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Verisimilimusic: Synthesis of the Real

Posted by , February 3rd, 2013
Category: Reasoning Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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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)

 

intoners

 

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)

 

 

 

 

 

………………

CONSEQUENTIAL DATA

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.

 

 

 

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.

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?

 

 


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 I was introduced 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!

Songs About Fucking

Posted by , January 11th, 2011
Category: Abstraction Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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In lieu of a proper introduction let me acknowledge that borrowing a restaurant review format and applying it to the examination of music is fairly absurd. What’s more, focusing these sound-as-sustenance reviews through a lens of Lacan psychoanalysis is wholly absurd. To stand on a dictum where Francis Bacon once stood: “Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion.” It’s from this point—absurdity, obviously in error—that these surveys begin.

Examining sound from this skewed vantage point, anamorphically, with absurdity as the jumping-off point, our blind spot in how we perceive music is altered, which allows new experiences; more truths.

 

 

 

Moanin’ and Groanin’” — Bill Withers

Sound: Bedclothes duet
Impulse
: Sensual
Praxis
: Works every time
Price
: Who cares?

The quintessential fuck song, unarguably. All that is embodied in the sex experience distilled to its absolute essence, as if it were a fine salve that you could spread on those parts of you hurting for love. Sung in duet with himself, Mr. Withers makes interesting Lacanian intimations toward an “object gaze,” suffering a blind spot in his perception of a visual reality, presenting an inability to bear witness to his subject “in full,” so to speak. This is further confirmed in the line, Young girl turned out to be two times twice the woman that I thought she was; the subject of desire, once possessed—in full view—becomes anamorphic and the suitor must see her re-doubled in his reality. The gap between the Symbolic and the Real is revealed in the line, if she ain’t the best in the world/ she’s as good as the goodest one. The fundamental fantasy of the experience is confirmed, and almost unconsciously, Withers concludes, “I feel real good,” with an extraordinary emphasis on the “Real.”

Despite the barred reality present in the tune, still, one of the best songs to be playing should you find yourself naked — alone with your fantasies, or otherwise.

 

 

 

Come On Baby” — Natural Four

 

Sound: Falsetto fondling
Impulse
: Epicurean
Praxis
: Sincerity with a touch of sax
Price
: Worth it’s weight in gold

The recurring supplication throughout this song, come on — come on, however loaded with double entendre, begs, on one hand, for consummation, and yet, on the other hand, looks to Lacan for a guarantee of the “experience’s existence”: Baby this love I feel/ I wonder if it’s for real. Here, the suitor wills his conquest in words, and, likely, into a reality. That is, the pleading for the will to be Real. The I’m so lonely for you baby confession has obvious Freudian connotations, and after the first climax” of the song there is a retreat to cliché (confession interposed over a saxophone solo), a few bars reprieve from the Real intent of the song, before the begging begins again — this time with more oomph. If we are, as Freud claims, fixated with maternal love, then the crying pleas, the falsetto (from the Latin “false,” a condition most common in pubescent boys), the unrequitedness, certainly lends credence to that particular worldview.

Don’t let this stop you, however, from using this song to woo someone other than your mother. It’s a lot to deal with, what with the umbilical cord and the nipple and all…

 

 

 

Back Door Man” — Howlin’ Wolf

Sound: Low end
Impulse
: As old as the ages
Praxis
: Backwards (*wink*)
Price
: Initially, tight-fisted, much looser later

This song’s for all you naughty types, as it contains the taboo trifecta: cheating, underage girls, and anal sex [which reminds me of a joke: Q: What do spinach and buttfucking have in common? A: If it’s forced on you as a child you won’t enjoy it as an adult]. The obvious double entendre aside, Howlin’ Wolf really delivers with this Willie Dixon classic. And let’s be clear, fuck you square in the eye if you would rather hear Jim Morrison sing this. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi that Wolf embodies when he confesses, I eats mo’ chicken/ any man seen. No doubt Jim Morrison ate some chicken in his day, but we can be sure The Wolf ate much, much mo’.

Blues woman of note, Sara Martin, said of this song, “every sensible woman got a back-door man,” which implicitly confirms what we privately understand, though we deny it explicitly in public.

The supporting characters in this story are interesting cases: the nurse: professional care provider to the infirm; the wife of the judge: partner to impartiality; and the cop’s wife: consort of the constable — all these women overexert their role in favor of this “gut shot dog,” as he’s viewed by their leading men. Though I lack any clinical case studies to back this, I would venture to guess the world has been supported “from behind” in this way since we were hunched primates. Gives new meaning to “Cave Man,” if you know what I mean?

 

 

 

 

Game is My Middle Name” — Betty Davis

Sound: Dominatrix-informed deep funk
Impulse
: Mess up my mind
Praxis
: Do me in
Price
: If you have to ask…

As a counterbalance to Howlin’ Wolf’s back door creep, Betty Davis comes out “on top,” “full frontal,” completely willing to “take” whatever can be dished out. And one gets the impression that she can take quite a bit, yaddamean? The admission, whatever you want/ that’s what I’ll be, has heavy chimerical signifiers. The kind that suggest she’s not unfamiliar with a request such as, “set me on fire and mash my nuts with your hooves while asphyxiating me with your serpent’s tail.” And Betty handles it: whatever you wanna play/ I said, I’ll play it witcha. I mean, what kind of “stable” woman asks you — no, begs you to, just mess up my mind.

Hearing the song in this light it’s not hard for one to envision a Blyian men’s group huddled around a fire somewhere in the wilds of Minnesota backcountry—having paid a small fortune for their “portable talisman” and “archetypal shaman’s kaftan”—and just as things are getting really myopoetic and the men can almost “touch” Iron John himself, footsteps from the distance grow louder… Out of the worst fairy tale of their New Warrior Training imaginations, the men are greeted by a Betty Davis-like sphinx with patricidal fangs and an unquenchable concupiscence:

 

Go on and open up your bag of tricks
Anything you got to give, I’ll take it

 

Listen to how she’s screaming at the end. I mean, just sit back and absorb how profoundly unhinged she sounds through the shrieking. Granted, she’s talking about “playing,” but I suggest coming up with a “safe word” before players advance to this level of the game. If Miles Davis couldn’t handle it, I ask, what makes you think you can (Yea hooo!, yea hooo! — yea hooo!)? “Come on, now.”

Again, no data to support this claim, but I bet when Betty Davis passes, should an autopsy be performed, they will find remnants of several suitable swains in her stool.

 

 

 

 

You Can Leave Your Hat On” — Etta James

Sound: Role-play R&B
Impulse
: To know what love is
Praxis
: With the lights on
Price
: Come on, just do it

Similar to the sadomasochistic spirit of “Game is My Middle Name,” Etta brings a better nine-to-five balance to the boudoir. While this is customarily a “behind closed doors” practice, this variety will likely see more travelers as it has an everyday flavor— tempting enough to draw in those lubricious-leaning types, but familiar enough to seem just-this-side-of-illegal. This jam is decidedly a lights on affair. What Etta receives from her man standing on a chair, “arms in the air,” shaking, is a little outside my wheelhouse, but if it gives her “reason to live,” who the fuck am I to argue?

When she comes on with the repetitions of “they don’t know what love is,” and the jousissanceinduced cries that complete them, there begins the slow fade. A song structure of Gräfenbergian device, as it “hits” the “spot.” Feel me?

 

 

 

Never Felt Like This Before” — Charlie Smalls

Sound: SSSW (sincere singer-songwriter)
Impulse
: Positive vibes
Praxis
: Serenade where possible
Price
: Ask Cassavetes

Off the soundtrack to the Cassavetes film Faces, a wholehearted song, caught unawares, amidst the véritély focused scenes full of drunkards, cheats and disappointed prostitutes. Faces is weighty with the conflated muse of newfound freedom, as the recently divorced “clumsy fuck” their way through—or, more precisely, out of—their unfulfilled lives. The realism of the film finds a strange bedfellow in Charlie Smalls, with his short, unassuming heartfelt proposal to spend a quiet life together.

Charlie Smalls is remembered without much aid from popular media (outside of this particular song and his work on the Broadway show The Whiz), which seems unfortunate given the gentle candor of “Never Felt Like This Before.” There are those who “commission their own immortality” — a quote attributed to marchesa Casati —and then there are the rest of us. Semiotically speaking, it’s often the case, continuing to use Casati as an example, that the signifier (Casati all dolled up) has a relationship to the signified (dandy splendor) through this commissioned immortality that is not shared in the same way with those of us (“slobs,” let’s call us) who also interpret the signs. For the Casati caste, and to employ a Barthesian Fashion System process, “a little braid gives elegance,” while for us slobs, “a little braid” makes you look like a “stuck-up” “gorgon.”

The resistance, however purposeful or not, to immortalizing oneself by way of a medium that increases public exposure, is a sign many of us slobs use to signify our own brand of elitism. For example: “This song is an obscure track off a rare indie film soundtrack.” While the level of percolation into popular awareness is different, the representation of status is quite the same. In other words, being a snob works with or without an audience.

The idea of a cinéma vérité—watching an actor play a “real” experience—is ripe with semiotic implications. Ask yourself if your participation in such a cinema, as an interpretant, decoding the signs, would be more or less “real” in a Cassavetes film than in, say, a Ridley Scott film? We value the “truth” of a Gena Rowlands-played-prostitute (humble, obscure) differently than the “truth” of an Angelina Jolie-played-prostitute (glamorous, famous). The meaning, the representation of signifier and signified, suffers more divergence in the case of Jolie, thereby diluting the authenticity of her character. She’s less “real” as a prostitute, as it were.

“Never Felt Like This Before” is a song, just like Katy Perry’s “Firework,” or any other song. The place the song occupies in culture—it’s obscurity or prevalence—has a diverging factor on how we interpret the sign, but what we respond to, ultimately, is the belief in the artist’s ability to transcend the static, and reach the ecstatic. How each artist approaches that ecstasy is different, and while some feign and some force, the listener has a keen perception, as interpretant, with a built-in bullshit detector that can seek out the truly transcendental in any performance.

So while some respond to Charlie Smalls, acknowledging his place among the shadows, as an obscure singer who appeared on a lesser-known soundtrack, what’s “Real” about that response is Smalls’ ability to transcend the rigidities of recorded media and bring ecstatic “truth” to life in song.

File under: Musique vérité!

 

 

 

You Can Have Him (I Don’t Want Him)” — Nina Simone

Sound: Piano paramountcy
Impulse
: Romantic devotion
Praxis
: Post-coital nostalgia
Price
: One’s life

Speaking of transcending the terrestrial and harnessing the ecstasy of creative infinity, Nina Simone’s performance here is the pinnacle of such an endeavor, making it the best kind of love song. Simone makes a unique experience of the mundane (“mend his underwear and darn his socks”) through an extraordinary amalgam of deliberation and inventive freedom. Musically, Simone unpremeditatedly spans between arabesques engulfing the entirety of the keyboard and buoyant whispers of notes that only hint at the melody, leaving her nearly acapella at times. The determination and contagious spirit Simone winds herself up in while singing is Stendhalian, transcendently pure, and that effect washes over the listener in a very capital R “Real” sense.

The obvious gestalt of the song—that she does want him—is betrayed in the title’s parenthetic admission (that she doesn’t want him), which, in a Lacanian view, could be construed as a “master signifier.” That is, the one thing that the subject most identifies with, and which, accordingly, has a key role in the way she gives meaning to everything. Of course, the problem with a “master signifier” is that it is also an “empty signifier,” a transferential supposition, or a blind faith in that which doesn’t really exist.  Here, the empty signifier works like the experience of Stendhal Syndrome (an assault of aesthetics). There are “real” physical effects but the sufferer can’t clearly identify a cause. “It’s just so beautiful.” Overwhelmed with her experience.

The paradox of Simone’s performance is multi-layered. First, at once she’s denying what she wants (“I don’t want him”) while confessing a contradictory truth through the signs of the song (she really wants him).  Second, there’s likely no real Object. That is to say, even if there exists a real man, the love described in the song is virtually unattainable. A love of this nature would be so overwhelming it would likely leave Nina in a Standhalian coma. The love is a sign, signifying an idea of what love could be. Finally, Simone’s performance, a live story telling, is a re-redoubling of events: Art (the song) imitates life (the love), which is then re-imitated (the performance). The song is a simulacrum of something that was never hers to begin with (Irving Berlin wrote the song).

In pure essence of Baudrillard’s simulacrum theory, Nina Simone’s performance doesn’t conceal a truth—it’s the truth which conceals that there is no truth. The performance, then, is Real. The “how deep the rabbit-hole goes” paradox of this proposition is the very thing we exalt in our faith in gods that don’t exist. For a mortal to be allowed to straddle such territories she must be damaged and difficult, like Nina Simone. We know, absolutely, that what she’s telling us is not real, but through her simulation, and the signs she conjures, we incant a truth that allows us to love, completely and freely. And that love is real.

It’s a pure faith in this complete and free love that so overwhelms Nina Simone herself in this performance. I wasn’t at Town Hall when this song was recorded, but I like to think that for the nearly six minutes that she was singing, Nina fell far, far down the rabbit-hole into a totally pure, transcendent ecstasy, and it wasn’t until the end, jarred out of her Stendhal Syndrome by the roaring applause, that she screamed back in feverish resuscitation at the audience.

Listen for yourself and hear how surprised she sounds, as if she forgot she was on stage.

 

 

 

Just Me and You” — Jane Birkin

Sound: Lolita lullaby
Impulse
: Retrieval
Praxis
: Temporary
Price
: Not worth it

 

The romantic impulse of retrieving a lost love in this song comes from the same place as Nina Simone’s “You Can Have Him,” though, here, with Jane Birkin, the longevity of this prospect seems slim. While the passion is present, and a genuine desire to revive the love once known is what Jane is asking for, there are some troubling symptoms afloat.

First, Jane starts out on a course of second chances with a focus on the “jealousy and pain” that likely ended the romance the first time. Her insistence for isolation—“it would be just me and you, fuck the rest of the world”—is an unconscious admission of her inability to integrate this ideal relationship into the rest of her worldview. Further, he desire to return to a former version of herself, “if I could be twenty-one again,” when “everything was fragile,” is a defense mechanism, classic Freudian regression.

It’s clear here that Jane’s continued nescience of her desire is not nescience of what she demands, but nescience of whence she desires.

I don’t need to tell you that Jane Birkin is dumb hot; she oozes “fuck me.” Her sex appeal has Stendhalian effects on the world. So whoever she’s addressing here was likely unable to resist. And who can blame him? Carnal satisfaction aside, you know this isn’t going to last, so, enjoy the ride, and… take pictures!

 

 

 

Maybe Liquor, Maybe Blood” — Judith and Holofernes

Sound: Fateful fado
Impulse
: Unholy
Praxis
: Predestined
Price
: Going to hell is free

 

Suppose you’re in a bad place. You’ve been there a while. And you’re not alone. Suppose you’ve fucked up a few times already. Like we learned from Jane Birkin’s misguided impulse in “Just Me and You,” being ignorant of whence you desire can lead to dark places. Those dark places are where we find the couple in this song. A “flood” of “lust,” “ill-will,” “vendetta,” “regret,” a “promise,” a “curse,” and “whiskey” on both party’s “lips.” These conditions are ripe for bad choices. Unable to sustain what little composure is left, the singer acknowledges the instability and forecasts, “I call out at night/ warning of a flood.” Unable to differentiate the symbolic from real, with a largely unconscious, dynamically repressed, Oedipal phantom overcoming him, he unleashes, “in the mood to fight or maybe in the mood to fuck.” At this point the actual act of maternal sex or patricidal rage is irrelevant, the singer is fully eclipsed by his neurosis.

Keep your distance.

 

 

 

S.D.B.J.” — Jesus Lizard

Sound: Projectile vociferating
Impulse
: Prurient
Praxis
: Preferably blacked out
Price
: Too much

 

This tableau vivant cannot fail to bring to mind a certain kind of “theater of cruelty” most have witnessed either in college or in some art house film whose images are not easily erased from the mind’s eye. This song, a life-threatening mixture of alcohol and sex, removes all pleasure from either drinking or fucking. A subject such as this is often viewed with curiosity-driven disgust. Much in the same way we are shocked at children who repeatedly cut themselves or smash their faces into walls yet can’t not watch as we’re baffled by the behavior, we find ourselves watching this song unfold. Perhaps the satisfaction — of both the self-inflicting children and the singer of this song — does not pertain so much to the way the feeling of intense bodily pain brings the subject back to reality but, rather, to the fact that inflicting this pain on oneself is a form of making a mark, thereby shifting the anamorphic blind spot, allowing a clearer view of the self. The “zero” of the subject’s existential confusion, of their blurred virtual existence, is transformed into the “one” of a signifying inscription. By engaging in these baffling activities they’ve made themselves Real.

 

Some doors are better left closed.

Lyin’ around
Like some goddamn walrus
You make me
Sick to my stomach

The smell is here
Hangs like a killer
Hangs like a deadman
And I can’t take another day

 

SICK!
DRUNK!
BLOW!

JOB!

Some kind of bra-wearin’-hairy-fish
Droolin’ into your dish

 

 

 

 

Soul On Fire” — Lavern Baker

 

Sound: Vatic ballad
Impulse
: Ego-Incinerating effigy
Praxis
: A game I’ve always won
Price
: Eternal

 

What better ending than self-immolation?

 

Descartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am” — the very act of doubting one’s own existence serves as proof of the reality of one’s own existence. In his seminar on the logic of fantasy, Lacan revised Descartes’ posit thusly, “I am not where I think.” A similar revision happens with Lavern Baker here, when she says, “goodbye to everyone but you, my love.” With this seemingly simple admission of true love, Lavern actually reveals a fully conscious perception of self, or what Kant called Transcendental Apperception.

Lavern resolves herself in parallax, with the ability to see her life through all perceptions simultaneously. Her experiences, her iterations of self, have all been a succession of content combined in her consciousness, though she’s “still had to walk this road all by myself,” the unity of experience is a unity of the self, or, as Lavern says, “I put them all on the shelf.”

In psychoanalysis, the investigation of the gap between the Symbolic the Real is referred to as “Symbolic Castration,” and here we see Lavern resolving her “barred subject,” when she sings, “I found my true love, with you forever, and my life has just begun.”

It’s no coincidence that this song (given it’s weighty implications: Oedipus complex, symbolic castration, burning oneself in effigy to unite the Symbolic and the Real) was used in the film Angel Heart to articulate the symbolism in the sex scene with Harry Angel and Epiphany Proudfoot. Under the auspices of finding Johnny Favorite, a “lost man,” Angel interviews Proudfoot, and learns Favorite had a relationship with Proudfoot’s mother. It’s not until the sex scene that the façade of Johnny Favorite starts to crumble. As “Soul On Fire” plays, and Harry Angel and Epiphany Proudfoot fuck, blood rains from the ceiling and scenes of a barbaric orgy quickly flash on screen. It’s not until the end of the film, when Harry Angel returns to this bedroom and finds Proudfoot dead, that he is slowly awoken by the revelation that he is Johnny Favorite, and Proudfoot was his daughter.

Hegel said, “beyond the veil of phenomena, the consciousness finds only what it itself has put there.” And so Harry Angel fucked his own daughter and burned in hell. The symbolic “dis-barring” of the Transcendental Apperception, eliminating the dual relationship of self (shattering the mirror stage, as it were), self-immolation—setting one’s soul ablaze… all of these phenomena coalesce beautifully in “Soul On Fire.”

Imagine Lavern Baker, in parallactic duality, with the ability to see all the mirror images of herself — all perspectives simultaneously, singing, in child-like abandon:

 

 

For me
You’re the only one
Who makes me shiver
Makes me tingle

 

 

 

 

 

A Being is at Each Moment Itself and Yet Something Else

Posted by , September 29th, 2010
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For this, the first salvo of “In The Key of Correlation,” where parallels, however wide, are drawn between two things (music and something else), it makes sense to unleash what my man Bumpy Knuckles would refer to as a full clip / of unstoppable shit. Here goes:

 

 



Mao Tse-Tung’s On Contradiction = James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”

By way of introduction on his theory of the universality of contradition, Mao offers this Engelian postulate:

 

Life consists precisely and primarily in this — that a being is at each moment itself and yet something else. Life is therefore also a contradiction which is present in things and processes themselves, and which constantly originates and resolves itself; and as soon as the contradiction ceases, life, too, comes to an end, and death steps in.
— Friedrich Engles (Anti-Dühring, 1877)

Through this lens of constant contradiction we can look at Chairman Mao and James Brown, two erstwhile rulers, in an absurdist panorama, nosing out analogies not immediately apparent.

CORRELATIVES:


Stockpiling Sobriquets

  • The Chairmen of The People v. The Godfather of Soul
  • Savior of The People v. Soul Brother Number One
  • Never Setting Red Sun v. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business
  • “Long Live Chairman Mao for Ten Thousand Years” v. “I Feel Good”

 

OFF THE PIGS!

  • Mao was required reading for would-be members of the Black Panther Party.
  • “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” was anthemic for the Black Panthers.

 

 

Cult of Personality

  • Posters hung in homes all throughout China that read, “The happy life Chairman Mao gives us.”
  • Aggrandizing fanfare in introducing James Brown (notably memorialized on Live at the Apollo).
  • Mao’s face is plastered on currency, posters and badges, he’s venerated in musical scores, plays and dances.
  • James Brown’s famous “cape routine.”

 

Beating Them At Their Own Game Is Still Losing

In their own way, both men changed the game, so to speak.

  • Mao revolutionized China, transforming the country from an agrarian society into an industrial world power.
  • James Brown revolutionized music by thrusting funk into the mainstream, creating an empire as a musician, songwriter, bandleader, A&R man, entertainer, activist and label and radio station owner.

 

“Doin’ It To Death” b/w Totalitarian Formula

In their rise to fame and power, both men adopted a mode of “reactionary ruling” indicative of the system that their followers accredit them with bucking.

  • Mao’s People’s Republic was communist by name, though negated, by the means employed, what Marx called, the “emancipation of the individual,” which is the very aim of communism.
  • The Godfather’s brand of “I Feel Good” funk involved hefty fines for his band members who were tardy, played sour notes, dressed shabby, or forgot to shine their shoes.
  • Mao’s “proletarian reform” included systematic imprisonment, execution, famine, forced suicide, the destruction of traditional culture, repression of religion, and the persecution of critical opponents.
  • When “Cold Sweat” broke out as a #1 hit it sparked a catalytic conversion in Brown’s oeuvre, framing the formula for many, many songs to come: rhythmic declamation, horn stabs, call-and-response, breakbeats, repetitive riffs, building one instrument atop the next by incanting the players, e.g., “Let’s give the drummer some? Wanna give the drummer some? Can the drummer some? Can the drummer some? Can the drummer some? Can the drummer some? YOU GOT IT DRUMMER! … Uhhh! … Help him out Bernard…”

 

 

The Devil is in the Details

  • In On Contradiction, Mao alludes to class struggle but contends that while contradictions will always exist, those contradictions can be made harmless. Just a short twenty years later Mao would boast of killing a hundred times more people than the first emperor of China. How do you say, Uh, with your bad self?
  • “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” is one of the most popular Black Power anthems. The song is hopeful in classic JB-styled simplicity. James exclaims, “Say it loud!” and a chorus of children shout back, “I’m black and I’m proud.” It quickly became a #1 hit, and embodied an age of self-reliance, self-determination and mass mobilization. In actuality, the chorus of kids used to sing “I’m black and I’m proud” were mostly Asian and white suburbanites.

 

 

Notable Quotables — Four Duets

There is always a gradual growth from the knowledge of individual and particular things to the knowledge of things in general.
—Mao Tse-Tung

Some people say we’ve got a lot of malice
Some say it’s a lot of nerve
I say we won’t quit moving
Til we get what we deserve

—James Brown

°°°°°


The matter does not end with their dependence on each other for their existence; what is more important is their transformation into each other. That is to say, in given conditions, each of the contradictory aspects with a thing transforms itself into its opposite, changes its position to that of its opposite…. By means of revolution the proletariat, at one time the ruled, is transformed into the ruler, while the bourgeoisie, the erstwhile ruler, is transformed into the ruled.
—Mao Tse-Tung

I’ve worked on jobs with my feet and my hands
But all the work I did was for the other man
And now we demand a chance
To do things for ourselves
We’re tired of beating our head against the wall
And working for someone else

—James Brown


°°°°°

 

The contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is resolved by the method of socialist revolution.
—Mao Tse-Tung

Now, we’re people
We’re just like the birds and the bees
We’d rather die on our feet,
Than keep living on our knees

—James Brown

°°°°°


It is of great importance to study these problems. Lenin meant just this when he said that the most essential thing in Marxism, the living soul of Marxism, is the concrete analysis of concrete conditions.
—Mao Tse-Tung

Oooh weee
You’re killin’ me

—James Brown

 

°°°°°

 

While there are correlations, the difference between “Get on the Good Foot” and the Great Leap Forward are clear. James Brown didn’t kill millions, and Mao couldn’t dance the motherfucking mashed potato. What’s the point, then? As a revolutionary once said, “if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao / You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.” Put another way, “we all want to change the world,” yet instead of changing the world we relinquish that want to idols who represent change. Put yet another way, the most urgent expression of changing the world should be the destruction of idols, especially when they claim to represent changing the world.

Karl Marx said his view of a socialist society is that which “permits the actualization of man’s essence by overcoming his alienation. It is nothing less than creating the conditions for the truly free, rational, active and independent man; it is the fulfillment of the prophetic aim: the destruction of the idols.”

See also: When I woke from my dreaming my idols were all clay / All portion of love had all flown away.



The Rich Will Never Be On Our Side

Posted by , September 9th, 2010
Category: Reasoning Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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For Chilean folk singer Victor Jara the cost of non-conformity was his life. On September 16, 1973, he was killed. Despite 4 days of torture and having army officers mockingly ask him to play guitar after breaking his arms, Jara, forever on the side of the people, instead sang “Venceremos” (We Shall Triumph), the campaign song of the Popular Unity coalition. He was shot and killed, his body was dumped in the outskirts of Santiago.

Jara was a poet and songwriter, an activist and outspoken supporter of the Marxist president Salvador Allende. The Popular Unity coalition (Unidad Popular), the party backing Allende, sought equality for the people of Chile in an effort to bring her out of third world conditions. Thanks to documents produced from a Freedom of Information Act request, longstanding suspicions are confirmed that the United States government was complicit in the damage done to Chile in resistance to president Allende’s aim for cultural equality.

Much effort has gone into convincing Americans of the evils inherent in Marxism, socialism, communism and any leader who espouses such philosophies. Interestingly, if we actually look at Allende’s economic, social and political initiations, Marxism reveals itself much more humane than capitalism, which is exactly why there’s so much propaganda against Marxism in America.

Allende was a doctor, and as evidenced from his earliest work in politics as the Minister of Health, he was concerned most for the health and well-being of everyone in Chile. Allende spearheaded many reforms, including the creation of maternity care programs, increased pensions for widows, free lunch programs for poor children, safety laws to protect factory workers, and legislation that brought medical attention to three million Chileans. This was the face of Allende’s Marxist socialism platform, or as he often referred to it, “social democracy.” The Popular Unity program benefited all Chileans. The only people to whom it was detrimental were the handful of elite, super wealthy businessmen of Chile and the United States corporations who had interests in Chile’s main resource, copper.

Chile leads every other country in the world in its production of copper, and there were two main transnational corporations exploiting that production, International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT) and Kennecott Copper Corporation.

An American army lieutenant founded ITT, and as corporations do, ITT acquired other corporations around the world. These included not only communication companies but also electronics and aircraft manufacturers. ITT built and sold fighter planes, radios and radars for the Nazis. In fact, ITT won a $27 million settlement for damage from Allied forces to one of its aircraft manufacturing plants in Germany.

As soon as Allende showed strength in Chile, ITT began a campaign to overthrow the Popular Unity coalition. Through newspapers and telephone companies owned by the corporation, ITT began a smear campaign against Allende. There was also money funneled through the U.S. government, specifically the CIA, to prepare a military overthrow of Allende.  A year before Allende was killed an American reporter disclosed a memo from Dita Beard, an ITT lobbyist, showing collusion between ITT, the Justice Department and the White House. ITT funded the Republican National Convention in return for a favorable settlement in an antitrust suit against ITT. Even before Allende was killed, ITT proved itself to be terribly inhumane: supporting the Nazis, involvement in Watergate, and the assassination of Chilean people. While ITT was terrible in its humanity, they were very successful as a corporation. The tenets of corporate business put profit over everything else. Stockholders demand action that serves the corporation regardless of “outside interests.” If the life and welfare of people fall within the scope of outside interests, that’s not the concern of the corporation. As proven in recent history, a corporation, now recognized as a legal person, is afforded more rights than a natural person, especially in areas of bankruptcy and mass tort litigation.

«« It follows a pattern if you dig what I mean »»


[As an aside — and in an effort to keep some tenuous link to all things record-related, I should mention that ITT has the distinguished honor of being detested in song by more than one artist. Gil Scott-Heron brilliantly tied all the politics of time together in his, “H2O-Gate Blues.” Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s king of afrobeat took on ITT directly, criticizing them for devastating Africa in exploitation of her natural resources.]

Sadly, Salvador Allende’s overthrow was not the first, nor the bloodiest, in the American effort to “democratize” the world. There is a certain doublespeak engaged by politicians, businessmen and news outlets. It’s a well-established, thinly-veiled technique that most people are cynically immune to. Using trillions of “defense” dollars to help “liberate” countries and allow them to “participate” in world democracy, while our transnational corporations gain access to business opportunities within their borders. This economic imperialism — whether it be copper in Chile, oil in the Niger delta, lithium in Afghanistan, minerals for electronics from the Congo, United Fruit’s banana republic in Honduras and Guatemala, blood diamonds in Liberia — covers the world and intensifies the imbalance between the rich and poor, those with access to technology and those left in the dark, and the healthy and the hungry. The doublespeak of democracy conceals itself in the idea of the American dream. The inalienable rights — that is, those entitlements in our absolute possession, unable to be taken from us — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that all men are created equal, are purported to be available to everyone while a system of exploitation works against those rights. Those who can claw their way out of the system of exploitation are often championed, in a “rags to riches” style, as examples of the American dream coming true. In reality, though, those who overcome the exploitation are a rare few. For as long as a system that allows one class to exploit another exists, there will be a majority who toil to serve a select few. It was the idea of an actual democracy — of the people, for the people, by the people — that Allende worked toward.

On the first anniversary of his presidency, Allende said, “Democracy and freedom are incompatible with unemployment and lack of housing, the lack of culture, illiteracy and sickness. How is democracy strengthened? By creating more jobs, giving better wages, building more homes, providing the people with more culture, education and better health.” These words could be from any democratic president, as the rhetoric sounds the same. The only difference is that Allende acted on his statements. Worker wages were raised, rents were frozen, free milk was provided for children, hospitals were ordered to treat all who sought medical attention, and small businesses were given tax breaks. Allende began a massive agrarian reform and asked workers to participate in an economy that they now had a stake in. As a result, unemployment plummeted to less than 4 percent, production rose, and more citizens than ever before (especially the youth) engaged in the political process.

Through all the reform Allende was plagued with imperialist insolence at the hands of the White House. Funneling millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars into preparing covert operatives out of the embassy in Santiago for a coup, creating an “invisible” economic blockade against Chile’s industrial plants and natural resources, cutting all humanitarian aid, as well as funding extreme fascist groups. White House-appointed CIA gunmen assassinated the army chief of staff, René Schneider and naval Captain Arturo Araya. Allende supporters within the Chilean military were tortured, resulting in many resignations, including the commander-in-chief of the army, General Carlos Prats. These crimes, coupled with legislation limiting Allende from making military appointments, allowed the White House-chosen General Augusto Pinochet to become commander-in-chief of the Army.

Despite all of this, Allende went before the United Nations General Assembly and spoke truth to power, advocating humanity over murder, democracy over the exploitation of transnational corporations, peace over war profiteering, and health and education for all:

We are aware of the fact that, when we denounce the financial and economic blockade applied against us, it is somewhat difficult for world opinion, and even for some of our fellow citizens, to understand what we mean. This aggression is not overt and has not been openly declared to the world; on the contrary, it is an oblique, underhand, indirect form of aggression, although this does not make it any less damaging to Chile. We are having to face forces that operate in the half-light, that fight with powerful weapons, but fly no identifying flags and are entrenched in the most varied centers of influence…

 

What I have just described to the assembly amounts to a perversion of the fundamental nature of international agencies, the utilization of which as tools of the policies of individual member states is legally and morally unacceptable no matter how powerful such states may be. Such misuse represents the exertion of pressure on an economically weak country, the infliction of punishment on a whole nation for its decision to recover its own basic resources, and a premeditated form of intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. In a word, it is what we call imperialist insolence…

Unable to stop him any other way, the White House orchestrated a coup d’état through General Pinochet. On September 11, 1973, Allende was murdered in the presidential palace. Pinochet was declared president by military junta and immediately totalitarian tactics reigned supreme in Chile.

The press was censored. Students, priests, political activists and women who wore slacks were arrested. Fascists groups burned books in the street that they deemed “subversive.” Under martial law, congress was suspended; all labor organizations, independent judiciary and free press were outlawed. When jails overflowed in Santiago, suspected criminals were herded into sports stadiums and tortured, if not shot on sight. The water of the Mapocho River was reported to turn reddish-brown as bodies, legs and arms floated in the water. Over 200,000 Chileans fled the country seeking exile. Thousands who chose to stay were “disappeared,” most being tortured and killed, buried in mass graves or dumped from helicopter into the Pacific Ocean.

Most of the governments around the world refused to recognize Pinochet’s military dictatorship or broke off diplomatic relations in protest. The U.S., however, immediately recognized Pinochet as Chile’s president and rushed in economic aid. Even the 2006 New York Times obituary of Pinochet mentions that he “led the country into an era of robust economic growth.” It fails to mention the decade of extreme poverty, fear and unemployment under Pinochet prior to the era of growth. And, the “robust economic growth” was based on Milton Friedman’s “free market” philosophy that privatized all state enterprises, including social security, cut worker wages, restricted labor unions, sharply increased unemployment and, according to a 1994 World Bank report, left 40 percent of Chileans living on three-fourths of daily calories required to subsist. Through re-strengthening of NAFTA, the WTO and other trade organizations, Chile’s copper resources are back in the hands of transnational corporations. Pinochet inherited his economic plan for Chile from a group of economists, studying under Milton Friedman, who opposed Allende and secretly prepared a stratagem for Chile that would be advantageous to American interests. This new economic policy, El Ladrillo (“the brick”), set forth “reforms” by way of deregulation and privatization. The copper industry remained nationalized under Pinochet, but through legislation and consolidation all outside corporate interests were allowed, once again, controlling interest.

In February of 1971, Allende presciently said:

Ever since my youth I have fought to bury prejudice and obsolete political frameworks for all time. Destiny has willed that I should head this democratic revolution in Chile, this struggle in which the word democracy has a much broader significance than when it is indiscriminately used to conceal essentially anti-democratic and reactionary political attitudes… our government’s action against the monopolies which have plundered the Chilean economy and our attempts to recover the basic natural resources of the country for the Chilean people will affect certain North American private interests. However, we are sure that these interests cannot be identified with the greatest historical purposes of the North American people… whose progressive traditions I respect.

President Allende’s five guiding principles for democracy (from his 1971 message to congress), legality, development of institutions, political freedom, nonviolence, and areas of social ownership, in comparison to General Pinochet’s 1974 declaration, “all government opponents will be crushed and made to disappear” — and which form of government the United States chose to support, tells a terribly sad story of the state of our collective American dream. At the end of Pinochet’s reign, investigators found he had stolen $28 million from Chile. A long legal battle to charge him with genocide ended unsuccessfully when doctors deemed him unfit, though media outlets claim he was “embarrassed” by constant reports of his crimes before he died. The trend of absolving ourselves of guilt by sacrificing villains after they have become harmless continues, and it leaves the criminals of capital largely at liberty to perpetuate the systems the villains helped create.

The propaganda of misinformation in the U.S. survives, as the transnational corporations that own the media outlets and lobby influence over the government see that their agenda sets the tone for how events of the world are discussed — agendas that place profit and expansion and markets above human consideration. It’s no surprise then, that when the San José mine collapsed on August 5, 2010, the “story” in all the newspapers focused on spectacle and sensation; where the family members of the trapped miners were camping, keeping vigil; how to break the bad news to the trapped miners that it would take several months to get them out; the psychological effect of being trapped underground; how NASA had been called in to help, and what kind of state-of-the-art equipment they were using. The part of the story that saw very little coverage was the unsafe history of the mine; how other miners had previously died as the result of similar collapses; the mine has been shut down after the family of a miner who died in 2007 sued the owners; the mine had been fined over 40 times for breach of safety regulations. Empresa Minera San Esteban, the company who owns the mine, taking a page from the Enron book of business, plans to declare bankruptcy to protect its investments from legal actions taken by the trapped miners or their families.

Copper contributes to most of our daily activities because of its use in printed circuit boards, integrated circuits, wiring as well as hundreds of other applications, such as refrigeration, air conditioning and musical instruments. For those of us that use computers, the Internet, listen to- and play music, copper makes these activities possible. This digital age allows us to enrich our lives and have access to cultures that were the stuff of adventurers just a generation ago. Travel has been made easier; cell phone technology allows us to talk to just about anyone, anywhere; we carry small battery-powered devices for communication, entertainment and business; we can eat as if at a world’s fair every day of the week. All of that is possible because of copper in Chile, oil in the Niger delta, lithium in Afghanistan, minerals for electronics from the Congo, United Fruit’s banana republic in Honduras and Guatemala. The transnational corporations who exploit these natural resources, as well as the corporations who turn the resources into consumer goods, will advertise about the happy possibilities their products provide, but we as consumers know on whose backs those products were brought into existence?

As people around the world are trapped in mines, raped for minerals, poisoned by their employers and suffer at the hands of corporations we have to acknowledge what being the human element that runs capitalism and democracy means to the world. The promise of the American dream is that anyone can strike it rich; while the reality is that one percent of the population control the purse strings while the rest of us work in service of that one percent.

Allende knew this when he addressed the United Nations Third Conference on Trade and Development in Santiago, April 13, 1972:

The basic mission of this third session is the replacement of an outdated and unjust economic and trade order by an equitable one based on a new concept of man and human dignity, and to promote the reformulation of an international division of labor which the less advanced countries can no longer tolerate, inasmuch as it obstructs their progress while it favors only the affluent nations… The human being should be the object and the goal of all development policies and of all desirable forms of international cooperation. This is a concept which must be borne in mind in every discussion, in every decision, in every policy measure which aims at fostering progress whether at the national or multinational level… We want to lay the foundations for a new society which will offer its members social equality, welfare, freedom and dignity.

The New Chilean Song Movement (“La Nueva Canción Chilena”) was the embodiment, in sound, of all that Allende hoped for Chile. It’s no wonder that after the coup, one of the first orders of business for Pinochet’s military forces was to destroy Discoteca del Cantar Popular (the radical record company that released many of the new song artists), destroying not only the office and studio, but also the master recordings themselves. Today, the new songs survive from old LPs that made it out of Chile.

Stu Cohen, in cooperation with Rounder Records, released Chile Vencera! An Anthology of Chilean New Song, 1962 — 1973, and the royalties were donated to the Chile Defense Committee. The album is a compilation of new song artists culled from records that weren’t destroyed by the military junta. All the musicians on the album were directly affected by the junta. Victor Jara, as mentioned at the beginning, was murdered by the military, Angel Parra was sent to prison, Isabel Parra and Patricio Castillo managed to escape Chile and seek exile, Quilapayun and Inti Illimani happened to be on tour in Europe during the coup and remained in exile.

Bob Dylan has often been championed as the “voice of a generation,” a title even he takes issue with. Dylan’s ability to write that which seem so real in the mind of the listener is remarkable, and he deserves the praise he so often gets for his songwriting. But as a revolutionary or leader of the counter-culture, can we expect revolutionary innovation from someone whose profession it is to monopolize under established social conditions? It should be obvious that such revolutionary innovations come only from people who have received universal hostility and persecution from the status quo. For the people of Chile — the miners, agrarians, peasants, the proletariat — Victor Jara and the other artists of the Nueva Canción were exactly such, revolutionaries! Here is a small selection from the Chile Vencera! album:

“Al Centro De Injusticia” — Isabel Parra

 

This song is a particularly fine example of pre-Allende social commentary. It attacks what is in terms of what should be. It is directed against the Eduardo Frei government, the upper classes, and the profiteering foreign business.

(Link to the lyrics in Spanish)

Chile is limited in the north by Peru
And by Cape Horn in the south
In the east there rises the cordillera
While in the west the coast
In the middle, the verdant valleys
Where people multiply
Each family has many kids
Who live poorly
Of course, some live comfortably
But covered with the blood of the slaughtered
In front of the most arrogant
Agriculture poses its questions
We buy potatoes from many nations
Though they originated in the south of Chile
In front of the tricolored flag
Mining is very difficult
The miner produces good money
But it goes into foreigners’ pockets
Booming industries where several ladies
Work for a few pennies
And they have to do it, because
Their husbands’ pay is not enough for a month
To escape the anguish of this pain
In the starry night I shut my voice
The homeland is beautiful Mr. Tourist
But they don’t show you the slums
While they spent millions in a moment
People die in astonishing numbers
Too much money in the the public parks
While there is great misery in the hospitals
In the middle the of Alameda de las Delicias

Chile stands at the center of injustice

“Vamos Mujer” — Quilapayún

“Let’s go Woman” is drawn from another cantata (Cantata Santa Maria de Iquique, 1969), possibly the single most famous record released in Chile by the New Song Movement. Written by Luis Advis, one of Chile’s foremost classical composers, the cantata attests to the degree to which the movement was having an effect on areas beyond folk music.

The cantata tells the story of a massacre of miners and their families that occurred in the north of Chile in 1907. The miners and the families had gone to Iquique, a large northern port to protest the conditions in the nitrate mines. Their peaceful protest was met with bullets and several thousand were killed. The massacre was the single most important event in the development in the militant workers’ movement in Chile. The rhythms and melodies come from the traditional folklore of the north. The narrator is Hector Duvachelle.

(Link to the lyrics in Spanish)

[Narration]
The workers had accumulated many wrongs
Much poverty and many injustices
Finally, they could no longer stand it, and the words
Had to demand that which they were owed

At the end of 1907
The strike in San Lorenzo was stirring
And the cry which exploded in the desert
Was heard at once by all

From one mine to the other, like blasts
They heard protests of the workers
From one mine to the other, the owners
With their scornful, indifferent faces

What could the owners care of the rebellion
Of the dispossessed, of the outcasts
Soon they will return, repent
Brought by hunger, their heads lowered

What happens then, if no one listens
Each brothers asked the other
What we ask for is just and it’s so little
Must we lose hope?

So, with love and with suffering
Their wills were united
In only one place would they understand
They had to go down to the big port

[Sung]
Let’s go woman, we are leaving
For the city
All will be different
There can be no doubt
There can be no doubt, have faith
Soon you will see
That in Iquique
They’ll understand

Take my poncho woman
It will cover you
Take the little one in your arms
He will not cry
He will not cry, have faith
Soon he will smile
You will sing him a song
And then he will sleep

What is it that’s happening? Tell me
Don’t be silent any longer

It’s just a long road
You must travel
Over the hills
Let’s go woman
Let’s go woman, have faith
We must arrive
In the city we will be able
To see the whole ocean

They say that Iquique is big
Like a Salar [a huge nitrate mining area]
With many beautiful houses
That you will like
That you will like, have faith
As there is a God
There in the port
All will be better

What is it that’s happening? Tell me
Don’t be silent any longer

Let’s go woman, we are leaving
For the city
All will be different
There can be no doubt
There can be no doubt, have faith
Soon you will see
That in Iquique
They’ll understand

“La Democracia” — Angel Parra

Many of Angel’s songs are written with biting satire. “La Democracia” is no exception. The tone is set in the first few lines and it never lets up. The expression, “let the dogs bark” in the last verse is from a 16th century Spanish play.

(Link to the lyrics in Spanish)

How beautiful is democracy in this lovely country
How pretty are the slums that they build
This permits poor and rich alike
To have the same right when called to the polls
I am a democrat, a technocrat, a plutocrat and a hypocrite

I like democracy because it lets you observe
The fantastic progress of those who have the freedom
To exploit a few and increase their capital
Besides, our rights, and I say it happily
Permit that blacks and whites admire the monuments
I am a democrat, a technocrat, a plutocrat and a hypocrite

And without problems of class or religious creed
We can see how the “cute ones” land on the moon
And in the reserved or common seats
See how Colo-Colo [a soccer team] wins
I like democracy winter and summer
The cops practice shooting at young libertarians
I am a democrat, a technocrat, a plutocrat and a hypocrite

Of course, some starving, wretched ones
Would like to change because they are envious
Let me say to the people, let the dogs bark [so not worry]
I like democracy, I say it with dignity
If you hear sabre rattlings, it is mere chance
I am a democrat, a technocrat, a plutocrat and a hypocrite

“Las Casitas Barrio Alto” — Victor Jara

This song is an example of the international borrowing that went on during the period of folk revivals in many countries. In the U.S., Pete Seeger frequently performed “Guantanamera.” In Chile, Seeger’s recording of Malvina Reynold’s song, “Little Boxes,” became popular, and “Las Casitas Barrio Alto” is Victor Jara’s version changed to fit the Chilean reality.
[Dopesmokers take note, this is the Weeds theme song.]

(Link to the lyrics in Spanish)

The little houses of the rich suburb
With fences and gardens
A beautiful car entrance
Waiting for a Peugeot
They are pink, green, white and light blue
The little houses of the rich suburb
Made with Elmer’s Glue

And the people of the little houses
They smile and visit each other
They go together to the supermarket
And they all have TVs

There are dentists, merchants, landowners and pushers
Lawyers and pensioners and they all wear polyester

They play bridge, have martinis
And the children are all blond
And with other blonds
They go together to the fancy school

And then the spoiled daddy’s boy
Goes off to college
Where he becomes concerned
With social problems
He smokes in his Austin Mini
He plays with bombs and politics
He kills generals
[referring to the assassination of René Schneider]
And is a seditious gangster

“El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido” — Quilapayún

“El Pueblo Unido” is one of the great, optimistic peoples’ fighting songs produced by the New Song movement. It is sung here in concert by Quilapayún, appearing at the First International Festival of Popular Peoples’ Song in Santiago. The recording was made in 1973, the year of the coup.

(Link to the lyrics in Spanish)

[Shouted]
The people united shall never be defeated
The people united shall never be defeated
The people united shall never be defeated

[Sung]
Stand up to sing, we know we’re going to win
Flags of unity are moving forward
And you will march at my side
And you will see your song and your banner grow
The red light of dawn
Announces the life to come

Stand up to fight, the people shall win
There is a better life coming
To conquer our happiness
In a clamor a thousand fighting voices
Will rise and sing a song of freedom

With determination the homeland will win

And now, the people that rise to fight
With a giant’s voice crying, “Forward!”
The people united shall never be defeated
The people united shall never be defeated

The homeland is forging its unity
From north to south they will mobilize
From the burning mineral salt mines
To the southern forests, they will go united in battle and work

They will cover the homeland
Their march announces the future

Stand up to sing, the people shall win
Imposing truth from millions within

The fiery steel battalions
Their hands bring justice and reason
Woman, with fire and courage
You are already here, together with the workers

And now the people stand to fight
With a giant’s voice, they shout, “Forward!”
The people united shall never be defeated
The people united shall never be defeated
The people united shall never be defeated
The people united shall never be defeated


If you’re interested in a distinctly Chilean view of Allende, Pinochet and the coup, Patricio Guzmán has made a number of documentaries on the subject. First, The Battle of Chile, a three-part, four-and-a-half hour documentary that spends most of its time in the streets. From 1972 through 1979, five people made the film using one camera with film supplied by French artist Chris Marker. Of course, the military junta banned the film. Before it was banned, it was secretly stored in the Swedish Embassy in Santiago and the raw footage had to be smuggled out of Chile to be edited in Cuba and released in France through Marker. The cinematographer, Jorge Müller Silva, was “disappeared” by the Pinochet. In 2004 Guzmán released Salvador Allende, a documentary about the personal impact Allende and the Popular Unity had on Guzmán’s life. The film spends time with Chileans in a post-Pinochet reflection on a dream that was cut short. It’s particularly hard to watch folks reflect, often for the first time publicly, on what it meant to be part of Allende’s democratic revolution; a worker who states one of his biggest regrets was not positioning himself with others in front of the presidential palace when the military was bombing Allende, who was locked inside; a family, who had buried a photo album of Popular Unity-related events during the Pinochet dictatorship, unearth the memories and express their regret.

Two correlative points worth mentioning at the close. First, Salvador Allende’s life, as well as his dream for a social democracy, were cut short by White House-financed forces on September 11, 1973. Most people outside America refer to this day as “the forgotten 9/11.” The captains of industry, the principals of American capitalism, want us to associate Marxism or Socialism with terrorism. It’s shameful that the first 9/11 the White House was involved in, one that sought to eradicate Marxism, birthed a dictatorship that lasted for decades, killed thousands, and became the embodiment of terror for those living under its conditions.

Second, decades past, with Allende, Pinochet and many of the people who lived through the coup long since passed, the historic artifacts of the time — the Nueva Canción movement and Guzmán’s documentaries — survive through technologies that all rely on Chile’s greatest export, copper. Victor Jara’s music, Patricio Guzmán’s films, and all the ideas contained therein survived through technology, their work slowly countering the efforts of transnational corporations who pay to make history malleable. If you’re reading this, it owes in no small part to copper.

Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail.
Salvador Allende, September 11, 1973