs, which included knocking off stash spots. And what we learned from the release of the COINTELPRO documents was, instead of the police working in conjunction with black communities to keep drugs out of the ghetto, it’s the police who were collaborating with the drug traffickers, providing escort, protection and legal cover.

The interconnectedness of politicians, gangsters and the media is part of what makes The Wire arguably the best show in the history of television. And Omar Little is a big part of what makes the show so interesting. Omar is a gay, black, homeless Robin Hood of the inner city who lives by a strict code of principles (“rip and run” — only robbing drug dealers, do no dirt on Sundays, “it ain’t about the money”). Existing outside the law, faithful to a code, anti-materialistic, completely fearless, drug free, Omar is almost the consummate revolutionary character. The only thing missing from his canon of ethics is any sense of nationalism or radical emancipatory intent. Looking comparatively at Wahad and Little, they both enact a fearless Robin Hood set of principles, but Wahad is driven by radical politics while Little is driven by radical individualism. It’s interesting then that damn near everyone on the planet (including President Obama) can agree that Omar is the most fascinating, well-liked character, yet, when we look at the characteristics of Wahad, we get squeamish.

What do [young black men in the inner city] know? How to rob, steal and kill. What did Columbus know? And what is in the best tradition of capitalism in this society? …This is something that is as integral to the United States as breathing. I do not have a stake in saving a racist nation. I do not have a stake in maintaining American hegemony over people of color around the world; I do not have an interest in maintaining this system that causes the misery of billions of people…
Dhoruba bin Wahad (PBS, “The Issue is Race”)

It ain’t what you takin’, it’s who you takin’ from, ya feel me? How you expect to run with the wolves come night when you spend all day sparring with the puppies?
Omar Little (The Wire, “Home Rooms”)

Omar’s violent radicalism is enacted within the constellation of democratic morality (“sure the world’s not perfect, and people are going to take matters into their own hand sometimes, but somehow, some way, justice will prevail”), while Wahad’s violent radicalism is aimed specifically at the system which sustains an unjust democratic morality. Doesn’t the character of Omar, then, work in much the same way as rappers who engage role-play when they portray themselves as murderers, dealers and pimps? Rather than directly engaging the object of desire (injustice), and thereby finding fulfillment, the desire is reborn time and again in its own unfulfillment. In other words, isn’t Omar, by attacking one of the symptoms of injustice (drug dealers) rather than the disease itself (an unjust system), sparring with puppies?

The subtle shift from Dhoruba bin Wahad to Omar Little disconnects the radical activity from its radical intent, leaving in its place a prolonging of the conditions of oppression. Omar is radical in many ways, radical in his popularity, radical in his extremity, radical in his portrayal, but completely stripped of any radical emancipatory politics, and therefore, left radically impotent.

Got more dope than a pharmacy, hoe
Got a job for the city, bitch, I’m shoveling snow


That’s that crack music nigga
That real black music nigga
Kanye West

Fresh out the fryin’ pan, into the fire
I be the music biz’s number one supplier


All in the game, yo, all in the game
Omar Little

It is Omar’s impotence that allows him to be popular instead of loathed, in the same way rappers such as Ice-T, Jay-Z, Too Short, 50 Cent, Ice Cube, Gucci Mane, Tupac, and so on, are made celebrities and criminals simultaneously. Their cultural weight as a celebrity is voided by their criminality. Conversely, their criminal record taints their integrity. It’s all part of the continually unfulfilled desire, all, as Omar says, “part of the game.”

Isn’t it this same perpetuation of unattainable desire that makes The Wire such a powerful show? Don’t we, as viewers, engage in a similar fetishistic disavowal while watching? That is, the show obviously deals with “real world” issues; there are endless examples of Wire-esque incidents in daily life: crooked cops, corrupt politicians, media deception, people struggling against oppression, etc., and the conclusion of the series brutally confronts us with the truth that there is no end: corrupt politicians stay in power, journalists lie and win the Pulitzer, drug dealers who die are replaced by other drug dealers, and so on. We are overwhelmed by the fact that the world is bad, shit is fucked up, people are dying, we’re being lied to, and yet we actively disavow the actual state of things. The Wire is so good because it has so little fiction, and it allows us, through a subtle shift in our resigned cynicism, to believe that by enjoying the show we are actually part of the solution to the problems the show so engagingly articulates. With The Wire as our voice, we “speak out” about societal ills, much in the same way that by studiously lapping-up the mass-marketed “black” culture, we avoid actual interaction with blacks. Put another way, in having The Wire affirm, quite publicly, our view of all that’s wrong in the world, we get some satisfaction that all these “dirty little secrets” are exposed, when, in fact what happens is the dirty secrets, societal ills, are absorbed back into society as commodities and re-sold to us. We take the poison as the cure.

For an hour of television that is equally as unsettling as The Wire, check out the 1992 PBS special, “The Issue is Race,” hosted by Phil Donahue, in which Dhoruba bin Wahad debates among an extensive panel of professionals about racism in America. Many, if not all, of the issues inherent in The Wire are explicitly discussed among the panel. And isn’t it precisely the radical emancipatory intent that Wahad levels in reaction to his fellow panelists that causes Donahue to call him “angry” and “hateful”? Compare Wahad’s discussion on the panel with “All Prologue,” the episode of The Wire in which we learn a great deal about Omar’s code. In the episode, Omar testifies against Bird, a drug dealer who murdered his boyfriend. Before taking the stand Omar corrects a court bailiff who mistakes Mars for Ares as the Greek god of war, which reveals to us that Omar is well schooled in myths and legends. On the stand Omar is called an “amoral parasite” by opposing counsel and accused of “feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade,” and “stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city.” Omar retorts, “Just like you, man.”

In much the same way, Omar’s testifying against Bird contains the same critique against the capitalist system as Wahad’s statement on “The Issue is Race.” The difference, of course, is that Wahad’s object of desire is a radical emancipatory process, and Omar’s is to avenge his dead lover. Omar’s code, strict as it is, is devoid of political content, and impotent beyond his personal constellation. In other words, the Omar character functions within the coordinates of “right and wrong” in an exploitative capitalist economy, he administers justice within justice, where justice is unjustly blind — it’s all part of the game.

That is why President Obama could cite Omar Little as his favorite character and The Wire as his favorite television show. Consider, however, if the Omar character possessed Wahad’s political intent, if, for example, he not only went after drug dealers, but bank executives, developers, corporate tycoons, oil barons, legislatures, lobbyists, presidents, etc. That is to say, if Omar Little radically redefined the constellation in which we understood exploitation, pulled the symbolic veil off of capitalist ideology, president Obama would likely condemn such a character.

Is this impotence also not at play in the way Obama, back in 2008, announced — through discussing what was on his iPod — that he was a fan of Jay-Z, qualifying the compliment by both admonishing the misogyny and materialism and circumscribing rap within capitalist coordinates:

What I’ve appreciated, watching this hip-hop generation, is to see how entrepreneurial they’ve been. In the past, musicians oftentimes were commodities. They were just shuffled around. Obviously, they did well, but they didn’t have the vision to say, “I’m going to build a business. I’m going to build my own studio. I’m going to create my own production operations.” I think they’re a lot more sophisticated than in the past, and that is a wonderful thing.
Barack Obama

Misogyny, materialism and economic exploitation are unacceptable, but such exploitations combined with an “entrepreneurial spirit” within the capitalist system are acceptable? It’s easy to make the argument that musicians (especially rappers) are still treated as commodities, while the handful of entrepreneurial rappers who’ve become millionaires serve a symbolic function to sustain the unattainable desire for those still oppressed by commodification.

Talal Asad, in his book, Is Critique Secular, contrasts how seduction is treated between Islam and the liberal West. For instance, the West condemns rape but celebrates seduction, while in Islam, seduction is considered the worse act. Asad claims, “To seduce is to incite someone to open up his or her innermost self to images, sounds, and words offered by the seducer and to lead the seduced — complicitly or unwittingly — to an end first conceived by the former.” Television, film and advertising seduce viewers towards a “choice” of commodities. In liberal societies seduction is a key component of commodification; everyone is the victim of external stimuli, manipulated by the seductive forces of capital circulation. The customs, standards, tastes, sense of honor, notion of good and evil, are all permeated with the value created by this production process — lubricated by seduction. The paradox, then, is Western liberal society is perverse and corrupt, relying on seduction to attain its political and economic goals, while at the same time, it publicly admonishes the practices resulting from such perversions and corruptions.

Black radicalism was subverted with seduction. Ice Cube’s “I Wanna Kill Sam” (a call for overthrowing the government along the lines of Galleani’s propaganda by the deed) ends with a sample reinforcing the sentiment (“We’ve gone nowhere in 200 years?” — “That’s correct.”). The sample repeats as the song fades, and it’s clear why “The Man” deserves to buckle (“I wanna kill Sam ‘cause he ain’t my motherfuckin’ uncle!”). Instead of blacks overthrowing the government, beheading the tyrants and rising out of systematic oppression and institutional racism, Ice Cube was made rich and famous as a resistance to being taken seriously, and now stars in the “fun for the whole family” film, Are We There Yet? The seduction that undermined his political intent was always-already in the way of his prophetic rage.

Isn’t this veil of seduction that is draped over our view of society extremely detrimental to the women in rap? Haven’t we witnessed a post-feminist redefinition of equality — specifically, by the women of rap themselves seductively delivering an antifeminist message? Wasn’t this process, from feminism to its opposite, a process that went on “behind the backs,” and was, as Marx said, apparently “fixed by custom?”

The symbolic neutering that happened to black radicalism in the late ‘70s attacked feminism in the ‘80s. Consider when second-wave feminism radically re-plotted the coordinates of society’s understanding of decency, forcing the public to confront its inherent inequality. Groups such as the Jane Collective (who performed underground abortions before Roe v. Wade), New York Radical Women, and The Stanton-Anthony Brigade forced radical critique through gesture in much the same way as Dhoruba bin Wahad and the BLA. One of the gestures of radical feminism was exposure, literally, exposing one’s body, to subvert domination and deflate men’s control over what’s decent and “lady like.” Exposing oneself pulls back the symbolic veil that keeps people at a distance from that which they unconsciously participate in. Artists like Hannah Wilke, Judy Chicago and the Heresies Collective all used the female body, themselves, as weapons. The nudity wasn’t only to draw attention, but more, to reflect the prejudices always-already in societal customs, standards, notions of good and evil, and so on. The actions of the radical feminists proved a transgressive mirror of the unchallenged assumptions of male dominance, heterosexuality, monogamy, pornography, and sex-roles.

Isn’t there an abundance of facile rationalizations about the kind of post-feminist art that uses the same nudity of the subversive second-wave without any of the intent? In place of transgression, we get repurposed seduction; in place of subversion, we get affirmation of male dominance, heterosexuality, pornography, etc.; in place of inventive insight we get more boobs, bigger boobs, real boobs… The series of subtle shifts, from the radical gesture of shocking the public by defying norms to the seductive gesture of shocking the public into participating in commerce, went on behind our backs. This is evidenced today by how few women identify themselves as feminists; how a reckless past is viewed with scorn for women and how such a past, for men, is a capstone, a tale worthy of their eulogy; how women in the arts are regularly objectified, and the majority of women in popular culture all conform to a set of “sexy” standards. There is a certain style of discussing this lack of insight, and its first pitch is usually a moronic statement such as, “Isn’t it interesting…” followed by a totally uninteresting recycling of banalities. We witness this phenomenon when the forces working against women are veiled and, instead of revealing them, we’re offered an “interesting” view of the positive aspects of an overwhelmingly negative situation. For example, a blow-by-blow of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” video ends with, “isn’t it interesting to see the idea of a strong — yet hurt — woman?” Really? Isn’t this what we see everywhere, every day, in the marginalized and oppressed? What’s “interesting” is how we’ve come to see subjugation as entertainment.

Check the booty, yo, it’s kinda soft, and
If you touch, you livin’ in a coffin
I’m in the ‘90s, you’re still in the ’80s, right?
I rock the mic, they say I’m not lady like
But I’ma lady, who will pull a stunt though
I kill suckas and even hit the blunt, so…

Yo-Yo (“You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo”)

I don’t want my kids to see me getting beat down
By daddy smacking mommy all around
You say I’m nothing without ya, but I’m nothing with ya
A man don’t really love you if he hits ya
This is my notice to the door, I’m not taking it no more
I’m not your personal whore, that’s not what I’m here for

Queen Latifah (“U.N.I.T.Y.”)

The backlash against feminism coincided with hip-hop’s absorption into popular culture, and it’s from this convergence where we should view women in hip-hop. From the earliest female rappers (Roxanne Shanté, MC Lyte, Sha-Rock, Salt-n-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Dimples D, Yo-Yo, etc.), the ground on which they stood was in defense of who they were. Most of the early raps were women rebuffing advances of horny men (e.g., all the “answer” records, the male/female duets fueled by back and forth sexist jabs, etc.). What started as a defense of subjugation and resistance against inequality soon took the form of sublimation into the dominant archetype. By the mid-‘90s we had gone from Latifah’s “who you callin’ bitch” to Foxy Brown’s “who’s got the illest pussy on the planet?”

Look I ain’t tryin’ to suck ya, I might not even fuck ya
Just lay me on this bed and give me some head

Got the camcorder layin’ in the drawer where he can’t see
Can’t wait to show my girls he sucked the piss out my pussy

Lil’ Kim (“Suck My Dick”)

Not on the bed, lay me on your sofa
Call before you come, I need to shave my cho-cha
You do or you don’t, or you will or you won’tcha
Go downtown and eat it like a vulture

Missy Elliott (“Work It”)

“Isn’t it interesting,” then, how Missy Elliott’s “Work It” video, for example, uses seductive clichés (a “back to the old school” nod, fanciful choreography, cutting-edge video technology, celebrity cameos, etc.) as a smokescreen to obscure the fact that Elliott hits all the anti-feminist G-spots. Commercial seduction and popularity remove the thorns, allowing us to celebrate that which we would condemn if it were presented as a social issue: men don’t like fat women; if he’s drunk you might seem more like Halle Berry, thus, more fuckable—it’s only rape if he says no; and rather than “respect yourself,” adopt the male attitude and offer a seductive challenge: “you think you can handle this pussy?”

With the help of a Timbaland beat, “Work It” stayed in the Top 5 for ten weeks. “Isn’t it interesting” how seduction allows this backslide (from the ‘80s stance of constant defense, to this if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-type capitulation) that makes losing ground not only acceptable, but cool, fun and popular? The song purports to be a “return to the old school,” while in actuality, it’s a seductively disguised redefinition of the old school.

The foggy lens through which women are encouraged to see the dismantling of their rights as a way to “enjoy” a “return to the old school” is a favorite tactic of Sarah Palin. For instance, Palin believes in overturning Roe v. Wade as a way for women to “enjoy” more “rights,” by way of making it a state issue — a return to smaller government is better for everyone!

The typical counterargument against pointing out such ideological indoctrination is, “Relax, it’s just a song.” This opposition, in large part, is a function of seduction, which, through ideological mystification, engages the listener in disorientated adherence to principles they abhor. As consumers, we’re stuck between an oppositional tugging of fantasy (“can you handle this pussy?”) and a conservative morality that acts as ballast (e.g., the PMRC, RIAA, FCC). We use an outside agency to temper, to keep us tethered to our principles as we fetishize, demoralize and subjugate women. All under the seductive disposition, “it’s just a song.”

And isn’t it precisely this opposition that is always-already present in commercial ideology? At the unconscious level, people enjoy these songs by allowing themselves an exception for what they would otherwise find offensive.

Think of the veil that commodity stretches across popular songs: “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp,” “Get Low,” “Nuthin’ But A G Thang,” “Rumpshaker,” “U and Dat,” “Brass Monkey,” “Buy U A Drank,” “Super Bass,” etc. What would happen if one made a pronouncement similar to any of these songs, stripped away from the seductiveness of the song? Taking “Brass Monkey,” for example: to sincerely advocate drugging a woman in order to fuck her would surely cause outrage. When such acts are presented to us as news, we are outraged; yet, we all enjoy singing along to “Brass Monkey.” I use this vulgar simplification not as a condemnation of rap, but as an illustration of how even our basic shared pleasures are ideologically indoctrinated, a product of commercial exchange. Without seductive allure as a lubricant, wouldn’t much of what we enjoy repulse us?

Returning to Missy Elliott, Under Construction, the album that contains “Work It,” is a perfect example of how this antifeminist ideology comes bundled as its opposite. The other single from the album, “Pussycat,” is a call to Elliott’s own vaginal superpowers in order to override her man’s inherent propensity to fuck around. The chorus:

Pussy don’t fail me now
I gotta turn this nigga out
So he don’t want nobody else

Similar to “Work It,” Missy Elliott ends the track by speaking directly to the listener after the music ends, an informal address to the audience. Elliott’s justification of “Pussycat” as a women’s issue works as a seductive counteragent against the thrust of the song:

… I just wanna talk about how people always say
“Yo, that’s too nasty!” and “why your mouth so vulgar?”

“Why you gotta sing all these nasty records?” and all that
But I be representing the ladies
And we got something to say
We been quiet too long; lady-like, very patient…
We always had to deal with the guy, you know,

Talking about how they gonna wear us out on records
And you know, I had to do records that
Strictly representing for my ladies

And how to keep your man,
Keep his eyes from wandering, looking around
Sex is not a topic that we should always

Sweep underneath the rug
And I’m not saying go out and do itBut if you do:
Strap it up before you smack it up, flip it, slow it down
Oh nooo!

As an ideological whole, the song lays the responsibility for the man’s monogamy in the power of the woman’s pussy, and this excessively antifeminist position is couched in Missy’s post-song chat as a woman’s reclaiming of her place in hip-hop. To boot, she leans to the conservative right with her admission that there’s a time and place for discussing sex, and then leans to the liberal left by advocating condoms. It’s a clusterfuck of bi-partisan positions tugging against one another, a pro-pussy-cum-antifeminist anthem! The single was released with little controversy, and the lack of astonishment isn’t astonishing if you consider the constant bombardment of seduction that surrounds us: media, politics, business, art, etc. We freely “enjoy” this seduction as it incites us, as Talal Asad said, to open our innermost selves — complicitly or unwittingly — towards a “choice” of commodities.

Doesn’t the lack of astonishment, of any critical consideration, prove how cynically resigned we are to the seductive lure of commodification? And isn’t it obvious, that, in order for commercial intercourse to maintain the constant cycle of profit, the degree of absurdity has to constantly increase and shift to keep us freshly enticed? It’s from this position — a state of constant bombardment, constant intrusion, constant seduction, constant absurdity — that we interact with today’s rap.

Much attention is currently focused on “the future of hip-hop.” The two most discussed acts at the front of this futuristic vanguard are Lil B and Odd Future (including Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean, among others). The future that Lil B and Odd Future represent, while at a distance from the disagreeable aspects of crack rap, seems to be filled with other disagreeable elements that have the world atwitter. Both Lil B and Odd Future have saturated social media, and fans are friends, and friends see the uncensored “truth” of the artist(s). An uproar has been made about the crazy antics of these new rap icons: rapping about Ellen Degeneres, the “Free Earl” campaign, Tyler eating bugs, going nuts on Jimmy Fallon, everyone being called “faggot,” satanic regalia, and, more than anything, a joyful irreverence for anyone who may get their feelings hurt in the process. The consensus is these kids just don’t give a fuck. Their raps are crazy, random, stream-of-consciousness, vibrant with the overwhelming exuberance of youth. The humor is lowbrow and a close relation to skate punks of decades past. Doesn’t this “new” form of rap share in all the seductive commodification with its predecessors minus the gruesome gangster/crack aspects?

I would argue that what’s being argued as what’s new about these rap groups is not new at all. What is new, however, is rap is finally elevated to a place within the commercial market that has previously been the domain of a largely white set. The biggest difference I see is, instead of representing the customary crack dealer/gun slinger fans have come to expect from rap, Odd Future (and to a lesser degree, Lil B) are conformingly non-conformist in the fashion of trendsetting indie rock groups. Rather than adopting the host of blaxploitation clichés, they have adopted “new” clichés from the wealth of abhorrent skateboarders and drunken “punks” (Anti-Hero, Dogtown, the Norwegian black metal scene, G.G. Allin, Suicidal Tendencies, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, etc.).

While this does appear like the beginning of a new black aesthetic, transitioning away from gangsterism, it’s informed by the same misogyny, homophobia, violence and materialism. The commercial potential is good, contrary to music writers who are quick to point out how the groups are “risky,” and how “scared as fuck” major labels are of the groups. This “future” of rap will inevitably be profitable because it tremendously expands the reach of “past” rap by simultaneously combining the rap market with that of angry teenage rockers and the hipster forefront. Simultaneous columns at Pitchfork, The Fader, The New Yorker, XXL, Complex, Billboard, NPR, Rolling Stone and CNN all attest, it’s a Diplo-like mash-up of repurposed spectacle disguised as new territory. To be more precise, the subtle shift in this case went from gangster rappers who played a role, representing something authentic, to the “future” of rap, authentically detached from what they represent. Gone are the days when rappers need defend themselves with, “it’s just a character I play in my raps.” Today, as Tyler exemplifies, their vindication is played on the offense, “You fucking stupid faggots, you can’t read between the lines? I ain’t gonna spell it out for you motherfuckers all the time…”

These “new” aspects of rap were established years ago. Specifically, we’ve been witness to the same level of vulgarity (notably with Too Short, Geto Boys, Ice-T, Eminem and 2 Live Crew), as well as abhorrent subject matter from those seemingly on the outside, or “underground” (notably Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, Anticon, El-P, etc). With Lil B and Odd Future, the delineation between insiders and outsiders is obscured, partly, I would guess, because rap is now ubiquitous in our culture. Problematic, however, is the implicit issue of race that largely maintained the delineation of years past. In a recent Pitchfork article comparing Tyler and Eminem, the race-related double standard is illustrated clearly, “…even at his most debased, Eminem never quite made skin crawl the way Tyler can.”

Isn’t the most shocking aspect about “the future of hip-hop” that it’s being led by self-determined blacks who are making their own decisions, and not that the subject matter is somehow more debased? Because, when we compare the lyrical content of these black futurists to their white predecessors, there isn’t a striking difference.

I went to John’s rave with Ron and Dave
And met a new wave blonde babe with half of her head shaved
A nurse aid who came to get laid and tied up
With first aid tape and raped on the first date

Susan — an ex-heroin addict who just stopped using
Who love booze and alternative music
Told me she was going back into using again
I said, “Wait, first try this hallucinogen
It’s better than heroin, Henn, the booze or the gin

Eminem (“My Fault”, 1999)

I blame it on the model broad with the Hollywood smile, aww
Stripper booty and a rack like wow, Brain like Berkeley
Met her at Coachella, I went to see Jigga, she went to see Z Trip, perfect
I took a seat on the ice cold lawn, she handed me a ice blue bong, whatever
She said she wanna be a dentist really badly, she’s in school payin’

For tuition doin’ porn in the Valley, at least you workin’
But girl I can’t feel my face, what are we smokin’ anyway
She said don’t let the high go to waste, but can you taste a little taste

Frank Ocean (“Novacane”, 2011)

Thinking of Greenberg’s argument as it relates to the seduction of commodity, isn’t it true that we often mistake scandal for the exploration of unknown territories, and spectacle for genuine insight? If an artist, such as Odd Future, relies on the insights of the past and, as a result, creates controversy, we often mistake this demoralizing reaction for a sign of the artist’s visionary prescience. But isn’t it true, if we look back through the annals of controversy, Odd Future proves a simulacrum of Geto Boys, 2 Live Crew, Gwar, Slayer, etc. As a result, there exists little real insight, the artist is propelled into popularity instead of being taken seriously, and the public, as unwitting participants in this cyclical simulacrum, feel validated to see such “controversial” artists become wildly popular. Thinking of controversial figures of the past (Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson, Britney Spears, Ice-T, Keith Richards, Madonna, Nikki Sixx, etc.), and their presence as fixtures in culture today, we can see such behavior, not as controversial, but instead, as a stepping-stone to success. It’s the object of unattainable desire, constantly tickled, that keeps these acts just dangerous enough, but still within the constellation of commodity, to make them bankable.

Novocane, baby, baby, Novocane, baby, I want you
Fuck me good, fuck me long, fuck me numb
Love me now, when I’m gone, love me none
Love me none, love me none, numb, numb, numb, numb

—Frank Ocean

Hello, hello, hello, how low…
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous

Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid, and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us


We witness the obscene over-indulgence of these artists, watching them reveal their solipsistic immaturities, mistaking this narcissism for daring vision. And this self-indulgent naiveté we mistake for epiphany operates as a kind of prideful self-consciousness. Exorcising the personal in this way fails to lead into unknown territories because it lacks a genuine attitude towards creative substance, and instead, relies on form, on gossip column seduction. This formula functions as a kind of excessive display of self-ignorance, keeps the artist facing backward, away from the future, and this narcissism mistaken for exploration results in turmoil, scandal, anger. The artist, rewarded for excessively purging what’s personal, lashes out at those who’ve meddled in his intimate affairs, which he shared willingly to begin with:

Since birth I’ve been cursed with this curse to just curse
And just blurt this berserk and bizarre shit that works

And it sells and it helps in itself to relieve

All this tension dispensing these sentences

Getting this stress that’s been eating me recently

Off of this chest, and I rest again peacefully

But at least have the decency in you

To leave me alone, when you freaks see me out

In the streets when I’m eating or feeding my daughter

To not come and speak to me
I don’t know you and no
I don’t owe you a motherfucking thing

Eminem (“The Way I Am”, 2000)

What the fuck I look like saying I’m sorry
To a bunch of fucking fags that can potentially harm me?
I ain’t never gonna bow down to your expectations
By the way, I got sixty fucking Wolves that’ll guard me

That skate hard, Thrash black hoodies, try something

Make sure your fuckin’ feelings end up up in a Glad bag

Fuck all your opinions, I’m tyin’ ‘em with a shoestring
And fuck the fat lady, it’s over when all the kids sing

Tyler, The Creator (“Goblin”, 2011)

And isn’t it here, in the reaction against what the audience sees as “what makes the artist tick,” that the artist reflexively opposes himself, as if for the first time seeing his reflection? Whether consciously or unwittingly, the artist participated in a formula of excessive narcissism, which came seductively disguised as creative substance, only to see it reflected in culture as a shallow parody. Either because what the audience sees as “what makes the artist tick” is not what actually makes the artist tick, or because the artist realizes he himself doesn’t know what makes him tick. The adherence to a seductive formula, whether deliberate or not, renders the artist impotent. And isn’t the predictability of such “controversial” artists a sign of their work being ensnared in the ideology of capital?

In the mass media there’s been a concerted effort to circumscribe Odd Future within a nebulous “punk” realm, whether it’s their miscreant performances, self-releasing albums, or their unpredictable behavior. Detractors, on the other hand, cite the predictability of their unpredictability as a sign that the Odd Future is the same as the odd past. Aren’t both sides of the “Odd Future are Punk as Fuck” debate missing the inherent, oppression-informed, foundation where punk found it’s footing?

First, we take a close comparative look at the roots of punk and hip-hop. As a largely white movement, punk was born in rebellion of popular culture, from within popular culture. Punk started with access, with all the benefits of cultural inclusion, and then rejected that culture, and moved to the margins of society. Rap, on the other hand, was largely black, and born in the margins, excluded from popular culture, tenaciously fighting the forces of oppression to be included within popular culture. Both movements have grown and morphed and become part of popular culture, but they still remain inherently informed by these distinctly contrastive origins.

Second, we should pay attention to how popular culture’s language of punk (“Odd Future’s visual sensibility looks more like something from an ’80s punk demo”), excludes the transgressive catalyst of punk. What is punk in popular culture is the image that’s been codified as punk. In other words, commercial “punk” is a commodity that evokes the philosophy of punk, but as a commercial product, lacks the anti-commercial intent.

There have been many forms and sounds to punk rock, but generally, punk can be defined by an impetus to act as a subversive counterweight to social order. By nature, then, in its rejection of the mainstream cultural agenda, punk didn’t care about popular culture because it operated within its own independent, alternative culture. It’s no surprise then, that when mainstream culture adopted punk, it was in the form of an “alternative” music genre, devoid of an oppositional intent. When mainstream culture sought to co-opt the network of independent record labels that operated outside the media conglomerates, “indie” culture was born, a dollhouse version of mainstream culture with a punk veneer: punk publicists, punk managers, punk lawyers, punk A&R men, punk accountants, punk salesmen, etc. In the process of condensing punk into a commodity, mainstream culture filtered out the essence of punk. In other words, punks didn’t need lawyers and accountants, so a “punk lawyer” is not only oxymoronic, but also patently pro-asshole!

While there are punks who are reactionary, there are many who rebel simply by ignoring mainstream culture. Having a publicist, an accountant, a lawyer, are all ways of facilitating involvement with mainstream culture. By simply ignoring the culture, punks enjoy a great deal of freedom. Of course, being on the outside means those within mainstream culture are unchecked in what they believe. This un-involvement explains the lack of information as well as the misinformation that exists regarding punk in popular culture.

Comparatively, the most reactionary faction of punk are those that have become part of the consciousness of mainstream culture (e.g., Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Black Flag, The Germs). It is precisely the controversy and spectacle of these groups that inform popular culture’s branding of punk: crazy haircuts, drug abuse, incendiary behavior, and so on. When the behavior of this reactionary excess is re-enacted outside punk it lacks the inherent principle of rejection, and it becomes simple spectacle. When we look at the “punk” behavior of groups like Odd Future, we can see that their behavior is part of a system of explicit rules that comes bundled with implicit transgressions, and as such, is not punk, but, not transgressive at all.

Within our culture we are regulated by a system of explicit laws and norms, which forbid certain behaviors, actions, trespasses, etc. These explicit prohibitions are balanced with implicit allowances, which generally go unspoken. Our understanding of, and participation in society is framed within this system of explicit prohibitions and their implicit permissions.

We have cops that protect us and keep order, though we see time and again how cops transgress the law, cause us harm, and go unpunished. The public exchange — the question, “How are you?” And the answer, “Fine, and you?” — is a hollow formality that is required etiquette, but meant to be disregarded; answering the question honestly would be impolite. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” era of military service allowed homosexuality but forbade discussion of homosexuality. In civil society, homosexuality is explicitly tolerated, while homosexuals are routinely discriminated or assaulted; in the obverse, homosexual behavior, jokes and rituals are routinely enacted as a practice of heterosexual solidarity.

Through this process of indoctrination, then, we learn that the social system as it functions within capitalism is not to be taken seriously. The best citizens of such a society are those that can move about with an ironic distance, ignoring some rules while obeying others. In the landscape of music there is a similar framing that clearly lays out the rules and subtly allows for transgressions. The way popular culture defines “radical” and “groundbreaking” artists works within the parameters of implicit allowances of explicit prohibitions. The portrayal of a rock star (throwing a television through a hotel room window, infidelities, drug abuse, unprovoked exclamations, etc.) is a portrayal that complies with the implicit allowances of culture’s explicit prohibitions.

How can one be truly radical then? In two ways, either by playing strictly by the rules (obeying the rules completely, ignoring the implicit allowances), or, completely ignoring the rules and their implicit allowances. Isn’t this why we find, for example, those who refuse to jaywalk completely strange? It’s as if they are foreigners, and not familiar with the customs of our culture. Conversely, aren’t those who completely ignore cultural customs equally off-putting? Fugazi, for example, are often derided (even called “non-punk”) for stopping shows when attendants slam dance or stage dive. We look with suspicion on those who disregard custom, not because we don’t agree generally with their beliefs, but simply because of our secret (perhaps unconscious) conviction that such customs can’t be changed. Isn’t it exactly punk rock, then, to subvert a punk custom (slam dancing/stage diving), challenging its validity as a function of form?

If we look again at Odd Future, with this specific understanding of how our culture is shaped by custom, isn’t the controversy enacted actually quite conventional? Tyler, throwing a milkshake from the window of his manager’s Porsche SUV at a group of “respectably dressed people,” is exemplary of the implicit permissions that work beneath explicit prohibitions. Same with causing a “riot” on the Jimmy Fallon show, making a video depicting a rape fantasy, outrageous statements on twitter, and so on. Further, all such permissible “controversy” is enacted within the sphere of capital (from the window of a manager’s SUV, on a commercial television network, a music video, social media), and, as such, is a product of seduction, which serves to increase the value of the commodity.

Considering the universal hostility leveled against the most transgressive punk groups (Swans, Whitehouse, Crass, Suicide, Rapeman), we can see clearly that, besides the shocking spectacle, they functioned as an emetic, a mirror of societal horrors, specifically in the way they ignored the explicit prohibitions and implicit permissions of culture. Isn’t this precisely why so many of these groups were labeled racist, fascist, sexist, etc.? Because their reenactment of the prurience and violence of society, enacted outside the system of commodification, lacked the veil of commercial seduction. Without the sugar of seduction, reflecting the bitter pill of our culture’s ills is often viewed as criminal.

You nearly drove me crazy in your asshole schools
Grooming us all to be fucking fools

Working for the government as zombie tools
But we won’t be satisfied till we trash your rules
Put a gun in my back and I’ll do what you say

But I’ll burn down your house if I get away

Throw me in jail and I’ll spit in your face
‘Cause anarchy is gonna take your fucking place

—The Crucifucks
(“Democracy Spawns Bad Taste”)

Well since the days when I was shittin’ in diapers
It was evident the President didn’t like us
Assassination attempts I’d root for the snipers
My teacher told me that I didn’t know what right was
Well she was wrong cause I knew what a right was
And a left and an uppercut, too

I had a hunch a sucker punch is what my people got
That’s why I was constantly red, black, and blue

The Coup (“Not Yet Free”)

For rap to enact a truly radical standpoint, then, would involve asking for more of the same. That is, what we see in radicals, as they walk headlong into universal hostility, demanding the impossible, is a confrontation with that which the rest of us (outsiders) believe can’t be changed. And it’s this mode of radical recklessness, void of commercial seduction, where blacks have found not only universal hostility, but poverty, prison and assassination. Beyond the spectacle of the controversy it causes, this form of radicalism in rap, a music born of the marginalized, when it represents the marginalized, is, in a way, bound to fail. Look at groups like The Coup, whose first album, Kill My Landlord, was a blueprint for insurgency. The album confronts all of society with it’s own inherent inequities, calls into question the habits, norms and pastimes of culture, and demands the impossible; it opens the gates of hell, as it were, inviting condemnation.

It’s no surprise that rap artists like The Coup, Dead Prez, Paris and Point Blankk Range are plagued with failures in the music industry, as they are not, as Mac Dre said, “playing the game like it’s supposed to be played.” The language of capital inscribes these kinds of artists in a way that seductively codes their intent as a failed model of business (e.g., “unable to break out,” “underdeveloped,” “critically slept on,” etc.). But if we compare this “failure” to the “success” of similar artists who tempers a radical message with the seductive lure of capital, we see the same game being played the way it’s always been played. Take, for example, Killer Mike, who has won a Grammy, enjoys the riches and reach of being on a major label, and is quite critical of capitalism. For anyone who pays attention, Killer Mike clearly articulates the fearlessness of revolutionaries like Malcolm X or Fred Hampton. What’s different, however, is Mike’s revolutionary erudition is balanced with that which, as Mike says, “makes violence more graphic.”

And the whole world loves it when you’re in the news
And the whole world loves it when you sing the blues

Outkast ft. Killer Mike (“The Whole World”)

Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work
Frederick Douglass (My Bondage and My Freedom)

To be clear, this line of thought is not following the well-traveled false dichotomy of “true hip-hop” versus the “sell-out” rappers. It’s precisely not that Killer Mike or Outkast are sell-outs while The Coup and Dead Prez are true hip-hop revolutionaries. The truth lies in rejecting the premise of such narrow options. What all these artists vocalize quite clearly is that they are advocates for the underdog. It’s been nearly a half-century since we lost Malcolm X and Dr. King, and the principles those leaders fought for are still priorities today. What does this tell us? Clearly, it’s a sign that the systems of law, legislation and reform are not working very well, if at all? What impelled Malcolm X impels Killer Mike. Whether it’s Bobby Hutton, Rodney King, Oscar Grant or countless others, every era has blacks who are senselessly sacrificed. If the capitalist system, by design, is built to sustain such wicked conditions, than isn’t participating in such a system just a way of sustaining those conditions? To think of rap interacting with the entertainment industry, one should think of rap (as the advocate of the underdog) being always-already infected with its counteragent (a system that works to marginalize). The view of rap artists, then, shouldn’t be framed in seeing some (such as The Coup) as radicals, and others (such as Outkast) as non-radicals, but instead, seeing all of them as precisely not radical enough.

The question is what is more radical than what these artists already do? What can be done? What is there left to do? The answer is clear, to do nothing…

It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.
Alain Badiou (Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art)

It must be rather grim to hope for nothing except that life might continue indefinitely in its present course.
Jean-Paul Sartre (The Reprieve)

Our silence will speak louder than the voices you strangle today.
August Spies (Last words before being hanged)

It is a question not of elaborating the spectacle of refusal, but rather of refusing the spectacle.
Raoul Vaneigem (Fifth SI Conference, Göteborg, Sweden, 1961)

How can doing nothing be radical? The main threat today is not a lack of activity, a lack of participation. There is activity and participation everywhere. That the activity today is actually a pseudo-activity — somewhere between passivity and real activity, where endless false debates and meaningless dialogs are engaged in — is obscured by the false sense of power such pseudo-activity produces. The real challenge is to withdraw, be silent, and forcefully confront the fallacy of “democracy” with vacuity.

It’s a false choice for rappers, but if the choice is to be “real” and spit venomous raps about inequality and, as a consequence, go broke (or worse, go to prison, get killed, etc.) or, alternatively, to temper this “truth” with the spectacle of selling rap music (crack, hoes, killing) and be “rewarded” with fame and riches and possibly get killed; then what a better answer than to do nothing, to not participate in such a system. Of course, there is a long history of blacks being the victim of violence when choosing to abstain from participation. The key to the success of such a practice depends then on us, the consumers, as we sustain such a false choice. If we withdrew, and confronted the spectacle (crack, hoes, killing) with it’s own irrelevance, the demand for such content would cease to exist.

There is certainly a seductive lure of capital at work that shapes our appreciation and understanding of rap, but isn’t there something hopeful located there as well? The African diaspora, slavery, the civil rights struggle; the black experience doesn’t exist only as a shameful part of our history, but it informs our culture. These catastrophes are at the core of artistic expression; they are where much of our music finds its roots. The love for the underdog is a theme throughout American culture. Or, as Cornel West says, it’s the “leaven in the democratic loaf.”

Can’t keep playin both sides of the fence, you got to choose now
T.I. (“Re-Akshon”)

It’s a shit-storm and you bout to get showered
Bun B (“Re-Akshon”)

Within our culture a complicated balance is enacted between capital, which generates prurience in watching a marginalized culture self-destruct, and conversely, genuine love, which advocates for the underdog. This complication is intensified in the arts, where we make idols of some and demonize others, often in a misguided, dubious, fashion. Isn’t it precisely our “post-ideological” cynical resignation that allows for such complications?

It’s never been clearer than today that all the various redemptive, all encompassing ideologies (capitalism, communism, socialism, etc.) have failed in their utopian promise, and a natural assumption is that we are living in a post-ideological world. The problem with subscribing to the notion of post-ideology is that such a belief is supported by the current dominant system, which is capitalism. It suits capital fine for its participants to be uncritically resigned to the notion that nothing is going to change, because this resignation feeds capital consumption. And isn’t it here, again, where we find Odd Future and the idea of the conformingly non-conformist?

Whatever ragtag, charter-less form in which it existed, the punk catalyst was anti-establishment, anti-capitalist. It ran to the margins. What’s easily visible in the “punk”-like behavior of rap artists such as Odd Future, who work within the post-ideology mindset, is they run from the margins straight towards mainstream culture. Their rebellious outbursts come bundled with there own counteragent. The music operates within the dominant ideology (capitalism), and, as such, is devoid of the punk catalyst.

What is sold as punk today is a seductive spectacle: wacky hair style, predictably destructive behavior, t-shirt slogans (“fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!”). While Odd Future share in the “fuck you” seduction, do they really operate as a subversive counterweight? Isn’t Odd Future following in the footsteps of their predecessors (Beastie Boys, Geto Boys, 2 Live Crew, ICP, etc.)? While what they’re doing may sound and look slightly different, can we expect any genuine difference when they work within the system of commodity? Their pursuit is the same as those who came before them, the pursuit of perpetually unfulfilled desire:

Kill people, burn shit, fuck school!
Kill people, burn shit, fuck school!

I’m fuckin’ radical, nigga
I’m fuckin’ radical, I’m motherfuckin’ radical

Tyler, The Creator
(“Radicals,” 2011)

All those motherfuckers that want to step up
I hope you know I pack a chain saw
I’ll skin your ass raw

And if my day keeps goin’ this way
I just might break somethin’…

Limp Bizkit (“Break Stuff,” 2000)

There’s no time to discriminate,
Hate every motherfucker

That’s in your way
Hate! Hate! Hate! Hate…

Marilyn Manson (“The Beautiful People,” 1997)

Immigrants and faggots
They make no sense to me

They come to our country

And think they’ll do as they please
Like start some mini Iran
Or spread some fucking disease

Guns & Roses (“One in a Million”, 1988)

Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot
Lady of the house wonderin’ when it’s gonna stop

House boy knows that he’s doing alright

You shoulda heard him just around midnight

Brown sugar how come you taste so good, now?
Brown sugar just like a young girl should, now

Rolling Stones (“Brown Sugar”, 1971)

Looking back at the popular charts, it’s not that Odd Future’s subject matter stands out as transgressively excessive, but just the opposite; Odd Future fills the slot this decade needs, where we see the explicit prohibitions of culture “defied” through implicit permission. Odd Future acts as a proxy we use to enact our indignation, as the moral ballast for our excessive engagement in the subjugation of others. This is cyclical: “Smack My Bitch Up,” “Darling Nikki,” “Suicide Solution,” “Kim,” “Relax (Don’t Do It),” and so on; over and again we use these songs to transgress the prohibitions imposed on us by societal convention. From Nine Inch Nails’ “I wanna fuck you like an animal,” to the Rolling Stones depiction of slave rape, we’ve been subject to this prohibition (and it’s transgression) in popular culture since there’s been popular culture. The problem, then, is not with Odd Future, or rap, but our relationship to seduction and commodity.

Despite what some would like to believe, we can hardly expect revolutionary innovations from those whose profession it is to monopolize the stage under the present social conditions. It is obvious that such innovations can come only from people who have received universal hostility and persecution, not from those who receive government funding. More generally, despite the conspiracy of silence on this matter, it can be confidently affirmed that no real opposition can be carried out by individuals who become even slightly more socially elevated through manifesting such opposition than they would have been through refraining.
Guy Debord (In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, 1978)

Isn’t the cynical resignation that allows us to believe we live in a post-ideological era also what keeps us patrons of a kind of art that narcissistically looks inward? In our age of “emo” and American Idol, isn’t this persistent state of self-consciousness, which continually defines and redefines itself through the Other’s gaze, without any contemplative self-awareness, driving us further from being? As a truly radical redefinition of Cartesianism, the chorus of Eminem’s “The Way I Am” is a contemporary rebuttal to Descartes’ cogito ergo sum:

I think, therefore I am
René Descartes

I am whatever you say I am

Coming out of the era of Existentialism and Postmodernism, finding ourselves post-ideologically un-tethered to anything, we seem to be spectrally disembodied from our own existence. We’ve undergone a subtle shift from ontology to homology, from asking, “what is?” to begging, “what?

Coinciding with this post-ideological era is the dawn of giving a fuck about what people think disguised as not giving a fuck what people think. It’s contradictorily clear in the way rappers such as Eminem and Odd Future continually tell us how much they don’t care what we think of them through their publicists and managers and social media outposts that, actually, they are defined by how “we” care. Not only that, we see them shape their art, in a sad way, to meet a perceived notion of what “we” want. And, as if behind their backs, following a genuine creative vision is lost in pursuit of satisfying the seductive lure of valuable capital. By acting out some predetermined character of what rap “is,” and then, in reaction to that façade being defaced, there is never a genuine article.

Okay, you guys caught me
I’m not a fucking rapist or serial killer, I lied
I tried to hard, huh?

Tyler, The Creator

Haha, I’m just playing, ladies
You know I love you

On cue, with Odd Future’s percolation into popular culture came the predictable, level-headed, prohibitionary backlash. One such critic was Sara Quin of the indie rock duo, Tegan and Sara. As a lesbian, her outrage is both warranted and foreseeable. Her indignation of the glorification of rape, the excessive homophobia and the hateful rhetoric was, also predictably, rejoined by a tweet from Tyler: “If Tegan and Sara need some hard dick, hit me up!”

Isn’t this conflict (“why you gotta hate on bitches?” v. “why can’t you stay in your lane, bitch?”) a false conflict? Not that there aren’t legitimate moral issues involving Tyler’s subject matter, but instead of censoring rappers, the task should be to change the conditions so that rapping about faggots and rape is unnecessary. And what makes such rap necessary?

In an industry driven by seduction and commodity, where “products” are thrust at a cynically resigned consumer, things like faggot-calling, rape fantasies and other scandal create interest, and interest is a valuable commodity. It’s not that Sara’s point was not valid, it’s that everyone knows it’s meaningless. She will never win playing against the capitalist market—there’s a long list of losers in that game where capital remains king. In a way, Sara is trying to make the impossible possible, to instill some morality in the market. Instead, what she should aim for is to make the possible impossible, to reveal the market’s inherent immorality. Capitalism is morally neutral (or, to be blunt, it has no morals), so proposing moral solutions to capitalism never affect the true ills of the system. That is to say, raping bitches and killing faggots will be a market concern only when it stops producing profits.

In a coincidental conspiracy of equals, within two days of one another Rihanna and Tyler both released videos that seductively repurposed rape. In the case of “Man Down,” Rihanna shoots and kills the man who sexually assaults her, and in the case of “She,” Tyler enacts the scenery surrounding voyeurism, stalking and rape, using a popular dream-within-a-dream plot device, enabling him to satisfy necrophilic desires without, you know, actually killing and fucking the woman in the video (I just wanna drag your lifeless body to the forest/ And fornicate with it but that’s because I’m in love with you, cunt).

Don’t these two videos work in a Droste-like loop, mirroring one another, acting as the other’s antitheses, yet, at the same time, feeding one another? Both videos reflexively work together: Rihanna, as the woman pushed too far, who suffers an “acceptable” reaction, killing the assailant with a lack of malice aforethought; Tyler, on the other hand, represents the repressed underside of Rihanna’s video, with premeditation generated through fetishizing the woman. The two together are the quilting point which creates the necessary illusion of how we understand the seductive symbolism of rape. Together, these two redouble themselves, endlessly reflecting one another, each working as the other’s counteragent, each regenerating the other.

Shouldn’t we see this unintentional plan between Tyler and Rihanna as a question that is already informed by its answer? Isn’t this reflection/imitation staged in much the same way as a Hegelian presupposition and an Aristotelian mimesis?

Reflection finds before it an immediate which it transcends and from which it is the return. But this return is only the presupposing of what reflection finds before it. What is thus found only comes to be through being left behind.
Hegel (Science of Logic)

Imitation always involves selecting something from the continuum of experience, thus giving boundaries to what really has no beginning or end. Mimêsis involves a framing of reality that announces that what is contained within the frame is not simply real. Thus the more “real” the imitation the more fraudulent it becomes.
Michael Davis (On Aristotle’s Poetics)

Tyler (who immaturely  explains in an interview what he means by “the walking fucking paradox”) simply, in the Hegelian sense, is the negation of the negation. Paradoxically, his work centers around this passionate, paradoxical struggle, but this struggle is nullified once we see how it is already impregnated with oppositional logic.

This negation of the negation is present in the “based” philosophy of Lil B as well. As a self-professed Based God, Lil B describes being based as being positive, being yourself and not being afraid of what others may think. In repurposing the dismissive view of baseheads (crack addicts), Lil B has turned the wasted outlook usually reserved for drug addicts on its head, and, instead, offers it as a way of life, being pure at heart, clean, and totally swagged out. The positive proclamations of based philosophy are coupled with equally naïve obscenities that act as a based antipode:

I just wanna say I love you, you can be healthy right now, but sick tomorrow, I love you honestly if you are reading this, let’s live
Lil B (via Twitter)

Word around town bitch I’m a nasty neighbor
30 on my dick and I’m running like the mayor
Young based god bust a nut in her hair
Violate the bitch man make her turn square

Lil B (“Violate That Bitch”)

Lil B doesn’t need a prohibitive Other to act out against, he carries within himself his own cancellation: titling his album I’m Gay while adamantly assuring people he’s not gay; professing a philosophical lifestyle all about love and positivity while at the same time rapping the opposite; simultaneously publishing testimonials from mothers who claim his music saved the lives of their children and meme-pictures of “based god fucked my bitch.” In the Hegelian sense, Lil B sublates himself into that which he opposes.

What is sublated is not reduced to nothing. Nothing is immediate; what is sublated, on the other hand, is the result of mediation; it is a non-being but as a result which had its origin in a being. It still has, therefore, in itself the determinate from which it originates…  ‘To sublate’ has a twofold meaning in the language: on the one hand it means to preserve, to maintain, and equally it also means to cause to cease, to put an end to. Even ‘to preserve’ includes a negative element, namely, that something is removed from its influences, in order to preserve it. Thus what is sublated is at the same time preserved; it has only lost its immediacy but is not on that account annihilated.
Hegel (Science of Logic)

Young Based God gives a fuck about your problems
Label left me dead and they gave me no options
Fuck you rap niggers cause you scared of your damn self
Bitch suck my dick cause it’s good for her damn health

Lil B (“Wonton Soup”)

Through this universal indifference, by acting as his own opposition (“based god fucked your bitch” b/w “stay positive, smile for me, it’s all love”), Lil B is able to redefine the commodity seduction of rap, so that he preserves the misogyny and materialism standard in rap while simultaneously appearing to attack it. The spectacle of this “new” style creates value, and novelty is repackaged as freshness.

In this way, doesn’t Lil B share a similarity with Sara Palin? On her One Nation bus tour, Sara Palin invites the media to follow her while she simultaneously criticizes them (“lame-stream media”), continuously disregarding reporters for missing the point (e.g. the Paul Revere incident) while obsessively focusing on her image in the media (e.g., the email archive).

As long as Lil B’s endeavors are found within the coordinates of the seduction of capital commodity, aren’t his “unpredictable” antics impregnated with the predictable oppositional logic? In an interview with CNN regarding the I’m Gay album title “controversy,” Lil B said

I hope that I can turn some of my fans that might be homophobic or supporters that might be homophobic and say, “You know what, we’re all one people…” I call myself the human sacrifice, because I look at it like, no one else is going to do it and push that line for the people, and I’m going to do it, and they’re going to look at me and say, “Well, you know what? If that guy can do it, I can be myself too, and if that rapper can be himself and be free and be happy and still hold masculinity and love people and love flowers and just be happy being alive, well then, I can do that too.

No one else is going to do it? Never mind all the people who are doing “it.” Wouldn’t a genuine heterosexual sacrifice for gay equality — besides being “happy” and “free” and loving “flowers” while retaining his masculinity — be Lil B sublimating his life into gay culture, totally? Sucking cock, or being the “violated bitch” to some gay dick? It’s a vulgar example, without doubt, but it is precisely the “ultimate human sacrifice,” though Lil B would likely never “push that line” for “the people.”

And this is where I think music writers sell themselves short with the their mystifications of Lil B, such as, “if you didn’t get it, then you didn’t get it,” “you had to be there, I guess,” and “By not being a friend to Lil B, you critically misread his intent.” In truth, it’s not terribly complicated. People aren’t misreading much, nor are they too dumb to “get” how a dude who’s not gay can say that he is gay all the while calling people faggot. Homophobia, when couched in the language of tolerance, is still homophobia. If we strip Lil B of the seduction of capital consumption, the spectacle of celebrity, the oppositional logic that cancels out much of what he says; when we examine the remainder, the genuine element of Lil B, what do we find?

I don’t think that the Negro problem in America can be even discussed coherently without bearing in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions, customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the country; in short, the general social fabric. Appearances to the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it.
James Baldwin (Notes of a Native Son)

To reiterate the first paragraph of this treatise, this is not an effort to provide answers or fix rap. The point is not to solve problems, but to redefine them. As a fan of rap music and an advocate for the underdog, my best show of support for rap is in being unremittingly critical and offering a logical disputation of that which is assumed as truth. To consider Greenberg’s argument vis-à-vis hip-hop, it’s reasonable to consider this a period of retreat into past insight, plagued by a loss of nerve, amidst a time of disaster. And what’s being advertised as radical and new is actually just advertisement for commercial exchange.

Hip-hop now lives within the system of capital and entertainment, and as such, exists in a moral vacuum. To be critical of the seduction and the societal norms that underpin rap is to be an engaged participant in culture. To engage in the false dichotomy that offers only two choices: to be saved by capitalism (stardom, wealth — “check cheddar like a food inspector”) or destroyed by it (anonymity, poverty — “cocksucker take one for your team”), is to align rap with the freedom of bourgeois aspirations. And we should be reminded here of Marx’s point in The Communist Manifesto, that bourgeois freedom is the freedom to trade, to buy, and to sell. When a handful of rappers become millionaires through the exploitation of capitalism, they become freely bourgeois; traded, bought and sold in the system that continues to exploit them.

Hip-hop, refracted through global capital, will no doubt accentuate the logic of inequality that runs through the rule of capital. Thus, I’m not advocating a return to “conscious rap” or that rappers need to start bombing banks and killing capitalists. However, like any creative expression, rap can’t be hors de combat. The neutral ground moves, and by remaining still, remaining unaligned, a noncombatant “outside the fight” gets carried away, is embedded in the fight. Besides, persistent un-engagement, being ironically distantiated, leaves an artist on the outside of a genuine attitude towards creative substance.

The same is true for us, the listener. Without critical engagement, by remaining lulled within consumptive seduction, and by being cynically resigned, we believe ourselves to be on neutral ground; post-ideologically nonparticipating. By believing ourselves so, as Talal Asad said, we allow ourselves to be lead — complicitly or unwittingly — to an end first conceived by consumptive seduction.

It’s doubtful that hip-hop can dismantle itself from the ideological underpinnings that provide the coordinates from within which it operates, but it cannot not reflect and interact with the social and ideological antagonisms caused by those underpinnings. The more rap tries to be purely aesthetic or removed (“I’m just fucking around”, “It’s just a character I play”, etc.) and/or commercially functional (“It’s all about the cheddar”, “I’m just trying to get some money to feed my daughter”, etc.), the more it reproduces these antagonisms. And, following that tract to its logical conclusion, the more at risk we all are, as Greenberg warned, of living in an age without great art.

You’ve Got All That Is Really Needed

Posted by , July 13th, 2011
Category: Abstraction Tags: , ,   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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In the course of going through some records in basement storage–all the rinked copies of records I’ve since upgraded, all the extensive discographies whose limp bulk testify to nothing but the pre-internet danger of having the proverbial “little knowledge” (for me, all it used to take was some passing remark in some magazine that “[Rap Producer X] sampled that [Prolific Artist Y] joint” and I’d be off and running–now it’s fifteen years later and I’ve got all these fucking Tom Scott records to deal with), all the records that weren’t my taste at the time but which seemed interesting and were thus purchased “just in case” for a someday that I now know will probably never arrive, etc.–I happened upon a small clutch of records that I must have at some point separated from my main collection for safekeeping, back when I believed that was the way to do it. Most of these shoddily plastic-bagged elite were holdovers from my very early days of record collecting, and had been elevated by nothing so much as the beginner’s simple glee that things like these actually existed and were actually themselves: ”Look, it’s a beat-up copy of What’s Going On! On a record! A for-real old soul record!” “Look, it’s a beat-up Blue Note record! On a record! It’s just like in those coffee-table books, but not in a book!” But one of the records was my parents’ copy of Earth Wind & Fire’s I Am, and it is different.

I Was

There’s a line from Albert Camus about how man’s work is the slow journey to rediscover through art the two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. You’ve gotta understand: I Am is the first record that I have a conscious memory of—the first one I saw, the first one I heard and knew. It was such a constant on my parents’ turntable platter that for several years of my early life I believed that all the music in the world—even the music on the radio—lived on this single red-labeled gold-lettered black disc that had been furnished to my parents on one great day sometime before I was born.

Inwardly, I obsessed over the cover. The front was weird and icky, presided over by the head of a stern old man conjoined with some gleebus baby thing. The back was apocalyptic and threatening but also exciting beyond belief, with fire and mushroom clouds and viking ships and galleons and waterfalls and skyscrapers and temples and ziggurats and thick slabs of broken earth and knights with lances and domed cities and, sweet mother of god, flying saucers glinting in the sky. In the gatefold, though, lay the great harmonizer: Nine black Shogun Warrior superheroes arranged in an indestructible pyramid of power and welcoming–high-foreheaded, opulently clothed, faces either smiling beneficently or furrowed in the understanding of the ages, and towering like oaks in a ferny and flowered Eden where they are attended by a ring of gnostic symbols in the sky and a worshipful blue hermit crab at their feet.

Outwardly, I thought the music was life itself. It felt like the very essence of generosity of spirit, the golden symbol of a perfect, adult peace. All those harmonies, having neither edge nor end, seemed to overlap and interweave in a vast sunlit delta fanning out at the mouth of Everything, beckoning me and everyone I knew into the beginning of the great river of the understanding of What It All Meant. I wish I could be more concrete—tell you how much I loved the horns or something–but the truth is that I understood this record mostly as an element of life, and I didn’t think of it as having discrete musical aspects any more than I thought of sunlight as having color.

My triangular fascination with I Am–as object, as vision, and as sound—was exploded into full pyramidal realization when, at the apex of the album’s popularity, an entire Earth Wind & Fire concert was broadcast on television. It was a real event for my parents: they popped popcorn, made sure to turn on the tv a few minutes early, and watched every moment of the show with great enjoyment, singing along and grooving at their respective ends of the couch. I was like five years old, and sat between them, wide-eyed and trying not to burst out of my skin. In listening so much to the record and poring so deliberately over the cover, I’d arrived at a familiarity with its harmony and mystique that I mistook for understanding. But in seeing it brought to life where all childhood things must be brought to life—on the screen—I felt a capstone fall into place, the completion of circuits that I didn’t know remained open. I watched what seemed like a hundred band members charge from the back of the hall in an incandescent surge of  feathers and banners and pure energy, a wave of angels flooding the aisles and racing toward the stage, mouths already—already!–open in  song. When I realized that what I was watching there in my home was the people from inside the cover actually playing the music on the record that was on the turntable just a few feet away from where I now sat between the people who bought the record and put it on the turntable so that I could hear it all those times, the whole thing was made so real to me, so singular, so mind-wide and wonderful, that I thought my heart was going to blow.

This was the very first time I remember feeling like I’d really felt the totality of anything, that shock of recognition. But even as I swooned from the unspeakable thrill of it, it felt bittersweet. Before, even though I was mostly agog at the record and the unified power that seemed to project from every facet of its substance and presentation, I’d been able to fillet enough commonality out of the few little details that I could get any traction on (“UFOs? Hey–I like UFOs, too! I have some books with them in it!”) to think that, yeah, maybe there was some place for me in the obvious enormity of this music and image. Watching the concert, though, and feeling everything galvanize so completely and unmistakably, I began to feel pushed away. It was becoming clear to me that their enterprise was adult and perfect; as a kid and an aspirant, this was a temple that I would have to admire from the outside. And this nascent alienation wasn’t a simple case of watching fantasy cross into reality and subsequently lose its allure or become less extraordinary, but a case of watching fantasy cross into reality and instead become–just by virtue of its being able to exist somewhere besides my own head–more fantastical. Over years I had created in my mind an incomplete image of this impossibly perfect thing, and then in a single moment recognized its complete image, recognized that its perfection was not only not impossible but was something that you could sit in a room and witness for yourself, and recognized, most dejectedly, that it didn’t need me to create anything—it was already fully realized and video-relayable, as polished and unassailable as I could ever have imagined. The adult me guesses that what I was feeling was something along the same continuum as whatever you must feel when you realize that while your children still love you, they no longer need you. Or something. All I could have told you back then, though, is that it sure made me feel funny.

All the records keep playing / and my heart keeps saying

A little while later, when I was six, I was watching something else on the same tv while jumping up and down on an ottoman in our family room. One of my landings hit with just the right English and the ottoman shot out from under me, rocketing the crown of my head right into the raised brick ledge in front of our fireplace. I don’t remember the pain at all, but I remember very clearly the displacing exhilaration of seeing for the first time a large amount of my own blood.

My parents had raised me Catholic, so I’d had frequent opportunity to think about blood and its significance. A lot of the mechanical specifics of that stuff—bloodlines, spilled blood, blood oaths, blood sacrifice, blood into wine, etc.–were beyond me at the time, but I knew enough to know that it was something to take seriously. My ignorance and my sense of gravitas eventually compromised, leaving me at a point where I really stopped thinking of blood as a physical substance, and instead considered it more of an all-important essence, a unifying ether that moved through everyone and everything everywhere ever in the history of time and outer space and the universe.

Once I split my head open on the fireplace, though, my thoughts on all that demystified and became a lot less abstract. I immediately understood that blood was both, high and low: Yes, blood is the great cosmic lubricant, and Yes, it is also this wet stuff that will have to be cleaned off the brickwork. With Comet, probably. Yes, blood is this deep, mysterious force that I hear about in church but do not understand, and Yes, blood is this stuff that I somehow make myself, within my own body. It was untouchable and out there somewhere, but it was also right here, in me, and right there, on the fireplace. I still knew blood as powerful and sacred, running in darkness its immaculate circuits, but as I sat on the couch with a washcloth full of ice pressed into my sticky hair but very much not dead, I also knew that my simple self and my small life and my split scalp somehow figured into some big, weird work. I was somehow the beginning of the line and the end of the line and a stop along the way, all at once.

Interviewer, aghast: "Where does art like this come from?"  Quinn: "My arm, mostly."

My arm, mostly

I don’t think I again felt that thrilled kind of dizzy–so humanly cracked yet so cosmically included!–until I was about sixteen. It was around 1989, and I wasn’t really actively listening to old music at all; I’d fallen in with a crowd that was a couple years older than me, and so spent almost all of my listening time in frantic catch-up, borrowing and junkie-dubbing as many tapes as I could from every one of them in a sophomore’s two-pronged attempt to accumulate some fluency in The Good Shit of recent years while also affecting an enthusiasm that would hopefully mask things like the fact that I had paid money for INXS 45s in the not-distant-enough past. Nonetheless, after seeing Parliament-Funkadelic name-checked so often both in the crusty rock journalism that I was then taking as gospel and in the breathless articles on the sample-based rap that I was then just getting into, I finally knuckled under and rode Hutch with my man Ethan up to Manifest Discs and Tapes on an overcast Saturday, hell-bent on getting anything by Funkadelic, whose name I found embarrassing but who my research had led me to understand was the more rugged chamber. They of course didn’t have any, so I and my eight dollars settled, begrudgingly, for a cassette of Parliament’s Mothership Connection.

Once I got it home and listened to it, I was immediately disappointed. Above and beyond hoping it would make me feel not so bad about having run out of Red Hot Chili Peppers records to buy, I thought it was gonna be a whole lot freakier, sonically speaking–just some outlandish, not-of-this-world shit that would moon-roof my brain and blast my ears clean in a shower of stars. And this was not that. It was all horny and keyboardy, an endless string of funny-t-shirt choruses with no verses, punctuating minute after minute after minute of silly patter reminiscent of those De La Soul skits that I had to spend so much time fast-forwarding through. I heard nothing that I liked, and could hear nothing of what the artists that I liked must have once heard. I knew–knew!–that I should have held out for Funkadelic. Fuck.

Tell me mirror, what is wrong?

I found, though, that even wincing in my frustration the whole tape glided easily by. My music budget was such that I couldn’t afford to not listen to it, but none of my friends liked it, so I always listened to it alone, and I found that I kept returning to it without exactly meaning to. The draw certainly wasn’t the much-heralded P-Funk visual presentation: the tape I bought was a thoroughly budget affair, with the record’s cover art reduced to the size of two large postage stamps and printed noticeably off-register and, inside, a single inlay panel of plain-type production credits second-billed underneath several sentences explaining Dolby noise reduction. Nor was I hooked by the technicolor afronaut mythos that was the record’s ostensible raison d’etre: I was in my mid-teens and pretty much mainlining affectation, so the fact that there was this highly crafted concept did appeal greatly, but at the same time I was dense enough and self-involved enough that most of the metaphors behind the storyline were lost on me, so a lot of the dramatic framing just rolled off of me as cartoony and distracting, little more than an excuse for a bunch of titles that felt ridiculous to say out loud. But if the tape was a letdown in these broad senses, there was something beguiling in the fine-grain.

I thought the opening track, “P. Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up),” was mostly cheesy come-on, drifting and overlong, but after the spaced-out narrator tells the story about checking out earth music and finding it wanting (he gives it a “3”), he then quickly adds “…but it was cool,” and something in the way he says it manages to convey all at once a heavily informed judgment, a neighborly sympathy, an absolution, and a breezy slide forward into whatever’s up next.

The shiny sloganeering of the next track, “Mothership Connection (Star Child),” didn’t have much for me beyond its catchiness, but a couple minutes in there’s a minor-key downturn ushering in a hook that takes a well-worn and passive entreaty for deliverance–”Swing down, sweet chariot…”–and kits it out with “…Stop and let me ride,” a resolution that’s twice as assertive (“Stop”), just as penitent (“let me”), and infinitely more sly; I went back and forth on what exactly the italics meant, but it was always clear to me that the concluding “ride” wasn’t just a ride but was in fact a ride.

In “Unfunky UFO,” the track after that, I couldn’t get over the sub-chorus (or is it sub-sub? I lost count): ”You could feel so much better / if you would show me how to funk like you do.” Even though I knew that it was just a silly little hook in a silly little song, I had preexisting ideas about the kind of control it takes to tell someone that you know what will make them feel better and I had preexisting ideas about the kind of surrender it takes to ask someone to teach you something, and all those ideas  got twisted on their axis when I heard them interlaced so perfectly and so offhandedly. It seemed to me an act of supreme generosity, and even my long-standing hatred of “funk” as a verb fell to the side in the head-spin of hearing the phrase’s double helix of mastery and need bend into a smile right between my ears.

And it went on like that, from song to song, all these stray moments sparkling in their intervals to thread me through the whole tape once again and once again once more. Whatever initial disappointment I’d felt in not having found something freakier got slowly transfused by a feeling of companionability with the record’s mongrel maximalism and its peculiar, underlying peace. The thick sonics and resolute, easy tone made me certain that the underneath was this vast, fluid slab of wordliness and experience, and I came to feel that the record was speaking from a position of knowing absolutely everything, from having been absolutely everywhere, and from having enough ballast—both musical and philosophical–to not have to worry about anything, not ever. In that way, I found it calm and calming. But simultaneously feeding into and emerging out of that depth was this endless effusion of signifiers, ad libs, and jokes. Its central power came draped in frankensteined robes, crying tears both happy and sad, leaking gold doubloons from its mouth, and farting stardust. It inhabited thing after thing fully, and with an odd grace was able to shrug them off without ever feeling like it was throwing anything away, exactly. The record seemed to have more good stuff than it could ever use, and was also enough of a spiritual spendthrift that it couldn’t not use such good stuff, so atop and below and between the music and lyrics proper there’s a near-constant improvisatory drizzle that ends up being the sundae on top of the sundae.

For example, in just two or three minutes at the middle of “Mothership Connection”: George Clinton leers that he’s “doing it to you in 3-D!” but then slides in the brighter assurance that “you have overcome / for I am here…”; just after that, just after the song dips and darkens into a prayer mat and calls for its chariot, his edgy “what’s happenin’, C.C.?…” runs into a welling background refrain that, just in time, obscures his plaintive follow-up: “…Have you forgot me?”; dude takes it way out with gnostic cool–“Are you hip to Easter Island? The Bermuda Triangle?” [Station break for some openly worried synth sounding very much like the theme from In Search Of, a 1970s tv show hosted by Leonard Nimoy that investigated all manner of mystery and supernature and that scared me shitless when I was a young youth; it pictured Easter Island in its opening credits and seemed to broadcast exclusively on weekend evenings when my parents were out.]–only to boomerang back in with the regular-cool “Ain’t nothing but a party!”; an attempt at stately annunciation (“Citizens of the universe, I bring forth to you…”) crumbles under the weight of a grin it just can’t hide (“…the good times!”); the line about “Doing it to you in 3-D!” repeats, but this time with the addendum “So good it’s good to me!” imparting it a gleefully bizarre selflessness by once again flip-flopping the server and the served, this time in the recursive idea that one’s own enjoyment of what one is doing can only come when that enjoyment is commuted into the enjoyment of others (when you’re a teenager with self-satisfaction as your alpha, that’s a pretty big idea).

And that’s only a couple minutes’ worth. And that’s not even the singers singing or the players playing—this is all just the extras. I spent a long time hating all this distracting side-business, and felt that that Clinton’s cackling self-delight in it verged on ghoulish. He was like a radio dj who wouldn’t quit talking over the records—I wished he would shut up already and quit crowding The Stuff, the real stuff. Now, though, I think I understand.

Like a lot of people in Chicago, I don’t own a car. But before I lived here, I lived in South Carolina, where I did. It’s impossible to overstate how harrowing it was to transition from being a driver there to being a walker here; suddenly having to care about things like “dressing for the weather” and “having singles” and “remembering to bring a fucking umbrella” felt like an indignity of the first order. And while I’ve mostly gotten over it, and am mostly really happy to not have to worry about things like “parking” and “insurance” and ”dibs,” something of that loss of car has always stayed with me, and the thirteen years or so I’ve spent here as a pedestrian have so now thoroughly encased in the amber of nostalgia the preceding umpteen years of driving life that on the infrequent occasions when I do get behind the wheel I tend to get a little moony, overly conscious of Ahh, Driving!, of The Romance Of The Road, all that shit. As embarrassing as it is now, I used to be even worse with it.

Anyway, there was a period a few years ago where I was renting cars pretty frequently, most often leaving work early on Thursday to pick up a car for a long-weekend visit to family out of state. Early in the endless minutes time that I would come to spend in the waiting area of my local Enterprise Rent-A-Car outpost sipping at cone after cone of exhaust-tinged Hinckley & Schmitt, it became apparent that I and my long-distance purposes were in the minority: pretty much every other person in there was renting a car just so they’d have something nice to drive around in, a crisp late-model something–“you know, for the weekend.”  As a pragmatist and a cheapskate, I was floored. Even more surprising to me was that a lot of these folks already had a car, they just for some abstract-seeming reason wanted—no, needed–a nicer one, a newer one, or even just a different one. I spent a lot of time eavesdropping on clerks grilling renters pursuant to the paperwork on the clipboard in front of them and hearing stuff like: “I’m having friends in from out of town who haven’t seen me for a while” or “I’m just trying to give that old Honda out there a break” or “No, I mean, my car’s clean and everything, almost brand-new, really, but still: I’m not tryna roll up to Keith n’ nem’s thing in my daily ride, you know?”

I think those folks had the right idea. They seemed seemed restless but good-natured, working the seams to get just what they wanted, get it newer, get it in a different color, get it for that rate you were talking about earlier, get over, get the keys, get on the road, get back, and get it all over again. Looking back, it’s clear that the real jazz is not the “car” part, but the “rental” part—the inherent disposability, and how that imbues the whole process with an energy and a backhanded optimism, the improvisatory joy that only comes from having and then casting off (cf “Go on and take / ’cause I don’t need what I make” [The Fans, 1980] and “take this beat / I don’t mind / I got plenty others / and they so fine” [Prince, 1988]; see also “def O.J.” [passim, 1979-]).


def / wish / u heaven

At the time, though, I was a histrionic idiot and acting as if in renting a car I was petitioning to be part of some sacred brotherhood of drivers, and was thus condescendingly bemused by these motivations that seemed so frivolous and so opposed to my own. I had all these grandiose ideas about Travel and about Access and about other overinflated theoretical potentialities that I felt sure were conferred upon a(n) humble pedestrian like myself when behind the wheel of an actual automobile. Sweaty, dogged-shoe supplicant that I was, I’d been seeing the heart of car rental not in the rental but in the car, the car, Sweet Jesus, The Car: the thing, the shiny, total, pristine thing, low-mileaged and half-tanked, gasketed at every aperture, noise reduced and climate controlled, requiring neither physical exertion nor exact change, lasering ironclad and unassailable across the paved world like a quick wink from a smiling God. Shit was ridiculous.

just sometimes I wonder if I should believe

And ironic, too. Because most of the time I was visiting family in suburban Ohio, and at some point during every single visit I’d find myself in the presence of a version of the kind of bright, epic totality that I seemed to be chasing through these lofty lines of thought, and every single time, in the face of this satori, I would turn away.

My wife and I (and eventually our kid and eventually our kids) would have spent three or four or five days at her dad’s or at my mom’s, days where the time would just sort of spool out, as if from an endless supply. The hours between meals seemed to fill themselves, without effort or design: sitting on a porch looking at owned lawn and owned trees; driving to a big-box store right now or maybe in a half hour or maybe later or anyway before tomorrow to buy things cheaply and, more importantly, easily; microwaving countless dainty cups of weak but loving coffee and making ourselves available to the stream of friends and family who not only knew our people but knew us, back when we were younger and cuter and simpler and closer to what any warm heart would surely know were our true selves. Noon after noon would pass that way, like lucky clouds. And then–bags packed, car loaded, goodbyes said, and individual mailboxes ticking away at both peripheries of the distance stretching out behind us—it would hit:

Couldn’t we just stay?

Couldn’t we just turn right around and slide into this readymade life, the one our families have kept warm for us all these years, and forget the janky, teetering life that we’ve made for ourselves? Forget about our world of worry and logistics and the whole brainfuls of strategy that it takes just to get through a day? Forget about piecing together what we need from what can be had within walking distance, forget the neighborhood crazy who high-stepped up to our two-year-old daughter and called her a “catshit whore,” forget all those new people who never knew the childless us, forget that whole hardscrabble world that lies coiled in wait for our return–couldn’t we instead just disappear back into the easy weave of this place where all is love and air conditioning, all memory and convenience and no cool? We’re still not on the main road yet, so there’s still time, isn’t there?

Well, yes. But no. None of our parents understands what we’re doing in Chicago anyway, and they’d love nothing better than for us to turn in the keys and come home, back into the golden circle. But what makes that circle so wonderful, so magnetic, and so heart-burstingly hard to step outside of is its perfection. And in that perfection, it is closed. The good life that it represents is the good life of the resolved whole, and there is no place for me there.

There is, I think, that good life that is of the spirit, and holds as its goal a connection to a diffuse, universal perfection. Through attainment, one is gradually freed from wants and desires and discomforts, uncluttering the mind and clarifying the self. All of this toward contentment, mastery, the resolution of all things.

Then there is a good life that is of the blood. There is too at its core a perfection, yes, but it reaches not toward this completion but out from it. Its is not the purifying pursuit of some sleek and radiant singularity, but the improvisation of a rough mandala, pulsing out in wide loops, pushed past obstruction, pushed beyond rupture, pushed through all and everything by the filling and the emptying of the working heart.

I see that good life of the spirit—in the brotherly, pharaonic brilliance of Earth Wind & Fire and in the open arms of my families, their smooth circuit of resolved pasts and promising futures joining to electrify a fair present—and feel in it a beauty that lifts me off my feet. But what I don’t feel in it is much possibility. In its resolution, it has little room for improvising; in its abolition of need, it has little cause to burn; in its relentless focus on the essential, it has little time for the extra. There’s not much bounce, you know?

The spirit has meant so much to me for so long that I know something of it will always live in me. But I also know that I can now only live in the blood. I need that spread more than I need any ascension, I need that push and pull more than I need harmony. Attaining some kind of peace will, I guess, always be a goal, but I suspect that I’ll forever be pushing that goal out in front of me, out just past my own grasp. The unified life will never interest, occupy, or energize me as much as the hustle surrounding my capacity to contain it all, my ability to lose it all, my scramble to take it all in, and my rush to give it all away. I’m a great believer in the triumph of the human mess, I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top, I am, again, no closer to being the boy that I was than I am to the man I thought I would be, and I long ago stopped wanting George Clinton to shut up.

Coming up from the basement and listening to my parents’ copy of I Am, I see the shining symbol of a purity that was and a perfection that could still be, and I smile in its embrace even as I sadden in the knowledge that it will always feel at least a little like we’re hugging goodbye.

But returning the car late on a Sunday with just enough time between here and the city to listen to Side 1 of Mothership Connection on the way, and hearing George n’ nem riffling through words and music like they’ve got the real cards in their pockets and humanity’s own trick deck in their hands, I’m thrilled not by the possibility of any single version of life, but by the possibility of these thousand versions of myself, pushing through the nighttime capillaries toward downtown, into the glittering smile of my own beautiful city.

A Confederacy of Brunches

Posted by , March 5th, 2011
Category: Reasoning Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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While revolution spreads in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and around the Middle East, most of us in America watch via live feed from Al Jazeera, receive up to the minute feeds on Twitter, and join groups on Facebook. All of our interactive participation with the revolt acts as a way to stay informed. But isn’t this access — our very ability to stream a revolution live — part of the problem?

Much credit was given to social media in allowing hundreds of thousands of citizens in Egypt to collectivize, rally and demand change. Not to put too fine a point on it, but instead of tweets and status updates, I would credit decades of autocratic oppression, marshal law, poverty, violence and unemployment as what “allowed” the people to revolt. Egypt ranks amongst the most corrupt countries, and while Facebook and Twitter surely made communication and coordination easier, it was three decades of brutality that made it possible. The “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook campaign is both inspiring and monumental, but how many thousands of other anonymous “El-Shaheed” (the Facebook account holder’s name, which is Arabic for martyr) were disgraced and brutalized before Said’s experience resonated, not as a random tragedy, but as a ubiquitous experience among the people?

For most of us, the life of Mohamed Bouazizi is beyond the horizon of our understanding. Dropping out of school to sell produce from a pushcart on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, in order to provide for his family, Bouzazi was subject to regular police harassment and extortion, having his cart confiscated or damaged time and again. The final straw came when a female officer slapped him, spat on him and overturned his cart while other officers watched. When he tried to file a complaint, the local government refused him; humiliated and defiled, Bouzazi set himself on fire.

… the perspective one gains from dislocation is, of course, not only retrospective but prospective. Exile places one at an oblique angle to one’s new world and makes every emigrant, willy-nilly, into an anthropologist and relativist; for to have a deep experience of two cultures is to know that no culture is absolute — it is to discover that even the most interstitial and seemingly natural aspects of our identities and social reality are constructed rather than given and that they could be arranged, shaped, articulated in quite another way.
Eva Hoffman

Freedom Has Come and Gone” — Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra

Imagine the view
From a helicopter gunship
A man comes into view
And you hit that switch, and when you hit that switch
All of heaven shits on you

Since 1950, the US has provided money and military aid to Egypt ($1.3 billion annually, second only to Israel), and in exchange the US relies on Egypt as an ally in achieving its goals in the Middle East. The unfortunate consequence of this exchange is exacted on the citizens of Egypt; three decades of marshal law and repression. It’s a dangerous pattern that we repeat often: Pinochet, Sadaam Hussein, Ferdinand Marcos, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Chun Doo-hwan, Suharto, Zia ul-Haq. Brutal dictators find US support, and in the event of a popular uprising, Washington is quick to “counsel” the wayward dictator toward democracy. This two-faced world leadership isn’t news to anyone. For Washington, as long as it accords with strategic and economic objectives, brutality is an acceptable consequence of “foreign policy.” For citizens, this hypocrisy, while hard to swallow, is made possible by our passivity. Naturally, as concerned, thoughtful people, we empathize with oppressed people and engage them through altruism: charities, humanitarian efforts, medical aid, and so on. But don’t our admirable remedies for curing the evils of the world prolong the disease of evil? The remedy is part of the disease.


A simple example of prescribing the poison as the cure is America’s “green revolution.” We re-design our lifestyle to be part of the solution to the world’s ecological problems: We donate our used, un-green items to charity, thereby helping people in need; We eat organic food, free of pesticides and genetically modified organisms, in an effort to tread gently on this earth; We buy Ethos water and Tom’s shoes and Newman’s Own products that allow us to speak our ethics through our dollars; We buy reusable cloth shopping bags to avoid adding plastic to landfills; We practice yoga, sharing in the holistic benefits of eastern wisdom; We demand that our iPhones, iPods, iPads, laptops and desktop computers have “conflict free” minerals so women in Africa aren’t raped in order for us to browse the Internet.

We go on living within this system that is fueled by the suffering of others. In the case of Egypt, this disproportionate access to “freedom” sustained thirty years of marshal law. Of course it breeds hatred! How could it not? It’s immoral to use the system of exploitation as an alleviant to the horrible evils that directly result from that very system of exploitation. Our remedies, however thoughtful or altruistic, do not cure the evils of the world, they prolong them.

Where There’s A Will” — The Pop Group

Each and every one of us
Shall pay on demand
Our part of sacrifice
Knowing we’re all together

It’s interesting that there’s no taxpayer backlash at thirty years and billions of dollars in weaponry to support autocratic brutality in Egypt. Why was this not one of the first things in the debates on wasteful spending between McCain and Obama? And, amidst all this talk of “re-tooling” our society, why are these costly military “aid” packages not re-tooled into billions of lunches? Wouldn’t a well-fed, suitably housed, work-ready populace be less likely to revolt? Why is pumping guns and tanks to autocracy not seen as using the poison as the cure to “the war on terrorism?”

It’s no surprise that the bullets fired on Egyptian citizens, the tanks patrolling the streets, the tear gas canisters fired into the crowds, were part of America’s “military aid” package to Egypt, and bore the insignia, “Made in U.S.A.” It’s a painful irony that while all of our manufacturing jobs disappear and our unemployment rises, one of the few remaining exports we offer acts as an expedient for the import of other’s hatred against us.

Washington greeted the uprising of democracy in Cairo’s Tahrir Square with duplicity. Just days before Washington conceded the Egyptian people’s destiny; it counseled them to allow Mubarak to transition “orderly.” One need only think back to another democratic implementation, that of Firdos Square in Baghdad, when Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled, and within minutes Washington declared democracy. Donald Rumsfeld told reporters, “The scenes of free Iraqis celebrating in the streets, riding American tanks, tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.”

Cenotaph” — This Heat

A war to end all wars
And the war that came after that

There were roughly two hundred Iraqis who participated in unseating Sadaam’s statue. As we later learned, those Iraqis were hired by American forces to participate in the charade to symbolize the end of an oppressive regime. The scene in Tahrir Square, Cairo, with roughly a million participants — five thousand times as many people than Firdos Square! — was, at the very least, an order of magnitude more convincing a display of spontaneous democracy. Yet Washington was damn near the last to acknowledge what it was first to claim for the people of Iraq. Why?


While confirming our suspicions that Washington carries out villainous misdeeds under the guise of making the world a safer place, isn’t watching the situation in Egypt unfold more a case of realizing our position within democracy as equivalent to being among the envious exclusivity of hierarchy? In his speech after the overthrow of Mubarak, Obama quoted Martin Luther King, saying, “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.” In this sense, democracy is circumscribed by the red velvet rope; access to the VIP section isn’t available to just anybody. From inside, aren’t we aware, as participants in democracy’s exclusivity, however explicitly, that if everyone is allowed into the party it will totally kill the vibe, and, almost as a natural reflex, we understand the need for circumscription and, almost automatically, separate “us” from “them”?

Was this covetous distantiation not apparent in the WikiLeaks controversy? The leaked diplomatic cables contained revelations (US contractor DynaCorp used taxpayer dollars to host a party for Afghan policemen where young boys were auctioned for rape!), but more than verifying our suspicions and igniting public outrage, the media and concerned citizens (us, collectively) impetuously admonished Assange in a rap colloquialism: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” We didn’t demand DynaCorp be shut down, we didn’t march on Washington in disgust at the misuse of tax dollars, we debated whether Assange was a rapist. Another relevant rap colloquialism: Stop snitching!

There’s a veil of symbolic function that operates in a democracy, usually couched in presidential platitudes (“It is an unfortunate fact that we can secure peace only by preparing for war”), that acts as a “first rule of fight club”-type warning of the consequences of pulling back the curtain to exhibit how the sausage is made, as it were. Assange, as freedom’s player hater, lifted the curtain, revealing the unprincipled aspects of democratic principles, and was treated the way we treat any partygoer who lets his dimwitted, bucktooth cousin from Cheyenne beyond the velvet rope: We laugh and point and call him a fag. Or in this case, “rapist!”

Gotta Go, Got Bricks To Throw: Egyptian protester reifying a May '68 poster.

Run comrade, the old world is behind you! — Egyptian riot police reify a May '68 poster.

Who wants to hear about 1,000 peasants lying dead?

As a country obsessed with recycling, isn’t WikiLeaks a modern recycling of the Pentagon Papers? As a war strategist turned peace activist, Daniel Ellsberg “suffered” a change of heart as the result of witnessing atrocities in the name of democracy: lies that stretched across four presidencies, hundreds of thousands dead, bombing countries we weren’t at war with. For Ellsberg, seeing top secret plans for systematically destroying Southeast Asia unveiled the symbolic function that allowed him, as a war strategist, to believe he was making the world a safer place. Whatever ideological presuppositions were at work before he read the documents, failed afterward, leaving him enmeshed in an aporia that saw the illusion of power as the power of illusion. Unable to rationally reconcile his beliefs with his reality, he “snapped,” and acted “irrationally.”

America” — The Au Pairs

Why don’t you get a bayonet?
Mince up a peasant or two
Remember… America’s right behind you!

Ellsberg’s break was a Derridian deconstruction that shouldn’t be underemphasized. How many people have the “opportunity,” either by choice or by force, to radically de-construct their entire worldview? And it was precisely this opportunity that caused Ellsberg’s defense attorney (Ellsberg was sued under the Espionage Act) to try and exclude middle-aged men from the jury. Specifically because it’s the middle-aged man who, partly out of envy and partly out of contempt, looks at another man who’s radically re-shaped his life, and sides against him. Deconstruction taught us that we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our un-freedom. Ellsberg, having his life up to that point ruined by finding the language to articulate his un-freedom, immediately became an “enemy of the people” (as Nixon called him) once he found the language to articulate freedom. The illusion of power is only the power of illusion, in that the fundamental level of ideology is not of an illusion masking the real state of things, but an unconscious fantasy structuring our view of reality itself.

Similarly, isn’t the very thing we fear in a terrorist this same notion of a radically re-shaped worldview? That is, as a “normal” follower of Islam, we sense no threat, yet when the same Islamist is “radicalized,” he becomes an “enemy of the people.”

The case against Ellsberg was declared a mistrial when the covert operations of the White House Plumbers were uncovered: His home was bugged; There was a plot to dose him with LSD before a public speech to make him seem crazy; His psychiatrist’s office was burglarized in search of damning evidence to use against him; Later through the release of the Watergate tapes, we learned Nixon not only wanted Ellsberg assassinated, but he thought carpet bombs and napalm weren’t radical enough to subdue the Viet Cong, he wanted to use the nuclear bomb.

The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.
Justice Black (New York Times v. United States)

The Pentagon Papers caused a huge scandal, damning evidence was revealed about the war and the leadership of the country. Towards the end of Nixon’s first term as president, as more secrets and more scandals were revealed, the country became disillusioned and enraged. Nixon was caught red-handed. The 1972 presidential election, amid the scandal and lies of the Pentagon Papers, shamed Nixon into a whopping 49 state victory! Proving what Ellsberg’s defense attorney knew: Deconstructing the veil of symbolic function comes at the expense of unraveling daily life, and most people aren’t willing to risk salto mortale — the leap of faith into the unknown for the hope of something different.

Burn Baby, Burn” — Jimmy Collier

I really wanted to be somebody
I really wanted some scratch

I really wanted to have a decent job
But all I had was a match


In keeping with the recycling theme, aren’t we, as survivors of the Great Recession, living in a re-enactment of the Great Depression? I’m tempted to call this period, The New Deal II, The Sequel. Or, The Great Depression 2.0. It was after the ’29 crash — when unemployment skyrocketed, farmers lost their land to dust, and the demand for US industries plummeted — that measures were taken to safeguard the country from ever having to suffer such a catastrophe again. The Federal Home Loan Bank Act made it easier for people to own homes. The Securities Act of 1933 created the Securities and Exchange Commission in order to regulate the stock market and prevent corporate abuse. The New Deal put people back to work reinvigorating the infrastructure of the country.

Starting in the ‘30s, with the rise in home ownership, and as the idea of living on credit came into existence, the baby boomers were emblematic of what Marx called commodity fetishism. Job security, a living wage, owning a home, and so on, all framed the new dominant ideology. This worldview, this sense of ownership, was the very thing that Daniel Ellsberg’s attorney was up against in the Pentagon Papers case. While the world was upside down during the Vietnam War, and people took to the streets in protest, the ideological underpinnings of the populace remained hard to shake. They were substantially invested, and the very thing that caused the economic collapse operated as its own counter-agent.

All your private property
Is a target for your enemy
And your enemy is … We!

Jefferson Airplane (“We Should Be Together” — lyrics cribbed from an Up Against The Wall Motherfucker leaflet written by John Sundstrom)

By replacing the “problem” industries of the Great Depression (farming, mining, logging, factory work) with industries of capitalist accumulation, we replaced the one-to-one value ratio with an intangible commodity value that is self-engendering. In other words, today we don’t make money from labor; we make money from money.

Marxist joke: What did one self-engendered dollar say to the other?

In the process of using our money to beget money, we got blinded by greed and engaged in deregulation, sub-prime lending, fraudulent underwriting and over-leveraging. As the market crashed again, and unemployment skyrocketed and people lost their homes to foreclosure, the SEC (the very agency created to prevent such circumstances, which relaxed the regulations that could prevent such a collapse) announced the program that allowed investment banks to supervise themselves was, “fundamentally flawed.” No shit?


While the architects of the collapse are forced into retirement with billion dollar severance packages, and the post-bailout mid-term election promises of wiser spending fade away, what are we left with now? The senate is threatening a government shutdown until crucial cutbacks are made. Crucial cutbacks! Cutbacks such as art, public television and Planned Parenthood. No shit?

America’s Got the Cutback Blues” — Muntu Meloncon

Cutbacks on social security
Cutback on childcare
America, why don’t you cut back on all of your warfare?
And while you’re cutting back, why don’t you
Cut back on bullets and guns and more
That you send to El Salvador

Can’t we use what Marx called the “symbolic existence” (paper money operating as a representation for the worth of gold) as a lens through which to view the way we reconcile capitalism within democracy? Symbolically, we understand that it is a government of the people for the people by the people, and as “the people,” our government works for us. The overwhelming evidence that contradicts this symbolic existence operates parallel to our reality. While we doubt the actual representation of our elected officials (fraud, campaign promises unfulfilled, scandal, disproportionate wealth, etc.), it doesn’t stop us from parallelisticly participating in what we doubt. So, much like we use money to make money, we use the idea of democracy in place of democracy. Thus, democracy mimics the market — self-engendering. As such, democracy functions on an ideological level, without the need for anyone to actually believe that it works in order for it to work. Much like the presidential platitudes, democracy’s message resides in its very abstention from delivering a message. The uroboric recycling of a petitio principii.

Isn’t Julian Assange the perfect example of what happens when the irreconcilable differences between capitalism and democracy are elevated out of the symbolic exchange into reality? While we may believe in the First Amendment protection of whistleblowers and the public’s right to know what our representatives are doing in our name, what WikiLeaks does is reveal a parallactic blind spot that is irreconcilably lodged between or symbolic order and our reality. Just as the Pentagon Papers lead the country to outrage and re-election of Nixon, so WikiLeaks confronts us with outrageous material that we can’t wholly alchemize within our horizon of understanding. No one will argue in support of DynaCorp using taxpayer money to throw parties where boys are auctioned as rape toys, and the shock and outrage we feel about such behavior is real, but shouldn’t the rational reaction to such revelation be irrational? Shouldn’t we “snap” at learning of such terrors? Instead, we say that we “can’t believe” what happened, and insofar as deconstruction serves as the ultimate form of disbelief, it’s true — without a radical redefinition of our way of understanding, we are stuck with a kind of disbelief. Isn’t this why normal citizens taking to the street is seen as the ultimate form of “crazy” behavior? Renouncing everything, walking in front of a tank, throwing stones at an armed militia, running towards the fire — this behavior symbolizes looking beyond the horizon of understanding. Radicalizing one’s worldview.

Short of such a break, we uncomfortably see ourselves, consciously or not, as conspirators in an irreconcilable symbolic exchange, trading our disbelief of democracy in for reality’s comfort from capital. The alternative — radical reinvention of our belief system — is beyond our horizon of finitude, and, as something not possible, creates a blind spot, separating “us” from “them.”

He Keeps You” — Boscoe

Seem the good white folks done blessed us with a curse
Things ain’t gettin’ better, things gettin’ worse

As Americans, we are the inheritors of a recycling historic phenomenon: Dreams for a better society erupt into revolutionary upheaval, relapsing into a new version of order that reproduces itself through its inherent transgression. Doesn’t living with this sequel establish the defeated notion that a revolution succeeds not in toppling a regime, but dismantling one to put another in it’s place? And don’t we as participants in this simulacrum, seeing those on the outside clamoring to get in, view them with equal parts sadistic circumspection at their inability to get past the velvet rope, and sad certainty in knowing what awaits them is the hollow ideal of a self-replicating dream?

“They” struggle to achieve democracy, and we, like a crowd watching someone get beat up, assume that someone else will step in and stop it. As Obama quoted Martin Luther King to the people of Egypt, “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom,” we found poisoned pleasure in the squinting eyes of those on the outside looking in at the blinding light of our freedom.


The Egyptian détournement of Obama’s “yes we can” campaign slogan to read, “yes we can too” reveals an envious willingness of the Egyptian people to assimilate into the Symbolic Order of democracy. That their struggle is beyond the horizon of our understanding is plainly illustrated as the revolution unfolds next to a competing headline in the New York Times, using the same language of the revolution: “Fashion Week Attendees are Facing the Bitter Cold with Extreme Bravery, and Style!”

It’s cynical, but a cynicism informed by a post-“Change We Can Believe In” mindset, which voted for a nebulous something that symbolically embodied difference. We are now reconciling what we got with what we expected. While Obama has made numerous changes, some monumental, what hasn’t changed is the paradigm within which he operates. It’s this lack of radical re-imagination of our reality, I believe, that finds most people disillusioned in his presidency. And, in this sense, wouldn’t it be more accurate, if, while toggling between the live stream of millions of protestors in Cairo and the Mercedes-Benz-sponsored Fashion Week coverage, the Egyptian sign read: YES WE CAN, ACTUALLY!

With Obama as the first black president, we voted for revolutionary change before we had a chance to revolutionarily change the system in which we elected him to operate. The racist backlash (“SHOW ME THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE, HUSSEIN!”) reveals the sticky subject which we’ve yet to be able to discuss openly as a people; we remain a melting pot, sort of institutionally indivisible but separately equal. In this sense, as inheritor of a leadership born from a system of exploitation, Obama is in the unfortunate position of being a black man administrating a white supremacy.

Oh” — Fugazi

Lapse of luxury
Lapping waste
Cruising towards a bruising crash
Thread held, anvil’s gonna break
When the letter returns to the sender
I can hardly wait

Tracing the series of tragedies in the last decade: the September eleventh attacks, the war(s) on terror, Hurricane Katrina, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the financial collapse, the BP oil spill, the Georgia prison strikes (the biggest in US history), etc., it’s easy to think of these as end times. Instead, we should see this as capitalism functioning efficiently.

Marx published Capital in 1867, and every generation since has made predictions about the death of capitalism. Instead of dying, what happens is capitalism grows more robust, more resistant, more adaptable. In digital vernacular, capitalism has gone viral. Much like the “Doomsday Machine” in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, capitalism functions as a similarly self-engendering mechanism — either within our Symbolic Order (Wall Street! Trickle Down!) or running roughshod over our reality (Main Street! “Dude, Where’s My Job?”) — past the point of the fail-safe. Much like our democracy functions only through our ideological faith in a practice of envious exclusivity and institutional exploitation, capitalism function through our belief that everyone has a shot at the brass ring, and the waste produced from such aspirations paradoxically create security.


Capitalism’s biggest byproduct is waste, the excreta of exploited resources. In order for a capitalist economy to function, there needs to be need, and luxury goods function as the apex of symbolic need. In other words, luxury goods, by definition, are unnecessary yet symbolically they represent the ultimate capitalist achievement (luxury=success), and as such, become necessary if one intends to succeed in society. Kropotkian wisdom taught us if everyone were well fed and comfortably situated there would be little discontent, little to envy, and without envious discontent, capitalism is nonessential. Thus, the more shit produced, the more capital thrives.

Capital waste is an acceptable byproduct. Just as our daily lives are sustained by the management of waste (sewers, garbage trucks, landfills, etc.), the market is sustained by the management of capital’s excrement. Our culture of consumption, with rewards reserved for those who copiously consume, is a culture that produces endless waste. The irony of the current “green revolution” is that in re-tooling our lives to be more eco-friendly (hybrid cars, energy efficient appliances, disposal silverware made of biodegradable corn, and so on) we are redoubling our consumption in the process of re-buying a “green” replacement for everything we already own. This process is somehow not seen as ridiculous, but acceptable. It’s only when the definition of waste creeps into our daily lives — when one’s home or job become a “byproduct” and are deemed worthless — that the general acceptability of waste smells a lot different.

Isn’t this why things like celebrity fascination and reality television are so popular? Our captivation with celebrity is not merely indulgence in spectacle, but more importantly, it assuages our complicity in the meaninglessness of capital waste. However much waste our lives generate, Kim Kardashian’s wasteful engagement in luxury makes our shit seem trivial. The paradox, of course, is the more shit you produce the higher your societal ranking, and while the Kardashian life is condemnably trite, her position in the hierarchy of capital exclusivity is enviable. Similarly, we don’t believe that reality television is really real, though we allow it to symbolically function as a simulation of fame, or “everyday celebrity.” Fame Lite! Isn’t reality stardom, then, Joe Normal enjoying the fruits of celebrity without all the waste? Genuine fame without the waste fame produces. Fame and its antithesis all in one. Green Celebrity? Eco-Friendly Fame? Hybrid Luxury? Isn’t our participation in such spectacle the same as buying local, organic milk at Wal-Mart? We are supporting the antithesis of exploitative big business (local milk) while actually supporting exploitative big business (Wal-Mart). Reality television allows us the simulacrum of fame while finding contempt in all that fame represents.

Isn’t the loop created by short-circuiting fame and its antithesis what makes American Idol is so popular? As viewers/voters in the process of exalting an everyday, “normal” person into the limelight, we are re-enacting the symbolic function of democracy within the sphere of celebrity. Isn’t that what happens in news coverage as well? Headlines of Gaddafi’s troops killing his own citizens next to up-to-the-minute Oscar coverage; similarly, headlines of Mubarack’s ousting running next to Fashion Week coverage. In order to watch a video of protests in Libya, I must first sit through a Gucci commercial. By having our news sponsored by luxury goods, as both the symbol of eminence and waste, the real conditions of the world get deicticly imbued with the conditions of commercial consumption. Luxury is symbolically re-enacted in the sphere of tragedy, and we get a prurient, Pavlovian experience of news.


In the same way that our luxury goods quickly become obsolete, so do our “reality” idols. American Idol is not just the most popular show; it airs constantly. The same repetitive function (consume, excrete, repeat) that frames the hierarchical caste of celebrity also structures growth in the capital markets. In order to be a “good” capitalist, one must produce the most waste to guarantee a position atop the market. The same pyramidical conditions exist in celebrity. There’s only so much room at the top, and the most attention is spent on the smallest section of the population. The majority (us) who are not atop the pyramid become then, in every functioning way, the minority (even though, by head count, we’re the majority). We are, then, The Silent Majority. Or, something that counts as nothing.

Worst Case Scenario” — Babyland

You’ve got to live with what you know
What you don’t know

An interesting mix of celebrity, charity and revealing the inhumanity of capitalism came in the form of a Super Bowl commercial. Groupon, one of the fastest growing businesses in the world, set to include China among the markets in which it operates, released a self-depreciating, humorlessly funny commercial for a charity drive called, “Save The Money,” in which Groupon matched all donations to four targeted charities. The commercial could easily be mistaken for a snarky Saturday Night Live sketch, and since it was without tits and monster trucks, it seemed rather out of place in the Super Bowl roster. I don’t think this misplaced placement was lost on Groupon. With billions to burn, Groupon chose to advertise their philanthropy during the most expensive time slot. Instead of the usual celebrity spokesperson sincerely pleading with those less fortunate (“us”) to think of those who are even less fortunate (“them,” aka, Tibetans), Groupon poked fun at themselves for getting rich through facilitating people’s daily indulgence of deals. In the first half of one of the commercials, Timothy Hutton talks about the problems of the people of Tibet, and as the camera pulls back we see he’s sitting in a Himalayan restaurant, and he says through Groupon he was able to get his meal for half price. In a meta- way, the commercial pokes its finger in the eye of commerciality. And since there were no tits or monster trucks, Super Bowl fans were kinda tazed by the meta-ness of it all, or meta-tazed if there is such a thing?

The commercial was, almost immediately, derided for it’s bad taste and insensitivity to the people of Tibet. Groupon eventually pulled the commercial as the result of the backlash. When Andrew Mason (founder of Groupon, heralded on the cover of Fortune Magazine as one of the smartest businessmen of today), in his wisdom, questioned the consumption that made him rich, consumers were insulted. Isn’t the meta-question he asked — “is over-indulgence good?” — the kind of thing we normally reward companies for asking? Don’t we favor those companies who create products that minimize waste, have ethical work practices, and engage in charitable work? Isn’t this commercial a meta-illustration of the very principles we look for in a “good” company?

When a billionaire such as Andrew Mason (the pinnacle of capital wealth/waste) voices criticism of the very process of capital, he effectively short circuits the symbolic exchange that runs in the background of functioning ideology. We, as outsiders/consumers, are not only denied the opportunity of jealous indignation, but with the loop of symbolic function shorted out, we can’t take “credit” for the waste (Andrew beat us to it), and our consumption, operating in one dimension instead of two, is invalidated. Instead of a two-dimensional uselessness signifying luxuriousness, we get a one-dimensional useless as useless.

If this were a Saturday Night Live sketch, and Timothy Hutton performed the same bit at the expense of Groupon instead of in the employ of Groupon, I think it would be regarded as comic genius. Doesn’t it have everything that we require in ridiculing and/or condemning capitalists/celebrities? (Scorn, cynicism, snark, actual celebrity, taunting convention, bad taste, etc.)

As a commercial, it successfully short-circuited the parallax blinding symbolism from reality, which is exactly why it failed as a commercial.

China, besides being a prospective market for Groupon, should be viewed in context as the next logical phase in capitalism’s development. America’s trouble with markets is that democratic ethics are a sticking point in unrestrained exploitation. Finding acceptable standards of exploitation and waste in the pursuit of growth proves problematic. In the case of China, as an authoritarian capitalist system, the unrestrained market proves much more productive. When the dead weight of morality is shed, growth is exponential. Sadly, looking at the shit produced is proof.

While the effect on the people is severe (government corruption, human rights violations, state censorship, poverty, drought, industrial pollution, poor health and food safety, etc.), China is the world’s fastest growing economy. The unfortunate condition of the citizens contrasted with its thriving economy, China is an illustration of the inherent inhumanity of capitalism.

The Comfort You’ve Demanded is Now Mandatory!

Voicing discontent was the domain of the left during the ‘60s and ‘70s (civil rights, women’s liberation, nuclear disarmament, the peace movement, gay rights, socialism), and today that radical opposition has been radically sublimated into an idea of “change we can believe in” without disrupting the luxuries of life. The real change has turned symbolic. Or, in the Robespierrian sense, we want a “revolution without revolution.” Rather than radicals taking to the street in demand of a “new world,” today’s left operates closer to the center, rallying everyone to fear the catastrophe present in this world. The voice of discontent, abandoned by the left, now belongs to the radical right, and so comes the opposite extreme: distrust of government, deregulation, hatred of foreigners and gays, return of the red scare (“Socialist!”), and so on.

Message From Our Sponsors” — Jello Biafra

Stay in your homes!
Do not attempt to contact loved ones…
All sports broadcasts will proceed as normal

The post-Watergate ‘70s and ‘80s were informed, on the left, by the public’s right to know, conspiracy theories, exposés, shocking truths, and the tireless work of “waking people up.” The demand for transparency ushered us into the digital age, and strangely, continues today. Is truth being held from us today, or is it, instead, that we are deluged in truth? Literally, we are leaking truth. It’s a pornographic discharge of truth from every orifice in the country: whistleblowers, documentaries, blogs, newspapers, social media outlets, photo and video sites, books, and so on. We are more informed than we’ve ever been. The overabundance of truth paradoxically paralyses us, making it hard to quantify truth. On any given day the left (CNN), right (Fox) and cynical center (Comedy Central) jockey for ratings on truth. Consequently, the populace is largely desensitized.

The days of an Orwellian 1984 are behind us, literally. They are also, in a cyclical (recycling) sense, behind us, in that we’ve consumed them already. But doesn’t the loop of the “reduce-reuse-recycle” waste hierarchy leave us with an Orwellian absorption? Post-Consumer Newspeak! In that sense, haven’t we integrated the Orwellian foreshadowing into our forecasting? Like the short-circuited loop, we eat our tails.

Jello Biafra’s jokingly serious “message from our sponsors,” about marshal law that turns your boss into your doctor into your god is, in the short-circuited sense, at the same time irrelevant and prescient. The pre-digital era of science fiction (where computers ruled the world and robot killing machines ran free) is today, both comically untruthful and mundanely true. Our most significant moments in life are digitally controlled (banking, taxes, baby cam, cyber sex, transportation, etc.), and death is modulated by machine (drone bombers, life support systems, etc.). And through it all, we’re nonplussed. Is this not confirmation that we’ve fully recycled Orwellian paranoia, post-consumingly integrated it into our worldview ideologically? A perfect example of how obscene authority operates in the background of our life was comically typified in the story from 2009 when Amazon remotely deleted copies of Orwell’s novel, 1984, from Kindle devices without the permission or knowledge of the Kindle owners. The irony wasn’t lost on anyone, though the underlying ideological implications remained, ironically, in the background. That it could even happen both concedes, in hindsight, Orwell’s paranoia, and foreshadows absorption of that same paranoia. The short-circuiting of Orwellian authority loops Jello Biafra’s idea of marshal law, turning it from something inflicted on us, to something innate within us.

We could apply a Situationist détournement to Biafra’s punchline, “the comfort you’ve demanded is now mandatory” to be more appropriately fitting in this loop theory: The comfort you’ve demanded is now a side effect of your comfort.

The answer of the conservatives amidst this liberal circle jerk of freedom and democracy is to invoke Reagan and become even more fundamentally conservative. We see this in the attacks on Planned Parenthood, PBS and NPR. Speaking of Jello Biafra, it’s a recycling of the Moral Majority. Looking at pictures of Libyan anti-government rebels, I can’t help but recall the rightwing propaganda Brat Pack-cum-Dirty Dancing war porno that was Red Dawn. If tempted to imagine the script used when this Middle Eastern push for democracy gets sublimated into primetime entertainment, I envision a tasty, “braised militancy”-type divertissement:

SCENE: Padma (as an ambiguously ethnic cultural tie-in) greets a “troop” of tattooed and daring-haired chefs at an “undisclosed” “bunker” far off in the “desert” and after “ordering” the challengers to “battle”, unveils the special guest judges… recently liberated Libyan freedom fighters! I can just smell the dishes now: “Head of Gaddafi” (Bazeen bearing resemblance to the former colonel, surrounded by a blood-red broth of Sharba Libiya, with dried dates for eyes — “His view of justice has run dry!”), and for dessert, “Drunk on Revolution!” (alcohol, which was formerly banned,-infused Asida with dyed-green ghee to match the Libyan flag).

It’s ridiculous, but it’s imaginable, right?

Freeze Up” — Operation Ivy

Static and division is increasing like a storm
We are sheltered, we are forewarned
Nothing can be changed except ourselves

«« mieux vaut un désatre qu’un désêtre »»

I don’t contend that these are new ideas. Quite on the contrary, they seem to have been, in the Heideggerian sense, “always-already” present in society. In 1548, Etienne de la Boétie wrote, “so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him…” As an updated recycling of Boétie’s thesis, Buadrillard wrote, in From Domination to Hegemony, “In the face of this hegemony, the work of the negative, the work of critical thought, of the relationship of forces against oppression, or of radical subjectivity against alienation, all this has (virtually) become obsolete.”

Isn’t Baudrillard’s work of critical thought, of radical subjectivity against alienation, apparent in religion today? Hasn’t religion become a self-engendering process as well? In people’s cynicism about the existence of God, or in a lax attendance to faith, don’t we find the same unattended authority running in the background? Thus, we should reexamine Jesus through this same Baudrillardian “face of hegemony.” Jesus can be used as the ultimate blueprint in becoming “radicalized,” and as such, shouldn’t we see his death as a radical renunciation of his role, as him condemning us to the responsibility of freedom?

If we think of the torture photos from the Abu Ghraib, or the impulse of television shows like “To Catch A Predator,” or this decade long search for Osama bin Laden, or the defeat and spontaneous re-proliferation of al-Qaeda forces, or the way in which we overindulge in celebrities, doesn’t all of this have the structure of misdirected persecution, misdirected resurrection, misdirected servitude? Doesn’t being overwhelmed with luxury and opulence on one hand, while being overwhelmed with the crushing market forces that make luxury impossible on the other leave us, not only unable to reverse the loop, but jaded as we attempt to? In our jadedness, being inured to the forces against us, don’t we detach, grow apathetic, and enact a misguided revenge on easier targets? In believing pedophiles are “animals,” Middle Easterners are “terrorists,” Mexicans are “aliens,” aren’t we driving the wedge further between “us” and “them?” Doesn’t this humanitarianism born of disengaged cynicism act inhumanely?

The short-circuit that allowed us to take teachings of compassion and turn them against ourselves works in the background of what we convince ourselves that we believe. The contradiction is evidenced in how we react to things like oppressive autocracy, Groupon, WikiLeaks, celebrities, and even Jesus. This ideological torsion disguises our malevolence as the work of benevolence. In the process of leading the world into democracy, we’re driving a deep wedge between different classes and faiths, between “the people” who democracy is supposed to represent. In an effort to rid the world of crime we find more and more ways to see ourselves as criminal.

In the deconstructionist sense, feeling free because we lack the very language to articulate our un-freedom, shouldn’t we start then by deconstructing our idea of freedom? Isn’t it the cynical cycle of reflexive aporia that has us ignorantly reenacting the crucifixion upon our enemies in misguided devotion to He who we crucified? The title of the Facebook group memorializing the Egyptian man who died as the result of police brutality, “We Are All Khaled Said,” and the page being attributed to “El-Shaheed” (“martyr”), invites us all, in joining the group, to become him; identifying with the martyr in protest of he who brutalized him. Isn’t the blind spot, then, in our inability to see ourselves, not as the martyr, but as the perpetrator of brutality? Isn’t the way to end the need for martyrdom in seeing our ability to brutalize?

Instead of a “change we can believe in,” shouldn’t we first believe that we can change? We need to see ourselves “radicalized,” and, until then, aren’t we just going to keep simulating the cynical short-circuit, continuing to reenact the obscene disbelief that made the crucifixion possible?

The Burden of Hope” — Grails

To discover and reveal something a little closer to truth…

But that battered word, truth, having made its appearance here, confronts one immediately with a series of riddles and has, moreover, since so many gospels are preached, the unfortunate tendency to make one belligerent. Let us say, then, that truth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted. This is the prime concern, the frame of reference; it is not to be confused with a devotion to Humanity which is too easily equated with a Cause; and Causes, as we know, are notoriously bloodthirsty.
James Baldwin

Fetish Music

Posted by , January 18th, 2011
Category: Abstraction Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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As was the case in the first Lacan Survey, let me again circumvent introducing or defining this series and, instead, offer broad questions in place of answers.

What do we mean when we say, “I like this song”? To see what’s beyond truisms like “the words are great” or “I like the beat” or “it just makes me feel good” means seeing how the song is integrated into our worldview, symbolically. The song has a totemic significance, as it allows the listener to perpetuate the experience of the song—or, more precisely, to perpetuate the experience linked to the song by the listener. The listener’s experience becomes embodied in the song. Is this not the definition of fetish?

I’m not talking about a dude in a latex suit licking a woman’s toes, though there’s room for that in fetish; I’m referring to associations made, the accidentally simultaneous presentation of a song and an experience. Attaching a song to an experience, however unconsciously, often suspends the song in a kind of sentimental abeyance—“this was our song” or “I spent my first year of college totally fucked up listening to this album” or “this song got me through some shit, man”—and allows us to either re-live the experience through an attachment to the song or distantiate ourselves from a reality we can’t wholly, consciously consider.

As an example, I will offer my own fetishistic associations and sentimental attachments between sound and experiences, and it makes sense to start with an extreme example.

I See a Darkness” — Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

A handful of my friends committed suicide in the beginning of the 2000s, the last of which was my friend Charles, and it was his death that unraveled me. In the weeks shortly after Charles died, I was prone to fits of unpredictable, hysterical crying. I don’t subscribe to the notion of “boys don’t cry,” but paradoxically, I don’t often cry myself, so my crying jags were extremely hard to recover from. I was terribly despondent. I began carrying a snapshot of Charles around in my pocket. If while at work I felt the wave of tears coming on, I would sneak out of the miserable office and lock myself in a stall in the bathroom, take the picture of Charles in my hand and silently weep into his mangled face. Seeing a “real” version of him was the only way I could bear the experience. The snapshot was the embodiment of a belief that I couldn’t allow to be true. It was keeping him alive long enough for me to get through his not being alive.

Around this same time my wife introduced me to the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy song, “I See a Darkness.” In many ways this song explains the end of my friendship with Charles.  He was strung out, living again with his parents, I had moved away, and while I still loved him, he and I simply didn’t have as much in common. The last time I spoke with Charles he called me under the auspices of plans to write music together again, but what we spoke mostly of was his addiction, his problems in his relationship and his poor health. A few times during the conversation he said, quite frankly (and comically, though the humor is bittersweet now), “I’m a fucking loser, man” and chuckled. At the time it was a very normal conversation to have with Charles. Afterwards, however, it was this conversation that haunted me, gave me tremendous pangs of guilt, and left me wondering if I’d not done enough. Listening to “I See a Darkness,” the pre-chorus, “this isn’t all I see,” and the post-chorus, “a hope that somehow you you can save me,” were, when reexamining that last phone call, prophetic intimations of what was to come.

Eventually, the crying fits became less severe, I quit carrying the picture of Charles around with me, and the guilt wasn’t as sharp a pain. “I See a Darkness” became totemic to the experience of losing Charles. Not just his suicide, but all the commitments we had made to each other, and how his death affected the rest of us—all of his friends—and what changed in us as a result of him being gone. Through this entire time (3 years?), I would listen to this song quite frequently. Charles continued living in my observance of, and attachment to, the song. The song embodied my refusal to let him die; it was a living disavowal of death. And most importantly, it helped me grieve. Paradoxically, thinking of him through repeated listenings allowed me distance from him. As my need to hear the song diminished, it became easier to accept his death.

Almost Was Good Enough (Once)” — Magnolia Electric Co.

In the years following Charles’ suicide, productive activities had a sense of defiance against all the defeat symbolized in his death. Being in a band or making a record felt, in some ways, like a “fuck you” to the spirit of his giving up. Carrying on with my life, without him, made me feel both guilty and subversive. For those of us that had “gotten out” before the rash of suicides struck our hometown, we looked at one another as survivors, the remnants of what had happened. Those suicides were such an ending, that continuing to do anything afterward felt uncomfortable.

It was in these purgatorial years that “Almost Was Good Enough” came to be more than just a song. Molina sings

Did you really believe
that everyone makes it out?
Almost no one makes it out

with the same sense of finality heard in “I See a Darkness.” It’s analogous to the clichés we all told each other while grieving—“you can’t blame yourself for what happened,” “it will get easier”—that are used to accept something unacceptable. These clichés are tempered with Molina’s reification:

But if no one makes it out
How come you’re talking to one right now
for once almost was good enough

These three lines sum up, quite perfectly, the feeling of defeated accomplishment in being the one who “made it out.” While it’s good to come out the other side, realize you’re alive and be filled with a renewed sense of self, you’re still dragging your dead friend around behind you, and what should be “good” is actually “good enough.” The guilt is real, and it’s too much to ask for more than good enough. While “I See a Darkness” allowed me to keep Charles alive in the years immediately following his death, “Almost Was Good Enough” allowed me to keep myself alive—and more importantly, moving.

The fetishized song can function in two opposite ways, either its role remains unconscious, as in the case of “I See a Darkness” where I was unaware of the song’s assistance in allowing me to live with death, or, the role of the song can be a conscious one, as “Almost Was Good Enough,” where the association with the song is reflected in the sublimation of the grief and guilt in continuing on with the plans made before Chuck’s death.

In both cases the fetishized song helped me to grieve. Unconsciously, I could displace that which I was incapable of dealing with (the actual total loss of Charles from reality) in “I See a Darkness.” Listening to that song allowed me to revel in his life, to relive that final conversation differently, until I was able to see him totally dead. Obviously, I knew he was dead the entire time, but it’s interesting to look back at what I was doing while being unaware of doing it. In contrast, I used “Almost Was Good Enough” as a fetish consciously, invoking it as a mantra of solidarity among my fellow survivors, acknowledging what we’d been left with and how to make enough sense of it to carry on.

V.A. Rocks Your Liver” — Verbal Abuse

It’s an understatement to say I was a “troubled child.” I was, literally, a poster child for juvenile delinquency: I appeared in low budget public access awareness campaigns, education panels and after school programs for people trying to understand problem children. Before my service work in helping people understand problem children, I did extensive fieldwork as a problem child. I’ll spare the details, and just skip to my friend Aaron and I running away.

Aaron was from another town (I can’t remember where), had a shitty car, and when we decided to run away that shitty car was our ticket out. The only tape I remember him having was Verbal Abuse. Paradoxically, neither Aaron nor I drank, so in retrospect, it seems strange that this anthem to drunkenness was our anthem, but we were fairly dimwitted. Our time on the outs was a time of true liberation, in direct opposition to our unbearable teenage lives. It was two decades ago, so the details have faded and the injustices seem comical now, but at the time the pain was very real. Our decision to runaway, to leave family, school and friends behind, was a refusal of the status quo. Aaron and I had no idea where we were going or what we were going to do when we got there. It was a salto mortale, a leap of faith from the known into the unknown, and in that act of un-knowing our entire lives, we were briefly, completely free.

Of course, the reality of undoing everything we had known up to that point was far less romantic than the picture painted in reminiscing. Aaron’s car broke down several times — the car we were sleeping in, we had no money, and all we had to eat was a wholesale-size package of hot dogs that rolled around in the backseat. The package had been torn open so dogs would occasionally shake loose onto the floorboards. Disgusting, but there was something heroic and martial in brushing most of the dirt off your cold dog before eating it; crunching of dirt was the sound of our freedom. I still smile at the thought of Aaron and I pushing his car while “V.A. Rocks Your Liver” (our “Star Spangled Banner”) blasted from his tape deck.

As I’ve grown older I’ve re-bought some of the records from my youth, records I had either lost in bouts of homelessness or sold for food, or, in the case of Verbal Abuse, never owned in the first place. Finally hearing “Rocks Your Liver” again after twenty years was certainly a nostalgic reward, but the song itself had lost it’s meaning outside being a placeholder for those memories. With the song sitting silently for so long, going unheard, how could I not be disappointed in hearing it again? Everything in my life had changed around that memory, and if my association with “Rocks Your Liver” (liberation, the frivolity of youth, girls underwear) remained static, hearing it again—outside that freedom—would inevitably be a different experience. I have more memories of remembering the song than the song itself.

“Rocks Your Liver” is a song that, if I heard it today, would leave me indifferent. As emblematic of those days of freedom, though—eating dirty hot dogs, breaking the law, and pushing that fucking car around—the song is overwhelming. I have no idea what became of Aaron, I have no souvenirs of that time, and I live across the country from where we roamed, so “Rocks Your Liver” is the only perceptible artifact of a time far from today with a valley of experienced life between then and now. In acquiring the record I learned I didn’t actually need it for it to be a favorite in my collection.

For Want Of” — Rites of Spring

Admittedly, I took this song, and the album it’s on, too seriously. Through most of the early ‘90s I practically pushed this album down the throats of everyone around me. Nearly everyone I knew got a copy as a gift, though more as an explanation of my condition.

One such recipient was Joann, one of the first friends I made outside my close-knit circle of degenerate creeps. Our friendship grew despite not having much in common, and eventually we traded favorite albums. I remember sitting in Joann’s house listening to her explain all the things she loved about Sade’s Promise album and being so excited because I felt exactly the same about the Rites of Spring album, except when I played it for her she looked as though I had just shit on her coffee table. At first Joann thought I was playing a joke on her, trying to humiliate her. “How is this anything like Sade?” What Joann responded to was the sound of the music (screeching, off key voice, brash noise) and I responded to the content (fervency, love, pain). To my senses, Sade and Rites of Spring were equivalent, while Joann perceived them antithetical to one another. It took much explanation, but Joann eventually, and reluctantly, conceded my point with the rejoinder, “this music is terrible.” We learned to celebrate our differences.

Unlike Verbal Abuse, Rites of Spring remained by my side through all of my tempestuous relationships, and I used lines from this album in defense of and as excuse for my recklessness, although, like Verbal Abuse, Rites of Spring doesn’t mean the same thing to me now. Fifteen years ago just hearing “I woke up this morning with a piece of past caught in my throat… and then I choked” could make my insides squall. The experience of my life then — tripping over my heart running from one woman to another — was measured in those words. Today I am different, and the song, certainly full of sentimental attachments, doesn’t operate as the embodiment of feelings, either conscious or not, that I’m experiencing.

Having an album as a sort of “constant companion” through life is interesting in how the symbolism changes (or doesn’t change) through life. Our experience with music is temporal, and is dependent on our view of things — and our view includes whatever blind spots exist in our perspective. How we hear the music will change as our worldview changes, and as the things that dominate our life (consciously or not) change. It’s only in hindsight that certain aspects come out of a former blind spot in our perception and seem legible, new to the current listening experience.

To this end, I enjoy hearing stories about other people’s sentimental songs. Most people explain it similarly (“Oh shit, this was my fucking jam”), though when pushed for more, it gets really interesting. The explanation reveals a great deal about how conscious one is of the symbolic weight of the song. Of course a good song can sometimes just be a good song, but once an examination of why a song is good begins what’s revealed is the amount of courage one has to examine himself. Telling the truth allows suffering to speak, and when we tell the truth we reveal our own parallactic finitudes. What’s real is a matter of how we arrived at truth, and that truth is tied to our inability to fully grasp the nature of truth.

Is It Because I’m Black” — Syl Johnson

As Cornel West talked of being introduced to the stank of life, so I found myself there while scouring the Internet looking for rare records. For me, a white dude in his 20s, this song represented a “holy grail” among record collectors, an obscure artifact from the civil rights era that was known in the hip-hop/sample-spotter world, and unknown to everyone else. My first access to a computer came through a desk job I had and any spare time was devoted to searching for records, back when dogpiling (remember life before Google?) “Is It Because I’m Black” would only return porno sites (Ahh, the days of unregulated metadata!). Before I had ever seen a copy of this record I found a soundfile (when .ram was the .mp3) and was so juiced to hear it I played to it through my speakers (no headphones) at my desk (a practice generally frowned upon). There I sat in the privacy of my own cubicle, with the volume as low as it could possibly go, getting so fucking into it when my boss, a black woman at least twenty years my senior (who had lived through the civil rights struggle) heard the song and completely marched into my personal space.

What happened next remains one of the most surreal and uncomfortable musical experiences of my life. My boss reached over my shoulder and turned my computer speakers up, way up, and while standing behind, sorta leaning on me, proceeded to sing along with and ad lib through the entire song. Most of the other cubicles were filled with middle-aged white women, all of whom answered to the same woman I did, that same woman who was singing, “something is holdin’ me back… is it because I’m black?” at each and every one of them. Everyone in the office was already afraid of my boss, as she had been the office manager for decades, since the office was just her and the owner, and she had no problem telling anyone what she thought of anything. This made me love her, but most people (me included) were fucking petrified of her. And there she was, moaning, ooh-ing, ahh-ing and “keep on holdin’ me back”-ing along with Syl, who was blasting out of my computer. All the while my co-workers looked at me with astonished what the fuck looks on their white faces. Jesus Christ! It was the race conversation that you always want, but are always to chickenshit, to have, and it was happening more to me than with me, and it wasn’t a conversation as much as a living disinterment of shame. When the song finished, my boss said, “goddamn, what a song” and casually went back to her desk.

My reality before listening to the song (in short: post-civil rights white man working for a black woman under the assumption, “the world ain’t perfect, but…”) was completely different after listening to the song. Everything was still the same, I was still a white man working for a black woman in an imperfect world, but the façade had cracked. It was a façade that all of us—my boss, me, my co-workers—were aware of and discussed as such (“equal opportunities, huh, right?”). Of course institutional racism worked in place of overt racism, and of course we aren’t all equal and of course things aren’t perfect, but it’s okay, right?

What my boss did by elevating Syl Johnson as a one-sided conversation was to acknowledge what Lacan refers to as the big Other. Our work place was operating under the guise of a paradoxical reflexive order which allowed symbolic order to function. This is similar to Marx’s explaination of how states function; we only imagine that we believe in order and demand that others believe in that same order as we do—no one really believes, but it functions. My boss, causing torsion in the façade, brought the Symbolic into view of the Real and all the rest of us saw the contradictions of multiple truths existing simultaneously.

Much like Cornel West explained, my boss had tremendous courage in allowing truth to speak through suffering, by acknowledging finitude, by showing how my truth was tied to how I came to that truth, by introducing me to the stank of life.

The whole experience was terribly uncomfortable, and I would not change that. Before, I saw the record as an artifact, something rare and obscure, a relic from the near past, but still the past, and afterward I saw my view of the record intersected by other realities, in parallax, discordant and uncomfortably true, coinciding all around me. The record never had a chance to become a fetish as my unconscious blind spots were revealed before I owned it.

“I Don’t Wanna Cry” Mariah Carey

(File under: Guilty pleasure!)

My senior year of high school I made friends with a foreign exchange student from Spain who dated my best friend. Of course, as all high school relationships go, my best friend dumped her and things got sad and ugly. I spent many weekday afternoons with my Spanish friend, eating her host family’s food and watching MTV. Mariah Carey was kinda huge then, and her multi-octaved only-dogs-can-hear vocal range was still a novelty. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” became a theme song for my Spanish friend’s bouts of tears and, at some point, she gave me a copy of Mariah’s first album as a kind-of funny acknowledgment of what we’d been through. It wasn’t so much about Mariah Carey as it was the experience, but the album was the perfect token of the experience.

From the outset I had detached myself from Mariah’s music, being a boy who really only responded to testosterone-enraged guitar music. Not to typecast myself, but let’s be real, I was immature and angry, so the Misfits blew my mind and Mariah Carey was a whatever thing that I only acknowledged ironically. My friend moved back to Spain after graduation and I kept the album as a memento. Over the years, other friends, aware of this random softie-pop aberration in an otherwise agitated oeuvre, bought me subsequent Mariah Carey releases. It became a funny thing, me being an un-closeted fan with sentimental attachments to her music. Ten years later I was a “regular” Mariah Carey fan who, of my own volition, bought albums, singles, remixes, etc. It was usually a noteworthy thing for anyone browsing my stacks, “What’s the story with all these Mariah Carey albums?”

There’s nothing really remarkable about my attachment to Mariah Carey. It happens with people and pop music all the time, the, “I know, I know, but I just like it, ya’know?” worldview. In some way pop music exists to fill this place in our lives. Pop music is ubiquitous, and it’s a forgone conclusion that some Top 40 song will be playing when shit happens. It’s unavoidable. Everyone I know has a similar fetish with some artist or song. Like I said, it’s not remarkable. What is remarkable is when I decided to abandon Mariah.

That last year of high school was particularly painful for me. I didn’t really graduate, all of my friends were going to college (or moving to another country), my home life was totally fucked and it seemed like everything was falling apart. Once high school was over, I bounced around from girlfriend to girlfriend, apartment to apartment, roommate to roommate, town to town, trying to just figure it out, ya’know? It wasn’t easy. Through the next fifteen years I maintained this ironic Mariah Carey collection that functioned as a sentimental tether to my Spanish friend on the other side of the world. I was conscious of this and spoke of it as such. In 2000, I moved into a studio apartment, it was the first time I lived alone, and that’s when I decided to part ways with Mariah.

I didn’t think it was significant at the time; I’d had the albums for over a decade, hauled them from apartment to apartment, town to town, and regarded them as mementos the entire time. So why didn’t I get rid of them earlier? Or, why did I get rid* of them then? Looking back, it’s interesting that the Mariah collection started when I was terrified of being left alone, and it was only when I was able to live on my own that I didn’t need the sentimental token any longer.


Thinking about music in this way, as a fetish that allows us to either re-live experiences through an attachment or distantiate ourselves from a reality we can’t wholly experience, is an interesting process. Revealing unconscious fetishes that have never been fully in our view can stir aggravation or defensiveness. Engrained fetishes are especially perceptible when reading record reviews or listening to people discuss why they hate artists. In addition, looking at “phases” we went through with certain songs or artists will often coincide with experiences that were significant at the times we were getting “into” and “out of” the music. While we may passively listen to music, there is a lot of activity in the process, and I would venture to guess it’s rarely ever, “just a good song, ya’know?”

What song do you fetish. And why?


* As a footnote, when I got rid of the Mariah collection, I brought a box of random CDs to a record store to trade for used LPs. While the young, know-it-all clerk looked over the box I browsed. Some 45 minutes later, I’m deep in the middle of the Buck Owens section and a voice comes over the store loudspeaker: “Would the guy who brought in all those Mariah Carey singles please come to the front of the store.” —What a little dick! Trying to shame me even as I’m relinquishing my fetish. No wonder people are so defensive!

“crying ‘Take me back home, take me back home.’”

Posted by , January 17th, 2011
Category: Abstraction Tags: ,   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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Things seem difficult right now. I’m cooking too much and sleeping too little and not accomplishing enough in between. I owe too many people and I’m speaking with too few, spending too much time parsing rejections real and imagined. Someone’s always crying and everyone wants something and I want it all for them–I do, more than they could ever know, I do. And it’s all very very important and none of it matters in the least and I am no closer to being the boy that I was than I am to the man I thought I would be and no one wants to pay me for my broken heart and and and blah blah blah.

And I’ve been listening a lot to this new song by Iron & Wine, “Walking Far From Home.” A whole lot. I heard it on some website and was drawn in, completely and surprisingly. I’ve been seeing the Iron & Wine name in the ether for a number of years, but I don’t really know anything about it, mostly because I don’t really actually listen to singer-songwriter stuff at all; for no good reason, it’s just a genre to which I’m generally indifferent. I’m pretty sure that prior to this my only express encounter with Iron & Wine was lingering over a magazine ad a few years back that featured the cover art of their then-current record, which was a striking painting of a dog with buddy tongue adrape and a calming green-cheese moon for its glaucous eye, but at the same time looking like it had been flayed, the torqued meat of its turning head streaked magenta and black. That’s why I’m so surprised that this song has magnetized me like it has: Usually, within a genre that I think so little about, pricking up my ears would take a pretty unusual specimen, and “Walking Far From Home” is not that. It’s basically an exquisitely rendered litany, instantly recognizable as descendant from a long line of art-speech catalogs, glories strung like beads:

I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small
I saw rain clouds, little babies
And a bridge that had tumbled to the ground
I saw sinners making music
And I dreamt of that sound, dreamt of that sound
I was walking far from home
But I carried your letters all the while
I saw lovers in a window
Whisper “want me like time, want me like time”
I saw sickness bloom in fruit trees
I saw blood and a bit of it was mine
I saw children in a river
But their lips were still dry, lips were still dry

Hear in it the unification of disparate things in the funneling toward inexorable march, the pilgrim’s progress of us all:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,
and the strong men shall bow themselves,
and the grinders cease because they are few,
and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
and the doors shall be shut in the streets,
when the sound of the grinding is low,
and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird,
and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
also when they shall be afraid of that which is high,
and fears shall be in the way,
and the almond tree shall flourish,
and the grasshopper shall be a burden,
and desire shall fail:
because man goeth to his long home…
- Ecclesiastes

Hear the giddy, bookish liberation of free-falling through all the possibles:

If our pleasures be interrupt, we can tolerate it: our bodies hurt, we can put it up and be reconciled: but touch our commodities, we are most impatient: fair becomes foul, the graces are turned to harpies, friendly salutations to bitter imprecations, mutual feastings to plotting villainies, minings and counterminings; good words to satires and invectives, we revile e contra, nought but his imperfections are in our eyes, he is a base knave, a devil, a monster, a caterpillar, a viper, a hog-rubber, etc. Desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne [the beauteous woman tails off into a fish]; the scene is altered on a sudden, love is turned to hate, mirth to melancholy…
- Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

See pointillist vignettes massing into panorama:

The  conductor beats time for the band and all the performers follow him,
The child is baptized, the convert is making his first professions,
The regatta is spread on the bay, the race is begun, (how the white sails sparkle!)
The drover watching his drove songs out to them that would stray,
The pedler sweats with his pack on his back, (the purchaser higgling about the odd cent;)
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minute hand of the clock moves slowly,
The opium-eater reclines with rigid head and just-open’d lips
- Walt Whitman, Song Of Myself

Feel the cubist anxiety of seeing everything everywhere all at once, the anticipation, incomprehension, and faint dread of watching nonsenses and non sequiturs begin to rise up like a body :

The bird in this cage brings tears to the eyes of the little girl devoted to blue. Her father is an explorer. The new-born kittens turn about. In this wood there are pale flowers that cause those that pick them to die. The whole family is thriving and musters under this linden trees after meals. A croupier is dealing out handfuls of bullion. Oblivion is the finest fervour. One thinks only of cries. Hot drinks are served in coloured glasses.
- Andre Breton, The Immaculate Conception

Feel the intertwined sympathy and disgust of the witness, unwilling but unblinking:

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
- Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”

Know the postmodern joy of the endlessly open circuit, fragments and refractions willed into narrative through nothing but the sheer exhilaration of their delivery, each line cascading jaggedly into the next (or not):

Ayo, crash through, break the glass, Tony with the goalie mask
That’s the pass, heavy-ice Roley layin’ on the dash
Love the grass, cauliflower hurtin’ when I dumped the trash
Sour mash surge in every glass up at the Wally bash
Sunsplash, autographed blessing with your name slashed
Backdraft, four-pounders screamin’ with the pearly axe
Children fix the contrast as the sound clashes
Mrs. Dash, sprinkle with her icicle eyelash
Ask Cappa Pendergrass for backstage passes
Special guest, no more Johnny Blaze, Johnny Mathis
Acrobat, run up on that
Love Jones actress–
Distract the cat while I’m high, “Sugar, get a crack at this!”
- Ghostface Killah, “One”

That’s a quick history of the motion, but it’s important to know something else, too: that every one of these catalogs and litanies can only truly complete its heart and ours in the ending, in its resolution. They each have a momentum that pulls us in and carries us forth, but until we know how it ends—whether all of these details are meant to be taken collectively as promise or rebuke or affirmation or burden or whatever—their energy is like a gift placed in the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fingers do not close. Until we know, there is something that both sides hold in reserve.

There are times in my life when I need to be spoken to much more than I need to speak. In such times I compulsively push things into meaningfulness, no matter how many facts I’m presented to the contrary. During a particularly coring summer several years ago, I listened obsessively to J Dilla’s “Time (Donut Of The Heart),” thirty, forty, fifty times a day, trying to make it speak. I knew full well that it consisted entirely of chopped and reassembled pieces from a Jackson 5 song, pieces which included no actual words, just a syllable from over here and an intake of breath from over there and a splinter of clipped melisma that just happened to get caught on the tail end of the guitar sample, and so on. But in open spite of that knowledge, I was convinced that “Time” was actually speaking, that I was hearing something literal, something real. There’s one point somewhere in the first thirty seconds where a number of these wordless vocal sonics cross each other, and I was sure that deep in their intersection I was hearing the words “all I can do is love.” I’ve since become familiar enough with the Jackson 5 song to know that I wasn’t right about what it was saying, but when I hear “Time” now, never getting outside of its own ouroboros of desire and pursuance long enough to catch up to the tick-tocking without, I know that I wasn’t really wrong about it, either.

And I think it’s somewhat the same with “Walking Far From Home.” It’s an affecting song, but reading it on paper, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s comprised of a bunch of loose diamonds the author had lying around, lines great and stray that he was just saving for later. So many of the images are profound and indelible in their turn, but taken collectively, there is between them a disconnect that is just enough to preclude some essential spark. They seem to owe more than a little to the power of suggestion, seem unified by inclusion more than conception; it doesn’t feel like the images have been put here in this song because they’re all related as much as it feels like they’re related because they’ve all been put here in this song. It’s a small difference, but for me it’s a heartbreaking one: Because even as I find myself drawn so unexpectedly into this song that is so outside of my usual taste, even as I find myself tugged forward and through on its ducking and cresting undulations of wing, even as I find myself allowing the kind of surrender that seems a little less possible every day, even in the light of these beautiful, beautiful words, I also find myself pulling back at the prickling suspicion that what I’m responding to isn’t really the heart of the heart or the root of the root, but is instead just a succession of pretty, pretty things, things that only mean something because I’m weak enough to need them to mean something, and because if they don’t, then I’m left with not only the absence of meaning but also the shame of having needed so desperately and having judged so poorly. “It’s like, if I can give, please give back. Please.” The fear is that there will be no communion, no intersection, and that these gemmy acts of witness will spool out coolly for another three minutes or for another five or for another five hundred before just tying off with a step back and a gnostic nod, revealing the song’s message to be not a message at all, but rather an expectation—the expectation that we will of course understand what all of these things mean. The fire will turn out to be just a bunch of flames, each pitiless in its own tiny perfection. That is my fear.



A few years ago, The Killers had a song called “When You Were Young.” It’s not a great song, but it was a very popular song, and it contains within it a moment of decision that is notable for having been so widely and commercially audible. The first couple verses are about youth, innocence, aspiration, and the threat of their passing. In the second chorus, the singer sings “when you were young” twice. The first time, he resolves the phrase with a curt downturn, sneering faintly with full understanding of what can and cannot be had, and severing the cord neatly from behind a mask of generation-specific American cool: No, see, this is how it is now. What, you thought it wasn’t? But in the moment before he sings it again, there are loomings–“It is ridiculous / what airs we put on / to seem profound / while our hearts / gasp dying / for want of love” ; “Tell me, how can you stand there with your broken heart / ashamed of playing the fool?”–there are doubts and disgorgings, disgust at one’s own attempts at aloofness, and somewhere within a door blows off of its hinges from the force of a refusal to believe that anything must be given up, that it is ever truly too late. And so when he sings it the second time, the singer coils the first three words behind, then whips the last one up, over, and out with all the abandon he’d suppressed just a second before, loosing a “young” of pure joy and yearning, trying to lasso the whole world and not caring if you see him trying, not even caring if you see him miss. If that first “when you were young” was the understanding–that cool is rooted in acceptance, an unwillingness to be affected by any realization–the second is the rejection, the cry out that cracks the mask.


Every line of “Walking Far From Home” looks out from its own arrested bloom. Sam Beam’s phrasing and pronunciation allows each a soft, rich little expansion, and then puts a ghost fillip at the very end, pulling back  just shy of full drawl, latching one line closed just as he swans lovingly into the next. The song mounts and mounts like this upon the current of his voice, the grace and beauty of the images becoming almost unbearable. Still, each remains discrete; these gifts all gather in the palm, but the fingers do not close.



Tom Moulton on remixing MFSB’s “Love Is The Message” in 1976: “That was probably the greatest thing I ever did. I would have done anything to mix ‘Love Is The Message.’ They couldn’t understand that….When I got to certain parts of it, it was like being pushed off a cliff and not falling. Suspended.”


I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a wet road form a circle
And it came like a call, came like a call from the Lord

And there, in the singing of the very last word, is the end of control, the abandonment of mastery, the opening of the heart. He first sings it as a Last Word is supposed to be sung: as first and foremost a completion of the preceding minutes, maybe allowing the end to rise up a little and flare into the drawl he’s been reining in. But he shakes his head, no, no, it’s not enough–and almost before the word is even over, he sings it again, this time not as word but as a repeated syllable, pushing it to bellow and swell into this great, swooping thing, a horizon-wide banner that he’s waving back an forth with both arms to the very limits of his reach. Still not enough. After a rest he sings it finally, as mercury keening high in an arrow to the sun. Even if it were just perfect it would be enough, but this, this is somehow better: At one point during the ascent and again at the very end, his voice slips from that pure heavenly sound and feathers out into a plain-sung “Awww,” flawed, but of complete humanity.

It is a  climb where every step is so vivid that it seems inevitable, every gesture so gravid that it seems unavoidable, and the pull of time so insistent that it seems inescapable. And the realization that its pinnacle can be reached not in the expected moment of triumph but instead in a moment of weakness, of release, is the beginning of the realization that that is where it all speaks. To go through these beautiful, difficult events, to be led so far and taken so high, and to then stumble, but to understand that you’ve not lost, to still be somehow held above, suspended

In that moment at the end of this song is much of what I’ve always looked for in music, and much of what I currently hope for in life.

All I can do is love.


- Since getting stuck on “Walking Far From Home,” I haven’t done too much digging into Iron & Wine. Only enough, really, to confirm a couple suspicions that I had from my very first listening: One, I bet this is one of those bands that’s really only one dude. And two, I bet said dude has a serious beard—like, one of those Will Oldham-level pieces.

- One of the things that hooked me about this song was how it fooled me right at the top: When I first heard “I was walking far from home / Where the names were not burned along the wall / Saw a building high as heaven…” I would have bet my gold teeth that the next line was gonna rhyme it with “fall”–like how could this not be some 9/11 shit, right? “…But the door was so small, door was so small.” Okay, okay–not bad.

- The little backtuck Sam Beam puts in the completion of every line keeps making me think of those HAZE tags, with the unusual E that so distinctively spirals not outward, but back in on itself.

- Another perceived Moment Of Decision that I got a charge from: On “Race For The Prize,” the opening track of The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, there’s this grand sweep of strings that I was kinda ambivalent about, because on the one hand it’s really majestic and lovely, but on the other hand, it’s also really straight and glutinous. But in short order it gets all pitch-bent, as if to show you, the home listener, that it’s really just a sample or some synth preset or something, non-sacred and utterly fuckwithable. It was very small, but I’m smiling just thinking about it.

- In Ben Folds’s “Still Fighting It” there’s also a line that ends three times. First time happy, second time bittersweet, last time absolutely gutting :

“You’ll try and try / and one day you’ll fly…”


“…from me.”