Unessay: Playlist

This isn’t going to be one of those playlists that gathers together a bunch of tracks that hang together on a theme, time, or topic. It is a grab bag of songs that mark the moment, that I have been listening to in the past weeks and months that have some connection to the material we have been reading in class. I didn’t so much seek out these tracks looking for connections to course material. They found me. The typical scene is me listening and then, all of a sudden, hearing an echo of something that we had talk about. So, what follows is a playlist made up of sonic encounters and critical echoes, where tune illuminates theory and maybe vice versa as well.

One. Marie Davidson. “Work It” (Soulwax Remix)

Marie Davidson’s “Work It” is a fantastic bit of retro electro pastiche. On one hand, it seems to embody Fredric Jameson’s lament about the “loss of historicity” and the recycling of dead styles characteristic of postmodernism. The 80s here are reduced to brutal, brittle beats and Gordon Gekko-like – from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) – mantra that “greed is good.” On the other hand, it seems wrong to reduce the track to this. After all, I don’t think Davidson is being 100% serious in her repeated injunctions to “work” or “work it.” It feels like a parody of 80s corporate culture and the aerobic body politics of the 80s that went along with it. As such, what feels like pastiche is actually a fine-grained, if playful, critique, making visible the drives and desires that fuelled the decade.

But there are at least a couple of other things going on here as well. First, the call to “work it” is intimately wrapped up with the history of drag and drag culture. I’ll repeat here Rhys’s suggestion that everybody watch Paris is Burning (Jeanie Livingston, 1991, USA), and see how Davidson’s “Work It” could soundtrack the corporate drag runway. Second, the audibility of Marie Davidson’s French-Canadian accent here makes me think of what Carl Wilson says about Céline’: that her accent is another layer of content, marking her tracks out as distinct.

The video above is an unofficial one, made by a fan, but is nevertheless perfect, with its 80s aerobics and portrayal of bodily punishment through exercise. There’s an echo of Adorno here in the way that leisure activity under capitalism is merely an extension of work, but also of Foucault and the way the subject must maintain his or her own body, to govern it through exercise and maintenance. Yet, to come full circle to Jameson, it is a skillful deployment of 80s signifiers that points to the ways that the decade is very retro present right now, see also Lizzo’s “Juice.”

Two. Beverly Glenn-Copeland. “Color of Anyhow.”

Although this probably wasn’t top of mind for Rancière when he formulated “the distribution of the sensible,” I think it is a helpful phrase in understanding the phenomenon of the lost classic. At the heart of Rancière’s argument is that the social, cultural, and political fields are all bounded, shaped, and delineated in a way that makes certain things visible, audible, and sayable at any giving historical moment. As I understand Rancière, politics is the process, the act, of transforming this distribution, of transforming discourse by making it possible for something to be seen, heard, or said. I think this goes some way to explaining how a song, or an artist, unheralded or marginalized in the past, all of a sudden comes to make sense in the present as a consequence of the (re-)distribution of the sensible. I’ll use Beverly Glenn-Copeland as an example here. In 1970, this soft, folk-inflected pop, was definitely not a hit, but it has been recently rediscovered and celebrated. So has something shifted that makes it audible in a different way, that allows listeners to hear something in it that was not audible in its time?

Three. The Carpenters. “Rainy Days and Mondays.”

In a similar vein, I think that one of the most valuable theoretical concepts in Karen Tongson’s Why Karen Carpenter Matters is that of “queer afterlives” (91). It is valuable because it shows how the meaning and force of cultural content is fluid rather than fixed, and that material may find audiences beyond their targeted demographic. But it is also about how listening communities – if that is even the best term here – can productively transform the meaning of something through the force of their reading, which is at the very heart of what Susan Sontag is suggesting in her “Notes on Camp.” I have put “Rainy Days and Monday” here at least in part because we didn’t get to listen to it in class! But I also always laugh at the near Wordsworth allusion, when I mishear “clown” as “cloud”: “Walking around, some kind of lonely clown/Rainy Days and Mondays always get me down.”

Four. Kate Tempest. “People’s Faces”

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” is one of those rich, theoretical observations that seems to be having some impact on wider culture. In a golden era of dystopian literature and film, it has real explanatory force and is strikingly direct. It is somewhat strange, then, that nobody seems totally confident about where it comes from or who said it first. For a long time it was most often ascribed to Fredric Jameson, from his book The Seeds of Time (1992), a kind of follow-up to his work in Postmodernism. But in a later essay, Jameson seems to have forgotten that he himself says it and writes, “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” It is a sharp revision, but I want to say, “Fred, it was you!” In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher hedges his bets and says that it is variously attributed to either Jameson or Slavoj Žižek. But, ironically, I think the phrase has come to be associated most readily with Fisher himself. Capitalist realism names, at least in part, the political situation where alternatives cannot be imagined. Fisher, in his conversation with Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, dates the start of this process to 1977, when we start to witness “the slow cancellation of the future.” So what happens to music in an era stripped of its capacity for utopian thinking, or even an ability to imagine a different kind of world? One answer may be that it is no less angry, but definitely more weary. For me, Kate Tempest’s “People’s Faces” evokes some of this world-weariness but yet holds out the possibility, in its exhaustion, of a transformed world.

Five. Pulp. “Common People.”

I am not sure whether, in our discussion of neoliberalism, intern culture, and the inheritance of social and economic capital, we ever really answered the question whether the inequalities in pop that Stuart Maconie sees operating in the UK are really in effect here in Canada/North America. Is pop now posh, or at least firmly middle-class? Maconie recalls a time – Britain in the 70s, 80s, and some of the 90s – when art school was the great incubator for bands. No tuition fees and decent unemployment benefits after graduation meant that kids without trust funds or family money could dedicated time to invention and practice. If we look beyond the mainstream, do we still see poor or working-class kids making music, with grime in the UK or hardcore and metal scenes in North America. Pulp is not only one of perhaps the last great art school bands of the British tradition, “Common People” is also explicitly about pop and class, about rich kids skimming subcultural capital off the poor by slumming it – a phrase itself that has a rich history going back to the Victorian period!

Six. Pet Shop Boys. “Go West”

Following up on our discussion of Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” I discovered this article by noted pop critic Jon Savage. Savage traces the longer history of camp, provides some context for understanding Sontag’s cultural vantage point in 1964, and suggests ways in which camp, as an aesthetic has changed and mutated since Sontag identified it. Savage suggests that camp has become mainstream, but remains provocative, and I like that contradiction, that it can be both at the same time. The Pet Shop Boys are perhaps an obvious choice to illustrate how camp is still a viable aesthetic and political strategy, but I particularly like how camp in “Go West” works in a few ways. The fact that it is a cover of, and homage to, the Village People certainly counts, as does the clearly camp aesthetic of the video. But the way in which it references and rehabilitates a Soviet aesthetic and the orchestral bigness of Shostakovich is totally camp as well. To confuse the categories that it is often difficult to prise apart, it sees the kitschiness of Soviet signifiers.

Seven. lofi hip hop radio.

This is a bit of a cheat, I guess, but after reading the interview with Wendy Brown on neoliberalism, I have been thinking a lot about music and biopolitics, the innocuous ways in which not simply our bodies, but all of our physiological and psychological operations, are the targets of neoliberal control and maintenance. My Spotify favourites are deep with ambient and new classical spheres, which I legit like, but also recognize that I *use* specifically to induce productivity, to calm and control my body and brain to compel it to work. But when I don’t even want the bother of selecting something, I resort to YouTube channels like this, which feel like nothing more than, to refer back to Jameson and postmodernism, contemporary lobby music for a hip chain of hotels. Condensed into the mid-tempo drowsiness of the stream is a whole, contemporary way of life that not only expects you to be productive everywhere, but to experience that productivity as pleasurable, labour as almost leisure.

Eight. William Basinski. “Disintegration Loops 6”

It seems like cheating to end with a note on Kyle Devine’s Decomposed and Jennifer Gabrys’s Digital Rubbish, but I have already read them in anticipation of our final class of the term and have been thinking a lot about the materiality of music and its environmental consequences, I am going to anyway. William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops is an LP that saw the composer return to cassette tapes he recorded in the early 1980s only to discover that the magnetic surface of the actual tape had started to disintegrate and flake off. Rather than just throwing them out, he played and recorded them, allowing his work to slowly fragment and fall apart as the tapes looped. It is eerie and haunting and a real technological memento mori (look it up, it is a useful term!). It is also my way to sneak in a 40-minute track that would take up a whole side of a c-90 cassette, even if it is not the full opera that some of you have threatened.

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