Pop Music Theory Top Ten

1. TikTok. There seems little doubt that the defining app of 2019 will be TikTok. Originally release in China in 2016, then internationally in 2017, the app has taken cultural flight this year and is now a full on cultural phenomenon. My belatedness to the app has everything to do with my age. I am most definitely not TikTok’s target demographic. That said, I have been trying to keep up, if only because it seems to me that TikTok marks a new kind of screen expression, one that is inextricably linked to music. Of course, nothing new is fully new: TikTok clearly draws on the late, lamented Vine and combines it with the graphic and text capabilities of Instagram stories and Snapchat. But yeah, despite these debts, it nevertheless feels like a new venue for forms of screen creativity, and this has been enthusiastically taken up by teenagers, who need little more than their phones, and perhaps a basic editing app, to post and participate. In a service to olds, filmmaker, critic and video essayist Charlie Lyne has put together a primer on TikTok for the UK-based film magazine Sight & Sound.

Lyne’s piece is interesting in and of itself, for the way that it brings together the desktop film and personal, interrogative voice of that has long characterized the essay film and video essay. But for our purposes here, I am particularly struck by a point that Lyne makes when he says that it is “built almost entirely around music and comedy.” “The samples,” he notes, “that do best on the app don’t come from top 40 hits, but instead from the sidelines of popular culture.” Consider, for a moment, the everywhereness of this song (precise clip at 0:39, and, fair warning, the track contains a whole lot of swearing) on TikTok, memed and circulated in a <10 second snippet, in a way that sees teens either shock their parents, or conspire with their parents who feign shock. Not to bring everything back to Walter Benjamin, yet, in an essay we didn’t read for this class, his one on Surrealism from 1929, subtitled “The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” Benjamin writes, “What form do you suppose a life would take that was determined at a decisive moment precisely by the street song last on everyone’s lips?” The question now is where we find these streets songs: in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 or in the most frequently used snippets and sample on TikTok?

2. Possibly in Michigan. As Lyne says, TikTok, like other meme-based and meme-generating apps, is built around appropriation, both sonic and visual. Snippets of songs are offered up, but also dialogue. And, sure, these snippets might be the familiar stuff of pop culture or they could be from that parallel universe of the teenage soundtrack that only partially overlaps with the world of the Hot 100 and the more general popular soundscape of today’s culture. But in and amongst its dance routines and cosplay weirdness, the app has also reinvigorated and recirculated cultural artefacts that are altogether more obscure. Lyne points out the unexpected resurgence of Cecelia Condit’s 1983 film Possibly in Michigan.

Confession: I had never seen Condit’s film – it briefly went viral back in 2015 on Reddit as well – until led there by TikTok. This leads me back round to Will Straw’s “Embedded Memories.” In class, we had a chance to talk about the ways in which videocassettes and the video store recirculated cultural knowledges in the 1980s and 90s, giving space on the shelves themselves to films and stars that otherwise might have fallen out of circulation, or bringing them back into circulation. But a question for future classes might be whether we can think of TikTok in this way. Despite its defining presentness – it zeitgeisty of the momentness – how might it also be a vehicle for the rediscovery and recirculation of older cultural artefacts? What does it mean to do experimental film cosplay?

3. The Return of the Video Store. As streaming services proliferate and monthly fees for them rise, is there a chance that the video store in some form, might return? We have discussed the reemergence of various formats in class, from vinyl to cassettes to videocassettes, and mostly chalked it all up either to nostalgia or the tactile pleasures and pleasurable weighty materiality of the object. And sure, there’s no doubt that the desire for the video store might just be a desire to reanimate a set of cultural practices (staring at a wall of boxes) that seem decidedly out of sync with the times. Yet, as Eric Allen Hatch argues in “Infinite Fest: Last Night a Digital Video Disc Saved My Life” the video store might be resurgent in an era of alleged streaming plenitude. As he argues

So what’s happening here? Video stores, as always, offer more variety in a day than any repertory theater could in a year. But, crucially, they also offer everything under one roof, regardless of each film’s current corporate rights-holder. As streaming services dominate our home-viewing experience, we find an ever-fragmenting marketplace in which one would have to subscribe to more and more services to approach the “having everything” illusion that any well-stocked video store pulls off with ease. (For the record, I do think the small, highly curated selection of MUBI is the best—and most honest—streaming path on offer.)

So what happen if, to borrow and adapt Raymond Williams’s terms – which we encountered in the Clover but will address again in a couple of weeks – we think of the video store not as residual but as (re-)emergent? Could going to the video store be a modest political act in the age of monetized streaming and the enclosure of corporate-owned audiovisual archives?

4. Perfect Place. Following on from our discussion of the singer-songwriter as the (problematic) model for authenticity, sincerity, and creativity, and in anticipation of our reading of Carl Wilson on Céline Dion and the robust emoting that defines late 90s balladry, I have been thinking about the extent to which I populate my playlists with things that veer on the side of an almost robotic coldness. This, by Sui Zhen, is a recent favourite, for the way it combines the affectlessness of some early 80s New Wave and the crisp precision of 80s Bubble Economy Japanese City Pop. There is emotion here, but articulated in an unconventional way. We’ll come back round to voice in the winter term, when we read Roland Barthes, Alexander Weheliye, and Robin James, but for now I am trying to catalogue the vocal signs of authenticity and affect and thinking about how they become standardized and conventionalized.

5. “Come on Eileen, Too-Rye-Ay.” As Joshua Clover argues, “cultural memory erases bad data” (100). The one-hit wonder is the privileged example of this, especially in those instances where the artist or band has multiple hits that the passage of time conveniently whittles down to one. Putting aside Men Without Hats, perhaps my favourite example of this from the 1980s, which I have been thinking about recently after a friend, fairly enough, expressed an allergy to the song, is “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

Of course, I protested. I said, “The best Dexy’s song is ‘Geno,’ which was a number 1 hit in the UK!” But as much as you can appeal to chart history and facts to dispute claims that Dexy’s were not one-hit wonders, the truth is, as Clover writes, “cultural memory erases bad data,” and “Geno,” no matter how much I like it, now counts as bad data.

6. What does the VSCO girl listen to? In the past month or so, the VSCO girl seems to have become both a source of cultural curiosity and moral panic. The stream of articles trying to explain – to olds, but also to millennials, who have recently been reclassified as old – what a VSCO girl is and what they mean, has been torrential. A partial list includes Buzzfeed (July 26), Teen Vogue (Aug 21), Rolling Stone (Sept 5), The Cut (Sept 5), Business Insider (Sept 10), Slate (Sept 12), and Vox (Sept 24). Foolishly, I didn’t put Dick Hebdige’s classic work on subcultures on the syllabus, but I am now wondering if we should read in those final weeks of the course that I have left open. Will the VSCO girl still be a going concern by the time March rolls around? Is the vocabulary of subcultures even useful for analyzing the VSCO girl? Does the centrality of music to subcultural identity even pertain to the VSCO girl? If so, what music? I had some idea that HAIM’s “Summer Girl” – complete with video by P.T. Anderson – might be a candidate, but is it too hipsterish?

7. The Preservation Paradox. Reading Jonathan Sterne’s “Preservation Paradox” again reminded me how upset some people get when confronted with the idea that loss is an important part of remembering, that it is necessary and even desirable. Such an idea is uneasy fit in an age where everyone imagines themselves to be both curator and archivist, where both terms have been universalized to name the management of self-identity that is tied to both memory and materiality. Sterne’s article reminded me of a perspective piece published in the Washington Post by film scholar Katherine Groo late last year. In the wake of FilmStruck’s demise, Groo asked whether the shuttering of a streaming service was really all that significant, making the point that:

FilmStruck never offered access to anything close to film history. It sold a sliver of “classics” and masterpieces that has always masqueraded as the whole


I often tell my students that film history could always be otherwise. After all, film history is not a comprehensive body of works tucked away in an archive or accessible via a streaming service, but a puzzling collection of fragments and holes and remains. What remains has been left there by some contingency (it did not burn in a fire or disappear into ash) or ideology (archives, historians, scholars, critics made choices about what mattered enough to preserve). There are other ways of understanding what has been left behind and rethinking what we know.

“Never read the comments” is generally a good life principle, but in this case the comments are instructive. Several commentators basically accuse Groo of advocating the destruction of film history. With depressing predictability, the Nazis and book burning are brought up by comment number two. Putting aside for the moment that Groo wasn’t advocating the obliteration of the entire cinematic past, but rather pointing to the ways in which canonization, whether in the selections of a streaming service or the availability on DVD, obscures the ways in which history could be read otherwise, what can we make of the absolutely toxic reaction to Groo’s suggestion that loss opens up possibilities, ones that might even be more interesting/more desirable than preserved plenitude?

8. Adorno was the fifth Beatle. Among the weirdest of pop music/critical theory crossovers recently has been the assertion by Olavo Carvalho, an advisor to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, that the Beatles “were semi-literate in music” and that Theodor Adorno wrote all their songs. It would be funny if it didn’t link up a persistent and pernicious conspiracy theory driven by antisemitism. The Rock Nerd explains further.

Here’s the clip mentioned in the Guardian article.

9. Loops and edits. Thinking more about the connections between social media and dance music, I recently realized how many songs I listen to, and love, tend to rely on repeated vocal loops, usually sampled. Recently, both Four Tet’s “Only Human” – which does great work in mining a Nelly Furtado track for its core line – and Daphni’s “Sizzling” – which mines an obscure early 80s track from Bermuda – have pulled off this move. Ricardo Villalobos’s remix of Mari Kvien Brunvoll’s “Everywhere You Go” is a good example of this. Over the course of its 29 minutes, it distorts, distends, and deconstructs a couple of two lines from the original track: “Your soul is what you make it that is everywhere you go / I could never make you love it and I could never change.” It filters in and out and, at times, even seems to disintegrate, as if recorded on a cassette tape that, as a consequence of being played over and over again is starting to, in a William Basinski-type way, fall apart.

But, strictly speaking, Villalobos uses more than the single line, so I will offer up Esther Silex’s “Oskar” which consists *entirely* of the line “It’s four o’clock in the morning and it’s starting to get light” as the best example. With its sample from a terrible early 90s easy listening song, it sounds damn near perfect to me. Added bonus: the melancholic early morning vibe sets us up to talk about “The Second Summer of Love” chapter from Joshua Clover’s 1989.

10. Failed Magic. If Benjamin was writing the Arcades Project today, would he take screenshots of his favourite quotes? This one, from Susan Stewart’s On Longing belongs in every convolute.

Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 1.15.24 PM




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