Dialectic of Pop
 1913029557, 9781913029555

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DIALECTIC OF POP a g n è s g ay r a u d Translated by robin mack ay , daniel miller , and nina power


In memory of André

Published in 2019 by urbanomic media ltd, the old lemonade factory, windsor quarry, falmouth TR 11 3 ex , united kingdom

Originally published in French as Dialectique de la pop. © Éditions La Découverte, 2018. This English language translation © Urbanomic Media Ltd. All rights reserved. This book is supported by the Institut Français (Royaume-Uni) as part of the Burgess Programme.

Cet ouvrage a bénéficié du soutien des Programmes d’aide à la publication de l’Institut français.

A series of playlists has been created to accompany this book, bringing together many of the songs referred to in the text. See https://www.youtube.com/user/urbanomic/playlists No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any other information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. british library cataloguing - in - publication data

A full catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library isbn (Print Version) 978-1-9130295-5-5

Distributed by The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England Type by Norm, Zurich


CONTENTS Introduction


Borders 7; Pop and Theory 9; Canary in the Coalmine 10; Aesthetic Judgment 14; Dialectical Inclination 17; A Most Curious Hater 19; Hyperbolic Hater 22; Objective Enemy, Subjective Ally 25

PART ONE: FORM29 Chapter 1. Pop


I. Artistic Form


Recording-Works 36; Other Regimes of Production 39; An Art of Separated Sounds: Situated Sounds, Restored Sounds 44; Porosities 45; Taboo 49; Mass Art 51

II. Aesthetic Form


Constellation 57; Promise 61; The Utopia of Popularity 65; The Canon of Popularity 67; The Dream and the Ashes 69

Chapter 2. Anti-Pop


I. The Dystopia of Popularity


The Party’s Over 75 (The Steel Bath of Fun 76; Spoil the Party 78); Rage 81 (Emancipation 83; Dionysus Disciplined 85); Culture Industry 86 (An Oxymoron 86; Secession: The Romanticism of the Advocates of Mass Art 89; The Popular as Injunction 91); Jingles 92 (System 94; Tolerance and Goodwill 97; The Rhetoric of Conspiracy 98; The Gruff Voice of the Wolf 100; Contamination 101)

II. Modern or Nothing


The Excluded 107 (No More Dancing 110; Retrenchment 113; Nuance 115; Modern is Already Old 118; Counter-Alliance 120)

Chapter 3. No Synthesis: The Broken Form of Pop


Contradictions 121; Negative Dialectics 123

PART TWO: FIGURES125 Chapter 1. The Hillbilly Paradox: Uprooted Authenticity 


I. Temporal Paradoxes


Original Industry 133; Old-Time Music and ‘Hillbillies’ 136; Romantic Revivals 139; The Hillbilly Paradox 142


II. Mediation and Source

C O ntents

III. Uprootings


Effect of Presence 145; Reproducible Aura 147; A Foggy Mist? 149


Roots Aesthetics 151; Far from Home 154; Uprooted Folk 158; Here and There 163

IV. Globalised Local Colour


The Ethnographic Preservation of Specificity 169; Strange World 172; The Local Colour Industry 174; Aesthetic Autonomisation 177; Hybridisation-Appropriation 180

Chapter 2. The Pop Subject: Democratised Genius


I. Situated Individualities


Embodiment 191 (Disembodiment [The Jazz-Subject] 192; Immersion [Into This World We’re Thrown] 195); Particular Conditions 198 (The Aesthetic Truth of Particularity 199; Emancipation 200; Rich and Poor [Class] 202; From Youth to the Generation 204; Gender 206; Intersections 208; Representation 211; Universalisation [Betrayal] 214)

II. Genius Democratised


Ingenium 217; Untrained 220; Capturing the Unique 227 (All Voices Without Exception 227; Vocal Norms 230; Imitation/Travesty 232; Trickery 233; Failure of the Naturalist Position 234; The Second Body of Pop Song 236; A Robot That Imitates a Man Imitating a Nightingale 237); The Surge 239 (Impostures 240; Aprotropaic Idiocy 242)

III. More and Less Than a Subject


Super-Subject 245 (The Resistible Rise of the Star 245; Skull 247; Refusal of Popularity 248; Christology 249); Beyond Pathos 251

Chapter 3. Hits and Hooks: Rationalised Magic


I. Poetics of the Hook


Keep it Simple 263; The Hook 265; Articulated Language 266; Glossolalia 268

II. Aesthetic Relation


Communication 273; Reiteration (Ourobouros) 275; Infinite Purposiveness 276; Rapture 278

III. Fabrication


Knowhow 281; The Manual (For Everyone) 283; Division of Labour 285; Craft 287; Standardisation 289; Standards 292; Format 294; They Changed My Song 295

IV. Cosmetics



Pseudo-Individualisations 297; Performers, etc. 299; Eclecticism 300; Glamour,

V. Subjective Supplement


Childhood Epiphanies 311; Ghost Train 312; ‘Almost-Hits’ and ‘Already-No-Mores’ 312; Empathy for the Reified 313

Chapter 4. Pop and Progress: Historicised Innocence


Modern319 I. Off-ground Modernism


On a Par With the Achievements of the Age 321; ‘Previously Unimaginable’ 323; Teleology 324; A Paradoxical Transposition 326; Cycles 327; Aesthetic Pendulum 328; Did Someone Say Progress? 330

II. Musical Material


First Listen 333 (The Song Form 334; Tonality 342; Colours and Sounds 348); Second Listen 356 (Degraded Transmission—The Sound of Electricity 356; Playing Electricity 360; Technical Progress 367); Third Listen 373 (Any Music Whatsoever 373)

III. Another History Of The Musical Art of Pop


Erudite Subjective Narratives 386; Archipelagos 388; Epiphanies 389

IV. Return of the Negative


Inadequations 391; A Music They Can’t Steal From Us 394; Revivalism 396; Hypermnesia 399; Loss of Innocence 400; Sincerity or Irony 404; Art and Life 408

Conclusion415  Acknowledgements427 Index of Names


Index of Subjects


Index of Pop Works



C O ntents

or The Art of Thickening 303; Internal Dialectic 307


[T]he serious study of popular music is not a matter of intellectuals turning hip or of mods and rockers going academic. It is a question of (a) getting together two equally important parts of experience, the intellectual and emotional, inside our own heads and (b) being able as music teachers to face pupils whose musical outlook has been crippled by those who present ‘serious music’ as if it could never be ‘fun’ and ‘fun music’ as though it could never have any serious implications […] [T]he need for the serious study of popular music is obvious, while the case for making it a laughing matter, although understandable (it can be hilarious at times), is basically reactionary. Philip Tagg, ‘Analysing Popular Music: Theory, Method and Practice’ (1982)

To put myself behind the idea of pop as an art is accordingly to risk being put down as middle class, somehow not part of pop, because nothing to do with the ‘instinctual’ street; even to risk accusations of racism […]. Still I’m suspicious of people like [Julie] Burchill and [Robert] Elms’s insistence on a purely functional attitude to music—they seem to have an inordinate joy in diminishment, reducing the capacity of things for meaning […]. Simon Reynolds, Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing About Hip Rock and Hip-Hop (2007)

The less naive aesthetic consciousness becomes, the more highly naivety is prized. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Ohne Leitbild’ (1966)

Pop is not a direct descendant of the Muses. It was born of the meeting of distant traditions: the human habit of singing, and an industry—the record industry—which for almost a century now has endowed it with a technical capacity for reproduction and mass distribution. The tunes in their original forms may have come from way back, but in the early twentieth century their fate became entwined with recording and with the industrialised distribution of recordings. Pop became tethered to technical, historical, and indeed earthly dependencies which even the most heavenly song by The Shangri-Las or Brian Wilson cannot entirely shake off. Without radio or tape, and without the commercialisation of these technologies, ‘Remember’ or ‘’Til I Die’ would not exist; the eternal songs of Roy Orbison and the crystalline melodies of the Carpenters would have never seen the light of day. Recorded popular music therefore exhibits certain traits characteristic of those other great mechanised arts with which it developed in parallel, cinema and photography. To think these forms of mechanical reproduction as art, it was necessary to redefine the idea of the​artwork, to displace the classical opposition between original and copy, and to take note of the tensions between the aesthetic ideals that their works conveyed and the consequences of their mass circulation within industry and culture. This was successfully achieved for cinema, which distinguished itself from theatre or, today, from TV series; and for photography, which distinguished itself from painting and drawing. But has there been any attempt to think the specificity of popular music, to consider it as much a unique form of art as cinema or photography? When it comes to pop, it’s more usual to mention the mediations of the recording and broadcast industry as, at best, a contingent feature, secondary to the music as such, or, at worst, as a


kind of defect, the shameful mark of a music that has ceased to be completely


sometimes identified as the ‘sound of capitalism’, its saccharine ditties masking

itself, that has compromised with the world of the commodity, and which is even the grunts of the foul beast. Surely recording and its consequences must have degraded music as such, adulterating what one imagines must have protected it, in the old days, from standardisation—degraded it to the point where we are dealing with a production line of consumable music, accessible to all but universally mediocre. Compare Beethoven and the latest international R&B hit. Isn’t the decline audible from the very first few notes? This kind of question is of course a complete sophism, confusedly comparing a universal genius to an anonymous work, a composer to a genre, rather than two works exemplary of two different art forms. In countering it, however, we cannot simply plead for greater generosity: this would just invite a vapid condescension toward the pop productions we hear all around us. No, it is essential to go deeper into the question, in order to give ourselves the wherewithal to understand how the recorded popular music produced over the last century was not the avatar of a modern degradation of music, but truly heralded an other musical art, just as photography and film produced other visual arts. And this requires all the patience of a theory—a philosophical gesture that brings to light the singularity of pop as art: its form, its specific conditions, and the aesthetic figures by which it is inhabited. Such is the project of this book: to free the form of pop, by taking into account its mediated nature. The idea of embarking upon such a grand project in order to understand such an apparently ordinary thing may seem surprising. But what does ‘ordinary’ mean? Moreover, why would we suppose that the ordinary must automatically be excluded from the domain of art? Our world is populated by countless songs which move us, and sometimes change our lives. They are often treated as disposable accoutrements of our everyday existence, but they are also a part of a regime of meanings that transcends the everyday—in short, an art form—even though we might find it difficult to say exactly how or why. To dispense with this uncertainty, which ultimately, does a disservice to pop, we have set out to confront the problem head on, and to pay pop the respect it deserves by taking it seriously as an art.



As used in this book, the word ‘pop’ covers what academic literature usually ‘Pop’ does not only designate the musical genre pop1 (as opposed for example to rock),2 or even a particular type of music that all pop belongs to; it designates a form that includes the whole variety of genres that exist within recorded popular music, from blues to rap, from French chanson to hi-NRG; a distinct musical art that incorporates and transcends a multitude of genres, thus constituting a form. This form, which can be heard in the first Tin Pan Alley3 songs broadcast on the radio at the beginning of the twentieth century in America, but also outside the cities in the recordings of local folk music, once they were understood no longer as documents or archives for the use of folklorists or ethnomusicologists but as autonomous musical artefacts, released on dedicated labels. From this perspective, pop existed well before the 1950s—contrary to what is sometimes maintained when it is identified with rock music, which is 1. By convention, pop as a genre of music will be distinguished from pop as a form by the use of italics. 2. ‘“Rock” is energy, spontaneity, a spirit of contestation, the refusal of any concessions to the wider public; “pop” is harmony, refinement, frivolity, and the art of touching the heart with songs that anyone can hum in the street,’ writes Michka Assayas in the article ‘Pop’ in the Nouveau Dictionnaire du rock (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2 vols., 2014), vol. 2, 208. From a stylistic point of view, pop and rock are conceived of as two opposite poles of popular music, the paradigmatic representation of which would be the classic comparison between sharp, edgy rocker Eddie Cochran and sophisticated bespectacled master of melody Buddy Holly. ‘Rockists’ despise the commercial nonsense of ‘popists’, who in turn accuse them of a lack of nuance. The genres compete against each other, but within the same form, within which they can also sometimes be reconciled: in the song ‘Three Stars’, Eddie Cochran renders an almost syrupy pop tribute to Buddy Holly—who died in an accident one year before Cochran himself. During the second verse, we even hear Cochran crying. When, in 1978, the Bristolians Mark Stewart and John Waddington baptise their highly political post-punk/noise band The Pop Group, the gesture is of course ironic and indicates the persistence of the opposition between a supposedly naive pop and a conscious punk-rock. But the fascination and repulsion of the most sardonic rockers for innocent pop precisely reveals a third, broader entity: an aesthetic form that encompasses both genres, both attitudes, and is capable of accommodating their contradiction—a form that transcends them, but to which all styles of recorded popular music relate as a field of common aesthetic and moral problems. 3. Tin Pan Alley was the name given in New York on West 28th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, where music publishers gathered in the late nineteenth century to piece together the first known industrial system for the production of popular music for mass distribution, in the first place by publishing scores. In 1892, the score of Charles Harris’s song ‘After the Ball’ sold two million copies. As the phonographic industry developed, recorded hits soon followed, with the 1920s productions of Tin Pan Alley providing the original blueprint of radio pop—light, white, and urban.

B orders

refers to as ‘popular music’, and which we shall call ‘recorded popular music’.


only one genre. Early pop is already identifiable in the Charleston dance craze

B orders

America, in swing and the crooners of the 1930s, and then in rock‘n’roll, blues

that followed the First World War, in the hillbilly boogie popularised in 1920s and folk-rock, Jamaican ska and reggae, punk, new wave and indie, electronic dance music and techno, and in recent hip-hop. Understood in this way, pop far exceeds what rock criticism has defined as its golden age: that moment of the perfection of writing, performance, and attitude that crystallised in the sixties, in the radiant songwriting of The Beach Boys and The Kinks, in the miraculous baroque arrangements of The Left Banke and The Zombies, in the celestial harmony of Californian sunshine pop or its Swedish equivalent in ABBA. In each of these cases we are dealing with pop in particular, as a genre, within recorded popular music, but the pop form (which here we will denote ‘pop’, without italics) is something much broader: irreducible to any one genre, it incorporates them all. It includes popular songs too bizarre for the radio, such as Frank Zappa’s far from saccharine oddities, 1930s folk recordings, and electro remixes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, hardcore tracks less than two minutes long and the twenty minutes forty-eight seconds of Caroline K’s ‘The Happening World’—in short, the pop form embraces all sorts of productions that may seem marginal in relation to the typical chart-topping melodies and formats. The pop form is familiar—we already have a representation of it and we can bring it to mind via the diverse and varied songs that populate our memories, sometimes against our will, from the great legends of pop history to more obscure and intimate voices. For pop reaches farther and wider than its glittering legend, the hall of fame of its beloved geniuses. To be fair to all of these possible subjects, we shall study it in both its great and small manifestations, without trying to draw any aesthetic line that would oppose good pop to bad, and without introducing any hierarchy between its genres. Let us momentarily suspend our own tastes so as to consider both the pop we like and the pop we are not so fond of, both mainstream pop and independent or marginal pop. We will speak of commercial pop as well as the pop that doesn’t sell, has never sold, and has no hope of selling. Certainly, the mainstream where the big hits of the moment are made is a touchstone for our thinking here: it is where the pop form, destined for mass consumption, tests out some of its essential aesthetic criteria, first and foremost that of popularity itself. But whether broadcast far and wide or hardly heard

at all, pop is still pop. And we must try to think pop as a whole, and to include


these eccentric manifestations within its form, so long as this inclusion serves In no case, however, will this formal determination be musicological. One can certainly make out privileged music patterns within the different genres of pop, but it would be a mistake to think that the form is defined by some impermeable a priori musicological boundary. Recorded popular music borrows from all musics: it is a tissue of hybridisations and appropriations. We might even say that pop has a finger in every pie: borrowing a bit of Bach here, a block of musique concrète there, a dash of Varèse or Ravi Shankar elsewhere.... So that the idea of looking for some musicological standard seems precarious and questionable at this stage. In pop, as in other musical forms, music as such circulates freely. Anyone who tries to build a wall around it will end up being swept away by the current.

POP AND THEORY We are quite aware that the most fervent pop fans may find this whole enterprise somewhat suspicious. Since when do we need concepts to experience pop—to experience it in the most authentic way, that is? The burden of suspicion that falls on any philosophy of music—that it will inevitably fail because its abstract language will cut it off from the life of sounds—weighs even heavier here. To verbalise pop, to intellectualise it, goes against its nature. It means domesticating its wildness, tarnishing its innocence and, perhaps worst of all, taking it away from all of those to whom it is addressed without discrimination, so as to reserve its enjoyment for ‘experts’. It contradicts the very promise of pop per se: that of an immediate pleasure that can be experienced without prior effort, without the need for either initiation or reflection. So is it true that, as Michka Assayas once wrote, to take popular music seriously is to betray ‘the essentially unspeakable and, above all, fleeting emotion that grips the listener’ when they hear it? Is it to deny ‘the fundamentally precarious and unstable character of these moments, [...] the self-evident light-heartedness that underlies the true miracles of popular music’?4 Pop doesn’t have to put forward proofs—it is simply felt. It escapes the grasp of intellect and knowledge. 4. M. Assayas, in his April 1984 column on The Smiths in Rock & Folk 207, reprinted in In A Lonely Place: Écrits rock (Marseille: Le mot et le reste, 2013), 213.

P op and T heory

as an illumination, helping us to understand them adequately.


A music with no score, recorded and therefore inseparable from the fixing of a

Canary in the C oalmine

experience, our concepts will always be clumsy, will always struggle to catch up.

moment, it offers an experience of transience par excellence. Set against such Intellectualised pop is like a hangover the morning after a wild Saturday night, once all the beneficial effects of alcohol and dancefloor vibrations have worn off. So let’s dance! Don’t freeze the music by capturing it in icy speculations so distant from its reality! The soul of the pop-lover shrivels when they divert their gaze from what they love and instead start watching themselves loving it. All very well, except that, to tell the truth, this diverted gaze is already highly familiar to pop. Pop has long incorporated this distancing within itself, and no longer sees itself as some opaque form of pure incomprehensible intoxication impervious to thought. In so far as it recognises a history, aesthetic styles, or even just so much as certain gestures that belong to it, pop already thinks, and thinks itself—and then begins to try and hide the evidence, to deliberately reflect in its works the supposed mystery of its immediacy. So perhaps intellectualising pop is risky, but the greater blunder would be to imagine that pop is entirely unselfconscious and naive, that it just bumbles along in a constant state of amnesia.

CANARY IN THE COALMINE On the contrary, it seems that today, pop may even be suffering the torments of a kind of hypermnesia, which has plunged it into a strange crisis of self-observation. In spite of all denials, it is revealing its highly reflexive nature. To redouble this reflection with our own theoretical approach needn’t mean dressing up pop in ill-fitting concepts, developing a ‘pop philosophy’ of trivial objects delivered with an ironic wink; it means realising that pop is an art, and one that makes conscious reference to itself, in the same way as serious music, literature, and cinema; a reflexive art which we might say is today confronting theoretical problems that are increasingly difficult for it to ignore, as it faces major transformations in the technical and economic conditions within which and by means of which it has flourished for almost a century. Given the contemporary disruption of musical experience, the explosion in the availability of music, the fragmentation of musical currents, the increasing segmentation of the public, and the aging of the countercultural idea of youth, the idea of pop and its history that has been formed through critical accounts

inspired by the avant-gardist ideals of modernism increasingly seems to have run


out of steam. History and progress no longer go hand-in-hand. The world of today of that world that have been destroyed. The ‘collective destiny of pop music’ (in Pacôme Thiellement’s words)5 has branched out into a million individual capillaries, seemingly losing in necessity what it has gained in multiplicity. Former fervent supporters of pop, now in their fifties, conclude that pop is dead; they move on to other things, or submit to nostalgia. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the mainstream press addresses the ‘cultural phenomenon’ of the vast melting pot of ‘pop culture’, where metamorphoses of sexual and racial identity play out, with Instagram posts and stars’ tweets on hand as evidence. Out on the cutting edge, a vast number of YouTube views (as in the case of ‘Gangnam Style’, which in 2012 forced the platform to upgrade its counter) or a market-leading star’s dispute with Apple or Spotify over per-stream artist payouts seem more relevant stories than the existence of an album that has only music to offer, however remarkable that music may be. There is every reason to believe that it is here above all that the contemporary situation of pop music anticipates something of the future world: not in terms of aesthetic issues, which have become merely incidental, but in the field of the social labour of its actors and the distribution of the wealth produced by them. Once the symbol of the emancipation movements of Western youth, pop is now the most eloquent symptom of the difficulties involved in a global economy of culture micro-materialised by digitisation. Pop is still singing at the top of its voice, but now like the canary in the coal mine of the world economy—just before an explosion blows the whole thing sky-high. As Jaron Lanier has shown, the music industry was among the first economic fields to be sacrificed, heralding the comprehensive dismantling of the economic stability of the middle classes.6 So pop has ceased to be a symbol, and has become a symptom instead. Although it may survive and even proliferate on the drip-feed of an advertising economy that acts the role of interested patron, it is as if its aesthetic truth has been left in limbo—along with the hearts of those who love it and avidly continue to listen to it. What does all of this mean for collectivity today? 5. 6.

P. Thiellement, ‘L’homme que la terre vendit. Nirvana’, in Pop Yoga (Paris: Sonatine, 2014), 239. J. Lanier, Who Owns the Future? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013).

Canary in the C oalmine

doesn’t see itself in pop music: it sees only the world of yesterday, or the aspects


We cling to old ideas of social subversion and innovation; but these concepts

Canary in the C oalmine

The political criterion of subversion, or its more adolescent form, rebellion, the

are not the sole preserve of pop, and even within pop they are withering away. aesthetic criterion of novelty or avant-gardism—none of these belong to pop in principle, and they have only ever characterised it at certain moments of its history, so we can’t conclude that they ever constituted its essence (at most, perhaps, for a generation, pop was their most adequate instrument). If pop was once a kingdom, it is now crumbling. In the early twenty-first century there is no universal King of Pop, only a myriad of little kings and queens ruling over the patchwork countries of a segmented mainstream. The ‘underground’ exists on the same monopolistic platforms as the most prominent artists, the only real meaning of the word being relative weakness in the marketplace. As a result of this collapse, music, once lucrative when it found an audience, has no value and costs nothing. Up until the moment when no one is interested anymore, pop will just continue to perform, for free, its historically allocated task: entertaining consumers. Strangely, as far as artistic recognition is concerned, the growing legitimacy of pop in democratic societies only contributes to this loss of any aesthetic horizon. There are of course still proponents of serious conservatory music who are outraged by pop’s triviality, but we rarely hear from them nowadays. Pop has hardly any enemies left. It has largely triumphed, has been integrated into the structures of culture, and has infiltrated the ‘normal’ functioning of society. In this context of pacification, the militant aestheticism of the rock critic has given way to a generalised insipid sympathy: everyone likes pop, at least some of the classic tunes. Above all, no one would waste their time hating it or trying to prove that it’s not music, let alone that it’s not art.7 Anyone who thinks such things, whatever high culture they may claim to possess, is just part of a nerdy, ignorant old guard. A good number of twentieth-century theoretical works on serious music are full of contempt for this music, identified as commercial music 7. Although in the reactionary circles of critical thought, some still try. During the radio show Répliques on France Culture on 9 November 2013, addressing the theme ‘What Happened to Contemporary Music?’, Alain Finkielkraut talked about Sgt. Pepper’s, and asserted that ‘despite the melodies, the extremely subtle orchestrations, no one would have dreamt of considering these records as belonging to music’. The testimony of composer and pianist Philippe Manoury against electrified music, ‘which reinforced passive listening’, indicated the same expulsion of recorded popular music out of the field of aesthetics.

without the least aesthetic substance, but they don’t go so far as to put forward


any strong arguments, adduce any telling examples, or demonstrate any real ends up being tinged with fatalistic tolerance. Backed into this aesthetic corner, pop has had all the more difficulty, even on its most rebellious and avant-gardist fringes, in presenting itself as the enemy of society—the position attributed to it in its legendary history, especially since the 1950s. With no identifiable adversary, it is slowly petrifying into a culturally legitimated form. The historical aura of Elvis has overcome the defences of those puritanical lobbyists for family values who crusaded in vain against his wiggling pelvis, and no doubt today Nico could do a cathedral tour, with her mien of a fallen succubus, in black cape and goatskin, without the flock being offended. Pop is now part and parcel of the culture, its short history now heritage, its excesses norms. At the museum that exhibits him, Ziggy Stardust is no longer an alien, but one of the successful reinventions that make up David Bowie’s personal development. Legitimate, integrated, more studied than ever in an intellectual sphere that it has largely conquered by force, popular music has lost its pose of contestation. Even as its aesthetic adventures continue apace in 8. In a 2002 interview, Pierre Boulez answered the question ‘What do you think of this “s” that we add to music, and this curious terminology that brings all musics, chanson, jazz, rock, classical and others, under the same heading?’ as follows: ‘What do you want me to think? Yes, there are different modes of expression and there’s nothing strange about that; what I reject, if I might say so, is some people’s will to place all music on the same level. Some musics are everyday musics, “current” musics as they are called, and they will lose their currency one day, while other musics are permanent and resist—high-level musics, which require a little more effort in order to be assimilated. Obviously, if you place a sell-out Broadway “musical” next to Parsifal, you cannot make a fair comparison. In one case you have a work that gives you feeling, thinking; in the other case, you have a music of entertainment that does a perfect job for what it is. There’s a very vulgar expression that says it very well: Don’t fart higher than your arse!’ We see in this short answer that, without any other form of trial, rock is identified with ‘artists who appear on the radio’, it ‘moves the masses’, and ‘makes a lot of money’. A somewhat vague and obsolete genre, the Broadway musical, is compared as a whole to Parsifal, a work by Wagner, renowned as a genius for more than a hundred years in the history of serious music. The comparison, if it has any relevance at all, is totally abstract and unbalanced. Finally, the term ‘“current” musics’, generally aesthetically questionable as a designation of pop, is strategically used here to deny such musics a history and to link them to fashion, to the evanescent, and to the commercial pace of the culture industry. And it is somewhat surprising, ultimately, that as a counterpoint, Boulez argues for the idea of a permanent lifelong work which, like a bronze, would resist the passing of time: the romantic pretension to perennial and timeless works is one of the primary targets of Adorno’s modernism, with which Boulez had some principles in common. See C. Samuel and P. Boulez, Éclats (Paris: Mémoire du Livre, 2002), 409.

Canary in the C oalmine

knowledge of the repertoire.8 And even in these cases, the scorn and rejection


directions difficult for even the most dedicated critic to keep track of, it is as if

A esthetic J udgment

of art. A question, certainly, that is always rendered unwelcome by legitimation,

its standardised integration into culture had ultimately obliterated the question since the more successful the naked emperor becomes, the more necessary it is to continue to praise his clothes. Still, the museum is not a good look for pop. Not so much because it’s too lively or too rebellious for the place, but because, apparently, we still don’t really know what kind of art it is: a subspecies of ‘great music’, or a modern version of the circus?

AESTHETIC JUDGMENT Academic research proves cautious on the aesthetic question, carefully avoiding any suggestion of inappropriate normative claims. Even as pop starts to claim the lion’s share in various academic disciplines,9 it seems to be largely absorbed into a more general idea of ‘pop culture’.10 Of course, pop is more than just music. Record sleeves, attitudes, dance parties, groups of teenagers, internet forums, collections of concert tickets: all of these objects and practices are a part of it. Musicology, sociology, anthropology, and acoustic or literary analysis can all

9. As evidenced by the now very rich field of popular music studies, between cultural studies, which has existed since the 1970s, and the more recent sound studies. In the former, where pop objects are heavily represented, the forms and networks of popular music are not only studied for themselves, but also as a crystallisation of issues of race, gender, class and every psycho-socialcultural differentiation imaginable, which are effectively inseparable from the regimes of expression that belong to this musical art. Systematic indicators of wider social mechanisms both local and global, they offer an opportunity for the systemic thinking of ‘pop culture’. 10. As Rosalind Brunt wrote in 1992 in the collection Cultural Studies (L. Grossberg, C. Nelson and P.A. Treichler, Cultural Studies [New York and London: Routledge, 1992], 69). Meanwhile, sociologist Stéphane Dorin writes, ‘the popular musics that stem from rock provide rich research material to highlight the complexities of the production, circulation and reception of objects produced by the culture industries.’ (S. Dorin, Sound Factory: Musiques et logiques de l’industrialisation [Bordeaux: Melanie Seteun, 2012], 10). At the other end of the theoretical spectrum, the work of Philip Tagg, Theodore Gracyk, and Christophe Pirenne, which relate specifically to musical aesthetics, those of Peter Szendy on hits, Roger Pouivet on rock ontology, and Frederic Bisson on ‘thinking rock’ mark more isolated approaches which, not being a part of collective research on the issue, have not met with a favourable academic reception. See C. Pirenne, Une histoire musicale du rock (Paris: Fayard, 2011); P. Szendy, Hits: Philosophy in the Jukebox, tr. W. Bishop (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012); R. Pouivet, Philosophie du rock: une ontologie des artefacts et des enregistrements (Paris: PUF, 2010); F. Bisson, La Pensée Rock (Paris: Vrin, 2016).

provide useful tools for thinking it.11 A bricolage of images, poses, discourses,


texts, and performances as well as recordings, pop can be profitably interpreted groups around the French punk bands of the 1980s—all of this undoubtedly belongs to the history of pop, and even to its aesthetic history. But, as with avant-garde movements or surrealist circles, the elements that help shape the works and those that determine their reception are not the same. Nobody interested in the Surrealists could confuse their works—poems, texts, paintings—with their late-1920s meetings gathered around André Breton at Cafe Cyrano on the Place Blanche. Similarly, even though we have indeed seen pop phenomena acquire spectacular proportions on the cultural plane, to the extent that the music almost seems secondary, objectively speaking, there can be no pop without music: if the music disappears, then we are dealing with something else. To absorb pop too readily into its cultural effects upon other media is to lose sight of those works—made of recorded music—in which its regimes of expression are rooted. All the other things that flow from pop, the magma of pop, all of the practices that emerge from the consumer society’s assimilation of culture (i.e., ‘pop’ as defined by American and English Pop Art since the late 1950s) only ends up muddying the waters. In a more specific sense, pop first and foremost consists in songs, albums, and recordings that circulate, no matter how plural and interdisciplinary it is and no matter how diverse its formats of circulation. It is these songs and these albums that we judge and which, in the final analysis, must serve as the objects of reference in the aesthetic debate. American singer and author Joe Pernice writes of how [w]e figured any teenage kid living through those Reagan years who said The Smiths were too miserable for them was either a liar, an imbecile, or so thoroughly fucked up, they had no idea just how miserable they were.12 11. So that, as Philip Tagg has observed, ‘[i]t is clear that a holistic approach to the analysis of popular music is the only viable one if one wishes to reach a full understanding of all factors interacting with the conception, transmission and reception of the object of study.’ (P. Tagg, ‘Analysing Popular Music: Theory, Method and Practice’, Popular Music 2 (1982), 36–67: 44. 12. J. Pernice, The Smiths: Meat Is Murder (New York and London: Continuum, 2003), 45. See also J. Stringer, ‘“So Much to Answer For”: What Do The Smiths Mean to Manchester’, in S. Campbell and C. Coulter (eds.), Why Pamper Life’s Complexities? Essays on The Smiths (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 205–24..

A esthetic J udgment

from any of these angles. Elvis’s costumes, Aphex Twin’s videos, the militant


In this kind of apparently casual phrase, the pop fan reenacts the paradoxical

A esthetic J udgment

aesthetic judgements are both universal and subjective: when I see something

injunction of aesthetic judgement as defined by Immanuel Kant, for whom all as beautiful, ‘I want and I require’ that others agree. This kind of insult is the ultimate index of such a requirement. Regardless of how sophisticated or convincing it might be, aesthetic judgement is more than just a simple preference: it opens up a theoretical space of taste in which subjectivity expresses not just a liking, a preference limited to the purely personal—as when someone says of music ‘I like it’ or ‘it’s nice’ when in fact they have no particular thoughts about it—but puts forward its judgement as a basis for the fabrication of appropriate aesthetic standards. Shaped by personal circumstances, adolescent emotions, memories, and desire, at first glance pop taste seems to have as little to do with Kantian disinterestedness as feedback, hoarse vocal cords, and out-of-tune guitars have to do with pure beauty. Moreover, pop would be impossible without the very categories that Kant excluded from the experience of pure beauty, namely the categories of the good and the true.13 And indeed, in Joe Pernice’s account, to despise a group like The Smiths is not just to hold an opinion—which one could respect—it is a denial (‘liars’) or a reprehensible error (‘imbeciles’): in other words, it’s faulty taste, and here the word ‘fault’ should be heard in all of its ethical and epistemological senses. If there is an aesthetic of pop, it cannot be an aesthetic of beautiful music but must be an aesthetic of good music held

13. As conceived by Kant, aesthetics is the philosophical analysis of the judgement of taste, of what conditions this judgement and makes it possible. And for the author of the Critique of Judgment, the condition is that aesthetic judgement must remain disinterested—that is to say, it must be based on a free play of the faculties into which neither interest nor special knowledge nor moral judgement must enter. But between Kant’s time and that of The Smiths, the conditions of aesthetic judgement, the very structure of its possible standards, changed. In Kant the ideal of ‘purposiveness without purpose’ determines an aesthetics where beauty is accountable only to itself and where the fine arts belong only to their own grace, separate from any involvement in culture, economy, and society. On the contrary, a pop work—perhaps more than any other—is full of such mediations, entangled in ‘heteronomy’ which eliminates any possibility of pure disinterested contemplation. That is, if such disinterestedness had ever really existed in the aesthetic experience: in The Ideology of the Aesthetic (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1990), Terry Eagleton reveals the hidden aspect of interestedness—that is to say its social and cultural determination—within Kantian disinterestedness. The valorisation of a mind supposedly able to abstract from all extra-contemplative considerations at the expense of the body, he argues, is a symptom of class distinction.

up against bad.14 Or even real music (or ‘authentic’ music) against the fake.


Antipodal to the complacent, insipid cultural legitimation discussed above, the do not suffer contradiction but produce it, in absolute terms. Rock criticism has long been steeped in such conflict, in dedicated booklength works and in the rock press as in the discussions of fans, with varying degrees of argumentation. One need only read Nik Cohn on Little Richard, Peter Guralnick on Elvis Presley, Michka Assayas on Elvis Costello and Joy Division, Simon Reynolds on post-punk, raves, or glam rock, or indeed Carl Wilson on the misadventures of a pop critic helplessly drawn to the music of Celine Dion.15 Between a market where all preferences cohabit peacefully because high sales have nothing to do with aesthetic value, and academic approaches chary of all normativity, the critic who stands up for the rights of subjectivity seems to be the last bastion of the prescriptive claim, in so far as, rather than just assessing works, he takes up arms for them, exultantly brandishing them against enemies real or imaginary.

DIALECTICAL INCLINATIONS There is, in the aesthetic experience of pop, a dialectical bent, a tendency to determine the value of a work in and through negativity. Indeed, it was against its detractors that pop came to understand itself as an art; against all those who heard only noise and not music. For Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, and Simon Reynolds, the practice of listening critically to the aesthetics of pop music developed in the face of the ignorance and prejudice of apologists for a conception 14. ‘Bad’ music, suggests Simon Frith, ‘is a necessary part of popular music pleasure: it is a way we establish our place in various music worlds.’ A first type of ‘badness’ involves ‘[t]racks which are clearly incompetent musically: made by singers who can’t sing, players who can’t play, producers who can’t produce.’ In a second sense, we judge pieces to be bad when they involve ‘a genre confusion. The most common examples are actors or TV stars recording in the latest style’. And a third sense of the ‘bad’ covers ‘[t]racks that feature sound gimmicks that have outlived their charm or novelty.’ Finally, we describe as bad ‘[t]racks that depend on false sentiment, that feature an excess of feeling molded into a radio-friendly pop song’. Inauthenticity and/or bad taste and/or stupidity are among the qualities typical of a bad song. ‘And “bad” is a key word because it suggests that aesthetic and ethical judgments are tied together here: not to like a record is not just a matter of taste: it is also a matter of argument, an argument that matters.’ S. Frith, ‘What is Bad Music?’, in C.J. Washburne and M. Derno (eds), Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate (New York: Routledge, 2004), 28–9. 15. C. Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007).

D ialectical I nclinations

aesthetic experience of pop opens onto a battlefield where those who judge


of ​​music from which feedback and repetitive rhythms, the influence of chance

D ialectical I nclinations

‘Whenever I hear complaints that a new sound is “soulless”, “unemotional”, “dark,

and sexual drives, and even stupidity and immaturity were a priori excluded. empty, inhuman” or “just not music”, my ears prick up,’ as Simon Reynolds put it in 1985.16 The affirmation of pop as art is dependent upon those who refuse to listen to it, then. Moreover, it depends upon a certain consciousness of that aspect of pop that is inauthentic and illegitimate according to what traditional criteria of musical art define as noble and accomplished. Serge Gainsbourg, whom the French proudly say was the first to elevate their language to the cool of Anglo-American pop, continually insisted that, for him, chanson was a minor art, not a true art. The most pop of all French composers was also a friendly detractor of the form. Strangely, pop fans have never taken this for blasphemy. This is because pop music likes to think against itself. It has a contradictory relationship to its own quest for artistic truth. Maybe because it knows itself to be rooted in what a certain ideal of autonomous art would consider the very conditions of inauthenticity: conditions of industrial consumption and communication. This crucial fact is what makes it sensitive to criticism that denounces it as commercial, bad, or fake. It makes it sensitive to the arguments of what could be called anti-pop—a conception of music and of the experience of music that lies at the opposite extreme from what pop ideally conveys qua popular music. This natural curiosity for that which denigrates or contradicts it is not the result of some kind of masochism, it is structural: it functions as the necessary negativity upon which pop sharpens its own aesthetic norms. So when an enemy of pop steps up today to launch the challenge: ‘Prove to me that this music is anything but a bunch of gimmicks for the advertising industry’, it seems that in doing so they are performing a crucial service to pop. In order to justify itself, the pop form must take the measure of that against which it constructs itself. Neither neutral nor formless, its aesthetic and anthropological horizon provokes debate for anyone suspicious of it. And at the heart of twentieth-century European Kulturkritik we find just such a figure, a stubbornly principled hater of pop, which he called ‘standardised light popular music’: Theodor W. Adorno. 16. S. Reynolds, Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Hip Rock and Hip-Hop (London: Faber, 2007), xii.

Looking at it from a wholly strategic angle, it became clear to us that Adorno’s


arguments could provide paradoxical corroboration for our own, as we set out

A MOST CURIOUS HATER Theodor Adorno was born on 3 December 1903 in Frankfurt. He never got to hear Jay-Z or Rihanna. He died in 1969 without having the slightest idea of Michael ​​ Jackson’s success or the career of Madonna, Chicago house, or hedonistic ‘Madchester’. He can be found issuing a startled exclamation about Elvis, penning a quarter of a sentence in reference to the ‘screaming fans’ of The Beatles, and giving a brief televised rant against the political pretensions of folk musician-activist Joan Baez. Pop music as it has developed over the last sixty years, in all its stylistic variety, encompassing musical genres as diverse as (among a thousand others) rockabilly, psychedelic, one drop, shoegaze, and gangsta rap, remained absolutely unknown to him. He lived long enough to take note of the first legendary explosion of Beatlemania and the emancipatory impulses of ‘protest songs’. But by that point he was working on other fronts: the metaphysical front of a negative dialectics, as a method for thinking the conditions of a knowledge that would resist idealism without succumbing to positivism, and that of a grand aesthetic theory centred on serious music, expressed in an uncompromising defence of musical modernism, especially as embodied by the Viennese composers Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Arnold Schoenberg. Quite some distance, then, from what we now call ‘pop music’, the globalised phenomenon that fuses black American influences, remnants of European folk music, African drums, and Indian sitars, all captured by the technological means—electrification, amplification, studio production—of recorded music. Intransigent modernist, apostle of a hermetic musical avant-garde regarded as the exclusive model of authenticity, Adorno was unlikely to appreciate such music, let alone recognise in it any aesthetic truth. It is well known how much he despised jazz. Yet he was preoccupied with the idea of ‘light popular music’, as a counterpoint to his complex theory of ‘responsible music’. At the beginning of the 1940s, stimulated by Walter Benjamin’s theories on technical reproducibility, he chose, as almost no musicologist after him would, to take an interest of sorts in this hybrid form of folk music and electrification, of the everyday

A M ost C urious H ater

in search of the pop form in all its dialectical elasticity.


and an industry that filled the airwaves and invaded homes equipped with

A M ost C urious H ater

other than to entertain its listeners, to help workers unwind, and to enrich a

phonographs from the 1920s onwards, but which seemed to have no purpose booming record industry. On the critical level, he was perhaps the first to have appreciated the novelty of these developments. This ‘light popular music’,17 as he heard it promoted and played on the radio in the late 1930s, was something different from folk music and traditional popular music. Although free of the romantic nostalgia for the traditional popular repertoires to which folklorists opposed this new industrialised light music, Adorno understood the role played by the record industry and hence the technology of recording in generating a new type of music. Instead of the localised, oral transmission of folk music there came the mass distribution of recorded, deterritorialized music; in place of the anonymity of the composer and collective practice there came the fetishising of stars; in place of traditional forms there came standardised ‘formats’. In his 1938 essay ‘On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’ Adorno concludes that music is irrevocably divided into two spheres: one serious, responsible, connected to consciousness and intellectual writing; the other light, made for entertainment, and now amplified to an unprecedented extent by the culture industry.18 The first is the central object of his whole aesthetic theory. But the second does not escape his critical ear: ‘We must devote special attention to this material which is regarded as “unserious” and therefore harmless and, to a certain extent escapes attention because its whole setting is one of “distraction”’, he insists.19 Indeed, this ‘material’, Adorno maintains, affects the situation of all music—for the radio invites its listeners to listen to Beethoven in the same way they listen to Guy Lombardo (violinist and star conductor, band leader of the Royal Canadians, a big band that played ‘sweet’ jazz in the 1920s and 1930s), and vice versa; in order to tell the difference, one must think critically. Generally a master of suspicion in regard to all aspects of everyday life in the capitalist world, Adorno wastes no time in interrogating the phenomenon: What is the 17. This is the expression Adorno uses in 1938 in ‘The Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’ (in J.M. Bernstein [ed.], The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture [London and New York: Routledge, 1991], 29–60). 18. Ibid. 19. T.W. Adorno, Current of Music: Elements for a Radio Theory, ed. R. Hullot-Kentor (Cambridge: Polity, 2009), 278.

social significance of the rise of radio? And what does radio’s success say about


the predicament of music? by Max Horkheimer now taking refuge in New York having escaped Hitler’s Germany, the Princeton Radio Research Program led by the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld gave Adorno the opportunity to further develop his thoughts on the subject. He decided to study the success, on American college radio, of the swing and ‘sweet’ big-band music then in fashion, between 1939 and 1941. In a series of experiments and preliminary reflections, he addressed thirty-two pieces, in varying degrees of detail, with some simply mentioned or listed: ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ by Benny Goodman, nicknamed the ‘King of Swing’; ‘Tiger Rag’ played by Duke Ellington; ‘La Cucaracha’ by Shakey Horton; ‘I’m Just a Jitterbug’ sung by Ella Fitzgerald; ‘The Bells of San Raquel’ by the Californian Dick Jurgens. These were swing standards, dance variations, and somewhat watered-down jazz numbers played by white big bands. We are still some way from the canonical form of rock‘n’roll, set to emerge from the synthesis between swing, black blues, and the rural music that gave rise to country and western. But the formats—songs about three minutes long, identified as hits, subject to a ranking in the charts, and taking advantage of the effects of sound recording—are already entirely those of the pop form. Not to mention that, as a stylistic counterpart, Adorno also studied another set of songs defined by a more sentimental mood, namely the ‘sweet’ genre, made up of songs by crooners and survivors from the world of operetta, such as ‘Two in Love’, sung by Frank Sinatra, and Nelson Eddy’s ‘Sylvia’. The material he studied was diverse, but, compared to all that pop has since made possible, clearly rather restricted. Moreover, Adorno remains on the surface, limiting his critical study to the top ten positions in the charts. He makes no study of gospel hymns, nor the religious songs that underlie American popular music. He has nothing to say about the American folk repertoire that Alan Lomax and other researchers from Fisk University had begun collecting in the 1920s in the poor regions of the South, nor about the countless traditional melodies and work songs with which the future Sun Studio stars of rock‘n’roll such as Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, sons of rural families, were directly in contact; nothing either on the parlour songs of the nineteenth century. And finally, nothing on the racial

A M ost C urious H ater

Two years and a US exile later, with the Institute for Social Research headed


segregation of the charts nor on the situation of black American music as such. As to the genealogy of genres, their history, and their geographical movement,

H yperbolic H ater

Adorno’s research makes almost no contribution whatsoever. However, what interests Adorno at this stage is neither the origins nor the avant-garde margins of popular creation, nor the complexity of influences and genres in the making; it is the popularity of these particular tracks. For this is in fact their common characteristic and, in his view, the essential one: they are hits, successes, standards, songs that listeners know by heart. And what he asks of them is this simple question: ‘Why is popular music popular?’ Beneath the apparent facile tautology, of course, there lurks a vast abyss— into which we must now dive.

HYPERBOLIC HATER Adorno’s confrontation with the radio pop repertoire of the late 1930s gave rise to more than a thousand pages of theoretical arguments and methodological notes. To the whole, which would only be published in fragments (the short text On Popular Music would be published separately), Adorno gave the working title Current of Music, in reference to the electrical ‘current’ that seemed to him to have become the very raw material of industrialised music. Published first in English, these pages were an uneasy fit with the posthumous reputation of the work of a philosopher who would never again address the question so assiduously. This was still at a time when rock‘n’roll did not exist,20 when The Beatles had not yet formed, when the counterculture had not yet emerged—defining events without which the history and mythology of pop music seem to lose all substance and specificity. But in seeking to understand why and how, on the same plane of listening, certain hits became popular, at the interface between the ideology of public ‘taste’ of the public and psychoacoustic stimuli, Adorno discovered a problem and invented a set of concepts that could very well prove just as relevant in our age of streaming and the generalised fragmentation of listening. Announced in the era of radio and vinyl, his rigid typology of listeners once again finds a singular currency in the emergent need for an ethics of listening 20. The first iconic recordings of Louis Jordan appear only after 1943: ‘Choo Choo Ch’Boogie’ (1943), ‘Caldonia Boogie’ (1945), and ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’ (1949). It was still some time before Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley would appear on the scene.

in the face of the ‘data tsunami’21 of the internet. Obviously, Adorno cannot give


us a full account of the richness of pop on the basis of the analysis of a few historical and cultural phenomenon, from which they can then extract a thousand picturesquely pleasing details, Adorno has the originality to apprehend it as a problem, on the basis of material that was certainly limited, but was enough to yield a useful model of some of the aesthetic questions specific to these objects. Treated as a limit experience for musical aesthetics itself, light popular music is, paradoxically, better heard by Adorno than it is elsewhere—for example, in circles where it is tolerated without being questioned, but where one still balks at the idea of calling it art. It was certainly already the case by the 1960s, twenty years after these American experiences, that the rich evolution of pop music had rendered Adorno’s analysis from the Princeton period insufficient. One would have had to take up the terms of this analysis and test them against what pop music had become by that time. But Adorno did nothing of the kind: on the contrary, his position became more radical, more trenchant. In his Introduction to the Sociology of Music (1962) he notes, with an almost cryptic severity: A critical sociology of music will have to find out in detail why today—unlike a hundred years ago—light popular music is bad, bound to be bad, without exception.22

A few years later, in 1968, Adorno appeared on German television to declaim on the topic.23 Dressed in a dark suit and tie, he speaks in hyperbolic terms of the rigours of his struggle against ‘light popular music’. While practically the entire world is moved by the activism of folk musician Joan Baez, this man, the 21. S. Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past (London: Faber, 2012), 125. 22. T.W. Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music, tr. E.B. Ashton (New York: Seabury, 1976), 225. 23. The writer Anthony Burgess, known for his contempt for pop music, made a similar appearance on the BBC in the same year. But his posture is less radical than Adorno’s: he considers pop to be a limited form, inseparable from the naivety of youth, and he does not regard it as inherently harmful. Burgess was more aware of the latest developments in pop than Adorno. His personal record collection, preserved at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, alongside the majority of classical records, includes The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Booker T. & the MG’s, Count Basie and Oscar Peterson, Gregorian chants, and even Équinoxe by Jean-Michel Jarre.

H yperbolic H ater

archaic hits. But where so many others neutralise it by designating it as a purely


stereotypical intellectual at his desk in his library, takes just a few sentences to establish the inanity of the singer’s claim to political engagement:

H yperbolic H ater

I think in fact that any attempt to associate political protest with ‘popular music’—musical entertainment—is doomed from the start, for the following reasons: popular music in its entirety, even when it tries to dress itself up in modernist guise, is so bound up with the commoditisation of entertainment and the cross-eyed stupefaction of consumption that any attempt to make it fulfil some other function can only be completely superficial […] So I must say that I find it unbearable for someone to come forward, for whatever reason, to sing about Vietnam over this saccharine music. This song, which appropriates the horror and, somehow, makes it consumable, ends up endowing horror with aspects that make it suitable for consumption. I find it absolutely unbearable.24

The emotionally and politically charged trills of the New York singer wound the sensibilities of this intellectual, whom one might judge rather heartless in his refusal to succumb to their charms. But the coldness, Adorno wants to demonstrate strategically, is entirely on the other side. Nonetheless, his hostility is maximal. With his final verdict, addressed to a tiny audience compared to the one reached by Baez, Theodor has the air of a hater—that venomous, hostile figure who would later become all-too-familiar in the pop debate. Even worse: a hyperbolic hater. Where the ordinary hater opposes what he hates to another pop he loves, the good pop, the only one, which ought to be championed instead of the bad, Adorno verdict condemns everything, indicting pop music as a whole, ‘doomed from the start’. With a hostility that conceives itself as objective, grounded, and coherent, and with no trace of irony or bad faith, he constructs his object as an enemy to be attacked, convinced that there are only two spheres to consider, one consisting of ‘serious music’25 fighting against all forms of recuperation, the other consisting of this form corrupted by the culture industry, designed and operated for the sole purpose of enriching a system that is quite content with the evil mediocrity it produces and reproduces on a planetary scale. 24. See the archive footage on YouTube: . 25. The term is also Adorno’s (‘The Fetish Character in Music’, 30).



Nothing we say here is going to change the facts: Adorno is an enemy of all His entire aesthetics is constructed with the aim of leaving such musics at the doorway to authentic art, without any prospect of ever being let in. His treatment of Jazz is a good example: he hears jazz as a perennial fashion disguised as an avant-garde, imprisoning its players in the alienation of their social bodies. Which is rather surprising, given that avant-garde jazz is to some extent in musical dialogue with atonal modernity as Adorno conceives it.26 But the modernist aspects of jazz don’t convince him. To him they seem to represent the worst possible configuration: a popular music mimicking high modernism. In reality, any possible diplomacy between the high modernism of Adorno’s musical ideal and ‘popular music’—in which he includes jazz—is scuppered by fundamental antagonisms, to which we shall return, and this regardless of the complexity of the execution of the music considered. So there would be no point in imagining we could make such a rapprochement more likely by bestowing legitimacy upon the most sophisticated pop genres or the most ‘intellectual’ figures—here fans often invoke Frank Zappa,27 John Zorn, or Jim O’Rourke. No doubt partly as a provocation, but not entirely so, the few popular songs Adorno confessed to liking despite their sentimentality tended to be simple songs without any overt pretensions. In any case, it’s rather pointless to try and save pop by parading its most learned representatives. Their contributions certainly highlight the objective porosity of musical practices—in principle, pop can welcome into its fold any music whatsoever and can complexify its writing in multiple directions—but to stake everything on the intellectuals is to lose sight of the artistic and aesthetic characteristics of what must be distinguished as a musical art form: a form that we should precisely not understand merely in terms of its place within a hierarchy arranged according to complexity, but should appreciate in terms of its incommensurability with other musical art forms. 26. This is what motivates Christian Béthune to detect in Adorno’s critique of jazz a form of denial in the Freudian sense, that is to say a rejection of a psychoanalytic order, not a critical rejection justified fully by argumentation. See C. Béthune, Adorno et le jazz: analyse d’un déni esthétique (Paris: Klincksieck 2003). 27. This in itself does not exclude Frank Zappa’s music from the form of pop, as we shall see. Indeed, in 1979 Zappa even scored a real pop hit with ‘Bobby Brown Goes Down’.

O bjective E nemy, S ubjective A lly

popular musics, and must be read as such.


Rather than hoping that Adorno will help us save a few intellectual types from

O bjective E nemy, S ubjective A lly

critical arguments by giving them voice, loud and clear, against the pop they

pop hell, then, wouldn’t we be better off thinking through and mastering his denigrate? In fact, this dialectic exercise runs through pop consciousness like a continuous fracture line. Whether tragic or comic, mild or obsessional, in songs, attitudes and declarations from Hank Williams to Kurt Cobain, from Johnny Rotten to Kanye West, pop has always told the story of its redemption and its fall, its loyalty and its betrayals, its deep contradictions. So that, at the very moment when Adorno identifies the fundamental contradictions of popular music, his objective hostility creates a subjective alliance with pop music’s longstanding critical relation to itself. It’s certainly a paradoxical wager, but as objective enemy and hater of light popular music, Adorno may well turn out to be the subjective ally of the pop fan who wants to understand what pop is. Over the past few decades some critics have noted this paradox. In 1989 Greil Marcus wrote: Probably no definition of punk can be stretched far enough to enclose Theodor Adorno. […] But you can find punk between every other line of Minima Moralia.28

More recently, with Diedrich Diederichsen in Germany and Benoît Sabatier in France, the most advanced pop criticism has rediscovered the relevance of Adorno’s anti-pop sallies as it confronts the structural contradictions of an art shaped by industry.29 In line with these analyses, the present book counts on that 28. ‘As a music lover,’ Marcus continues, ‘he hated jazz, likely retched when he first heard of Elvis Presley, and no doubt would have understood the Sex Pistols as a return to Kristallnacht if he hadn’t been lucky enough to die in 1969. But you can find punk between every other line of Minima Moralia: its miasmic loathing for what Western Civilization had made of itself by the end of the Second World War was, by 1977, the stuff of a hundred songs and slogans. If in the Sex Pistols’ records all emotion is reduced to the gap between a blank stare and a sardonic grin, in Adorno’s books all emotion is compressed into the space between curse and regret […].’ G. Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (London: Faber, 2001), 67–8. 29. Benoît Sabatier, in Nous sommes jeunes, Nous sommes fiers (Paris: Hachette Literature, 2007), 373. Since Sexbeat (1985), the critic Diedrich Diederichsen has in turn highlighted Adorno’s ‘productive misconceptions’ with regard to pop. His summary Über Pop-Musik (2014) established an ongoing dialogue with the theorist of musical standardisation and on the ‘jazz question’. Finally, we should mention a few of the many works from cultural studies of the 1990s and 2000s that reassessed most of Adorno’s theories on music, remaining critical of them: G. Zabel, ‘Adorno on

fruitful hostility. More precisely, it works to make Adorno’s hostile criticism into


the constitutive negative that no aesthetics of pop can do without. which authenticity makes sense only if it triumphs over the deaf inauthenticity of this deterritorialized folk that accords genius to anyone whatsoever, this rationalised magic where hype brings forth epiphanies, this musical art that continually claims novelty even as it obeys cycles of revival. The pop fan is the first to recognise it. The pop fan has seen, criticised, and loved its artificiality made-up as natural, its stars transformed into caricatures of authentic individuals, its familiar ‘novelties’. Pop is charged with the contradictions involved in its definition. A reproducible off-ground30 art, subject to the problematic appreciation of the majority and steeped in publicity stratagems, it is that art whose hopes of aesthetic transcendence are perpetually entangled in the reified world. When Adorno judges it so outrageously ‘bad’, therefore, it may well be that ultimately, he offers us ‘access to this strange art’31 whose singular tenor we seem to have given up trying to grasp. As Esteban Buch has remarked, we live in an age where perpetuating the hierarchy between the serious and the popular ‘by reformulating it as a cleavage between art and commerce has become ideologically inaudible and methodologically inadmissible’.32 If we hope to distinguish pop music as a musical art form, in counterpoint to the modernist conception of an serious musical art formalised by Adorno, it is not so as to produce yet another obsolete hierarchy of the Arts. On the contrary, we seek to produce a distinction consistent enough to allow us to grasp the incommensurable aspects of this form—we fans for whom pop is, far more than a consumer product, one of the major modern forms of human expression. * Music: A Reconsideration’, The Musical Times 130:1754 (1989), 198–201; T. Gracyk, Rhythm & Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996); L.B. Brown, ‘Adorno’s Case Against Popular Music’, in D. Goldblatt and L.B. Brown, Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005), 378–85. 30. [For ‘off-ground’, see 321n5, below—trans.] 31. To paraphrase Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe on jazz, ‘Adorno, the only major philosopher to have discussed it, is also the only one who, provided we track down the unthought that lies at the most secret heart of his thought, grants us access to this strange art.’ P. Lacoue-Labarthe, ‘Remarque sur Adorno et le jazz (D’un désart obscur), Rue Descartes 10 (1994), 140–41. 32. E. Buch, ‘Peter Szendy, Tubes. La Philosophie dans le juke-box,’ review in Volume! 7:1 (2010), 281–2

O bjective E nemy, S ubjective A lly

Why? Because this negativity lies at the heart of its conscious definition, in


Adorno was right. Pop is not a peaceful form; it is traversed by sometimes dizzying contradictions. We must show exactly why.

O bjective E nemy, S ubjective A lly

But Adorno was also wrong. He underestimated pop’s level of self-consciousness, its productive capacity for reflexivity. Yet as we unfold the reflections it comprises, something in Adorno’s rage continues to speak to us, as if the very meaning of the form of pop, precisely, depended upon it. We could dismiss his hostile arguments, write them off as outdated notions, but the dialectical experience of the pop question suggests a different approach: to go to the very end of his hatred, and to draw from his critique of the false some new truths. In Part One: Form, we interrogate the specificity of pop as a musical art and take a look at the critical structure of what we call its aesthetic form. In Part Two: Figures, we bring to light the dialectical structure of the great figures in terms of which aesthetic judgements concerning pop are made: the ambiguities implied by its deterritorialization of folklore, the subjective dilemmas of the individuals who embody it, the rationalised magic of its hits, and the oscillation, in the story of pop, between a penchant for revival and a fascination with progress.


CHAPTER 1. POP Even the most rose-tinted film presents itself objectively in its own appearance as if it were a work of art. We must confront it with its own pretension. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’ (1964)

‘Music is music!’, as Berg once told a Gershwin intimidated in the presence of the great Viennese maestro. Indeed, music is a unity, and there is something artificial in separating it into anything but good music and bad music. The frontiers between genres are never as watertight as we think. Pop music itself, in all its diversity, consists of nothing but hybridisations and transformations of other forms, borrowings and variations. A recorded song may include a fragment of a Schubert sonata1 alongside a polyrhythm or a jazz phrase reproduced, sampled, or mixed in. The baroque pop of the 1960s was largely fuelled by melodies and counterpoint inspired by Bach, from The Left Banke’s ‘Pretty Ballerina’ and Brian Wilson’s ‘Here Today’ through to Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’;2 1990s hip-hop reused Pachelbel’s Canon in D (Variations on a Ground Bass) many times over; and there would be no Post-Rock, whether Talk Talk or Mogwai, without the influence of modal jazz and experimental music. In compositional terms, recorded popular music also draws its material (chord sequences, modes, and bar structure) from the legacy of both European and African ‘popular music’, originally made for dancing. But pop often also borrows from the legacy of serious music, transforming and refashioning itself through explorations of musical materials far removed from the folk tradition. Musics flow and circulate, and the student of their currents will always be able to find some exception to trouble the fragile borders set up between them. Given all of this, in setting out the distinctive nature of pop music—in the broader sense defined above—we can never hope to produce 1. For example, his Trio for Piano and Strings in E Flat Major (no. 2, D. 929, Op. 100), widely used in cinema since Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, has been reproduced or sampled by various pop artists. 2. The organ line that punctuates the worldwide hit of 1967, composed by Gary Brooker and organist Matthew Fisher, is inspired by the Bach cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, known as ‘Sleepers Awake’ (BWV 140) or Suite No 3 in D major (BWV 1068), or, more precisely, violinist August Wilhelmj’s arrangement of the aria into an ‘Air on the G String’, heard by Fisher in a version reorchestrated by the Jacques Loussier Trio for an advertisement for Hamlet cigars.


a priori categories, but only case studies that will inevitably be called into question by further new cases.


To fully distinguish pop as a musical form, we must set out from considerations upstream of its musicological description: it must be grasped first of all not as music but as one of many musical arts, its specificity pertaining to the manner in which music is presented to the listener, rather than to any particular choice of notes or rhythms. Use of the term art here carries no grandiose connotations, but neither does it imply any devaluation of the idea of ​​art. Art is not considered here as the exclusive domain of masterpieces, but as that of works, of artefacts, whether pictorial, musical, or literary, and regardless of their aesthetic value. The daubing of the Sunday painter on the banks of the Seine is no less a work than a six-hundred-year-old Masaccio, The ‘Folia’ of the shepherd Rodrigo Martinez from the Cancionero de Palacio is no less a work than Handel’s grave, baroque ‘Sarabande’ (best known in its orchestral version as used by Stanley Kubrick), a catchy tune played to death on prime time radio no less than a song carefully crafted and fully inhabited by The Nits, highly appreciated and discussed by their fans. Not all works are necessarily great works, as the symbolic weight given to the idea of the ‘artwork’ can sometimes lead us to think.3 Art is not a status 3. ‘Work’ is used here as a descriptive term, equivalent to the notion of artefact. In her Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, Lydia Goehr employs a normative sense of the concept of the ‘work’ as it attained a form of ‘institutional centrality’ around 1800 in the history of music, especially in relation to the work of Beethoven, whereas ‘prior to 1800 (or thereabouts), musicians did not function under the regulation of the work-concept’. In this sense, she argues, Bach ‘did not intend to compose musical works’: when Bach composed his magisterial music, he was able to think of his score, its performance, and its reception in terms other than those associated with the creation of works. In short, we might say that he composed the works of God. Now, do these works of God really correspond to what we would call works today? Doesn’t the transition from a sacred to a secular theory provide a meaningful explanation for why the concept of the work acquired such authority after Bach? L. Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 115, 8. In contrast to Goehr’s argument, here we deliberately distance ourselves from the authority granted by the supposed sacredness of the concept of the work, in order to return to what distinguishes artefacts and the aesthetic uses they call for. We even stop short of the legal articulation between work and copyright: the unity of a recorded sound production makes it a work, and this unity results from the known or inferred intent to produce one. Can we really allow our analysis to establish such an encounter between Beethoven’s Fifth and ‘Three Blind Mice’, Goehr asks? Yes, because they are both works, regardless of their complexity, their form, their relative value in the history of music, and perhaps even the respective musical art forms to which they belong.

granted to things by some sovereign tribunal, it is a way of producing those


things which marks them out for aesthetic use. However, once we enter the then we begin to evaluate and to hierarchise them, to award a higher value and meaning to some than to others. We can argue about the superiority of Handel’s sarabands over Lully’s or those of the anonymous composers of the Spanish Renaissance, we can allude to the anecdotal nature of the mainstream tune as compared to a Caetano Veloso composition that is both popular and daring, and so on. But minor or unsuccessful works are still works. Calling these types of objects ‘works’ simply means to say that they are objects that belong to a given artistic practice which imparts a certain form to representations. In this sense, pop consists of myriad works which are no less works than the symphonies of nineteenth-century classical music, although they are certainly different. All of this means that we must immediately clarify this point: What kind of musical work is a pop work? More broadly, what kind of musical art form is pop, regardless of whether it is a major or minor form?4 If pop is indeed this all-encompassing form capable of accommodating various musical styles and comprising an infinite number of pop works both real and potential, we must discover what distinguishes it from other musical forms. What formally differentiates pop from traditional folk music, Western classical music, and improvised music?

4. Such a distinction would imply a value system or an anthropology that would assign to the various arts, according to their supposed maturity, a greater or lesser ability to morally elevate, educate, or emancipate us.


domain of making judgements on works, that is to say, aesthetic judgements,

I. ARTISTIC FORM usually conceived of as an art of sounds, pop may be understood as a particular form, a distinct way of producing forms—musical artefacts—from sounds.5 This is certainly not a traditional distinction to make. For Adorno, light popular music is by no means a form: it does not even really belong to art. It is above all a social use of music determined by a psychosocial function: entertainment, the aim of which is to adapt individuals to the tempo of social life. Constrained by this function, according to Adorno, light popular music cannot possibly constitute an autonomous musical form.6 One can certainly relate it to an existing art form, music, but real Music as such is to be found only in the self-conscious complexity of serious music. Outside of that domain, it ceases to be an autonomous art and becomes a functional art: in short, it ceases to obey properly musical laws and instead becomes subject to constraints which minimise any artistic elements to the point of their wholesale atrophy. For Adorno, light popular music therefore seems to be nothing more than a degraded version of music, one that induces ‘a relationship to music into which those with no relationship enter’.7 But because this degradation is a provocation to the somewhat high-flown idea of musical ‘Art’, it arouses Adorno’s critical curiosity, even if it doesn’t persuade him to see it as a new art form. Although he identifies, in negative form, questions that we will also see as constitutive for the aesthetics of this music, he never connects 5. ‘Art’, as Tristan Garcia writes, ‘is [...] the way of making a form of an object’ (Form and Object: A Treatise on Things, tr. M.A. Ohm and J. Cogburn [Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014])— that is, a way of making a material—in this case sound—function within an ensemble that represents something other than what it is materially. When a musical performance, sound recording, or a score gives us access not only to itself qua performance, recording, or score, but to musical forms that render them absent and reveal something other than this performance, recording, or score—a given composition, song, or orchestral suite—then we are dealing with distinct ways of making forms out of sound-objects and therefore, potentially, with distinct musical arts within the art of music. 6. In his refounding of philosophical aesthetics, Immanuel Kant maintained that the work of art must be autonomous, that is to say ‘without purpose’, free of any use or any possible instrumentalisation. In Adorno this ideal of autonomy is maintained, albeit passed through the filter of a materialist critique. It yields the opposition between ‘autonomous art’ and ‘functional art’ which, in his work, become dialectical poles rather than two distinct realities or substances. Although it is clear to Adorno that no work of art can actually claim absolute autonomy, autonomous art is art which, in the great power struggle against its instrumentalisation by society, manages to resist the law of the latter and, where possible, on the contrary, dictates new laws. 7. Adorno, ‘On the Fetish Character in Music’, 27.

A rtistic F orm

We propose the following hypothesis: within what we understand as musical art,



light popular music to a distinct musical art. He studies hits, but focuses more on their mode of transmission than on this essential determination of their

R ecording -Works

production: the fact that what is involved here is recorded music. Now, recording is a phenomenon that is fundamentally distinctive of what academic researchers, including Adorno himself in the American context, call popular music.

RECORDING-WORKS Recording and its technical-industrial implications—that is, its reproducibility and its ability to be distributed en masse and everywhere, its capacity for deterritorialization8—are determining criteria that have proved indispensable in all recent research in aesthetic ontology concerning the definition of modern popular music.9 Of course, a pop work is not only a recorded musical work, since all music can be recorded: amateur record collections are full of ‘classical music’ recordings or ‘contemporary music’ records of music performed from scores, or records that document improvised music. So not all recorded music is pop. But pop, in all of its manifestations, is essentially recorded music. Let us explain. A musical work can be related to in many different ways: I can read the score of Lili Boulanger’s Pie Jesus, be in the audience at a performance of the score, or listen to the recording of Igor Markevitch’s interpretation of the piece. These different modes of access imply alterations in my experience of the work, but not in the integrity of the work itself, which is deemed to be fixed by its score. Now, if I mention the track ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd, these three modes of musical experience are still possible: a score—although it will hardly be able to account for all the dimensions specific to the recording and mixing of the track; a performance, for example during a concert by the band 8. The concept of ‘deterritorialization’ was coined by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in AntiOedipus (1972). It describes the process of decontextualization of a set of relationships that enables them to be transferred into other contexts. According to Deleuze and Guattari, Freud deterritorialized the psyche through the concept of libido. Since Anti-Oedipus the concept itself has been deterritorialized into the field of cultural geography, now referring to the breaking of the territorial link between a society and a country. We will use it here to describe the effect of the reproducibility of sound recordings and the portability of those devices (from radio to the internet by way of all socalled audio phonographic devices) by which they are diffused, at a distance from the source of the sounds (the place they were originally performed). 9. See, for example, J.A. Fisher, ‘Rock‘n’Recording: The Ontological Complexity of Rock Music’, in P. Alperson (ed.), Musical Works: New Directions in the Philosophy of Music (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 109–23.

itself or by a covers band; and the recording that features on the album of the


same name, released in 1975. But in this case it seems that, unlike a written mance or its score, but with the recording. Pergolesi’s Pie Jesus, Stabat Mater or Mahler’s Third Symphony pre-date their performances and their recordings, and each of those recordings is individual. In the case of the Pink Floyd track, this anteriority does not hold. Here, it is as if the recording itself is the work:10 without it, without reference to it, the pop work simply doesn’t exist. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t sing the song, play it on the piano or guitar, at home or with friends, outside the context of the recording—just as generations of holidaymakers have reprised The Beatles’ greatest hits around the camp fire. But whether it’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ or ‘Let It Be’, the musical work here is clearly not comprised in just a series of chords and a melody sung over a few musical phrases, even if these elements determine it as a composition. Because it is not only this composition. What constitutes the pop work ‘Let It Be’ is the mixing of tracks recorded by Paul McCartney on January 31, 1969 in the Apple Studio and completed by tracks added by George Harrison in April of the same year and then in January 1970 at Abbey Road Studios. On the first version, released on a 33rpm album, Harrison’s guitar solo is different, less rocky, than on the 45rpm single version, which became the most famous. The mix, supervised by producer Phil Spector, would later be modified in the version that appears on the album Let It Be… Naked, released by McCartney thirty-three years later. Presented as a version stripped of Spector’s busier treatment, this new ‘Let It Be’ is not ontologically speaking more ‘original’ than the first one. Aesthetically, however, it is presented as being closer to the original intentions of the composer.11 But each recorded 10. This is Roger Pouivet’s thesis: ‘Rock is the creation of musical works as recordings within the context of mass arts’. Pouivet, Philosophie du rock, 11–12. 11. To produce a new version of a pop work—that is to say, to make a recording—can never bring one closer to the original work, as each recording is an original. To present a new version as more ‘original’ is either a misnomer, where one means to say that the cleaned-up version of ‘Let it Be’ is closer to the original intent of composer Paul McCartney—or it is sheer revisionism. The fact that each recording made and published is a work does not imply that all versions have the same value: some may seem obviously more successful than others. On the growth since the early 2000s of ‘remastering’ (which provokes debates similar to those raised by the practice of restoration in the visual arts: between the restitution of a more original state of the work and revisionism), see Paul Purgas’s article ‘Digital Audio: Remastering and Radical Revisionism’, Dis/Continuity (Berlin: CTM, 2014).

R ecording -Works

musical work, we are more likely to identify Pink Floyd’s work not with its perfor-


version, whatever its respective qualities to the ears of artist or audience, is

R ecording -Works

version—as a fixed recording—of ‘Let It Be’, whether it differs in arrangement

a different work, even if all of them come from the same composition. Each (the Harrison guitar solo) or production (Phil Spector’s version as opposed to the Naked version), is a distinct work. Because ontologically—that is to say, in terms of its formal identification—the completed pop work does not exist prior to its recording. It’s the same song that is being interpreted, but each act of recording creates a new work and each of these works is different, and so they count as distinct originals. If a fan records a cover version of ‘Let It Be’, that will be another work. On this ontological level, the formal level of its identity, each work is incommensurable with all others and none is subordinate, even chronologically, to any other. However, not all possible live interpretations of the song, from concert performances to improvised fireside performances at summer camps, are pop works, ontologically speaking: in the live performance the pop work becomes an (already performed) ‘score’ for a new performance, which may alter the original. Although performance, embodiment, and many other unrecordable practices are also a part of pop, its artistic determination, the form that materially determines its artefacts and the way in which we understand them, is rooted in the identity of work and recording. Now, recording enables reproducibility, in two senses. In the first place, reproducibility refers to the phenomenon of material reproduction (the same recording-work can be copied onto different media); secondly, it allows for ubiquity (the same recording-work can be played in different places at the same time). It has always been the case that the same song can be played at the same time in different places, yet formerly what was ubiquitous was not the work but the composition (which, in the musical art of pop, is not the whole of the work). On the contrary, the simultaneous distribution of the same recorded version of ‘Let It Be’ to London and Shanghai is a case of the absolute ubiquity of the work, where no one of these reproductions is any more original than another. As demonstrated by Walter Benjamin with respect to photography, the works that issue from reproducible art are no longer, from this point of view, here and now; they are no longer of the hic et nunc.12 A pop work, a fixed recording, exists 12. We could easily reprise here Walter Benjamin’s argument on photography: W. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, tr. H. Zohn, in H. Arendt (ed.), Illuminations (New York: Schocken), 217–51.

potentially anywhere and at any time. It is reproducible—that is to say, it can be


replayed and diffused far from its original acoustic source, identically. And only we in a position to determine the specificity of these works.

OTHER REGIMES OF PRODUCTION This specificity may enable us to establish a formal distinction between pop and other musical arts—that is to say, other regimes of production of musical artefacts. Such a distinction would have to differentiate it from (1) a folk regime of production, (2) a ‘serious music’ regime of production (based on written scores), and finally (3) an improvisatory regime of production. (1) Since it consists of reproducible recordings—whatever the means employed, from the wax cylinder to magnetic tape to digital recording—pop seems distinct from the aesthetic uses of popular traditional or folklore, understood to be associated with oral rather than recorded transmission, and attached to a community, to sacred places and ceremonial occasions. By contrast, the transmission of recorded popular music is made possible by its technical reproducibility and its consequent capacity for deterritorialization (for ubiquity and resonance beyond its original territory). As the fixing of a given instant via recording, it is inseparable from singular performers—if only because of their distinctive voice—whereas in practices of appreciation of traditional or folk music, author and performer are relegated to the background. Of course, this distinction by no means establishes an impermeable boundary between the musical repertoires themselves. Traditional folk song, and all kinds of folklore from all over can and do influence pop compositions, just as they also influence motifs found in the scores of ‘serious music’. Again, we come back to the idea that musics circulate and flow into one another. But without rigidly separating folk music from pop music, we can distinguish a regime of folk musical art—whose meaning is rooted in communities, in certain collective places and times, and which originally circulates orally from one performer to another—from a pop musical art whose works are first made as recordings, and then circulate de facto beyond any given collective location or time. (2) As a recording-work, the pop-work also differs from written musics. Unlike scored music, the pop work results from the ‘mixing of recorded elements; the

Other R egimes of P roduction

when we accept this ‘ontological complexity’, as John Andrew Fisher puts it, are


mix is what fi ​​ nally constitutes the work’.13 This mix may have no physical location

Other R egimes of P roduction

vinyl, WAV or MP3 files), yet it is ontologically identifiable in the formal identity

other than those of its many reproductions (analogue or digital media, tapes, of these reproductions (as opposed to their material multiplicity). Certainly, both folk music and scored music can be performed, and these performances can be recorded and mixed, but in such cases, we do not consider the recording as the original work: they represent just one possible interpretation, one possible medium.14 When classical pianist Glenn Gould championed recording against the vicissitudes of the concert, it was not in the hope of producing a ‘new’ original of a work, but in order to control two uncertain factors in its execution: the quality of the performance and its sound quality. Recording reduces the uncertainty of performance, but it does not replace the performance. In all cases, the performance recorded and mixed yields only new versions, and not an original, in contrast to what occurs with the pop work. (3) Finally, pop musical art can be distinguished from another artistic regime of music: that of improvisation. Of course, improvisations can be recorded, but the instrumental practice of improvisation contradicts in principle the way in which pop works are fixed as recordings. When it is not just being exploited as a principle of creation, a rhetoric of production, when it is seen as an end in itself of musical practice, improvisation balks at the idea of being fixed in a recording, in the very form of a musical work whose contours are permanently fixed. As Christian Béthune notes, jazz creations that improvise on a standard, most often a ‘refrain lifted from the almost inexhaustible reservoir of Tin Pan Alley’s songsters’, do not aim at definitive fixation but ‘at a regime of transformation which, all things being equal, is not far from making the piece thus played resemble the martyred figures of the painter Francis Bacon’.15 To the neat and fixed edges of a pop work, improvisation opposes a vacillation that defies any finalization of a recording that would be the work.

13. Pouivet, Philosophie du rock, 27–8. 14. The object of (serious) musical art cannot be identified with either the score or its execution. Devoid of any original, according to Nelson Goodman it has the status of an ‘allographic’ art as opposed to an ‘autographic’ art such as painting, of which there is only one original. 15. C. Béthune, ‘De l’improvisation’, Nouvelle revue d’ésthetique 5 (2010), 156n1.

Even so, we may question whether jazz obeys this improvisational regime


exclusively, and therefore whether it should be excluded from the pop space form that resists any fixedness by perpetually carrying out new idiosyncratic deformations, then we must consider it alien to the pop form. After all, for jazz, the club is supposed to be a more essential site of production than the studio; the event of the performance or the collective jam may be considered its ontological basis, relative to which any recording is accidental. In musicology, moreover, the specific harmonic and rhythmic features of jazz have often led to its being very particularly distinguished from other genres of popular music. Yet there is something artificial in completely isolating jazz from the aesthetic conditions of pop, not least because of the importance of recording, and phonographic records in particular, in the history of the genre. Historically, the emergence of jazz is inseparable from the emergence of 78s in the 1920s, and it was through them that jazz established the repertoire that makes it possible to identify it as a musical genre. Listening to these recordings, musicians developed and enriched various aspects of their improvisational technique such as voicings, walking bass, and the rhythmic patterns performed by drummers. We cannot help but notice how, when Adorno studies the ‘light popular music’ played on the radio in the 1930s, he continually cites the vocal jazz and swing standards, the smash hits of the time.16 Here we are far from a jazz aesthetic resistant to any fixing of its continuous and unbridled improvisation. Moreover, the recordings he deals with are subject to the same industrial imperatives as those that govern other genres of recorded popular music. At the other end of the spectrum, with the most avant-garde jazz work, it is known that studio practice, and therefore recording and mixing, were constitutive of the flagship works of the genre. Think of Lennie Tristano’s album Tristano (1955) or Charles Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963), Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way (1969) or Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction (1971): each of these records was conceived and perfected as a work that was fixed by its recording, with the producers, just as in other genres of pop, exploiting the possibilities of sound recording such as tape manipulation. In his eponymous 1955 album, we know 16. As such, some serious music ‘hits’ such as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or Ravel’s Bolero are also listened to as popular music—something that enraged Adorno.

Other R egimes of P roduction

on this basis. If we identify jazz with an improvised music, with a musical art


that pianist Lennie Tristano made use of characteristic studio techniques: on the

Other R egimes of P roduction

of overdubbing or multitracking—superimposing one track on another—and

pieces ‘Line Up’, ‘Turkish Mambo’, and ‘East Thirty-Second’, he uses the principle speeding up the tapes.17 Given all of this, the exclusion of jazz from the pop form seems problematic. Without wanting to deny the essential aesthetic dimension of improvisation—which does indeed pull against fixedness—jazz is not a pure art of improvisation, but has also shown itself to be an art of recorded works. Certainly, the aesthetics of improvisation and a certain virtuosity, attesting to the authenticity of the performance, place jazz somewhat at odds with the excessive sonic retouching that can be achieved in the studio: jazz singers’ voices are not corrected with autotune, as in mainstream contemporary pop. Given the aesthetic presuppositions upon which jazz is based, such a gesture would seem like a cheap trick.18 But this same operation would be just as embarrassing for any other pop genre that focused on the natural and the authentic, and whose rules privileged the live feel of the first take and the warmth of direct recording. Yet in both cases the mediation of recording is still all-important: it determines the musical work in its entirety. In conclusion, no doubt we must acknowledge the existence of a regime of musical production as pure improvisation, distinct from the pop regime of the production of recording-works. But even though as a genre jazz is defined in part by an aesthetic of improvisation, this does not exclude it from the artistic 17. According to Ira Gitler, in The Masters of Be-Bop: A Listener’s Guide (New York: Da Capo Press, 2009), these manipulations sparked an uproar among fans for some time after the record’s release. On ‘Line Up’, the superhuman speed of execution suggested sound manipulation, which some tried to deny by demonstrating that it was possible to play that fast. On ‘Turkish Mambo’, Tristano played three distinct clashing piano parts, on a rhythm of five, six and seven beats in the left hand, while the right hand improvised. Asked about his artistic decision to depart from the rule of straight recording without any intervention, Tristano replied that the suspicions of some listeners didn’t matter to him: the technique had been a composition tool like any other, and was the only way to play the piece as he felt it needed to be played. 18. Addressing the jazz lover who considers it a weakness that everything audible on the tape of a rock song was not performed straight, Roger Pouivet explains that, in the case of ‘rock’, ‘authenticity does not imply that the recording restores what has been sung and played at a certain time and in a certain place as faithfully as possible’. According to him, this margin of uncertainty is opposed to what is required by the appreciation of jazz. But considering the importance of studio techniques in the history of jazz itself, we must distinguish between the artistic dimension of jazz and its aesthetic, often reliant on a certain ideal of the figure of the virtuoso musician improvising a living, authentic music that can only be denatured by any kind of artificial postproduction.

ambit of recorded popular music. On the contrary, jazz participates in pop at


least on the formal level, unlike traditional folk music (based on oral transmission) Pop produces recorded musical works; they are its ‘originals’. As far as pop is concerned, it is not the content reproduced by the recording that is the work, it is the work located in the recording that crystallises the artistry. Determined by recording, by all of its selective procedures from the capture of sound to the mixing of tracks, pop begins as soon as the mediation of recording becomes an essential quality of the musical work that is heard.19 In pop, the listener simultaneously evaluates a composition and all of the procedures of sound transformation performed upon it (by editing and the application of various effects such as reverb, saturation, acceleration, compression, etc.). Ontologically determined by recording, pop works are also tied materially to their recording media. The experience of recorded popular music works is inseparable from the various phonographic media by which they have been and still are made audible: the wax cylinder, the bandwidth of radio, vinyl, the K7 stereo tape recorder, the LaserDisc, the MP3, streaming services…. As Adorno saw it, if these media identify the site of light popular music, any experience of scored music via media must, at the very least, affect the way in which we listen. Even if mediation through the radio is, from an ontological perspective, contingent for a Beethoven symphony, it affects the piece, and may even alter its aesthetic status and conditions of reception. Nonetheless, the difference between this 19. Roger Pouivet concludes from this that the type of sound object ‘rock’ ‘basically appeared in the middle of the twentieth century; when certain technical means made it possible to make certain musical artefacts in the studio’. More specifically, it appeared on 26 March 1951, during the multitrack recording by Les Paul and singer Mary Ford of the song ‘How High the Moon’. During a single performance, without external intervention and without interruption, the guitarist and the singer aggregated and instantly mixed several tracks, using the technique of the overdub for the first time. This technique, now available to all, allows one or more musical sequences to be recorded onto the recording of a previous sequence, and so on, with each layer remaining audible. In less than a month, as Pouivet reports, the song reached the top of the hit parade. Without questioning the decisive role of the mix in the rock sound work, or the fact that the innovative technique of overdubbing created certain fundamental possibilities, it is questionable whether the conditions for the pop work only came together at this moment. Alan Lomax’s 1930s field recordings already belong to an aesthetic of recording, and not just restitution. Just as the warm reception of the crooners’ voices, in perfect harmony with the broadcast frequencies of the radios of the time (mid and high-mid range), already displays a penchant for mixing, for production. Therefore, from our point of view, records in the first half of the twentieth century already belong to a pop art.

Other R egimes of P roduction

or ‘serious’ music (based on written scores).


symphony and a pop work is that, in the latter case, the technological mediation

A n A rt of S eparated S ounds

primary ontological determination.

is more than just an alteration: it is the work’s very condition of possibility, its

AN ART OF SEPARATED SOUNDS: SITUATED SOUNDS, RESTORED SOUNDS The experience of a pop work is inseparable from a recording, meaning that the sounds that compose it are perceived separately from their acoustic source. In other words, the sounds of instruments and other noises reproduced in it are separated from the material causes which are their source. In the recording these acoustic sources are absent, and are instead represented in sounds that are separated (from their source). The separation of sources and sounds conditions the pop musical art form. But this separation is not enough to distinguish it from other musical art forms that are also likely to rely on recording and amplification, first and foremost musique concrète. For aesthetic reasons related to the importance given to embodiment and its spontaneity (vocal or instrumental) in the aesthetic experience of pop, it turns out that these separated sounds are at the same time appreciated in pop as the restitution of sounds. Outside of this perspective it would be impossible to understand the effect of aura or of paradoxical presence that is experienced when listening to certain popular music recordings. On some old blues records, the listener’s subjective projection of the singing voice’s absent body, the guitar that the static of the recording seems to surround like a halo, produce an effect of distant proximity.20 The separated sound refers to its source, whose presence it suggests in its absence. A human embodiment seems to be at once delivered and withdrawn, like something sacred: the feeling of authenticity is at its height. The pop aesthetic cherishes this sense of restitution as much as the materiality of the sound that seems to take the opposite path: not from the sound reinstated in the recording back to the source, but from the sound located inside the recording toward the speakers that diffuse it, to its receiver. Now, the 20. We shall come back to precisely what it is that yields this aura, in Benjamin’s sense of the term. The aura, Benjamin writes, is the ‘unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be’. W. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Third Version’, in in H. Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (eds.), Selected Writings Volume 4, 1938–1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 251–83.

aesthetic experience of pop always involves both sides of this equation, existing


between the auratic quality of the sound which traces it back to the depth of surface of its destination, in the direction of the receiver. One, referring to a distant source, produces an effect of presence; the other, bringing the sound in the recording closer to its concrete sonority, produces an effect of sonorous matter. Each pop work occupies a particular position between the two ends of this spectrum, without ever being able to commit exclusively to sound in its material aspect, which would sacrifice its desire for expressiveness. And this is what distinguishes pop from musique concrète.

POROSITIES Because the recording is the work, appreciation of a pop work supposes that we hear the mixed sounds for themselves, without assigning them to specific causes or determinate instrumental sources. Defined by Michel Chion as the ‘art of fixed sounds’, musique concrète operates, following a more radical discipline, at the vanguard of this ‘acousmatic’ field—a term borrowed from the Pythagorean sect whose initiates’ only access to revelations came by listening to the voice of a teacher hidden behind a veil. In ‘reduced listening’ or acousmatics, explains Pierre Schaeffer, ‘the tape recorder has the virtue of Pythagoras’s veil’.21 Through recording, musique concrète considers sounds not in terms of notes on a score, or the instrument or matter that constitute their formal or material causes, but only in terms of their strictly sonic qualities. At the end of the 1950s, recording to vinyl disc and then to tape enabled members of the GRM (Groupe de recherches musicales) Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, along with François-Bernard Mâche and François Bayle, to develop the conditions for an ‘acousmatic’ listening to such sound objects, isolated for themselves.22 Open to all the characteristics of sound and to all technologies for its fixing and broadcast, musique concrète is difficult to distinguish from pop on the ontological plane that defines recorded sound. In both cases, reproducible 21. P. Schaeffer, Treatise on Musical Objects, tr. C. North and J. Dack (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018). 22. ‘We call sound object any sound phenomenon or event perceived as a whole, a coherent entity, and heard by means of a reduced listening which targets it for itself, independently of its origin or meaning.’ M. Chion, Guide to Sound Objects, unpublished translation by J. Dack and C. North, 32 [translation modified] (Guide des objets sonores [Paris: INA-GRM-Buchet/Chastel, 1983]).

P orosities

its absent source, and the concrete quality of the sound which brings it to the


recording makes the work, although musique concrète then submits this work to a particular discipline of listening.

P orosities

The case of musique concrète takes us to the limit of ontological distinction alone. For any consequent distinction, thinking in terms of recording and its pure technological implications is not enough. If we want to distinguish a pop form, an additional determination is needed, or else we must acknowledge that this area of confusion is indicative of the crumbling of the old border between popular music and serious music in the twentieth century. The technical possibilities of analogue and digital recording have always influenced the creation of ‘serious’ music, so much so that the paradigm of the score has itself been largely played down. In his Musiques savantes, musicologist Guillaume Kosmicki emphasizes that, in many respects, the distinction between popular or light musics and elite or serious musics no longer holds. From a musicological point of view, the parameter of timbre23—which recording techniques have made it possible to explore in hitherto unheard-of ways—makes it possible to draw an imaginary line between composers as different as Hector Berlioz, Alexander Scriabin, Arnold Schönberg, Luigi Russolo, Edgar Varese, Olivier Messiaen, Giacinto Scelsi, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Pierre Henry, Bernard Parmegiani, Jean Claude Risset, John Chowning, Gérard Grisey, Marc-André Dalbavie, Frank Bedrossian, etc., but which also passes through artists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Klaus Schulze, Kraftwerk, John Zorn, Jeff Mills, Plastikman, Aphex Twin, Murcoff, and many others.24

Research into timbre, Kosmicki concludes, is therefore ‘the only common language to really emerge from the last hundred years of music as a whole. The noisy twentieth century created a music of sonorous matter in motion’.25 23. Timbre—one of the four parameters for defining a musical sound (alongside pitch, duration, and intensity)—differentiates two notes of the same pitch and duration played by two different instruments. By extension, it refers to the sound obtained by the combination of different instruments or by particular effects (pizzicato, playing with the wood of the bow…). 24. G. Kosmicki, Musiques savantes: de Debussy au mur de Berlin (1882–1962) (Marseille: Le mot et le reste, 2012), 21. 25. Ibid.

Not just popular music, but practically all music, now belongs to what François



Delalande calls the electroacoustic paradigm. Whereas the particular paradigm music or recorded music,27 the universal paradigm of sound opens the floodgates for an indiscriminate sharing of sonic experience. Bach, Debussy, Stockhausen, Coltrane, or the soundscapes of Knud Victor or Chris Watson, can easily inspire a pop song. In material terms, given just how vast sonorous materiality is, there is no fundamental musical distinction—in the sense of a separation—between pop music and other forms of music. The pop work is in principle as receptive to sounds and successions of sounds as the membrane of a microphone. In terms of the materiality of sound, provided that we take into account this electroacoustic paradigm, rich enough to incorporate the dimension of sound along with all of its noises and expressive variations, the form of pop music is simply its porosity. It is an open form which, when confronted with any material or sound form, can potentially make use of it.28 Should we say then that the frontier between serious music and pop music is obsolete? For some decades, general studies on music have noted its erosion. Criteria that used to be discriminative—writing, listening difficulty, age, sociological background of listeners—no longer apply. Moreover, the history of music itself is now seen differently: not only as a history of forms or compositional material that can be written down, but also as a history of sound and timbres as they occur acoustically or electroacoustically, the very plane upon which the opposition between serious qua sophisticated scored music and the popular 26. F. Delalande, Le Son des musiques: entre technologie et esthétique (Paris: Buchet/ Chastel, 2001), 42–50, and ‘Le paradigme électroacoustique’, in J.-J. Nattiez (ed.), Musiques, une encyclopédie pour le XXIe siècle, (Arles and Paris: Actes Sud/Cité de la musique, 2 vols., 2003), vol. 1, 533–57. 27. A separation that produces certain aesthetic misapprehensions, as Antoine Hennion has demonstrated in a 1998 article: ‘Most variables involved in the musical description of a popular music are precisely those which, with great effort, classic music and musicology have managed to relegate to a secondary plane: improvisations, variations, accents, relations to speech and dance, to the body, sexuality and imagination, the play of timbres and sonorities, the meaning of instruments, and the very scenography of the sequencing of parts…’ (‘D’une distribution fâcheuse. Analyse sociale pour les musiques populaires, analyse musicale pour les musiques savants’, Musurgia 2/5 (1998), 9–20. 28. Along the same lines, see also the interactions between EDM (electronic dance music) and electroacoustic scholarly research, as discussed by Juan Atkins, Gabriel Prokofiev, Cabaret Contemporain, and Klavikon in this interview: .

P orosities

of music as writing definitively separates scored music from orally transmitted


considered as coming from a harmonically impoverished oral tradition vanishes,

P orosities

century music in The Rest Is Noise, American critic Alex Ross recounts a history

in favour of other musicological distinctions. In his general history of twentieth of serious music that sees it as being open to recorded popular music, particularly around The Velvet Underground and the affinities of Lou Reed and John Cale with American minimalism.29 Amid the usual scholarly discourse on the history of music, it is a breath of fresh air. This lack of differentiation has a certain charm: it is welcoming, and seems to break through the old hierarchies. But it also produces new ones, less explicit but just as effective. Suppose that, rather than focusing on the criterion of the sophistication of the score and the complexity of musical language, we privilege timbral richness: certain pop works largely built on the simple charm of the recording of a melody and a lyric will immediately be devalued, seen as insufficient when judged against the full range of sonic possibilities that recorded music offers. Yet although it is a canonical pop masterpiece, the recording of the guitar and vocals of ‘Sisters of Mercy’ as performed by Leonard Cohen is not aesthetically inferior to the complex vocal harmonies and the rich orchestration of bass, guitar, harpsichord, saxophone, ukulele and flute (embellished with ultrasound whistles and other sonic effects) of The Beach Boys’ ‘Caroline, No’. A sophisticated aesthetic judgement might even place the orchestral richness of Brian Wilson’s composition in second place behind Cohen’s sheer vocal presence, the depth of his lyrics, and the sense of rawer authenticity that emerges from his economy of means. To do justice to the aesthetic stakes of the pop music art form therefore requires that we unfold all of its dimensions, among which the emphasis on sonic exploration constitutes only one possibility among others. We must take into account a new aspect of the distinction. Open to any sonic material as well as to contemporary academic music, pop music has a particular way of presenting these materials and making them its own. 29. According to Alex Ross, this openness has a biographical origin. As he recounts in the introduction to his book Listen to This, he associates serious music with childhood, with the very formation of his listening, whereas his initiation into popular music—via avant-garde pop (Captain Beefheart, Sonic Youth, etc.)—was inseparable from his entry into adult life and the political avenues this opened for him. This model reverses the usual relation that opposes the immaturity of pop music with the adult development of serious music (A. Ross, Listen to This [London: Fourth Estate, 2010]).

In its avant-gardes and on its margins, and sometimes in its hits, pop opens itself


up to all musical materials, but an additional property seems to qualify it and to enrich pop material, but there is also a specifically pop way to draw upon such inspiration, one that separates it from artists whose music inherits either the tradition of serious music or improvised experimental music. To the ontological conditions of pop (recording and reproducibility) and its musical material is thus added an aesthetic determination: a set of problems posed to the listener and composer of music that is not only recorded but is recorded popular music. The ‘popular’, often neglected in definitions of pop, is in our opinion the fundamental operator of this aesthetic qualification. Without it, pop loses all specificity.

TABOO There is a reluctance today in some quarters to talk about pop as ‘popular’ music, and a preference for less discriminatory terms such as ‘amplified music’ or ‘current music’. These designations, which are either too broad (not all amplified music is pop) or too narrow and almost paradoxical (with music from many decades ago being defined as ‘current’)30 mark a refusal to use a problematic word that may recall old, politically confused classifications. And of course there is every reason to think that we ought to go beyond any fixed opposition between the serious and the popular—sophistication and high tech, for example, are by no means excluded from pop practice—yet it would be a mistake to neglect the relevance of the word ‘popular’, and indeed in order to define the pop form, it may well be necessary to elucidate the notion. Obviously, ‘popular’ is a loaded term. For the musicologist it seems to reduce pop’s ambitions, because ultimately it leads back to another term, 30. In France, the expression ‘musiques actuelles [current musics]’, proposed in the late 1970s by the founders of the Rencontres Trans Musicales festival in Rennes, has become the official expression, the expression ‘musiques amplifiées [amplified musics]’ advocated by ethnosociologist Marc Touché having been abandoned. As far as musical practices are concerned, the word ‘current’ provides a convenient classification, free of the social ambiguities of the term ‘popular’, but aesthetically it is more difficult to defend. Modelled on the temporal characterisation of ‘contemporary’ serious music, the currency of ‘current’ musics obscures their historicity. The ‘contemporary’ of contemporary music presupposes the modern, which in turn presupposes the romantic, the classical, the baroque, etc., whereas the current refers only to itself. It suggests passing trends that ultimately change nothing. In describing jazz similarly as a ‘perennial fashion [zeitlose mode]’, Adorno revokes all aesthetic claims made on its behalf.


define it aesthetically. For Bach, Debussy, or Stockhausen can indeed inspire and


the ‘traditional’. The concern being that, by insisting on the ‘popular’ character of music, one risks reducing it to archaic musical patterns, presenting it as a mere


perpetuation of folk traditions that may have been uprooted and industrialised, but which remain fundamentally limited and static in their possibilities. And musicology can certainly trace the majority of the aesthetic elements of pop compositions back to melodic and harmonic patterns that originate in traditional popular music. From slave songs to blues, from minstrel singing to Buddy Holly’s compositions, from the secular baroque repertoire to the baroque pop of the 1960s, we can easily map out a musical genealogy that roots pop in ancient soil. But the permanence on display here is really that of the song,31 addition of the term ‘popular’ being both self-evident and somewhat gratuitous. To insist on this term is to imply something else, a certain relation to history, or rather a non-relation to history, usually with the aim of making pop seem like a musically static phenomenon, or even a regressive one: the music industry likes to vaunt the novelty of pop music, but the musicologist’s analytical ear hears the same perennial constraints of tonal forms and 2/4 or 3/4 rhythms. Adorno’s entire strategy consists in approaching the issue in this way, so that his insistence on the ‘popular’ ultimately ends up destroying all claims of this musical art to produce innovative works. With this set of underlying assumptions, the notion of the ‘popular’ ends up reducing the history of pop to the mere rehashing of older forms. Against this reductionism, however, we may cite the essential role played by the recording medium and its effects upon the work of sound, and the infinite repertoire of innovative pop works, whose rhythms, constructions, and textures are clearly as far removed from the bourrée and the madrigal as a Debussy piece is from a lullaby. Certainly, there can be no doubt that pop compositions draw upon older musical traditions—Celtic chants, African rhythms, and Indian scales, among others—but in doing so they become audible precisely as mixed, hybridised, deterritorialized, a thousand times removed from the perpetuation of a rooted popular tradition. If a folk element survives in pop, it is as a folk tradition removed from the soil, an off-ground32 tradition whose uprooting has aesthetic effects upon it. In this context, to the musicologist the term ‘popular’ seems pointlessly polemical and of little use. 31. On the song form and its evolution, see Part 2, Chapter 4, ‘Pop and Progress’, 334–56. 32. [For ‘off-ground’, see 321n5, below—trans.]

Sociologists find themselves in a similar quandary. If ‘popular’ refers not to the


permanence of a popular tradition but to an extant social segment—in short, a usually includes both the proletariat and the middle class, seems yet more problematic. In the grips of this sociological conundrum, it is even more disturbing to perceive that, even in relation to a sociological category as vague as that of the common ‘people’, pop is in fact not really ‘popular’. For it has been observed that, although the practice of serious music is still largely determined by social origin, pop is far more difficult to assign to any particular class. Some of the wildest rock of the twentieth century was composed by students of fine art and by the sons of lawyers. And is contemporary hip-hop really ‘popular’ in this limited sociological sense? Today the genre is dominated by Jay-Z, Drake, Beyoncé, and Kanye West, all wealthy individuals struggling with Shakespearean conundrums more reminiscent of the disgust at power in Richard III than the clichéd image of the man of the people kept down by those in power.33 As for those who listen to pop, they are as likely to be drawn from the bourgeois as from the proletariat. Although a sociology of musical taste is no doubt possible, the designation of a particular class as the privileged sender or receiver of the pop form can only be a rather forced gesture.34 So much so that the term ‘popular’ ends up being taboo—nobody wants to hear it said that pop is a popular music.

MASS ART In place of the expression ‘popular music’ the term ‘mass art’ was once preferred when describing the triumphant art of pop. The concept designates not so much objective quantitative popularity as blind and undifferentiated popularity, a trace of which is still found in the view 33. Although it could be argued that it is their social backgrounds that matter: Kanye West is middle class, since his father was a journalist and his mother an English teacher, while the origins of Jay-Z, for example, raised by his single mother, are far more modest. 34. See Bernard Lahire’s work on paradoxical cultural practices (B. Lahire, La Culture des individus: dissonances culturelles et distinction de soi [Paris: La Découverte, 2004]). For over twenty years, the culturalist turn in popular music studies has increasingly made room for discontinuities between the social determinants of individuals and their cultural choices. On this subject see George H. Lewis, for whom ‘the link between social and cultural structures becomes a question, not a given.’ (G.H. Lewis, ‘Who Do You Love? The Dimension of Musical Taste’, in J. Lull [ed.], Popular Music and Communication [London: Sage, 1992], 141).

M ass A rt

‘popular class’—then the assigning of pop music to this sociological locus, which


counts of ‘popular’ YouTube videos, which sometimes reach many millions. A manifestation of the democratic consumer society made up of atomised

M ass A rt

individuals rather than solidary communities, the advent of which Alexis de Tocqueville discerned in nineteenth-century America, the ‘masses’ seem to be shaped by the powerful modern techniques of the communications industry. At the polemical climax of the use of this concept, we find the dehumanised subject addressed by the propaganda of the European authoritarian regimes of the 1930s. The basic attributes of the masses, upon which their bad reputation rests, are inertia (even when one hopes to mobilize them) and alienation (the masses are not self-possessed). Yet in the early twentieth century, revolutionaries placed their political hopes in these ‘masses’. For Marxist intellectuals such as Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, and Walter Benjamin, the concept of ‘mass art’ is a progressive concept that wagers on the emancipatory possibilities of an art reconciled with industrial techniques. This is what is called the modern, and it does involve popular art. But such optimistic ‘spontaneism’ has long since faded. When in the 1940s he looks at what has become of popular music in the powerful American communications industry, Adorno discovers that the revolutionary concept is outdated, and he simply gives up on the category of mass art. Firstly because this ‘art’ does not in fact come from the masses—this concept, indeed, being too loose for anything beyond a simple quantitative indication—but from an industry, an autonomous system for the rationalised production of cultural commodities; and secondly because the consumers of these goods, in truth, never come together to form any such unified entity, except in the sense of a passive audience receptive to what is served up by the culture industry, which in turn needs to design and build such a receiver in order to produce and distribute its barely differentiated products. ‘The masses,’ writes Adorno, ‘are not the measure but the ideology of the culture industry, even though the culture industry itself could scarcely exist without adapting to the masses.’35 If the term ‘popular’ is outmoded, the idea of the ‘masses’ has been revealed to be ultimately ideological in nature. 35. T.W. Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, tr. A.G. Rabinbach, New German Critique 6 (Autumn 1975), 12–19: 12 [original text in T.W. Adorno, ‘Résumé über Kulturindustrie’ in Ohne Leitbild (Frankfurt am Main, 1967); the French translation referred to herein contains several passages that do not appear in the English translation: ‘L’industrie culturelle’, Communications 3 [1964], 12–18—trans.]

At a distance from the critical tradition, one branch of the analytic ontology of


the 1990s nevertheless considered reviving this concept apparently rendered Pouivet developed a ‘neutral’ concept of the masses, involving neither the ambiguous idea of t​he ​‘popular’ nor the critique of the manipulation of dominated individuals, but simply addressing the objective effects of mechanical reproduction and mass distribution.37 Designed and manufactured by the mass techniques of the record industry and advertising, according to Pouivet, rock consists in ‘the creation of musical works as recordings within the framework of mass arts’,38 ontologically inscribed within an ‘artistic production system of mass art’ capable of distributing a great many copies worldwide.39 If this description has the merit of integrating the material dimension of the production and dissemination of recorded popular music, it goes too far with the category of the masses. Paradoxically, the idea of ‘mass art’ is too narrow a category through which to understand pop works in their totality: in the end, it only covers stadium rock and the most heavily streamed songs on Spotify or Deezer, and thus amounts to once again identifying pop with the mainstream. But as every pop fan knows, a YouTube video with forty views can very well contain a pop work. Any denial of this brings us back to the old logic problem called the Sorites Paradox: At exactly what number of broadcasts, sales, or views do we cross over the qualitative threshold from (obscure) non-pop to 36. N. Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998). 37. ‘In “mass art”, “mass” does not designate a social status, the status of “the masses” who are the object of alienating manipulation on the part of an oppressive governing class. Neither does “mass” mean “popular”. It is a quantitative description: mass art is addressed to a global, undifferentiated audience—precisely one without any defined social characteristics—it is addressed to anyone whatsoever. The criteria of success for an artwork is its ability to “transcend” any membership of social groups. The fact that it manages to do so, it seems to me, is linked to a specific mode of existence made possible by technics.’ R. Pouivet, ‘Sur l’art de masse’, Médium 1–2 (2005), 74–88. See also R. Pouivet, L’Oeuvre d’art à l’âge de sa mondialisation: un essai d’ontologie de l’art de masse (Brussels: La Lettre volée, 2003). 38. Ibid., 11–12. 39. This bias is reflected in the choice of rock objects studied by Roger Pouivet: U2, stadium rock, AC/DC, and 1980s-style hard rock. Are we to conclude that the more obscure records of Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters, late released recordings such as the works of Linda Perhacs and Sibylle Baier (recorded in 1970 but unreleased until thirty years later), the multiple incarnations— sometimes without a record label—of Nikki Sudden, the prolific but long unavailable discography of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, do not qualify as ‘rock’ works in the broad sense defined by Pouivet?

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so threadbare by twentieth-century critical thought. Noël Carroll36 and Roger


(mass) pop?40 We might just as well ask how many grains of sand it takes to

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to do so (in November 2015, the English singer Adele’s album 25 broke the

make a pile. Moreover, if pop has given rise to mass phenomena, and continues historical record for most sales of an album on the day of its release), it has always, from the first stirrings of the counterculture to the internet age, been fuelled by the formation of small localised amateur communities. In 1980, futurist Alvin Toffler was already describing the ‘demassification’ of cultural experience in post-industrial society.41 Fifteen years before the democratisation of the internet, he observed that ‘[w]e’re seeing more units of musical production’ and the emergence of ‘more performers’. True, he conceded, You still have Mickey Mouse and you still have Bruce Willis breaking glass as mass phenomena. But you also have something that simply didn’t exist a generation or more ago.42 40. Interesting in many respects, the argument of Theodore Gracyk—who also advocates an understanding of pop on the basis of the category of mass art—is that the term can no longer be understood as a ‘quantitative description’: ‘[M]ass art is not, like popularity, a matter of degree. Actual popularity is not a prerequisite for a piece of popular art to count as mass art, and Madonna is no more a mass artist than Anne Richmond Boston (whose name will ring few bells).’ (T. Gracyk, I Wanna Be Me: Rock Music and the Politics of Identity [Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001], 23.) The history of rock is full of groups whose work has never actually had widespread success, yet whose art is a mass art because it depends ‘on its distribution through the mass media’ (ibid., 26). Although Gracyk brings in another dimension, that of the genealogy of rock music, which determines not just its physical but its cultural accessibility, the argument that allows us to identify works that fall under mass art seems circular: it is a mass art because it is conditioned by the means of mass production and distribution. But then how is recorded classical music not also a mass art? Gracyk argues from the testimonials of musicians who say that they aim to reach a wide audience—even if they don’t succeed in doing so. But wouldn’t it be better to consider the aesthetic meaning of this ideal rather reducing it to a purely sociocultural and critical characterization of the ‘mass’? When Roger Pouivet emphasizes that this is an art that ‘transcends membership of social groups’ and which is ‘addressed to anyone whatsoever’, this only begs the question of the ideal of popularity implied by such transcendence. Even if it seeks to be detached from any quantitative measure, deducing the notion of mass art as a definitional condition of rock from the conditions of production and distribution associated with mass arts (in doing so collapsing all reproducible art into this specific term), serves to occult precisely what we seek to understand: the aesthetic horizon suggested by the ideal of a music aimed at ‘anyone whatsoever’. If this is a matter of a certain ‘destiny’ of music that transcends any social membership, we agree; but the term ‘mass’ blocks the way toward a properly aesthetic analysis, which is buried by the technical, historical, structural meanings with which this concept is freighted. 41. A. Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: Bantam, 1981). 42. A. Toffler, cited in P. Shapiro (ed.), Modulations: A History of Electronic Music (New York: Capirinha Productions, 2000), 212–13.

For a decade now, speculations on the ‘non-linear processes’ that promise to


‘demassify mass society’ have fuelled the dreams of a generation of ravers fallen reducing the concrete modes of experience of pop culture to an anonymous ‘mass’. Massification is not an ontological characteristic of recorded popular music; from the outset it has always been a characteristic of the communications industry, which can be applied to any content whatsoever (from funny animal videos to DIY or make-up tutorials, all of which proliferate daily on YouTube). Yet it would be naive to think that music is not a privileged ‘content category’ for vendors across the mass communications industry who have something else to sell. Advertisers control the economy of listening platforms, systematically collecting metadata through personalised interfaces that provide access to each user’s tastes and preferences. But the pop work is not just an advert, and the pop fan is not just a consumer. An aesthetic of the pop music art form, while being fully conscious of the ever-present potential for confusion between art and ‘content’ in the mass advertising industry, must try to grasp the relation of tension present in pop’s resistance to this snare. All signs seem to indicate that, in ‘recorded popular music,’ the idea of the ​​ popular involves some other dimension.

M ass A rt

under the spell of Gilles Deleuze. They have also confirmed the impossibility of

II. AESTHETIC FORM ‘popular’ when we think about recorded popular music. Instead of understanding the popular as a solely sociological or political-economic category, let us now approach it as an aesthetic form, a form capable of aesthetically qualifying (and therefore distinguishing) recorded popular music.

CONSTELLATION Like the undomesticated world that it obscurely gestures toward, ‘popular’ suggests several things at once. It takes the form of a constellation of meanings in which folk tradition, the profane, the light, and the grotesque, but also the ordinary, the vulgar, the banal, and the democratic all appear, like stars close enough together for lines to be drawn between them. In Western art history, this constellation is drawn up in opposition to the aesthetic characteristics of a high art that opposes the elevated to the vulgar, the exceptional to the ordinary, refinement to the uncouth, and the sacred to the profane. Horace despises the crowd,43 Boileau asserts that ‘[a] common conqueror is a theme too base’.44 In the classic poetic arts, the constellation of the popular appears only at a distance. It must be circumscribed within the aesthetic limits of a genre, in particular the comic genre, in order to be seen positively: in the argot of the ancient plays of Plautus—manuscripts of which a fourteenth-century monk scrubbed out in order to copy a commentary on the St. Augustine’s Psalms, as if serious art were trying to suppress the playwright’s popular oddity45—the philosophical scatology of Pantagruel and Gargantua, or the tales of chivalry and farce of Don Quixote de la Mancha. In the domain of music, the category of the profane supplies an equivalent generic protective envelope in which to place those pagan songs that celebrate nature and its powers, the songs, roundels, laments, and ballads of the Middle Ages,46 Renaissance, and Baroque periods, 43. ‘Odi profanum vulgus and arceo.’ Horace, Odes, Book III, 1.1. 44. N. Boileau, The Art of Poetry, Canto III. 45. The reference is to the manuscript of some of Plautus’s plays rediscovered in the nineteenth century and known since then as the ‘Ambrosian Palimpsest’. 46. All of these ancestors of modern popular song were suppressed by the new poetic orientation of the Pléiade poets. In his 1549 Defense and Illustration of the French Language, Joachim Du Bellay encourages the new guard as follows: ‘Forget all those old French poets of the Toulouse Jeux Floraux

A esthetic F orm

Neither class nor mass, then, capture what it is that resonates in the word



in which we find various versions of the harshness, joy, and melancholy of love affairs, everyday problems, and the pleasures of both sweetness and carnality.

C onstellation

As old as this popular constellation is, it has been convincingly shown that the Romantic nineteenth century made it shine even more brightly, with that particular intensity belonging to the modern experience that was just announcing itself. At the very moment when Europe was industrialising, and considered that it had reached an unequalled civilizational maturity, but one accompanied by a sense of decline, at the moment when nationalisms awoke and peoples asserted their right to self-determination, quaint customs, rural legends, and the childlike and mysterious simplicity of old stories become aesthetic fantasies for Romantic artists in search of expressive truth. Formerly circumscribed within light or profane art—inferior genres of expression—the ‘popular’ suddenly begins to be seen as a raw material that can enrich expression. Becoming more than the uncouth counterpart of fine art, it is suddenly grasped as an historic opportunity for the reenchantment of that art. Increasingly freed from any genre, it takes on the dimensions of an entire world view. Placing it at the heart of their quest for the renewal and regeneration of art, European Romantic composers draw on the wellsprings of national folk traditions, collections of which begin to proliferate from the 1820s onward: Chopin’s polonaises and mazurkas, Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies, Schubert’s German dances, Brahms’s Hungarian dances. This newfound intimacy of serious music and old popular forms also gives rise to new, freer, and briefer forms: Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, and Chopin’s Nocturnes all attune listeners to the appeal of an aesthetic of simplicity and a less controlled expression of emotions. ‘Vulgarity’, as Robert Pattison writes, ‘won its victory with the aid of refined Romanticism, and specifically with the support of Romantic pantheism’.47 In Germany, with Faust, Goethe revived the legend of the Polish sorcerer Pan Twardowski. After him Adelbert von Chamisso and Heinrich Heine explored rustic strangeness. Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano published Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the Brothers Grimm prepared a vast collection of and and the Puy at Rouen: and forget rondeaux, ballads, virelais, royal songs, chansons and other such spices, which corrupt the taste of our language, and are of no use except to bear witness to our ignorance.’ 47. R. Pattison, The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 12.

Germanic folk songs from Denmark and Germany. In Spain, in 1799 Don Preciso


began to collect popular songs, which would be published by Agustin Durán 1882 and 1832, and which two decades later would inspire the Romancero general and the ethnographic surveys of Antonio Machado y Alvarez, known as ‘Demófilo’, in his Colección de flamenco cantes, published in Seville in 1881. In England, Walter Scott collected the early-nineteenth-century minstrel songs of the Scottish borders, while in France the Celtic Society was founded and established a programme to systematically collect dialects, customs, and folk stories, a pioneering ‘folklore’ programme which, however, was largely shunned by the Academy on account of its lack of scientificity. At first consigned to the shadows of the History of Art, the luxuriance of the popular imagination soon became a miraculous manna more sought-after than ever. When Victor Hugo speaks of ‘the first appearance and the progress of the grotesque in modern times’, he is talking about more than just one farcical possibility of art and literature: it is, he insists, ‘a starting-point whence one rises toward the beautiful with a fresher and keener perception’.48 Oscar Wilde, for his part, encourages the experience of ‘new sensations’, while Walt Whitman grants to all ‘individuals’, regardless of their sex, their oppressed status, their ugliness or dirtiness, the dignity of poetic voice: Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves, […] Voices of the diseas’d and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs, […] And of the rights of them the others are down upon, Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised. 49

Obeying a pantheistic impulse that fuses these individuals and every inch of their flesh or their filth with all of nature, with ‘fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung’, Whitman sings the body, the sex, all that is allegedly ‘lower’. 48. V. Hugo, preface to Cromwell, tr. G.B. Ives (London: Little, Brown, 1909), 28, 25. ‘Thus comedy is almost imperceptible in the great epic ensemble of ancient times. What is the barrow of Thespis beside the Olympian chariots? What are Aristophanes and Plautus, beside the Homeric colossi, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides? Homer bears them along with him, as Hercules bore the pygmies, hidden in his lion’s skin?’ (22–3). 49. W. Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, in The Portable Walt Whitman (London and New York: Penguin, 2004), 28.

C onstellation

as Romances Castellanos anteriores al siglo XVIII in five volumes between


I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart, Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.

C onstellation

I believe in the flesh and the appetites, Seeing hearing, feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.50

Here the mundane and the ordinary, in all their impurity, have become the very site of the miracle. It is in the rich immanence of human life that true transcendence is to be found. In this way, the constellation of the popular illuminates a new idea of man: ​​ truer, closer to nature and to his own nature, and more fitted for living his life. Immanuel Kant had brought onto the philosophical stage the autonomous, emancipated man, able to think for himself without calling upon the authority of the priest, taking up a Latin injunction that already mixed reason and sensibility, ‘Sapere Aude!’51 (sapere in Latin means both ‘to think’ and ‘to taste’). With Romanticism, the man of the Enlightenment becomes more incarnate; he dares not only to think and feel for himself but to also feel himself: ‘The scent of these arm-pits finer than prayer’52 wrote Whitman, inspired by the transcendentalism of Ralph Emerson, himself a reader of Kant. All of the stars in the constellation of ‘the popular’ now conspire to configure more than a certain idea of ​​beauty: they define a certain idea of the ​​good, without which art is no more than ornamentation. And this idea will be constantly invoked in aesthetic judgements formulated throughout the twentieth century, particularly those concerning pop works: it will serve to valorise authenticity—an authenticity that will be the name of a truth in sync with the rugged matter of the world, and which speaks plainly of the condition of the creatures thrown into this matter. ‘Come As You Are’, sang Kurt Cobain ironically. In its acceptance of that which is for what it is, in its invitation to show oneself as unvarnished, as you are, the phrase is perhaps the most pop slogan imaginable.

50. Ibid. 51. In ‘What is Enlightenment?’, Kant defends the anthropological project of the Enlightenment as a project of emancipation: man as autonomous individual can himself access the sublimity of reason, without the mediation of tradition or social order being necessary. 52. Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, 29.



But there is more. emancipation. For the European poets, novelists, and composers, the return to folklore was part of a movement of the awakening of national identities. For Whitman, the pantheistic experience resonated with Emerson’s transcendentalism, itself inseparable from the elaboration of the ideals of American democracy. Raised to the rank of a world view, the popular bears within it more than what it is: it bears a promise, the dream of a better condition for those whom it addresses and encompasses. By expanding the ordinary to the dimensions of transcendence, the popular placed this transcendence within reach of all. The popular thus embodies the promise of an accessible art not because it lowers itself to the level of its recipients, but because it promises to speak of them, to speak their language and to touch upon the simplicity of their existence, of the common existence of humankind. The sense of immediacy and lightness that we associate with popular music are nothing other than the primary aesthetic effects of this promise. It owes its depth to the vision of a shared condition of the human species, its life and its fate. Pantheistic in its Romantic constitution, this reconciliatory disposition of the ‘popular’ as a world view naturally reconnected with the tradition of religious music designed for collective edification, a tradition which, in contrast, modern serious music regarded with suspicion and distanced itself from. Whereas Pierre Henry secularised his Mass for the Present Time, religious song and its great theme of the ‘Promised Land’ have proved an inexhaustible resource for the pop repertoire, from Bunny Wailer’s Reggae ‘Dreamland’—53 There’s a land that I have heard about, So far across the sea [...] my dreamland Would be like heaven to me [...] and surely we’ll never die

53. On the compilation The Wailers 1967–1972 (Jad, 1997).

P romise

The invocation of the popular is inseparable from an historical impulse to


—to the Rastafarian reggae of Dadawah’s ‘Zion Land’, to the house of Joe

P romise

equality of all creatures before God, and Jesus, figure of God’s abandoned

Smooth’s ‘Promised Land’. The Christian religion, a profession of faith in the creature, suffering and tempted by the Devil,54 have never found any difficulty in cohabiting with the reconciliatory promise of the popular. Since 1978, the non-religious Bruce Springsteen has sung before his tens of thousands of fans of his ‘Promised Land’: ‘And I believe in a promised land’, says the teenager of the song, describing his hope of escaping his condition. The pop promise is not in itself religious, but to the extent that it envisions a beyond to what exists, it has no problem in drawing on eschatological models, and takes them as inspiration. * But we must go further back than the nineteenth century to grasp how this promise of the popular took shape. It is already evident in the aesthetics of opera as it develops between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.55 The creation of Florentine gentlemen eager to understand the sung words of madrigals and railing against the contrapuntal complexity of the compositions of the Renaissance, from the start opera exhibits the specificities of an art form dedicated to popularity. Alternating between dramatic recital and arias which the public could remember and sing themselves, the genre met with tremendous success. An art of drama, stage, and song, it anticipated the combination of spectacular elements that the music industry, from Bayreuth to concert arenas, would go on to exploit on a mass scale. Adorno sees the birth of this preindustrial machinery in the eighteenth-century popularisation of opera. But on the operatic stage one also sees the emergence of a new individual vocal subject, as the old secular and liturgical polyphonies give way to monody. Jacopo Peri, composer of Dafne—often considered the first opera— is appreciated for the flexibility with which his writing respects the inflections of individual voices. Both voice and character, both introspective and actorly, in the opera singer we get a first glimpse of the most important traits of the 54. The nineteenth century is precisely the century of the humanisation of Jesus by way of various historiographical enterprises, especially Ernest Renan’s 1863 Life of Jesus. 55. On the hidden popularity of opera, see T. Picard, La Civilisation de l’opéra (Paris: Fayard, 2016).

pop subject. Opera and recorded popular music are distinct art forms, but


they boast a certain number of aesthetic affinities related in particular to their The way in which, in the 1750s, Jean-Jacques Rousseau sides in favour of popular Italian opera sheds some philosophical light upon this matter. An overtly light and entertaining variant of Italian opera, Pergolese’s opera buffa entitled La Serva Padrona triggered a quarrel in France known as the Querelle des Bouffons (‘Quarrel of the Comic Actors’). It set against one another on one side (in the King’s camp) the supporters of French lyric tragedy, as exemplified by Rameau, and on the other (in the Queen’s camp) the advocates of a vivid opera accessible to all, with Rousseau leading the charge. Whereas lyrical tragedy, according to Rousseau, is composed of ‘conventional beauties’, ‘devoid of power and energy’, Italian opera provides ‘real beauties’ that are more immediately satisfying.57 To the more serious music of Rameau, which portrays ‘few objects in many notes’ and barely manages to conceal the difficulties of the French language so as to make it resonate with grace, Rousseau prefers the vocal flexibility of melodies sung in Italian. ‘If I am permitted frankly to state my thinking to you’, he concludes, ‘I find that the further our Music is perfected in appearance, the more it is ruined in actuality’.58 Lagging behind this unfortunate ‘perfectionism’, the popular has retained a freshness that the more academic music has lost. In opera buffa Rousseau hears a music that retains something natural and speaks directly to the heart, and he proceeds to project 56. Symptomatic of these affinities and of their limitations is the subgenre of the ‘rock opera’, which emerged in the 1960s with the growing narrative ambitions of English rock bands’ psychedelic pop: The Pretty Things with S.F. Sorrow (1968), The Who’s Tommy (1969), and Mark Wirtz’s fascinating unfinished work A Teenage Opera (1968). On French rock opera, of which Michel Berger is the emblematic figure, see I. Papieau, De Starmania à Mozart, L’opéra-rock: Les strategies de la seduction (Paris: Harmattan, 2010). 57. J.-J. Rousseau, ‘Letter on French Music’, in J.T. Scott (ed.), The Collected Writings of Rousseau (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998, 14 vols.), vol. 7, 141–74: 145. ‘The impossibility of inventing pleasant songs would oblige Composers to turn all their attention to the side of harmony, and, lacking real beauties, they would introduce conventional beauties, which would have almost no merit but the difficulty overcome. Instead of a good Music they would devise a learned Music; to substitute for song they would multiply accompaniments; it would cost them less to place many bad parts one on top of another than to make one that was good. In order to take away insipidness, they would augment the confusion; they would believe they were making Music, and they would be making only noise’ (145). 58. Ibid., 162.

P romise

common promise of popularity.56


into it his anthropological ideal—that of a spontaneous humanity capable of expressing the passions with more authenticity than all the learned structures

P romise

of an articulated, perfected, rationalised music would allow. But in associating popular music with the naturally artistic in this way, Rousseau establishes the philosophical condition of its universality—not an abstract universality surpassing human finitude, but on the contrary a universality that wagers on human finitude, a universality capable of reconciling art with the limitedness of human experience. The great pop songs are not songs about the universal, but songs in which the universal is situated, embodied, expressed in a finite condition. Which is why—and this is the point—such songs are for everyone. In a letter to his father in 1782, Mozart, who wrote various opere buffe, manages to articulate the tone of this popular universality. With respect to Concertos nos. 11, 12 and 13, he rejoices that they ‘are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult’. Above all, he says, There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.59

For Mozart, the music of the ‘golden mean of truth in all things’ allows the listener to feel it innocently. It pleases both those who know and those who do not. Yet it is not music deliberately rendered facile or simplified for use by limited minds: Mozart complains of how, ‘[i]n order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it’.60 According to the principle of this ‘golden mean’, facility consists neither in imposing the limits of the ignorant upon the knowledgeable nor in subordinating the requirements of art to those of entertainment; it seeks to combine the two. In this higher sense, music makes itself popular; on an anthropological level, it promises reconciliation.61 A direct descendent of this ideal of the golden mean, the pop work is, in its ideal form, accessible. It is not that complexity 59. E. Anderson (ed.), The Letters of Mozart and His Family (New York: Norton, third edition 1985), 833. 60. Ibid. 61. We can compare this hope of reconciliation to ‘yoga’ as ‘that which is good’, as defended by Pacôme Thiellement in Pop Yoga.

is prohibited, but that this complexity, if it exists, must not erect a barrier, but


should offer something extra to the attentive listener.

Premièred on 30 September 1791 in the suburbs of Vienna, in the Schikaneder Theatre—a small wood-panelled concert hall frequented by a more popular audience than the opera houses—Mozart’s Magic Flute, with a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, was an immediate success: before the year was out it had already seen its hundredth performance. Even Adorno acknowledges how, in this jewel offered to a people who, at the time, were in the midst of emancipating themselves from the absolute powers that dominated Europe, the ‘utopia of the Enlightenment and the pleasure of a light opera comic song precisely coincide’ in a ‘moment by itself’.62 Here light music, newly charged with historical truth, and serious music, relieved of its elitist complexity, coexist as if by some miracle. This is the utopia of the popular as reconciliation, the reconciliation of an art that would exclude no one and an entertainment that would not be deceitful. Neither manipulation nor contrition, The Magic Flute reconciles body and mind: it dances, sings, and thinks in equal measure. In terms of its utopian project, the popularity of popular music consists in the enchantment of a universal melody that delights adults as much as children, that pleases both the expert and the ignoramus—in the simple joy of an immediately expressive melodic and rhythmic language. It is the childlike enthusiasm that everyone can find somewhere in their memory, the same enthusiasm that the author of this book felt as a little girl listening to the whistling of Curro ‘Kurt’ Savoy63 in the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone, without feeling any need to know who the composer or the performer was. It is the incredulous excitement that grips the listener the first time they hear the virtuoso trills of The Magic Flute’s ‘Queen of the Night’ theme. It is the benevolent charm and rightness 62. Adorno, ‘On the Fetish Character in Music’, 32. 63. In a radio recording, Curro ‘Kurt’ Savoy, the young king of Spanish rock‘n’roll, unable to remember the guitar solo he had to play, whistled to remind himself. This instantly captivated the entire audience; for the Spanish he became ‘el rey del silbido [the king of whistling]’ and, for the rest of the world, the official whistler of Ennio Morricone Western tunes. He is also known in France for having whistled for a famous Chanel advert.

T he U topia of P opularity



of a music that does not require from us any laborious initiation into its musical

T he U topia of P opularity

Versöhnung between nature and culture, music which, like the flute of Tamino

truth. Music grasped in its irresistible generosity, and which expresses the in Mozart’s opera, sounds a ‘magic tone’ so ‘powerful’ that ‘even wild beasts / Feel joy at [its] sound’.64 What is revealed to us in this image is the ideal of aesthetic community, of people reconciled by their taste with the totality of nature—both ideal and empirical—as conceived by Friedrich Schiller in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man.65 Now, as Jacques Rancière explains, the universality of taste as defined by the play of the faculties in Kant, and which inspired Schiller to undertake his project of a political education of man based on his aesthetic capacity, brought about [t]he existence of a category of sensible experience that’s not subject to any hierarchical distribution but, on the contrary, refers to a capacity of humanity, a perspective of humanity that’s no longer divided.66

It is here that we find the ‘concept of an aesthetic experience as a suspensive experience in relation to the normal—that is, hierarchical—ways in which sensible experience is organized’, a concept that situates aesthetics at the very basis of democratic utopia. Rancière goes on to cite Baudelaire’s essay on [songwriter] Pierre Dupont and the workers who know how to ‘enjoy the beauty of palaces and parks’, all these forms of reconfiguring experience, of what a human being who’s supposed to be from the wrong side of the fence is capable of perceiving and feeling and speaking in the language he’s supposed to be able to use.67

Fantasised by the pre-Romantic Enlightenment and by Romanticism itself, this utopia is inscribed into the very heart of the modern pop form. It is the 64. W.A. Mozart, ‘Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton’ (Tamino), The Magic Flute, Act I (tr. Richard Stokes). 65. F. Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man (New York: Dover, 2004). 66. J. Rancière, The Method of Equality: Interviews with Laurent Jeanpierre and Dork Zabunyan, tr. J. Rose (Cambridge: Polity, 2016), 76. 67. Ibid.

irresistible seduction of Dick Dale’s surf guitar, the spontaneous dance steps


triggered pretty much anywhere in the world by playing ‘Billie Jean’, the sugsynthetic bass arpeggios. It is the irrepressible joy of singing along to a song, to a tune that I recognise or, as Edith Piaf put it, ‘a tune that recognised me’. Obviously, this ‘utopia’ is not without its ambiguities and contradictions. It can regress into a hideous nightmare when the culture industry, for example, crams the entrancing pinpoint notes of the soprano coloratura of the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria into the ear canal of the distracted viewer of a car advert, or has us applaud as hits compositions that have no aesthetic ambition whatsoever. In fact, popular success is obviously not always synonymous with artistic success. Against Mozart’s golden mean is opposed the hyperbole of the overconsumption of the least interesting pop musics at the expense of bolder compositions which are condemned to obscurity. But even in this dystopian regression of the utopia of popularity, it is as if hope springs eternal in the heart of the aesthetic experience of the pop form. The reconciliation of art and popular validation, the utopia of popularity, continues to exert a powerful magnetism from the very core of the pop form.

THE CANON OF POPULARITY The miraculous union of fame and artistic value is not just an abstract idea; a series of figures constitute its canon. In aesthetics, the canon is the ideal incarnate; the pop canon is the golden legend or the pantheon of those who, in their songs, but also in their attitudes, have succeeded in reconciling the truth of works with success. There can be no doubt that Elvis belongs in this pantheon. Remaining intact even as their work became increasingly complex, The Beatles’ success is perhaps even more paradigmatic—a success inseparable from the image of the golden age of the 1960s, comparable for many pop fans to the Florentine Renaissance for Western painting or the nineteenth century for the psychological novel. Offering an unprecedented convergence between sonic research and stylistic exploration and the immediate acclaim of the public, Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper enshrine this canon to which armies of imitators and heirs of all kinds cannot help but relate their work. The relation may be polemical, ironic, distanced,

T he Canon of P opularity

gestive languor of Donna Summer singing ‘I Feel Love’ over Giorgio Moroder’s


or perverse, as when The Damned massacred ‘Help!’ on the first punk single,

T he Canon of P opularity

‘Get Baque’. Or it can be reverent, as when Todd Rundgren covered ‘Rain’ and

or when the French band Starshooter deliberately misspelled the song title as ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ on the aptly named album Faithful, with instruments and amplifiers identical to those of the Fab Four. Regardless, these pop works relate themselves—whether indirectly or directly—to this canon of popularity.68 And this relation, not necessarily in reference to The Beatles but to other figures, is constantly found in pop. Even when they withdraw resolutely into hostile criticism of works, pop fans and composers can never entirely sacrifice the ideal of the hit as utopian reconciliation of art and popular validation: a good pop song is by rights a popular song, and the failure of the market to reward a valuable pop work is always more than just an accident—it’s always an injustice or an aberration. In the eyes of the fan, the plight of the unjustly neglected ‘potential hit’ is as tragic and touching as that of the unbaptised child doomed to remain eternally in limbo. A pop work ignored by its time, which does not gain its share of popular enthusiasm, always suffers from incompleteness. It needs fans—if possible, in

68. In 1970, Phil Ochs called his Greatest Hits 50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong, a reference to the famous Elvis Presley compilation 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. At the time Ochs was a marginal singer, having lost most of his already small audience, and the gesture is sardonic. But it is also absolutely sincere: dressed in silver lamé just like The King, Ochs still dreams that his poignant, difficult, and tortuous songs might enjoy the fate of his favourite singer’s great hit singles. When in 1968 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention parodied the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for We’re Only in It for the Money, replacing the original image’s clear sky and pantheon of celebrities with stormclouds, a bunch of vegetables, and occult figures in the flower bed, it was to mock the commercial turn taken by the counterculture, but also to express Zappa’s pure love of The Beatles. To his disappointment, Paul McCartney’s lawyer prevented the tribute-détournement from being used. Contemporary pop continues to produce these exercises in critical admiration on the part of independent artists in relation to famous artists: in 2015, Milan producer Haf Haf released an EP of electronica on the margins of experimental and noise music entitled This Sick Beat, an ironic quote from the star Taylor Swift. A few years earlier, Jack Barnett, leader of the band These New Puritans, then seen as being at the forefront of pop but more often associated with references to serious music (Steve Reich and American minimalism), expressed his attraction to the mainstream, confiding his love for Britney Spears’s Blackout: ‘The more popular you get, the more you can let yourself make more daring records. That’s what I like about being a pop group: you can be audacious, because you can progress masked by an accessible form. So I’m happy that a record like Blackout can work. Because that’s also the idea of These New Puritans: to make pop, but a twisted kind of pop.’ ‘These New Puritans (Interview): Dream Brother’, Gonzaï, April 2010, .

large numbers. Here we come back to 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong,69


where the fan, reassured by the sheer quantity of his counterparts, confirms the by the work they have helped to succeed, at the same time as they validate that work. The fan therefore embodies the reconciliation of the aesthetic subject and the consumer, a utopian figure in whom the cutting edge of art converges with universal agreement.

THE DREAM AND THE ASHES In the twentieth century, songs, genre films, and comics created aesthetic communities, articulated cosmic dreams, recycled and invented myths that the old arts, deprived of the right to naivety by the advanced state of their consciousness and their reflexivity, could no longer imagine without condemning themselves as regressive or ridiculous. The promise of pop has played an active role in this utopia. But it holds only on condition that pop remains conscious of the constant threat of its reification, of a recognition that in fact would be a betrayal, of a utopia become dystopia. On many occasions in their life as a listener, the fan will experience the near-fulfilment of popular reconciliation, but will also sense its underside, the version were it is sclerotised into ideology and the dream turns into a nightmare. The culture industry has made a fetish of the popular. Adorno was the first to show that this was the case. From the very beginning this industry has made the promise of pop reconciliation its ideology: it has implanted itself wherever the aesthetic ideal of popularity and the economic goal of profit for production, publishing, and promotion companies could converge in one and the same maxim. For the maxim of pop reconciliation is as simple as an advertising slogan: whatever is popular is good. In celebrating the legend and the canon of the popular, the fan makes it into a cult. But to do so occludes the industrial construction that has accompanied and conditioned the success of all the great songs in the history of pop music. While fans insist on the artistic nature of ‘deserved’ popularity, they also often 69. Elvis Presley, 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong: Elvis’ Golden Records Volume 2 (RCA Victor, 1959). In 2004, Bon Jovi played the same game, outbidding The King with 100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can’t Be Wrong, adopting most of the Elvis composition (graphics, stance, suit) but without the charm of Ochs’s détournement.

T he D ream and the Ashes

truth of the work. And this enthusiasm is not misplaced: the fan feels validated


speak of how their favourite pop creators—from Big Star (wronged by Stax) to Stockholm Monsters (authors of ‘How Corrupt is Rough Trade?’)—were

T he D ream and the Ashes

robbed by their record labels, as if to dispel the structural ambiguity between popularity in the aesthetic sense and its industrial conditions. Fans know that artistic success does not always happily converge with the industry’s support for an artist, that is sometimes discreet, that it risks being forgotten or unjustly slipping through the overly coarse net of the times. They also know that there can be industry success without any good aesthetic reason. Up to a certain point the music industry can do very well without any need for huge hits: on the homepage of YouTube, the most popular videos indicate not so much an achievement of utopian promise as the coffers of the company promoting them. At a good distance from the naive utopia of popularity, the music industry promotes ‘popular content’ as a company might congratulate an ‘employee of the month’ who works hard to increase its profits. Judged by quantity of sales or views, popularity as an ideology of the music industry only ratifies the fiction of majority rule, and with the same force of persuasion and normative impact. The record industry and the communications industry more generally retain no more of the aesthetic ideal of popularity than the empty shell of its initial promise; but to all intents and purposes it seems as if it were its indispensable material condition. After all, for over a century the industry has presented itself as the place where ‘dreams come true’. Except that, as thousands of songs tell us, all that remains of these dreams are ashes. The ashes of the dream Can be found in the magazines.70

If the utopia is impalpable, the ideology is mere dust. The pop dream always ends up in ashes. From which, yet again, like a phoenix, the pop promise will be reborn. * In defining musical works of pop, we cannot avoid thinking about recording, about its implications for the distribution of music, and about its effects on 70. P. Ochs, ‘No More Songs’, Greatest Hits (A&M, 1970).

the experience—deterritorialized and democratised—of listeners. As we have


seen, however, to these ontological conditions which concern the material pop as promise and utopia of popularity, one whose genealogy goes back to eighteenth-century Europe, to the Enlightenment, to the Romantic rediscovery of popular expression, and to the hope of once again fully hearing the voice of a simple humanity. The ‘popular’ of pop must in this sense be conceived of as the hope of a reconciliation between immediacy and truth, between delight and reflection, between entertainment and emancipation. But this pop promise cannot be fulfilled without turning against itself. The pop dream never comes alone, it is always shadowed by a nightmarish counterpart that denounces it as vain, naive, and illusory. Indeed, some may see only this dark side: some may see in light popular music only the betrayal of the promise of reconciliation it offers, and may analyse pop only to find aesthetic and moral arguments with which to denounce it, yielding an aesthetics in the negative, opposed to everything that pop is: an aesthetics of anti-pop.

T he D ream and the Ashes

possibility of production and reception, we must add an aesthetic definition of

CHAPTER 2. ANTI-POP But you could have said no if you wanted to. The Smiths, ‘Paint a Vulgar Picture’ (1987) There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say that there isn’t Leonard Cohen, ‘There Is a War’ (1974)

Raised by a mother and an aunt who were opera singers, Theodor Adorno was a man of music from cradle to grave. A student of Alban Berg in Vienna during the 1920s, he was a pianist in his spare time and composed several works, recordings of which are still extant. In his career as a musician as much as in his career as a critic, Berg’s music and Berg as a figure were unavoidable. He had enjoyed some success with Wozzeck and then Lulu; Adorno recounts that these successes embarrassed the composer, and indeed he himself was embarrassed for his master. In the eyes of men of letters, educated in the cult of History of Art, popularity tends to occasion this kind of shame. It has long aroused a suspicion of American minimalism; it caused Satie, so prized by those who haven’t studied music, to be denounced as a ‘minor inventor’;1 it has even seen Berg himself downgraded in comparison to other composers of the Vienna School.2 Something in the aesthetics of serious music renders it constitutively distrustful of the popular. Adorno made this distrust fully explicit, affirming that between so-called ‘light’ popular music and serious music as modernism conceives it, no negotiation was possible. The relation that held between these ‘two spheres’, 1. ‘The only thing he could have done to enhance his reputation would have been to found the Concours Lépine (minor inventor section)’, wrote Pierre Boulez in an article on Satie in Le Revue musicale, June 1952 (‘Satie: Chien flasque’, in Orientations, tr. M.Cooper [London: Faber, 1986], 323). [The reference is to a competition for inventors founded in 1901 by Louis Lépine and still running today—trans.] 2. In his analysis of the Vienna School, Alain Badiou thus contrasts an uncompromising Webern to Berg, who ‘gradually multiplied his concessions (the purely tonal resolutions in Lulu and the violin concerto)’. A. Badiou, Logic of Worlds: Being and Event, 2, tr. A. Toscano (London and New York: Continuum, 2009), 84.


that of light popular art and that of a ‘responsible’ art, could by no means be one of peaceful coexistence.3 It is an antagonism. The gravity, the responsibility,

A nti - P op

and even the truth of high modern serious music as defended by Adorno, are not just options, but the only alternative to the lies of the entertaining music that floods the broadcast networks. If there is an aesthetic form of pop, we can say, to some extent, that the whole modernist aesthetic of Adorno provides its antithesis, according to a relation that is not a static relation between two concepts but one of dynamic contradiction and open hostility. Perhaps favoured by a very particular historical moment, Mozart’s Magic Flute made possible a harmonious encounter between advanced art and popularity, between the serious and the popular, between delight and emancipation—but Adorno believes that the time of this epiphany is now well and truly over. It belongs to a bygone age of European democratic consciousness and of the unstoppable impulse of peoples towards their national emancipation, whose partial and contradictory realization has changed its meaning over time. After this moment, ‘it was never again possible to force serious and light music together’.4 Nothing ‘serious’, nothing ‘responsible’ in music can again take as its object the old placere of the Latins. Farewell reconciliation, universal immediacy: lightness and easy pleasure are like a kitsch folding screen, useful only for hiding the pitiful decor, the (false) promises of popular musical art in the age of radio and the domination of the culture industry. There is a war between light music and ‘responsible’ music, one that Adorno himself waged with gusto. He fought it on two complementary fronts: the critique of culture (Kulturkritik) on one hand, and musical aesthetics on the other. Thus he opened up two fronts of anti-pop on which to combat the false harmlessness claimed by ‘light’ popular music, whose promised reconciliation he saw as nothing but a forced reconciliation.

3. ‘The unity of the two spheres of music is thus that of an unresolved contradiction. They do not hang together in such a way that the lower could serve as a sort of popular introduction to the higher, or that higher could renew its lost collective strength by borrowing from the lower. The whole cannot be put together by adding the separated halves […].’ Adorno, ‘On the Fetish Character of Music’, 32. 4. Ibid.

I. THE DYSTOPIA OF POPULARITY declared.5 The phrase is not a bad summary of everything that, according to Adorno, pop culture offers up in the guise of utopia: an illusory, eclectic, repugnant diversion. Of course, what for Lennon is a provocation, for the critic is a pessimistic belief. Popular music, Adorno is convinced, is doomed from the start to turn any utopia into dystopia: because the utopia of reconciliation, abundance, and lightness is not only what pop promises, it is also what it sells, as an industrial product. Taking advantage of this ambiguity, the culture industry rationalises the promise of reconciliatory immediacy, and uses it to build its own myths, starting with that of the supposed ‘lightness’ of popular music: the myth that eternal entertainment can negate the laborious and alienated condition of man. The celebration to which we are invited by a music enmeshed in the culture industry is not just an occasion for catharsis and shared joy; for Adorno it is the orchestration of a kind of aesthetic dystopia. And this dystopia begins with a party to which people are not invited, but forced to attend: a feast of soggy pizza and fairy tales served up to partygoers who had come seeking heavenly fare and truths about the world, and who are then ordered to declare themselves sated and content once the show is over.

THE PARTY’S OVER With ever-varying intensities, values, ​​and meanings, the party is the beating heart of the experience of popular music. From ancient bacchanalia and the voodoo bamboulas of Haiti and New Orleans in the nineteenth century to the Saturday Night Fever discos of the 1970s and the European raves of the early 1990s, popular music is experienced and understood in the settings of the party and the festival. It’s the party and its excess, pleasure, and sweat that make sounds and songs speak the truth of an era; it’s the party that sets them upon a stage that is not just musical but also social and political, that promotes its movements and creates new ones, and that marks every generation with the conviction that its parties were greater than those of the ensuing generation. Far from being an ancillary or purely sociological dimension of recorded popular 5.

B. Miles, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (London: Secker & Warburg, 1997), 631.

the Dystopia of P opularity

‘You’re all pizza and fairy tales,’ Lennon and McCartney once mischievously



music, the party renders concrete its endless utopian configurations, punctuated by the eternal injunction:

T he S teel Bath of F un

So mister, mister DJ Keep those records playing ’Cause we’re having such a good time Dancing with my baby.6

The Steel Bath of Fun It is popular music’s supposed ‘lightness’ that, for Adorno, represents the industrial lie par excellence. Pop may well crystallize in this lightness all that is promised by the utopia of popularity in terms of spontaneous, liberating, joyful reconciliation, but from Adorno’s perspective it produces only a reified version: literally, a version transformed into a thing, in this case into a convention, a norm, that governs individuals rather than freeing them. This, he writes, is the heavy lightness of ‘false opera festivals,’7 the bourgeois entertainment par excellence in the nineteenth century before their democratization in operettas, the first typical products of the nascent culture industry. A compulsory festive mood and the convention of the happy ending were born in these theatres where the music is no more than an accompaniment for kitsch scenes in which powdered ladies and gentlemen converse in Italian accents in white rococo salons that have never really existed. ‘Schiller’s dictum that “Life’s good, in spite of all”’, judges Adorno, has been ‘papier-mâché from the start’.8 ‘Even the blossoming tree lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror’,9 writes the philosopher in 1940, in the darkest pages of Minima Moralia. The American exile cannot even hear ‘affable small talk’ without finding secreted within it the horror of the massacres of the Second World War and the desperate attempts to silence it. Every light and normal situation, in its very normality, becomes 6. The Supremes, ‘Havin’ a Party’ (1965). The song is on the album We Remember Sam Cooke, published in tribute to Sam Cooke, whose tragic death occurred the previous year. Paradoxically, here the party resonates amid death and the loss of innocence. 7. T.W. Adorno, ‘Opera and the Long-Playing Record’, tr. T.Y. Levin, October 55 (Winter 1990), 62–66: 64. 8. T.W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, tr. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005), 62. 9. Ibid., 25.

intolerable to him. ‘Sociability itself connives at injustice’.10 In this context, the


perky din of the lightness industry that invades the radio, just like the cinema, is what the capitalist injunction to lightness does, without admitting it. Pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown. Basically it is helplessness. It is flight; not, as is asserted, flight from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance.11

To have fun is not just to forget the suffering of others or of oneself, but also to forget one’s own capacity to resist; it is to smother any chance of transformation beneath some laughter or proto-erotic sensation which, Adorno is convinced, does not truly entertain or excite anyone. ‘Pitted against the deadly seriousness of total society, which has absorbed the opposing voice […] there is now only the deadly seriousness of comprehended truth.’12 At a time when everyone advocates happiness—from the carnival barker to the most serious speaker on the radio, and including positive psychoanalysts in the lineage of Karen Horney—Adorno will have none of this ‘prescribed happiness’. Not because he despises pleasure, but because ‘[o]nly when sated with false pleasure, disgusted with the goods offered […] can men gain an idea of what experience might be’.13 The pleasure promised by the culture industry is as false as is forced: ‘Fun is a steel bath.’14 In the furnace of the party, the mandatory party, laughter and exaltation are frozen on faces like the rictus of the hunted animal. Neither the release of natural spontaneity nor the promise of truly unbridled and unpredictable behaviour, ‘fun’ is the steel bath whose liquid heat marries with the movements of bodies only to better paralyse them in place once they cool off and harden. 10. Ibid. 11. T.W. Adorno and M. Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, tr. J. Cumming (London and New York: Continuum, 1989), 144. 12. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 212 (§134). 13. Ibid., 62 (§38). 14. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 140 [translation modified. Adorno’s stahlbad is read here as echoing the use of the term in conservative German rhetoric around the First World War to denote the renewing and strengthening effect of war upon the nation, likened to the action of an industrial steel melt—trans.]

T he S teel Bath of F un

seems to him laden with a deafening violence. Making a pact with horror—this


Spoil the Party

S poil the Party

The pop that was designed solely as a soundtrack for the party, the pop that

And yet ‘the party’s over’ is just as much of an unavoidable pop counter-slogan. presented itself as a party, very early began to tell of its inevitable end. ‘The party’s over,’ it’s time to wind up the masquerade, wipe off your make-up, the pretty colourful balloons have burst and the moon has gone down. The inconsolable elegy shatters into the adult realism of the violent injunction ‘now you must wake up’: It’s time to wind up the masquerade Just make your mind up The piper must be paid The party’s over [...] Now you must wake up All my dreams must end Take off your makeup The party’s over It’s all over, my friend.15

Pop music shatters the myth of the party just as surely as it helps fabricate it. You can hear it in the disenchantment of the disillusioned verses of this 1956 Nat King Cole hit.16 Pop is shadowed by an acute awareness of its opposite, of its approaching end, and even of death, as in ‘Party Time’, the Heptones song produced by Lee Scratch Perry (‘We’ve got to live some time before we’re old/ we’ve got to live some time before we’re cold’) or The Specials’ ‘Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)’, itself a cover of a popular song from the 1940s recorded by Guy Lombardo. Pop is shot through with renunciations and sufferings, with the broken nostalgia of the ‘teenage parties’ of the ‘nineteen-seventies’, already over in the ‘nineteen-nineties’, in Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Being Boring’.17 The end of the party is as much of a pop theme as the party itself—but 15. ‘The Party’s Over’, music by Jule Styne, words by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, 1956. 16. ‘The Party’s Over’ met with wide popular success. The song was also performed by the Smoking Popes and by Lonnie Donegan, and was at the top of the American charts when the young Lesley Gore reprised it in 1963. 17. Where the party is gradually deserted by all of the friends they have lost to AIDS.

whenever pop songs sing about it, the flavour is very particular. Why? Because


in every pop song about the day after the party there is a kind of self-condemParty music, a party made into music, light popular music is nonetheless full of voices whose heart isn’t in it: ‘I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party’, Lennon sang in 1964:18 I don’t wanna spoil the party I would hate my disappointment to show.

Listening to Dylan, Lennon had discovered folk songs in which unhappiness could be delivered in unvarnished form. He allowed himself a certain dissonance, the outpouring of a mood and a negativity that feels unfeigned, which contradicts the whole spectacle but also, paradoxically, infuses it with fresh blood. We need only watch archive footage from the time when the group, all smiles, performed the song in front of a hysterical crowd who almost drown out the music. I’m not at the party, but the party continues and, all the same, I still play my role within it. This is the tension that the public love in that same moment. But remember, ‘although I behave and act like a clown, under this mask, I frown’, as Lennon warns in the song ‘I’m a Loser’, recorded the same year. If light popular music sees the party as its privileged destination, it also, with equal intensity, opposes it with its antithesis—the feeling of isolation, hopelessness, adolescent depression. In the face of the music industry’s mandatory party, the melancholy of one who doesn’t have the heart to party is radicalised into a deep bitterness, as in Edwyn Collins’s song cursing the ‘truly detestable summer festival’: its lyrics are the perfect scowling illustration, forty years on, now that the counterculture itself is well behind us, of the steel bath of fun described by Adorno.19 18. The Beatles, Beatles for Sale (Parlophone, 1964). 19. Edwyn Collins, ‘The Campaign for Real Rock’, on the album Gorgeous George (AMC, 1994). These ‘summer festivals really detestable’ with their ‘synthesized accordion’ rituals ( ‘With the ritual of the trashed guitar / One more paltry empty gesture / The ashes of a burned out star’), and defunct and neutralised counterculture dreams (‘Your gorgeous hippy dreams are dying / Your frazzled brains are putrefying / Repackaged, sold and sanitised / The devil’s music exorcised / You live, you die, you lie, you lie, you die / perpetuate the lie, perpetuate the lie, perpetuate the lie, just perpetuate the lie / Yes, yes, yes, it’s the summer festival / The truly detestable summer festival / Yes, yes, yes, it’s the summer festival / The truly detestable summer festival’).

S poil the Party

nation: in these songs, pop seems to disavow its own utopia.


Both the pop fan and the pop musician, then, understand very well what Adorno

S poil the Party

conformist society by pretending to let go while continuing to stubbornly adapt

means when he writes that ‘to have fun is to agree,’ to play the game of a oneself to it, at the very moment when one is trying to exhibit one’s difference. It didn’t take too much savvy for pop artists to pierce the allure of this cliché that turns the ideal of an experience of collective exultation into a mere social convention. ‘No fun,’ slurs Iggy Pop in 1969 on the first Stooges album. This is still the ‘no fun’ teenager, displaying an ennui Baudelairean in its inspiration, despite the unprecedented screeching of the electric guitars. But the ‘No Fun’ reprised by Johnny Rotten at the Sex Pistols’ final 1978 gig in San Francisco renders the complaint hyperbolic: ‘This is no fun. No fun. This is no fun at all. No fun.’ ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’, Rotten coldly seethes, to an electrified, startled audience, simultaneously snuffing out both the entertainment industry and the redemptive hopes of the counterculture. But here the negative dialectic is pushed to such a point that there is no way the show can go on: the group implodes, it’s the end of the Sex Pistols.20 Two years later, when, in a deep and slightly fake voice, Jona Lewie warbles ‘You’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties’, pop takes its hatred of the party less seriously, the negation becoming a humorous slogan of the pop marginal—at that time, the figure of the indie fan more at ease in the kitchen or waiting to choose a record than on the improvised dancefloor in the lounge. And yet the song ends up with an exit from the kitchen, thanks to a girl the singer meets there: ‘We both walked out of the kitchen and danced in a new way / Now I have done my time in the kitchen at parties.’ The moment of marginality operated as a negative dialectic preceding a higher-order reconciliation: now we dance in a new way. It’s not the party that we hate, but the false party, the forced party where we hang about, excluded, without really having been invited. Returning to its original spirit of reconciliation, pop denounces the party only in order to find a better one, in an endless quest for the true party from which all pretence will finally have been abolished.

20. It is in part this radicality, this negation of fun at a hyperbolic stage, that prompts Greil Marcus to compare the spirit of punk with the thought of Adorno in a significant moment in Lipstick Traces.



In the critique of the injunction to ‘have fun’ the suspicion already arises that But the trance of the jazz fan which, from blind submission, is converted into an aestheticised gesture of submission, complicates the situation. This is what, for Adorno, constitutes the enigma of the jitterbug, that lover of swing to whose glory Ella Fitzgerald dedicated her 1938 song ‘I’m Just a Jitterbug’. More than just a listener, a jitterbug is an impromptu performer of an eccentric and furious dance—the term is also used in America to describe the seizures of delirium tremens. The jitterbug jumps, turns around, stretches, and sprawls out without any specific routine or particular steps, in an apparent trance state, and with a deliberate grimace on their face. But Adorno perceives in this trance something other than pure passivity: In order to be a jitterbug and to become enthusiastic about what is forced upon you, it is by no means enough to surrender yourself and toe the line passively. For people to be transformed into insects they require as much energy as might well suffice to transform them into human beings.21

In the name ‘jitterbug’, the term ‘bug’ resonates with a particular insistence: it is the bug that was once a man, as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a subject imprisoned in an angular, uncomfortable shell beneath which he becomes unrecognisable to himself and frightening for others. But unlike the character in Kafka’s novella, jitterbugs put all of their energy into deliberately becoming bugs: they are not ‘the mindlessly fascinated people they are claimed to be, and which they see themselves as’; in fact they have internalised the ‘command to enjoy yourself.’ The ability to ‘enjoy yourself on command’ is grounded in ‘[a] particular act of will: You decide to go wild with excitement, just as you decide to have “a good time”’. And since he “is not able to believe in his own excitement,’ the jitterbug evades conflict ‘with the aid of ambiguity’. What comes into play here is the mechanism of ‘rage’: ‘Anyone who has decided to become excited simply has to

21. T.W. Adorno, ‘Commodity Music Analysed’, in Essays on Modern Music, tr. R. Livingstone (London: Verso, 1992), 27–52: 52.

R age

people force themselves to experience pleasure.


screw up his eyes and clench his teeth.’22 Despite their intention to demonstrate an ‘instinctive reaction’, the jitterbug’s rage is both an admission of the failure of

R age

a calculated ecstasy and the product of a calculation, a ‘rationalisation’. And so it always goes with Adorno’s analyses of jazz. They stop precisely at the point where the tiniest dialectical shift could relieve them of their a priori critique and reveal a dimension which, if not liberating, would at least be indicative of a deeper meaning than what has so far been apparent. For the fact that the jitterbug’s rage is only rage, the nervous reaction of a consciousness that knows very well that it cannot simply discard its own calculation, does not make the jitterbug a regressive subject, but a figure perhaps more desperately lucid than any other. Iggy Pop’s jerky, mindless novö dance,23 arms drawn into the body, with no flourishes apart from the movements of the torso, the head thrown right and left, as praised by critic Yves Adrien, a punk pogo that carries a real risk of physical injury, could be seen as a different emboidiment of this lucid fury. As Adorno suspects, in throwing himself up against the impossibility of trance, the dancer is taken to a point of violence at which he turns against himself: the stubborn, juvenile expression of Sid Vicious—perhaps the first populariser of pogo—as he turns a razor blade against his belly and scarifies himself on stage. The history of punk is full of kids enacting these ‘performances’ of self-mutilation.24 It is not insignificant here that the punk movement was born of a twofold opposition, to both hippies and disco—the former projecting into music the ideal of a mystical ‘transport’, heavily reinforced by narcotics and notions imported from Indian and Tibetan religions, the latter directly assuming the sexual and erotic dimension of dance. Against both of these musics of the trip, punks set the impossibility of trance. It is the ‘factitious subjectivizing of music’ that ‘creates the myth that music, objectively, has for its task the taking of the individual out of himself’, as Adorno writes.25 The little evil scowling punk who dances against himself has at least understood one thing: that only his own leaps and the kicks of those around him can really transport him somewhere. 22. Ibid., 50–51. 23. [A term coined by the prominent French journalist and theorist Yves Adrien, best known for his articles and theoretical manifestos in the magazine Rock and Folk, ‘novö’ refers to a poetic-artistic way of life reinvented in the post-punk context. See Y. Adrien, Novövision: Les Confessions d’un Cobaye du Siècle (Paris: Denoel, 2002)—trans.] 24. One thinks here of Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers, who carved ‘4 Real’ in his forearm with a razor after having been interrogated by a journalist on the ‘seriousness’ of his punk ethos. 25. T.W. Adorno, Current of Music, 316n.



A negation of the false party, the pop party nonetheless promises more than a Between The Beastie Boys’ 1986 ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)!’ and Public Enemy’s 1988 response, ‘Party for Your Right to Fight’, there is not so much a critical reversal as a rendering explicit. The ideal of the emancipatory, more or less illegal party has nourished the pop libido throughout its long history, without being necessarily clothed in the seriousness of an intellectualised political consciousness. In the late 1970s the dancehall movement, named after the ballrooms of Kingston and Rose Town where local sound systems played Jamaican music, is focused on humour, ribaldry, and dance, especially in the music of Yellowman, its figurehead. Dancehall contrasts its lighter and more festive music, more local and community-based, to a roots reggae that took itself more seriously, and went international with Island Records and Bob Marley. The party and its invitation to sex, the liberation of the instincts, and a carnivalesque reversal of society’s relations of domination within the walls of the ballroom or club, and later at free parties and raves, does more than just ‘rock the house’:26 Rave. The word evokes striking yet fleeting images of undulating bodies, dilated pupils, blank looks, and frenzied crowds with their arms raised towards heaven, but also vast derelict industrial zones, wastelands lit up, traffic jams, and countless police forces in action.27

In this movement originating in the Thatcherite England of the late 1980s, we say goodbye to the rococo screens of integrated entertainment: the party occupies the terrain of an industrialised society in the throes of collapse. Rather than serving as a way to unwind on an evening after work, the rave is experienced, is lived through, beyond temporal limits—for many days—both collective and atomised, deterritorialized. To the old pattern of illegality (already essential to the Fitzgeraldian jazz orgies under Prohibition in the 1920s) it adds new drugs (ecstasy, MDA, MDMA) and a refusal of control. The utopia of TAZ (‘temporary 26. ‘Free Your Ass and Your Mind Will Follow’, as Funkadelic’s George Clinton proclaimed. 27. J.-Y. Leloup, Digital Magma, tr. P. Buck and C. Petit (New York: Sternberg, 2010), 21..

E mancipation

‘transport’, even one brought on by trance: it promises emancipation.


autonomous zones’)—inspired by the model of the pirate communities of the eighteenth century, ‘[w]hole mini-societies living consciously outside the law and

E mancipation

determined to keep it up, even if only a short but merry life’28—inspired ravers with a ‘social vertigo’ which, certainly, ‘struggled to go beyond the stage of romanticism,’29 but nonetheless opened the way to a certain ‘aesthetic utopia,’ to use Jean-Yves Leloup’s term, a utopia that he sees as extending into the current digital culture: The desire to immerse oneself in the heart of a space of sound and light, that capacity to plunge and live, if only for a few hours, in a theater of tangible and quasi-tactile data, that desire to live outside oneself while sharing in the reciprocation and gift of one’s own person, finds an ideal development in today’s digital culture.30

But this will to immersion,31 this desire to live outside oneself, this new form of communion, ultimately leads us back not so much to politics as to trance. The party is not really oriented toward a political consciousness seeking to act upon what is outside, but is carried away by substances that allow one to penetrate deeper into the immanence of its community spirit, and to stay within it. The use of drugs in the experience of the party—both in pop and beyond—always entails this same ambiguity. When, at the end of Civilization and its Discontents, Freud envisages the widespread use of drugs as a treatment for the impossibility of happiness to which humans have condemned themselves (the libidinal sacrifice required by civilization proving irreparable despite the mechanisms of sublimation), he does not imagine them being used festively, in a kind of ultimate celebration, the party to end all parties on the road to emancipation, but as an expedient to which humanity must resign itself in the absence of any genuine emancipation. However, as Adorno and Horkheimer recognise in Dialectic of Enlightenment, psychotropic drugs undoubtedly give access, like the 28. See H. Bey, Temporary Autonomous Zone (Los Angeles: Autonomedia, 1991). 29. Leloup, Digital Magma, 24 30. Ibid 31. An immersion whose circularity Jean-Yves Leloup notes in various forms in his book. In particular, here, in possibly its most absolute form: ‘[The rave] never seems to experience a conclusion, except for the extreme fatigue of bodies, the rising sun, or, from time to time, the arrival of the police’. Ibid., 23.

lotus-eaters’ ‘flower of forgetting’ in The Odyssey, to a ‘fleeting reminiscence of 32

[…] pleasure’ that ‘points back to prehistory’,


to the bliss of a time before the

open up a path towards something like this utopian condition,33 but one must make sure they don’t exhaust those who consume them, leaving them the prisoner of this condition.

Dionysus Disciplined Music, as Adorno notes at the beginning of ‘On the Fetish Character in Music,’ has always had this twofold power: music represents at once the immediate manifestation of impulse and the locus of its taming. It stirs up the dance of the Maenads and sounds from Pan’s bewitching flute, but it also rings out from the Orphic lyre, around which the visions of violence range themselves, pacified.34

32. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 64. The text refers to song IX of The Odyssey, where the Lotophagi are described: ‘the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower’, which Ulysses’s companions, despatched as reconnaissance, eat so voluptuously that they forget to return to the ship, and remain in a state of happiness—that of a golden age preceding civilization, before any division of labour, any domination of nature by hunting or agriculture, profiting from the softness of mere picking from the bosom of nature. ‘I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches’, says Ulysses. The violence he visits upon his companions has no equal except for temptation itself, which Ulysses, hero of a civilised world to come, teaches them to renounce. 33. The relationship between the opening up of this utopian horizon and the consumption of drugs is an exemplary formulation in the afrofuturism of Parliament’s P-Funk and of Funkadelic, founded by George Clinton. The ‘P’ in P-Funk, according to Kodwo Eshun, could refer to the P of Pharmakon, Placebo, Panacea…. ‘In ’77’s encyclopaedic concept album Funkentelechy, funk is synthesized into a p’harmatopia, the universal product drug. The entire album is set inside the American consumer sensorium […] the happy fan is a human tape recorder, that happily replays these same slogans forever. The Funk P’rogram uses these fans to replicate itself across the mediascape.’ K. Eshun, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (London: Quartet Books, 1998), 146. Inseparable from futuristic projections, symbols, and stories from science fiction (including the novels of Samuel R. Delany, one of the first authors of science fiction to include Native Americans and African Americans in his stories), the freedom offered by P-Funk passes by way of drug addiction itself, by way of alienation, but as a contamination by way of the good news of funk, the promise of the emancipation of the ‘Black Nation’. 34. Adorno, ‘On the Fetish Character in Music’, 29.

D ionysus D isciplined

society of the division of labour and domination. And indeed psychotropics do


Dionysiac and a vehicle of ecstasy, music unleashes emotions and impulses;

C ulture I ndustry

with this duality, and has distinguished between Dionysian and Orphic musics,

but it also has the power to discipline them. Humanity has long been familiar one ecstatic, the other soothing or disciplining. But the question here is more whether the music that unleashes impulses, the music of the party or festival, the music of ecstasy, is not itself disciplinary. Does Dionysus break through the system of rationalised culture, or is he a perfect double agent, cathartic and neutralising, ultimately reinforcing it? Even after decades of raves and emancipation though festivals, it remains an open question. Does the party relieve the frustration of alienation, or emancipate partygoers from this alienation? No doubt it is a reactionary move to denounce parties, but equally, there is no guarantee that a party will be emancipatory. * But this ambiguous party that is the object of Adorno’s criticism is not just any party. It is the industrialised festival organised by the fun industry. It is a (false) party which crystallises the whole dystopia of the promise of the popular. From Adorno’s perspective, his critique is not a declaration of absolute hostility to all hedonism. It only makes sense in light of the system represented by the culture industry.

CULTURE INDUSTRY F ** k this industry [...] The devil ENTERED me Waka Flocka Flame, ‘F ** k This Industry’, 2010

An Oxymoron It was at the very beginning of the 1940s, in a chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) on the ‘industrial production of cultural goods’, co-written with Max Horkheimer, that Adorno introduced the term ‘culture industry’.35 35. It seems that the term ‘culture industry’ was used for the very first time in Dialectic of Enlightenment, as Adorno later noted (‘Culture industry Reconsidered’).

Lest we forget, the phrase is a conceptual oxymoron, aggregating the concept


of ‘culture’—the whole sphere of constituted and historically determined works of ‘industry’, designating the structure for the production and promotion of mass-produced, standardised goods. If culture is a zone of value where the non-market value of art and its market value, the uniqueness of works and their comparability, coexist uncomfortably, the bringing to light of a logic of the industrialisation of culture shifts this ambiguous coexistence or balance of power in favour a market logic that de facto denies the difference between artworks and consumer goods. Certainly, ‘[t]he autonomy of works of art […] rarely ever predominated in an entirely pure form’,36 and works of art and spirituality didn’t develop in some other world separate from that of labour and the material conditions of the existence of individuals, as Adorno is well aware. But the advent of the culture industry absolutises the negation of this autonomy: it legitimates it—it has long been well-known that the major labels prioritise what sells over what has aesthetic merit. In the context of the culture industry, it is the whole method for the production of works that is determined, absorbed into processes analogous to those that govern the production of any commodity on an industrial scale. Nearly seventy years before John Seabrook, Adorno grasped the principle of a hit ‘factory’ behind the enchanted facade of organised entertainment.37 Like Henry Ford’s cars, artworks are the end product of a standardised production line.38 Cars, television sets, shoes, and vinyl records are nothing but the diversification of equally market-led offerings, ready to wear, ready to hear. Regardless of what products the industry puts on the market, because millions participate in it, certain reproduction processes are necessary that inevitably require identical needs in innumerable places to be satisfied with identical goods.39

36. Ibid, 13. 37. See J. Seabrook, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015). 38. We will come back to this schema of critical analysis of hit manufacture in Chapter 3, Part 2, ‘Hits and Hooks’. 39. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 121.

A n Oxymoron

and discourses in which a society represents itself spiritually—and the concept


Not only has art moved into the era of its technical reproducibility: it is now at the stage of its serial reproduction. The work is not just reproduced across an

A n Oxymoron

infinity of media, it is itself the reproduction of a particular economically viable model of the work, reduced to the status of a ‘product’. Adorno thinks that this logic of re-production—of the assembly line—heralds an era of the decline of the singularity and originality of musical works. Ultimately, he notes, The culture industry contains an element of rationality—the calculated reproduction of the low—which, while certainly not missing in the low art of the past, was not its rationale.40

Just as the copy of a copy loses in precision and detail, so the systematically planned and organised reproduction of works—in the sense that, beneath their apparent variations, they present identical standardised features—irreparably alters the artistic value and the claim to truth inherent in a singular appearing.41 As a counterpoint to this re-production process doomed to the progressive impoverishment of disposable products, the culture industry presents a mythical appearance of abundance. ‘It is all a parody of the never-never land’, remark Adorno and Horkheimer in their survey of the industrial production of cultural commodities: You name it, we supply it. A man from the country remarked at the old Berlin Metropol theater that it was astonishing what they could do for the money; his comment has long since been adopted by the culture industry and made the very substance of production.42

From the ticket that grants access to a kingdom of abundance for a modest price, to the mosaic of YouTube videos with unlimited and free access, the utopia of a plentiful culture available to the ‘man from the country’, free of all authority, persists in even the most recent developments in the

40. T.W. Adorno, ‘Transparencies on Film,’ in The Culture Industry, 178–86: 185. 41. See by contrast the aesthetic meaning of the question of alteration and particularly of altered sound in the history of recorded popular music in the Part 2, Chapter 4, ‘Pop and Progress’, below. 42. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 156.

culture industry.43 More than ever, culture presents itself as an offer made for


you—hence the ‘you’ in YouTube—this you (whoever you may be) to whom art of an à la carte culture dissimulates the actual constraints constitutive of it. A promise of abundance for all, it realises a democratic dream which Adorno stubbornly continues to decipher as a nightmare.

Secession: The Romanticism of the Advocates of Mass Art Even within the intellectual nebula of Kulturkritik from which Adorno hailed, the radicalism of his point of view is particularly trenchant. Most of his fellow critical heirs of Karl Marx (Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Siegfried Krakauer, and even Ernst Bloch) held onto the romantic promise of a reconciliation—as emancipation—through ‘popular’ art. Armed with dialectics and with hope, they strove to separate the wheat from the chaff of the free-forall of popular literature and cinema, to rescue the political and aesthetic promise of ‘the popular’ from its fall into the ideology of fascist regimes or into that other empire—more insidious because more seductive—known as ‘Hollywood’. Benjamin sees in Mickey Mouse a ‘positive barbarism’; Bloch discovered in the realist film a ‘mirror’ of the ‘hope’ characteristic of critique.44 This utopia of an art both popular and conscious, and even avant-garde, presides over the greater part of the artistic production of the 1930s. But Adorno, witness of the failure of the labour movement in Germany and the aesthetic errancies of ‘mass art’, saw no grounds for hope in it. Art which is truly addressed to the people would not be popular in the sense of an art that helps people unwind from their daily labour. If it is to serve class consciousness, then it will have to be conscious itself. And this consciousness, Adorno thinks, cannot be reconciled with an easy and immediate art. He rejects Benjamin’s 43. See A. Gayraud and G. Heuguet, ‘De l’industrie musicale à la rhétorique du “service”. YouTube: une description critique’, Communication & Langages 184 (2015), 101–19. 44. Ernst Bloch distinguished dreams preserved in the content of certain popular cultural products, invested with the ‘Principle of Hope’, without renouncing his vigilance: ‘Hollywood has become an incomparable falsification, whereas the realistic film in its anti-capitalist, no longer capitalist peak performances can, as critical, as stylizing film and as mirror of hope, certainly portray the mime of the days which change the world’. E. Bloch, The Principle of Hope, tr. N. Plaice, S. Plaice, and P. Knight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 3 vols., 1995), vol. 1, 408–9.

S ecession

was so long denied. But beneath the bounty of personalised offers, the utopia


hypothesis, in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility’,

S ecession

to man a new representation of himself and his political field of action. For his

of the revolutionary potential of cinema as a technology capable of offering part, all Adorno sees is the latest form of Romanticism which, because of its anxiety in the face of the fatal characteristics of capitalism, seeks a despairing way out, in order to affirm the feared thing itself as a sort of ghastly allegory of the coming liberation and to sanctify negativity […].45

Similarly, the Benjaminian figure of the ‘eccentric’46 is for Adorno nothing but a puppet, a direct product of market ideology. To turn it into a promise of revolution seems to him naive demagoguery. And Adorno becomes gradually more distrustful towards Bertolt Brecht, who, although a man of few illusions, also placed some hope in this modern mass culture. In a letter of 18 March 1936, he enjoins Benjamin to abandon all the Brechtian themes that lead him to underestimate the threat of mass art. It is as much against this point of view that he considered too romantic as against ‘Hollywood’ that Adorno develops his ‘unrecuperable’ concept of the culture industry. You are mistaken, he seems to be saying to his critical comrades: the traces of utopia you think you can make out in cultural products are only the projection of your own nostalgia, your crypto-romanticism. We are no longer dealing with a popular art, but with an industry that has made such an art its alibi. Hence Adorno’s concept of the culture industry must be understood as moving against the idea of ‘mass art’ that was in vogue in the 1930s (and which conserves the ambiguities projected by leftist intellectuals onto the idea of the ​​ ‘masses’ as modernised figure of the sovereign people). Adorno wrote in a 1964 lecture that ‘the culture industry must be distinguished [from mass art] in the extreme’.47 By insisting on the industry rather than the masses, on culture rather

45. T.W. Adorno, ‘On Jazz’, tr. J.O. Daniel, Discourse 12:1 (Fall–Winter 1989–1990), 45–69: 48. 46. A term used by Benjamin alternately about Charlie Chaplin, cartoons, and grotesque films. W. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility [First Version]’, tr. M.W. Jennings, Grey Room 39 (Spring 2010), 11–38: 31 (§16). 47. Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, 12.

than on art, Adorno seeks to cut short the crypto-romanticism concealed in


this ambiguity: a mass art would be the art of the masses. With the industry of that arises spontaneously from the masses themselves, the contemporary form of popular art’.48 It presents a phenomenon of a different order, which has nothing to do with the people, and which, under the alibi of democratic promise of access to culture, presides over an autonomous system that seeks only to ensure its own preservation.

The Popular as Injunction ‘It might appear,’ notes Adorno during his research on radio at Princeton, that radio, by a kind of Darwinian process of selection, actually plays most frequently those songs that are best liked by the people and is, therefore, fulfilling their demands.49

Following this logic, the most popular hits would find themselves propelled into the media spotlight by their spontaneous public success. Their audience would expand step by step under the combined effects of ‘natural’ success and a distribution hugely increased by industrial means. But what the study of the hits reveals, observes Adorno, is more like a logic imposed from above, less immanent to the ‘taste’ of the public then to ‘the vested interests of song publishers’.50 Although the industry places the listener centre-stage, insisting upon their self-determination and offering them a proliferation of personalised products, ‘the listener virtually has no choice’.51 Even if popularity is conceived of as a direct expression of this supposed self-determination on the scale of the general public, ‘[t]he identification of the successful with the most frequently played is thus an illusion’.52 It is not because a song is popular that it is broadcast widely. It is considered popular because it is broadcast widely. The more obvious this becomes, the more the industry promotes the legend 48. Ibid. 49. Adorno, Current of Music, 140. 50. Ibid. 51. Ibid., 141. 52. Ibid., 140.

T he P opular as I njunction

reproducible arts, he insists, we definitively are no longer dealing with ‘a culture


of exceptions that confirm the rule: those artists that come out of nowhere,

J ingles

virtual version of the ‘street’ where budding artists were formerly discovered).

the uncontrollable viral successes, the groups ‘discovered on the internet’ (the Yet under normal conditions, ever since the age of superstars and ‘prime time’ broadcasts, ‘popular’ music has remained that music selected by the industry for the public. A system of interests lies hidden beneath the mask of the spontaneous expression of the people’s taste. ‘Popular’ is the watchword of an advertising tautology by which the motif of popularity itself is confirmed and reinforced, celebrating the miraculous ability of industrial means to make a thing popular regardless of its content and qualities. This is why, beneath the appearance of its abundant and varied offerings, the culture industry is a figure of the oppression of the particular: it ‘intentionally integrates its consumers from above’.53 A contorted objectification of the promise of reconciliation that it continues to promote, the injunction of popularity has turned into an authoritarian manifestation of a normative majority. And popular validation means justifying the sacrifice of the rights of the particular. In this dystopia of forced reconciliation operating via a conscription disguised as a personalised offer, popularity and lightness reveal themselves for what they really are: advertising slogans populating the false paradise of songs.

JINGLES From the moment when ‘[t]he cultural commodities of the industry are governed […] by the principle of their realization as value’,54 this commercialisation necessarily affects their modes of appearance and their content. Witnessing the development of radio advertising jingles—the brief promotional musical refrains that punctuated the most popular radio programmes in 1940s America—Adorno remarks that ‘the methods by which light popular music is spread coincide with the advertising methods used for any other standardised consumer good.’55 There are indeed certain structural affinities between jingles and successful songs. In a lengthy study of the relationship between popular music and advertising, historian Timothy D. Taylor has demonstrated the ambiguous links between 53. Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, 12. 54. Ibid., 13. 55. Adorno, Current of Music, 278.

popular song and advertising music, forged at the dawn of the last century within a burgeoning culture industry.



The radio jingle was born in the context

and standardised in the United States in the 1950s. From that moment on, the production of promotional music was twinned with the production of pop music, to the point where certain jingles became hits in their own right. In 1971, the song ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ was transformed from jingle into song, and became a hit in America.57 ‘Art imitates life and commercials imitate art’, as composer and lyricist Peppy Castro once put it.58 To the extent that the culture industry became systematic in its effects, the old distinction between art and commerce became increasingly tenuous. A final phase of the trend toward their conflation was what Thomas Frank calls the ‘conquest of cool’59—the actual integration, by a new generation of tastemakers in the mid-1980s, of independent and rebellious popular music into advertising music. This phenomenon is explained by the accession of more culturally savvy boomers and post-boomers to positions of power in the marketing and advertising industries. Better informed than their elders about which music appeals to the youth, they stopped using music to chase fashion, and made marketing itself a trendsetter, by associating the products of the moment with careful musical choices, thus establishing advertising as the new arbiter of cool.60 At the same time, the ‘cool’—that is to say, music identified as independent—has itself almost achieved the status of a brand in the marketplace: authenticity become a lucrative new niche for an industry in search of renewal.61 But there is nothing new under the sun: at the end of the 1950s, the first French rock group, originally called Les 5 Rocks, was rebaptised, against band members’ wishes, as Les Chaussettes Noires (The Black Socks) during a 1961 56. T.D. Taylor, The Sound of Capitalism: Advertising, Music and the Conquest of Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). 57. Ibid., 7, 157. 58. Quoted in ibid., v. 59. T. Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). 60. In the nineties, for instance, the association of Levi’s jeans with a grunge aesthetic. ‘Inside’ by the obscure band Stiltskin became a hit because it soundtracked an ad for the brand. 61. The recent spread of ‘Record Store Day’, an annual event to promote independent record stores, initiated in 2008 thanks to the revival of vinyl sales, illustrates these branding effects. See E. Harvey, ‘Siding with Vinyl: Record Store Day and the Branding of Independent Music’, International Journal of Cultural Studies 20:6 (April 2015), 585–602.

J ingles

of the Great Depression, the production of jingles becoming fully rationalised


radio broadcast. Although it had almost collapsed because of the musicians’


their record company by Stemm socks, each member of the group received a

outrage, the deal was finally forced upon them: in exchange for sponsorship of box of ten pairs of black socks, along with tuxedos, a drum kit, three amps, and heavy promotion. From Michael Jackson, an icon for Pepsi in 1984,62 to any musician of the 2000s whose only hope of making a living from their music consists in being ‘approached by a brand’, the complicity of advertisers of all kinds with music promoters has constantly replayed the drama of an art trying to exempt itself from all commercial stigma.

System But Adorno’s conception of the culture industry goes beyond this simple polemical association of pop art with commerce, light popular music with advertising jingles. His critical climax is not the discovery of this (barely) hidden alliance. Adorno’s intuition is more paranoid; it amounts to detecting in the culture industry an autonomous systemic logic which is fundamentally monopolistic. In total contradiction with its image, borrowed from liberal philosophy—that of a diverse industry governed by a principle of free competition, fuelling a real diversity of companies and markets—the culture industry seems to Adorno to be an integrated system, a system of spheres of production functioning in lockstep with the communications industry. The launch of The Monkees, a group formed in the 1960s, provides a good example of this systemic unity. A boy band avant la lettre, intended to offer an American alternative to The Beatles, the group benefited from a campaign that spanned multiple industries: initially actors in a television series largely inspired by The Beatles comedies (A Hard Day’s Night and Help!), its members, who were not allowed to perform their own compositions, released their first album—written entirely for them in 62. With Michael Jackson, Pepsi was aiming at an audience of children and adolescents, but also adults susceptible to reliving their childhood and adolescence through him. The artist carries the Pepsi brand by investing it with a quality that it alone is not able to muster: a lifestyle element that transcends the brand but incorporates it. An absolutely protean figure of popular culture in general, black and white, male and female, earthling and alien, Michael Jackson attracts a very wide audience, from children to the elderly, an ideal incarnation of a colourful and entirely positive universality typical of the 1980s (‘We Are the World’). If he appears in a Pepsi ad, it is not because his music is advertising, but because he embodies the exceptional individuality that Pepsi needed.

the Brill Building63—whose release in cinemas was orchestrated with the help


of Columbia Pictures and the TV channel NBC (who broadcast the fifty-eight cereals and Yardley cosmetics. The group was predictably successful, a tribute to this vast ‘horizontal’ operation using different types of media to multiply the advertising firepower of the musical product. Twenty years earlier, Adorno had already observed how [t]he dependence of the most powerful broadcasting company on the electrical industry, or of the motion picture industry on the banks, is characteristic of the whole sphere, whose individual branches are themselves economically interwoven.64

And indeed, throughout the history of the music industry, less visible industrial forces have been at work behind the scenes, upstream of the enchanted world of hit singles and successful albums. At the beginning of the 2000s, historian of phonography Jonathan Sterne highlighted the systemic solidarity of the industries of telephony, radio broadcasting, and music, deeply ‘interconnected’ around the issue of sound as an industrial problem.65 Yet more radically today, it is the connection between the music industry and the more protean communications industry that is most significant, a relationship that is reinforced by the development of ‘free services’. In exchange for data obtained from users and more prominent placement for the advertisers who finance platforms, streaming sites dangle the promise of a supposedly free service to users.66 These apparently distinct sociocultural 63. After the Second World War, the Brill Building, located at 1619 Broadway, Manhattan, became the centre of the thriving American popular music industry. 64. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 123. 65. J. Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2003). ‘Although these facts are well documented in the existing media histories, telephony, sound recording, and radio are still largely created as separate social and cultural phenomena.’ However, ‘sound media […] descend from a common cultural origin, as parts of an initially cohesive social and cultural field’ (184). 66. The acquisition of YouTube by Google in 2006 and its recent advertising policy offer a good contemporary example of the phenomenon. In January 2014, in France, there appeared on the walls of the Paris metro posters by the SFR telephone operator promoting RED, its new 4G service. On a plain red background, the posters featured, in white letters, the message ‘YouTube à volonté [YouTube on demand]’.


episodes of the series in prime time), and with the sponsorship of Kellogg


phenomena in reality form a whole whose ‘individual branches are similar in


without a gap’.67 But there is no invisible hand here to regulate free competition.

structure or at least fit into each other, ordering themselves into a system almost Instead, it all happens according to a blind dynamics whose effects are not necessarily virtuous. No rational or philanthropic intent governs the whole; it is structured primarily as an autonomous system with no purpose other than its own self-preservation. Now, since ‘[l]ight popular music is a commodity produced under a far reaching division of labor and distributed on a mass-scale’,68 it forms a pact with this systemic operation, and integrates itself into this interlocking system, of which it will then bear the mark: a dependency upon matters totally unrelated to the internal logic of its works. This dependency, when it surfaces, is always considered as inauthentic, and as such is liable to be sanctioned in any aesthetic judgement of the works. The Monkees paid the price for this, since they have long been considered the least credible group in rock history. And the whole story of the band during the 1970s is a story of the slow and only partially successful process of recovering their credibility. But what they paid the price for was a more general fault, a structural flaw that affects even the most marginal branchlets of production. Today this is perhaps truer than ever, with the rationalisation of the means of communication offered by the monopoly of a few music delivery platforms: YouTube, SoundCloud, iTunes, Spotify…. However, what is at stake in the critique is not to point out guilty parties or, more precisely, traitors to the great cause of a spontaneous and disinterested popular music. It is rather to identify a functioning from which, ultimately, it is impossible to escape.69 What is proper to this system, its structurally dystopian trait as Adorno conceives it, is its irresistible autarchy: the fact that this system functions, so to speak, entirely alone.

67. Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, 12. 68. Adorno, Current of Music, 278. 69. In the contemporary experience of music promotion on the Internet, that fact that, no matter what level of the industry they have reached, musicians cannot refuse to be present on one or more of the available social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) without losing some of their audience, and moreover that they must also be ‘active’ and keep their account turning over, confirms, in the late 2010s, the perennial nature of this systemic constraint.

Tolerance and ‘Goodwill’


What can render the autarchy of this system manifest? When the promotion for the system to promote itself. This self-affirmation can be sensed in the interfaces between the industry and its consumers. Then the culture industry is no longer so much a market of culture, but turns into public relations, manufacturing of ‘good will’ per se, without regard for particular saleable objects. The client is sold a total and unreserved consent, through an advertisement for the world as it is.70

In view of the countless ‘like’ buttons soliciting our consent today, and in so far as what is forfeited is any opportunity to escape from the obligation to constantly express this consent, Adorno’s remark has something visionary about it. Beyond any musical goods it might promote, the culture industry is a system that ensures its own self-preservation. In the same way as YouTube sells the abundant videos it contains before evaluating their content, what is ultimately solicited is global assent to the structure itself rather than what is delivered through it. Just as the dog obeys His Master’s Voice, so listeners must grant the whole operation their unconditional assent. And yet Adorno concedes that everybody criticises the culture industry. Distrust toward what is imposed from above is a universally shared common-sense reflex. Contrary to received ideas, Adorno does not underestimate public consciousness, or the consciousness of individuals who consume the products of the culture industry. One of the fundamental defining traits of his cultural pessimism lies precisely in this presupposition: consumers are more lucid than it may seem. So the real enigma concerns the psychological mechanism that allows them to tolerate the slop they’re served up, when they know full well that it’s slop. Any TV viewer can be scandalised by the vacancy of the latest fashionable singer ‘that they want us to swallow’, which of course is ‘not gonna happen’. But the suspicion never places the entire system in question. 70. Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, 13 [translation modified]. Adorno’s use of the word here suggests a ‘goodwill’ that can be solicited at any time since it requires very little commitment, somewhere between tolerance and approval—precisely the kind of commitment required in order to ‘like’ something on a social network.


of goods no longer appears as a way to sell those goods, but as an opportunity


Consumer consciousness, suggests Adorno, is itself divided, ‘split between the prescribed fun which is supplied to them by the culture industry and a not

T he R hetoric of C onspiracy

particularly well-hidden doubt about its blessings’.71 No one has ever taken this circus for a paradise, but the pasteboard panels are still too high for anyone to resolve to stand up and peer over them.

The Rhetoric of Conspiracy Adorno’s arguments may seem overly radical. They even sometimes exude a kind of inextinguishable rancour. A tangled web of Freudo-Marxism and obsessional analogies between Hollywood and Nazi barbarism, the arguments tail off into venomous diatribes designed to taint everything that claims to be harmless in the entertainment industry, with its cortege of ‘distractions’ and promises of happiness. Confronted with the vision of jitterbug jazz fans seen as Kafkaesque insects or the ‘satanic’ laughter of spectators before the films of Charlie Chaplin, the indictment sometimes has recourse to shock effects. In his aggressiveness, less attentive to the facts than to what they hide,72 Adorno’s rhetoric seems to bear some comparison to the logorrhea of the opponents of the Illuminati who crawled up from the sewers of the Internet in the early 2000s, such as ‘Dr’. Henry Makow and ‘YouTube documentary maker’ Mark Dice.73 But the resemblance ends there. The systemic logic identified by Adorno may have an uncomfortable affinity with the system of signs that the paranoid recognises in the world around him, but the anti-Masonic and anti-Semitic libels of ultraconservative preachers boast none of the Frankfurt School theorists’ rigorous development of the critical notion of the culture industry.

71. Ibid., 16. 72. It has often been noted that Adorno’s argument regarding the culture industry suffers from a lack of precision. Nowadays one prefers to speak in the plural of ‘cultural industries’ so as to take into account the socioeconomic and structural complexities of each branch studied. 73. According to this conspiracy ‘theory’, the stars of contemporary mainstream pop—such as Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Eminem, and Ke$ha—are willing instruments of the Illuminati. Borrowing its name from an eighteenth-century sect of Bavarian free thinkers, this sect, mixing Freemasonry with pagan and satanic symbolism, aims to morally degrade humanity so as to reduce it to a state of spiritual, if not physical, slavery. Aware of the accusations, most of the stars in question proliferate signs of their membership of the supposed sect, which enhances their success and adds a devilish dimension to their conventional fame. What does mainstream pop most need to hide, its nefarious devilry, or the tedium of its becoming-corporate?

Above all, in the context of Adornian critical ‘sociology’, exaggeration is not an


overflow of affect intended to make speech more aggressive, but a conscious ‘In psycho-analysis,’ Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia, ‘nothing is true except the exaggerations’. Similarly, when it comes to the culture industry, any moderate critique would only miss its mark. For it is not from the point of view of the good intentions of its promoters, nor its benevolent reception by the public, that one must consider the phenomenon of the culture industry, but that of the contradictions upon which it rests, and which, in order to be better understood, must be amplified. Faced with the triumph of hits and the universal seduction of Hollywood productions, exaggeration, Adorno thinks, is the ultimate benchmark for criticism. This logic, it’s true, implies a certain disregard for statistical detail:74 the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment make do without any precise investigation of the specifics of the culture industry, which they identify with Hollywood without subjecting the social, economic, and cultural phenomenon of the actual Hollywood to any substantive analysis. Adorno often conceded this point later on—without rescinding his radical theses: ‘It is true that thorough research has not, for the time being, produced an airtight case proving the regressive effects of particular products of the culture industry.’75 But ultimately, accounting for all facts and nuances too precisely would, Adorno believed, only serve to blunt the critical point. Exaggeration, on the contrary, radicalises the contradiction underlying the notion of the culture industry, and awakens a polemic potential: the hidden dystopian face of the cheerful entertainment industry. This logic of exaggeration has certainly been a part of the language of conspiracy theorists of all stripes, and is difficult to assess scientifically. But in the era of big data and multiple strategies for user recruitment to streaming platforms upon which, as Adorno anticipated, ‘[s]omething is provided for all so that none may escape’,76 it has the rhetorical merit of revealing unsuspected authoritarian traits.77

74. The paucity of which is noted in particular by Richard Rorty. See R. Rorty, ‘The Overphilosophication of Politics’, Constellations 1:7 (2000), 128–32. 75. Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, 18. 76. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 123. 77.

See Gayraud and Heuguet, ‘De la personnalisation à l’enrôlement’, in ‘De l’industrie musicale à la

rhétorique du “service”’, 107.

T he R hetoric of C onspiracy



The Gruff Voice of the Wolf

T he G ruff Voice of the Wolf

and timeless, both universal and typically American in its combination of com-

Everyone knows the voice: it is serious, deep, at once manly and wise, ancient mon sense and yankee determination. It comes from a legendary past but also predicts the future. It is experience and foresight, it knows the state of the world (‘In a world where…’), and it knows that not everyone can change it. It is the voice of movie trailers, the best and the most caricatural alike—the voice that whispers to millions of viewers, in the slow, deliberate cadences actors affect when they play wise men or ancestral gods, those few gripping sentences that will convince them to go and see the new thriller, action movie, or horror flick. Viewers accustomed to this voice appreciate it for its familiarity: a voice that was too different might jeopardise the targeted effectiveness of the trailer. Recognised everywhere as a stereotype, it implies nothing as to the potential originality of the films whose release it announces: it is hard to say whether it is reassuring or manipulative, as is so often the case in the world of pop culture. What would it be reassuring us of? That despite all the upheavals that this voice has known, the world has not changed, and remains firmly divided between those who know and those who suffer. But few are aware that, for the past fifty years, this voice has been recorded by the very same actor, or at least by a very small number of actors. First noticed in 1962 when he suggested innovative ideas to promote Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, a young sound engineer from Minnesota, Donald Leroy LaFontaine, better known as ‘Don’, was the man who, over the course of his life, recorded more than six thousand trailers, and countless TV voiceovers. The voice of Don LaFontaine, called VoG, the ‘Voice of God’, has lent its flavour to so many different dishes—adventure, science fiction, horror, comedy—that it has become the general trademark of the film industry itself, its very own voice. It established the industry stereotype, together with the voices of Hal Douglas, nicknamed ‘Mister “In a World”’ and Tex Brashear. After Don LaFontaine’s death in 2008, his voice continued to be imitated. With characteristic ambiguity—between sacred authority and mockery through permanent self-caricature—it enunciates the totalising and omniscient perspective of the culture industry: ‘Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and no way out…’ was one of the key phrases of Don ‘Thunder Throat’ LaFontaine. And indeed, the industry’s ‘Voice of God’ carries to the ends of the earth, and no one can hope to escape it.

When Adorno writes in 1940 that the culture industry speaks to us with the 78

‘gruff voice of the wolf’


disguised as a grandmother in the Brothers Grimm

taneously divine and parodic, patriarchal and dematerialised—the voice of the industry itself.

Contamination Contrary to the way in which Adorno’s critique of the culture industry is most often presented, it is not concerned solely with the products of pop culture, the blockbusters and the hit parade, defined as a trash heap from which more serious works have been spared. In truth, notes Adorno, in one of his most grave and penetrating sentences, as soon as it exists, ‘[t]he whole world is forced to pass through the filter of the culture industry.’79 The industrialisation of culture is a total phenomenon that affects all artistic production. Although classical music benefits from a history and a tradition that existed prior to the deployment of the industrial system, it has since been completely appropriated. In the era of the triumph of popularity and lightness on the airwaves, serious modern music must demand of itself a radical retrenchment, and must stop trying to to address the mainstream public with its serious works.80 It is not that the ‘popular’ is a fundamentally despicable thing—Adorno wrote some heartfelt pages at the end of his life on the fanfares and childrens’ choirs in Mahler’s Third Symphony—but once absolutised as the directive principle of the industrial production of cultural goods, to his eyes it embodies the most serious threat imaginable to the autonomy of the art of music. That anxiety explains the constitution of the modernist aesthetic as a bulwark against the invasion of this oppressive lightness. Since the culture industry has made ‘popularity’ its fetish, any art that still wants to claim a form of truth can be made only in the margins of the popular or, better still, against it.

78. Adorno, ‘L’industrie culturelle’, 4 [This sentence does not appear in the English version (‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, 14)—trans.] 79. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 126 [translation modified]. 80. On this idea of ​​a loss of any audience for classical music concerts, particularly modernist music, see Ross, Listen to This.

C ontamination

fairytale, he seems to anticipate the mixed feelings inspired by this voice simul-

II. MODERN OR NOTHING fruitful philosophical career for which he is now known, Adorno was a music critic for specialist German magazines. Pult und Tacktstock published his remarkable first texts, which hermetically foreshadow his future aesthetic theory: texts written against the sentimentality of Romantic expressiveness and in favour of a music stripped of all the ‘culinary’ seductions that offer satisfaction to the bourgeoisie. At one time editor of the magazine Anbruch, where he was equally sharp, he was soon dismissed as a result of the significant drop in the number of subscriptions and the anger of readers against the elitist turn taken by the editorial line. In the dismissal letter sent to him by the director of the magazine Hans Heinsheimer, the latter offers some wise words of advice, which one imagines pronounced in a hushed and confidential tone: Dear Herr Wiesengrund,81 […] We must recognize the signs of the times exactly as such, even if they are less to our taste, or in the long term perhaps seem wrong or indeed worth fighting against.82

Of course, this lesson in journalism imparted to the young critic fell on deaf ears, and so it would remain. Throughout his life Adorno refused to succumb to this wisdom of concessions, this temperance of accepted compromises, with an intransigence that eventually blinded him to the work of certain composers such as Stravinsky, and of course the entire genre of jazz. But from a very early stage Adorno’s critical line had the merit of being very clearly drawn, although it became more nuanced over the years: you’re either modern or you’re wrong. Outside of Modernity, there is no salvation.83

81. Adorno’s surname before it was reduced to the ‘W.’ and he adopted the name of his maternal grandparents. 82. T.W. Adorno and A. Berg, Correspondence: 1925–1935, ed. H. Lonitz, tr. W. Hoban (Cambridge: Polity, 246). 83. Adorno did however allow several exceptions to the iron rule of atonality. For example, he spares Ravel’s music, whose structure he compared to a ‘glass prison’—the prison of the old world become translucent, through which one may glimpse what the world has become. And his last great musical monograph is devoted to Mahler, who was by no means an uncompromising modernist.

M odern or N othing

When still only a little over twenty years old, and before embarking upon the



So what is musical Modernity? As formulated by the Second Viennese School

M odern or N othing

of its main representatives Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern,

in the first two decades of the twentieth century, through the founding works Modernity consisted in a decisive transformation of the musical language inherited by classical Western music from Bach, especially its tonal language. This language84 was structured by principles that had become ‘natural’ to hearing, such as the rigid dualism of consonance and dissonance in the relations between sounds, marked by a supremacy of consonance, and for which all dissonance must be resolved. It had brought about a set of harmonic rules based on respect for preestablished functional relations between chords (the third, fifth, seventh, and ninth), which excluded, for example, the interval of the augmented fourth—the supposedly demonic ‘tritone’—the augmented seventh, and the diminished ninth. Hierarchised according to the supreme principle of consonance, this language ultimately required that attraction to the tonic be treated as the constant reference point of a composition, the beginning and end of musical discourse. The richness of the repertoire built up over three centuries on the basis of these rules proves that they were not in themselves sterile. But gradually the needs of Romantic expression introduced certain transgressions, of which Beethoven’s work already contains many examples. At the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘chromaticism’ developed by Wagner further upset these principles. Breaking with traditional rules of harmony, Wagner introduced into his progressions alterations in tonality that rendered the key of the melody equivocal and even undecidable, thus bringing to the fore a musical ‘colour’ whose importance was to grow throughout the course of modern music.85 And then, when in 1909 (having long been a Wagnerian) Schoenberg composed his Five Pieces for Orchestra and his monodrama Erwartung, he made a kind of leap: hedeliminates all tonal relationships in favour of a frank, even aggressive statement of the expressive resources of atonality. Undertaken, it is said, in an advanced state of personal despair, this leap opened a new chapter in the history of the decline of the tonal form, as discussed by Schoenberg himself 84. Here we will rehearse the usual ‘story’ of the modernist history of music, which of course has been disputed. 85. Wagner’s scores contain ‘many pages where no single phrase can be interpreted as belonging to a fixed key, and where certain chords have more than two possible interpretations.’ C. Rosen, Schoenberg (New York: Viking, 1975), 30.

in his 1911 Theory of Harmony. If tonal language had now reached a state of


disintegration that called for radical transformation, Schoenberg could become the courage and genius of few composers of his calibre: atonal modernism.86 In these terms, modernism was not just one musical movement among others. For Adorno, it was the logical result of a certain history of Western music, a history of music as progress. Not a progress which, like a separate spirit, would abstractly guide composers, but a progress inherent in the expressive possibilities of music in so far as it is played, heard, and experienced by human beings who listen to it and project into it their social, historical, and existential truth. Now, in this experience of listening which also guides composition, the ear cannot remain innocent; what once moved it or surprised it once is heard differently the second time around. The same dynamic that makes us capable of enthusiasm for the new also makes the languages of past works fall slowly silent. In short, music ages. And this is one of the great insights of Adorno’s aesthetics, the opposite of the patrimonial logic that, in the nineteenth century, had invested the field of ‘classical’ music. The musical work, although sublime, is by no means eternal. As an example, Adorno noted that [t]he same overtone relationship, for example, that made the diminished seventh chord—as has often been noted—the strongest possible instance of musical tension in relation to the general state of the material in Beethoven’s time was demoted, in a later state of the material, to a harmless consonance, and even in Reger’s day became an unqualified means of modulation.87

Apex of the most authentic expression in Beethoven, the technique of the diminished seventh ceased to be living and became merely conventional when it passed into ‘neoromanticism’ at the turn of the century. As such, it became 86. He was far from being the only one to have discovered the virtues of atonality at the time. We could have invoked a whole gallery of composers here: the Liszt of the Bagatelle without tonality; the Satie of Le Fils de Étoiles; The Strauss of Salomé, in which we even hear, following Herod’s order to kill Salomé, ‘eight bars of noise’; Reger and his Sinfonietta, op. 90, composed in 1906; Scriabin’s six-note ‘mystic chord’; Russolo and his ‘musica di rumori’ (art of noises); Ives and Busoni. 87. T.W. Adorno, ‘Reaction and Progress’, in Night Music: Essays on Music 1928–1962, tr. W. Hoban (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 219.

M odern or N othing

the leader of this necessary movement whose historical realisation required only


outmoded for later musical experience, just as certain forms of expression that issued from Bach had become obsolete for Beethoven.88 This obsolescence

M odern or N othing

does not make Beethoven superior to Bach, or the expressionists superior to Beethoven. But from one to the other, the ‘voice of the subject’ matures— literally—and gains in self-consciousness what it loses in innocence. It is in these terms, inseparable from living listening and from an ideal of effective (i.e., not purely decorative) expression, that Adorno conceives what he calls the progress of musical material. ‘Progressing’ means nothing other than the ability of music to take into account its own material – the sounds, the harmonic relationships, the forms of composition—in the ‘most advanced state’, i.e. the most conscious state, ‘of its historical dialectic.’ Progress has nothing to do with some overseeing authority ‘above the helpless composer who has nothing else to do than to chase as if following a balloon’ in order to respond somehow ‘to the requirements of the times’; rather it is the direct result of the search for expressive truth that drives every ‘responsible’ composer. Within such a frame of reference, for the loyal disciple of Schoenberg that the young critic Adorno was, the neoromantic composers who were still popular at the time but who had stuck with stale forms of expression could not be countenanced. Romantic expressiveness, which had been revolutionary for Liszt and Beethoven, was a musical dead end. The spontaneous outbursts of genius that Romanticism had nourished had become as rigid as the traditional rules they had broken. Now Romanticism and a certain expressionism that had emerged from it exuded bourgeois convention, offering a music as harmless and sterile as the accompaniment to ballroom dancing. Annoyed by the phony trances of those who performed the Romantic repertoire, the young Adorno concluded that Romantic works had become ‘unperformable’ for Modernity, literally inaudible for the generation who greeted the twentieth century amidst the din of the Great War and the major industrialised cities. If one was absolutely determined to reinterpret Romantic works for the present day, he suggested in ‘New Tempi’—a youthful piece at once fantastical and prophetic—one would 88. Considering Beethoven and Bach, Adorno writes that, ‘although the question of whom to rank higher is idle, the same cannot be said of the insight that the voice of the maturity of the subject, the emancipation from and reconciliation with myth—that is, the truth content—reached a higher development in Beethoven than in Bach.’ T.W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. G. Adorno and R. Tiedemann, tr. R. Hullot-Kentor (London and New York: Continuum, 2002), 211.

have to accelerate their tempo: when compressed, their musical units might


possibly regain their force upon the minds of those rendered insensible to their triple crotchet? Like it or not, history has transformed our experience of musical time, and music must take account of this. It lies within the awareness of all fluctuations and empirical contradictions, yet can also be supposed with a degree of general determinacy, that works must be played ever faster in the course of time.89

For a modern consciousness in the grip of the speed of the industrial age, deep expressiveness should no longer have any place except embedded in musical units miniaturised by accelerated tempos. Berg, who Adorno later called ‘the master of the smallest transitions’, had understood this in his own way, without turning the work into a technical exercise devoid of expression. The expression is embedded modestly in the most secret spaces of the composition. This, Adorno thought, was the most authentic music that could be made at the beginning of his century. Moreover, fundamentally, music could not, he believed, express itself otherwise. In view of what a twentieth-century subjectivity could say while remaining in phase with its objective situation, which was no longer that of Romantic individualism, anything else—neoromanticism, neoacademicism, primitivism, hybridisations with non-Western music—would strike a false note.

THE EXCLUDED Firmly established in this way, the modernist line excluded any pluralist approach to music. Exploited since the 1930s by an expanding music industry, the ‘chaotic variety of music festival composers’90 evoked nothing for Adorno but the syncretic gibberish typical of the kitsch potpourris of the nineteenth century. He mocked the poverty of ‘aesthetic pluralism’ which, believing that it equally represented every style, merely weakened all of them. The cheerful dream that ‘every conceivable type of music can coincide with any other and with equal 89. T.W. Adorno, ‘New Tempi’, in Night Music, 106. 90. T.W. Adorno, Sound Figures, tr. R. Livingstone (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 151.

T he E xcluded

conventional idioms. In Erwartung, did Schoenberg not notate a semibreve as


validity—Schoenberg and his successors, Stravinsky, ultimately even Britten’— he considered simply ignorant.

T he E xcluded

The diversity in the Schoenberg school, extending from Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern through the second generation and down to the responsible serial composers of the present, appears more securely established […].91

This good modernist has the monopoly on authentic music; others have only the infected potpourri of the commercial festival. Imperious Modernity, an index of the truth of expression itself, was bound to be exclusive. But it would be wrong to interpret this modernist exclusivity as a kind of insular snobbery: it is better thought of in terms of a battlefield. Although it partly obeys an immanent logic (the decomposition of tonal material), the Modern has no meaning apart from its battlefronts, and the exclusions it designates. On one front, on the terrain of serious Western music, scored music, it attacks all reactionary neoromanticism, and all those who believe music can continue to speak a language inherited from the nineteenth century; on another, it rejects all false progressivisms that are supposedly open to other materials, other musical traditions, whether the nascent jazz scene or old material freshly rediscovered from European folklore. Because they fall into one of these categories or both at once, composers such as Stravinsky (accused of eclecticism and complacency with the idea of ​musical charm), Bartók (too preoccupied with folk music) and Krenek (leader of the New Objectivity, too curious about jazz) paid the price at the terrible modernist tribunal. If Adorno is content to interpret Bartók’s ‘folkloristic tendencies’ as a ‘self-imposed limitation’, his hostility to the composer of The Rite of Spring is more explicit. Outlined in Philosophy of New Music,92 published after the war, his indictments are not always entirely convincing. A certain ‘musical nationalism’, as detected by Leon Botstein, often betrays their contingent nature.93 Adorno treated the entirety 91. Ibid., 150–51. 92. T.W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, tr. R. Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). 93. Botstein’s term ‘musical nationalism’ is discussed by Albrecht Wellmer: ‘To qualify Schoenberg and Adorno as nationalists is a startling and provocative move, but the complaint against their

of Slavic music from Eastern and Northern Europe with condescension. As for


music from outside Europe (India, Java, Japan, Africa…), which had attracted the radical: it is a total dead end. Hegel thought that historical Spirit moved from East to West, and had deserted Asia and the East centuries earlier in order to now breathe its life into Europe. Without explicitly reprising this schema, in his account Adorno continues to hear the apex of musical Spirit in a very German tradition where, after Bach, the line of succession passes through Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and Schoenberg: a history of geniuses, almost all Prussian and male. Inexplicable outside of his Hegelian philosophical framework, Adorno’s deafness to other traditions may ultimately be related to biographical factors, as Albrecht Wellmer suggests. The philosopher’s musical tastes, erected into rational benchmarks of a somewhat authoritarian aesthetics, stemmed from Adorno’s fixation on the German and Austrian musical tradition which had once furnished for him experiences of happiness, including when ‘inferior’ music was involved.94

This is not an unreasonable hypothesis since, from Adorno’s point of view, such experiences are constitutive of musical experience. The weight of these early experiences was indeed probably part responsible for defining the ‘blind spots in his philosophy of music’.95 Over and above these psychological foundations, though, Adorno’s exclusionary gesture is theoretically based in a strict observance of the concept of great Western music developed since Bach. As a convinced Hegelian, he saw the history of this music as the objective deployment of its concept. To express it fully, the modern composer could not go foraging elsewhere in order to revive their moribund material. Rather, one needed the courage to remain in the old house inherited from Great Music, even if only to eventually break down its walls. “germanocentric” concept of musical progress is quite certainly no trumped-up charge.’ A. Wellmer, ‘Autonomie et négativité de l’art. L’actualité de l’esthétique d’Adorno et les points aveugles de sa philosophie de la musique’, in O. Voirol and C. Ruby (eds.), Réseaux 166, ‘Revisiter Adorno’ (Paris: La Découverte, 2011), 52. 94. Ibid., 68. 95. Ibid.

T he E xcluded

interest of Debussy, Messiaen, and the minimalists, the exclusion is even more


Adorno thus confined musical modernity within a logic that is not just exclusive

N o M ore Dancing

own decomposition that Great Western music would draw its future. Morbid

but also endogenous: it was not from outside of itself but from within its obstinacy? But according to Adorno, the history of serious Western music had only ever progressed in this way, as a conscious advance within the expressive possibilities of tonality. Now that these possibilities seemed exhausted, there came the moment of the dialectical negation of the tonal form itself, just as immanent as all the previous developments. Modern atonality expressed this negative moment. It had to be allowed to crystallise within itself the withering away of tonal forms, before reaching the point of a rupture that would see the birth, from out of this very decomposition, of a new language.

No More Dancing The musical language of Modernity, quite clearly, had to be objectively and consciously at odds with the free-for-all of an industry of light music on course to triumph. Against this enemy, it broke with everything that could lead music back to dance and the involvement of the body. Even before it appeared in his criticism of popular music, and especially in the texts on jazz, Adorno’s hostility toward any prevalent rhythm in serious compositions is tenacious. He hates the relentless ‘battering’ in Wagner’s operas, he despises the ‘spatial-rhythmic’ or even ‘spatial-regressive’ music of Stravinsky, which is ‘devoid of recollection and consequently lacking in any time continuum of permanence. Its course lies in reflexes’.96 Coupled with Nijinksy’s lascivious dancing, The Rite of Spring created a scandal in 1913—thirty years before the publication of Philosophy of New Music—because its percussive orchestration reminded serious European music of a body it thought it had got rid of. Stravinsky’s score incorporated unusual rhythm instruments: besides the popular tambourine and antique cymbals,97 the tam-tam and the guiro—a kind of scraper used in Afro-Caribbean music—made their entrance into an instrumentarium that normally had little space for percussion. With its repetitive rhythms based on static ostinatos 96. T.W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, tr. A.G. Mitchell and W.V. Blomster (London and New York: Continuum, 2007), 119. 97. Small, shrill-sounding cymbals that Berlioz discovered during a visit to the museum of Pompeii in Naples around 1830. He introduced a modernised version of the instrument in the scherzo of Romeo and Juliet (1839). We also hear them in Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1895).

and explosive rhythms, sound masses that contrasted with each other rather


than developing together, the composition of the Rite gave the impression of mod cons’, Debussy commented facetiously. For Adorno, the return of rhythmic symmetry, of a bar structure that allowed dance, was nothing but an affected archaism: a fallacious attempt to abolish the ‘distancing of listening conquered in the time of thematic and motivic working-out’98 In his Theory of Harmony Schoenberg had already criticised ‘bar structure’ (which rhythmically divides the music into defined measures and tempi) in favour of a musical prose liberated from all metrics. With this rejection of the isometric rhythm that is so conducive to dance and to trance, modernist musical aesthetics set the seal on the impossibility of any reconciliation with popular music, one of whose most general musicological traits is precisely this isometry and its explicit presence in the sounds used, for the purposes of practices of dance and trance.99 Popular music is especially seductive to the type of listener who ‘obeys the beat of the drum.100 But the drum has no meaningful resonance from the perspective of modernism. Its distant ritual function has only a disciplinary function. By virtue of this, the jazz fan, generally young and associated with the ‘so-called “radio generation”’, is considered ‘rhythm-obedient’: This obedient type is the rhythmical type, the word rhythmical being used in its everyday sense. Any musical experience of this type is based upon the underlying, unabating time unit of the music—its ‘beat’. To play rhythmically 98. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music. 99. Most works of pop musical art employ the regularity of an isometric rhythm, its on-beats emphasised by percussion. This isometric constraint has acquired more of a technically rationalised shape than ever with the wide availability of contemporary sequencers equipped with ‘clicks’ or integrated metronomes which infallibly quantify the durations of notes and musical phrases. But if bar structure separates the serious modernist from the popular, by the same token this dichotomy is found within the field of electronic music, between dance and the contemplative, between dance music made to be danced to, tainted by being too functionally determined, and electronica and intelligent techno whose rhythms have become autonomous, in an aesthetic that liberates them from any constraint to be effective on the dancefloor. In musical and academic criticism of electronic scenes, inspired by the Frankfurt School, there is a marked preference for Detroit techno, more ‘conscious’ and more focused on contemplation and/or political commitment, over Chicago House, oriented towards dancing and clubs. On this dichotomy, see La Fougère, ‘Quelques idées reçues sur l’histoire de la house’, Audimat 2 (2014), 63-81. 100. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, 142.

N o M ore Dancing

a novel mixture of savagery and avant-gardism. It was ‘primitive music with all


means, to these people, to play in such a way that even if pseudo-individualiza-

N o M ore Dancing

ground meter is preserved.101

tions—counter-accents and other ‘differentiations’—occur, the relation to the

Rhythm is the musical expression of the norm, the established order from which musicians and listeners agree not to deviate, even in their wildness—which is therefore just a show. In the prevalence of the beat, wildness and adaptation are two sides of the same coin: the dancer sets themselves free and, simultaneously, obeys. Hidden behind the apparent freedom of improvisation and the room given to soloists, it is obedience that is the essential injunction of the beat. Art wants to be wild, irrational, moving the guts of individuals rather than soliciting their educated ears. But it is either deceptive—because real savagery is inaccessible—or it is barbaric—because it frees men of nothing but their dignity. This savagery, this irrationality, may once upon a time have represented a progressive opportunity for music, Adorno concedes, but Dionysus became the instrument of those who brought the crowds into step. ‘Those who extolled the body above all else, the gymnasts and scouts, always had the closest affinity with killing, just as the lovers of nature are close to the hunter’, he proclaims without scruple in Dialectic of Enlightenment, not hesitating in the slightest to equate gymnasts with murderers.102 The modernist aesthetic is thrown into panic before any art that cares for physical ecstasies. To the anthropological argument that humans need trances and cathartic ritual, and that music serves to orchestrate them on a collective scale, Adorno opposes the belief that modern rituals are nothing but phony trances, joy on command, or calculated savagery. In the ‘industrialised Dionysianism’ of jazz, the real, promised deep release does not come. Nothing can force Dionysus: ultimately it is Dionysus, become the ideologue of enjoyment and elation, who forces individuals.

101. Adorno, Current of Music, 317. 102. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 235.



‘My music is not lovely’, Schoenberg once snarled to a head honcho of the compliment—a story Adorno liked to retell.103 Just as it disqualifies the effusions of the body as alienating, authentic music must demand, in lieu of and instead of pleasure, the mediations of knowledge. ‘Responsible art adjusts itself to criteria which approximate judgements: the harmonious and the inharmonious, the correct and incorrect.’104 Lightness, pleasure, entertainment, a certain form of immediacy, easily memorised melodies—in short, everything that will flower in the recorded popular music of the twentieth century—is banned by Adorno from the field of serious music. Awkward to listen to, unobliging to the ears of a public in search of memorable patterns and lyrical and emotional developments, serious music progresses only by impeding the habits of listening. Overwhelmed by its intellectualisation, it has no chance of creating a popular consensus. Adorno agrees: ‘[T]he marketplace rewards the greatest efforts of artistic conscientiousness with utter failure’.105 Worse, any success of works on the market, inversely, renders them suspect. In a letter to his friend Berg, whose opera Lulu had begun to meet with great success, the young Wiesengrund seems troubled: ‘Too great a success must not cast doubt upon the quality of your work’. For the most part, Adorno firmly believes, despite or rather because of its intrinsic truth, radical music is doomed to ‘inevitable social isolation’.106 While condemning it to a kind of asociality, this isolation also verifies its profound social significance: Whereas in new music the surface alienates a public that is cut off from the production, its most distinctive phenomena arise from just those social and anthropological conditions that are those of its listeners.107

103. T.W. Adorno, ‘Art and the Arts’, in R. Tiedemann (ed.), Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, tr. R. Livingstone (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 371. 104. Adorno, ‘The Fetish Character in Music’, 30. 105. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, 10. 106. Ibid., 11. 107. Ibid..

R etrenchment

Hollywood film industry who didn’t know his music, and had tried to pay him a


The irritation that atonality provokes among the general public, just like the

R etrenchment

the public’s reluctance to look in the face the truths that modernism reveals

sneers against the first inroads made by nonfigurative art, express above all about the condition of modern individuals. The genuine work, because it cannot be taken for granted or received as self-evident, since it precisely reveals a signification of the real that only a ‘responsible’ art, fully exploring its expressive possibilities, beyond conventions and pretences, can confront, is bound to be minoritarian and even isolated. By attaching itself to an aesthetic of difficulty, responsible music thus conceived is practically inclined to refuse itself to listening. In this refusal it finds the only shelter capable of preserving it from degeneration into advertising within the culture industry. The climate of art, writes Adorno in one of the most significant pages in Aesthetic Theory, is one in which works are torn ‘between a do-not-let-yourself-be-understood [Nicht-sich-verstehen-lassen] and a wanting-to-be-understood [verstanden-werden-Wollen]’.108 The more demanding a work, the more deeply it digs into this contradiction between its intention to speak for the group, for all, to be universal, and its intransigence, which places between it and ‘the public’ a thousand obstacles to its immediate understanding, vestiges of sacredness—whose function was precisely to close off access to full and total understanding. Culture and its mechanised version, the culture industry, which shatters these obstacles on behalf of the democratic ideal, wants above all to transform works into ‘being-for-others […] without their actually being for others’.109 Here the predicament of works torn between the desire to be understood and the refusal to allow oneself to be understood, a dialectical expression of what Adorno cherished as their ‘non-identity’, is neutralised in favour of a kind of race lost in advance to this being-for-others, to communicability. This tension may not be new, and indeed Georg Simmel had already discussed it as the ‘tragedy of culture’, but Adorno sees it reinforced in the new models of the industrial distribution of music. And this reinforcement, before the plethora of musical products that are not deliberately anything more than ‘beings-for-others’, communications, social signals doubling as advertising, only goes to accentuate modernist ascesis, which restricts access yet further. 108. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 302. 109. Ibid., 17.

At the height of its intellectualisation, modern music believes that it can only


remain an art by assuming this almost counternatural gesture: giving up the It does indeed require a rock of musical science as irascible and sullen as Schoenberg to protect the entrance to such a kingdom. But whatever the heights to which the kingdom rose, becoming literally impregnable, it seems to have paid the price for this isolation: a weakening of any power it might have had as symbolic expression for the community.110 Fifty years later, modernism represents nothing other than itself: a radicalism which, if it is not experienced as a paradise, designates a whole world of communicating music as a hell. Nevertheless, it has maintained its avant-garde legitimacy for decades by means of an authoritarian guiltmongering for which Adorno is partly responsible. Like the Hegelian theory of the ‘end of art’ in its time, and for a long time afterward, Adornian aesthetics set up a series of taboos: a taboo on lightness, a taboo on tonality, a taboo on the body, a taboo on immixture, and a taboo on lyricism, even in a serious art which today has to acknowledge a historical defection of an audience sacrificed on the altar of modernist truth.111

Nuance And yet Adorno himself added some degree of nuance to the iron law of the modernist tribunal, as affirmed in his Philosophy of New Music.112 ‘In his late period,’ notes Wellmer, 110. In an article on György Lukács, Axel Honneth notes that ‘the extreme specialization and social marginalization of art today will significantly impoverish a society’s means of symbolic expression’. A. Honneth, The Fragmented World of the Social: Essays in Social and Political Philosophy (New York: SUNY Press, 1990), 59. 111. Ross, Listen to This, 46. 112. This law bends here and there in texts devoted to Berg or even to Ravel, to the point of being literally transfigured into a less reflexive conception, more focused on musical time than on the rationality of the material, as Anne Boissière has shown, in particular in reference to the important monograph that the philosopher dedicated to Mahler at the end of his life. In Mahler he acknowledges his appreciation of the hidden cells of individual expression he had already appreciated in Berg and Ravel in the 1930s, and even a distant nostalgia for the popular (banal) in an advanced art of composition. This melancholy inflection of his aesthetics throws a different light upon Adorno’s Modernism. Ultimately connecting an earlier figure to that of Schoenberg, in the person of Mahler (who died in 1911), closer to a twilight Romanticism than an all-conquering modernity, Adorno seems more attached to the sorrowful impulse toward modernity than to a triumphant modernity itself. See A. Boissière, Adorno: la vérité de la musique modern (Villeneuve-d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 1999).

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possibility of a shared aesthetic experience.


Adorno changed his view on Debussy and Stravinsky and, to a certain degree,

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John Cage’s music into his overall vision of the musical world, even in opposition

on the whole panorama of new music; he even tried to incorporate elements of to his own understanding and doubtless under the influence of his friend HeinzKlaus Metzger.113

As for Modernity itself, he anticipated its senescence. Rereading his many texts on Schoenberg, one can also decipher in them an effort to defend the leader of the Vienna school against himself, at the moment when Schoenberg was systematising informal atonality into the twelve-tone system. Breaking with the dialectic of salvation by failure, Adorno defended modernity as much as he tried to subtract himself from its complete triumph or, in Hegelian terms, its complete historical actualisation, by claiming that it had been misunderstood, betrayed, or deformed. And through this breach, strangely, there seeped into his aesthetics a certain nostalgia for the popular, which appears more explicitly than ever in his late monograph on Mahler. In the long Symphony No 3 in D Minor, Mahler’s vast ode to Creation famous for its complex orchestration, in the fifth movement we hear a children’s choir sing out, ‘lively in tempo and jaunty in expression’:114 ‘Ding-dong-ding-dong. Three angels sang….’ Mahler integrates into his symphony a short lied from Des Knaben Wunderhorn,115 Brentano and Arnim’s collection of thousands of German popular songs (Volkslieder) dating from the late Middle Ages to the time of its publication at the end of the eighteenth century. It is not uncommon for Adorno to speak of this collection with emotion.116 It speaks of the world of childhood, and this fragment of humour and joy in Mahler’s symphony could not be better expressed than through that which, for Adorno, belongs to a childish musical world: the post horn, the drum, 113. Wellmer, ‘Autonomie et négativité de l’art’, 57. 114. Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 3, 5th Movement, Lustig und im Tempo keck im Ausdruck: Bimm, bamm, sungen es drei Engel. 115. Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Alte deutsche Lieder was published in three volumes between 1805 and 1808 by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim. Very famous in Germany, especially throughout the nineteenth century, it influenced many poets, musicians and writers, from Eichendorff to Heine, from Brahms to Walter Benjamin. 116. For example, in Minima Moralia, the ‘Guten Abend, gute Nacht’ that Brahms makes into a ‘Cradle Song’: ‘Lullaby and good night / With roses adorned / With carnations covered / Slip under the covers / Early tomorrow, so God willing / you will wake once again’.

the sounds of a fanfare summoned from the long first movement of the Third


Symphony, and—finally—the children’s choir in the fifth movement, are all art itself: popular music, tonal and consonant, a memory of a reconciliation with nature, with the animals. In this way, Adorno writes, ‘[t]he unrisen lower is stirred as yeast into high music’.117 Moreover, with these childhood reminiscences the composer destabilises the formal perfection of the symphony as a whole. It is not that they supplement the gravity of a serious symphony with freshness and naturalness, but rather that, as sedimented forms—we are talking in the outdated codes of the bandstand here—popular forms operate as incursions of the banal, of the dishevelled face of everyday life, grasped in a nostalgia devoid of pomposity. Twenty years earlier, the young Adorno had already defended the incursion of the popular in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), ‘the first surrealistic opera [, which] economizes with the most primitive means’. An experimental political assemblage of ‘music, pieced together from triads and off-notes with the good beat of old music hall songs’,118 the result challenged the sedimented unity of tonal forms sufficiently to convince the young critic. Broken into heterogeneous blocks, amputated, the popular material was displayed in all its disquieting strangeness to the ‘oblique infantile perspective’,119 provided that, as in The Threepenny Opera, the ‘easily comprehended melodies’ had little relation to ‘successful entertainment and rousing vitality’.120 The dislocated montage of serious and popular, of art and ramshackle entertainment dragged through the mire of his own undoing, might well produce an aesthetic truth in its very irresolution, exhibiting, at the limit of cacophony, the contradictions by which the situation of music is wracked. When Weill’s work became too inspired by these popular sources, to the point of being difficult to distinguish from the better products of the music hall, however, Adorno distanced himself from it. 117. T.W. Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, tr. E. Jephcott (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 36. 118. T.W. Adorno, ‘Mahagonny’, tr. J.O. Daniel, Discourse 12:1 (Fall-Winter 1989–90), 70–77: 76. 119. Ibid., 71. 120. Ibid., 76. Melodies one of which Jim Morrison would popularise among a new generation of listeners with his cover version of ‘Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)’.

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traces of a distant childhood, that of the listener but also that of the musical


From this angle, our view of Adorno’s supposed ‘unwavering contempt’ for ‘lively and popular music’ should certainly be tempered. But even though ‘the question

M odern is A lready O ld

of the popular runs throughout the writings on music dedicated to high music […] and cannot be confined to the analysis of the culture industry’,121 it would be wrong to diminish its essential negativity. For the ontological deception of ‘light popular music’ consists precisely in selling life, novelty, and spontaneity in music in which Adorno deciphers only hackneyed conventions, sedimented music resistant to all innovation. At no point did Adorno see popular music as embodying a living music. It is just the dead body of expired tonal material. The only legitimate relation to this body is one of mourning or nostalgia.

Modern is Already Old Ironically, this process of the expiry of musical expression against which modernity judged works as either regressive or reactionary would eventually take hold of Modernity itself. In the twentieth century Modernity did indeed come to pass, and immediately began to age. Raised after the Second World War to a greater degree of computation and reflexivity in serialism, tethered to the constraining apparatus of a completely technicised writing, it has become the already-old dogma of an outdated avantgarde. And now the time has come when the requisites of Modernism in turn begin to seem reactionary. Schoenberg gives a very honest musical portrayal of his times. I salute him—but I don’t want to write like him. Stockhausen, Berio, and Boulez were portraying in very honest terms what it was like to pick up the pieces of a bombed-out continent. But for some American in 1948 or 1958 or 1969—in the real context of tail fins, Chuck Berry, and millions of burgers sold—to pretend that instead we’re really going to have the dark-brown Angst of Vienna is a lie, a musical lie […].122

121. A. Boissière, La Pensée musicale de Theodor W. Adorno: l’épique et le temps (Paris: Beauchesne, 2011), 22. 122. Steve Reich, quoted in E. Strickland, American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 46.

Frozen into conventions that would finally be challenged,123 musical modernity


would also face the trial of its falsification before in turn falling into silence. focused on rhythm, accent, timbre, and the ‘corporeality’ of music, to use the term of American composer Harry Partch. Denounced today in France by the proponents of a return to tonality, dubbed the ‘neo-tonals’, eager to reconquer the lost territories of tonal language,124 today the old modernism seems to have been almost completely ousted. Yet more than a hundred years ago another protagonist had stepped forward, completely at odds with modernism yet also with a certain serious ideal of Western music in general: pop itself, with its folk songs recorded ‘in the field’ and its rock‘n’roll, its music of intimacy and rage, speaking of the domestic and of great trances. ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, sang the thick, gravelly voice of Chuck Berry in 1956 over the roar of amplified guitars, and in every subsequent decade performers have returned to the song as to a hymn: Gene Vincent, The Beatles (as one of first leads by George Harrison in 1963), The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Flamin’ Groovies…. 123. The composer and musicologist François-Bernard Mâche interprets the return to power of the ‘fundamentalist’ modernism in the 1950s–1960s as the psychoanalytic reaction of an exclusively score-based conception of music that could only rear up in a kind of panic faced with explosion of the ‘uncontrollable sounds of musique concrète, furiously and vainly denounced at the time by Boulez’. (‘Concrète [Musique]’, in Encyclopédie de la musique [Paris: Fasquelle, 3 vols., 1958], vol. 1.) ‘Having wagered their entire careers on the discursive powers of consciousness in the 1950s and 1960s,’ Mâche explains elsewhere, the tenants of modernism ‘apparently experienced a kind of sacred horror before a profound force endowed with such a dangerous potential for blockage. It is their operatory model of discourse and musical language that was directly challenged.’ F.-B. Mâche, Musique, mythe, nature: ou les dauphins d’Arion (Paris: Méridiens-Klincksieck, 1990), 46-48. 124. In December 2012 a controversy broke out that shook every institution, from IRCAM to the Paris Conservatoire, following a filmed conference by the composer Jérôme Ducros at the College de France (Paris). Led by composer Karol Beffa who at that time occupied a chair, a handful of selfdescribed ‘neo-tonal’ composers publicly declared, with the support of ethnographic and historical arguments, their will to do battle with the modernist dogma imposed for nearly a century by the custodians of the temple. Supporters of a return to the possibilities of the tonal language against the modernist dogma of its irremediable exhaustion, they denounced the sterile and outmoded code of atonality that had become the signature of contemporary serious music. Atonality had aged in its turn, and for the future, deprived of the resources of tonal language—the only language, according to Ducros, to have been truly articulated—it amounted to simply depriving oneself of music. Comparable to that of the American minimalists in the 1950s, their criticism differed on at least one point: in the pop incursions and drones of Philip Glass and La Monte Young, the neo-tonals see a weakening of musical language, as it is excessively simplified or automated. They prefer a rediscovered fidelity to a developed tonal language inherited from Bach and Brahms.

M odern is A lready O ld

A whole new generation abandoned it in favour of non-Western influences,


In this joyous scramble, intellectual European modernity as Adorno conceived of

C ounter-A lliance

was swept away by the savage arrogance of a slogan yelled over chords that,

it ceased to be audible. The ratiocinating intransigence of his aesthetic tribunal in Adorno’s terms, would be seen as simple and archaic, but which were now voiced in raw, utterly unprecedented sounds.

Counter-Alliance Today, the exclusive modernity conceived of by Adorno has ended up excluded in turn, both by the proponents of a serious music freed from its constraints, and by fans of popular music. But are the common enemies of Adorno themselves friends? It is disturbing to think that the overt hatred of the modernist perhaps offers more aesthetic material to the pop fan than an alliance of convenience with others excluded from authoritarian modernism. We could very well institutionalise pop, justify it, bring it into conservatories, give it equal rights with serious secular music, but we would still be wrong to do so in the name of pluralism. For pluralism does not just place all music on an equal footing, it also neutralises the contradictions between them, their reciprocal and fruitful hostility. In its condescension it makes us forget that pop is never simply below or even beside great serious Western music: in truth, pop has become another musical art that defies it. In seeking desperately to chase pop out of the field of art, the old Adornian antagonism of the ‘two spheres’ at least captures this relation of tension, downplayed by those who would have all forms of music coexisting peacefully. The idea of the popular as being repressed by an exclusive modernity asserts itself more clearly in this repression, and opens another way to music—that of a distinct musical art which would no longer be made only by white male Europeans, but by people whose skin is not always white, by young people of all countries and all conditions, by women and by gay and transgender individuals, using resources that are not exclusively those of rationalised musical technique. In counterpoint to the paragon of a serious musical art that would have the privilege of responsible art, there rises up a popular deterritorialized musical art, fiercely democratic, with its own aesthetic questions to ask, capable of deploying its own reflexivity: pop, the art of recorded popular musics.

CHAPTER 3. NO SYNTHESIS: THE BROKEN FORM OF POP I was really scared that we’d end up becoming popular, because we’d only planned to be detested. Genesis P-Orridge, interview with J.-D. Beauvallet, April 2000.

If a symbolic underground war has taken place, today it seems that ‘pop culture’ won. It is pop that now dominates: the second half of the twentieth century has indeed seen the cultural triumph of the popular. Democratic principles, immediacy, and pop figures carried it to victory. It’s hard to know whether Rousseau would be quite satisfied with the results, or whether Mozart would be able to find anything in common with Kanye West, even if we can be sure the converse is certainly the case. Either way, we can be quite sure that this triumph, for Adorno, amounts to hell on earth, the realization of a culture frozen within its own limits, completely reified, rationalised, and suffocating. The blackmail of popularity hanging over artistic creation has sacrificed its highest possibilities, and the pop musician himself, faced with the priority given by the culture industry to sales figures, YouTube views, and Spotify or Soundcloud streams, must submit himself to it: to the ‘public vote’—from old-fashioned radio hooks to televised ‘contests’—and to the counting of ‘likes’ on social networks. The expression of a rebellious democracy against the authoritarian effects of high culture, the democracy of aesthetic judgements, which privileges the voice of the majority, reverses out into an authoritarian voice, the voice of the imposed norm. And the ‘democratic attitude’ resonates, in spite of itself, with an attitude of conformism.

CONTRADICTIONS In ‘On Jazz’, Adorno remarks that, as jazz reached the mainstream of society, it lost its room for manoeuvre, and the more experimental dimensions of hot jazz were extinguished. Ultimately, he concludes, jazz has only able to penetrate mainstream society by taking on more ‘reactionary elements’.1 The conclusion


Adorno, ‘On Jazz’, 50.


is clear: ‘The more democratic jazz is, the worse it becomes.’2 Reading this, it

C ontradictions

the error would be to interpret his phrase as an expression of contempt for the

is difficult to ward off charges of elitism against the German philosopher. But people; rather it is a criticism of the public, as a democratic tyrant—the Great King Public that is never wrong. The corollary of Adorno’s elitism is not the supposed weakness of the people, but the natural disposition of any majority to conformism. This is why, in the demanding terms of his aesthetics, the misunderstood solitude of the work that makes it resistant to the assimilative power of the system is the foremost guarantor of progressivism. Art that wants to violate the standard must contain something indigestible. It is a question of cherishing something in this music that can be shared only with effort and under the utmost necessity—in short, that which makes it hostile to collective communions whose common denominator is impoverished as the community expands. Obviously, placing any anthropological confidence in a democratic aesthetic community is a mistake. But pop already knows this very well. Perceived as an art of uniformisation, it is also the art that is most solicitous of the singular, the specific, and of idiosyncrasies that come to shake up the norm, not just surprising the listener but guiding them towards something else—‘And now for something completely different!’ as the Monty Python crew bellowed, playing on the comic effect of an advertising slogan that could be applied to anything. ‘Something completely different’ is, in a sense, what pop always promises. It wants to make every song more real, more different. In its utopian conception, it may well have envisaged a spontaneous human reconciliation, but it also constitutively rises up against fake universality, the tyranny of the majority, fake stars, fake novelty. This consciousness does not destroy pop: we might even hypothesize that it is pop’s structuring assumption. For pop music as art is shot through with contradictions. If it has a form, it is a broken form, dislocated by these tensions that inscribe it into a very particular historicity. Permeated by the arguments of anti-pop, the figures whose constellation describes pop’s aesthetics are always, as we shall see, antinomic figures. By questioning its relations to roots, to the aesthetics of preindustrial folk music, pop seeks to maintain the impossible balance of a music both attached to its 2. Ibid.

roots and fundamentally deterritorialized. By questioning its relationship to the


subjects who embody it, as we shall see, it maintains the religion of individual of magic and of industry, its history is haunted by the phantoms of the past but driven by a certain idea of ​​progress. Pop is immediate and challenging, entertaining and a spoilsport, romantic and modernist. Perhaps all of this cannot hold together. But it is the broken form of pop, an art that patches up its inconsistencies with the glue of culture, but whose contradictions are, in reality, what is most alive in it.

NEGATIVE DIALECTICS The hatred of every element of pop that so clearly illuminates modernist aesthetics can very well be fuel for the aesthetics of pop itself. For the consciousness that pop has of itself is actually shot through with anti-pop. Its most fervent fans include as many enemies of majority standards as covert ascetics. Its aesthetic of reconciliation itself remains unreconciled. This is why ‘negative dialectics’, a dialectics without synthesis, fits it like a glove. In Adorno’s work of the same name, ‘negative dialectics’ designates the notion of a suspension of the dialectic: a perseverance in the determinate negation—that is to say, in the irresolution of the contradiction between a phenomenon and its immanent negation, a contradiction that is maintained so as to preserve the discontent of precisely that which will not allow itself to be integrated or assimilated into the system of a unified rationality. For example: ‘Posited positively, as given or as unavoidable amidst given things, freedom turns directly into unfreedom.’ We must therefore maintain the contradiction, the possibility of impossibility, because ‘[f]reedom can be defined in negation only, corresponding to the concrete form of a specific unfreedom’.3 This negative concept of freedom does not imply a sceptical judgement as to the reality of freedom. It belongs to the very meaning of this concept to not be given positively: otherwise, paradoxically, it would disappear into a kind of abstraction. This volatility is also characteristic of the utopia which, ‘posited positively’, would threaten to turn into its opposite. Now, it is an essential possibility of pop to celebrate its impulse towards immediacy and spontaneous reconciliation through 3.

T.W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, tr. E.B. Ashton (New York and London: Continuum, 2007), 231–2.

N egative D ialectics

expression while acknowledging its inauthentic aspect. Its hits are the epitome


the determinate negation of this immediacy, this spontaneous reconciliation—in

N egative D ialectics

Simon Frith, implies a ‘utopian impulse, the negation of everyday life’, and thus

short, the negation of any easy way out. ‘[T]he “difficult”’, writes sociologist opens onto ‘another world in which it would be “easy”’.4 As an art of a certain utopia of reconciliation, the art of pop music is also one where consciousness of the non-realisation of utopia is most acute. Like Baron Munchausen, who had no other choice but to pull himself up by his pigtail in order to extract himself from the bog in which he had become mired,5 the pop work and those who have incarnated it are sinking in an industrial swamp, with no other choice and no other internal artistic dynamism available to them than to create for themselves a transcendence, something external that can pull them out of it, although it never frees them completely. But negativity does not exclude utopian promise, any more than idealistic naivety protects against failure. We cannot even understand the negative impulses of the most anti-pop pop without grasping their relationship, as polemical as it may be, to the initial promise of reconciliation. Obviously, we have lived and are living in an age when, everywhere in the wired world, individuals and groups attempt to uphold the ‘promise’ of pop, whatever the impulse that drives them to it. And obviously, their efforts, even in the most obscure cases, are received by someone; they are not preaching in the wilderness, even when the community they form is much smaller and more fragile than those who somehow manage to reach the mainstream. For in this region, where the marshy waters are constantly rising, negativity works only in movement, dissatisfied with itself as much as with that which it negates: this is its dialectic condition, always threatened, or rather unbalanced, by the objection of its opposite—this contrary, this antithesis that it always wants to be audible, but which, if it freezes into a fixed stance, it will end up betraying. Now, this figure of thought which holds opposites together particularly suits the aesthetic problems of pop: it makes it possible to work with the contradictions underlying it without neutralising them and, paradoxically, it makes them productive. The aesthetics of the pop form will be an aesthetics without synthesis— which by no means makes it inconsistent. 4. S. Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). Quoted in Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love, 20. 5. For the Adorno of Minima Moralia, Munchausen was the unsurpassable and tragic figure of contemporary cultural criticism. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 74.


It is to be asked of words, wrote the young Adorno, how far they are capable of bearing the intentions attributed to them, to what extent their power has been historically extinguished, how far they can somehow be configuratively preserved.1

Whenever a pop song is written, whenever pop produces works and we judge them, the word ‘pop’ brings with it, whether we like it or not, such ‘intentions attributed’—namely, keeping in mind the primary contours of the pop form as outlined above, intentions relating to the exploration of the possibilities of the recording of sound along with the aesthetic requisites of popularity, to which each cultural and aesthetic context applies its own anamorphoses, its polemical or nostalgic relation. It is constantly being asked of these words, of these intentions, by anyone who takes pop seriously: Has their power been extinguished? To what extent can it be conserved? In this questioning of the effective meaning of words, the point is not to compare the thing to some abstract ideal, but to confront pop with its own promises, its own aesthetic demands. Over the following four chapters, we shall question some of the keywords that animate the language of pop, sometimes giving it a forked tongue: roots, the subject and its authenticity, the hit, and progress.

1. T.W. Adorno, ‘Theses on the Language of the Philosopher’, tr. S. Gandesha and M. Palamarek, in D.A. Burke et al (eds.), Adorno and the Need in Thinking: New Critical Essays (Toronto, Buffalo, NY, and London: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 35–40: 39 (§9).


Each of them forms a figure—a configuration of meaning—that we shall try to

F igures

deterritorialized recording of music, always torn from its original point of depar-

unfold: What do ‘roots’ mean for a musical art that is primarily defined by the ture? What do ‘authenticity’ and sincerity of expression mean for an art that knows very well how deeply mediated it is? What is the meaning of the magic of the ‘hit’ in the context of its advanced rationalsation? What does ‘progress’ mean for a music so far removed from the modernism within which this concept initially emerged, and even antithetical to its core principles? We shall now see how far, by means of dialectic or thanks to some miracle, these words bear the intentions attributed to them: how far their meaning is configured, how far their power is preserved.

CHAPTER 1. THE HILLBILLY PARADOX: UPROOTED AUTHENTICITY Hearing traditional musicians when they first emerge from their own communities is a wonderful experience but impossible to repeat: the music is inevitably altered by the process of ‘discovery’. Joe Boyd, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (2006)

If it sounds like country then that’s what it is, man…It’s a country song. Kris Kristofferson introducing ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ (1970)

Since the beginning of the world, people have told their feelings in song. And they’re still doing it. Doing it mostly in lonely spots where there are no radios and phonographs, no movies and concerts, where people have to entertain themselves.1

So says Alan Lomax, one of the twentieth century’s most prominent folklorists, in a 1940 manifesto with the evocative title ‘Music in Your Own Back Yard’. Folk music, presented here as the true popular shared music, simple and unaffected, is the music where someone sings what’s in their heart, without pretence, accompanying themselves on the guitar, in a quiet moment at the bottom of their garden. Before even becoming part of community experience, before the music even becomes ‘folk’, it is simply a domestic possibility, within reach of everyone, from which no benefit is drawn other than the sheer pleasure of playing, without any hope of being paid for it, far from all industrial calculation, from representation, and even from any desire to make a work. It is the spontaneous realisation of a capacity of human expression that is not so distant from that of the birds one imagines responding with their own chirping song in this little 1. Alan Lomax, ‘Music in Your Own Back Yard’, in R.D. Cohen (ed.), Selected Writings 1934–1997 (New York: Routledge, 2003), 48–55: 48, quoted in H. Barker and Y. Taylor, Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music (New York: Norton, 2007), 63.


bucolic Eden. Wholly removed from social and economic mediations, popular music is audible human nature: humanity revealed through its song, resonating

T he H illbilly Paradox: U prooted Authenticity

with the strings of its guitar, the skin of its drum or the air from its flute. It is the music of individuals, certainly connected to a community, protected and constrained by it, but with enough free time and space to isolate themselves so as to express their world in song. In painting this Edenic portrait of a certain folk ideal, Alan Lomax connects popular authenticity to a preindustrial regime of music as spontaneous, solitary, and disinterested, giving the purest, the most universal, and apparently the most authentic representation of it. The situation described certainly seems very natural to us: we’ve heard recordings of voices that take us back there, we’ve seen pictures that confirm it, and have perhaps even experienced comparable moments that we’ve related to these original feelings extolled by Lomax. But how does this Edenic vision come to us? Here we find ourselves split by a strange dual consciousness. For a spectator must have entered the garden, someone to generate a representation of the moment. Into this lonely spot, with no radio, no record player, no films and no concerts, Lomax himself came and set up his recording equipment, convinced this musician—with what arguments?—to perform for him and to allow him to record it, so that this solitude, this spontaneity, this disinterestedness could be transmitted to us. To imagine that these technological, psychological, and social mediations can simply be disregarded would be naive in the extreme. In 1940 when Lomax wrote these lines, popular musics in recorded form were already being organised into genres and subgenres on dedicated labels catering to growing audiences. Not that people couldn’t still express their feelings in song in preserved and private places as before. But this possibility in no way relates to an immaculate origin that has remained intact ‘since the beginning of the world’. The spot in which the lone musician sings and plays, knowing nothing of phonographic mediations, remains inaccessible as such. As soon as we know of it, it no longer exists. This perhaps is the tragedy of the folklorist: it recalls the case of Charles Wallace Richmond, the nineteenth-century American ornithologist who catalogued an huge number of bird species which he captured and killed, building an exemplary collection of bird skins preserved by taxidermy. As clear minded as he was scrupulous in the compilation of his discoveries, Richmond knew

that, once identified and archived in the grand taxonomy of science, the bird


of paradise was doomed to disappear from the surface of the earth where it exterminated bird.2 Richmond’s nets and the field recording techniques of the folklorists had comparable effects: the act of capture irredeemably alters what is captured. Listening to a very old field recording, the amateur may well gain mental access to the primitive scene described by Lomax, but knows it comes to him only on condition that it has been betrayed in practice. Ultimately, his condition is worse than that of the ornithologist, who has at least seen the bird of paradise. For the amateur, even if he collects wax cylinders and the very rarest 78s, has never seen or heard the object of his fondest fantasy: that solitary musician expressing his feelings, dedicating himself to the sole joy of singing, totally unconscious of radios, phonographs, and concert halls. Luckily, however, technical mediations have a remarkable ability: they can make us forget. We think of the blues, of an old cowboy hat, of an original flamenco, of a folk song, of any music whatsoever that we receive under the label of authenticity, and it seems, despite everything, to conjure up the corresponding scenes (humble, honest, and rural) beyond the phonographic, commercial, and marketing mediations that have transmitted them to us. We omit the mediation and believe that we are contemplating the source. In fact, harvested from our memories of movies or the images adorning the record sleeve, these scenes, recreated with the appropriate sobriety and rusticity, evoke in our mind the disinterested solitude emphasised by Lomax, the solitude of those small communities3 we imagine enjoying music in private, indifferent to distant listeners 2. See W. Stone, ‘In Memoriam: Charles Wallace Richmond, 1868–1932’, The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology 1/L (1933), 9–11. Included in this article is the letter sent from Wallace to Stone from Utuado, dated 11 April 1900, during a trip to South America where he captured and killed hundreds of specimens, a process that ‘disgusted’ Richmond himself: . See also the Bird Collection at the Smithsonian, . 3. The notion of ‘community’ used here is derived from the concept as constructed by Ferdinand Tönnies in Community and Society [1887], tr. ed. C.P. Loomis (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002). In the community (Gemeinschaft), human bonds are created via the family, out of an ‘organic will’ which, according to Tönnies, stems from ‘vegetative life’, comprising pleasure, habit, and memory. In society (Gesellschaft), the bonds between individuals are founded on the contract and on exchange, according to a rational will, considered as abstract, and which gradually sacrifices the organic dimensions of life.

T he H illbilly Paradox: U prooted Authenticity

had sung long before it was discovered and heard. The catalogued bird was an


like ourselves, delivering their art at the source. We forget the thousand and one lines of transmission, starting with those of recording and the means of

T he H illbilly Paradox: U prooted Authenticity

distribution, that have delivered this pure source to us. We convince ourselves that, although today such mediations are numerous, things were different before. And in doing so we reiterate one of the essential fantasies of the experience of recorded popular music: that of access to the expressive and spontaneous source of the music of real people, of another time in which their expression, unaffected by industrialisation, was still immaculate.

I. TEMPORAL PARADOXES The history of modern popular music doesn’t begin in the 1950s with rock‘n’roll and television. It goes as far back as the first recordings of popular music—that is, to the very end of the nineteenth century, when the first records were not only cut, but also put into circulation. In the America of the late 1910s, a music of rural origin started to be recorded and broadcast both by folklorists without any commercial intent—such as Howard W. Odum4 and the eccentric Lawrence Gellert5—and by the early record companies that would flourish up until the 1929 crash put paid to many of them. In 1927, Jimmie Rodgers released ‘Blue Yodel’ on the Victor label, to considerable success:6 Thousands of farm boys discovered it on the radio and started to yodel like him. In the last years of his life, Jimmie Rodgers appeared on screen in a miner’s costume even though by that time he owned a limousine and a guitar worth two thousand dollars. A decade earlier, after ‘Dallas Blues’ by Hart Wand and ‘The Memphis Blues’ by WC Handy (both white), in 1920 the vaudeville singer Mamie Smith produced the first blues recording made by an African American, with her famous version of ‘Crazy 4. The first known collection—now lost—of forms of ‘proto-blues’ (in the words of Paul Olivier) was undertaken by Howard W. Odum, who published an anthology of folk songs collected in Mississippi, Lafayette County, and Newton County, Georgia between 1905 and 1908. Other recordings made in 1924 by Lawrence Gellert are still available. As for Robert W. Gordon, he became head of the Archive of American Folk Songs of the Library of Congress, before the more famous John Lomax succeeded him. 5. Lawrence Gellert collected recordings of songs from the black American population of the South in 1924, and built an important collection of folk songs in the 1930s, published by the far-left magazine Masses, and later New Masses, directed by his brother Hugo. In the section entitled ‘Negro Protest Songs’—published as a book in 1936—illustrated by his brother with scenes of lynching and other scenes of the exploitation of African Americans, he transcribed dozens of songs, mostly religious blues songs (‘devotionals’). The publication sought to denounce white denial of inhuman treatment meted out to black people. But Gellert was in his lifetime suspected of having manufactured or at least partly arranged the songs in a way to suit the politics of the newspaper. So as to protect his sources, he did not give the names of the artists or dates of collection: this lack of sources makes it difficult to cross-check so as to establish any reliable ethnographic basis. Moreover, his proven compulsive lying about his own life—he claimed to have witnessed a lynching and to have lived with a black woman—reinforces this suspicion. Nevertheless, Gellert’s role remains essential. See B.M. Conforth, African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics (Lanham, MD and Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2013). 6. 1927 is the year considered to mark the explosion of sound recording in America. Dozens of record companies were founded (most of which would not survive the crash).

T emporal Paradoxes




Blues’ by Perry Bradford. It sold 75,000 copies in its first month.7 Blues music

O riginal I ndustry

States, but it was at this time—when it was disseminated on the first dedicated

had been heard much earlier in the various counties of the southern United labels—that the genre was identified as such: a rural African American music characterised by certain rhythmic patterns.8 Recording contributes to the definition of the genre whose source, beyond its recorded existence, is largely hypothetical, but for this very reason invites a host of different projections. Into the shadowy period that preceded recordings and their commercial distribution we project the fantasy of a prior ‘original blues’, even though the cult figures of the Delta blues—Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and then Blind Lemon Jefferson—recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. Without the testimony of recording, we cannot say what the blues was before it met with radios and railways, but listening to Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ or Charley Patton’s ‘Jesus Is a Dying-Bed Maker’, the fan enamoured by the ‘primitive’ cannot help but conjure up this origin for themselves, an origin that goes back before Johnson and Patton themselves, an origin now inaccessible and lost forever. The same reconstructive imagination is operative in another genre essential to twentieth-century popular music: flamenco. More resistant than the blues to modernisation and electrification, flamenco was born at the intersection of Jewish, Arab-Andalusian, and Gypsy traditions towards the end of the eighteenth century and experienced its golden age in the nineteenth century within the triangle of Xérès, Seville, and Cadiz. Even before Federico García Lorca and Manuel de Falla exalted the poetic power of flamenco and contributed to the formation of its canon, drawn up by small committees of tertulias, numerous recordings were made and met with public success. In the late summer of 1898, technician William Fred Gaisberg was sent by the Berliner Gramophone Company 7. The first mention of the word ‘blues’ in a published song appears in 1912, in Antonio Maggio’s ‘I Got the Blues’ (which, however, musically speaking, is a ragtime). 8. The concept of the blues understood as a separate genre appears with the first great migration of African Americans from the countryside to urban areas in the 1920s, in parallel with the development of the music industry. ‘Blues’ became a commonplace term for a record for black listeners. The first written testimonies to the appearance of the blues in South Texas and the Deep South appeared at the dawn of the twentieth century. Charles Peabody mentioned the appearance of blues in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and Gate Thomas claims to have heard songs of this genre in Texas around 1901–1902. Jelly Roll Morton said that he discovered the blues in New Orleans in 1902, while Ma Rainey remembered hearing blues in the same year in Missouri, and WC Handy in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1903.

from London to Madrid with the objective of making the first recordings in Spain.


The masters were then transferred for stamping and reproduction to the factory were released a year later, in 1899, the first ever cuts to carry the label ‘flamenco’. In February 1899 Gaisberg returned to Spain accompanied by a young American technician, 22-year-old William Sinkler Darby, this time producing 128 recordings of flamenco artists such as Antonio Pozo (‘El Mochuelo’), José Guillot and Niño de la Hera, Rafael Moreno el de Jerez, and the singer Encarnación la Rubia, also known as la Rubia de Málaga.9 The discography of these different artists features most of the genres listed a decade earlier by the folklorist Antonio Machado y Alvarez (‘Demòfilo’): guajira, malagueñas, peteneras, pevillanas, solerares, soleares and tangos.10 Although El Mochuelo (the best represented in these recordings) has been seen as a commercial figure, criticised for having simplified some of the complex inflections of flamenco,11 the diversity of artists recorded makes it impossible to draw any sharp opposition between a commercially-recorded false flamenco and a true flamenco that would have preceded it. Twenty-five years later, García Lorca and his friends would rediscover, as aesthetes, the ‘truth’ of flamenco in the person of Manuel Torre, ‘Niño de Jerez’ (‘who has the body of a Pharaoh’) and in the tragic spirit of the Gypsy. This purification came in the wake of flamenco being already widely circulated, and popular in the new sense that technical reproducibility and mass distribution now lent to the word. By the time aesthetes were describing the ‘pure’ form and spoke of its roots, the music in question was already well and truly uprooted, removed from the rural communities whence it is imagined to have sprung: it was being heard in

9. According to Hita A. Maldonado, El Flamenco en la discografia antigua: la International Zonophone Company (Seville: University of Seville, 2002), 30. Fred William Gaisberg and William Sinkler Darby also recorded guitarists such as Luis Molina (who accompanied Chacón and la Niña de los Peines, who would find fame decades later), Angel Baeza, and Joaquín el Hijo del Ciego. 10. In 2003, the Centro Andaluz de Flamenco released some of the many wax cylinder recordings, all made prior to 1905, on a CD entitled Cilindros Cera: primeras grabaciones flamenco. Of the forty-four recordings included, twenty-seven are by Antonio Pozo, known as ‘El Mochuelo’ (see Á.Á. Caballero, ‘Flamenco en cilindros de cera’, El País, 23 August 2003). 11. According to Maldonado, El Mochuelo was accused of smoothing his major thirds and emphasising certain vocal effects in an almost didactic way, presumably to make the styles accessible to a wider audience, beyond the pure flamenco afición, something which he succeeded in doing, judging by the widespread diffusion of his records at the time.

O riginal I ndustry

in Hanover. Recordings of the voices of singers Niño de Cabra and Canario Chico


England and Germany, entertaining listeners far from any tertulias, as a folk music attributed to a local origin but already deterritorialized.

O ld -T ime M usic and ‘ H illbillies ’

OLD-TIME MUSIC AND ‘HILLBILLIES’ Despite the foundational importance of the industrial context, the aesthetics of popular music—especially in those genres most committed to roots and authenticity—invariably idealises its preindustrial origin. When García Lorca delivered a lecture on 19 February 1922 in Granada Arts Centre entitled ‘Importancia histórica y artística del canto primitivo andaluz llamado “cante jondo”’ it was the idea of the ‘primitive’ that established the deep artistic value of cantejondo [literally, ‘deep singing’]. The ‘primitive’ invoked is of course a constructed, poetic idea of the origins of flamenco12—indeed, some years later Paco de Lucía wished a plague on ‘those flamencologists who see in flamenco only a fantasy of the moon, the Gypsy, and the olive tree’, setting against this fantasy another reality13—but ‘primitive’ functions here as an authenticating term. This quest for a primitive form is also characteristic of the work of both Alan Lomax and his father John throughout their careers as folklorists collecting for the archives of the Library of Congress, and subsequently as the heads of record labels. In their 1930s surveys in the penitentiaries of Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, they explicitly sought out sites they hoped had remained cut off from the latest advances of industrial culture, enclaves where forms of expression unadulterated by all things commercial might have been preserved.14 But most of the performers they recorded already knew the radio hits, and often preferred them to the old rural songs. Huddie Ledbetter, a black prisoner in ‘Angola’, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, was a twelve-string guitar player who listened to the radio, who could play in folksy style—he also played the accordion—but liked to play Tin Pan Alley songs. But when the 12. Neither Federico García Lorca nor Manuel de Falla knew the work of folklorist Demófilo, which led García Lorca to some errors of classification in his eulogistic discourse on flamenco (see D.P. Novo, ‘Lorca y el Flamenco’, Monteagudo 3:12 [2007], 169–84, in particular 175). 13. Interview with Paco de Lucía by José Luis Rubio, published in the Spanish magazine Triunfo, 10 April 1971: ‘That’s not the reality of flamenco’, says the guitarist. ‘I am a reality of flamenco, and I feel I’m far more in touch with this reality than all these distinguished gentlemen with all their poetry’. 14. Prisons were still segregated, and punishments often ‘firm’: prisoners were likely to have preserved the memory of the work songs of the slavery era (associated with the rhythms of cotton or rice harvesting).

Lomaxes recorded him, the man they would make famous under the name of


Lead Belly was encouraged to play his blues repertoire on guitar or (better) a view, sat well with the African origins of the musician, which they also wanted to highlight.15 On the cover of his first album they invited him to pose not in the suit he wanted to wear so as to look elegant, but in his prison uniform. During the same period, while collecting in Haiti, Alan Lomax made sure to record in the slums and in the countryside, showing little interest in the music coming out of the salons of Port-au-Prince. Certainly, as Gage Averill writes, [a]uthentic for Alan Lomax didn’t require that music be somehow ‘pure’ as he was an advocate for many creolized musics of African Americans such as blues and jazz. Rather, authentic music meant music derived from popular and poor social strata and not from the elite.16

This selection according to social background and geographical location avoids the pitfalls of the quest for purity, for a material free from any mixing, but it does not escape the fantasy of the primitive, the idea of a raw, rough-hewn, undomesticated material that vaguely informs the representation of popular, and especially rural, authenticity. Alongside the open and cosmopolitan collections of the Lomaxes—who built a plethora of archives of blues and what was then known as ‘race music’—the white country labels that flourished from the 1920s onward were yet more explicitly embedded within a logic of authentication via origins and old-time truth. First of all, there was an issue of segregation in play here, in so far as a clear separation was made between white and black rural music.17 But it was also a matter of competing with the commercial and urban fare of Tin Pan Alley, considered as a rootless modern music, by promoting what these white record

15. Barker and Taylor, Faking It, 59. 16. G. Averill, ‘Ballad Hunting in the Black Republic: Alan Lomax in Haiti, 1936–1937’, Caribbean Studies 36:2 (2008), 16. 17. In 1926, the ‘black’ genres of jazz, blues, and Charleston peaked in popularity, and the first wave of hillbilly groups was a white reaction to their popularity; black musicians were expelled from catalogues dedicated to hillbilly. The recordings of ‘old-time songs’ by the African American John Hurt are an exception.

O ld -T ime M usic and ‘ H illbillies ’

cappella, supplemented with a few rhythmic elements which, in the Lomaxes’


labels conceived of as the true American music. And it was at this moment that

O ld -T ime M usic and ‘ H illbillies ’

‘Hillbilly’ and signed one of the leading bands of the genre, the Skillet Lickers, a

the ‘hillbilly’ style emerged. In 1925, Columbia founded a dedicated label called quartet from Georgia whose gifted guitarist Riley Puckett was blind. As a musical genre, hillbilly belongs to the spirit of ‘old-time music’, as it was then known: the music of the old days, played ‘like it used to be’, and rooted in the America of the nineteenth-century white pioneers. Before hillbilly, the paragon of this old-time music was Songs from Dixie Land, a collection of songs the most famous of which, ‘I Wish I Was in Dixie’, had been the anthem of Southerners during the Civil War.18 But in the early decades of the twentieth century, the cultural figure of the hillbilly became both more identifiable and more picturesque than that of the Confederate soldier. In the hillbilly, notes the historian Anthony Harkins, middle-class white Americans saw a fascinating and exotic ‘other’ akin to Native Americans or Blacks, while at the same time [they could] sympathise with them as poorer and less modern versions of themselves.19

In radicalising these two features—a rustic life and an old-time, preindustrial way of living—the hillbilly thus embodies a perfect blend of familiarity and distance for a certain white American identity. He embodies ‘another white’ (or the ‘white other’): a coarse otherness internal to a white identity itself caught up in the turbulence of industrialised city life. With his furrowed brow, his refusal

18. F.L. Stanton, Songs from Dixie Land (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1900). ‘I Wish I Was in Dixie’—from which the term ‘Dixie’ derives—was written in 1859 by a white American from the North, Daniel Decatur Emmett, who composed and played from the age of fifteen with a group of blackface minstrels. See C. McWhirter, ‘The Birth of Dixie’, Opinionator, 31 March 2012, . 19. A. Harkins, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). The hillbilly is usually defined as a poor white citizen inhabiting the South Hills (the Appalachian Mountains in Alabama), in retreat from modern American civilisation. According to Harkins, though, the stereotype is older than this. In a New York Journal from 1900 we find an initial written definition as follows: ‘A Hill-Billie is a free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him’.

to be told what to do—in short, his old-timer’s good sense—the hillbilly offers



all of modern white America a miraculous opportunity to step back in time.

In defining old-time music as the authentic American music, a certain American culture establishes that its true popular expression belongs to the past: it systematically connects what it conceives of as popular authenticity to a form of nostalgia for an Edenic time when men lived a more dignified life. Hence Robert Cantwell argues that one of the functions of the revivals of traditional Southern music is the reconstruction of a lost paradise (with the departure of southerners to the North or to California experienced as an expulsion from the garden of Eden).21 From the wave of Dixie Songs at the beginning of the century to the revival of the same old-time music in the 2000s,22 it is always a question of a renewal, through music, of a moral dignity lost through industrialisation. ‘When we were good’—those are the times from which popular music draws its authenticity, by looking back to a past as yet unaltered by modernity. This nostalgic relation at the heart of all revivals is no recent thing. Arguably it is as old as the beginnings of industrialisation itself. Adorno detected it at the very outset of the modern rationalisation of popular art into ‘mass art’, 20. The identity of the hillbilly, Harkins says, is defined more by ‘traits and values […] than geography’. For the American white middle class, he says, it served two seemingly contradictory ideological aims: ‘allowing the “mainstream”, or generally nonrural, middle-class white, American audience to imagine a romanticized past, while simultaneously enabling that same audience to recommit itself to modernity by caricaturing the negative aspects of premodern, uncivilized society’ (Harkins, Hillbilly, 7). 21. R. Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 48. 22. See C. Chastagner, ‘La Country, historie d’une renaissance’, Revue française d’études américaines 2:104 (2005), 5–18. Presented as ‘raw, acoustic, simple…with quiet and spare instrumentation’, the original soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) bought into a series of preindustrial figures of practical music: ‘home-made music’, the ‘frontporch feel’, and ‘humble beginnings’, each of these indications reinforcing the sensation of a domestic music produced on the margins of industry and replete with a ‘community feeling’ allegedly typical of the old times. One of the performers is bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley, a banjo player with a great cavernous voice, who at the age of seventy-three went on to enjoy unaccustomed acclaim. Bluegrass music, used extensively on the soundtrack to evoke a preindustrial golden age of American rural music, was in fact only popularised in 1945 by Bill Monroe, a mandolin virtuoso from Kentucky. The flagship style of old-time music, bluegrass was already promoted at the time as a revival of music connected to the white roots of America. (See R. Cantwell, The Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound [New York: Da Capo, 1984] and When We Were Good).

R omantic R evivals



with the first mass musical successes in the field of Deutsches Singspiel and

R omantic R evivals

culture begins to rationalise the supposed spontaneity of popular expression

Italian opera buffa in the eighteenth century. At the very same moment that even while overstepping the ‘natural’ boundaries of the community to which it was addressed, ‘popular art’, by destroying the beliefs and the vision of the world upon which it was based, fossilizes itself into a vestige of authenticity. The nineteenth-century Romantics’ fascination for such art in both literature and music, Adorno thinks, always involves a kind of compensation for what has been sacrificed to industrialised culture, a culture which ultimately celebrates the very modes of life it has condemned to death. ‘Popular art’ is not an art that exists alongside another, nonpopular art; it is the celebration of a vestige that is already out of time, the objective residue of a form of historical culpability that takes the autonomous form of ‘art’ precisely because it no longer has any function. At the moment when intellectuals and artists lose sight of the truths of the soil and of small communities, they hypostasize a ‘people’ and conjure up the phantom of humble classes that have remained more or less at the stage of infancy,23 protected from historical transformations. But folklore, as Adorno 23. The figure of childhood is essential in the Romantic incantation of the popular. Conceived of as an age of untamed spontaneity, ignorance of adult conventions, innocence, and playful creativity, childhood promises a primitive experience of music. This conception affects Romantic literature, but also influenced the scientistic folklorism of the nineteenth century, which made it into a ‘scientific’ hypothesis. The folklorist Antonio Machado y Álvarez (‘Demófilo’), instigator of a vast project for a federated research group to study what he had named ‘El Folk Lore Andaluz’, developed an evolutionist conception of folklore according to which the ‘people’ recapitalates in ontogeny (on the individual scale) the phylogenetic evolution (on the species scale) of humanity. No longer considered supra-individual as in Romantic thought, Demófilo sees the people as embodying a homogeneous community homogeneous in its degree of cultural development—in particular the degree of orality that he found preserved in a rural people who were illiterate and yet custodians of knowledge. At this degree of development he believed one could see certain practices or beliefs as the fossilised testimony of ancient institutions, thus determining the key notion of survival (supervivencia) in the practices of the popular strata. Simultaneously, Machado y Álvarez conducted research on childlike speech, which was translated in several specialised European journals, to the point of proposing work on what he called—making these theoretical hypotheses entirely explicit—the ‘folklore of the child’ (el folklore del niño). His works were very successful and were translated and read widely in several European countries (see A. Machado y Álvarez, ‘Titín y las primeras oraciones. Estudio sobre el lenguaje de los niños’, Boletín de la Institució n Free from Enseñanza 257 [1887], año XI). Although Adorno does not take a position in this evolutionist debate, we can perceive a trace of it in how he continues to treat popular music—whether denigrating or salvaging it—in terms of childish expression: in the revival, as a restored infancy in an age of maturity, it is considered regressive. The use of ‘baby talk’, the childish ‘babble’ he observes in the light popular music programmed on the

observes, only begins when this naive, original people has already vanished.


Once it is identifiable as an artistic form, the popular art that is celebrated is that was once functional because it remained ritual and communal. It may claim to still be alive, but it is already rendered necrotic by the gaze that seeks in it the spark of a living, organic manifestation of some prior, bygone age of culture. Popular art then seems to only ever exist as a revived origin. Revival is its very mode of being. As for the German Romantics Arnim and Brentano—the first folklorists of the bourgeois era—who collected from the people themselves or from old manuscripts the popular songs of his childhood, Adorno refused to be blinded by his own personal nostalgia. Ironically, he said, the Romantic dream of saving the treasures of popular poetry accumulated over the centuries once more to bequeath them to the people, their phantasmatic custodian, only ‘attest[s] to the disappearance of the living experience of popular music and a reification which, far from saving it, signals an irreversible end’.24 Any attempt at restoration is affected by the morbidity inherent in revival: it is only ever a cadaver of culture, discarded by the course of history, that aesthetes dream of reviving. Artificially resuscitated in a world that is no longer the world in which it could claim its primary truth and function, this ‘popular art’ brought back from the dead, in which one hopes to experience a miraculous resurrection of the preindustrial conditions of humanity, can only end up as a kitsch curiosity for music salons, mechanically fixed in the shrill tinkling of music boxes, or, in another age of technologiical reproducibility, featured on Christmas compilation albums sold by the crateload in supermarkets. At best, it is to be reserved for childhood, as with Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the volume of popular tales collected and adapted by Brentano and Arnim, whose fantastic characters might very well populate the dreams of the infantile psyche. But this is still a revival: the song of dead folk, frozen in an expression of life. And since the original life of this song is inaccessible, it is always a falsification, or at least a reconstruction. airwaves of Princeton Radio, is one proof among others of this regression (Adorno, Current of Music, 295–6). More critically, when he studies the physiognomy of the ‘jazz-subject’, childhood takes on the traits of an antagonistic infantilism: underneath all the rascality of jazz, its sworn enemy deciphers the latent content of an unsublimated fear of castration, and therefore a perversion (precisely that perversion defined by Freud as the stalling of sexuality at the infantile stage of development). 24. A. Boissière, La Pensée musicale de Theodor W. Adorno (Paris: Beauchesne, 2011), 70.

R omantic R evivals

already no longer popular; it has now become the autonomised form of an art


What lends popular music its vitality and veracity is nothing but a clandestine

T he H illbilly Paradox

at the origin of its reactionary aspect25 and, perhaps still deeper, its tenacious

revivalism. Such is its underlying morbidity, and this, for Adorno, is what lies relationship with the ghostly.

THE HILLBILLY PARADOX In late note discussing his 1940s Princeton work, Adorno makes the following ambiguous remark about hillbilly music: The American Radio Research has come upon a ghostly state of affairs: the synthetic cowboy and hillbilly music manufactured by the culture industry is especially popular in areas where cowboys and hillbillies are really still living.26

That city dwellers in search of the picturesque and of their rough-hewn and authentic white other should delude themselves is understandable. But that these songs find the greatest success with those whom they caricature, those who really live the rural lives that this folklore is supposed to issue from—this seems paradoxical. A paradox that Adorno judges to be ‘ghostly’ because, in listening to these songs, it seems that a non-reality enlists precisely those listeners who should be able to detect that it is mere appearance: a phantasmatic being that does not exist on the farmsteads is manifested in songs as a figure 25. The revivalist tendency of popular music lends it a reactionary inclination that can be observed at many key moments in its history, where we see it reject attempts at being progressive—before progress, a concept borrowed from modernism, became a dominant paradigm—in the same way an immune system rejects a foreign body. The modernist, even jazz-like impulses we hear in Clayton McMichen, the very young violinist of the Skillet Lickers mentioned above, were minimised by Frank Walker, head of Columbia Records, anxious to avoid any hybridisation. In the domain of ​​flamenco, in the early 1970s the guitarist Sabicas, and subsequently his brilliant pupil Paco de Lucía, reconfigured flamenco music by opening it up to the influence of jazz and American and Brazilian pop, but encountered similar resistance. This was particularly the case when Paco de Lucía introduced new instruments such as the transverse flute or the Peruvian cajón, and sought to form quintets or jazzinspired sextets over and above the traditional tocaor/cantaor (singer/guitarist) duo or solo tocaor. In American country music, Hank Williams, considered too progressive, was excommunicated from Nashville in the early 1950s, before he later came to embody the canon of the genre. In yet another genre we can see the argument illustrated in the peroration against the inauthenticity of afrobeat music by trumpeter E.T. Mensah, the great figure of Ghanaian highlife, in the booklet accompanying the box set anthology ET Mensah & The Tempos: King of Highlife (Stern’s Africa, 2015). 26. Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music, 17.

of authenticity. We know how, as historian Miles Orvell notes, ‘most things that


were labelled as belonging to the “real” American music were unfortunately not to agree with this, raises a different question: How did this fake produce the true? How is it that true hillbillies can take this music for their own? In fact, the very existence at this time of ‘real’ cowboys and hillbillies who could have been listening to this music while still enjoying ways of life coinciding with the preindustrial ideals elaborated in westerns, is highly dubious. In Nashville—which would become the great legendary home of country music—the first regulars at the Grand Ole Opry (a spectacle that was aired nationally from 1925) were almost all urban tradesmen, with only a small number of them hailing from a rural milieu. And the Hollywood-style manipulation was perfectly visible to any musician of this era. Country singer Ernest Tubb, a child of the plains of West Texas born in 1914, told Peter Guralnick how Hollywood forced him to sing old songs for a western: ‘[I]t was such a racket out there’ [Tubb recalled, in particular] because of what he saw as the filmmakers’ complete lack of concern for authenticity. ‘I was supposed to be a foreman on the ranch in this picture. It was all new to me. I didn’t know a thing about it. But they had me wearing clothes that just weren’t natural, they weren’t right. On the hat, I told them, ‘Ernest Tubb always wears a good Stetson hat.’ Then they tried to get me to sing some song Autry had recorded four or five years before—it was one of those old cowboy songs like Jules Verne Allen used to sing.28 I told them, ‘I used to sing ’em, but those kind of songs are dead. Why bring me out here in the first place, if it wasn’t to sing

27. Barker and Taylor, Faking It, 59. But this overvaluation of the ‘authentic’ character plays into a fundamental change in aesthetic paradigm from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. In the early nineteenth century, as demonstrated in Miles Orvell’s The Real Thing, the prevailing aesthetics remains one of imitation and illusion. With the twentieth century and mass industrialisation, the vernacular finds itself elevated into a new high culture. To call something ‘authentic’ is the easiest way to add value to a product of low culture. The repeated invocation of the real and the authentic are particularly noticeable in the commercials of the 1950s: as Orvell notes, ‘it was as if there were some defect in everyday reality that had to be remedied by the more authentic reality of the object to be consumed’. M. Orvell, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North California Press, 1989), 145. 28. Texan singer and humourist, one of the first singers to have recorded songs in the ‘western’ style.

T he H illbilly Paradox

truer or no more authentic than Coca-Cola’.27 But Adorno, who would be the first


“Walking the Floor Over You”? That’s the reason you brought me out here, and that’s what my fans are going to expect’.29

T he H illbilly Paradox

But the ‘singing cowboy’ was not meant to embody a changing America, and nobody expected Tubb to perform his hit of the moment. On the contrary, the singing cowboy was meant to appear as the absolute antithesis of the technological world, with his coarseness, his taciturn manner, and his hat shielding him from the scorching desert sun—all through the medium of a modern cinema screen, and later television set, that his whole character was designed to make the viewer forget. Not to mention that it matters little whether the ‘authentic’ music he performs is as far from its Appalachian sources as the figure of the cowboy, with his plaid shirt, hat, boots and scarf is from the cowherds of the nineteenth century.30

What was at stake here was the creation of the myth of a preindustrial America that was gradually disappearing but could be rediscovered in the America of the Appalachian Mountains—with geographical distance standing in for the distance of the past. Thus the myth of the hero rooted so deeply in America materialised in an industrialised culture and its deterritorialized music. But the fact that this myth denied the industry that it could not do without is a ghostly paradox that was to haunt the entire history of recorded popular music.

29. P. Guralnick, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians (London: Penguin, revised edition 1992), 31. Guralnick would later pen the most complete biography of The King, published in early 1990 (Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis [New York: Abacus, 1994]). 30. Pirenne, Une histoire musicale du rock, 29.

II. MEDIATION AND SOURCE Germanic Europe, the pioneers of American ethnomusicology replayed the Romantic quest for the popular, the revival they triggered was different in nature. The technique of recording and a new relationship with this technique transformed the aesthetic meaning of popular expression, including the nostalgia for a bygone past that it brings with it. Recording conferred a strange presence upon this past, a presence which then became the object of an autonomous aesthetic experience. For it was not at all long before John and Alan Lomax, although working in the service of an ethnomusicological institution, ceased to see their collections in terms of the mere collation of archives documenting rural practices: they began instead to present them as the recordings of a repertory of works accompanied by a title and, usually, the name of the performer. Identified, numbered, and above all fixed in a particular recording (making the song inseparable from one particular performance of it), each recording becomes a work, which in turn becomes a singular artistic object for aesthetic listening and not just scholarly research. The recordings of folk songs that lie at the origin of American musical culture—which will be turned to continually, referenced and reinterpreted throughout the century— thus functioned not just as a collection of documents upon which a serious art in search of revitalization could draw, conferring the status of art upon that which had no such status: they founded popular music itself as a particular art form, as recorded popular music.

EFFECT OF PRESENCE It’s always the same when listening to old records of folk and blues records that date back to the early decades of the twentieth century: the listener feels they have suddenly come into contact with some lost truth of popular music, hearing a song that seems entirely free of the constraints of phonographic recording, that seems to come from a space that clearly exceeds that of recording studios, and from a time when such recordings were rare. Listening to the song ‘Blue Bird’ performed by Zora Neale Hurston on the compilation produced by Alan

M ediation and S ource

When, at the beginning of twentieth century, far from the Balkans and



Lomax in Haiti in 1936–1937,31 broken up by static, glowing with a vivid sonic halo, the listener has a feeling that the voice is flowing, coming and going at a shifting

E ffect of P resence

distance from the microphone. Thinking again about the date the archive was recorded, perhaps counting the years that separate this date from now, they are captured by this strange effect of presence in a voice whose source is so far away in both space and time. ‘Blue Bird’ may well be only a lullaby meant for singing a child to sleep, but its actualisation in this recording transforms it into an aesthetic object of tremendous depth. The extramusical elements themselves (the crackle and other interference) reinforce this effect of presence by rendering audible accidents that alter the predictable and regular unfolding of the music.32 In this way, the event of a song is transformed into an object, and the object into a repetition of the event, of the performance of this song. Taken up by this new medium capable of capturing the moment, recorded folk songs reconnect with the fantasy of the immediacy of the voice—which Rousseau placed at the heart of his own enchantment with popular music—except that here the human voice that comes out of the horn of a phonograph no longer has a body. Specifically, the flesh and bones of the recorded singer, occupying a given place and time, are absented from the recording while their instrument, the voice, is made audible anywhere and at any time precisely on condition of this absence. Lead Belly on vinyl lacks the physical body of Huddy Ledbetter: or, we might say, Lead Belly is rendered present to the listener only via the absenting of this body. If the aura is related to the hic et nunc, as Walter Benjamin argued, if it is thus a unique presence, here and now, then it should be impossible for sound recordings to offer an auratic experience. But the facts contradict the theory. On the contrary, everything suggests that we must place the aura at the very heart of our experience of recorded popular music. But we must now try to understand by means of what miracle, or rather, what subtle dialectic between source and (technological) mediation, the aura that was supposed to be dead and departed here lives once more. 31. Alan Lomax in Haiti, 1936–1937, ten CD box set, compiled and annotated by Gage Averill (Harte Recordings, 2009 [HR 103]). Since it was archived, the material included in this compilation had remained buried in the collection of the Library of Congress in Washington until archivist Martin Barton rediscovered it while preparing the Deep River of Song series drawn from recordings made by Alan Lomax in the United States and the Bahamas. 32. Generations of Beatles fans have imagined being in the studio with their beloved band listening to Ringo Starr crying out at the end of the recording of ‘Helter Skelter’: ‘I got blisters on my fingers!’



Whenever Walter Benjamin gives a definition of the aura, he never confines himRather, he always refers to a tension, a paradox. Namely, the ‘presence of the non-present’, or elsewhere ‘a distance, however close it may be’.33 In the experience of recorded music, the medium offers an effect of proximity, domesticity even, while the music and the resonating voice suggest a distance (the distant Appalachian Mountains, the distant preindustrial time). In defining the aura in this way, Benjamin contrasts it to another concept, that of the ‘trace’: ‘The trace’, he writes, ‘is the appearance of a nearness, however far removed the thing that left it behind may be’, to be understood in opposition to the aura. ‘In the trace’, he continues, ‘we gain possession of the thing; in the aura, it takes possession of us.’34 Whereas we take the trace as object and seize it, the aura overwhelms and seizes us. Benjamin clearly distinguishes these two dimensions from one another. And yet, listening to the recording of a work of popular music, we can consider the trace and the aura as the two sides of a single experience. The etched grooves exist as a trace—in this case, that of a mechanical causality— while the work as heard brings out something distant. Taking advantage of the way in which this experience unfolds on two different planes, recorded popular music brings the aura into a new age: that of its technological reproducibility.35 Seized via the mediation of recording and its presence-effect, field recordings transform the principle of the revival into a hauntological power: in them, a trace from out of the past, both visible and invisible, actually haunts the present.36 33. Or: ‘The appearance of a distance, however close the thing that calls it forth’ (W. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, tr. H., Eiland and K. McLaughlin [Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999], 447). 34. Ibid. 35. In contradiction with Benjamin’s definition of the aura which, on the contrary, depends on the uniqueness and hic et nunc of the work. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’, 36. The term ‘Hauntology’ is a neologism coined by Jacques Derrida, playing on a phrase Karl Marx uses in relation to communism, in Specters of Marx, tr. P. Kamuf (London: Routledge Classics, 1994). In the 2000s, the term was taken up to designate a musical current that places spectral logic at the heart of its aesthetic by exploring the relationship of the recording to the ghostly. The fascination with this relationship is related to the beginnings of phonography: the first prototypes of phonographs were in part developed for potential paranormal applications, as an instrument of contact with the beyond. The inventor of the phonograph, Thomas Edison, had planned to make a true ‘necrophone’ able to capture and amplify the voices of the dead (see P. Baudouin, ‘“Machines nécrophoniques”:

R eproducible Aura

self to invoking a certain effect of presence, the presence of the divine or sacred.


Its material reality seems to be conserved for us.37 In the Lomaxes’ recordings of folk songs, it hardly matters if the past is near and the performers are

R eproducible Aura

alive—the grooves of vinyl 78s are suddenly revealed as so many niches ready to accommodate this ghostly presence that the phonograph renders both near and far, further away the closer we get to it. On wax cylinders, and then in vinyl grooves or on tape, this presence of the nonpresent acquires a new density. ‘That’s a ghost! It’s purely a ghost’, as an old farmer cried out upon hearing a recording of a musician made by Alan Lomax. But Lomax adds that the musician then became angry with the old man and called him old-fashioned.38 The experience, as the musician immediately understands, is very different from a vigil to summon the dead. For, with all due respect to all the necromancers who would like to see reanimated beings rise up from the grooves, the phonographic presence is only metaphorically ‘spectral’. The presence of the voice that seems reawakened when listening to a recording of popular music is not that of a distant soul communicating through time, but the effect of a medium that furnishes the aesthetic conditions for a representation whose source is at once absented and drawn close through its sonic representation. Such is the powerful effect that places popular music in an unprecedented artistic regime Thomas Edison et la voix des morts’, Syntone, 19 September 2014, ). Taking up this ontological perspective, albeit in aestheticised manner, the musical current of hauntology explores the ghostly expressiveness of recordings and plays with its paradoxes. Simon Reynolds speaks of the ‘hauntological’ production of the song ‘Caermaen’ by Belbury Poly (The Willows, Ghost Box, 2005) which contains a sample of a wax cylinder recording made by a folk song collector in 1908 and unearthed on a compilation of English traditional music. On this track we hear the voice of Joseph Taylor performing ‘Bold William Taylor’. Jim Jupp of Belbury Poly sampled the whole song, modified the speed and pitch, then reassembled it into a ‘different melody with unintelligible lyrics’. As if a dead man were singing in a language coming directly from the afterlife, but recorded and distorted according to the time and technical operations performed on the recording. Reynolds, Retromania, 311. On the relationship between the sonic, sound recording, and the otherworldly and post-mortem, see the collection Audint—Unsound:Undead, ed. S. Goodman, T. Heys, E. Ikoniadou (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2019), including texts on ‘Revival’ and ‘Glossolalia’ by this author. 37. According to historian Friedrich Kittler, with the gramophone we enter an ‘era of the Real’ whereas musical transcription corresponds to a ‘Symbolic era’ of music reproduction: the gramophone stores ‘real sound occurrences’ in the materiality of the imprints inscribed in its grooves, unlike writing which, as transcription, does not allow such a direct causality but requires the symbolic mediations of language. F.A. Kittler, Gramophone Film Typewriter, tr. G. Winthrop-Young and M. Wutz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999). 38. As reported by R. Middleton, Voicing the Popular: On the Subjects of Popular Music (New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2006) 50.

entirely of its own: the aura is the effect of the medium, not the source itself.


So we can say that, with recording, popular music enters a new age: not that that of technological reproducibility as vehicle of the aura, of a new kind of aura that blossoms in mechanised modernity.39

A FOGGY MIST? But if it is ultimately the medium that conveys the aura, then the aura itself becomes a technically manipulable figure of aesthetic experience. The culture industry, says Adorno, ‘conserves the decaying aura as a foggy mist’.40 It knows how to fabricate the halos, the static of field recordings, the echoes and the glowing effects (in the romantic scenes of Hollywood cinema) that create the feeling of aura. In search of that aura, the critic continues, it cultivates an aesthetic of ‘streamlining’, a combination of ‘photographic hardiness and precision on one hand’ (which produce an effect of the real and of truthfulness) and ‘individualistic residues, sentimentality and an already rationally disposed and adapted romanticism on the other’41 (which impart to objects the patina of vestiges of another time, simultaneously dreamlike and sacred). In this way, Adorno considers, instead of an actual aura—but where would one ever come across such a thing?—the culture industry deceives, it abuses the listener through the manipulation of special effects. We experience such a feeling of having been deceived when, having taken a deliberately altered recording for an real archival one, and having been moved by the representation of distance, ‘this distance, however close it may be’, we then realise it’s a recent recording aged by applying simple software effects, just as one might use any old photography app to superimpose a sepia filter on an otherwise charmless photo. Deceived by halos of sound and the crackling of vinyl42 superimposed by a software plug-in, 39. Something that Walter Benjamin himself grasps, for example in the early photographs of Blossfeldt and Atget, or in the ‘infinite sadness’ of a photograph of Franz Kafka as a child. W. Benjamin, ‘Little History of Photography’, tr. R. Livingstone, in M.W. Jennings, H. Eiland, and G. Smith (eds.), Selected Writings Volume 2, 1927–1934, 507–30: 515. 40. Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, 15. 41. Ibid. 42. Without wishing to deceive the listener, many artists, when sales of vinyl declined, celebrated it by adding sound samples characteristics of vinyl records: at the beginning of the song ‘Starless Summer Sky’ (1996), nostalgic for power pop, Marshall Crenshaw added vinyl crackles on the CD version.

A F oggy M ist ?

of the disappearance of the aura in the age of technological reproducibility, but


the type of counterfeiting that has become ever easier to carry out in the digital age, listeners do indeed now have to contend with a decaying aura whose

A F oggy M ist ?

authenticity-effect works only as well as one can dissimulate the source and the constructive effects of the medium. But it is always the source—the body that sings, plays, expresses itself—that the listener believes they are judging in their search for authenticity, even though the effects of the medium can have just as much effect upon them. This slippage from source to medium is the ambiguity upon which the whole ‘auratic’ repertoire of the first folk songs plays, including those recorded ‘in the field’ by folklorists, within the limits of their technical recording tools—limits that were immediately aestheticised. It is also evident in the most widely used effect in recorded popular music: reverb, whose technical history has had essential aesthetic consequences. For all effects of reverberation induce auratic halos. The singing voice resonates in a space of larger dimensions, from a grand hall, a Romanesque church or even a cathedral, to the most implausible simulations. It seems that via a distancing of proximity (since reverberation distances us) we obtain the feeling of intimate remoteness as conceived by Benjamin. But is the technical history of reverb the history of a vast deception, or simply a story of the unprecedented possibilities of a technology with auratic effects? Adorno’s suspicion can indeed be illuminating in regard to particular cases, but it neglects the specificity of the object, of these recordings where the aura is technology. Because in his critical argument, everything comes down to identifying technology with deception, which is by no means self-evident. In the case of recorded popular music, since the listener no longer exclaims ‘That’s a ghost!’, it makes very little sense to identify the manipulation of sound with deception: it is from the outset an aesthetic construction, and intended to be heard as such. Those who, like the old farmer, refuse to understand this, deserve only ridicule.

1990s trip hop also wanted hear the imperfections of vinyl on samples of old songs, as in Portishead’s ‘Sour Times’ (1994). XTC’s album Black Sea (1980) opened with the fake sound of a 78, before moving into a modern production.

III. UPROOTINGS without aesthetic consequences. Recording, as we have seen, must absent the singing body in order to render it present. To suggest the music of communities and local forms of life so effectively, it must tear them from their autarchy, their roots—in short, it must deterritorialize them. This condition is perhaps not a tragic one for every possible genre of popular music, but it deeply affects the aesthetics of those who wish to care for these roots and to invest their authenticity in them, those who want be faithful, through music, to a certain idea of the ​​ popular for which a bond to some autarchic land, some autarchic community, is among the most essential symbols. This is a difficulty faced by blues, country, flamenco, reggae, and any other genre that could be said to be ‘rooted’. Each of these genres lays claim to roots that its phonographic history continually severs. But this is no sterile contradiction; it is productive. Indeed, the entire history of certain genres of popular music depended upon on this very predicament. From the most patriotic country music to the most deracinated blues and folk, pop aesthetics continually negotiates its symbolic relationship to roots, and the possibility of pop’s authenticity is founded upon this very negotiation.

ROOTS AESTHETICS ‘Roots music’ […] performers [, both] black and white, sing music ‘from the heart’, music that is deeply engraved in their background and experience. All make reference to this in one way or another; all recall a boyhood in the country, on the farm, a shared experience that links them inextricably not to the undifferentiated mass audience that television courts, but to a particular, sharply delineated group of men and women who grew up in circumstances probably very much like their own, who respond to the music not just as entertainment but as a vital part of their lives.43

So-called ‘roots’ music continually protests the effects of deterritorialization. It sings intransigently of its place of origin, the local and communal forms of 43. Guralnick, Lost Highway, 6.

U prootings

The recording of popular music and its consequent deterritorialization is not



life from which it was born, but which are now behind it, lost forever. Usually

roots aesthetics

But since these musics are recorded and broadcast—that is to say, they are

it conveys this situation in an elegiac tone, nostalgic for these lost homelands. ‘popular’ in the industrial sense that confirms their popularity—technological reproducibility creates a schism between their ‘shared experience’ and their ‘undifferentiated mass audience’. Simply put, the technological reproduction of music sabotages roots music’s attempts to be truly what it says it is: a rooted music. ‘Elvis, of course, represents the most extreme example of a man cut off from his roots’,44 Peter Guralnick reminds us, citing the point of view of country fans at the beginning of the early 1970s: [I]t’s not just the money […]; perhaps the very process of going out solely to entertain people is, as Margaret Ann Rich says, ‘unnatural. It’s abnormal to have to get out and show yourself, to relate to people you’ve never met.’ And it is a far cry from the community which by and large was able to entertain itself. Oh, there may have been ‘stars’, but the stars were local heroes who had developed a widely admired skill to a greater degree than any other member of the community. Demographics didn’t enter into it, because you were playing for friends, neighbors, and fellow workers.45

Torn from the intimacy of the original community, successful popular music is, by definition, a betrayal. Following the example of Loretta Lynn,46 most of the great ‘popular’ stars of country in the twentieth century roamed the highways of America in gleaming tour buses decorated with their own image and name while singing ‘climbing high mountains, trying to get home’, as the proverbial gospel song has it. But on the roads of the endless pursuit of success, the return home is forever postponed. The career of the Texan Ernest Tubb, mentioned above, who grew up in the 1910s–1920s on a farm near Kemp, neatly demonstrates this parable of the impossible return. Destined to be a farmer, at 44. Ibid. 45. Ibid., 6–8. 46. As played by Sissy Spacek in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980, dir. Michael Apted), Lynn perfectly illustrates this contradiction: a miner’s daughter singing about the real country life of her childhood, she became a star draped in jewellery and fancy dresses, her music very popular and distributed on an industrial scale in every country—and yet, tormented by the loss of her roots, she ceaselessly celebrated them in her songs.

an early age he showed a predisposition for singing. Mostly he was a talented


mimic of Jimmie Rodgers, who he’d heard on the radio—after Rodgers’ death, Set on becoming a professional musician, Tubb financed his first tours by selling beer for the Texas Brewing Company and flour for Gold Chain. In the 1940s he became the ‘Texas Troubadour’, touring across the country, playing covers and his own songs, sponsored by agribusiness firms. His touring car, decorated with his name surrounded by slogans, was fitted with a loudspeaker that served as a sound system for advertisements as well as for his concerts. When Guralnick wrote about him in 1971, the musician had never been off the road in all the intervening years. Questioned about his style, he said he liked his country ‘simple enough so that the boy out there on the farm can learn it and practice it and try to play it’. But as Guralnick notes, ‘[w]hat he forgets is that that boy doesn’t live out there any more, it has been so many years since Tubb has visited that he doesn’t know the farm was long ago sold for real estate’.47 Deterritorialized from the outset—Jimmie Rodgers’s yodelling, which the young Ernest had heard on the radio out in the wilds of Texas, was itself borrowed from immigrant German and Austro-Bavarian folk music—Tubb’s country music cannot do without roots and an original community—but they are there as symbols, not realities. So where is the real country, where are the real roots, who could boast of living fully in compliance with the aesthetic of this ‘roots’ music? The question haunts all artists who claim to belong to the genre.48 And the answer has always been uncertain. ‘Some folks call it rock‘n’roll, others call it blues / but I detect a true country soul when I seen his cowboy shoes’, sings Waylon Jennings, a leading light of the ‘outlaw country’ music of the late 1960s who, along with Willie Nelson, advocated a return to the raw sound of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell in opposition to the sweetened-up ‘Nashville sound’ of the period. But in order to prove itself truly authentic, this sound must be inseparable from a form of life, the ‘redneck’ lifestyle, individualist and virile, as represented by the boots in which the real country singer stands tall. The site of authenticity is more than just a territory, it is a marginal form of life that has no need of the 47. Guralnick, Lost Highway, 6 48. It also haunts rock and hip-hop, forms whose authenticity comes via the requirement for street cred.

roots aesthetics

his widow would take Tubb under her wing, and help him throughout his career.


institutions of Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. Outside the institution, the

Far from H ome

California hippies.49 When, during the same period, Gram Parsons, dressed in a

redneck form of life excludes others as well: for example, it declares war on the costume decorated with marijuana leaves, tries to reconcile California psychedelia with Tennessee country so as to forge a ‘great American cosmic music’, Merle Haggard sings out against the San Francisco hippies that he is ‘proud to be a Okie from Muskogee’: ‘We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee / We don’t take our trips on LSD / We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street / We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.’50 Kris Kristofferson proves himself much bigger than this when, at the beginning of his version of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, recorded in 1970 at the Isle of Wight Festival, he opens by saying: ‘If it sounds like country then that’s what it is, man…It’s a country song’. There is a new spirit of openness in the air. For a whole generation, what will hold sway is a confidence in the authenticity of the music as such and in the very deracination that is a condition of its circulation.

FAR FROM HOME From the very beginning, American music was not an American music. It was stitched together out of the numerous folk musics of European but also South American, Caribbean, and Hawaiian origin that were in circulation in America from the beginning of the eighteenth century.51 These multiple extra-American influences were the result of just as many experiences of deracination. 49. Sporting long hair and earrings, in 1971 David Allan Coe devoted an entire record to defending himself against being taken for a hippie: ‘my long hair just can’t cover up my red neck’, he sings on the album, itself entitled Longhaired Redneck. 50. Merle Haggard, ‘Okie from Muskogee’, 1969. The song ranked 41st on the Billboard charts that year and number one in the country charts. A native of Oklahoma, a juvenile offender and convict before he dedicated himself entirely to music, Merle Haggard is a great figure of country authenticity. When he sings ‘I’m a lonesome fugitive’, no one can question his credibility. In all modern roots aesthetics, where the expression of individuality against the system is valorised, alongside a certain virility capable of violence, the experience of prison functions as a kind of rite of passage—as also seen in gangsta hip-hop culture (see J. Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation [New York: Picador, 2006]). 51. See M. Denning, Noise Uprising: The World Audiopolitics of a Musical Revolution, (London: Verso, 2015). The circulation of non-Anglophone recordings between 1925 and the early 1930s, broadcasting local styles on a global scale (Hawaiian Guitar, Rio samba, New Orleans jazz, the taarab of Cairo, the kroncong of Jakarta, hula from Honolulu, the marabi music of Johannesburg), is at the origin of a true musical and human revolution.

The various traditions that make them up had been uprooted from their home-


lands; they were the memories of exiled populations. The ‘repertoire’ of white and dance tunes) was a legacy transported to the New World by Scottish and Irish colonisers who settled in the Appalachian and Ozark mountains to work as sharecroppers.52 Their music was initially about homesickness, the pathos of being uprooted, of living ‘Nine Hundred Miles From Home,’ as Fiddlin’ John Carson sings. On American soil, this song already is a protean mixture of different traditions, as discussed in detail by Claude Chastagner: The idioms of Indian tribes, those of black slaves imported to supplement the rebellious Celtic workforce, and then the yodels, waltzes, and polkas of Slavic and Germanic immigrants who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, had come to exploit the coal deposits, to which we must add a few measures of Italian, Mexican, and French (Cajun) music, the arias of the music hall, and gospel written by east-coast professionals.53

This circulation of stories, melodies, and rhythmic patterns also involves a circulation of instruments bringing with them new, characteristic sounds. To the instruments belonging to the white Appalachian community, such as the dulcimer (an oval sounding body mounted with four strings that is played flat on the lap) and the autoharp (a small harp equipped with mechanisms which mute some strings in order to automatically play chords) there were added the Italian mandolin, the guitar, probably brought back from the Cuban War (1898) by black soldiers, and the banjo, an American adaptation of African instruments.54

52. With a certain loyalty, as Claude Chastagner notes: ‘At the end of the nineteenth century, the American musicologist Francis Child, from Harvard University, collected more than three hundred traditional ballads in the British Isles. His English counterpart Cecil Sharp found traces of a hundred of them on the American continent, perpetuated by the farmers of the Appalachian and Ozarks.’ C. Chastagner, ‘La Country, histoire d’une renaissance’, 6. 53. Ibid. 54. Ibid.

Far from H ome

rural music (narrative ballads, lyrical songs, rhymes, hymns, canticles, psalms,


The blues was born of a more tragic uprooting: the massive forced immigration of African populations via the triangular trade of the sixteenth to eighteenth

Far from H ome

centuries.55 But the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the signing in December 1865 of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, opened up a second phase of uprooting, this time within the American territory itself. Between 1861 and 1885, hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the Southern states and engaged in the Civil War on the side of the Union. Several decades later, with the expansion of the rail network, these migrations took on an even larger scale, which had repercussions in the evolution of black popular musics. In the late 1930s, many musicians based in Memphis relocated to Chicago: it was via the flow of this first ‘great migration’ that rural blues became urban.56 Already in the 1930s, juke joints, entertainment and concert spots that dated back to the time of slavery, were welcoing itinerant musicians who started making a reputation for themselves. Psychologically, socially, and economically, this new dissemination of communities of African American former slaves produced a phenomenon of acculturation57 along with a simultaneous development of secular music and themes, which became more prominent than they had been in the traditions maintained during the era of slavery. The atomisation engendered by this acculturation in turn opened the way for a new individualism. As Lawrence Levine writes, it established a direct relationship ‘between the national ideology focusing on the individual, the popularity of the teachings of Booker T. Washington58 and the emergence of the blues’.59 This nascent blues sings of the solitary hero: the figure of the valiant and strong John Henry and his legendary race against the steam hammer, as sung by Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. But one might also think of the darker and more ambiguous Stagger Lee, inspired by Lee Shelton, a pimp who killed 55. A movement which, during the era of slavery, did not equate to a pure and simple acculturation, given the persistence of a very lively African oral tradition, as demonstrated by Lawrence Levine in Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977). 56. It was at this point that the term ‘race record’, once used by the music industry to describe African American music, was replaced by ‘rhythm and blues’. Billboard magazine endorsed this change, which altered the vocabulary of the music industry and to some extent deracialised it. 57. See Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 223. 58. Washington’s speeches and later his book (published in 1901) Up from Slavery (New York: Lerner, 2019) reached a wide audience. 59. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 223.

his friend,60 thereby furnishing the subject of the 1897 song ‘Stack-a-Lee’, which


in the 1910s spread through oral tradition on the banks of the Mississippi before O’Lee Blues’ in 1928.61 Folklore had been linked to the community, but now, in its modernised version, quite different from what it had been before railroads and radio, it was linked to the fate of isolated individuals and their lament. The music took on the elegiac tone attributed to the first, solitary ‘bluesmen’, as in the Edenic vision announced by Alan Lomax in 1940. The stylised figure of the Gypsy as conceived by García Lorca also places great emphasis on solitude. The Gypsy, noble exiled emissary of the duende of flamenco music,62 certainly belongs to a community, but this belonging takes the form of a marginal, nomadic exile. It is this exile, nourished by his pena—the pain of an eternal wanderer63—that produces the gravest forms of flamenco, those exalted by García Lorca: the siguiriya, the soleá, the saeta, and the petenera. As well as in the Gypsy condition, García Lorca also finds this sense of marginality in the condition of the blacks of Harlem facing the whites of Wall Street in Poeta 60. On the myth of Stagger Lee, see Greil Marcus’s 1975 text ‘Sly Stone: the myth of Staggerlee’, in Mystery Train: Images of American Rock‘n’Roll Music (London: Faber, 2005), which combines an account of his destiny with that of Sly ‘Stone’ Stewart. 61. Alan Lomax and Howard Odum report transcripts from 1910 onward. The first recorded version is that of Waring’s Pennsylvanians in 1923, which became a hit. This was followed by countless covers in white rock, e.g., Bruce Springsteen and Nick Cave. 62. In García Lorca, the duende is the figure of Antoñito ‘El Camborio’, in one of his most popular ‘romances’. This illustrious Gypsy of the Vega de Granada fell off his horse one night and accidentally killed himself with his knife. In making him the ideal of the true Gypsy, García Lorca stylised him into a paragon of ‘sencillez trágica [tragic simplicity]’, bearing within himself ‘un drama latente, la sensación de una amenaza invisible y omnipresente ocupan[do] todo el espacio poético [a latent drama, the sensation of an invisible and omnipresent threat that occupies the whole of the poetic space]’ (Poema del cante jondo [Madrid: Ulises, 1931]). García Lorca was of course not the only one to make the figure of the Gypsy central to the aesthetic of Andalusian flamenco. The singer Antonio Mairena, maintaining a certain conservatism within flamenco, believed that only Gypsies were endowed with the ‘razón incorporeal [incorporeal reason]’ that disposed them to cante jondo [‘deep singing’]. Paco de Lucía himself endorsed this conviction, in the figure of his designated cantaor from 1968 onward, Camarón de la Isla. 63. In his book on the origins of flamenco (Orígenes de lo flamenco y sec del cante jondo: 1929– 1933 [Seville: Consejería de Cultura de la Junta de Andalucía, 1980]), nationalist Andalusian writer Blas Infante claimed that the word ‘flamenco’ was derived from the Arabic words ‘Felah-menkoub’, meaning ‘wandering peasant’. His thesis was however rejected by other scholars of flamenco, since the word ‘flamenco’ did not appear until the nineteenth century, by which time the Arab influence on the Spanish language had ceased.

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being published as a record by Mississippi John Hurt under the title ‘Stack


en Nueva York (1927–1930), the American counterpart of Romancero Gitano (1924–1927).64 The figure of the deracinated loner is deterritorialized—and

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modern folk will stake its claims upon this deterritorialization.

UPROOTED FOLK In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the folk movement, already seen as a revival of the pre-war movement embodied by Woodie Guthrie, and which would bring Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Buffy Sainte-Marie to public attention, drew a new universalism from an aesthetic of deracination. Far from the country aesthetic of the local and roots tradition, this brand of folk, which emphasised the simplicity of the guitar-and-voice formula,65 inscribed itself in the musical lineage of migrants, of the blues, of hobos and other downat-heel figures that circulated America both symbolically and geographically, always passing through the weave of the social fabric. This is the vagrant wandering the edges of the railroad tracks—and symbolically, those of industrial society—whose tragic death Jimmie Rodgers sang of in his yodelling ‘Hobo Bill’s Last Ride’ (1929); it is the vulnerable yet free man John Prine sings of in ‘Hobo Song’ (1978), whose ‘heart was free to wander’. Between an acceptance of deterritorialization and a concern for authenticity, this folk understands that it must speak of the present, and that its truth consists in an affirmation of its deracination. Conceived as a counterculture, it renounces all fetishism of the past, all worship of traditions, in favour of a progressive universalism for which the road is more important than the birthplace, encounters more crucial than ancestors. It draws its own authenticity from the eternal story of the uprooted. Folklore played a considerable role for the generation that availed itself of this spirit; all of its leading lights attended parties organised by Alan Lomax in his New York loft on Third Street: Lomax used to have parties twice a month where he’d bring in folksingers to play. […] You might see Roscoe Holcomb or Clarence Ashley or Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Pete Williams or even Don Stover and The Lilly 64. See Novo, ‘Lorca y el flamenco’, 171. 65. At the time, the Nashville sound developed by Chet Atkins had on the contrary given rise to a heavily arranged music made to compete with the pop sounds then in fashion (and referred to at the time precisely as ‘pop country’), including violins, female vocals, and pedal steel guitar (with a ‘Hawaiian’ sound).

Brothers—sometimes, even real live section gang convicts that Lomax would get


out of state penitentiaries on passes and bring to New York to do field hollers in dignitaries, anthropologists, but there’d always be some regular folk there, too.66

Bob Dylan adds: ‘I can’t say I’d seen any performances that were like spiritual experiences until I went to Lomax’s loft.’67 Even more significant was the publication in 1952 of the Anthology of American Folk Music on Folkways Records, the label owned by Moses Asch. Compiled by experimental film director and independent collector Harry Smith,68 the compilation completely abandoned the classificatory and ethnographic scrupulousness observed in Lomax’s more intellectual and careful approach to roots. Smith deliberately neglects to indicate the skin colour of the musicians featured or the genre in which their music was usually catalogued. In the notes to the anthology, he tells of how jazz critics failed miserably at the ‘blind test’, unable to tell that John Hurt, who plays the country song ‘Frankie’, was black. Traditional classifications into ‘Cowboy Song’ or ‘Field Work Song’ disappear and, since Smith worked only for his pleasure as a collector and aesthete, some songs composed by identified professional musicians also appear in the selection—the antithesis of the folklorists’ aesthetic of ‘non-commercial field recording’. The anthology was released as a series of LPs, a format previously reserved for serious music, and claimed to represent folk music as a whole. As Smith would later confide, though, his selection was based on purely aesthetic criteria: ‘A lot of these were selected because they were odd’. In an interview with Playboy in 1966, Bob Dylan recounts the important role played by the anthology in his own discovery of folk, as a young Jew in New York dreaming of being from Mississippi: All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels. [...] I mean, you’d think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery—just plain simple mystery—is a fact, a traditional fact. 66. B. Dylan, Chronicles (New York and London: Simon & Schuster, 2 vols., 2004), vol. 1, 70. 67. Ibid., 72. 68. Far from being aesthetically conservative, Smith is equally well known for having produced the first album of cult proto-punk outfit The Fugs.

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his loft. The invitees to these gatherings would most likely be local doctors, city


In the urban rereading of folk music in the progressive 1960s—also the point at which the fashion for reprising old songs is weakening in the folk scene in favour

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of the creation of a new repertoire—folk music becomes universalised, invested with an authenticity that is not so much to do with roots as with an ‘oddness’ of expression that is discordant with radio pop productions. And it is this ‘mystery [as] traditional fact’ that Dylan will put into his own songs when he begins to write, having got ‘all the knowledge immediately and first-hand—memorising words and melodies and changes’.69 Dylan likes to recall the saying of Friedrich Nietzsche about feeling old at the beginning of his life.70 At the dawn of the 1960s, the young man sings ‘the times they are a’changing’ in a voice from beyond the grave, combining prophetic visions with an awareness that, from the point of view of traditionalist America, he’s nothing but a upstart greenhorn—and a vaguely communist one…as in the self-mocking song ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ where a farmer threatens him with a gun, and the university-educated young man finds himself trying somehow to argue himself out of an untimely death.71 If Dylan is an exceptional figure in the popular culture of the twentieth century, it is because he is one of those who skilfully articulates folk music with a sort of perspectivist wisdom, so that it is ultimately the listener who becomes the artisan of the truth and authenticity of the song: Folk songs are evasive—the truth about life, and life is more or less a lie […]. A folk song has over a thousand faces and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff. A folk song might vary in meaning and it might not appear the same from one moment to the next. It depends on who’s playing and who’s listening.72

The relativity of these many possible perspectives undoes in advance any fetishising of an authenticity embedded within the music itself. Only the experience of music can be genuine or not. For Dylan, the lesson of folk is a lesson in life, 69. Dylan, Chronicles, vol 1., 71. 70. Ibid., vol. 1., 73. 71. ‘“Are You That travellin’ salesman / That I have heard about?” / I Said, “No! No! No! / I’m a doctor and it’s true / I’m a clean-cut kid / And I been to college, too’ (Another Side of Bob Dylan [Columbia, 1964])—which, in the eyes of the farmer, makes Dylan no more respectable than the vagrant he originally took him to be. 72. Dylan, Chronicles, vol. 1, 71.

and life does not decide between truth and lies, but only produces equivocal


meanings. ‘How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a of the song.73 Blown by the wind, the truths held within folk songs, according to Dylan, lend themselves to migration and therefore to infinite reinterpretation, far from the territories upon which they were created. In 1965, early in his career, he was covered by the Californian bands The Byrds (‘Mr. Tambourine Man’) and The Turtles (‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’) and by the English group Brian Auger and the Trinity, with Julie Driscoll (‘This Wheel’s on Fire’). In the same year French singer Hugues Aufray adapted an impressive number of his songs: ‘Au cœur de mon pays’ (‘Heartland’), ‘Ballade de Hollis Brown’ (‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’), ‘Ce que je veux surtout’ (‘All I Really Want to Do’), ‘Comme des pierres qui roulent’ (‘Like a Rolling Stone’), ‘Dans le souffle du vent’ (‘Blowin ‘in the wind’), ‘La Fille du Nord’ (‘Girl from the North Country’), ‘N’y pense plus, tout est bien’ (‘Don’t think Twice, It’s all Right’) and later, ‘Knock knock ouvre-toi porte d’or’ (‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’). In ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’, a lament over the vicious cycle of poverty leading to crime leading to poverty, Dylan concludes with this image of cosmic justice: ‘There’s seven people dead / On a South Dakota farm / Somewhere in the distance / There’s seven new people born’. Where the young musician born in Minnesota told this story in song, a French musician who grew up in Tarn replays the terror in the language of Molière: ‘Huit personnes sont mortes / dans un taudis du Dakota / au même moment / huit enfants sont nés loin de là [Eight people died / in a Dakota slum / at the same time / eight children were born far away].’ Similarly, from the very early 1970s on, the folk music of Laurel Canyon, California, a legendarily bucolic district of Los Angeles at once rural and bohemian,74 inspired a whole generation of young people living thousands of miles away. What united these young people from around the world was the aspiration to reinvest their form of life with a form of spirituality that would bring them close to nature, and to articulate their individualism through a community that was chosen rather than inherited. The songs of Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young, and David Crosby—who on the album If Only I Could Remember My 73. Bob Dylan ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (Columbia, 1962). 74. On the history of Californian music, especially in Los Angeles, see B. Hoskyns, Waiting for the Sun: A History of Music in Los Angeles (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).

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man? / The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind’, run the well-known lyrics


Name cover the medieval French ballad ‘Orleans’ (in French)—and of the Canadian Joni Mitchell would go on to permeate the whole history of popular music.

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Listening to a compilation of songs recorded by American folk and rock groups in the 1970s and 1980s,75 or, to take one example, the beautiful ‘Sky-Man and the Moon’ by the little-known David Campbell, one can appreciate the aesthetic flexibility of this uprooted folk, its wandering universalism ripe for appropriation and enrichment even by those who, one imagines, might simultaneously dream of challenging white American domination. The operation works both ways: the young white Californians of Harpers Bizarre covering the peyote song ‘Witchi-Tai-To’ as baroque folk, the Aboriginal Morley Loon singing ‘N’doheeno’, combining his native tongue with the spirit of Californian folk. ‘When someone talks to me about country music’, declares Terry Allen, the ‘liberal’ figure of 1970s outlaw country, I always ask ‘Which country?’ Because people listen to music all over the world, and people make music everywhere. Sometimes, a song written in Brazil or France can get to someone in Texas and later produce something fabulous. Music comes from places much more mysterious than wherever your ass happens to be sat when you’re writing it.76

Allen’s most famous album, first released in 1979, is entitled Lubbock (On Everything), named after his hometown in Texas which he left in 1961 to move to California, where, through his wife Jo Harvey Allen, he discovered the avantgarde art scene and swore blind that, if he owned Texas and Hell, he’d rent out Texas and live in hell. But for the production of Lubbock, circumstances led him back home to record with a group of local music stars, the Flatlanders. By some miracle, my animosity turned. Living somewhere else allowed me to look at my hometown and think about it in a different way. It wasn’t a love or

75. Native North America, Vol. I and II, released in 2000 on the Seattle-based label Light in the Attic. 76. Interview with Olivier Lamm on the occasion of the reissue of the album Lubbock (On Everything), ‘Terry Allen, retour à la country natale’, Libération Next, 2 January, 2017, .

hate thing any more. I began to see what was really specific about this place—or



rather, the opposite, what was universal about it.

been an influence on Allen—he says ‘my imagination flourished in this place that goes on as far as the eye can see’ and that ‘music conceived in this kind of space carries the space with it. It reproduces something of that geography’—he nonetheless realises that his cradle of influences contained nothing pure: In my youth, I remember no one talked about country, we said ‘western swing’. And the most important influence in Lubbock was Mexican music, whose spread into Texas isn’t really appreciated. When I was a child, immigrants would come to pick cotton in the fall and they slept in huge camps, a bit like gypsies. I have clear memories of times spent with my father, listening to them singing songs around the fire, smelling the delicious scent of food. That’s a very important memory.78

Even when folk relocates, it reveals that its original home was already a site of passage or migration. Lubbock, subtitled ‘On Everything’ could just as well have been called ‘From Everywhere’. ‘Please don’t bury me,’ sang John Prine in 1973, ‘Throw my brain in a hurricane / And the blind can have my eyes / And the deaf can take both of my ears…’. More than any other genre, folk has taken up arms for a utopia of authenticity without roots, blowing in the wind, with no origin or destination other than its freedom to wander.79

HERE AND THERE And yet this uprooted folk is always caught up in the specific. Or at least, those who seek to take it for their own, touched by its universality, themselves become caught up in what still binds them to a land and a language. Those born elsewhere and who speak in a different idiom are quite aware that this 77. Ibid. 78. Ibid. 79. In France, in the same spirit of anti-chauvinism, in 1972 Georges Brassens published ‘La ballade des gens qui sont nés quelque part [The Ballad of Those Born Somewhere Else]’, levelled against those ‘imbéciles heureux qui sont nés quelque part [happy fools who were born somewhere]’: ‘Maudits soient ces enfants de leur mère patrie / Empalés une fois pour toutes sur leur clocher [Cursed be these children of their mother country / Impaled once and for all on their bell towers]’.

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If the geography of his native Texas, with its flat landscapes ‘like the sea’, has


folk inherited from a certain 1960s spirit remains inseparable from the symbolic

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songs of anger and freedom seem to take to the wind more effectively in the

prestige of America, land of migrations and solitary travellers. These travellers’ sounds of the American language, where ‘freedom’ can be made to rhyme with ‘lonesome’ and ‘story’ with ‘Milwaukee’. Such is the eternal despair of non-Anglophone ‘folkies’ corralled into the pinched confines of the European continent. When French folk is brought back home,80 for instance, the change in territorial scale brings with it painful aesthetic consequences. Folk music cannot easily substitute the little map of France for the vast map of America. Where are our Appalachian hillbillies? Where is our Texas? Our Mississippi? Certainly not in Toulouse. For the French, this is a source of some embarrassment, as heard in ‘Mary-Jeanne’ (1967), Joe Dassin’s cover of the Bobbie Gentry hit ‘Ode to Billie Joe’, released in the same year.81 In the French version, skilfully adapted by French lyricist Pierre Delanoë, the Tallahatchie Bridge on the Mississippi becomes the ‘pont de la Garonne’ which, in rhyme if not in geographical fact, is located at ‘Bourg-les-Essonnes’ an invented town rather more reminiscent of the Paris region. Yet American folk music comes, if not exclusively from French, certainly from European folklore. And the whole French folk movement is well aware that this shared origin gives it a right to the errant universalism of folk. We also have our countryside, our lost daughters and our deserters, our laments of impoverished silk workers and weavers dressed in rags, and our sordid stories—that of a King exercising his droit de seigneur with a marquise who is then murdered by the queen, in ‘Le roi a fait battre tambour [The Royal Drumbeat]’, or that of King Renaud who ‘returned from war with his guts in his hands’; ballads of the homeless and the hymns of soldiers of the First World War on a ‘red hill’ soaked in blood; anonymous, often backdated and rewritten, coloured by political allegiances—whether those of the Resistance or those absorbed by boy scouts for their patriotic edification—these songs offer a specific repertoire for those seeking the spirit of folk in France, but cannot pretend to conserve it verbatim. 80. Regarding the French fascination with America, see our article ‘Français, seconde langue’, Audimat 4 (2015). 81. Dassin, besides being a successful singer, was deeply aware of the issues of specificity: a few years earlier, he had submitted his thesis in ethnology on the Hopi Indians at the University of Michigan.

All of these songs, often with missing words or verses, first recorded on wax


cylinders at the end of the nineteenth century, harbour a certain soul of European hundred years ago, as part of their baggage. Since American folk descended from Europe, since it can be traced all the way back to ancient French ballads, to take up this repertoire is, in a certain sense, to continue the work of American folklorists that lies at the origin of the modern folk movement. By virtue of this spatiotemporal dialectic, in the 1970s a French folk revival reterritorialized in France a tradition whose American inheritors it had initially been fascinated by.82 A similar reappropriation took place in the British folk revival of the late 1960s, led by the groups Steeleye Span, Pentangle (formed by the two guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch) and Richard Thompson’s Fairport Convention (including singer Sandy Denny, who went on to form Fotheringhay, with a more Celtic inspiration), followed by the young Marc Bolan, who before transforming himself into an ‘Electric Warrior’ and becoming a glam rock icon, appeared under the name Tyrannosaurus Rex playing in a mediaeval folk style, complete with songs about unicorns. The British revival was initially the doing of an intellectual fringe of somewhat snobbish musicians drawing on the work of folklorist and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. This was the epoch of the exhumation of ‘Scarborough Fair’,83 ‘Reynardine’, ‘Greensleeves’, and ‘She Moved Through the 82. The organisation of the first folk festival in Lambesc in August 1970, largely inspired by the American folk revival of the 1960s, expressed this new mindset, both rooted in the counterculture and eager to share the riches of modal music. Likewise the foundation of the folk club Le Bourdon, which scheduled concerts on the university campus, and the success of groups such as Melusine (founded by Jean-François Dutertre, Jean-Loup Baly, Dominique Regef, and Emmanuelle Parrenin, soon joined by Yvon Guilcher Mayoud and Jacques Mayoud, who released a dozen albums between 1975 and 1990), La Bamboche, Maluzerne, and Malicorne. Most combine educational work, the organising of folk dances, and vocal and sound experimentation, reprising the repertoire and the traditional instruments of the regions of France: the lute, the bombarde, the hurdy-gurdy, the bouzouki, the bodhran, and the épinette des Vosges. Particularly representative of this period is Yvon Guilcher and Jean-François Dutertre’s album La Préhistoire du folk (1973), a collection of chansons à repondre (a type of call-and-response song), mostly performed a cappella, along with Dutertre’s L’Epinette des Vosges (1973) and the album Maison rose (1977) by hurdy-gurdy player Emmanuelle Parrenin. 83. The best-known version of which is Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 rendition. This was a very popular song in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, inspired by mediaeval Scottish ballads where a man asks a woman to achieve impossible tasks such as making a shirt without seams or harvesting with a leather sickle. We assume that the famous lines ‘parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme’ and ‘once she was a true love of mine’ are of more recent origin.

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folklore that Irish, Polish, Ukrainian and French migrants took over there, two


Fair’—tunes that everyone covered, from Anne Briggs to Maddy Prior, from

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adaptation of the traditional song ‘John Barleycorn’.

Sandy Denny to Leonard Cohen—and of guitar virtuoso Stevie Winwood’s However, while for Dylan the hobo’s bohemian way of life remained a real possibility for uprooted but educated young people living in 1960s America, it was rather trickier for the English youth to return to the form of life associated with mediaeval folksong. Even though the members of Pentangle resisted the electrification of their instruments until 1970, even though Jacqui McShee invoked ages past by sitting on stage in a long tunic with long flowing hair, they could only distantly gesture at a time past and at a bygone experience of music, condemned to perform on a purely aesthetic level a form of life that they were no longer able to embody in their actual lives.84 And here lies the whole ambivalence of Old World folk authenticity, which tends to drive its aesthetic advocates into an abstract position, sooner or later leading to a call for modernisation. On his first solo album in 1970, Richard Thompson swept away all the taboos of folkist rigour embodied by the theorist from whom he had learned so much, Vaughan Williams. In ‘Roll Over Vaughan Williams’ (replaying the gesture that Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ addressed to classical music) he mimics the texture and the modulations of a bagpipe—with an electric guitar. The existential engagement in these revivals may have been both sincere and radical (as the discography of John Renbourn, obsessed with mediaeval themes, attests), but it soon ran up against its political limits: inspired by the rather libertarian spirit of American folk, the musicians of the folk revival in old Europe all ended up finding that their advocacy of the preservation of ancient folklore tended to drift in an identitarian direction. And this difficulty resurfaces with every revival of folk on the Old Continent. Uprooted American folk is connected closely with modernity, it resonates with modernity—even when it denounces it—whereas the much older European folk refers to historical conditions and preindustrial lifestyles that go back long before Modernity. Any attempt to exhume them not just as aesthetic forms but as forms of life tends to involve taking on ideological positions that can become onerous. Like the Romantic revival discussed above, which was inseparable from nationalistic claims, the 84. Hence the revivalist aesthete is always a fetishist, condemned to venerate the accoutrements of a bygone era, not its actual material conditions.

modern revival of folklore and the struggle for its preservation involve a critical


anthropology of the present, in which a return to the soil and to certain traditions source chimes with the righteous sentiment of every good consumer in search of authenticity, but its radicalisation leads to a programme that can sometimes involve a regionalism eager for emancipation but all too welcoming to openly reactionary positions. In France, for example, the Vichy regime encouraged the collection of folklore to support its traditionalist ideology.85 This risk places the roots-conscious European folk musician in a difficult predicament. If they go no further than relating purely aesthetically to these roots,86 this weak, abstract relation will quickly undermine the authenticity of their approach. Disconnected from all vital belonging to the folklore that they take up, any urbanite who sings with an accent or inflections that are not their own loses a good part of the authenticity they were seeking in this type of song, and in doing so risks appearing ridiculous. But if on the other hand they commit themselves to the form of life that a true ‘folk revival’ would imply, then the idea of preservation renders taboo all of the innovations and appropriations that in fact are constitutive of deracinated folk. Caught between a militant preservationism that constantly threatens to become reactionary (even if its struggle is directed toward an emancipation from the homogenising forces of modernity) and an aesthetic relation that is overintellectualised and therefore lacking in vital energy, the authentic folkie from over here is in a delicate position.87 85. For a history of French folklore under the Occupation, see T. Bouzard, ‘Comment le courant folk des années 1970 a bénéficié des decisions prises à Vichy en 1940’, . 86. As for example in the albums of Jericho, a group made up of a subset of the constellation of musicians from Novía, who, in the second decade of the 2000s, drew on the ‘secular and devotional repertoire of Occitania’. For Yann Gourdon, hurdy-gurdy player and instigator of the project, Occitania is valued ‘for its landscapes and soundscapes rather than in terms of identity’. Interview with Olivier Lamm, ‘Aux siestes électroniques, Jéricho réveille le folklore français’, Liberation, 21 July, 2015, . 87. The 1973 album Folk et Renouveau by the French group Asgard, combining traditional music with the drones and electric power of progressive rock, overtly thematizes all these difficulties. But bringing things up to date is always possible. Jean-François Dutertre, for example, has designed a modern form of the traditional instrument the épinette des Vosges. By broadening the keyboard and expanding the sound box, he has been able to develop new polyphonic playing techniques inspired by the guitar and the Appalachian dulcimer, but adapted to the French repertoire.

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is seen as preferable to modern living conditions. This idea of a return to the


They can only exist in an uneasy disequilibrium, conscious, at the very moment when the uprooting of music opens up new perspectives, that the position of

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the uprooted aesthete is inadequate. ‘Folk songs are evasive’, said Bob Dylan. ‘It depends on who’s playing and who’s listening.’ To which we might add: it also depends on where the player is from. Even in the age of the phonographic deterritorialization of popular music, even in the age of an American folk music uprooted and far from home, folk still needs a roof over its head—it still needs to recognise a homeland.

IV. GLOBALISED LOCAL COLOUR which, for better or worse, is tied to a certain idea (albeit a critical one) of authenticity. But we find perhaps the most extreme tension in what, from the 1960s, became known as ‘world music’. The term ‘world music’ was initially used in relation to the traditional music, whether classical, serious, or popular, of peoples, communities, or ethnic groups, generally but not exclusively those of non-Western countries. This ‘world’ category of recorded popular music brought together music seen as rooted in and bound to specific territories, territories conceived as islands of cultures as yet untouched by the global culture issuing from Western domination. But from the 1980s on, ‘world’ designated not only the specific music of preserved local traditions, but music that emerged from the mixing of mainstream global pop music with these musics prized for their specificity.88 From one signification to the other, the meaning of ‘world’ altered, now seeming to invoke contradictory principles: resistance to globalisation on one hand, a globalised aesthetic on the other, specificity on one hand, mainstream universality on the other. Quite a paradox: it is under the totalising label ‘world’ that both ethnomusicology and the music industry have placed that music supposed to resist the effects of a dominant globalisation—as if it were enough to invoke the ‘rest of the world’ in order to give due recognition to everything is not the West.

THE ETHNOGRAPHIC PRESERVATION OF SPECIFICITY During the twentieth century, ethnographic collections continued to enrich the recorded repertoire of extra-Western music. And they were not alone in this: in the early decades of the twentieth century large record companies such as Columbia and His Master’s Voice, as well as certain curious businessmen, initiated numerous documentary recordings of non-Western music—only a minority of which have been rediscovered since. But the ‘scientific’ collections 88. See T.E. Miller and A.C. Shahriari, World Music: A Global Journey (New York and London: Taylor and Francis, 2008), 2–12. The term was first used by German musicologist Georg Capellen in Ein neuer exotischer Musikstil (Strasbourg: C. Grüninger, 1906), in the sense closer to the pop version than to the ethnomusicological sense of the term, since he called for a renewal of Western music through the borrowing or mixing of oriental elements.

G lobalised Local C olour

The unresolved dialectic between roots and uprooting affects all popular music,



were organised with the help of state programmes, more systematically after the Second World War. It was only in 1962 that Smithsonian Folkways Record-

T he E thnographic P reservation of S pecificity

ings published on LP the series Primitive Music of the World commissioned by composer Henry Cowell, as an ‘ethnic’ analogue to the LPs documenting American folk music. The term ‘primitive’ prepended to ‘world music’ is suggestive of an epoch, still very recent, when non-Western was taken as a synonym for less advanced cultural development. But in this context ‘primitive’ also serves to reinforce a certain aesthetic fantasy we have already seen at work in other genres of popular music. Without any names of individual artists, but instead specifying origins and styles, and sometimes functions, the selection opens up vast unknown spaces: The ‘Murut’ music of Northern Borneo, Malagasy music (‘Drumming for a Ceremony/Singing for dancing’), the music of Pygmies from the Ituri forest (‘Elephant Hunting Song’), ceremonial songs for drinking with voices from northern Japan, the song of a little Eskimo girl at play, etc. A similar interest in France sparked the foundation of the label Ocora, which dates back to the late 1950s, at the initiative of the founder of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) Pierre Schaeffer. At the beginning of the 1960s, Ocora marketed its first LP of ethnographic collections, under the artistic direction of Charles Duvelle. In the wake of the decolonisation of Africa, the French collections are especially rich, bringing together recordings of oral traditions from sub-Saharan Africa, musical traditions from the Pygmies of the rainforest, Burundi, Congo, Gabon, and Guinea, but also from Asia and the Indian subcontinent. At first made available to a small circle of researchers, these recordings quickly found a wider audience. Under evocative titles like Maîtres de l’Asie centrale [Masters of Central Asia] (featuring renowned artists such as Monajat Yultchieva and Turgun Alimatov) and ​​Grands Créateurs du sous-continent indien [Great Creators of the Indian Subcontinent] (with Ravi Shankar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Subramaniam, and others), the compilations vacillate between ethnographic documentation and the works of identified artists intended for music lovers. More precisely, some correspond to the logic of the work, highlighting artists distinguished by their originality or virtuosity, while others are presented as pure documents, their performers anonymous, their musical sequences described as an expression of fixed traditional forms, the direct heritage of a community. The ethical relation to these objects remains one of preservation. The scholarly

presentation of the compilations—with a commentary explaining the context,


the origin of the instruments, and the recent evolution of the musical forms being operation, of the preserved authenticity of this music extracted from its native land.89 Within the framework of this logic of preservation, the listener is invited to resist listening for pleasure. They are to understand before loving, analyse before being amazed: this music will resist the expectations of their Western ears. A good Ocora record is rough sounding, with no production effects, no flattering reverb, no equalization of frequencies: a record that must first of all clash with the listening habits of the listener. Such difficulty is a condition for the true experience of otherness. This scrupulous concern for ensuring difficulty goes back a long way. In his Dictionary of Music, Rousseau includes a series of plates featuring transcriptions of non-European music, including a ‘Chinese air, drawn from P. du Halde’, a ‘Persian air, taken from the Chevalier Chardin’, and a ‘Song of the Savages in Canada, drawn from P. Mersonne’. Rousseau notes that ‘[w]e shall find in all these pieces a conformity of modulation with our music, which must make one admire the excellence and universality of our rules, and may render the understanding or fidelity of those who have transmitted to us those airs, somewhat suspicious to others’.90 The recognition of familiarity in what seems farthest always inspires a certain delight, but having travelled so far to find them, the ethnographer doesn’t want his subjects to be too similar to himself. A foreignness that plays its role of foreignness too well is reduced to the shallowness of the exotic: it is no longer anything but an alterity made to measure, standardised, afforded, and too easily assimilable into the framework of the already known. As Rousseau suspects, too great a ‘conformity of modulation’ in music supposedly brought from distant lands may perhaps mask an assimilation. Between ignorance and orientalist cliché, assimilation produces an inability to distinguish the new material from that with which the Western listener is constantly confronted. Listening to the Spanish-Phrygian scales, actually inspired by Indian scales but supposed to conjure up the Arab world, in The Cure’s first 89. On this staging see É. Menu, ‘Ethnofiction ou audio-vérité: une histoire partiale d’Ocora’ Audimat 4 (2015), 91–128. 90. J.-J. Rousseau, A Complete Dictionary of Music [1779], tr. W. Waring (New York: AMS Press, 1975), 264–5.

T he E thnographic P reservation of S pecificity

presented—serves as a pledge, via a staging of the seriousness of the whole


single ‘Killing an Arab’ (1978), we take one specificity for another, under the generic category of ‘exotic scale’.91 Ethnomusicological rigour can act as a kind

Strange W orld

of antidote to this dissolution of otherness into exoticism, but also as a strategy for the conditioning of listening: it keeps the listener in check.

STRANGE WORLD Against this ethnographic rigour which refuses approval for fear of yielding to an impoverishing assimilation, an alternative approach instead focuses on the conformity—to use Rousseau’s term—of ‘music from elsewhere’, not so as to deny its specificity but as a recognition of the fundamental strangeness of universal humanity. In 1995 there appeared the first volumes of the series The Secret Museum of Mankind: Ethnic Music Classics (1925–1948), compiled by American collector and esotericist Pat Conte.92 A collector of old American jazz 78s made before the Second World War, Conte noticed in his research that many records had more ornate labels, marked with an overseas site of recording: ‘Recorded in Morocco’, ‘in Laos’, ‘in Nigeria’, ‘in Greece’…. From the islands of Fiji to the mountains of Tibet, almost all countries of the globe seemed represented. In its the golden age, the American phonographic industry had evidently imagined a potential market for ‘exotic’ music that immigrants to the great melting pot, nostalgic for their former homelands, would enjoy. Fairly weak sales and the demand for raw materials for the war effort put paid to the initiative of making 78s of this music from elsewhere. But the fact remains that, for several decades, large record companies regularly sent engineers in white coats, equipped with mobile equipment, to record musicians all over the world: between 1925 and 1948, the heartrending Ahmed Abdul Kader and his funeral choir on ‘Oudet El Bahara Ila Watanhom’,93 the plaintive voice of Bau In 91. The guitar arrangement of ‘Killing an Arab’ uses a harmonic E minor scale, a variation on the European, Spanish-Phrygian, Hungarian, Romanian, and Javanese scales, in order to evoke…the Algeria of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, rather than Southern or Eastern Europe. Robert Smith said he had been influenced in its composition by music his hippie older brother had brought back from India. See the article ‘Cure & Camus: Exotic Scales and Existentialism’ on the blog Aeoliancadence: Rock & Pop Reviews for Geeks, . 92. Released on the Yazoo label (distributed by Shanachie). The first unofficial volume in the series, The Secret Museum of Mankind: Music of Madagascar, was published in 1992, and features recordings made on the Malagasy territory in the 1930s. 93. Vol. 4, track 17.

Da Li Ga’s lute on ‘Liau Kwo Da Tsaou Yuen’ and the rippling kora of the Greek



A. Kostis on ‘Kaike Ena Sholio’ —so many individuals of whom there remains this compilation of great hauntological power, on which the strangely familiar alternates with strangeness itself. Pat Conte was familiar with Harry Smith’s famous anthology of American music and Henry Cowell’s Primitive Music of the World series. But unlike Cowell’s selection, which does not list artist names but only the name of the style performed and the provenance of the recording, Conte, like Smith, mentions at least the names of the performers. For Conte, as for Smith—although the notes to each volume provide some ethnographic details—the collection is above all an aesthetic pursuit, which relates more to the works constituted by these recordings than to the traditions as such; to their strangeness (‘because they were odd,’ as Harry Smith said), with emotion prevailing over scholarly study. ‘I really wanted to do the ethnic equivalent of the [Smith] Anthology’,95 Conte admits. If Smith’s compilations exhumed the jewels of the ‘old weird America’, in the words of Greil Marcus, Conte’s compilation was its even older and even weirder grandma, as Peter Aaron remarks. An essential element for the aesthetic appreciation of these recordings, the fantasy of ‘the final frozen fragments of a world long since gone’96 plays out here in full. By presenting itself as a ‘secret museum of mankind’ (the expression comes from the title of a book of ethnography popular in the 1920s), this collection of ethnic music, however, adds another dimension to the aesthetic category of world music. Certainly, the words ‘museum’ and ‘secret’ replay an aesthetic of preservation: in this case, the preservation of a foreign mode of expression, unspoiled because conserved intact through time. But as a museum of mankind, it simultaneously reveals its universalist foundation, the idea that the same human emotions circulate throughout the ages and across the earth, expressed in sensibilities that are varied and yet all akin, following motifs and instrumental practices that may well be linked by deep genealogies. These songs are strange, says Peter Aaron, but they are ‘not that strange’. There is a resemblance between 94. Vol. 2, tracks 22 and 13 respectively. 95. P. Aaron, ‘The Old Weird World: Pat Conte and The Secret Museum of Mankind’, yourfleshmag. com, January 1, 2006. 96. Ibid.

Strange W orld

no trace except for these recordings, fallen into obscurity and resurrected by


them and the culture of the listener—in this case, American folk culture—that

T he Local C olour I ndustry

the fact, but the sign of an underground universality that creates a dialogue

is not the result of an artificial homogenisation smoothing out differences after between all humans through their art. Here, strangeness is the proof that nothing that is human is really foreign to us. But why must this universal treasure remain ‘secret’? Because it is the forgetting itself that lends these beautiful songs their authentic lustre. It is not so important for listeners that tradition is respected in the way that the musicians play, but it is assumed that these musicians express themselves authentically on the basis of their tradition, because the way in which the recordings are produced suggests that they were captured on the spot without any calculation entering into it. The listener can easily surrender themselves to this expressive, moving humanity spoken in a strange tongue. But the world tour to which the compilation invites the listener foreshadowed a pluralism that was to become more problematic when magnified to the scale of a mass promotion of these musics from elsewhere.

THE LOCAL COLOUR INDUSTRY Combining songs, dances, and local instruments—beyond the recorded repertoire of past recordings—the traditional musics of the world (in both Western and non-Western countries) as they are disseminated and promoted in the general field of recorded popular music have continued to promote a highly pastoral aesthetic of preservation. But in the context of their success with a globalised audience, the terms of this preservation prove to be increasingly ambiguous. The beauty and strangeness of the throat singing practiced in High Asia among the Mongols, Tuvans and Altaians97 is so extraordinary that it lends itself to universal appreciation, and easily seduces Western listeners, among others. On YouTube the song ‘Uguden Taiga’ (released in 2014 on the album Khamag Mongol by the label Javkhlan Samand) is sung by Saidash Begzy Oglu Mongush, a professional singer born in Shagonar in the Republic of Tuva in Eastern Siberia. On screen we see the singer dressed in traditional costume, engaging in activities that place him close to nature: on a horse—an essential animal in 97. A singing technique where the vocal cords are contracted to yield different pitches, creating multiple fundamentals and therefore multiple harmonics. It is found in among the Sardinians in Italy, the Rajasthanis in India, and the Xhosa of South Africa.

Tuvan culture—in the mountains, under the setting sun, and feeding a fire. He


sings with his eyes raised to the sky, seemingly giving thanks, his hands clasped rough and ready character of an ethnographic document. Beneath the video, titled in English with the keywords ‘Tuvan Throat singing’, the YouTube counter shows more than eight and a half million views. In the comments, users from all over the world express amazement at the beauty of the singing, those who consider themselves more politically engaged debating the issue of whether Tuvan Turkophones are Russian or Turkish and discussing the origin of this type of diplophonic overtone singing. By listening and watching the video, we access a distant way of life in this strange and profound song. But what is also clear is the intent to make this strangeness accessible, almost instantly familiar to us: the starry sky is artificially luminescent, and the music echoes with various influences indicating a desire for modernity. Saidash Mongush accompanies his singing with a melodic line executed on an igil, an old kind of Tuvan fiddle traditionally played with a bow, but which he plays by hand, in the manner of a guitarist playing a rock riff. Throughout the piece his masterful vocalisations are backed by an ambient synth pad. In short, the video presents itself ambiguously as an illustration of traditional musical—and extra-musical—practices. In the aesthetic space this opens up, the hybridisations we hear seem somewhat dissonant. The fact that the artist Saidash Mongush is a Muscovite who enjoys an urban lifestyle modifies the image of the Tuvan singer we see on screen demonstrating traditional overtone singing. The singer lives in Moscow, studied and taught at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, and has incidentally also been a kickboxing champion, hairdresser, and car dealer. Music-wise, he has led the rock band Yat Kha and the folk group Huun-Huur-Tu. His career is remarkably rich and modern. The listener knows full well that demanding things were otherwise would be both absurd and condescending to the artist—and yet, given what is promised by the label of ‘traditional music’, they might well feel short-changed. A listener who fetishises the idea of ​​tradition as a static figure of the heritage of the past brought back unchanged into the present wants to be assured that the social and religious functions of the groups that practice this tradition are preserved: not only to see and hear real Tuvans gathered around the fire (which is in fact

T he Local C olour I ndustry

in a gesture of prayer in the moonlight. The staging is flattering, far from the


the case: Saidash Mongush was born in Shagonar, he is truly a child of Tuva) but

T he Local C olour I ndustry

other life is possible, and this possibility is present, and has long been present,

moreover, Tuvans who don’t have the choice of any other life. But obviously, this in every corner of the globe. Since these songs are in one way or another communicated to the world, how could we imagine that this communication would only be one-way, that the communities representing these traditions would not be affected in return by the outside world that ‘discovers’ them? In establishing this abstract impermeability between traditions and recent history, the structural exoticism that drives the mainstream promotion of traditional world musics neutralises both artistic autonomy and the political issues underlying these musics. In doing so this neutralisation deprives them of a living historical subjectivity, so that they always end up infantilised, reduced to a generic pastoral stage both quaint and vaguely reassuring for deracinated modern individuals, even if they neither believe in these distant gods nor take these traditions seriously. Thus emptied of substance on the stage of a globalised music industry, their ‘otherness’ threatens to flip over into a generic category: as generic as the bright colours of all those ‘traditional costumes’ in which the representatives of world music on world tours seem invariably to be decked out. Fused into one in record store bins and on TV shows, all of these ‘different’ traditional musical practices—juxtaposed as they would never have been—threaten at any moment to no longer present anything but their resemblances, thereby recalling Adorno’s contemptuous remark that ‘[t]he resolute specificity of pieces of music based on folklore is justly punished by the abstract similarity which they all have with each other’.98 Unjust towards and ignorant of the musical and cultural distinctions at work in these musics, here Adorno nonetheless anticipates the ironic convergence of ‘traditional world music’ into a category that would entirely subsume them and act as a continuation of the domination against which their particularism supposedly protests. Beneath the seemingly stagnant surface produced by this homogenisation, there are, of course, assiduous negotiations over the meaning of tradition and, between the different ‘folklores’, a concurrence 98. Adorno, Quasi una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, tr. R. Livingstone (London: Verso, 1998), 19. ‘What previously was supposed to bind each of them uniquely to a particular landscape’, Adorno continues, ‘now binds them uniformly to each other’.

of memories exacerbated by the circumstances of decolonisation and national 99

identity claims.


But the local colour industry can by no means afford to make

AESTHETIC AUTONOMISATION Joe Boyd100 has recounted the excitement sparked in New York folk circles by the discovery of Balkan folk music, especially Bulgarian polyphony.101 During the 1980s, as the Anglo-American pop mainstream began to feel the homogenising effects of its deterritorialization, the (rest of the) ‘world’ became synonymous with a new freshness and, above all, a new authenticity. When George Harrison, interviewed on a British television show, was asked about which pop groups people should listen to, he replied that he had no idea because he was only to listening to Bulgarian music.102 Harrison had attended one of the first concerts of Balkana music and posed for a photo with the Trio Bulgarka.103 On his 1985 album Music for the Knee Plays, David Byrne, another devotee of narodna muzika, included a brass arrangement of ‘Polegnala e Todora [Theodora is Dozing]’, a piece from the album Le Mystère des voix bulgares, which first appeared under that name on the Cellier Records label in 1975. In 1986, Kate Bush incorporated the voices of the Trio Bulgarka on her album The Sensual World. According to Joe Boyd, at the same time the group Simple Minds also asked the trio to provide backing vocals on one of their recordings. Linda Ronstadt would invite 99. On the ‘pathologies of identity’ brought about by the ambiguities of the concept of ‘traditional musics’, and the challenge of bringing together tradition and original creation in the practice of such musics, see D. Salini ‘Musiques traditionelles de demain: entre anamnèse et injunction identitaire’, Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie 22 (2009), ‘Dossier: Memoire, traces, historie’, 49–61. 100. Manager of the English folk group Fairport Convention in the 1960s, and Nick Drake’s producer. 101. ‘Bob Dylan’s manager, the legendary Albert Grossman, flew back to New York from Paris in the spring of 1965 with a tape in his briefcase’ containing a recording of Music of Bulgaria by the Philip Koutev Ensemble. Grossman had bought the rights from a French label which sadly Boyd does not name (perhaps a world music label of the Office de Radiodiffusion­-Télévision Française) together with Marcel and Catherine Cellier, explorers of Balkan music since the 1950s, and who provided the title ‘Le Mystère des voix bulgares’. J. Boyd, ‘How Stalin Invented World Music or Le Mystère Des Voix Soviétiques’, Netrhythms, . 102. D.A. Buchanan, Performing Democracy: Bulgarian Music and Musicians in Transition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 349. 103. Following the success of Le Mystère des voix bulgares in 1986, three singers from the choir— Stoyanka Boneva, Yanka Georgieva Rupkina, and Eva Georgieva—formed the Trio Bulgarka. Each came from a different region of Bulgaria, and this diversity was highlighted as a source of their originality.

A esthetic Autonomisation

these issues too explicit.


the singers on her tour of the San Francisco Bay in 1989.104 Undoubtedly, at the time, this Bulgarian music was not neither a curiosity for ethnomusicologists

A esthetic Autonomisation

nor a specimen of local colour destined for cheesy compilations: it represented a magical ingredient for a Western pop in search of renewal. When, in the same year, the female choir sung ‘Pataka’ on American television before millions of listeners, having won a Grammy, their performance, the piece with its astonishing layered harmonies sung with flawless virtuosity, and the conviction of these citizens of a country under a now collapsing Soviet rule, was bound to be utterly captivating. But this power reveals what their traditional costume paradoxically sought to hide: an artistic mastery long emancipated from any rural roots. The very foundation of the National Folk Ensemble by Philip Koutev and his wife Maria in 1952 was from the start a break from authentic village practices. From the beginning of the 1950s, Koutev—former first violin of the Sofia Opera and renowned member of the Society of Bulgarian Contemporary Music—trained musicians from across the country to highly rigorous standards. The result of a careful selection of professional musicians, certainly no amateurs from out in the sticks, the Ensemble was made up of an all-female choir—when traditionally in fact it was men who were the singers—a male orchestra using instruments inspired by traditional organology, and a mixed ensemble of dancers who staged a stylised traditional choreography. Koutev established and modernised their repertoire in a style that cleverly combined images of pastoral authenticity with the elitist values ​​of Western European classicism. Politically, the project was deliberately adapted to the ideological constraints of a Soviet state violently opposed to all regionalism and therefore favourable to the development of a ‘national’ Ensemble.105 All of these aspects reveal just how complex were the political and aesthetic issues involved in the success of these mysterious Bulgarian voices. Above all, they fly in the face of the prejudice that these singers represented a traditional music cut off from history and from the homogenising current of Western culture, and that their collaborations with Western musicians such as David Byrne and Kate Bush 104. Buchanan, Performing Democracy, 349. 105. Created in the midst of the Soviet ideological construction of Balkan culture, the National Folk Ensemble had its ‘neotraditionalist’ roots in phantasmatic ‘Orphic origins’ that the whole Bulgarian nation were supposed to buy into (see Buchanan, Performing Democracy, 231). Until the events of 1989, delegations of the Ensemble were sent to every town and village to promote a national identity promoted by the state.

marking the moment when, having long been non-participants, they were finally 106

admitted into the general history of music.


But even before the mainstream

aesthetic autonomisation, serving artistic aims above all. For it is not the language of the nation or even that of a specific culture, but that of their artistry that the singers of the trio speak of in a promotional video showcasing their work with Kate Bush: Music travels around the world without a visa, without a passport [...]. We are folk singers with strong musical roots and able to meet any musical challenge we are faced with.107

In their collaborations with other artists, the singers emphasise not just their roots, but also their art. When, around the same time, Ali Farka Touré worked with the American Ry Cooder and recorded with him in Los Angeles, the Ghanaian guitarist’s attitude to his own collaboration was similar. Although Farka Touré’s art may well draw upon djimbala (the rites of invocation of spirits practiced in his village of Niafunke on the banks of the Niger River, the mysterious source of his music—he was attacked by a snake spirit),108 his talent as a guitarist can’t be reduced to the expression of traditions. In his own view, as in that of his fans, they transcend their sorcerous origins. The same kind of aesthetic autonomisation is at work, although in an entirely different context, with the Quechua musician Luzmila Carpio. Initially upon the initiative of circuits outside of the music industry, namely at the request of Unicef, in the 1990s Carpio recorded a series of cassettes that made her name in her own country. Twenty years later, a collective of French fans released a selection of her songs to the international public on the album Yuyay Jap’ina Tapes.109 106. Admittedly, ethnomusicology is no longer ‘fixist’: it now takes into account the evolution of instruments and changes in practices. But the principle of preservation implies a certain resistance of local practices to historical processes, themselves only meaningful within a certain Western conception of time, as demonstrated by Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Savage Mind. 107. Kate Bush and Trio Bulgarka: Rhythms of the World, BBC TV series, 11 March 1989. 108. Francis Dordor, interview with Ali Farka Touré, ‘Ali Farka Touré, le roi soleil’, Les Inrocks 2, special issue ‘Les Musiques africanes en 20 voyages et 50 albums incontournables’ (1999), 8. 109. Released by Almost Musique in 2014, the album Yuyay Jap’ina Tapes by Luzmila Carpio contains seventeen songs the Bolivian musician composed and recorded in 1995 at the request of Unicef for

A esthetic Autonomisation

came to draw inspiration from them, Bulgarian choirs were already the result of


Already Europeanised, having previously collaborated with a French composer in the early 2000s, Carpio welcomed this change of scale while continuing to

H ybridisation /A ppropriation

invoke the roots of her culture and the figure of ‘Pacha Mama’, Mother Earth. But in the Quechua culture, each instrument and every sound is linked to the cycle of the seasons: They say that at the moment of flowering, after the first harvest, in February, the high-pitched sounds of the charango call in the frost. Children who try to play it are scolded. When I started to do world tours and I had to play instruments regardless of their proper seasons, my sister stayed at home and accused me of extending the drought or making the frost come!110

The story is amusing, but it is emblematic of the moment when roots return as a concern in the process of the aesthetic autonomisation of a music fundamentally linked to local practices and beliefs that have no place on the international stage—even in ‘world music’.

HYBRIDISATION/APPROPRIATION The first time I listened to a record of John Lee Hooker, I thought it was a Tamashek artist [, remembers Ali Farka Touré]. But then they told me it was the blues. I’d never heard the word before. For me the ‘blues’ was this small package the washerwomen used to whiten laundry by the river. I thought, they’re crazy, this is our music!111 the five hundredth anniversary of the Spanish conquest, to promote representatives of Aymara and Quechua cultures in the Andes. Through a series of tapes distributed free throughout Bolivia, the musician became the spokesmen of these cultures. From the heights of the village of Qala-Qala where she was born, to Potosi, through the plains of Cochabamba and Oruro, she travelled the country with her songs to raise the political consciousness of women—who are still not allowed to vote—while memorialising the Quechua and Aymara leader Avelino Siñani. She was also asked by Unicef to teach water-drawing techniques in the villages. 110. This prohibition has a historical explanation: it is a remnant of the deadly threat represented by the Spanish Conquest. ‘All string instruments were confiscated during the Conquest, the indigenous instruments are wind instruments. The flute can be played all year round, but it is an instrument reserved for men. Same for the drum, and all rhythmic instruments: that’s the heartbeat of Pacha Mama, it never stops!’ ‘Lumières de Luzmila’, interview with Luzmila Carpio, 6 April 2014, . 111. Toure, ‘Le roi soleil’, 10.

Among the greatest of human migrations in modern history, the movement that


took Africans from the banks of the River Niger to those of the Mississippi over decisive for the history of modern popular music. This ‘deterritorialization’ (of people, of their culture, of their music) was inseparable from the force of domination, the exploitation of men by other men. In its progressive rediscovery of its roots, beyond the Appalachians or the plains of Texas, pop became conscious of this domination and, quite early on, its most politicised fringes formulated the idea of a​​ certain debt, more or less disavowed and difficult to repay, owed to African Americans. In the early 1960s in England, rhythm-and-blues-loving white Mod bands invited forgotten black bluesmen to open their concerts; in America, as we have seen, the most avant-garde folk musicians listened avidly to the collections of Alan Lomax and other ethnomusicologists. However, when the concept of world music emerged into the mainstream, quite late on in this process, such awareness—and the debt it makes explicit—took on another dimension. Western popular music now acknowledged a debt owed not only to African Americans, but to Africans. In the 1980s, the world music of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush tried its best to shake off all imperialism. On the contrary, it presented itself as perfectly aware of this long-underestimated heritage and of the new possibilities offered by deliberate hybridisations. But in such hybridisations, even with the best of intentions, the exchange still somehow seems unequal, for economic and historical reasons that are difficult for isolated individuals to transform with songs alone. During the 1980s, this imbalance would taint mainstream world music. Graceland, the album by Paul Simon considered as a cornerstone of the genre, and which has sold over fourteen million copies since its release in 1986, remains at the centre of a famous controversy, among countless other cases of ‘appropriation’. ‘It’s popular music […] both familiar and foreign-sounding at the same time,’ says the musician in the liner notes. This foreignness, entirely responsible for Graceland’s innovative sound, was discovered by Simon when he heard the bootleg of a concert recorded in a South African township. He went directly to Johannesburg, despite the embargo then in force, imposed by Western powers in protest against apartheid, and gathered musicians from Soweto, Durban, and Lesotho, including the guitarist Ray Phiri, composer of the opening riff of ‘You

H ybridisation /A ppropriation

the course of the centuries of the slave trade must count as among the most


Can Call Me Al’, the future hit single from the album. Later, in London, Simon

H ybridisation /A ppropriation

on the song ‘Homeless’. The lyrics are in English, the musical inspiration largely

brought over the Zulu vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who we hear African (though not exclusively so, as the Mexican-American group Los Lobos are also featured on the track): from the mbaqanga to the gumboot dance, from Zulu gospel to the percussion rhythms of the Shangan. In the lyrics, though, there is no mention of the political situation in South Africa. The theme of the title track, which is about Paul Simon’s recent divorce from actress Carrie Fisher, is an existential quest that takes the form of a symbolic trip to Elvis Presley’s estate in Memphis…. From the ANC to the UN, and throughout the media, critics were unanimous: Simon was criticised for not having even taken advantage of his usurped public platform to denounce apartheid. Wounded by the salvo of accusations, Simon refused to endorse the regime and invited two artistic figures of the opposition in exile, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, to join his major European tour of 1987.112 But the discomfort went deeper: ‘It is not mentioned on the record, but the music of “Crazy Love” was also written by me,’ says Ray Phiri today (although he has never pursued Simon legally). ‘Ladysmith Black Mambazo sing it in a different key, but it is a lullaby I learned from my father. And Paul knows it!’113 Even beyond the issue of copyright, and regardless of Paul Simon’s talent and his sincere commitment to the musicians,114 world music hybridisation masks a relationship of power. Even the illustration on the sleeve of Graceland gives pause for thought: a representation of the Christian martyr Saint George slaying the dragon, a detail from a fifteenth-century Ethiopian manuscript (a ‘harag’) that Simon found in a history book on The Christian Art of an African Nation’….115 Mobilising the imaginary of East Africa on the cover of a record inspired by South Africa seems a strange move. 112. A. Berthod ‘Graceland de Paul Simon: et le monde devint zoulou’, telerama.fr, July 26, 2014, . 113. Cited in ibid. Armando Robles Godoy sued the American star for the rights to the zarzuela ‘El condor pasa’, composed by his father Daniel Alomía Robles and copyrighted in 1933. Simon, to whom the song was presented as a popular song of the eighteenth century, was informed of his error. Not having intended any offence to the author, he acknowledged the rights of the Peruvian composer. 114. On his next album, Rhythm of the Saints, Simon spoke of his concern to hear more clearly the original meaning of these (in this case, Brazilian) musics. 115. E.C. Langmuir, S. Chojnacki and P. Fetchko (eds.), Ethiopia: The Christian Art of an African Nation (Salem, MA: Peabody Museum of Salem, 1978).

An unconscious, aestheticised imperialism, perhaps even one that runs contrary


to the intentions of the musician (who wanted to question his education and moment of its birth as a pop genre, the suspicion of appropriation has weighed upon world music: the domination of Western musicians who instrumentalise a music they make no attempt to understand from the inside, but which they cannot resist using as a resource. Postcolonial cultural studies has highlighted all of these problems. However, they should also be seen within the context of the creative logic of an art of pop that is never just about appropriation. Although pop may be accused of relaying the relations of domination between cultures, it is above all a musical art of hybridisation, fabricated from borrowings and adaptations of scattered materials already extant, recycled, or forgotten. As soon as music begins to circulate, and long before it is taken up by the industrial complex, pop is the great switching station—available to individuals, sensitive to the atmosphere of the times—of a vast legacy abandoned by high modernity.116 Just as rock‘n’roll was fuelled by Delta blues and Nashville country by Mexican music, so Paul Simon’s folk music was enriched by these new sounds, in order to make an original work. So the accusation of appropriation ultimately could be flipped over into artistic praise: it is precisely because Graceland speaks neither for Africa nor for South America that it is a great pop work, as opposed to a revival of a folk tradition. The great pop work is built against the backdrop of these contradictions, and any aesthetics of popular musics that considers not just the beauty of works but also, stubbornly, their authenticity, in terms whereby roots and uprootedness are constantly invoked, must answer for the debt—even if, in practice, it can never be repaid. * The evocation of ‘popular’ music will always carry with it the memory or fantasy of some immaculate origin—not absolutely ‘pure’ in the sense that everyone was completely innocent, but at least a golden age when the simplicity of their mode of life fully coincided with the great truths of existence, individual and collective. In the Western consciousness inherited from the European 116. On this principle of reappropriation, see the chapter ‘Pop and Progress’ below, 339–40.

H ybridisation /A ppropriation

background as a Western musician), but an imperialism nonetheless. From the


Romanticism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this golden age has always been seen as preindustrial. And the aesthetics that presides over the

H ybridisation /A ppropriation

art of pop music fully inherits this Romanticism while at the same time radically transforming it. Thanks to recording, which has deterritorialized this popular music and made it available for distribution, folk works, in the broad sense of the genre, from the most rooted to the most uprooted, both heirs of folklore and transcending it, have crystallised this memory of Eden, this fantasy, by simultaneously conserving and betraying it. This essential inauthenticity no doubt explains why authenticity is one of the most compelling aesthetic requisites of this kind of pop. Although its condition of deterritorialization obliterates its original localisation, cuts off its roots, and threatens it with dispersal into a homogenisation that denies the specificities from which it emerged, in order to perpetuate itself it must continue to invoke these roots and this rootedness, its origins and the form of life that gave birth to it. ‘And yet I have seen clearly, I have witnessed, that there are deep pockets of culture which are resistant to standardization, there are still polyglot elements in our melting pot land,’ Peter Guralnick declares in his 1970s book on country. This observation, which implicitly denounces a globalised culture where ‘all regional identification must be smoothed over’ or transformed into quaint stereotypes, provides the basis for the eternal hope of an authentic, ‘genuinely popular culture—in which the audience at whom the entertainment is aimed, out of whom the entertainment has sprung, continues to have a real input’.117 The ‘hillbilly paradox’ is that the participation of a distant audience is only made possible through mediations of technology and advertising which assimilate the heterogeneous and therefore homogenise it. Its promise cannot be realised without being betrayed. But since these mediations are unavoidable, perhaps we must look for an aesthetic golden age instead in moments of equilibrium: moments when the inevitable assimilation of the heterogeneous, of the specific, the condition of its recognition, does not yet amount to its neutralisation. This is a fragile equilibrium that cannot be fixed as a privileged moment in a historical frieze—more a dreamed-of moment, a state of grace recognised in the delight that can be inspired by the sounds of a foreign language for those who do not understand it, or the happy discovery of a song 117. Guralnick, Lost Highway, 14.

with unusual inflections, just familiar enough to make its oddness desirable. And


here the recording of popular music, the aesthetic condition that betrays its tape of a cassette or on the streaming link of an online platform, it captures in motion Luzmila Carpio’s unexampled singing in ‘Warmikuna yupay-chasqapuni kasunchik’ echoing back to us from the high rocky mountains of Qala-Qala, or Blind Uncle Gaspard’s Cajun French, recorded almost a hundred years ago, ‘Sur le bord de l’eau’ of a Louisiana river. Where do aesthetic manipulation, exoticism rackets, and the reification of specificity begin? At the very beginning. From the very start they gradually develop, attaining various degrees of falsification which the inquiries of ethnomusicological research and philosophical critique must attempt to determine. But it is by virtue of these lies that the ‘distant, however close it may be’ of the Benjaminian aura can still appear to us; the very myth of a humanity freed from industrial modernity seems palpable. Some popular musical works do indeed seem to restore this Eden, but at the very same time, the nostalgia these songs usually emanate tells us that it is forever lost.

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local specificities by deterritorializing it, is its most faithful ally. On the magnetic

CHAPTER 2. THE POP SUBJECT: DEMOCRATISED GENIUS I’ve no talent, still sing as flat as a table…I’m a sort of human spaniel: people come to see what I’m like. I make them feel, I exhaust them, I destroy them. Johnnie Ray, quoted in Nik Cohn, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom Hi, I’m 24 years old. I was born a white, lower middle-class male off the coast of Washington State. Kurt Cobain, Journals, early 1991 I don’t want to become a gimmick, ever. Rihanna, ‘On Air with Ryan Seacrest’, November 2011

‘Music […] is what you are, it’s how you live’, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of MC5 once declared in a TV interview.1 Upon hearing this phrase, every pop fan will have the feeling that they are faced with an essential truth: music is not a relationship to notes and sounds, it’s a form of life, a way of being, and this way of being is inseparable from an individuality, from a ‘you’ who shapes this music and is shaped by it. Listening to a rock band, reggae songs, ska, Italo disco, even in the most contemplative way possible, always brings us back to someone, to this ‘you’ expressing its way of being, its unique ‘how’. And this way of being is a whole: it is a physical body but also a moral entity; both a sensory and a social embodiment, a tone of voice, a strange accent, a belonging, a singularity. The same goes for other forms of music: no one can completely exclude Wagner from Wagner’s music, or Mahler from Mahler’s music. But in scored music, the emphasis placed on the composition at the expense of the performer makes for a clearer separation between their individuality and the music itself. Indeed, 1. Smith spoke these words in a 1972 interview with Dominique Blanc-Francard for the French television show Pop 2. A clip of him speaking, along with its French translation, was sampled by the Canadian band Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra in the song ‘Rains thru the Roof at Thee Grande Ballroom’ on the album Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything (2014): ‘Music […] is a way of life, it’s more than just something that you do on the weekend. [...] It’s what you are, it’s how you live, it’s the things that you do.’ The clip was also heard during the credits of Vincent Théval’s radio show Label Pop on France Musique between 2012 and 2016.


from a modernist point of view such personal details are not to be dwelled

T he P op S ubject: D emocratised G enius

the musicians’, latching on to biographical details to make up for their lack

upon—they are of interest only to amateurs eager to consume the ‘lives of of musical understanding. The modernist refuses this romantic reading, and will always privilege the construction of the work over the expression of any particular individual in and through this work: music not as ‘what you are, how you live’, but as ‘what you do’. In this second case, the ‘how’ concerns only the thing, not the individual who makes it. It concerns construction, not expression. The phrase ‘it’s how you live’ refers to expression rather than construction— but in fact, Smith doesn’t even keep this dualism in place. Clarifying his thoughts to the journalist interviewing him, he adds, ‘it’s the things that you do’. ‘The things that you do’ and ‘what you are’ are ultimately the same thing—which is not to neutralise the distinction between the two different ways of saying it, but to reinforce what is central to both: this individuality, this ‘you’ that, precisely, holds together how you live and the things that you do, expression and construction. Far more than merely giving psychological context, the individuality at play here is the raw material, the very stuff of which songs are made. When listening to a pop song one can always focus on its harmonic subtleties or on the qualities of the writing, but it’s impossible to completely detach oneself from those who are expressing themselves in it. There is no experience of recorded popular music that does not raise questions about the individuality expressed therein—by way of a vocal style, a certain use of language, the treatment of the singing, whether it’s foregrounded or downplayed. Usually the human voice plays a key role here, and in countless pop songs this voice begins by setting out an identity in a self-declaration that may be the most humble and disillusioned (‘Just What I Am’ by Kid Cudi), the most megalomaniacal (‘I Am a God’ by Kanye West or ‘Je suis Dieu’ by Gérard Manset), a self-identification that may be surreal (The Beatles’ ‘I Am The Walrus’), animalistic (‘I Am The Fly’ by Wire or ‘I Was An Eagle’ by Laura Marling) or provocative (the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy In The UK’, where Johnny Rotten rhymes ‘I am an antichrist’ with ‘I am an anarchist’). Songs are attached to the individualities embodied in them, whether baring all or heavily disguised, whether sincere or ironic. Beneath the appearance of adolescent shyness or behind a carnival mask, the face of an angel, demon, or succubus, we always hear an individuality

referring to itself—celebrating its current status, anticipating the future, or


nostalgically recalling former states of being. Whether this individuality is naive, difficult to separate it from the songs themselves. If it disappears entirely, music becomes Muzak, a soundtrack for offices and supermarkets—and for their bosses, concerned with smoothly regulating the pace of work; music designed not to be noticed, as popularised in the 1930s by Major George Owen Squier’s company. But while contemporary Muzak and the music piped into lounge cafés deliberately dispense with any expressive grit, even the most easy-listening of songs can’t do without a little embodiment—albeit maximally standardised, with soft feminine voices and no solo outbursts.2 In the aesthetic context of the art of pop music, it seems that we cannot do without subjects, subjects that express and embody themselves in this music—even when the embodiment is minimal to the point of disappearance.3 For this reason, to think pop is to think a pop subject. Here we speak of subjects and subjectivity in their widest possible sense, beyond or indeed below what philosophy traditionally conceives of as the ‘subject’. Obviously, the idea is not to describe the ‘unique and permanent basis’ of pop subjectivity, nor to list all of the possible embodiments, modes of being, or individualities that circulate within the art of pop. Rather, it is to understand how, across the pop spectrum, all subjectivities are possible, how pop is very much open to and responsive to different configurations of subjectivity, even down to the most basic embodiments. For humanity itself is not the exclusive referent here: the animal, the machine, and the alien are also highly expressive figures of pop subjectivity, and for good reason.

2. At one time, saxophone or trumpet was prohibited in Muzak. 3. In this sense the ‘ambient’ genre, as represented by Brian Eno, occupies a marginal status within pop, even though it still belongs to it. Eno may claim to follow in the footsteps of Satie’s ‘furniture music’, purposely erasing all trace of expression and inviting his audience to make use of this music without listening, or to actively listen if they so choose—but his aesthetic gesture still indicates a certain subjective mode: that of discreetness, of a subjectivity that tries to blend into its environment. His Music for Airports (1978) was too intimate to have ever been played in airports for functional use (except for a brief broadcast at LaGuardia Airport in New York). Listening to Watering a Flower, long stretches of background music recorded by Haruomi Hosono in 1984 for Muji stores in Japan, the same ambiguity resurfaces: rather than neutralising expression, functionality actually frees up an expressive singularity that transcends functionality.

T he P op S ubject: D emocratised G enius

ironic, aggressive, playful, or operating on several levels simultaneously, it is


So why still talk of ‘subjects’, then? Not out of any allegiance to a fixed image of subjectivity, but precisely to show how this art places subjectivities in question,

T he P op S ubject: D emocratised G enius

negotiating and transforming the status of subjectivity itself, in society of course, but more importantly in art—where, during the twentieth century, modernism had precisely made a taboo of the expression of this subjectivity.4

4. Seen as a Romantic stigma, the category of subjectivity was disowned by minimalism and conceptual art.

I. SITUATED INDIVIDUALITIES An insistence on the performer’s body is no doubt the first and most obvious way in which pop has challenged subjectivities. For reasons that have as much to do with its conditions of production as with its aesthetic and ethical stakes, the art of pop has continually renegotiated, transformed, falsified and called back into question the possibilities of human embodiment. Of course, this is an obsession that pop shares with all of the performing arts, all of the art forms in which expression—whether linguistic or extra-linguistic—is inseparable from the body in motion. The various genres of popular musical art invariably foreground bodies: the bodies of men, of women, black, white, mixed-race bodies, bodies clutching instruments or caught up in the throes of vocal expression, feminised or masculinised, androgynous or animalised bodies (like the Bowie-dog on the Diamond Dogs sleeve painted by Guy Peellaert), sweaty bodies or sleek robotic bodies (from Kraftwerk to Daft Punk), extroverted or more timid bodies, and social bodies too—those of bad boys from the suburbs sitting on crumbling Victorian walls (as on the cover of the first Undertones album), emancipated teenagers smoking their first cigarette, slumming bourgeois types or proletarians dressed to the nines (faithful, like the mods, to their ideal of aristocratic distinction ‘in difficult circumstances’);5 the bodies of African American ghetto kids objectifying their defiance on tape (from Nas’s first album to Kendrick Lamar’s second) or of girls either made-up to the point of becoming alien (like Björk’s digitally-altered face on the cover of 1997’s Homogenic) or totally unvarnished (PJ Harvey’s photocopied cheek on Dry). Subjectivity, as a part of the visual and auditory assemblage of pop works, is by no means a pure interiority: it is always palpable, embodied, allowing art to present itself as ‘vigorously active’, as Richard Shusterman writes, in a ‘joyous return of the somatic dimension’.6 This bodily presence is manifest in the various different media of pop: the pop imagery of album covers and posters constantly presents it to us. But it is in the 5. D. Hebdige, ‘The Meaning of Mod’, Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Sub-Cultures in Post-War Britain, ed. Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (London: Routledge, 2006). 6. R. Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (Lanham, MD, Boulder, CO, New York, and Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992), 184.

S ituated I ndividualities




performance of these bodies, which transforms their embodiment into an event,

D isembodiment ( T he Jazz-S ubject)

that it proves most decisive. Through recording, all possible perceptible acoustic

and in the possibility of the instantaneous capture of this event through recording, manifestations of an embodiment, including uncontrolled and instantaneous ones, become crucial raw material for pop works:7 as we shall see, in this way the pop form places embodiment at the heart of its expressive power.

Disembodiment (The Jazz-Subject) If one was seeking to rescind all possibility of pop’s being an art, a good place to begin would be by refusing the more general possibility of expressive and embodied art. This is exactly what Adorno set out to do in one of his first articles against jazz, ‘Über Jazz’, published in 1936 under the pseudonym Hektor Rottweiler. In this article Adorno gives us a strange portrait of the jazzman as ‘Jazz-Subject’ (Jazz-Subjekt).8 Irritated by white bourgeois fans eager to form a cult around this figure whose ‘wildness’ they find so fascinating, Adorno seeks to unravel the romantic fantasy of the jazzman’s unbridled individuality. He begins with the object of the cult: the jazzman’s body, his posture, his attitude. This posture, which Adorno says provides the ‘model for the jazz-subject’, is that of the eccentric (der Excentric).9 In his view, the eccentric is the outsider who plays on his marginality, who makes a kind of virtue of his maladaptive individuality. Unlike the clown, ‘whose anarchistic and archaic immediacy cannot be adapted to the reified bourgeois life, and becomes ridiculous before it—fragmentary, but at the same time allowing it to appear ridiculous’, the eccentric is nevertheless equally ‘excluded from instrumental regulation, from the “rhythm” of bourgeois life’.10 ‘The juggling acts of the drummers, the lightning-fast switch from one instrument to another, improvisations which sound ridiculously off-beat at first

7. Even if these recorded acoustic manifestations are then manipulated, producing synthetic embodiment-effects that weren’t present ‘in front of the mic’. 8. Adorno, ‘On Jazz’, 64–5. 9. The term is that used by Walter Benjamin to describe Charlie Chaplin, as cited by Adorno. It also refers to Debussy’s ‘General Lavine, eccentric’ prelude, to be played ‘following the movement and style of a cakewalk’. 10. Adorno, ‘On Jazz’, 65.

and sound right only once the last beat has sounded’, all of these figures staged



in ‘the more virtuoso jazz practice’ shape—perform—an eccentric embodiment. by performance in the popular arts—a conceptualisation that his critical heir Diedrich Diederichsen completes by defining pop in terms of the ‘pose’, the posture of the individuals who make it12—Adorno takes no more from this regime of expressive embodiment than an unconvincing psychoanalytic analysis.13 He chooses to keep the expressiveness of embodiment outside the circle of legitimate art, even though it is where subjectivity takes on vivid forms and, precisely, plays with its reified mask. If the jazz-subject has a body, if it is a body, for Adorno, this body is always both a burden and a proof of culpability. It is testimony to an alienation, to a subjectivity that, through this body, has submitted to the injunctions of society. The nimble fingers on the instrument, the irony, the sweat, are nothing but illusions and veils cast over a social truth, veils which critique—determined not to be moved, not to succumb to emotion, enthusiasm, or empathy—intends to lift. So that ultimately the body ends up being interpreted as a privation of subjectivity—an aberration that has been repeated and extended in all later critiques of the popular arts that take offense at the somatic. From this peculiar perspective, in so far as Adorno still calls the jazz-subject a ‘subject’, it is in the political sense in which subjection is opposed to sovereignty, i.e., to signify the subjection of the jazzman as a type, rather than its affirmation or emancipation. The jazz-subject is subjected—such is the meaning of the designation, which in fact refuses his body any authentic expressiveness. Constrained by this abstract socio-psychoanalytic straitjacket, the ‘subject’ portrayed by Adorno can no longer express anything without it being interpreted as a manipulation coming from outside. Not only its ‘eccentricity’ but also its suffering (for Adorno, the ultimate basis of art) are revealed to be dependent upon a heteronomy that

11. Ibid., 65. 12. ‘Pop is the pose’ writes Diederichsen in Über Pop-Musik (Cologne: Kiepenheuer and Witsch, 2014), setting up this thesis as the cornerstone of his aesthetic definition of pop. 13. Underneath the attitude of the ‘hot subject’, so apparently affirmative and virile, Adorno wants to reveal a weak, literally impotent subject. He argues this case by opposing the manifest sexual content of ‘Tiger Rag’ (sexual desire soon satisfied, with a prey that can only succumb) to its latent content (fear of castration).

D isembodiment ( T he Jazz-S ubject)

A hair’s breadth away from conceptualising the fundamental role played


negates them: although the ‘jazz-subject’ may well display all the hallmarks of disruptive singularity, it is in fact ‘preformed conventionally’.14

D isembodiment ( T he Jazz-S ubject)

And yet when Fred Moten describes ‘Protest’, the free jazz performance recorded by musicians Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, and Oscar Brown Jr., it seems impossible to distinguish between an alienated and an autonomous subjectivity. Recalling a passage from Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself—in which the narrator recounts hearing the shrieks of his aunt as she is tortured by their master—musical expression draws its necessity from somewhere well short of the rationalist distinction between constraint and freedom. ‘Protest’ takes place in a zone ‘[w]here shriek turns speech turns song’: Lincoln hums and then screams over Roach’s increasingly and insistently intense percussion, moving inexorably in a trajectory and toward a location that is remote from—if not in excess of or inaccessible to—words. You cannot help but hear the echo of Aunt Hester’s scream as it bears, at the moment of articulation, a sexual overtone, an invagination constantly reconstituting the whole of the voice, the whole of the story, redoubled and intensified by the mediation of years, recitations, auditions.15

Of course, it is still possible for the music to exist outside of this remembrance, to be analysed in terms that are deaf to the cries of Aunt Hester. But any analysis that excludes these determinations will always falter, unable to draw from the wrenching sounds of free jazz anything but a sense of arbitrariness, since it has forfeited the reasons behind the expression and refused the human body its expressive power. As Christian Béthune notes, in Adorno this denial testifies to ‘a more intimate and, let’s say, a more philosophical conflict, not only with jazz but with a whole mode of human expressivity’,16 namely orality, and everything that depends upon what the body can do, on its own expressiveness, without creating a hierarchy between that which liberates it and that which 14. Adorno, ‘On Jazz’, 64. 15. F. Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 22. 16. C. Béthune, ‘Une théorie écran’, in Adorno et le jazz: analyse d’un déni esthétique (Paris: Klincksieck, 2003), 139.

constrains it. Blind to this denial, Adorno ultimately betrays his own ideal of an art


whose truth always lies in the expression of suffering. He confirms the inability eyes, Romanticism had rendered hackneyed and trite. But in disqualifying this Romantic subjectivity, he throws the baby out with the bathwater: he sacrifices the expressive resources of subjectivity as embodied subjectivity—the truth of the expression of a body, whether exulting or suffering. But contrary to what Adorno might think, pop works obstinately continue to proceed from precisely this truth—to the point where, as we shall see, the very meaning attributed to the old Romantic category of ‘expression’ is modified.

Immersion (Into this World We’re Thrown) In a letter addressed to the editor of his Sixth Symphony, Beethoven explained the title of his work: ‘Pastoral Symphony, or Reminiscence of Country Life, expression of feeling rather than painting.’17 Music, Beethoven thinks, has few tools available to describe what nature offers to sight. But its power is almost unlimited when it comes to expressing the nuances of human feeling aroused by what is seen.18 In the fourth movement ‘Thunder, Storm [Gewitter, Sturm]’, the tremolos of the lower strings that herald the beginnings of the storm, up to the tutti in F minor, fortissimo, rich in tumbling timpani, double basses, and dissonant cellos, sets out a tableau of the feelings aroused by nature unleashed. In the ecstatic passages of piccolo and clarinet that trail in the wake of the raging orchestral storm, performers recognise man in the midst of the elements. This music is not absent of all human embodiment, in fact it even stages this embodiment, between the expression of emotions felt in the face of the storm and a representation of man isolated and fragile in the tumult of nature, between the experience of the sublime and the vulnerability of our condition. 17. Ludwig van Beethoven to Breitkopf and Härtel, March 28, 1809, in A.C. Kalischer (ed.), Beethoven’s Letters: A Critical Edition with Explanatory Notes, tr. J. S. Shedlock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2 vols., 2014), vol. 1, 158. 18. The descriptive capacities of music are limited, Beethoven conceded. But it was a concession made with the aim of better expanding the expressive field of music: ‘Pictorial descriptions belong to painting; even the poet in this respect may, in comparison with my art, esteem himself lucky, for his domain in this respect is not so limited as mine, yet the latter extends further into other regions and to attain our kingdom is not easy.’ Letter to Wilhelm Gerhard, 15 July 1817, in Kalischer (ed.), Beethoven’s Letters, 228.

I mmersion ( I nto this World W e ’ re T hrown )

of his modernism to revise the aesthetic status of subjectivity, which, to his


But a pop work addressing similar themes, for example The Doors’ ‘Riders on the

I mmersion ( I nto this World W e ’ re T hrown )

the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony from ‘Riders on the Storm’? As

Storm’, offers quite different thoughts and feelings. What is it that distinguishes with Beethoven’s Sixth, the closing track of L.A. Woman makes no claim to be descriptive.19 Even better, here the thunder and rain do not need to be imitated: their acoustic characteristics are directly reproduced in an extract from a field recording heard at the opening of the song (we hear the storm burst and the rain pour down) and which resurfaces later on (at 3:21 we hear the rumble of thunder). The image of the ‘riders on the storm’ refers in a sense to the human condition, to a universal sentiment which, expressed in Jim Morrison’s languid diction, is not so much sublime as fatalistic: ‘Into this house we’re born / Into this world we’re thrown.’ This condition is not that of being in the world in general, but that of finding oneself projected into this particular world: a world in which murderers lurk by the road, where women leave their lovers, where dogs roam without bones to gnaw, and failed actors find themselves without any role to play. The song speaks of ‘riders’ and through them, of course, it speaks to the wandering condition of mankind; yet it no longer evokes Man (in himself) in the grips of the feeling of Nature (in itself). Listening to ‘Riders on the Storm’ we become an individual or a group of particular individuals, thrown into the storm, into a world where nature resounds with modernity, its climate of highways and angelic solitude. The almost aquatic descending notes of Ray Manzarek’s keyboard seem to drip onto the chrome surface of a vehicle speeding along a highway in the middle of the night. The universality of the song owes itself to this situated experience and to a particular embodiment. The Hell’s Angels knew what they were doing when they made this song their hymn. Something in its expression seems more clearly to involve particular bodies, because the world 19. This doesn’t prevent pop music from regularly employing an imitative register, especially where the theme of water is concerned. As with the symphonic piano of the Romantics, with its highly aquatic balance between the discrete (cut out) sound of notes from the keyboard and their continuous flow in virtuoso playing, the unique possibilities of recorded music lend themselves most suggestively to an aquatic imaginary. In sonic modernity, the theremin, modular synthesizers, and tape manipulation have continually enriched our experience of the affinities between music and water. The waves of overdubbed cymbals on ‘Ocean’ on the Velvet Underground’s fourth unreleased album—a sound that would inspire the oceanic aesthetics of shoegaze; Goldie’s seagulls on ‘Sea of ​​Tears’; the Neptunian breath of a underwater saxophone in Tarwater’s ‘The Watersample’ (1998); the aquatic utopia mapped out by out the entire oeuvre of Drexciya’s synthetic music, in pieces such as ‘Black Sea’ and ‘Andrean Sand Dunes’, where embodiment ends up, so to speak, submerged, as electronic music rediscovers the landscapist desires of classical instrumental music.

described here has become a specific one. The expression communicates not so


much an emotion as an immersion. The sentiment of the sublime is replaced by which the storm creates murky pools on the asphalt of long American highways. ‘Into this world we’re thrown’, sings Morrison: there is every reason to believe that he is consciously borrowing the phrase from Martin Heidegger, whose work he had heard about in a lecture at Florida State University in Tallahassee in 1963.20 The phenomenology of the Umwelt fits in perfectly with the experience he describes, where transcendence is not that which is beyond man, but that to which his very finitude allows him access. The same subtle difference distinguishes, for example, Ravel’s Jeux d’eau [Fountains] (from which Ray Manzarek borrows the delicate rippling polyrhythms of ‘Riders on the Storm’) from the Amerindian (peyote) song ‘Witchi Tai To’, whose narrator is a man who plunges his head into the current. The epigraph to the score for Jeux d’eau is a quote from Henri de Regnier: ‘River God laughing as the water tickles him [Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille]’. In the psychedelic version of ‘Witchi Tai To’ by Harpers Bizarre, twinkling chimes and rippling echoes recall these tickling currents,21 but it is not the body of a god that the invigorating water envelops, it is the body of the man who sings. ‘Water spirit feelin’ / springin’ round my head / making me feel glad / that I’m not dead’, words that the song repeats like a mantra, lulling the listener with this sentiment at once intimate and cosmic. It is not a distant deity that can be heard laughing in the sonorous matter of psychedelia. It is the submerged body of the singer who, in the spirit of the water, feels alive. Rather than the subjective feeling of the world explored by Romantic music, a pop song takes on the immersion of a body—alive, sensory, but also social, real, or dreamed—in a given world, in its world. Here lies the great difference between what European Romanticism conceived as the expression of subjectivity and that which is at play in a simple song that says ‘I’. *

20. See H. Gerstenmeyer, The Doors: Sounds for Your Soul—Die Musik der Doors (SieGe Verlag, 2001), 196. 21. The Indian-born saxophonist Jim Pepper recorded another version around the same time with his band Everything is Everything, and then another on his solo album Pepper’s Pow Wow (Embyro, 1971).

I mmersion ( I nto this World W e ’ re T hrown )

that of a dark glamorous finitude, of being thrown into this determinate world in


Although a pop song can speak of infinitely many things, all of the things in which embodiment may be involved—from the most common situations (‘Lost

Particular C onditions

in the Supermarket’ by The Clash) and the most disarming facticity (‘Some Girls are Bigger than Others’ by The Smiths) to the loftiest metaphysical affairs (Metallica’s serious ‘Through the Never’, or the playful ‘Metaphysical (A Good Day)’ by Handsome Boy Modeling School)—it scarcely ever does so in order to represent these things; it does so to express the vision, the singular perception that a particular individual has of them, here and now, thrown into the world as described by Heidegger in Being and Time. In the twentieth century a whole movement of anti-lyric poetry was inspired by the second phase of Heidegger’s phenomenology, turning towards the thing, moved by the ideal of a speech able to unveil the being of things not as intentionally targeted but as pure appearings, with all intentionality bracketed out.22 This withdrawal of subjectivity that reveals being is of no use to pop. Rather than unveiling the world, it prefers to make a statement about it by means of which an individual can distinguish themselves and say how they see things, rather than how things are without them. Pop can play on the negation of the human, it can speak in speculative terms that go beyond the human heart, but it always comes back to embodiment, without which it is doomed to dissolve. And no matter how it is achieved, it is in the variations of this embodiment that pop flourishes. Even the most machinic pop enamoured of postapocalyptic visions in which nature reasserts itself against the human, is still the song of the surviving creature, thrown into this world, situated and finite.

PARTICULAR CONDITIONS Human in scale, pop’s expressiveness makes it an art welcoming to particular people’s life conditions, in the sense of the ‘female condition’, ‘the worker’s condition’, or the ‘black’ or ‘non-white’ condition, those determinations that affect the individual not only as an isolated and finite individual but also as an individual under economic and geographical constraints, subject to social norms, discourses, and interactions within which they find themselves located, and through which they express themselves. Within the pop form, all of these particular conditions that a subject shares with other subject but which also 22. Following the phenomenological method of the ‘epoché’ introduced by Edmund Husserl.

separate them from yet others—gender, race, religion, class, etc.—become


deeply expressive. If the body of the pop subject is always immersed in its own This situatedness of this pop body distinguishes it radically from the traditional figure of the ‘serious’ Western musician. Although a certain figure of the composer—a white, Western man—dominates this history, his particular determinations are hardly supposed to make a difference. With the exception of national particularities, which Romanticism’s fascination with the people brought to the fore (from the patriotism of Weber to that of Sibelius, from the nationalism of Bartók and Janáček to Liszt’s more ambiguous position), the particular condition of composers—as white men, for example—is never thematised by the artist as a specific trait. He is simply the universal man who writes great music. And of course, those who don’t have the opportunity to write or to be recognised as composers are rendered all the more invisible by this apparent universality. At the other extreme from this false transparency, in the pop scene nobody can get ahead without affirming their colour—even if they have to invent one for themselves.

The Aesthetic Truth of Particularity The career of Nina Simone, real name Eunice Kathleen Waymon, is exemplary from this point of view. From the age of twelve she studied classical piano with a white teacher. Rejected in August 1950 by the Juilliard School in New York—a decision she would always regard as racist—she gradually began to champion her identity and skin colour (‘Four Women’) as she embraced a career as a composer and jazz performer, before excelling in a style that blended gospel, jazz, folk, and reggae (‘Baltimore’) with memories of the classical. From the very first steps Eunice Waymon took on the popular music stage, her individual embodiment—her body, her face, her gestures, her stage presence—was not just an individual embodiment. It was also a particular embodiment that was not entirely unique, since it shared a certain condition with other individuals of the same sex, the same gender, the same class, and the same skin colour. It was the particular embodiment of Nina Simone as a woman, as the African American daughter of a practicing Protestant family. When she

T he A esthetic T ruth of Particularity

world, it is also ineluctably enmeshed in these conditions.


borrows compositional elements from Bach and transplants them into the register

E mancipation

this particularity not just as mere anecdotal context for the music, but as an

of jazz and folk, aesthetic appreciation of those elements is inseparable from essential aesthetic determination and vision of the world. Eunice Waymon could not realise her dream of being the first black African American to play a concert at Carnegie Hall, because in the context of American classical music at the time her colour could not be made invisible. For the very same reason, because her talent was inseparable from her singularity, she would be recognised as one of the greatest musicians of modern pop music. It was pop music’s conditions of production and its aesthetics that made this recognition possible. If the struggle for recognition, according to Hegel’s description, is a struggle not only to survive but also to maintain or regain one’s dignity, countless pop songs can be said to illustrate this theme, from the rage in Syl Johnson’s 1969 ‘Is It Because I’m Black?’ to James Brown’s hammered-out declaration of the same year: ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!’ Some mean-spirited observers may conclude that this popular music is merely a political and not an aesthetic expression of those excluded from high culture. In reality, it is the first musical art to have committed itself to recognising the particular conditions of individuals’ existences, and to have made those conditions aesthetically fertile. This trait makes it eminently democratic.

Emancipation The commitment to subjectivity as both embodiment and particularity means that relations of domination (of race, class, gender, or nation) can be heard in these songs. In them the dominated render audible the violence of the domination they suffer, as when Syl Johnson loudly voices his surprise, in a tone somewhere between false naivety and real indignation, at all the obstacles he encounters on a daily basis because he is black. And the pop expression that allows this voice to find its form becomes emancipatory. If expression is the first stage in any quest for recognition, pop makes this quest accessible to all; not because they are all the same, under the universal banner of a certain idea of Man ​​ that would ultimately exclude some, but in their particularity as situated individuals. Bluesmen tell the stories of their lives as

freedmen, the Acadians make a French folk music in Louisiana, Puerto Ricans in


New York inflect Larry Heard and Joe Smooth’s Chicago house into a Nuyorican their existential problems. ‘I’m a person just like you’ sings Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye in ‘Straight Edge’—the 45-second-long track that created the hardcore movement of the same name. ‘Being a person’ applies to all individuals universally, but above all it indicates that it is the particularity of each one that is universal: ‘a person’ is what counts, that is, a finite and particular individual who, in their very particularity, implicitly claims membership of a community or nation, a skin colour, a language, an accent, a social and historical condition, and the relations of force within which it is held. In this way, over and above themselves, artists can designate whole communities of subjects of which they are not only members but representatives, in the social and political sense of the term. In the post-independence Morocco of the 1960s and 1970s, the group Nass El Ghiwane represented precisely such a figure of emancipation for the younger generation. Formed by Omar Sayed, Boujemaa H’gour, Larbi Batma, Moulay Abdelaziz Tahiri, and Mahmoud Saadi, all from poor neighbourhoods in Casablanca, Nass El Ghiwane opted for a musical style fuelled entirely by a conscious play on the particularisms—social, aesthetic, and historical—of the people of Morocco and, more generally, the Maghreb. Tired of the sentimental orientalism in vogue at the time,23 the musicians drew their inspiration from local traditions, both Moroccan theatre and the music of the Gnawa (Afro-Maghrebian descendants of slaves). Not without certain commonalities with the rock music of the time, but using traditional instruments—the bendir, a sort of Moroccan drum, the gembri (a Gnawa lute)—they adapted different local folk musics (malhun, hassani as in the famous song ‘Essinya’, and aqallal).24 The power of 23. See Transes, Ahmed El Maânouni’s 1981 documentary film about the group, where Omar Sayed explains the need to break with the artificial Orientalism of the time in order to embrace a local music both more sophisticated and more authentic. 24. Even the name of the group, partly borrowed from that of a group of musicians who came on foot from the southern Sahara to give a concert in Casablanca which Boujemaa attended, means ‘people of bohemia’, bohemians, from the name of these Saharan troubadours who travel from village to village describing everyday life and the difficulties of their people in story and song. On the origin of the name, see L. Simour, Larbi Batma, Nass El Ghiwane and Postcolonial Music in Morocco (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2016), 157.

E mancipation

Soul invoking their own ‘promised land’, educated middle-class singers confess


the music and its themes are modern, militant, and even libertarian, but it is

R ich and P oor ( C lass)

the group was called New Dervishes. Over more than three decades the group

also inhabited by a religious dimension, of Sufi inspiration—the first iteration of managed to inspire a generation of young people, often poor, some of them students, who saw their own thwarted aspirations set out in Nass El Ghiwane’s songs. Thanks to their existential lyrics, at once direct and sophisticated, set to a music conducive to trance, numerous fans projected into their music the recognition of a new Moroccan identity. On the other side of the Atlantic, in 1969, with the Música popular brasiliera movement in full swing, Gal Costa was singing the playful political song ‘Tuareg’, composed by Jorge Ben, a song that evokes (not without a certain romanticism) the figure of a Tuareg warrior fighting for a good cause, implicitly invoking the independence struggle of the Tuaregs of Western Sahara. The particularity that fuels pop is not necessarily one of identity: it can embrace causes beyond the social and geographical determinations of the individuals who express it. Indeed, the natural deterritorialization of pop even makes this a common feature. But as she cries out the refrain ‘Ele é um tuareg!’, Gal seems to project her whole personality into those peoples. Here a spirit of solidarity widens the possibilities of emancipation through song. If songs have ever had such a power, it’s not only because songs speak to everyone, but because they have this particular ability to speak about someone (about a people or a movement) and to endow them with the power and status of universal representatives, like Flemish portraits of merchants and bourgeois in the fifteenth century. Even beyond what we might call ‘political’ music, songs are emancipatory because they are universal only on this condition: that they reveal and recognise particular individuals. The particular conditions that determine them include not only origin and skin colour, but also the gender, age, and social class of subjects.

Rich and Poor (Class) A whole poetics of poverty winds through popular song. Think of the countless blues songs telling of wandering hobos with empty stomachs, country music narratives that celebrate pride in the worker’s condition (like Loretta Lynn’s ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’), or songs about courage and family happiness in spite of poverty, such as Dolly Parton’s vibrant ‘Coat of Many Colors’, about a jacket

crafted out of many tiny pieces from wool collected up by the singer’s mother,


too poor to buy a new one. Even apart from the expression of real poverty, the the vagabond poet, the bohemian. As in the case of The Rolling Stones, already multimillionaires when they sang ‘with no money in our coats’ on their 1973 hit ‘Angie’. Anchored more solidly in socioeconomic reality, the hard rock and heavy metal that emerged during the 1980s from the declining industrial areas of England and the United States became the music of what Deena Weinstein calls a ‘global proletariat’ and a working class in crisis.25 But wealth—most often that of an individual of poor social origin who has reached a level of unaccustomed luxury thanks to popular success—brings its own aesthetic perspectives. Elvis’s pride at his blue suede shoes or that of Roger Taylor (the drummer of Queen) when he sings ‘I’m in Love with My Car’, the sumptuous aesthetic of gangsta rap where it’s a matter of pride to brandish bundles of dollars and gold bullion. ‘Ma question préférée, qu’est-ce j’vais faire de toute cette oseille? [My favourite question, what’m I gonna do with all this cash?]’ raps the French MC Booba; in an earlier track, playing on the official terminology of Treasury surveys and a sort of humour of approximation, he boasts: ‘des milliers d’euros ma rémuneration [my remuneration’s in the thousands of euros]’).26 Until this aesthetic of ostentation produces its own negative, fuelling the melancholy of the rich black man, as in Drake or Kanye West.27 25. This thesis is discussed in J. Wallach, H.M. Berger and P.D. Greene, Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music Around the World (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2011). Beyond this sociological connection, heavy metal in its ‘second phase of globalization’ (Deena Weinstein) emerged as ‘the music of anyone who is frustrated by the unkept promises of modernity and willing to embrace a marginalized, transgressive culture to express those feelings. It is the music of the modern project unfulfilled’ (19). By the 1990s, Nepalese metal, for example, had become a music of the young elite technician rather than the working classes. For at least two decades, the genre has integrated the aesthetics of the avant-garde and of post-rock, both musics of groups with relatively high social and cultural capital, as shown by P.D. Greene and D.R. Henderson in ‘At the Crossroads of Languages, Music and Emotions in Kathmandu’, Popular Music and Society 24:3 (2009), 95–116. 26. Respectively in ‘Kalash’ on the album Futur 2.0 (Universal, 2012) and ‘Le Metéore’ on the album Ouest Side (Universal, 2006). 27. In the songs on the 2013 Yeezus album, Kanye West returns tirelessly to his condition as a rich black man and the inverted humiliation that is perpetuated, as a cynical response to the words of Syl Johnson in the classic ‘Is It Because I’m Black?’: ‘Cause I wanna be somebody, I wanna be somebody so bad / You see, I want diamond rings and things like you do / And I wanna drive Cadillac cars’. Thirty-four years later, in ‘Blood on the Leaves’, which samples a complete recording of Nina Simone’s ‘Strange Fruit’, West covers the rasping voice of this foundational song of black consciousness with his

R ich and P oor ( C lass)

poverty recounted in popular song often merges with the romantic theme of


Regardless of how individuals relate to it, money counts, and therefore is

F rom Youth to the G eneration

the cat amongst the pigeons in the class struggle. Way before rappers started

recounted in pop works as in no other musical art—even to the point of setting singing about their bank accounts, John Lennon, in the tradition of protest songs, exalted the ‘working class hero’. On 4 November 1963, during a Beatles concert performed before the Royal Family at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London for the Royal Command Performance, before playing ‘Twist and Shout’, Lennon called to the audience: ‘For our next song, can people in the cheap seats clap their hands. And all the others, shake your jewellery!’ The twisting dance and cries of ‘Twist and Shout’ became socially incongruous when subjected to the scrutiny of a seated audience of aristocrats. By emphasising this, Lennon made the incongruity resonate as an expression of the class struggle at the heart of the entertainment industry. The Beatles had been widely acclaimed, and in a sense had reconciled society by playing to both aristocrats and common fans, but reconciliation through their art did not amount to actual social reconciliation. Of course, what authorised this kind of irony was Lennon’s situation as an artist of humble origins suddenly enriched by success but detached from the conventions of high society.

From Youth to the Generation The other subject-condition that is always meaningful in pop expression is age: whether that of the girl too young to be married to the respectable older man imposed on her by her family, or the age of the boy about to go to war. In its privileged relationship to human finitude, popular music has always sung of the ages of life. Age is the most universally shared condition: every individual, if they live long enough, was, is, and will be a child, adolescent, adult, and then finally old. As such, age is the universal particular condition at the intersection of all those other conditions (race, gender, class, ethnicity...) that, in contrast, tend egocentric flow and disgust with himself as a wealthy African American, delivering into the vocoder a logorrhea of vague amorous failures, against a background of Instagram photos of his friends Jay-Z and Beyoncé. But it is in the song that precedes this, ‘New Slaves’, whose second verse says simply ‘I see the blood on the leaves’, that Kanye responds to Nina, spitting on the new ‘rich nigga racism’ of those who once forbade blacks to touch the items in stores, and who continue to humiliate them today by pandering to their consumerism. ‘“What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? / All you blacks want all the same things”. Used to only be niggas, now everybody playing / Spending everything on Alexander Wang.’

more to irrevocably separate the communities one belongs to. Poetically speak-


ing, childhood is an inexhaustible source of nostalgia—for innocence, of course, functioning of adult society, to the normal forms of well-adapted life. And finally, with old age—that of the bluesmen rediscovered by English rhythm and blues enthusiasts—comes a particular authority, that of accumulated experience, and sometimes of wisdom. Among R&B enthusiasts in their late twenties or thirties in the late 2010s, adulthood has become synonymous with mastery of one’s image, one’s desires, one’s career, in short, with artists’ capacity for the ‘empowerment’ so dear to the contemporary ideology of personal development. The fact that voices almost instantly suggest ages—the childlike voice of Brian Wilson, the adolescent voice of Mary Weiss, Beyoncé’s smooth yet somewhat husky mature female voice, the hoarse ancestral voice of Leonard Cohen—inscribes this particular determination at the heart of the aesthetics of the song. And yet here age remains an individual situation concerning the individual at a given moment, one which, for this reason alone, is likely to be meaningful to any listener, provided that they are at, or have experienced, that time of life. At the moment when, in the pop aesthetic, age became a matter not for individuals but for an entire generation, its particularism ceased to be universal, since to designate a given generation is to exclude others. After the Second World War, through the baby boom and the counterculture, as youth became an economic actor and even, under the name of ‘adolescence’, an object of study as never before, it took on the status of a particular condition in the sense outlined above, of a shared social situation that defined membership groups and their interests. The entire rock aesthetic projected its truth into this idea of youth. When The Who sang ‘My Generation’ in 1965, youth took on a new kind of particularism, that of a generational community; it indicated not just an age, but that age as lived through in the 1960s, with all the creativity identified with young people of that decade who had not experienced war, of young women able to access higher education and, of course, the contraceptive pill. For many years after, new generations could look back to this moment of emancipation of youth and would continue, in part, to identify with it. But as the promising generation of the sixties has attained adulthood and moved into positions of

F rom Youth to the G eneration

but not only that. As for eternal adolescence, it crystallises the challenge to the


power, the youthful form of life it claimed has generated increasingly artificial and normative imagery. Its combination of collective rebellion and individualism,

G ender

its drugs, its sexual freedom, and its characteristic confidence in political transformation through new forms of life turning into so many patrimonial signs contradicting the spontaneous impulses they originally designated. For those who inherited this ideal of youth, the challenge was to renew the countercultural way of life in the 1980s, then the 1990s, and finally the 2000s, even though the ideal of youth seemed to be forever frozen in the Edenic visions of the sixties, the decade of which they say that, if you can remember it, you weren’t really there28—a jealous exclusion of all those who came afterwards. Even the sixties image of youth ended up getting old. Our experience today of seeing its great figures disappear one by one will no doubt mark another turning point: the definitive transition into a nostalgic and heritage-based relation to a ‘youth’ that will no longer be an age, but the memory of a generation.

Gender Like age—which perhaps it has gradually replaced—gender has served as a particular condition determining the aesthetics of pop. The virility that was already expressed in blues and jazz, and which Adorno sneered at, had already become a fetishised aesthetic code by the time of the so-called cock rock of the 1970s, which took it to the point of self-parody. In one sense, the staging of this virility confirms the masculine domination that exists in this area as elsewhere, but in another sense it takes a step back from it. From the very start the affirmation of gender in the art of pop music, even in its most masculine styles, has had the merit of not presenting it as neutral: on the contrary, the emphasis placed on its particularity dispels any false universality. Male figures of sexual predators—to take one example among thousands, The Rolling Stones’ ‘Under My Thumb’ (1966)—and male victims of sexually predatory women (the standard ‘Jezebel’ [1956] by Gene Vincent, covered in French by Les Chaussettes Noires) are never presented as universal figures but always as sexualised and gendered bodies, in this case of the body of the male individual in 28. ‘If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there’. The quote has been attributed, among others, to Grace Slick and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, but was probably first pronounced by actor Charlie Fleischer, in the Los Angeles Times, 13 June 1982.

a society which in principle it dominates, but not without suffering the competi-


tion of its fellows and the power of those—women—over whom it supposedly have no less right to expression here: in the swaggering rock‘n’roll of Wanda Jackson, the French chanson of Colette Magny, and in certain songs by 1960s girl groups—‘I Can Never Go Home Anymore’ by The Shangri-Las, where mother and daughter clash, or ‘Sally Go Round the Roses’ by The Jaynetts, with its faintly lesbian subtext—pop has always dealt with the poetry and politics of gendered difference, whether with emancipatory intentions or not. Later, in the militant punk feminism of the Swiss LiLiPUT, The Raincoats, and The Slits—especially politically-engaged bassist Tessa Politt—and the Au Pairs, whose ‘Come Again’ (on the 1981 album Playing With a Different Sex) scrutinises sex and orgasm, the sexualised female body becomes an explicit subject. Throughout the 1980s Madonna would hypersexualise it in a spirit of provocation that paralleled the moral and economic liberalisation of the time. Largely inspired by the star who led her fans into the privacy of her bedroom,29 the queens of mainstream feminine pop in the 2010s have reclaimed this hypersexualisation, in each case inflecting its meaning according to their own origins, whether for the Tennessee native Miley Cyrus or rapper Nicki Minaj from Trinidad. Toward the end of Beyoncé’s ‘Partition’ we hear the sample of a voice asking: ‘Est-ce que tu aimes le sexe? Le sexe, je veux dire l’activité physique, le coït, tu aimes ça? Tu ne t’intéresses pas au sexe? Les hommes pensent que les féministes détestent le sexe mais c’est une activité très stimulante et naturelle que les femmes adorent [Do you like sex? Sex, I mean: physical activity, coitus. You like it? Are you not interested in sex? Men think that feminists hate sex but it’s an exciting and natural activity that women love]’.30 Now linked to emancipation and no longer to submission, the sexualisation of the female body is prized independently of men’s desire. This brand of R&B, which boasts a certain, in some cases quite advanced awareness of activist debates around gender, produces embodiments very distinct from those which still dominated the 29. In Bed With Madonna (Madonna: Truth or Dare), directed by Alek Keshishian during the star’s 1990 European tour, released in 1991. 30. On the album Beyoncé (Columbia, 2013). The sample is taken from a scene in the French language dubbed version of the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski, where Julianne Moore speaks to Jeff Bridges.

G ender

dominates. And the dominated, the figures of which are not exclusively female,


‘conscious’ ethic of the nu-soul of Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill in the late 1990s. The two dimensions—consciousness and sexuate embodiment—are articulated

I ntersections

in yet other ways in Janelle Monae, Azaelia Banks (who identifies as bisexual but refuses to clothe her music in a gay aesthetic), or Solange, Beyoncé’s sister, who in 2016 dedicated a song to the curious who want to touch her hair (‘Don’t Touch My Hair’), in which her afro certainly takes on a political and identitarian meaning, but which also references the issue of respect for her person and the integrity of her body.

Intersections Each of these particular conditions shapes pop voices. But of course they never come alone. Between class, gender, race, sexuality and every other possible membership group, religious or cultural, interests intersect (in the person of a given individual) without necessarily overlapping. Gender as a particular condition is complicated by the phenomenon of intersectionality, as identified in American feminist criticism since the late 1980s.31 In her lengthy research into gender in the music industry and especially in English and American feminist indie pop in the 1990s, Marion Leonard collected and transcribed a number of critical testimonies pointing to an underlying class interest. The Riot Grrrl movement—with groups such as Bikini Kill, The Butchies, L7, and Sleater-Kinney who, through music and by taking on the stance of masculine rock, fought against a music that relegated girls to the status of object of desire or confined them to a handful of stereotypes—even if it ended up bringing more women into the music scene, to some seemed like a rebellion of the white middle class for the benefit of their peers. In counterpoint to its feminist consciousness, the movement failed to address class and race differences: In that aspect, rather than presenting an alternative, Riot Grrrl totally parallels

31. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the concept of intersectionality in 1989, in a study published in 1991 on violence against non-white women in the underprivileged classes in the United States. See ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review 43: 6 (July 1991), 1241–99. The concept is both descriptive and polemical (or is perceived as such by those who see its logic of identity as ‘anti-universalist’). Here we simply use it as a descriptive tool to think about the many factors that affect the construction of the subjectivity of individuals.

‘mainstream’ Euro-American feminism […] We talk about ‘women’s issues,’ but


which women are we talking about?

(certainly in the UK)’, adds Erica, who wrote in Girlfrenzy that it was NOT the same as Acid House in 1988 where Smiley Face graffiti was scrawled all over Council Estates and every kid knew what it was all about.33

Most of the girls involved in the movement were university students, generally from affluent backgrounds. Riot Grrrls didn’t come from the poor parts of London or Leeds. The militant network was tight and supportive, but involved certain requirements, and some felt excluded. The whole subculture, with its ‘almost evangelical language’, was ‘obsessed’ by the fact that women had to be creative: ‘you really didn’t feel like you belonged properly unless you MADE something’, whether having a group or writing and photocopying a fanzine, as one respondent recounted. This creativity presupposed a certain knowledge of networks and an aesthetic inherited from male punk rock, whose codes had to be mastered: it only included by excluding. In the interests of an equality between males and females, it demanded—without explaining in these terms—a place for the cultured woman artist. Rachel Holborow, musician and co-founder of Slampt Records, summarises the ambiguity of the movement in these terms: Riot Grrrl was a middle-class ghetto inside the white middle class ghetto of punk, and as such couldn’t win favour with any but a few. But it did tap into the dis ease [sic] among middle class girls who wanted to start dealing with how women were still fucked up and fucked over. […] Oppression is oppression, but you can only start dealing with it in an individual specific way.34

32. M. Leonard, Gender in the Music Industry: Rock, Discourse and Girl Power (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 148. 33. Quoted in ibid., 149. 34. Communication of 5 November 1999, quoted in ibid., 58.

I ntersections

asks Mimi Nguyen, an American of Vietnamese origin, founder of the fanzine Aim Your Dick.32 ‘Riot Grrrl was/is predominantly a middle-class white revolution


Riot Grrrl stifled a certain dimension of this specificity, making its feminist claims relatively abstract—somewhat like the false universality of the white

I ntersections

male composer of serious music—from the perspective of other, non-white and non-middle-class subjectivities. In 1991, a famous televised confrontation between rapper Ice Cube and Angela Davis, the great feminist figure of Black Power, clarified these tensions produced by the rendering explicit of intersections between gender and race. ‘You need black men who are not looking up to the white man, who are not trying to be like the white man’,35 says O’Shea ‘Ice Cube’ Jackson, militating for a virile and aggressive embodiment of black masculinity. Between advocating for black rights and advocating for women’s rights, Ice Cube thus unambiguously chooses what for Davis, a black militant and a woman, is precisely the impasse to be avoided.36 ‘If you’re a bitch, you’re probably not gonna like us’ the rapper told the press shortly after the show about his lyrics for NWA (Niggaz With Attitude), suggesting a sort of overt and orderly misogyny—although the fact that all the women mentioned in the songs feature as ‘bitches’ might well lead one to conclude that no woman could appreciate these words short of masochism—or a generous dose of irony. From this point of view, the virile machismo brand of embodiment that dominates some hip-hop aesthetics remains a sensitive and unresolved issue; but it is the women within hip-hop themselves who have tried each in their own way to confront the sexism of the genre. Indeed, there are a plethora of examples of ‘counter-attacks’ from the very beginnings of hip-hop, such as Monie Love’s 1981 ‘It’s a Shame (My Sister)’, or the pioneering female rapper MC Lyte’s 1989 duet with Positive K, ‘I’m Not Having It’, in which a scene of harassment takes the form of rhyme battle, punctuated by K’s insistent ‘Excuse me, Miss…’. In the 1993 song ‘Recipe of a Hoe’, Bo$$, real name Lichelle Laws, takes a more aggressive approach, cultivating a gangsta rap aesthetic that adopts the virile codes of the style but turns them against men: ‘Guess who? / The down ass bitch BO$$! / Speakin’ on how ya dick’ll be 35. Quoted in Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, 336. 36. In a review article on the situation of Black Nationalism thirty years after the advent of the Black Panthers, Davis writes: ‘I find myself in a somewhat problematic position because […] my image is associated with a certain representation of Black Nationalism that privileges those particular nationalisms with which some of us were locked in constant battle.’ A.Y. Davis, ‘Black Nationalism: The Sixties and the Nineties’, in J. James (ed.), The Angela Y. Davis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 292.

gettin’ / Shot clear the fuck off!’37 After just one album, Born Gangstaz, Bo$$


disappeared off the radar after the Wall Street Journal revealed that she had In this case, social class, which can destroy street credibility in the eyes of fans, undid the authenticity of a militant artist’s stance on gender. The fans who judged it less authentic because of the artist’s bourgeois origins were no doubt undertaking a spontaneous intersectional analysis, highlighting the way in which particularisms intersect and can give rise to contradictory interests within the same individual: Laws had decided to use her music to address her status as a woman and an African American, but hadn’t quite known what to make of her privileged education, an encumbrance in a musical aesthetic more attuned to gunshots traded on the street at night beneath the tower blocks of social housing. Even though many middle-class rappers have tried to make their mark, the ethico-aesthetic principles that govern hip-hop mean that the question of their social origin is constantly debated and becomes inseparable from the aesthetic evaluation of their work. It took all the social violence crystallised in the Compton district of Los Angeles to establish the authenticity of NWA’s gangsta rap. Even though Eric Lynn Wright, known as Eazy-E, was the son of a postman and a school principal, it’s his dropping out of school and the fact that he started dealing drugs at the age of sixteen that counts in the legend, as replayed in the movie tribute to the group, Straight Outta Compton.38 At the intersection of these different particular conditions, the pop subject not only hails from their (more or less well-identified) membership community— they can inherit the burden of representing that community.

Representation ‘Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parking meters’ sang Bob Dylan in 1965’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, at the very moment when he was beginning to struggle with his own status as a modern-day prophet. More than twenty years later, in 1988, DJ Eric B. and rapper Rakim released their hit ‘Follow the Leader’,

37. Note the use of an enjambed rhyme to suggest the act of shooting the penis of the disrespectful man to whom Bo$$’s lines are addressed. 38. Universal, 2015, dir. F. Gary Gray.

R epresentation

grown up in an upper-middle-class family and attended private school.


which combines an almost abstract ode to the pure art of rhymes with a call for a takeover of racialised power.

R epresentation

While Dylan’s slogan sends listeners back (via the absurd) to think for themselves. In Eric B. & Rakim it turns the rappers into guides, invested with the liberating yet occult power of music. In both cases, the pop subject takes on the stature of a figure of emancipation conscious of inspiring not just fans, but a new membership community that relies upon him. Dylan did everything he could to escape the condition of a leader, but he had to at least implicitly take on the messianic position that a generation bestowed upon him. Eric B. & Rakim channel the logic of the boss, but only so as to better overthrow the boss and take his place as hip-hop virtuosi, models of emancipation via expression. In a clip from the time the two are made up as 1950s gangsters giving a lesson to the Italian mafia: But remember—you’re not a slave / Cause we was put here to be much more than that / But we couldn’t see because our mind was trapped / But I’m here to break away the chains, take away the pains / Remake the brains […]

In line with the transhumanist projects of George Clinton’s afrofuturism (Funkadelic, Parliament), this conscious hip-hop wants to transform spirits through music, to reconfigure the black brain programmed for too long with the ‘slave’ function. Leadership here takes on the sense of a mission: it is a matter of literally remaking the brains of alienated black listeners. At the very end of the 1980s, the more explicit and aggressive militancy of Public Enemy partly relayed that of Eric B. & Rakim with the aesthetic posture of old school rap, but pushed particularist pop expression further, into a political declaration to the black community. ‘Represent! Represent!’ chants Nas a few years later, in one of the biggest tracks from the album Illmatic. On the back cover he poses with his posse in front of the social housing of his neighbourhood, the poor and overcrowded Queensbridge in New York. ‘Straight up, shit is real / And any day could be your last in the jungle.’ These are the conditions here: the conditions of a life that could be ended at any moment by an exchange of gunfire. The solitary, vulnerable, threatened individual reveals his power by representing the community. The

one who ‘represents’ is the one who has survived the bullets, like KRS-One after


the murder of his sidekick Scott La Rock, with whom he founded Boogie Down expresses himself is the silhouette that rises where the body of a brother fell, to speak and sing for those who can no longer do so. The slogan ‘Represent’ has become the universal signature of political positioning in hip-hop. ‘J’représente ma mère et tout l’parquet qu’elle a frotté [I represent my mum and all the floors she scrubbed]’ says French rapper Koma in 1999’s ‘Nouveau classik’. In the 2004 track ‘Tallac’, a disillusioned Booba ironically addresses the ‘Nine Three’ rallying cry of Paris banlieue hip-hop (the number of the Seine-Saint-Denis département), grumbling ‘représente que nos codes postaux [all it represents is our postal code]’. In fact, the ‘Represent’ of hip-hop more often than not can do without any object: it designates a membership community comparable to a secret society or a small group that need say no more in order to be recognised by those who know. Like the rockers’ black jackets, the punk Bromley Contingent, the Rastas, the Rudies, and all the small subcultural groups in the making,39 the posse, the extended clan it designates, stands at the interface between a political community and an aesthetic community. Playing on this ambiguity, hip-hop that ‘represents’ oscillates between a demand for recognition from the rest of society—which would require an explanation of precisely what one represents—and pride in constituting itself as an exclusive community that only initiates can recognise. But be this as it may, nothing requires that the pop subject accept the transformation of their artistic aura into the sign of a leader, spokesman, guide, or guru. ‘Don’t expect a rock star to guide you’, Kurt Cobain said, completely at odds with any mystique of the artist as opinion leader. But since their expression is rooted in their particular conditions of existence, and because they inspire the recognition of a membership community—whether gendered, racial, generational, or indexed to all these particularities at once—the pop artist will always have to contend with this power of representation. 39. This is at the heart of the cultural studies research programme initiated by Stuart Hall who, beyond the mere identification of sub-cultures, interrogated their forms of cohesion or, on the contrary, of dissemination through the circulation or recuperation of certain supposedly distinctive traits, the main challenge being to think about these subcultures without essentialising them, without denying their social dynamics and their interactions. See S. Hall and T. Jefferson, Resistance Through Rituals. Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain (Abingdon: Routledge, 2nd edition 2006).

R epresentation

Productions and in whose name he will forever continue rapping: the subject who


Aware of this power, since they admire its effects, fans engage in unending

U niversalisation ( B etrayal)

the betrayals for which they blame them only make sense against the backdrop

debates over the authenticity of artists: the fidelity they recognise in them and of the sociocultural postures that artists adopt.

Universalisation (Betrayal) It is especially in this context that popularity, and specifically breaking into the mainstream, can become betrayal. Pop expression, as we have seen, is always particularist: a particularism based on the ability to represent membership communities. In counterpoint, the mainstream that includes the largest community of listeners possible is akin to a form of universalism. But rather than overcoming particularities dialectically, the mainstream is suspected of neutralising them, killing them off, in a sort of pax romana where the objection of the specific to the universal does not in fact survive. ‘Leave This Off Your Fuckin’ Charts’ yells the title of a 1990 Public Enemy track. Addressed to all without distinction, in accordance with the pop ideal of blind popularity, the charts can only serve to neutralise the specificity of ‘Represent!’ Mainstream hits cannot unambiguously challenge the dominant culture; they have become the dominant culture. They present the dishonest figure of a majority power that continues to act as if it’s a minority militancy, an exponential power combining the advantages of minorities against the State and those of the State against minorities. Such balance may be possible artistically but will always be problematic politically. For hip-hop, tethered to a series of particularities, becoming the dominant genre of the contemporary mainstream in the first two decades of the 2000s could only throw the genre’s consciousness into crisis. And yet it is a fact that the circulation of pop regularly drives it to transcend the particular conditions from which it has emerged. One can politically critique this expansion and impute it to the odious culture industry and its power to neutralise particularisms. But there is more to it than that. Pop’s impulse toward the universal—and therefore, concretely, toward the success of songs that break into the mainstream—is every bit as undeniable as its attachment to particularisms. Here the essential dialectic of this art form is played out in full: a dialectic that sees it torn between fidelity to the particular—and therefore

militancy and the critique of universality—and the promise of reconciliation,


that is to say, universality. In the 1960s Berry Gordy sold songs of universal love promotion of exclusively black artists, but aimed at the great American public. Represented by groups such as The Supremes, singing love songs with messages that everyone can relate to—‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’, ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’—the company produced a universal pop that eventually proved itself capable of winning over a large white audience beyond the small circles of white fans who had hitherto ventured into the ‘race music’ charts. At practically the same moment the Stax firm, founded by the white man Jim Stewart (a former country musician born in Tennessee) took the opposite approach. ‘Blaxploitation’ developed a black music for black people not on the segregationist model of race music, but on the model of militant separatism, of a community of black interests, accompanying from afar the rise of the Black Panthers. In promoting such music Stax may have earned the distinction of a certain authenticity among its first fans, but Motown hits became synonymous with a utopia that is equally essential to pop expression. The fact that love songs are predominant, as a theme that all humanity can recognise regardless of colour, is not merely a veneer of false universality added to the music. ‘Instead of breaking up / Let’s do some kissing and making up’, as The Supremes sang in their 1964 hit ‘Baby Love’. There always comes a moment when the energy of pop, which is fuelled by particularities, by the concrete living conditions that separate us, by demands and struggles, nonetheless ends up seeking the reconciliation of everyone with everyone. * This fact seems undeniable: the individual and particular embodiment of the pop subject provides the necessary raw material for its expressiveness. This is why sociology and cultural studies can describe at length the social, political, and even critical determinants of this expressiveness, study the tensions it raises vis-à-vis this or that membership community, and debate the representativeness of a discourse conveyed in pop works. But none of these approaches

U niversalisation ( B etrayal)

from Motown in Detroit, a black-owned record company for the production and


manages to describe how the pop subject constitutes itself as an artistic subject, as the singular creator of its works. The wealth of situations expressed and the

U niversalisation ( B etrayal)

range of modes of expression certainly make it possible to study a pop work by tracing it back to a social and historical context, by illuminating it, for example, with the aid of a critical-theoretical apparatus relating to gender or decolonisation. But quite obviously, being African American, poor, or a woman is not in itself enough to produce a pop work, let alone a successful one. And we don’t listen to Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville in the same way that we read de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, or listen to musicians such as Ann Clark or Planningtorock in the same way that we listen to a lecture by Judith Butler or Donna Haraway. An expressive pop subject constructed on the basis of its particular situation, its determinations, and its identity, only ever incompletely embodies what must be called the artistic pop subject, the pop subject qua artist. So far, we know that this is a subject that draws the aesthetic materials of its expressiveness from its being-in-the-world and from its situation. But we have not yet understood how its expressiveness makes this material into a work, in the fashion that is so specific to pop. To be sure, the pop subject is a democratic individual who makes use of their right to expression. But it remains to be seen how this subject of the world can, as an artist, be distinguished from their peers. We must now understand not in sociological but rather in aesthetic terms that paradoxical figure at the heart of pop: the democratic genius.

II. DEMOCRATISED GENIUS fifty-year career.40 When the pop subject is understood as an artistic subjectivity, singularity is all that counts. For pop places its reliance in ‘being oneself’ in a sense vague enough to accommodate the most diverse conceptions of identity. What’s important is that it should represent the irreducible bastion of a mode of expression that will belong only to oneself and to one’s own individual spontaneity. Provided that an individual knows how to be a virtuoso of themselves, the art of pop will open its doors to them.

INGENIUM It was at the end of the eighteenth century that European aesthetic thought developed the modern concept of the genius. ‘Genius,’ wrote Kant, ‘is the innate mental predisposition (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art.’41 Nature thus acts as the pilot of a singularity and creativity that goes beyond mere artisanal craft. It forges the innate character of the individual, that which gives them their way of being, beyond education, social norms, and any kind of training. Drawing on the innate resources of their individuality, the genius is the antithesis of an apprentice, who owes his talent to learned rules. The genius’s creation obeys no rules that could be taught or transmitted. Camper’s rules for making the best shoe can be clearly formulated, says Kant, and they will allow any shoemaker who follows them scrupulously to succeed in making their product. On the contrary, there can be no instruction manual for the work of genius. If it obeys rules, they remain as obscure to the consciousness of its creator as they are to the spectator of their work, because they are part of an encrypted language of nature that stimulates their imagination in a way that is beyond the genius’s own understanding. ‘I do not know how I got to this song,’ recounts Neil Young, remembering the recording sessions for Tonight’s the Night.42 Keeping Kant’s definition

40. Joan Baez, interviewed by Annick Cojean, ‘Le silence m’est essentiel’, Le Monde, 24 July 2016. 41. I. Kant, Critique of Judgment, tr. W.S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 307 [Section I, Book II, §46]. 42. Barker and Taylor, ‘Tonight’s the Night’, in Faking It:, 212.

D E M O C R AT I s E D G enius

‘Be yourself’ is the wisdom Joan Baez dispenses to aspiring musicians after a



in mind, this ignorance is less a confession of humility than a confession of

I ngenium

Vigny to Lautréamont, all of whom meditated on the mutability of the sources

genius. It echoes the spirit of the Romantic poets, from Keats to Shelley, from of inspiration and the fascinating impossibility of setting out the rules for the creation of genius. It has also become a cliché in artists’ accounts of their work, so much so that many have ended up rejecting it, instead adopting the status of craftsmen, endowed with knowhow that enables them to make ‘good songs’ just as Camper made good shoes. But the concept of genius has survived this reversal. Rock critics, even the most harsh and lucid among them, continue to refer to the ingenium, that dimension of the unfathomable creativity of artists. ‘Brian Wilson is a genius’, people were saying in the Swinging London of the 1960s, after former Beatles press officer Derek Taylor popularised the phrase. No pop fan today would challenge it. In a century anxious to make explicit the conditions that determine individuals, whether libidinal, social, or economic, strangely, ingenium has survived, like a necessary blind spot. While the humanities and cognitive sciences have tried to elucidate those particular conditions of subjectivity that the pop subject has fully taken into account, ingenium designates the stubborn residue of this process: an obscure prelinguistic dimension impossible to bring to light using the categories of reason. Already for Kant it remained distinct from the transcendental ego, autonomous, dominant, master of its own house. In the figure of genius, on the contrary, the idealistic fiction of an autonomous individuality implodes: individuality is not self-determining, for its acts can be traced back to the transcendence of an untamed nature that acts through it. In those individualities said to have been acted upon by this nature in which the enigma of their singularity crystallises, pop recognises its incomparable geniuses. There is good reason why pop aesthetics has always prized the freak, the monster that asserts itself as a fantastic creation of nature, not an anomaly but an expression of nature’s creativity—from Frank Zappa to Chic. Given all of the above, the pop ingenium will be as much that which the individual themselves possesses as that which dispossesses them, designating both what is unique about the individual and something that determines them obscurely. It doesn’t matter if the content of this determination remains vague, from fantasies of genetics to the sedimentation of individual habits, from libidinal

impulses to childhood traumas; the ingenium operates as a hidden transcendence,


the magical quirk that lifts the individual out of the immanence of democratic among others, it is a manna for the individual, provided they can bring its treasures to the surface, like Mary Poppins extracting the most unlikely object from the depths of her little suitcase. The tiniest of singularities can fuel an expression that is not only particular but exceptional, possessed of genius. But going back to the Latin meaning of the word ‘ingenium’, less emphatic then ‘genius’, we can observe that it comes from the same root from which we derive the word ‘genuine’—the characteristic of a thing that makes it what it is, signifying its authenticity and above all its irreducible being-itself, harboured within the limits of its own nature which, although shared with all offspring of the same species, nonetheless allows each individual to be that body, and not another. Among all ferns, a fern still boasts the quality of being this fern, an individual discernible from all others, at least within the physical limits of its corporeality, occupying a unique portion of space and time where all of its determinations of particularity are combined in a singular way. To designate this notion of a unique incarnation, the word coined in Greece is closer to our purpose: idiosyncrasy, ~ in which the ΐδιος [idios], the ‘own’, determines the complexity (κρασις [crasis]

of the mixture). Idiosyncrasy is this irreducible singularity of embodiment, its irreducible difference from any other body. ‘Nobody’s Lonesome for Me’, as Hank Williams sang: loneliness cannot be shared, nor can idiosyncrasy. Impure—it is a complex and a mixture of infinite determinations—this idiosyncrasy is what remains to democratic individuals as a resource for genius. The physiology of the individual, their sexuality, the years they spent in the country, their memory of having never had pocket money, the way their mother told them to sit at the table, their innate ability to distinguish the frequency of particular sounds, their acquired taste for string instruments, their fear of snails, anything whatsoever, the infinity of everything that affects them as a singularity, in all its entanglement, is what configures their idiosyncrasy. And this idiosyncrasy is, so to speak, the individual’s ticket to singularity. The Kinks’ song ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’, a typical pop affirmation of idiosyncrasy, doesn’t even require the Romantic mystique of the superiority of genius over the masses. It dissolves the apparent contradiction between

I ngenium

equality. Within the narrowness of their condition as one democratic individual


the aristocratic election of genius and the democratic equality of opportunity. As Dave Davies sings that he’s not like anybody else, and is therefore unique,

U ntrained

with ever greater intensity rising from a murmur to a cry, he inhabits all of the dialectical meanings of this pop faith in singularity: at first an intimate discovery, it then becomes a slogan and a collective lie, and then an individual rage against this collective lie. The slogan goes from emphatic to reified, from naivety to lucidity. In it we hear the grating incongruity of the latent contradictions of the democratic genius. ‘I Am Cliché’, X-Ray Spex screamed in response. ‘I’m different, I don’t conform, I wear a different uniform’, replied Frank Black more ironically and phlegmatically in ‘Freedom Rock’.43 Of course, democratic ideology has produced the paradoxical stereotype of the generic individual who wants to distinguish themselves, and Dave Davies knew this very well. But pop, tormented by this ‘cliché’, will continue to claim that individuality is irreducible, because it has no credentials with which to gain access to the exclusive temple of art except for this promise of singularity.

UNTRAINED In a televised confrontation that is still famous in France, Serge Gainsbourg once insulted Guy Béart.44 The art of songwriting, says Gainsbourg, sat at the piano in front of a microphone that amplifies his voice, is a ‘minor art’ compared to classical music, poetry, architecture, and literature. Apart from the sheer violence of his attack against Béart, who is trying to defend the dignity of songwriting, Gainsbourg makes only one argument, which he repeats several times: that ‘there’s no need for training’ to become a songwriter. Béart points out to him that we are trained in childhood, surrounded as we are by songs. But Gainsbourg does not reply. The debate’s over. If pop is an art (and to a large extent, it is the art of songwriting), it must be conceded to Gainsbourg that it has a very different relation to apprenticeship than that imposed upon a musician educated in scored music. Up to a certain point, it seems that what it cultivates is an ideal of artistic expression free of toil. Which, contrary to what Gainsbourg suggests, would not make it lesser or minor, but closer to the very source of what makes for genius: the spontaneous 43. The words are Charles Thomson’s. 44. INA Archive, 26 December 1986 on the TV show ‘Apostrophes’.

expression of idiosyncrasy itself. And surely spontaneity stands as a guarantee


of originality, whereas training suggests domestication. Joe Boyd proposes this edifying distinction between English and American education: Some British art students would form a group, then learn how to play their instruments well enough to perform the songs written by the group’s strongest personality. The results might be technically unsophisticated but were often more original than those of their American counterparts who were too close to our musical forms to do much more than accurately re-create them. Dylan, always the exception, was almost British in his unconcern with vocal grace or instrumental fluency.45

At the time, Joe Boyd was manager of Fairport Convention, a band that brought together a number of talented musicians including Richard Thompson, an exceptional guitarist. The members of the group were learned people, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the intricacies of the music they were playing. But it was the myth of their casualness, their nonconformity, their rejection of existing models, that played a more important role in their success: it established a more immediate connection between their work and their singularity, apparently without the mediation of laborious training. The fact that the pop aesthetic often attaches greater value to the artist’s early works confirms the importance of this conception. Pop masterpieces, particularly in the post-war era, are the work of young people whose average age, from the first Velvet Underground record to Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, is in their mid to late twenties. The pop artist achieves their greatest accomplishments in the fulgurant brilliance of youth. The quality of their art even threatens to fall off as they gain in experience and age. It is sometimes judged that, as they mature, the bond between the idiosyncrasy that guarantees an intact originality and musical expression comes undone. It takes decades of dedicated replays and reevaluations in order to make somethings of one of the albums made by Paco de Lucía after Entre dos aguas (1975)

45. J. Boyd, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2006), 65–6.

U ntrained

Remembering the rock and folk scenes of the early 1960s, in White Bicycles


and Almoraima (1976) or one of Prince’s after Sign o’ the Times (1987): at the time it was said that, as they matured, they had lost their spontaneous genius.

U ntrained

In a 1985 article entitled ‘The Misadventures of the Amateur’46 Pierre Bourdieu looks back on a remarkable episode narrated by Rousseau in the fourth book of the Confessions, where Jean-Jacques recounts ‘one of the greatest extravagances of his life’: the day he reinvented himself as a composer and conductor by the name of Vaussore Villeneuve, a combination of an anagram of his own name with that of his hero Venture de Villeneuve. Under the name of Vaussore he works for fifteen days on a score, draws the parts from it, and distributes them ‘as confidently as if it had been a masterpiece of harmony’. The day when the work is to be performed by musicians gathered for the occasion, ‘I start gravely to beat the measure, we begin….’ It turns out that the final minuet is copied from a song with salacious lyrics that everyone recognises, prompting cacophony, laughter, ridicule, and sarcasm from the audience. Rousseau, writes Bourdieu, magically forces the laws of nature and society. By the symbolic virtue of this gesture, he does away with the scandal of the inaccessibility of music as a strange reality, separate yet irresistibly desired. As in a fairy tale, he leaps in one bound over the obstacle of all obstacles, that long and laborious period which, in reality, separates the novice from the confirmed master.47

And the leap that allows Rousseau to achieve this ‘magical transgression of limits’ between the fan and the truly confirmed musician is an act of ‘usurpation’. Jean-Jacques usurps the status of composer at a time when there is no institution such as a conservatory to grant a diploma certifying that an individual actually has the competencies of a composer or conductor: ‘the uncertainty of status and skills invites bluffing and masquerade.’48 Nowadays the border is more readily visible. But from the outset, it is objective: it is the line drawn between individuals who have dedicated years to acquiring knowledge, and those who have not. If Rousseau/Vaussore’s transgression of this border is 46. P. Bourdieu, ‘Les mésaventures de l’amateur’ (1985), quoted in Samuel and Boulez, Éclats, 221–5. 47. Ibid., 222. 48. Ibid., 223.

a usurpation, it is because serious music is an art for which the expression of


talent or genius is conditional on training. But then his bluff is a usurpation only ‘great flashes of spontaneist impatience’, as Bourdieu writes. Because the street singer who turns himself into a makeshift conductor [or] ‘composer’ who, in the name of originality [...] attempts to transmute the audacity of ignorance into the revolutionary will to transgression, threatens the very existence of the Republics of Letters—those fragile worlds laboriously conquered against all external necessities.49

Precisely because it relies on the audacity of ignorance and opens up its Republic of expression to all comers, pop, on the contrary, would not have ejected Vaussore from its kingdom. ‘I am not made like anyone I have been acquainted with’, declares Rousseau in his Confessions. And this alone grants him entry into the popular arts’ Democracy of Letters. Instead of a conservatory diploma designating ‘those rightfully entitled to enter into contact with the sacred’, pop welcomes those who confirm by their audacity the arbitrariness of any borders set around knowledge. Of course there are variable degrees of this democracy of expression attached to different pop aesthetics. For example, the punk encouragement of DIY has opened up a path for absolute independence in regard to competence, identified as a kind of barrier to expression and empowerment. ‘Who cares if the boring musos whine that we “haven’t learnt to play our instruments properly”’, argues Kookie Monster’s Free Peach Thingy, a Riot Grrrl zine; ‘anyone can write and play for as long as there’s ATTITUDE/ANGER in them’.50 ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’, as the song on Radiohead’s Pablo Honey says, provided that you don’t play it like anyone else.51 The rules you need to follow are minimal and easily 49. Ibid., 225. 50. Quoted in M. Leonard, Gender in the Music Industry, 123. 51. An aesthetic ideal that to some extent stands in contrast to the sociological claim that many musicians working in popular music received a classical education, and that this education is a factor in their success (see G. Guibert, Les Nouveaux Courants musicaux: simples produits des industries culturelles? [Nantes: Éditions Mélanie Seteun/Irma Editions, 1998]). Notwithstanding this fact, it has also been shown that such training, where it exists, is often training in an instrument other than that used within the pop context, especially in the case of vocals and electric guitar. While it is at

U ntrained

in the context of a serious aesthetics of music that by definition represses the


accessible, no institutional validation is required, and even without suffering for

U ntrained

or nylon strings of a guitar, the pop artist can just as easily work with carefully

several weeks to harden the pulp of their fingers on the fretboard and steel collected samples, or, like Grimes, indeed like a whole generation of songwriters, with prerecorded sequences on GarageBand.52 But regardless of the origin of their materials, whether harvested from elsewhere or reconstituted, what is demanded of them is a singularity of vision. Here originality is synonymous with spontaneity, knowledge with an instinctive familiarity with resources the artist can find in themselves or within easy reach. This is why pop prefers the amateur to the ‘professional’ and the ‘muso’, the accident to premeditation. Instead of experts, pop elects the naive, the unconscious, and the wild. The pop artist may be an outstanding technician, but we will always be impressed less by their technique than by their grace. The ‘studio animal’ with a mastery of instrumental technique may well play many different instruments, be able to perform in many styles, they may adapt their stuff to multiple production styles; but there is a reason why this type of musician is an ambiguous figure, and often a negative one, in pop aesthetics. They owe their talent to learned rules rather than to the innate impulse of genius, and they therefore betray the cause. Certainly, pop also cultivates inequalities between democratic individuals, celebrating talented individuals more than others. But the experienced musician will always be neglected in favour of the virtuoso whose exceptional technique displays the hallmarks of idiosyncrasy. A model of virtuosity, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar playing is often praised as an example of self-taught musical brilliance. Hendrix’s brother has spoken about how the virtuoso fantasies of young Jimi didn’t develop until he came upon a small fragment of musicological knowledge: that the infinite possibilities of the centre of pop practices, the electric guitar is very rarely taught in any conservatory: it appears from what guitarists say that it is invariably self-taught, and then developed by playing in a band (see D. Morisset, ‘La Guitare électrique: outil de “démocratisation musicale”? Nature et fondements d’une autodidaxie relative’, Masters thesis, CEFEDEM Pays de Loire, 2007). The proliferation of online tutorials since the emergence of YouTube is undoubtedly a factor to consider in understanding the new democratic modes of transmission of techniques for playing pop instruments. 52. ‘I’m not very good musician’, confided the artist to Libération, ‘I don’t know how to play any instruments [...]. My career, my ability to produce music depends completely on the fact that it’s extremely easy to pirate music software and record in your bedroom’. ‘Grimes sans compromis’, Liberation.fr, 9 November 2015, .

music proceed solely from a scale of seven notes and their semitones. As the


guitarist said enthusiastically to his little brother, even Mozart only had that to to become a virtuoso, but ultimately the knowledge informing this virtuosity was basic. From an aesthetic standpoint it was Hendrix’s idiosyncrasy that was at work here above all: the avid sensuality of his playing, his organic treatment of the guitar and electricity, his origin, his skin colour, his family situation—in short, once again, his particular and singular embodiment. And here we come back to the requisites of the Kantian genius: the genius follows a set of rules heretofore unknown, in this case an expressivity on the guitar that had not existed until Hendrix made it audible, sensible, for the first time. Who guitarist Pete Townshend writes in his memoirs that those who heard Hendrix playing instantly understood that ‘it was as if he had discovered a new instrument’ and that one could therefore no longer play the guitar as before. Listening to the captivating solo that opens ‘Little Wing’, of a virtuosity so fully embodied that there is nothing ostentatious about it, only a delicate varying of the lovingly quavering dynamics, it’s quite evident. The genius is instantly recognisable, audible. Musicians who discover it are like Townshend: they hear a rupture, an event in the history of the electric guitar. If we follow Townshend’s reasoning, Hendrix’s playing demanded disciples, it required all guitarists to take account of the break, the event that he represented. But what could it mean to be a disciple of Hendrix? To adopt his ‘technique’? For Townshend, it meant something else: a legacy located practically beyond technique, a mysticism transcending the science of solos and fingerings. It wasn’t a question of being a student of Hendrix, but of becoming his spiritual son or daughter or, better, to take the fantasy all the way, his reincarnation. In pop, transmission is always supposed to take more mysterious routes than that of mere education. What gave Robert Johnson the blues—the ability to play guitar—was the Devil in person, who he met at the crossroads. What makes a certain ‘mojo’ circulate between Keith Richards and Gram Parsons is the heroin they shared. The 1980s figure of the ‘guitar hero’ has a slightly different status within the aesthetic framework of this ‘untrained’ pop virtuosity. In the work of guitarists 53. E. Maillot, ‘Jimi Hendrix, une expérience sous influences’, Une vie, une oeuvre, France Culture, 24 January 2015, .

U ntrained

work with!53 Of course, Hendrix practiced for hours, as many hours as it took


such as Carlos Santana, Michael Schenker, and Ritchie Blackmore, virtuosity takes on the dimensions of a Promethean appropriation of technique: in extremely

U ntrained

rapid, complex solos, here popular music calls upon an aesthetic partly borrowed from a certain idea of ​​‘classical’ music—in particular, very explicitly in Blackmore, of baroque music (Vivaldi, Bach, Purcell).54 This development of hard rock virtuosity may demand a more precise musicological knowledge, but it is deployed outside of any conservatory. Eddie Van Halen, the son of a professional clarinettist and trumpeter, received classical training on violin and piano as a child. But the development of his playing technique is inseparable from blues influences absorbed on the job, while his style involves an unprecedented, selftaught transfer of certain elite tropes for solo instruments borrowed from Bach and Beethoven. In the track ‘Eruption’ (1978), the very title of which evokes an organic thrust perfectly in tune with the Romantic aesthetics of genius, a twenty-seven minute solo boasting ‘a violinist’s precise and showy technique inflected by the vocal rhetoric of the blues and rock and roll irreverence’55 introduces a new model for hard rock virtuosity. Pop taste can sometimes take against such exalted technical prowess, if it seems to express nothing more than itself—a little like Kant, who in his own time despised the exaggerated mannerism of the castrati of opera seria for their supposed lack of ‘naturalness’.56 Precisely because it defies these ‘natural’ limitations, the guitar hero’s playing can lose the organic flexibility that was rightly admired in Hendrix, and can ultimately plunge from the sublime to the ridiculous. The YouTube practice of high-speed shredding and tapped double-stops (techniques demanding very rapid playing, popularised in the late 1970s by Van Halen and Randy Rhoads) with recordings of jerky, crunchy, correctly placed but dissonant guitar sounds, full of false notes, reveals—at the expense of those who are playing—the somewhat comical quality of any extreme technicality within a regime of artistic expression. This is the moment when virtuosity flips over into gritted-teeth overexpression: the individual seems to be the plaything of a mechanism that dominates him and 54. See R. Walser, ‘Eruptions: Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity’, chapter 3 of Running With the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993), 64. 55. Ibid., 68. 56. J. Darriulat, ‘Le Rossignol et la Diva’, Essais, , note 22.

expresses no more than itself, the embodied genius is replaced by an automaton,


the singularity of genius with a manic caricature of itself. In order to retain any ensure that his originality trumps his technique. Perhaps in view of this, Slash, Santana, and Van Halen sport psychedelic, glam outfits and hair as outward signs of their great eccentricity.

CAPTURING THE UNIQUE Far removed from the mediations of training, spontaneity is the presiding cliché in pop’s own descriptions of pop creation. Even with the most technical of heroic guitarists the work still presents itself as an ‘eruption’: what prevails is always expression, as an instantaneous, even accidental, unanticipated manifestation. We didn’t know what kind of music we would make, or even what we were doing making an album, we were writing and recording simultaneously, relying on happy coincidences and spontaneous inspiration.57

declared Hamilton Leithauser in a press release about his album I Had a Dream That You Were Mine describing their ‘work process’. Even taking into account this importance ascribed to expressive events, recording technique is obviously decisive. It does not serve merely to reproduce a creative process that precedes it, but forms part of the creative process, as a technique to capture those individual moments.

All Voices Without Exception Take the voice, for example: the timbre, grain, and inflections of a voice are all highly idiosyncratic elements. And although if a phonographic recording is not neutral or absolutely faithful,58 what it does offer is the technical possibility of 57. French press release for Hamilton Leithauser’s album I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, 10 August 2015. See the 5 August 2016 interview on Pitchfork, . 58. As Jonathan Sterne notes, on the ontological level of technical sound reproduction itself, the idea of ​​fidelity to the original is in part illusory, a ‘measure of sound-reproduction technologies’ product against a fictitious external reality’. Rather than a source anterior to the reproductive process, ‘the original is itself an artefact of the process of reproduction. […] Without the technology of reproduction,

Capturing the U nique

credibility whatsoever, the virtuoso guitar hero must do everything he can to


capturing an inflection, the pitch of a note, a resumption of breath, the fragile

A ll V oices W ithout E xception

ynx. Indeed, it can retain inflections that the singer themselves is sometimes

passage to a head-voice, a quavering, a singular articulation of larynx and pharunable to repeat, however skilled they are, and make them reproducible. Sound recording captures not just a vocal idiosyncrasy but a unique vocal moment, opening up an infinity of possibilities unique to the expression of the pop subject, who will be able to bank on these accidents and inflections that are not necessarily repeatable. In the archives of vocal recordings of pop, across the whole history of this musical art, infinite variations on the spectrum of the human voice have been documented. An unprecedented boon for singers with short breath, the microphone that captures sound is also a technique for its amplification: it demands a lot less of voices than the variable conditions of resonance that face the speaker in an amphitheatre, the singer in an opera house, or even out on the street. It offers ideal technical conditions for the artistic expression of infinitely more diverse voices than the need to be heard had previously allowed. A pop song can be sung without breath, without the slightest chest power, and even without an ounce of vocal technique. Question Mark, says Lester Bangs, ‘talked almost every song like some malevolently emotionless insect from outer space’.59 Lou Reed’s voice is basically ‘a flat bark’, although he has ‘lately been trying to teach himself to croon for the subtler songs he’s been writing’.60 As for Iggy Pop, his vocalisations are like ‘wildcat growls’, ‘hawking caws, whoops and shredded gargling threats’.61 On the mic, every voice tests out its capabilities, gropes around, and discovers its own propensities. Ian McDonald writes that John Lennon instinctively kept his melodies close to the rhythms and cadences of speech, colouring his lyrics with (often bluesy) tone and harmony rather than creating tunes that made striking shapes of their own,62 the copies do not exist, but, then, neither would the originals’. Sterne, The Audible Past, 218–19. 59. L. Bangs, ‘Of Pop and Pies and Fun’, in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, ed. G. Marcus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), 49. 60. Ibid. 61. Ibid. 62. I. Macdonald, Revolution in the Head (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1994), 11.

whereas conversely, McCartney’s songs

intervals and often encompassing more than an octave.63

It is no longer a question of prioritising singers according to their vocal abilities or even beginning to discriminate between those who can sing and those who sing out of tune, or whose grain is pleasant. Take the ‘terrible voice’ of 1980s French singer Gisor, a source of fascination for Dominique A, who dedicated a song to him: ‘an abominable French singer,’ he says, ‘who made a huge impression on me. Objectively he’s atrocious, he sounds like Bernie Monvoisin swallowed Piaf, a hard rocker trapped in the land of French varieté’.64 Even the most ‘abominable’ voice becomes a representative for someone and helps release new expressive power. In this respect, pop singing far exceeds the possibilities of opera by setting a lower bar for technical ability. The elite typology of alto, mezzo, and soprano is exploded by anarchic and unidentified vocalisations. The constraint of a certain register being dictated for each singer becomes artificial,65 and we see a deregulation of the aesthetic standards of singing, where works deploy an anthropological variety of voices that no art had hitherto brought together and nurtured to such a degree. In place of typologies and hierarchies, pop recordings exhibit an infinite variation of vocal idiosyncrasies distinguished by their timbre, their grain, and their sonic characteristics, in song but also in their spoken inflections and their microtonal variations. In pop music all of these 63. Ibid. 64. ‘Gisor’, on the EP Kick Peplum (Wagram, 2009). Quoted in ‘Les indispensables de Dominique A’, gqmagazine.fr, 2 April 2009, . On variété in France see p300n66, below. 65. Interviewed about the quality of the voices of a series of rock and MOR singers in a special issue of the magazine Vox Pop, baritone Malcolm Walker oscillates between technically relevant observations and comments that are wholly inadequate in terms of artistic evaluation. Although he appreciates the voice of the singer of A-ha or Johnny Cash (‘What science! It creates feeling. He became his singing. [...] It’s not me singing, it’s the song that sings me’), he thinks Kurt Cobain’s could do with more work: ‘the fact that the voice breaks doesn’t impress me. Anyone can break the voice. This is not work. It’s stress relief, but it’s not constructive. He’s not respecting the natural boundaries of the body. To be a good singer, you have to know them.’ ‘A cappella. Les voix sont musique’, Vox Pop. Tout & Musique 11 (September–October 2009), 82. In the context of the musical art of pop, such technical hierarchies are of very limited use.

A ll V oices W ithout E xception

display his extrovert energy and optimism, ranging freely across the stave in wide



singularities, whatever they may be, can potentially have an aesthetic value that scored music would not recognise. Admittedly, they are not all so lucky:

Vocal N orms

but in principle, in the medium of sound recording and under the aesthetic conditions proper to the art of popular music, anything that can be voiced has a shot at success.

Vocal Norms As a counterpoint to this openness to all singularities, however, pop voices are mediated by a number of homogenising factors. Most importantly, in making singular vocal events into reproducible objects, sound recording increases the potential for their singularity to fall under a regime of familiarity. In the history of pop, certain voices have become typical vocal models imitated by generations of singers: whether the powerful, hoarse, sharp cries of James Brown, the characteristic vibrato of the 1960s folk voice in Joan Baez, the cool, detached and elegant voice of French pop in Françoise Hardy, or the broken and powerful voice of female soul singers, unique but immediately familiar, for instance, in Amy Winehouse, whose voice is an echo of other voices become exemplary and enshrined in the canon of pop expression. Beyond the principle of egalitarianism that promises a chance to all possible vocalisations, from the most animal (a dog barking in the song ‘Gone Under Sea’ by Electrelane [2004] or a horse neighing in ‘Symphony of the Nymph’ [2012] by Ariel Pink) to the most outlandish, such model voices rise to the surface as ‘classics’, giving rise to aesthetic canons to which new voices will be compared, and upon which they will be modelled. When certain voices are at the very height of their popularity, these vocal canons can turn into aesthetic norms that impose themselves upon a whole generation. The critic Jayson Greene has noted the ‘Rihannaism’ that has become prevalent since 2012 among performers of hit songs, characterised by The way [Rihanna’s] syllables fly out, ruthlessly flattened […] Rihanna seems to have succeeded in automating [the peculiar catch in her voice] and in making a perfect ‘re-entry’ (as skateboarders say) every time she repeats the hook: she

thus transforms emotion into an intoxicating, mesmerizing phenomenon, like watching an animated gif of someone bursting into laughter.



individual) by, among other factors, its accent (she is originally from Barbados), has become a kind of vocal template in today’s pop factory. For some time now, Greene continues, we have been hearing ‘Rihanna-style’ vocal molecules swarming around everywhere in the hits of the moment. A husky but nasal voice, an enunciation tinged with island breezes but essentially free of regional markers, and above all a relatively homogeneous timbre [which,] alongside compressed synth and drums, gives the impression that every sound comes at you like little plastic chips shot from a cannon.67

Accents typical of the ‘Rihanna Voice’ haunt the hits of the moment: in Lorde’s ‘Green Light’, in ‘Pretty Girl’ by Maggie Lindemann, and in Major Lazer’s ‘Lean On’. A form of normalisation by imitation is in operation here. On a wider anthropological scale, we can observe how the popularity of certain voices affects vocalization in general, and that the effects of the mass distribution of pop recordings on such socio-vocal norms is by no means negligible. During the 2000s a veritable epidemic of ‘vocal fry’ came to light among American teenagers—the cracked voice resulting from a phenomenon of laryngialisation in which the arytenoid cartilages of the larynx are tightened, with the effect of intensely compressing the vocal cords, which become relaxed and compact, lowering the normal pitch of the voice. Once considered a pathological symptom, vocal fry, observed by laryngologists since the 1960s, now seems to be widespread.68 The fact that this particularity is heard in the most popular 66. J. Greene, ‘Rihanna est-elle la chanteuse pop la plus importante de ces dix dernières années?’, tr. E. Menu, GQ, 11 April 2016, . [The article is a modified translation of an article for Pitchfork, —trans.] 67. Ibid. 68. See the work of the linguist I.P. Yuasa, ‘Creaky Voice: A New Feminine Voice Quality for Young Urban-oriented Upwardly Mobile American Women?’, American Speech 85:3 (2010), 315–37, .

Vocal N orms

Rihanna’s voice, singularised (as much as any voice is absolutely singular to an


stars of the 2000s such as Katy Perry and Britney Spears has contributed to a whole generation of young women adopting it. In this case the technical

I mitation / T ravesty

reproducibility of voice recordings, whether spoken or sung, plays an obvious role. Just as the mass distribution of twentieth-century photographic portraits has shaped attitudes and individual poses—no one any longer has the gaze of the great Indian chiefs who posed before Edward Sheri Curtis’s camera—we might suppose that the wide-scale distribution of voice recordings permanently affects voices, as the broadcast of national television news may have favoured the gradual loss of distinctive accents native to the French provinces. Recording, technically open to all singularities, is also, by virtue of the deterritorialization that its reproducibility enables, a powerful vector for their homogenisation. From the vocal types of pop to the dominant modes of vocalisation, vocal singularity is constantly mediated by norms. But the pop production of vocal singularities is not really undermined by this mediation: on the contrary, it proceeds quite happily within this regime. For its own voices are made up of voices borrowed from elsewhere.

Imitation/Travesty Even the most singular of pop voices is forged through imitation. Think of the almost black soul voice of the young Alex Chilton in ‘The Letter’, the lilting voice of UB40’s Jamaican-accented Alistair Ian Campbell (a blond man from Birmingham), that of Sylvester, who sings like a diva on the first major hi-NRG hits, or that of King Krule, hoarse and full at the age of twenty-one, like that of an old bluesman. At the debut of the early Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, a lawyer’s son, adopted a Cockney accent which is far from being that of his class. Englishmen Steve Winwood and Gary Brooker, the lead singer of Procol Harum, at twenty years of age had the full gravelly voices of the worldly-wise folk singers of the plains of the American West. The deep, strangely morbid and artificial voice of Ian Curtis on ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ has forever marked him out in the post-punk aesthetic. We know that, when he recorded the song, Curtis wanted to imitate the voice of Elvis, but in an enclosed space. With producer Martin Hannett’s help, the deformed imitation made the Elvis reference that Curtis had long had in mind unrecognisable.

In the same spirit of intended but not necessarily identifiable imitation, by his


own admission Scott Walker modelled his voice on the gravity and lyricism of rock and avant-garde music, Walker drew essential inspiration from the voice of an interpreter of Belgian songs born in 1929—and would later go on to directly cover some of Brel’s songs. Beyond these cases of individual expression that mimic other situated individualities, imitating voices that they are not and being transformed in the process, the recording and mixing of tracks offers further possibilities for disguise. Since the advent of the use of delay and reverb, from the first vocoders to software such as autotune, capable of artificially varying the pitch of voices as well as their timbre, grain, and resonance, the pop listener has become largely familiar with the electronic treatments applied more or less overtly to pop records. The autotuning of a voice may be imperceptible if correctly used, but pop voice recordings often deliberately make the artificiality of the effect audible, as we can hear in the voices harmonised with the machinic texture of Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ (1982), or in a low harmonisation well below the usual limits of human tessitura in the voice of Fever Ray on ‘If I Had a Heart’ (2009). In these cases of explicit treatment, the treated voice brings forth embodiments that did not preexist its production: in Laurie Anderson’s song we imagine an embodiment of a posthuman cyberwoman, in Fever Ray’s an entity from beyond the grave. Exploring all the possibilities of its transformations through recording, the human voice ultimately takes pleasure in imitating the machine, in being mediated by nonhuman voices, somewhere between a dream of science-fiction—the vocoders popularised by Daft Punk—and the reality of a bygone world filtered through mobile phones and transmitted all the way to the distant confines of the Sahara in Mdou Moctar’s vocoded voice on ‘Tahoultine’ (2011).69

Trickery This malleability, this tendency to disguise the voice, whether by imitating another’s or by suggesting a body that is not one’s own, can be a source of discomfort in the context of an art that emphasises the expressiveness of singular and

69. On the compilation Music from Saharan Cellphones (Sahel Sounds, 2011).

T rickery

Jacques Brel’s performances. An American singer born in 1943, also inspired by


situated individuals, and therefore a certain veracity of expression and a certain fidelity to the way in which expression naturally takes place.

Failure of the N aturalist P osition

In a paragraph of his Critique of Judgment, Kant recounts an anecdote that sharply illustrates the naturalistic objection that could be made to all those pop voices that artificially manipulate our representations of the bodies that emit them. Visiting a country inn, says the philosopher, guests were delighted by the song of a nightingale, convinced that they had heard the trills of a small songbird, free of any human intention to please. Enchanted by the subtlety and perfection of this natural beauty, they were unaware that, in fact, the landlord had tricked them ‘by hiding in a bush some roguish youngster who (with a reed or rush in his mouth) was able to imitate this song’. Once this discovery is made, Kant says. ‘[n]o one will long endure listening to this song that before he had considered so charming’.70 The revelation of trickery and artifice passing itself off as the natural and guileless renders the song unbearable. Pop fans sometimes express a similar kind of aesthetic disgust in relation to songs that present themselves as natural but which are then revealed to have been ‘tampered with’. And yet in its application to recorded music and song, the objection is actually somewhat slippery and perhaps even irrelevant. For to some degree or other, all recorded pop voices pretend to be nightingales that they are not: whether by imitation, through the use of effects, or simply through the mediation of a microphone, which in itself is always aesthetically determining.

Failure of the Naturalist Position Even in the recordings apparently most devoid of artifice, we are not dealing with nature expressing itself ‘free of any human intention to please’—obviously, since we are dealing with works of art—and still less with some kind of transparency or immediacy of song. With the advent of the microphone, certain characteristics of the sound of the human voice have taken on an acoustic value they did not previously have for the ear. The warm, close voice of the crooner, whose susurrating voice is able artificially to dominate an orchestra, is inseparable from amplification and the balancing (equalisation) of a very specific sound spectrum, specifically one where the whole range of the voice (the elements of 70. Kant, ‘On Intellectual Interest in the Beautiful’, Critique of Judgment, 169 (§42).

breath) are boosted and made more audible. Indeed, artifice can play a vital role


exactly where it seems to play no part, including in the case of voices admired is borrowed from a slang term for a sparrow—evokes the model of a powerful natural voice. Always dressed in a sober black dress revealing only her face and hands, which symbolically carry her voice, Piaf was presented as a former ‘street singer’, thereby emphasising that the phenomenon of her voice preceded the phonography that enabled her massive popularity. Today Piaf’s voice, still widely familiar, is known to us only through her recordings. And in truth, her popularity at the time was just as inseparable from them, and when she performed on stage the singer used a microphone. At the end of the 1940s, her favourite stage mic was the Melodynamic Melodium 75A, a dynamic cardioid microphone favoured in radio for its good frequency response between 200 and 3000 Hz, the range of the human voice, with a particular density in the mids and low mids that corresponded exactly to the range of Piaf’s voice, which in fact was quite limited—to an octave and a sixth—but incredibly homogeneous, concentrated in the laryngeal mechanism called the ‘chest voice’.71 Although Piaf’s voice was by no means created from scratch by the microphone, nonetheless it was delivered via the microphone according to a characteristic frequency profile that was particularly favourable to its singularity. Even though the aesthetics of French chanson may balk—wrongly—at the idea of Piaf as an artist of recorded popular music, her voice does indeed belong to the age of radio songs and microphones. The rest is a fetishisation of a ‘natural organ’ that does not exist, at least not in the way that we hear it captured throughout the history of popular music. In pop, recording, along with the microphone that enables it, is never just a faithful medium of reproduction; it is a medium of production.72 It creates the singularity of voice that it captures: such is the paradoxical sense of its fidelity

71. On Piaf’s voice, see Catherine Rudent’s musicological analysis for the 2015 PIAF exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France: . 72. Jonathan Sterne shows how the recording industry has particularly promoted the criterion of fidelity and how it presupposes a theory of correspondence between representation and the thing represented. The discourse of fidelity was all-important in analyses of sound recording. See J. Sterne, ‘The Social Genesis of Sound Fidelity’, in The Audible Past, 215.

Failure of the N aturalist P osition

for their powerful ‘natural’ qualities. The voice of Edith Piaf—whose surname


to the real. A naturalistic artifice, it generates an embodiment that did not exist before it was recorded.

T he S econd B ody of the P op S ong

The Second Body of the Pop Song This paradox brings us to the formal conditions—ontologically-speaking—of recording itself as a form of representation. All recording of the voice absents the body that emits the voice that is to be ‘played back’: this is how voices can be represented in recordings. The embodiment of a flesh-and-bones speaker disappears in favour of a vocal embodiment made possible only by the absence of corporeal presence. To record your voice is always to disappear as a singing body so as to produce a second body: the body of the recorded voice projected by the listener as they imagine the various forms it might take. This paradoxical condition is one of the sources of the ghostly aura attributed to recordings,73 but it is also the basis of Kant’s naturalist disquiet: the recorded voice can always manipulate our representation of the singing body. We might say that recording functions like the Ring of Gyges in Plato’s myth: it makes the body that produces sounds invisible, and therefore generates an aesthetic (and ethical) uncertainty that doesn’t arise in the experience of the voice ‘in the flesh’.74 The recorded voice that renders the body invisible opens the way to all manner of transgressions and manipulations, allowing the subject to become almost anyone: for they are no longer seen. In doing so, recording exponentially increases the voice’s expressive potential by freeing it from the body to which it was assigned. Thanks to the possibilities of recording exploited by pop, bodies invent new voices for themselves—in so far as, with these new voices, the subject invents other bodies, other embodiments for itself. In 1969, on Nashville Skyline, Dylan invented a new voice that no one even knew was him, a strangely shrill voice, as if his normal nasal vocalisation had risen a little 73. See ‘The Hillbilly Paradox’, above. 74. As Mladen Dolar shows, the transparency of the voice is itself illusory, from the very beginning of our untransformed everyday experience of orality: any timbre, independent of linguistic signifiers, is read by the listener in terms of complex ethical and aesthetic, conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional signals. From a Lacanian perspective, Dolar then explores the strata of signification of the voice: not just a vehicle for speech or an object of aesthetic admiration from which one could detach other (organic, political, etc.) determinations, the voice is a catalyst for thought which, like Lacan’s ‘objet a’, ultimately escapes symbolisation. M. Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2006).

higher in pitch into a head-voice, so that one couldn’t tell which voice—the old


or the new—was the real Dylan. its production of singularities—and the current attachment to non-repeatable takes and to the accident can be entirely put down to this mode of invention. Under these conditions, the ‘robot’ voices that are practically everywhere in the contemporary mainstream are a natural aesthetic possibility, not an aberration, of the voice.

A Robot that Imitates a Man Imitating a Nightingale The question that arises here is whether a nonhuman pop subject, namely a computer program, may claim citizenship in the art of pop music. For some time now, artificial intelligence has given us an idea of what ​​ such a nonhuman pop subject might sound like. In 2009, the manufacturer Yamaha designed a humanoid singing robot, the HRP-4C, capable not only of exchanging a few words with an interlocutor but also of vocalising melodies. ‘Customisable’ by its users, the HRP-4C, which the engineers gave the appearance of a Japanese teen idol with turquoise hair,75 imitates the human voice and seems to address the public while singing. The artifice of its voice is tangible, but it is an artifice difficult to tell apart from the various effects currently applied to recorded human voices. This is certainly not the first time in human history that speaking and singing automata have been produced. In Kant’s time, well-to-do society was already thrilled by the invention of a mechanical nightingale. Later, in the nineteenth century, Henri Maillardet designed a ‘musical lady’ which, by means of reeds, he inflated with air so as to simulate breathing. But these techniques were still mere approximations: recent developments in speech synthesis are far more unsettling. What kind of aesthetic experience will the pop listener have, not of a man hidden in a bush imitating the song of a nightingale as Kant imagined, but of a humanoid robot imitating the singing of a man who imitates the song of a nightingale?

75. At least this was the case when the company presented it in 2009 at Ceatec, an annual Japanese electronics exhibition.

A R obot that I mitates a M an I mitating a N ightingale

But artifice and play are in fact the most efficient means available to pop for


The computer HAL’s song in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey gives us some idea, although it imitates not a nightingale but a man. HAL,

A R obot that I mitates a M an I mitating a N ightingale

represented only by a firm, didactic voice and by the variable intensity of a spot of red light (a sort of schematic omniscient eye), begins to exhibit increasingly suspect and even perverse psychological traits until eventually Dave, by now the only individual on board, decides to deactivate him. The deactivation operation involves Dave disconnecting his functional modules one by one. In this memorable scene, HAL reacts to these operations as they gradually reduce his intelligence. He begins by expressing his fears and his feelings: ‘I’m afraid Dave… My mind is going…I can feel it.’ And then, in a voice that becomes more and more sombre, he sings a song, ‘Daisy’ (one of the first known recorded songs in history). Finally the computer’s voice enunciates some minimal information: its date and place of birth—12 January 1992, in Illinois—before shutting down for good. HAL’s voice and its song during the process of deactivation elicits a strange empathy. In acoustic terms, however, the voice does not become any more human, it is rather the opposite: it becomes deeper and deeper, affected by the slowing of its operations caused by the shutdown of its circuits. It is as if our empathy was made possible by the connection of this voice with the imminence of its extinction or, in short, to put it in existential terms, with its finitude, its being-for-death as Heidegger would have said. As he is deactivated, HAL suddenly expresses his condition as a unique instance, even if he is simply a vocal program exhibiting signs of dysfunction. For the listener, the machine attains a form of singularity that renders it expressive. It seems that HAL has become someone, a finite being. Thus his voice evokes an empathy based on the recognition of individuality. As Rousseau writes: as soon as vocal signs strike your ear, they proclaim a being similar to yourself; they are, so to speak, the organs of the soul, and if they also depict solitude for you, they tell you that you are not alone there.76 76. J.-J. Rousseau, ‘Essay on the Origin of Languages’, in Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music Works, tr., ed. by J.T. Scott (Hanover, NH and London: University Press of New England, 1998), 326. ‘Birds whistle, man alone sings’, says Rousseau, ‘and one cannot hear either a song or an instrumental piece without immediately saying to oneself: another sensitive being is present’ (326). In Rousseau this argument serves to heighten human difference. For our part we reverse the proposition, inferring that anything that can produce individuated vocal signs thereby becomes human.

The solitude of the voice, an incomplete individuality that lacks any companion


to recognise it, instantly arouses in those who hear it an impulse of recognition. a bounded embodiment, susceptible to decline and death. Thus the minimal condition for pop expression is not so much humanity as individuality, and potentially infrahuman individuality. If, hypothetically, a computer program could one day appear in the form of such an individuality, as someone, or even as a thing expressing its indistinguishable, situated individuality,77 the songs it would produce could still be appreciated in terms of pop aesthetics. The day when Yamaha’s singing robots are able to conjure up the illusion of a finitude self-conscious enough to express itself—and not just an assemblage of predictable human traits that are already boring in talentless human pop singers—then they will have some chance of becoming active subjects in the history of this art. When a pop robot composes songs specific to this robot, demonstrating not its infinite capacity for statistical calculation but that which expresses its limits, that individual finitude which is always the object of our empathy, then it is perfectly conceivable that it will enter both into the hearts of fans and into the history of recorded popular musics.

THE SURGE In pop, any expression can produce a work, provided that it makes an individuality audible. This individuality is not metaphysical or impalpable, it proceeds from the complexion proper to an organic (or machinic) embodiment taken up in the web of its conscious and unconscious, intentional and accidental determinations at a given moment. It founds the popular figure of the genius as the one who, without training, gives the rule to art, in this case to the art of the expression of their embodiment. Pop needs this figure in order to be more than a forum for democratic expression: a form of representation that doesn’t just compile disparate claims from all communities, but through which embodied visions of the world come forth. And the indiscriminate technology of sound recording is an essential ally in the expression of this democratic genius: all voices can 77. In the sense in which Leibniz speaks of indiscernibility as the smallest possible difference between two entities, which resides in the fact that they occupy distinct coordinates in space and time.

T he S urge

The computer is no longer an all-powerful artificial intelligence but a limited being,


make themselves heard, ‘Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs […] Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised […] beetles rolling

I mpostures

balls of dung’, as Walt Whitman put it in ‘Song of Myself’ in the mid-nineteenth century.78 Cleansed of the picturesque and grotesque aspects that still fascinated European Romanticism, in the art of pop music art they all accede to the first-person poetic voice. All embodiments, the most noble and the most humble alike, the most vulgar along with the most exuberant, have entered, via pop, into the hitherto jealously defended fortress of universal art. But in this opening up of legitimate artistic expression to the most varied embodiments of individuality, liberated from the constraints of training and from the silence imposed by the social order on this race, gender, or age group, it is democracy in its entirety that surges across the terrain of art. Where modernism had built a fortress, democratic genius opened the floodgates to all individualities in all their disorder: [S]trangers, unknowns, outcasts, all that proliferates, who have no fixed address or job, who seek to settle in the interstices of the system and to insert themselves in its time to find a tomorrow, everything that stands outside the scene is filtered, repressed, sometimes foreclosed, rejected by the obscenity of the wandering drive.

So writes Lyotard, observing, in counterpoint, the almost paranoid rigidification of Adornian modernism, that ‘anguish of the surge of undifferentiated energy’.79

Impostures When democracy surges into the kingdom of art, the election of those who are entitled to occupy the throne becomes a problem. Who among the great mass of singularities can legitimately occupy the stage while all the others agree to be mere spectators? The most democratic art, and one whose democratisation has only been strengthened by recent increases in accessibility not only of

78. Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, The Portable Walt Whitman, 28. 79. J.-F. Lyotard, ‘Avis de déluge’ from Des dispositifs pulsionnels (Paris: Galileo, 1994), 12–13. The article, written in December 1993, opens the new edition of the text.

instruments and digital emulations of instruments, but of powerful new means


of digital communication, pop is haunted by the possibility of imposture. Theatre of Orange.80 After an intense hour and a half gig, Cale, on amphetamines, ran off the stage in a daze, wandering out of the arena to a distant parking lot, leaving his baffled guitarist to fill the gap with an endless solo. When, after twenty or so minutes, he tried to get back in, the security guards did not recognise the shaggy singer, heavily under the influence, and refused to let him back on stage. The star becomes an intruder who must not be allowed to pass. Comical in its absurdity, the episode is like the nightmare of an artist who seeks recognition, and who is punished for trying to go beyond the conventional limits of the stage. Needless to say, this unplanned excursion sits perfectly well with the maladapted, frankly crazy character that Cale embodied for his fans. But when the security guard stopped him from returning to the stage, in doing so he prevented Cale from converting this madness back into a distinctive artistic trait: instead he relegated him to the status of an impostor, placing on trial the very legitimacy of this madness aestheticised by his fans. There was no longer anything to justify the idea that this individual, a troublemaker, should be allowed to take the stage to be watched and heard by others. The now common practice of stagediving in rock festivals has in some sense ritualised this same trial by fire. Although the practice is common, there is always the risk that, in the hands of an audience less accustomed to the ritual, a reckless singer might never make it back to the stage, finding themselves definitively removed from their symbolic space. In the context of the democratic surge, pop embodiment demands that this risk be perpetuated, precisely because it allows pop to stage and restage its endless struggle against the possibility of fraud and imposture. This fact also explains why, however accidental it may be for what is essentially a recorded music, live performance continues to play such an essential part in pop: it is the moment of exposure of the living flesh of the artist, an occasion for a refutation of the falsification that is always possible in a recording. It’s the moment for the artist to show their guts, the moment of calling their bluff, realised in the made-up flesh of the show as a demonstration of authenticity—even if

80. T. Mitchell, John Cale: Sedition and Alchemy (London: Peter Owen, 2003), 107.

I mpostures

In August 1974 John Cale was invited to play at a festival in the Roman


this authenticity only amounts to the artist having the courage to be bad or to show an embarrassing level of dedication to their craft.81

A potropaic I diocy

In the struggle for the recognition of the pop musician, the live show is a moment of potential slaughter. The annual event at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry where, since 1925, the credibility of the country musicians who play there has been won and lost, was first broadcast nationally from the studios of…the National Life & Accident Insurance Company. And what better location could there be for a concert in which so many musicians, young and old, came to risk their lives? There is good reason why the widespread contemporary use of prerecorded tapes in concerts of mainstream electric prompts a kind of aesthetic disapproval. The practice of ‘orchestrated playback’, which aims to minimise risk (the risk of a poor mix, of an unsatisfactory performance) pays an aesthetic price: pop expression that tries to demonstrate its power but holds back from putting itself through the real trial by fire will lose in artistic legitimacy. And even if this choice is made in the performance, the singularity of the recordings will not escape the dilemma, although there are multiple ways to address it. When touring their album Shaking the Habitual in 2013, electronic group The Knife played a ‘gig’ where the music was fully prerecorded, and the musicians merely executed casual choreography around some amplifiers, perfectly aware that they were exposing their own imposture and, at the same time, the impossibility of satisfying an audience that expects an identical live reproduction of the unique events recorded on the album.82 The Beatles’ well-known choice in 1966 to no longer play live suggests another possible response to the dilemma, albeit perhaps only workable because they were the most listened-to group of all time.

Apotropaic Idiocy But however crucial stage performance may be—as a test of fallibility—the threat of imposture hanging over the pop artist is not itself obviated by this momentary recognition of the public, their peers, or the critics. In the context 81. In July 2015, at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, security eventually had to evacuate an apparently inexhaustible Damon Albarn offstage, after five hours of performing. 82. See for example The Guardian’s review of the gig at the Roundhouse in London, May 10, 2013, . ‘But because it is ostensibly a gig, it forces you to question your prejudices about authenticity and live performance’.

of an industrialised art which for a century now has developed conventions


and institutions capable of taking in the public for a certain amount of time defences, but enabled to be all the more blatant. That’s why even when the posture of the pop artist is taken seriously, it can work against them. In 1973, Lester Bangs opined that the rock fan had seen so much of the ‘machinations of rock‘n’roll history from about 1965 on’ that a band like the Stooges had become ‘imperative’,83 not just for their overtly regressive music, all grunts and crude musical ideas swathed in an incoherent ‘fuzz feed-back’ that sweeps away the borrowed symphonies of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but even more so for their frontman, Iggy Pop, whose trademark is imbecility: Iggy Stooge is a damn fool. He does a lot better job of making a fool of himself on stage and vinyl than almost any other performer I’ve ever seen. That is one of his genius’s central facets.84

Bangs continues: What we need are more rock ‘stars’ willing to make fools of themselves, absolutely jump off the deep end and make the audience embarrassed for them if necessary, so long as they have not one shred of dignity or mythic corona left. Because the whole damn pompous edifice of this supremely ridiculous rock‘n’roll industry, set up to grab bucks by conning youth and encouraging fantasies of a puissant ‘youth culture,’ would collapse, and with it would collapse the careers of the hyped talentless nonentities who breed off it.85

Even though ‘non-entities’ still seek to gild themselves with the aura of the ‘artist’ and fetishise the concept of talent, Iggy ‘won this scene and nothing gives him the right but his own presence’—and the more that his conduct is judged to be stupid, the more the authority of this very presence is confirmed. ‘No gimmicks, no theatre, just us. Take it or leave it’, as John Lydon would proclaim 83. Bangs, Psychotic Reactions, 40. 84. Ibid., 34. 85. Ibid.

A potropaic I diocy

regardless of how good the artist is, imposture is not eliminated by all these


a few years later on stage at a now legendary PiL gig in Manchester in 1979.86

A potropaic I diocy

conventional has to be destroyed. Iggy Pop’s imbecility, as experienced and

Beyond theatricality itself, everything that renders it legitimate because it is analysed by Lester Bangs, seeks to be even stupider than the posture of rock stars, which has become too neat and conformist. Iggy doesn’t want to prove that he’s not an impostor by exhibiting some kind of visibly authentic conduct. His relation to imposture is apotropaic: he doesn’t dispel suspicion but doubles down on it by becoming a kind of ostentatious impostor. Lester Bangs’s conclusion: only this kind of impostor can defeat imposture. Like Iggy, although not necessarily playing on the same registers of lucid idiocy, exhibitionism, and obscenity that he adopted, all those who hope to carry into their stage presence the democratic genius captured in recordings know that in doing so they will have to undergo the trial of this strange feeling of imposture, and that there is no other way to dispel it other than by taking the plunge.

86. The gig took place on 23 February 1979 in Manchester (Kings Hall, Belle Vue): .

III. MORE AND LESS THAN A SUBJECT Under condition of this imposture, the pop subject desires popularity. Now, if the songs are popular, then the artists themselves become celebrities. What popularity promises in terms of sharing and reconciliation, celebrity fixes in the cult of a personality. Pop, however, as the art of popularity and embodiment, has always had an affinity with celebrity: it is the musical art of music most susceptible to finding its ultimate fulfilment in the figure of a star, a super-subject.

The Resistible Rise of the Star ‘Everybody Is a Star’, sang Sly and the Family Stone in 1970, championing African American expression, and here the slogan had a very different meaning than the fifteen minutes of fame promised to all by Andy Warhol. But songs about stars—of which the pop repertoire contains thousands—are always ambiguous. ‘So you want to be a rock‘n’roll star?’ The Byrds were already asking sarcastically in 1967. What should you do then, according to the song? Just get an electric guitar / Then take some time / And learn how to play And with your hair swung right / And your pants too tight / It’s gonna be all right. Then it’s time to go downtown / Where the agent man / will not let you down Sell your soul to the company / Who are waiting there / to sell plastic ware.

This bitter aftertaste, which practically all young stars of the sixties recounted in song, comes from the convenient and vicious convergence between an art that places all of its trust in embodiment and the interests of an industry that sells ‘personality’ by the pound. In the 1930s, already scandalised by the starification of conductors—especially Toscanini, his nemesis—Adorno deplores the fact that, in the market context of the culture industry, ‘the names of bands and band-leaders seem to count for more than whatever they play, and […] they are trademarked according to the so-called style’.87 Personalities ultimately matter more than the music, for which they are only the pretext. In ‘the world of that musical life, the 87. Adorno, Current of Music, 399.

M ore and L ess than a S ubject




composition business which extends peacefully from Irving Berlin and Walter

T he R esistible R ise of the Star

Tchaikovsky, to Schubert’,88 the fascination elicited by famous people ends up

Donaldson—“the world’s best composer”—by way of Gershwin, Sibelius and being digested by the system of equivalence from which they would wish to be excepted. They cease to exist as individuals and disappear ‘into a pantheon of bestsellers’;89 their personality, having eclipsed the works, is now itself eclipsed by the fetish of the chart topper, then that of cultural heritage, and finally by the fetish of celebrity itself.90 Of course, the pop aesthetic deliberately aims at the popularity that makes its representatives famous, but at the same time this celebrity is something of a betrayal of pop embodiment: it makes substantial that which democratic genius revealed only intermittently. The chance of idiosyncrasy lay in its incommensurable character, the small difference of the being of one thing in so far as it is not another. Once established as a ‘famous personality’ this individuality only establishes types of individuals, original but identifiable as such. The stars that seem most eccentric provide the example here—for example the Indian feathers and pirate tattoos of Keith Richards or the protean transformations of Lady Gaga.91 All of these tokens of a now familiar eccentricity confirm the impossible 88. Adorno, ‘On the Fetish Character in Music’, 35. 89. Ibid., 36. 90. A scene from Flight of the Conchords (a comedy series by Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, which aired on HBO from 2007–2010, and recounts the trials of two young New Zealand musicians in their quest for fame in New York) gives an absurdist account of this transformation of the celebrity into a fetish detached from all embodiment. Bret, the more naive of the two friends, refuses to join his own band’s fan club despite encouragement from their manager, Murray, who notes that the duo so far has only one single fan, the pushy Mel. Where Murray sees the possibility of adding another to the list, Bret says he only likes popular bands, and therefore can’t be a fan of such an obscure outfit. The fan in Bret, who loves popular musicians, cannot be reconciled with the failed musician that he is—to the point of eclipsing his own condition as an unsuccessful musician with no fans. But Bret’s naivety, in preventing him from helping his own brand, is also the irreducible difference between the artist that he is, the music that he makes, and the popular group that he would like to be part of. As a result of this unresolved psychic conflict, Bret reveals a dissociation within the pop subject itself, between the embodiment from which its art proceeds and its dream persona as a ‘member of a famous band’. 91. Still, the decomposition of the celebrity concept is a broader phenomenon which exceeds the properly pop dialectic of the relation to popularity. Between public life (to which the press gives official access) and private life (which the press hides, or reveals by veiling it—the paparazzi both occupies and obstructs the exact gap between this hiding and this unveiling), celebrity is itself this opacity that, by contrast, always elicits a desire for transparency. At the moment when this separation between public and private life—made so as continually to be thwarted—seems to dissolve in the uninterrupted Twitter feed of celebrities who publish every detail of their personal lives, the desire

fixation on ‘originality’, a romantic illusion once it becomes the very substance


of a personality when, ultimately, it is nothing more than its recognisable—and

Skull ‘Famous people’, writes Adorno, ‘are not happy in their lot.’ ‘They become brandname commodities, alien and incomprehensible to themselves, and, as their own living images, they are as if dead.’92 Such is the unsurpassable condition of a celebrity shocked back into life by the repeated status updates of their Twitter feed, like the electrical impulses convulsing the inanimate body of Frankenstein’s monster. But the aesthetics of pop embodiment has always been conscious of this morbidity, which perhaps is why the zombie is a pop figure par excellence, and why self-destruction and even suicide are clichés of authentic rock. Because the self-destructive star also resolves the contradiction of celebrity in their own way. Torn between the affirmation of their personality and its negation when it is fixed in the image that fans make of it, they ensure its disappearance—the last possible gesture by which they can still say something about themselves, their self-destruction amounting to a reclaiming of their self-possession. Such is the anorexia of Karen Carpenter, adored superstar of The Carpenters, the band she formed with her brother. ‘I feel like I’m disappearing’, Kim Gordon sings in Sonic Youth’s ‘Tunic’, the song she dedicated to Carpenter, ‘Getting smaller every day’.93 The superstar Karen Carpenter came to resemble a feminised version of Kafka’s ‘hunger artist’, who people came to see shrinking day by day on the scattered straw.94 The reified images of popular music are an index of this liquidation. The pictures of artists adorning the covers of old records, especially those of forgotten stars, exude a sense of morbidity: these faces, smiling or pensive, glorified or photographed with the intention of doing so, these bodies sitting in the middle for transparency itself disappears. The celebrity needs there to be a world where intimacy exists, a domain of their life that is truly subtracted from the public gaze, in order to arouse the desire of others to penetrate into this private life—for the existence of this very desire is what makes them a celebrity. 92. Adorno, ‘Death of Immortality’, Minima Moralia, 100–101 (§63). 93. ‘I feel like I’m disappearing, getting smaller every day/But I look in the mirror, I’m bigger in every way’. 94. F. Kafka, ‘A Hunger Artist’, in A Hunger Artist and Other Stories, tr. J. Crick (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2012).

S kull

therefore dispensable—accessory.


of the countryside or in front of a brick wall, obeying more or less obsolete aesthetic codes with their hairstyles and their dated clothes, with their artist

R efusal of P opularity

name written in bold, vibrant colours, perhaps accompanied by a press quote for promotional purposes. Reduced to the appearance of an old advertisement, the pop embodiment now survives only as marketing material, outdated material at that. As Benjamin said of baroque allegories that we are no longer able to decipher, what was once full of meaning is now ‘incapable of releasing in inspired song the profound meaning which was here confined to the verbal image’.95 Now, once such ‘inspiration’ is gone, all that is left is a skull: the facies hippocratica of a pop subject from which all life—that is, all ‘profound meaning’—has withdrawn. But when life withdraws, the aesthetic substance of pop also dies. Just as ‘the attraction of earlier charms diminishes decade by decade’,96 with the passage of time we are left with only those frozen faraway faces of distant youths, the dried-out, replaceable products of the culture industry.97

Refusal of Popularity The infinite dialectic of pop also embraces the stubborn refusal of the popularity that is at once its aim and its death sentence. When Rihanna, responding to the scandalous revelation that she spends $22,000 per week on updating her hairstyle, protests that she doesn’t want to become a gimmick, what she means is that she refuses to be frozen, dead, reified. Between a super-subject and an image from which all inspiration has drained,98 it is as if pop embodiment has led to a double bind: that of being both more and less than a subject. More, as a star, admired by all and deified; less, as a gimmick, a tabloid personality, a reified celebrity figure: the second being what remains of the first once the faithful have stopped believing. Pop embodiment has seemingly never provided much more than a narrow margin for manoeuvre between these two impasses. Punks immediately recognised 95. W. Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, tr. J. Osborne (London: Verso, 1998), 200. 96. Ibid., 182. 97. It very much seems that promotional materials for music become obsolete much faster than the music itself. Provided that one listens to them, recorded voices, frozen in time, are always still capable of delivering an ‘inspired song’, and therein lies the remarkable force of recorded music. What decays is the avatar, the pop subject frozen into a ‘personality’, the star. 98. The current use of the term ‘icon’ to describe popular stars serves to highlight this ambiguity between the representation of the divine and the reification of its image.

the trap; they instinctively understood how the idea of being oneself had been


paradoxically preempted by the cliché of the modern star. How to remain Lydon sang:99 the lost self becomes something to be reconquered. Driven by an endless dialectic, pop is compelled to reject celebrity, and then to reject the cliché of this rejection: ‘I don’t want to be a star. Just want my chevy and an old guitar’, as Lenny Kravitz sang in 2004, more than a decade after becoming a mainstream star. In his song we can hear the melancholic fatigue of artists in relation to their own hits, those acclaimed songs with which the public, whose recognition they so desire, have ended up conflating them, and which obscure the rest of their work, and everything that they themselves think is alive and profound in their art. Pop star status both enshrines and mortifies the artist.

Christology Pacôme Thiellement notes that in fans’ attitude toward big stars there is always a certain note of sadism which consists in observing whether they will survive this dehumanised condition.100 In the typical trajectory of the pop star, fulfilment as a super-subject involves self-sacrifice. The usual story in which the deification of the star is followed by their downfall, their omnipotence by their reduction to nothing, in a sense makes the star comparable to Christ, the ‘man-God’ the supreme moment of whose life, as Hegel wrote, was the termination of his individual existence as this man, the story of the Passion, suffering on the cross, the Golgotha of the Spirit, the pain of death.101

99. The song is the subject of a lengthy analysis by Theodore Gracyk in I Wanna Be Me (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 2–10. 100. P. Thiellement, ‘L’homme que la terre vendit. Nirvana’, Pop Yoga, 236–7. Conversely, if the figure of the pop star as an entrepreneur quite conscious of their situation—without the crooked manager into which pop consciousness was once able to project all the assumed ugliness of business and of the culture industry—is at odds with pop romanticism, perhaps it is also because this kind of star, disappointingly for the sadistic fan, confirms their refusal to be sacrificed (to anything but their own goals of ‘empowerment’). The aestheticisation of ‘leadership’, particularly of the female variety, with Madonna as its first contemporary model within the pop mainstream, dissolves the pathos of the figure of the star sacrificed on the altar of celebrity. 101. G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, tr. T.M. Knox, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2 vols., 1975), vol. 1, 537–8.

C hristology

oneself, and not be dispossessed by one’s own image? ‘I wanna be me’, John


In their suffering as sacrificed individuals, stars are confined to the condition of the one who God (the Father) ultimately abandons, the one who, raised to the

C hristology

condition of the Son of God, is in the end brought back down to his own finite condition as a suffering and mortal man. ‘His glory is broken, in the magic that he made’,102 Phil Ochs sings in ‘The Crucifixion’, his long, sinuous modernised interpretation of Christ’s passion. But whereas in Christian theology God ‘became man so that man might be rendered divine’, the pop aesthetics that transforms men into gods ends up humanising God himself. The pop star is loved not because they are divine but because they are a finite embodied individual placed in the conditions of a kind of divine life. This impossible and fallacious displacement is the entire tragedy of the star and the reason why ultimately they inspire pity and fervour in equal measure. Kanye West’s 2013 album Yeezus played very explicitly with the affinity between Jesus and the contemporary pop star. On forums some of the more religious fans of the already rather pious West left puzzled comments, asking ‘Does Kanye really think he is the Messiah?’, ‘Is it blasphemous?’; there were even accusations that West was making a mockery of the Christian faith. And indeed, on Yeezus he operates a strange theological self-positioning: he takes himself for Jesus, but a degenerate Jesus appropriated by the language of the derelicted, hip-hop and text language, a chewed-up Jesus passed through the vocoder then vomited out in rage. West identifies himself with the man-God, but this is a Jesus who hates himself, selfish, devilishly narcissistic and venal, who would ‘rather be a dick than a swallower’. His blasphemous hymn ‘I Am a God’ ends with the frightening screams and gasps of a pig, interspersed with silence, before concluding with a sample of a Hungarian song at once liturgical and bland, like a pastiche of the ascension reduced to a few short seconds: ‘I know he the most high / but I am a close high.’ At this point, Kanye West’s faith is not the point. If the identification with Jesus is meaningful here, it’s not because Kanye is a believer, but because he is a massive pop star whose obsessive narcissism after a while flips over into mad passion. Lennon’s famous statement about The Beatles’ having become more famous than Jesus had already established this link between Christ and the pop star. Of course, it can be seen as a provocation: the megalomania of the star who prides himself on being the universal Christ. 102. Phil Ochs, ‘Crucifixion’, Pleasures of the Harbor (A&M, 1967).

But that would be to forget that Jesus is not just a god incarnate, an embodied


deity, but also a sacrificial figure. He is the human being who inspires and all, on condition of his being crucified. The ultimate bloodied icon: it is in this that Kanye recognises himself. In 2004, at the end of ‘Jesus Walks’, the third single from College Dropout, he was already imploring: ‘I want to talk to God but I’m afraid because we ain’t spoke in so long.’ In 2013, he had obviously become more familiar with Christ: ‘I just talked to Jesus / He said, “What up Yeezus” / I said, “Shit I’m chilling / Trying to stack these millions.”’ Yeezus has lost all deference to God; he now thinks he has become his equal or his double, in a devil’s body condemned to the stupor of the ‘New Slaves.’

BEYOND PATHOS In the negotiation of the dialectic of the pop subject, between excess and liquidation, all figures of subjectivity, all strategies of subsistence are possible, including both the radicalisation of pathos and its effacement. In the shadow of the superstar, or simply far removed from them, in aesthetic realms where it is precisely not the stars who reign, the pop subject may very well also seek to disappear, to efface themselves, to fuse with an object, to give voice to the non-human, or to blend into the landscape. ‘Help, I’m a Rock!’ runs a 1966 Frank Zappa song exploring the interiority of a panicked mineral being.103 Zappa is perhaps one of those to have pushed the questioning of the hegemony of the traditional pop subject the furthest. Following an almost cosmic conception, of oriental inspiration, according to which all music is in continuity and every sound event participates in its totality—a phenomenon which, in one of his last interviews, he called the ‘big note’—Zappa always welcomed voices other than his own into his music, beginning with the noises, explosions, and concrete sounds of nature and the city, the voices of the public (who he allowed to get up and sing on stage), those of the groupies he invited to record with him, and the voice of the strange Wild Man Fischer, a half-crazy street singer who sang for passers-by on the sidewalks of Laurel Canyon, and on various performances and four-track recordings that Zappa 103. In Zappa the stones themselves are sensitive: ‘It stinks so bad, the stones been chokin’’, Captain Beefheart sings in 1976’s ‘The Torture Never Stops’.

B eyond Pathos

promulgates universal love at the cost of his own suffering: he who belongs to


made and released as a double LP on his Bizarre Records label.104 At this stage, the quest for the unintentional goes way beyond the pursuit of authenticity, as

B eyond Pathos

the search for singularity expands to take in every bizarreness the world has to offer. With Zappa it is not just everyone that is a star, but everything too: not just every person, but the whole world. After all, as Simon Reynolds notes in a 1987 review of Mantronix, isn’t pop all about the desire to transcend or step sideways from the cage of one’s humanity? To be more, less or other than simply, naturally human: to become angel, demon, ghost, animal (butterfly or invertebrate).105

Mantronix wants ‘to be superhuman,’ ‘he envies the prowess, the infallibility of the machine’.106 Here embodiment has nothing to do with any pathos attributed to a sentimental subjectivity: ‘the creator simply, silently, absconds; creates an environment in which nothing of himself resides’.107 Here we are relieved of the humanity of pop. There is a whole current of electronic music in which this humanity is eclipsed. When an American journalist criticised the coldness of Kraftwerk in 1975, Florian Schneider retorted: ‘Kraftwerk is not a band. It’s a concept. We call it the man-machine’.108 Three years later, at the launch of The Man-Machine, Kraftwerk installed four models of themselves to play the gig in their place. From Kraftwerk’s showroom dummies to the shiny robot costumes of Daft Punk, this mode of embodiment can free the pop subject from the usual contours of the human figure. Without the decorum of Bauhaus style or Mitteleuropa costumes, recorded popular music also abounds in discreet subjects, who use the manipulations of recording to cultivate a thousand different strategies of self-effacement: ‘How to Disappear Completely’, as the Radiohead song has it, taking its title from a now famous book. 104. Listen to An Evening With Wild Man Fischer (Bizarre Records, 1969), whose titles ‘Merry-GoRound (This Is Wild Man’s Theme Song, Sort Of)’ and ‘Why I Am Normal’ indicate this spirit perfectly, by antiphrasis. 105. S. Reynolds, ‘Mantronix’, Bring The Noise, 39 (the article originally appeared in Melody Maker, 1 August 1987). 106. Ibid. 107. Ibid. 108. É. Deshayes, Au-delà du rock: la vague planante, électronique et expérimentale allemande des années 1970 (Marseille: Le mot et le reste, 2007), 216.

Expressive idiosyncrasy can hide away in a world of fantasy, as in the experi-


ments of Joe Meek’s I Hear a New World, in landscapes where the music itself Brian Eno uses in Before and After Science. It can fall silent to let sound explore some of the finer regions of perception, as in Mort Garson’s Plantasia (1976), an album entirely composed ‘for plants and the people who love them’, with its ‘Ode to an African Violet’ and its ‘Concerto for Philodendron and Pothos’. The fact that pop art can welcome the most discreet of individualities, self-effacing composers who disappear themselves behind a world of things, machines, or plants, with music becoming a way to establish a mysterious contact with these other realms, does not call into question its fundamental link to idiosyncratic expression. For all possibilities of being-in-the-world are available to the art of recorded music, provided they are delivered under the sign of an individuality whose singularity prevails, even in its least intentional events—whether human, machinic, vegetable or mineral. * Of all the musical arts, pop may be the one that is most sensitive—in the sense of a photographic film exposed to daylight—to the particular conditions of its situated subjects’ life and existence. This sensitivity makes it a democratic art, not only because all individuals are entitled to citizenship, but also because one cannot participate in this art without drawing on one’s own status as an individual. In pop, expression is inseparable from embodiment: it is only in and through individual bodies that express themselves that musical works become singular. And because it is capable of capturing the most fleeting manifestations of this embodiment in space and time, the technique of sound recording becomes pop’s privileged ally. In its works it captures subjectivities that may be transient, unidentified or mimetic, charismatic or ethereal, imperious or withdrawn. A pop subject, then? To think such a subject has required the dissolution of the traditional category of the subject, so as to see subjectivity only as it rematerialises in recordings. In these recordings it manifests itself not as substance but as potential; in them, embodiment explores its possibilities in a second, fantastical body projected by the recorded performances. ‘I’m young, I’m old, I’m hot, I’m cold […] I’m I,

B eyond Pathos

is miniaturised and the voice remains only as a spectre, like the treated voices


I’m you’, Moondog sings in ‘I’m This, I’m That’.109 The predicates can be varied

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plays out and is transformed through them.

infinitely. Pop expression always brings them back to the finite individuality that This is a subject concerned with everything that limits the individual: the objective conditions of their romantic, political, and social life as much as the temperature of their body. And this is an art where the way in which people live concretely conditions the expression of the noblest dilemmas of existence. Cosmic dreaming, transcendental visions: whatever ordinary or sublime object it takes as its theme, the art of pop points to it from down here on the ground, from the perspective of the situated and embodied individual in all its finitude. Within these individual limits, finitude finds its own infinity. For finitude offers a new chance of singularity. Idiosyncrasy is its secret: it is the difference that resists identity, the residual incommensurability that persists between equals. Conceived as the maximum of determination at the minimum of elucidation, idiosyncrasy is close to the classical figure of Kantian genius; it renders all acquired competency suspicious. When Gershwin asked Ravel to teach him composition, Ravel replied, ‘Why should you be a second-class Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?’110 On this point at least, pop is entirely on the side of Ravel: it will always favour the authentic Gershwin to the sub-Ravel. Within culture, the pop subject certainly objectivises itself, going beyond this particular singularity. In the form of a star, it takes on the dimensions of a super-subject, although it also thereby instantly becomes suspected of imposture. ‘[G]race will be most purely present in the human frame that has either no consciousness or an infinite amount of it, which is to say either in a marionette or in a god’, says Herr C., an avid spectator of the puppet theatre in the essay by Heinrich von Kleist.111 Such are the ‘two points where the round world met’, divine omniscience and absolute absence of intention, which the puppet perfectly embodies in this organic world where, in the opinion of the dancer in the story, ‘as reflection […] becomes darker and feebler, grace […] emerges in ever greater radiance and supremacy’. To a certain extent, these two figures, that of a perfectly regulated non-intentionality on the one hand and that of an infinite 109. On the album H’art Songs (Kopf, 1978). 110. R. Leon, Gershwin (London: Haus, 2004) 86. 111. H. von Kleist, ‘The Puppet Theatre’, in Selected Writings, tr., ed. D. Constantine (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1997), 416.

divine consciousness on the other, are the two fantastic extremes that pop


embodiment dreams of. On the one hand, the myth of a pure idiotic idiosyncrasy a divine star. In the historical and material world in which the art of pop music is immersed, however, embodiment cannot authentically reach either of these extremes. As soon as it starts wanting non-intentionality, it betrays itself. And as soon as it claims to have triumphed over finitude, it becomes the sacrificial victim of a shameless lie that contradicts the very basis of its art. But between the stupor of the puppet and the total consciousness of the god, the pop subject maps out every possible nuance of finitude.

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devoid of all reflexive consciousness; on the other, the myth of a super-subject,

CHAPTER 3. HITS AND HOOKS: RATIONALISED MAGIC [T]he standardisation of successes means that it is no longer possible to really succeed in the former sense, but only to succeed at imitating. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘On the Fetish Character in Music’ (1939)

Gabriel plays it God how he plays it Gabriel plays it, let’s hear him play it It’s number one, all over heaven The number one song all over heaven The song filters down, down through the clouds It reaches the earth and winds all around And then it breaks up in millions of ways It goes la, la, la... In cars it becomes a hit In your homes it becomes advertisements And in the streets it becomes the children singing... Sparks, ‘The Number One Song in Heaven’ (Part II) (1979)

In the art of pop music, the hit occupies the place of an aesthetic Holy Grail. Conceived according to its ‘utopian’ concept—as the promise of the reconciliation of art and mass appeal, of enchantment and emancipation, of philistines and experts—it is more than the goose that lays the golden egg of the culture industry: it constitutes nothing less than an aesthetic ideal. The history of pop is not simply the history of its hits: it is more ramified, more diverse, more multiple, and more democratic than the endless battle for the top spot. But it’s impossible to understand what makes pop tick without considering the hit. It may not be a sufficient condition for its aesthetic definition, but it is surely a necessary one. For the ‘popularity’ exemplified by the hit is, in its context,


far more than just a detail of a work that is known and appreciated by many people: it completes the work of pop, finally realises it. For it is in the hit that

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popular music actualises itself as popular music and pop’s vocation converges with aesthetic mass appeal. The land of hits is, in a sense, its natural home, its destination—the paradise of Sparks’ ‘Number One Song in Heaven’, the song that the angel Gabriel and God take up in chorus and which descends from the heavens, through the clouds, to the cars and radio antennae of thousands of people in every corner of the planet. As for those pop songs that never make it to this paradise, they always remain more or less languishing in exile, and each one of them must negotiate its own particular relationship to this exile; but since it is ‘pop’, it is taken for granted that such a relationship exists: that the peculiar force of attraction of the hit as paradise of aesthetic popularity continues to pull on every single song, even if it relates to it negatively, ironically, or critically. Here on earth, the paradise of hits bears a more familiar and less Edenic name: it is the mainstream, the dominant current of the music industry as materialised in the charts, the music that sells the most, and that brings in huge crowds for gigs—in short, the music that contributes the most economically to the profits of the culture industry. Rather than angelic processions and the advent of the promised reconciliation, here we are dealing with the ups and downs of the top ten and the well-oiled effects of rationalised cultural domination. Industrial counterfeit, earthly residue of an Edenic promise, the mainstream enjoys an ambiguous aesthetic status. Site of the fulfilment of the utopia of popularity whenever cultural domination benefits those recognised as great artists—Kate Bush’s hit ‘Wuthering Heights’, for example, did justice to her importance as an artist in the history of popular music—it can also become a dystopia when this cultural domination overshadows the most significant artists. It is this reversal that makes the triumph of groups such as Supertramp or Yes hateful to fans of the ethic and aesthetic of punk and post-punk, who then denounce the whole charade. And yet, fundamentally, the mistrustful troll who trashes everything that ‘sells’ is only a disappointed worshipper of the utopia of popularity: they still see before their eyes a paradise of true hits that would open up a royal road to those hidden treasures that the vulgar mainstream persists in neglecting. When Lloyd Cole and the Commotions titled their third album Mainstream, three years after 1984’s subtle Rattlesnakes, they betrayed their paradoxical adherence to

the dreamt-of paradise: the paradoxical faith of an independent British rock


group fascinated by U2’s success across the pond, and hoping to conquer US (synth, drums with reverb, a sound that flirts with the heroic rock of Simple Minds). ‘Swimming is easy when you’re stuck in the middle of the Mississippi / All you have to do is crawl’, sings Cole on the title track. And yet the album, which rose to number nine in the UK charts, never made it into the great mainstream American current. But of course, as far as pop taste is concerned, market failure boasts its own special poetry. According to the compelling aesthetic of the beautiful loser, there is always a hidden paradise where they are really number one. In this context, it is clear that the question ‘How do you make a hit?’ has never been just an industrial issue. In truth, it is the question that underlies all pop creation, regardless of the complexity or subtlety of the response any given work may bring to it. ‘It’s not gonna be a hit / So why even bother with it’, chants Bill Callahan in his song ‘A Hit’, even though on the scale of independent music the song became a niche success among those who understood the mixture of somewhat bitter indie militancy and sincere disappointment in this desperate denial.1 ‘I’ll never be a rock and roll saint’, the singer continues, confirming the implicit affinity between success and the kingdom of God; ‘I’ll never be a Bowie, or an Eno / I’ll only ever be a Gary Numan’, ‘Cause I can’t sing / Oh no I can’t sing’. As the song comes to a close, buckled over with the impotence and helplessness it arouses in its author, the question still remains unanswered. ‘What’s the point?’ the disillusioned voice finally demands, and yet a certain doubt remains: Is it that I can’t make a hit, or just that I don’t really want to? Is the song an indie manifesto of hostility toward the mainstream (and indeed toward tutelary figures who become mainstream with music that was supposed to be independent) or the regretful missive of a forced exile? There’s no simple answer to the question. Rather, it’s all about maintaining the ambiguity, and the marginal pop musician will never escape this ambiguity so long as they refuse to give up the idea that their songs, too, have their place in paradise. But ‘that’s not the only reason’, as Callahan points out in his song: the other aspect of the problem is that hits cannot really be explained. Pop musicians of all kinds and artistic directors of record labels all agree and will gladly hold 1.

Smog, ‘A Hit’, (City Slang, 1994).

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audiences by calibrating their production style to the requirements of FM radio


forth on this question: ‘Why is a hit a hit?’ The causality at work here seems opaque at first, and only vaguely explicable after the fact. If you find a song

H its and H ooks : R ationalised M agic

irresistible, it will always seem like a sure-fire hit, but there are many songs that may seem like this and yet never get any love from the public. Chance, the whims of the moment, the choice of label: the necessity of the hit can easily flip over into complete contingency. Big Star’s first album was brimming with songs that would later become more well-known, but when it was released it passed totally unnoticed, partly because of a lack of promotion. Inversely, a song may be woven from the most tried and tested materials of popular music, promoted with an infallible marketing plan, yet fail to become a hit in spite of it all. The industry of course knows every trick in the book of hitmaking, but none of it is a sufficient condition. Out of a thousand equivalent songs, one will stand out and make the big time: a global success that somehow transcends the industrial means used to achieve it. Magic or miracle, the hit defies the first law of thermodynamics: it produces effects that exceed the potential of its causes. So much so that in pop the success of a song can only be apprehended under the sign of disproportion: disproportion between its apparent simplicity and the infatuation it engenders; disproportion between the industrial means involved and the success it meets with (the history of popular music abounds in industrial accidents where huge investment leads only to dismal failure: Tusk, Fleetwood Mac’s second album released in 1980, which cost their record company $1.3 million, a good proportion of it on cocaine, looked like an expensive trainwreck after 1977’s forty million selling Rumours, which cost ten times less);2 disproportion between the effects of one song and those of another, comparable track: Why was Lindsey Buckingham’s ‘Don’t Stop’ a hit for Fleetwood Mac in 1977 but not ‘Over and Over’ in 1980?3 Was the group not as good, or had times changed? Even in the contemporary context of hyperstandardised manufactured hits, some imponderable part of the pop hit prevents a complete elucidation of the mystery. It is this opacity perhaps that explains the taste of hit songwriters for magical themes: ‘Could This be Magic?’ wondered The Dubs in 1957. ‘Do You

2. The Seeds of Love, Tears For Fears’ Sgt Pepper, along with Michael Jackson’s Invincible, counts among the most famous expensive failures. 3. The title was one of the singles from the album Tusk. Although it ranked in the 20s in the US charts, it was considered a failure relative to Fleetwood Mac’s widespread success at the time.

Believe in Magic?’ The Lovin’ Spoonful asked in 1965.4 Concealed within every


pop success there resonates this incantation of an irrational causality—as if powerless. The manufacturer of hits cannot be content with mere knowhow, they must also observe a superstitious lore. So how can we formulate an aesthetics of the hit? Only by unfolding all the layers of this paradox, of course. But the first thing to keep in mind here is that the hit is not the work: it is a particular aesthetic function of the work. Not all pop songs are hits, and not all hits are pop songs (the first few bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Ravel’s Bolero are global hits as well). Some works that were hits at a certain point are no longer, without the song thereby ceasing to exist now it is less popular; some works were by no means written to be hits, but became hits anyway (‘Bird’s Lament’, published in 1969, a tribute to Charlie Parker by Moondog, shows no signs of having been designed to reach the top of the charts, but did so nonetheless owing to a combination of certain compositional qualities and certain unique historical opportunities).5 Some works that are hits are better than others that aren’t, some works that aren’t hits are far superior to others that are. We must therefore refrain from assuming there is any essentialist definition of the hit, still less an evaluative one: the hit is a mode of being for works of the musical art of pop; what defines it is success. As we shall see, in popular musical art, the ideal of popularity (which the hit crystallises) makes works function according to its particular conditions. So it is by setting out from particular works considered as hits that we will be able to grasp this functioning—as a poetics, as an aesthetic relation they establish with the listener, as a fabricated product, and finally as cosmetic.

4. The examples are legion: from America’s late ‘You Can Do Magic’ (1982) to ‘Magic in the Air’ by Badly Drawn Boy (2000), from Taylor Swift (‘Can you feel the magic in the air?’ in the 2010 song ‘Today was a Fairytale’) to Ariel Pink (‘There’s magic in the air’ in 2014’s ‘Put Your Number in My Phone’). 5. In particular, the song owes its fame to the English DJ Mr Scruff”s 1999 song ‘Get a Move On’, which used a sample from ‘Bird’s Lament’ in 4/4 timing. This song, as well as the original, would be used in many advertisements and jingles for television and radio (in the US, an ad for the Lincoln Navigator, in the UK for the Volvo V70 and, as recently as 2015, for the home improvement chain B&Q).

H its and H ooks : R ationalised M agic

without the subliminal invocation, its all too well-proven formulas would remain

I. POETICS OF THE HOOK brevity of the whole—everything in this word is consonant with its meaning, even for non-English speakers: it is a blow, a physical blow that shocks, that strikes (‘Les coups / Qui apprenent à vivre [The blows / That teach you to live],’ as Johnny Hallyday cried in 1966). A sonic blow to the ear, the sound seems to resonate long after the initial shock. When the word is used to describe the most popular songs,6 the figurative sense seems to retain something of the literal meaning. Superimposed upon the idea of successful ​​ song, the idea of the hit intuitively reveals all that the pop hit contains of an imperious summons and, it has to be said, of violence. ‘He hit me / and it felt like a kiss,’ runs the line sung by Carole King for The Crystals in 1962, the blow here being synonymous with a dark pleasure. The pleasure taken in the blows of the pop hit, however, does not involve the kind of masochistic setup upon which a critic such as Adorno could base his indictment. Between captatio benevolentiae and forced capture, between invitation and summons, between consensual pleasure and helpless rapture, the hit deploys a poetics of the hook which we must try to trace back to its sources.

KEEP IT SIMPLE There is an old legend in the music industry that the artistic directors of Tin Pan Alley used an unconventional method to anticipate the success of their productions—the legend of the Old Grey Whistle Test: if, after a limited number of plays, the greying concierge on the ground floor where the studios were located had memorised the song and began to whistle it, producers believed it was sure

6. In France the word is ‘tube’, supposedly originally in reference to the rotating cylinders upon which the first recordings of popular music were inscribed. According to Peter Szendy, the word ‘tube’ was first used by Boris Vian in the mid-1950s, in reference to a song whose lyrics were ‘as hollow as a tube’. See Szendy, Hits, 6. But we prefer the English to the French term (and its metaphor): firstly because the image of the ‘tube’ is attached to a historical format for the circulation of popular music and does not exclusively designate hit songs, and then, perhaps most importantly, because it contains a value judgement, indeed a derogatory one, which is really just an indication of Boris Vian’s judgement on popular songs as a whole, not their particular aesthetics.

P oetics of the H ook

The very word ‘hit’ grabs the ear. The short ‘h’, the flat and dry ‘it’, the percussive



to reach the top of the charts.7 Because a popular tune is a tune that stays with you. Even in the most recent theories on the matter, ‘keep it hummable’

K eep it S imple

remains a central principle for hitmakers. Some contemporary scholars simplify the matter still further by postulating the principle of K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple and Singable)8 which links the listener’s ability to hum the song to a need for simplicity. Obviously, this very abstract principle of ‘simplicity’—which, incidentally, was also a rule for classical tragedy—concerns the way in which music is perceived, not the intrinsic technical ease or difficulty of a piece, its composition, or the creative process of its writing. It would hardly occur to anyone to think that, because the succession of notes in a movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are memorable, it must have been easy to write. In the context of popular songs, some researchers have found that it is often owing to certain secondary hidden or subliminal elements that a simple melodic phrase is easy to identify and store, that a melody perceived as being ‘simple’ in fact only takes on the insinuating power of an ‘earworm’ by virtue, for example, of a subtle unexpected harmonisation of the dominant chord. But the appearance of simplicity is essential. Better still: the composition must be so apparently simple that it gives the listener the impression that they themselves could have made it up. On the other hand, if on first impression a piece sounds like an incomprehensible melodic jumble and has nothing memorable about it that would lend it an apparent simplicity, its chances of popularity are drastically reduced—even if it was in fact written according to completely intelligible principles. As a figure of reconciliation, the hit must reject any features that exclude the listener by exhibiting their complexity too overtly: it may use them surreptitiously, but only in order to attain a form of apparent obviousness available to all. And finally, what also contributes to this apparent simplicity is brevity—a hit is rarely more than three and a half minutes long. For Adorno, this is a feature that indicates a ‘regressive’ form of music, shrunken down to a repeated motif which cannot be established over time or fully developed, as is possible with the long forms of serious music. But let us

7. This anecdote gave its name to the British TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test, devoted to rock and broadcast on BBC 2 from 1971 to 1987. 8. Dave and Yael Penn, ‘Hit Songs Deconstructed on The Chainsmokers’, Billboard, .

be fairer with the material here, and interrogate its own poetics which, obviously,


is not a poetics of development but a poetics of the hook.

When we sing a hit, we rarely just sing the melody of the song itself. There is always a ‘tchik tchik’, a ‘tadada’, a ‘tindongdingdong’ to complement the lyrics, often just as clearly imprinted on our memory—and sometimes more so—than the words. A few notes played with a particular keyboard sound, a guitar chord, a percussion effect—all of these brief and memorable motifs are there to capture our ears and keep us captive for what follows. The metaphor involved in the word ‘hook’ is clear enough: it is a matter of hooking the listener’s ear, as swiftly as possible.9 But as clear as the function of this musical ‘hook’ may be, it defies musicological definition. Invariably present in every hit, making it practically a substantial feature of the pop form, the hook is also its most elusive trait. Firstly because in the successful pop hit, the hook should never be where we expect it to be—indeed, this may well be what ensures it will attract our attention. Although its appearance is predictable, a good hook must surprise: it must seize the listener without the latter seizing it, responding to an expectation that has not been clearly formulated, or meeting that expectation in a different way than we’d imagined. In order to do so, it must, as a stylistic figure, be capable of extreme malleability. It can open the musical phrase, like the ‘Under Pressure’ bassline played by John Deacon in the hit by Queen and David Bowie, which gives a muted lead up to the two high-pitched piano quavers that interrupt it—and suddenly balance it out; on the contrary, it can close the phrase (melodically and textually) like the catchy ‘Eu vou’ in Caetano Veloso’s 1967 hit ‘Alegria, Alegria’, the flagship song of Brazilian tropicalism. The hook can hide anywhere: it has no fixed musical body but circulates freely through all musical elements. One finds it here in a fragment of a catchy melody, there in a guitar riff, elsewhere in a gimmick,10 or 9. J. Covach, ‘Form in Rock Music: A Primer’, in D. Stein (ed.), Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 71. 10. A gimmick is a very brief melodic or rhythmic unit capable of capturing the ear of the listener. The term was already used in jazz. Borrowed from the vocabulary of wrestling—the gimmick is the stereotyped character played by a wrestler and, by extension, the recognisable feature of this character—from the very start the term indicated an affinity with caricature.

T he H ook



in even shorter markers such as a drum roll or just a vocal inflection, a ‘hiccup’,

A rticulated L anguage

‘Money’, for example). The potential body of the hook is so flexible that it can

a sigh, or a sample of some identifiable noise (the cash register in Pink Floyd’s even consist of a musical silence: just a hole, a gap in the sound material, a strategically located metronomic break. So long as it fulfils its function: to hook the listener and keep them captive.

ARTICULATED LANGUAGE Articulated language may be considered the primary purveyor of hooks. In most cases the hit is inseparable from a linguistic articulation. Although there have been instrumental hits in the history of pop (for example, ‘Telstar’ [1961] by producer Joe Meek, played by The Ventures and The Tornadoes, or ‘Apache’ [1960] by Jerry Lordan played by The Shadows, or more recently ‘Flat Beat’ [1999] by Mr Oizo), most pop hits combine lyrics and music. Out of around 1299 number ones since the introduction of the charts in the United Kingdom, only 24 have been purely instrumental.11 Words remain a powerful tool for memory-capture.12 Adorno remarks on this in relation to the song ‘Deep Purple’ which, having received scant acclaim in its initial instrumental version, met with widespread and lasting success in 1938 thanks in part to Mitchell Parish’s lyric: When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls And the stars begin to flicker in the sky Through the mist of a memory you wander back to me Breathing my name with a sigh… 11. D. Roberts (ed.), British Hit Singles & Albums (London: Guinness World Records, 18th edition 2005). The overwhelming majority of these successful instrumentals were concentrated between the late 1950s and the emergence of The Beatles in the early 1960s: the period during which The Shadows’ surf instrumentals were very popular. Theo Morgan-Gan comments on all these tracks in detail: . 12. In Alfred Bester’s novel The Demolished Man, Ben Reich, a murderer, transforms a simple ritornello—written by ‘professional musician’ Duffy Wygand—into a powerful protective charm which allows him to hide his innermost thoughts from telepathic detectives capable of breaking through the barriers of the psyche. ‘Eight, sir; seven, sir; six, sir; five, sir; four, sir; three, sir; two, sir; one! Tenser, said the Tensor Tenser, said the Tensor. Tension, apprehension and dissension have begun.’: these are the heady lyrics of the song, combining pure repetition, alliteration, and assonance, rich rhymes learned since childhood. On their own, they are enough to evoke in the reader’s mind the famous and equally heady melody which the novel itself can only suggest (since Reich does not transcribe the score).

The introduction of words sets the seal on the music, facilitating its identifi-


cation and reidentification, like an aide-memoire. This phenomenon is nothing a ‘sacred’ hit when Gounod conceived of the ‘diabolical’ idea of extracting ​​ a melody from its harmonies and putting them together with the words of Ave Maria.13 According to Adorno, this operation disfigured the initial composition, reducing it to a logic similar to the interplay of picture and word in advertising. The picture provides the sensual stimulus, the words add slogans or jokes that tend to fix the commodity in the minds of the public and to ‘subsume’ it under definite, settled categories.14

If Gounod’s idea already seemed ‘diabolical’ to Adorno’s ears, we might say that in the pop hit, which makes a systematic principle of it, this logic attains hellish proportions. Yet contrary to Adorno’s assumption here, flatly reducing the role played by lyrics to mere advertising is not particularly illuminating. Whereas advertising language must be absolutely clear and intelligible, pop language, even when articulated, is far from always meeting this requirement. The best linguistic hooks are often the most idiosyncratic, those which render the word and its usual pronunciation unrecognisable. The association between the pitch of notes and articulate speech is not primarily determined by the principle of comprehension. When Rihanna sings ‘Umbrella’ (2007), she repeats the word ‘umbrella’ until it forms a carousel of sounds—‘umbrella…ella…ella…umbrella’—an endless circle of vowels and consonants where intelligibility scarcely matters, yet articulation counts. The repeated gimmick ‘Drop it like it’s hot’ in the 2004 Snoop Dogg song generates a similar effect: the ‘o’ in ‘drop’ and ‘hot’ creates a circularity while the repetition of the ‘it’ renders the structure of the sentence more symmetrical. At the end when the the word ‘hot’ is stretched out, the phrase takes on an acoustically elastic character. With this ‘hot’, reinforced by being doubled up in unison, the phrase seems to reach its maximum stretch, as if it’s 13. 14.

Adorno, Current of Music, 303n. Ibid.

A rticulated L anguage

new: the first prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, notes Adorno, became


reaching breaking point. The point where the gimmick ends and begins again, providing the expected snap (omnipresent already in the tongue clicks that

G lossolalia

provide a rhythm for the couplet) inevitably arouses the desire to hear it once more. In 2012’s ‘Diamonds’ by Rihanna, the phrase ‘Shine bright like a diamond’ is the powerful hook, serving as a kind of addictive heartbeat that initiates the more conventional verses. A truncated metaphor—since it lacks the initial object of the comparison—the phrase, glittering with ‘I [aï]’ sounds that seem to scintillate between her teeth, does not derive its magnetism from the banal metaphor of ‘shining like a diamond’, nor does this metaphor make it intelligible. What makes it a hook is instead Rihanna’s sensual, slightly aggressive, singularly accentuated vocalisation.

GLOSSOLALIA In this context, the meaning of words is not all-important. ‘Lyrically weak, but the music’s the thing’, as Sparks sang in ‘The Number One Song in Heaven’. In truth, the fan learns to more or less disregard the weaknesses of meaning in a song—a ‘bubblegum’ song and a protest song don’t have the same relationship to the meaning of their lyrics. Between the signifier and the signified, between sound and meaning, pop provides a clear margin of strategic manoeuvre, a polysemy conducive to its appropriation15—that is, when the choice of words is not just dictated by their tonal qualities alone. Speaking of ‘24 Hours from Tulsa’, the hit he wrote for Gene Pitney, Hal David said that the use of the word ‘Tulsa’ was inspired simply by the song, even though he had never set foot in this city. And ‘opposing Dallas to Tulsa didn’t really make sense, but it sounded great’. The vocalisation of ‘Tul’ closes what the syllable ‘Dal’ has opened, while the ‘sa’ of Tulsa is a syllabic inversion of the ‘as’ of Dallas. All of which, undeniably, make it a pleasure to sing. This flexibility in regard to the constraints of the meaning of words is even more evident when we observe the particular affinity between pop singing and glossolalia, spoken but non-signifying language. In the Pentecostal tradition, glossolalia, also called ‘speaking in tongues’, is the ability to speak in unknown 15. Theodore Gracyk reveals how this relative indeterminacy of the signification of the hit is one of the consequences of its global address: the hit, mass-distributed music, always produces ‘an equitably polysemic text’—one that makes sense, subversive or not, only when this meaning is constituted as such by the public that receives it. Gracyk, I Wanna Be Me, 63.

languages—unknown even to the speaker—that are speakable but not under-



standable, and which only God can comprehend. Indeed, midway between an noted in his study of American popular music17 and of which he was profoundly suspicious—pop language is largely glossolalic. It invokes meaning rather than seeking to explain it. The so-called ‘yaourt’ concocted by French singers in imitation of an English language they don’t know how to speak, or the Italian version of the same thing taken to transcendent heights by Adriano Celentano in his rock‘n’roll song ‘Prisencolinensinainciusol’, which creates an general impression of Americanness without actually saying anything comprehensible, illustrates this glossolalic trend. Not to mention the conventional ‘la la la’ and ‘tadadadum’, Brigitte Bardot’s ‘Shebam! Whiz!’ in Serge Gainsbourg’s hit ‘Comic Strip’, and the many other distortions applied to ordinary language that contribute to pop’s fascination with the sensations of language over the specific meaning of words. Of course, the meaning is not necessarily impoverished and indeed is sometimes amplified, granting access to the expression of very particular sensations that words can only describe abstractly: for instance John Lennon’s susurrating ‘ssssss’ in the song ‘Girl’, a kind of intake of breath, between the clenched teeth of a presumably salivating mouth, following the languorous ‘Oh girl…’ of the chorus. The sounds suggest better than any words the adolescent frustration and desire of which the song speaks. Then there are the ‘Uh!’s, at once sexual, maternal, and primal grunted by Frank Black in the song ‘Hey’ by the Pixies, to which the intelligible words—‘we’re chained’—impart an ambiguous flavour, 16. See my essay ‘Glossolalia/Xenoglossia’ in the collection edited by Goodman, Heys, and Ikoniadiou, Audint—Unsound:Undead, 61–4. 17. In his study of American hits of the early 1940s, Adorno noted a series of aesthetic common threads characteristic of this ‘baby talk’: ‘unabating repetition of some particular musical formula comparable to the attitude of the child incessantly uttering the same demand (“I Want to Be Happy”); the limitation of many melodies to very few tones, comparable to the way in which a small child speaks before he has the full alphabet at his disposal; purposely wrong harmonization resembling the way in which small children express themselves in incorrect grammar; also certain over-sweet sound colors, functioning like musical cookies and candies’ (Adorno, Current of Music, 228). This childish prattle panders to the listener’s line of ‘least resistance’, haloed as it is with the charm of innocence and unspoiled naivety (296n). But the numerous sexual connotations that this babble often carries with it in song—an ambiguity exemplified by the double meaning of ‘baby’, both baby and lover—makes the Adornian interpretation seem somewhat one-dimensional. Moreover, the relation to language introduced by this babble benefits from being interpreted otherwise than as pure regression: it also involves the sheer pleasure of modifying pronunciation so as to reimpart plasticity to language.

G lossolalia

address to the divine and childish babble—the ‘baby talk’ that Adorno had already


somewhere between attachment and painful dependency. The eloquence of a

G lossolalia

of the words, whether spoken in the listener’s own tongue or a foreign language.

pop song is not dependent upon a full understanding of the words, at least not all Although English is more widely spoken in the world than German or Chinese, the deterritorialized experience of English-language recorded popular music is still largely one of glossolalia: just ask a non-English speaker what the world-famous Michael Jackson hit ‘Billie Jean’ is all about, for example. In most cases, the language spoken in the verses will have very little in common with normal spoken English. From this point of view, the dominance of the Anglo-American idiom is almost paradoxical since this glossolalic dimension means that the recorded popular music experience is only very weakly constrained by semiotics. In the song ‘Pata Pata’, recorded in 1957 by the South African Miriam Makeba, which became a hit ten years later in the United States, the Xhosa language achieves the desired expressiveness of articulated language just as well as the usual English ‘Love’, ‘Baby’, ‘Dance’ or ‘Everybody’. Does this imply an impoverishment of meaning, a loss of the poetic dimension of language? It seems not; rather, glossolalia opens up an entirely different relationship to language. It is the plasticity of language, of its modes of articulation, its accents and its structures, that glossolalia explores more deeply—precisely those elements that lie beneath the linguistic capacity to transmit information. Like the childish babble pointed out by Adorno, it plays with the poetic pleasure of idiosyncratically changing the pronunciation of words to reimpart to their sound a plasticity that has been lost in their standardisation. The same phenomenon can be observed in the aestheticisation of local accents: when Cléoma Breaux sings ‘Le vieux soûlard et sa femme’ with Joseph F. Falcon (1928), rolling the ‘r’ and pronouncing the rest to match—‘you’c’que t’es palti toi mon ban vieux mali?’—the French language seems to undergo what for a metropolitan French speaker are strange and delightful distortions. The shared, ordinary language is transformed by a singular appropriation, it becomes a foreign language within the known language.18 But in adopting this foreignness that plays on other regimes of understanding, pop also transcends the separation of languages. It invents not the ‘missing people’, in the words that Gilles Deleuze borrows from Paul Klee, but the ‘missing country’ where everyone, speaking a different language, 18.

See Gayraud, ‘Français, seconde langue’, 66.

would nonetheless be understood by their neighbours. In a new Edenic figure,


pop glossolalia suggests the surpassing of the Babelian condition of humankind offers a glimpse of the utopia of an idiom that would be specific yet shared by all, singular in its expression but universally comprehended. Eid ma clack shaw zupoven del ba Mertepy ven seinur cofally ragdah

These are the words of the ‘perfect song’ that Bill Callahan dreamt and transcribed when half asleep, in the song ‘Eid ma clack shaw’ (2009). Pop language—the most perfect language—comes close to the speakingin-tongues of the Apostles in the Bible: when they expressed themselves in Jerusalem before a crowd of men of all nations—Parthians, Mesopotamians, Phrygians, Galileans—each understood as if they were being addressed in their own native language.19

19. Acts 2:1: ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”’.

G lossolalia

in which the diversity of languages condemns us to mutual incomprehension. It

II. AESTHETIC RELATION Given its tendency to glossolalia, in its use of language the hit obviously does not prioritise its referential function.20 But by no means does it renounce language’s power of communication. Quite on the contrary: the hit’s poetics of the hook obstinately stage—and set in motion—the transmitter of language, its recipient, and the relation between the two. This new feature once again separates the hit from the ideal of the modernist work as conceived by Adorno: a work which, in the context of the triumph of the standardised products of the culture industry, refuses the for-others of communication.21 A hit, on the contrary, materialises the antithesis of such retrenchment: it is the musical work for-others par excellence. That may be the reason why a hit seems easier to define in terms of what it does to the listener than what it is. The aesthetic apex of pop, the form in which its ideal of popularity is crystallised, the hit is not just heard or listened to, it targets the listener in a certain way—it exists for the listener. This for-others orientation establishes an unexpected affinity between the hit and a typically modern form of communication: the telephone.22 Indeed, the history of the pop charts is full of countless ‘phone songs’ ranging across all genres, right from the early days of radio: from ‘Hello! Ma Baby’ sung by Arthur Collins in 1899 to ‘On the Party Line’, a hit for Billy Murray in 1917 which evoked the then common rural experience of shared low-cost telephone lines, to ‘Hello Central, Give Me No Man’s Land’ by Al Jolson in the same year, which describes, in more serious style, a little girl trying to contact her soldier father at the front. 20. In Roman Jakobson’s linguistics, the referential or denotative function of language is that by which it is related to a described and interpreted world. It is the first of six functions identified by Jakobson: the expressive or emotive function—where the message is centered on the transmitter; the imperative or conative function—where the message is centered on the recipient; the metalingual function, referring to language’s own mode of being; the phatic function—establishing contact; and the poetic function, where language plays with its own codes. We may therefore consider that the language of the pop hit favours these other functions over the referential. See R. Jakobson, Fundamentals of Language (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1971). 21. See our account of this point of view in Adorno above: ‘Anti-Pop’, Retrenchment, 113–15. 22. In his study of the MP3, Jonathan Sterne demonstrates the strong structural interdependence between the industrial development of telephony and that of the phonograph, from the late nineteenth century to the present day (J. Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012]).

A esthetic R elation




The theme remains omnipresent in more recent pop, as a topic for many wellknown hits including ‘Anonymous Phone Call’ by Bobby Vee in 1962, ‘Party Line’

C ommunication

by The Kinks in 1966, and ‘Le téléphone pleure [The Phone Is Crying]’ by Claude François in 1974; from ‘Telephone Line’ by Electric Light Orchestra (1976) to ‘Alo Alo

’ by the Bendaly Family, and ‘Hygiaphone’ by the French group

Telephone in 1978; from ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ by Jack Lee (The Nerves), covered two years later by Blondie in 1978, to ‘You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It)?’ by The Undertones in 1979; from Stevie Wonder’s 1984 smash hit ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ to Lady Gaga’s 2009 ‘Telephone’, ‘Hotline Bling’ by Drake, and Erykah Badu’s 2015 mixtape But You Caint Use My Phone. Telephone monologues, answering machine messages, communications breakdowns, and efforts to establish or to reestablish contact—even with aliens, as in Klaatu’s beautiful ‘Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft’, which The Carpenters made into a hit in 1977—almost every possible telephone scenario is represented, These scenarios dramatise pop’s address to the listener in an exemplary manner. Traces of a conversation that never took place, sensual echoes of the voice of a faraway body, these songs establish a kind of miraculous communication in which the voice of the radio is no longer just addressed to thousands of anonymous listeners, but seems to call your number. Playing on the similarity between the compression of the telephone voice and the voice as heard on the radio, all songs become ‘telephone calls’. Even when a song is on heavy rotation on the air, played in every supermarket in the land, it still ‘calls’ the listener like one of those old phone booths that ring in some deserted location until a listener stops and picks it up, lending an ear to the voice at the other end of the line, hearkening to its solitude. Because this is where the communication differs from a real telephone conversation: all we now expect from someone who picks up is a clear and simple ‘Yes, I’m listening’—that is, the full availability of the addressee, ready to receive the message sent. ‘I just called to say I love you’, sings Stevie Wonder—not to wish you Happy New Year or to invite you to a wedding. The message of love does not of itself require any conversation: it is a statement, just as complete if left on an answering machine. But in establishing communication, the hit seems to address a private phone message to every listener—and here we could say more about the links, in modernity, between the telephone line and the notion of private space, whether connected to the home or to the ‘personal account’.

Strange phone calls, these songs for everyone and for you alone. But this is how


the communication proper to the hit seems to work: hits are personal messages

REITERATION (OUROBOROS) And yet if communication is to be effective here, to actually reach its destination, it can’t function in the same way as a communication based on the mere transmission of information. Just like any other work of art, the hit cannot be reduced to a pure vehicle for information, to be disposed of once that information has been received. What is communicated in the hit is not information. For information would always take the listener out of the song, as a sign points beyond itself to what it designates. A song, on the contrary, becomes a hit only to the extent that it always points back at itself. Once played it reactivates itself in a thousand ways: by designating its own structure, its own words, its own desire.23 It incites its own reiteration. It invites the listener to dance or to go into a trance (Eddie Cochran’s ‘C’mon Everybody’ [1958] is paradigmatic here), forming an insistent circle, a circular figure where the end leads back to the beginning. As Peter Szendy writes, hits are ‘repetitive machines’.24 Studying the reaction of listeners to the most popular songs, Adorno noticed the intense pleasure they exhibited when the song came back round to the chorus. Indeed, the very essence of the chorus is that it returns. But the chorus also crystallises, within the song, a dynamic of reiteration that in fact the song as a whole conveys. Hit songs endlessly invite us to repeat ecstatic moments, moments of pleasure: to ‘do it again’, ‘make me feel it again’, to party ‘one more time’, as in Daft Punk’s refrain. The song’s injunction to reiterate is so constitutive that in many songs it even defies the arrow of time that leaves the past behind. A first kiss, a first encounter that cannot, logically, be 23. Peter Szendy notes this strange structure in the 1971 hit ‘Parole, parole’. ‘“Words, words, words”. When Mina [Mazzini, who first performed the song along with Alberto Lupo] sings these words, the hit, through her voice, seems to want to speak the movement that carries it beyond itself in the paradoxical form of a perpetually unsatisfied desire: as if the hit, as a way of producing itself, were staging its desire for itself […]. Between words and song, it’s as if the hit were constantly taking itself up again on its path toward that absolute song that it is in the process of becoming. It is this structure or this self-desiring machine that is running after itself […] it’s this pursuit of self that we hear in an extremely pure form in “Parole, parole, parole”’. Szendy, Hits, 12. 24. Ibid.

R eiteration ( O uroboros

left on answering machines that anybody can pick up.


repeated without ceasing to be ‘first’, can be indefinitely relived. When Roberta

I nfinite P urposiveness

eternal return of this first and only instance as if it were suspended in time. So

Flack sings ‘The first time ever I saw your face’, the song renders possible the the song may be designed for communication, but this communication presents a circular structure: that of the ouroboros, the mythical figure of the serpent biting its own tail, an image of a process where the end always leads back to the beginning, just as the end of the song leads us back to the ‘replay’ button.

INFINITE PURPOSIVENESS This observation contradicts the thesis sometimes maintained—and not only by Adorno—according to which the pleasure of listening to hits is a purely ‘culinary’ satisfaction25—that is, a pleasure arising from immediate consumption, and which is therefore over as soon as its object has been consumed. In fact, what is characteristic of a culinary satisfaction for the consumer is that it produces an effect of satiety. It’s hard to see how such a model applies to the aesthetic functioning of the hit, which, on the contrary, becomes a hit only when it induces the listener to reiterate it as many times as possible. Any satiety would undoubtedly interrupt the expected reiteration process. Who would want to swallow a third cream cake, no matter how delicious, if they were already full? If listening provokes a real pleasure, and if it is the quest for pleasure that enjoins the listener to replay the song, it obviously must involve another regime of satisfaction, from which satiety is excluded. The pleasure of listening must satisfy the listener, but at the same time make them insatiable. Ignoring this paradox and identifying the experience of the hit with an experience of culinary consumption and therefore satiety would be a major misinterpretation. ‘Love to Love You Baby’, Donna Summer sings, as if gradually evacuating from her desire any consumable object (the anonymous ‘baby’) in favour of loving love itself and desiring desire, circularly. In the perfect aesthetic experience of the hit, the consumption (listening) of the song similarly aims only to engender a desire to listen to it again, so that listening no longer relates to the consumption of the object of desire but to its renewal: rather than consuming desire, ideally, it stirs it up, inciting a ceaseless repetition of the piece. 25. ‘Responsible art’, on the contrary, must abide by ‘the strict exclusion of all culinary delights which seek to be consumed immediately for their own sake’, Adorno, ‘The Fetish Character in Music’, 33.

In developing his aesthetic definition of beauty, Kant proposed the concept of


‘purposiveness without purpose’: it is precisely the appearance, in the object, that gives rise to the free play of the faculties in disinterested contemplation. Giving this a slight twist, we might say that the aesthetic experience of the hit tends towards an infinite purposiveness. In this purposiveness it is not the absence of the end, purpose, or design that is significant: the hit does indeed have a purpose, namely to elicit in the listener a desire to hear it again—but it has no finality (terminus ad quem), no end in the sense of a point of arrival. Since it is oriented by this purpose, the hit cannot be, in Kantian terms, the object of ‘disinterested’ contemplation; however, the satisfaction of the interest it provokes—some kind of pleasure, whatever it may be—does not have its end in itself, since it is constantly renewed by the experience of listening which, while ensuring its satisfaction, cannot, in principle, exhaust this desire in some form of satiety. In a more down-to-earth way, if we want to characterise the experience in physiological terms, the metaphor of addiction give us some idea of it. Unsurprisingly, the theme is a perennial classic in hits, from ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’ by Depeche Mode (1981) to ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears (2004): popular songs regularly stage the experience of addiction. If this motif has been used to advertise consumable goods—a coffee ‘named desire’ or ‘addictive’ chocolate—it is because it corresponds to the ideal figure of an insatiable consumer who can consume the same product indefinitely without getting bored of it. A fiction shaped by the consumer industry in order to exhibit its own abundance and to elevate dispensable goods to the status of something one cannot do without, the insatiability of this consumer changes the nature of what they consume—it becomes the object of a never-satisfied desire. And this is also what the hit tends to arouse in the listener, caught in a circular desire to listen and listen again endlessly.26 The stumbling block of this logic, though, of course, is the moment of repulsion. Listeners have experienced it a thousand times with songs that at 26. From this point of view, hits as industrial products perfectly crystallise this fiction of a commodity that meets no real need but which one cannot do without, to which is added the ‘aura of a luxury product’ (music), in Adorno’s words. And without a doubt, the regime of infinite purposiveness they induce is supremely well suited to the spirit of advanced capitalism, where consumption is not to do with meeting needs but with engendering more consumption, indefinitely.

I nfinite P urposiveness

of what seems like order and yet is ordered for no particular end or purpose,


first delighted them. Now the same irresistible song becomes repellent.27 The carriage turns back into a pumpkin, the prince into a toad: abruptly, the magic

R apture

stops working.

RAPTURE And so we return to this strange regime of the aesthetic appreciation of the hit, which always proceeds from a kind of rapture. Like the effect of a drug or a spell cast on the listener moved by it, the hit disposes the listener to absolute surrender. ‘I Put a Spell on You’ sang Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, caricaturing with compelling conviction a voodoo sorcerer in a trance:28 the hit works as a spell, as an enchantment in which those who succumb don’t even really know why, even though none of their rational capacities can help them escape their bewitchment. The experience is obviously a double-edged one, as is all the vocabulary related to it (with rapture containing the idea of ​abduction, enchantment the idea of impotence, bewitchment the grip of a spell); the listener oscillates between wonder and dispossession, enthusiasm and manipulation, paradoxical activity and passivity.29 One could indeed stop, break the magic circle, and try to calculate the effects and reveal the underlying technical tricks of hits such as The Bangles’ ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ or ‘What Goes Around…Comes Around’ by 27. Of course, some fade faster than others, as reported in these anecdotes regarding a 1990 worldwide hit: ‘[R]epeated playings of “I Will Always Love You” provoke[d] 31-year-old Joan Hall, a mother of two, to storm up to her neighbors’ apartment in Kennington, England, last fall and fling the stereo and speakers out the window and onto the street below […] In October, a 20-year-old woman from Middlebrough County was reportedly sentenced to seven days in jail after she played “I Will Always Love You” so loudly and so often that her neighbors complained of psychological torture and the police charged her with noise pollution’. Sarah Lyall, ‘A Love Song That Some Love To Hate’, New York Times, 6 March 1994. 28. There are several versions: the song first appeared in 1956, while the classic version, clearly recorded under the influence, dates from 1958. Remarkably, the song became a hit without the usual backing of the industry; the 1956 release was at first removed from the Columbia catalogue under pressure from radio stations. It would never reach the top of the US or the R&B charts. However, it was diligently passed down and covered by many artists during the 1960s: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nina Simone, Alan Price, Them, Bryan Ferry, and more recently Manfred Mann, Eels, and Annie Lennox, among many others. 29. On the concept of musical rapture and its ambiguous relationship to the philosophical ethos, see M. Massin, Les Figures du ravissement: enjeux esthétiques et philosophiques (Paris: Grasset, 2001), in particular Chapter 3, ‘Envoûtement musical et musique philosophique [Musical bewitchment and Philosophical Music]’), on the power of possession of the aulos (an ancient wind instrument, a forerunner of the oboe), which Platonic philosophy turns away from, even though Socrates is a player of the aulos and a spirit capable of eliciting an form of mania (Dionysian) in his listeners (120–31).

Justin Timberlake, while others start to smile, nod their heads, and dance. But


that would not only make one a spoilsport, it would put one in the sad position to dissect the charms of music, obtains through ‘technical analysis’ only the surest way of ‘refusing to abandon oneself spontaneously to grace, which is the request the musical charm is making’. This ‘stalwart spirit’ who wants to prove that ‘he has not been duped and does not consent to bewitchment’ is the one who, via the affectation of technique, wants to assure themselves that they are ‘not sympathizing’, the one who, because they so cherish their intelligence, thinks they must escape ‘the covenant made with innocence and naivety on which all enchantment depends’.30 Jankélévitch is talking here about classical music, but the phenomenon is more essential still in the experience of pop works, which generally rely even more heavily on this agreement with naivety—albeit dialectically, as shown throughout this book. The non-naive listener who refuses to be captured by something they cannot understand will always be chary of hits. They will always refuse the convention of innocence. But in doing so they will sacrifice a whole dimension of the experience. With a stiff upper lip, analytical and self-conscious, their experience of the hit will be nothing but a cautious glance towards pleasure. As in the adventure of Ulysses, who wants to hear the Sirens’ song but straps himself to the mast so as not to succumb to it, their analytical dissolution of the hit’s charm drives them to renunciation: alas, the pedant clings fast to precisely what needs to be dispensed with.31 One who takes just the smallest sip from the chalice of abandonment may seem less foolish than the listener in a trance expressing their passion with 30. ‘Having heard the violinist-magician, the stalwart spirit that analyses the bowing, goes through the left hand and the forearm with a fine-tooth comb, discusses sonority and pizzicato, means to prove by all this that he has not been duped and does not consent to bewitchment.’ V. Jankélévitch, Music and the Ineffable [1961], tr. C. Abbate (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 102. 31. The price paid for the ruse of Ulysses, who wanted to hear the Sirens’ song without succumbing to it, was the renunciation of any pleasure in the singing. In being bound, ‘Odysseus recognizes the archaic superior power of the song even when, as a technically enlightened man, he has himself bound. He listens to the song of pleasure and thwarts it as he seeks to thwart death. The bound listener wants to hear the Sirens as any other man would, but he has hit upon the arrangement by which he as subject need not be subjected to them […] Since Odysseus’ successful-unsuccessful encounter with the Sirens all songs have been affected, and Western music as a whole suffers from the contradiction of song in civilization—song, which nevertheless proclaims the emotional power of all art music.’ Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 59–60.

R apture

of the pedant who, as Vladimir Jankélévitch said of those who are desperate


grimaces and eccentric postures. But are they really experiencing that which they pride themselves on analysing? What can you say about charm if you won’t

R apture

allow yourself to be charmed? No, here it is the delighted listener that can speak more exactly and relevantly. And so the hit places the analytical mind in this unbearable dilemma: understand nothing, or just give in.

III. FABRICATION There is no sure-fire formula for hits, and they always seem more accomplished and better able to resist the passage of time when they apparently irreducible to any preexisting formula. But it is always possible to try to understand them retroactively—after one has sobered up, so to speak. For some time now a whole literature has existed for the use of apprentice composers.32 Today more than ever, countless video analyses of hits are available, bringing together elements from musicology and psychoacoustic theory, notions from aesthetics and from the history of public tastes and fashions. YouTube is full of videos of deconstruction sessions and advice for those who want to write a hit33 as well as for listeners who want to understand what has hooked them into hits of the moment. In his 2014 series of masterclasses, delivered alone at the piano, Chilly Gonzales exposed secrets obvious to the ear yet initially intractable to analysis, with the intention of explaining what was behind the irresistible hits of the time. For example ‘Shake it Off’, a huge success for Taylor Swift in the same year, was based, says Gonzales, on the principle of altered repetition: ‘Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate; I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake…’ goes the verse, built on a descending monophonic phrase suggesting the comical, mechanical rigidity of a cartoon character. The original melodic pattern is very simple and easy to learn, but is truncated and reversed in the three notes of the very brief ‘shake it off’, with the ‘off’ on a lower note serving as a ‘reset’, a landing between the melodic staircase that the verse descends, and the one climbed in the chorus in half the time. These rhythmic and melodic aspects give the piece its irresistible dynamic, combining the alteration of a mechanical repetition, sudden acceleration, and sharp controlled breaks. 32. One example among hundreds of others: the book by Molly-Ann Leikin, herself an author of hits in the 1980s, How To Write a Hit Song. The Complete Guide to Writing & Marketing Chart-Topping Lyrics & Music (Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard, 1987 [republished in 1989 and 1994]). 33. For example the videos of Robin Frederick, a singer, writer, and composer in Los Angeles who on his website offers ‘Songwriting tips and inspiration’. Also self-published by the author are a series of books with explicit titles: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs that SELL (Taxi Music Books, 2008), and Study the Hits: Learn the Secrets of Today’s Chart-Topping Hit Songs (2014).





In another hit of the same year, ‘No Rest for the Wicked’ by Lykke Li, the hook

K nowhow

a major chord. This alternation is posited and then transposed, according to

is less rhythmic than harmonic, based on the alternation between a minor and Gonzales, to produce a sensation of unresolvedness as to the key in which the song is written: ‘no res(olution) for the listener’, as Gonzales concludes, playing on the words of the title. In search of a resolution that never comes, the listener finds themselves taken captive.34 As a part of their enterprise of systematically deconstructing hits, as seen on their blog Hit Songs Deconstructed, Dave and Yael Penn dissect them for those ‘WOW factors’ responsible for the attraction of chart-topping music. They observe that in Adele’s song ‘Hello’, released in 2015, the singer’s vocal virtuosity is subjected to a certain tension. On the one hand, her vocal performance is a continuum of sustained intensity: there is virtually no break in her vocal efforts. On the other, this continuum is subject to modulations which create expressive peaks within the piece: for example when the singer rises on the word ‘tell’ in contrast to the fourth in B minor of ‘you’ that immediately follows it in the phrase ‘To tell you I’m sor-ry for ev-’ry-thing that I’ve done’ before repeating this movement identically, so as to imprint this ‘surprise’ on the listener’s memory. These few examples from a very large number of possible case studies partly contradict the aesthetics of rapture. The exposition of a certain knowhow contradicts the hypothesis of some inexplicable charm, some magic from which hits are supposed to come. But to the extent that these analyses explain the charm only after the fact, one might still consider that they provide paradoxical support to the aesthetic fantasy of the magic at work in the song. It’s certainly possible to isolate the particular rhythmic division in the Taylor Swift song, the modal irresolution in Lykke Li, the catchy ‘tell’ perched higher than the rest of the notes in Adele’s melody, but the dissected hit reveals such things only on a case-by-base basis; it doesn’t yield any infallible system of rules to follow. In these particular cases, the form (the singular rules peculiar to the work of art) remains irreducible to any formula (general rules applied for guaranteed effects) that would govern all hit songs. In fact, Chilly Gonzales and Dave and Yael Penn never state general rules, but present specific case studies in which a formula discovered after the fact is examined. Now, it is precisely into the gap, no 34. See the masterclass: .

matter how slim, between form and formula that the magic insinuates itself, a


disproportion between effects and causes. On the contrary, a deconstruction enchantment. From this point of view, there is always something disenchanting about any general musicology that examines the musical characteristics of hits (any approach that shows that they always use the same chords or the same rhythmic structures, thereby unmasking the hitmakers),35 whereas a case study is always enchanting even in its most detailed explanations, because it deals with hits in their very singularity, which is the thing that really makes them irresistible. Certain ‘factors’ of success can indeed be identified, but ultimately everything rests upon the ‘wow’ of this song, this singular refrain that transcends its causes because it is more than their effect.

THE MANUAL (FOR EVERYONE) When in 1988, following the success of their hit single ‘What Time Is Love?’ the members of English group The KLF wrote their ironic book The Manual: How to Have a Number 1 The Easy Way, they took one more step toward the disenchantment of the hit. Years before the Internet and masterclasses of musical analysis on YouTube, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty highlighted not musicological or artistic factors that can transform songs into hits, but certain extra-artistic factors, devoid of any charm or singularity. In the style of situationist détournement, the authors took a cynical (or at least realist) look at the industry, setting aside all aesthetic considerations, in order to highlight the perfectly mechanical causality behind the production of hits. To achieve the production of a ‘number one single in the official UK Top 40’, Drummond and Cauty argue that it is sufficient to respect a brief list of golden rules, accessible to all. Thus they take the opposite side to all of the great romantic ideals of songwriting which claim that the genius doesn’t know what they are doing and that the rules of creation are inexplicable.36 For Drummond and Cauty, on the 35. See for example the YouTube channel of the musician and producer PV Nova, which features humorous tutorials for composing summer hits and protest songs: . The humour here is based on the contrast between the efficacy of the principles revealed and the disenchantment occasioned by this revelation. 36. In the Critique of Judgement, Kant claimed that the observation of rules was what distinguished artistic creation from craftsmanship. Camper shoes, the best shoes, can be made by his apprentices provided they acquire the necessary skills, knowhow that is entirely contained in rules that the artisan

T he M anual ( F or E veryone )

that revealed a universal or at least general formula for the hit would dissipate all


contrary, the rules are perfectly knowable and the composer of hits is not a genius charged with some expressive mission:

T he M anual ( F or E veryone )

Now, we all know that pop music is not going to save the world but it does, undeniably, create a filing system for the memory banks.37 

Before applying the rules, the composer must first abandon all religious faith in pop authenticity: ‘So if in a band, quit. Get out. Now.’ Don’t try to learn to play an instrument, don’t hide behind the principles of ‘no compromise’; ‘the only thing you must not compromise on is your final goal: that Olympian slot on Top of the Pops’. One of the essential golden rules is to practice this key exercise as regularly as possible: listen and relisten religiously to the successive top hits of the UK charts of recent weeks, a necessary drill for acquiring the compositional reflexes that will guarantee immediate validation by the public. Followed to the letter, they assure the reader, the rules supplied by The KLF guarantee one hundred percent success. In case of failure (exceptional cases), purchasers of the manual will be reimbursed. These rules are infallible because they have been tried and tested over a long period of time: Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Berry Gordy, Chinn and Chapman and Peter Waterman have all understood the Golden Rules thoroughly.38

—and if, at the end of the 1980s, these leading lights are no longer writing fashionable songs, it’s not because the Golden Rules have become obsolete, but because they earned enough money from them to afford to be able to rest and to write music they actually like without the constraints of success. The recent history of recorded popular music has not contradicted this somewhat unromantic fact: the mass production of hit songs is indeed based on a few solid rules. can transmit intact to his apprentice, provided the latter has sufficient experience. The work of art answers to a different production process. It is the work of a genius ignorant of the rules at work in his own creation. Of course, the imitation of geniuses contradicts this distinction, but the disciple of genius who applies well-understood rules is still only a craftsman of art. 37. The KLF, The Manual (KLF Publications, 1988). 38. Ibid.



Critical, generous, and funny in its willingness to risk its own cause by revealing line with the ‘do it yourself’ ethos of the post-punk years. Intended for the use of young men and women with limited means of production (whatever they use to listen to music, paper and pen, a sampler and a recorder), the manual does not however say anything about another element that is equally important in today’s ‘hit factory’, if not more so: the standardised division of the labour between writers, composers, and producers that only an industry can really put in place. The KLF manual cites them: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Burt Bacharach and Hal David—the legendary writer-composer duos of the pop canon, representatives of the so-called ‘Brill Building’ aesthetic. Bacharach and David wrote and composed dozens of hits together in the New York studios with the predestined name of Famous Music. As early as the 1940s, when Bacharach was beginning his career as an arranger, David wrote ‘The Four Winds and the Seven Seas’, his first big hit, sung by Guy Lombardo. But it was the union of their two talents that made them indispensable suppliers in the late 1950s and almost all the way through the 1960s, especially for Columbia Records. Their first hit for Marty Robbins, ‘The Story of My Life’, carried by a whistled hook, reached fifteenth place in the charts in December 1957. Gradually the duo began to produce their own songs, with Bacharach as composer and arranger, David as lyricist and producer. But the story of this famous duo’s career remains very romantic: it brings together two geniuses whose intimate collaboration allowed them to give birth (along with a handsome return for the Columbia company) to the small musical miracles that the radio and phonographic industries needed at the time. In their case we imagine methodical artistic work rather than systematised rationalisation, an exchange between two talents rather than the rigidity of a division of labour orchestrated from above. We get a very different impression when reading Carole King’s memoirs, especially her chapter on her work as a ‘topliner’ at a major label: Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky.

D ivision of L abour

the secret, The KLF’s ‘manual’ was a democratic and emancipatory enterprise in


You’d sit there and you’d write and you could hear someone in the next cubby

D ivision of L abour

really terrific—because Donny Kirshner would play one song-writer against

hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure on the Brill Building was another. He’d say: ‘We need a new smash hit’—and we’d all go back and write a song and the next day we’d each audition for Bobby Vee’s producer.39

Over at Motown there was similar pressure. Berry Gordy, the label’s legendary tyrannical director during the 1960s, only approved a release once it had been through a completely rationalised process: from the fabrication of the title by a team of studio musicians (the Funk Brothers) supervised by title producers (Smokey Robinson, William Stevenson, Ivy Hunter or the trio HDH—Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland) to its submission to be approved or rejected, not on the basis of its intrinsic artistic qualities, but on a comparison with the titles already in the Top Five. Graham Gouldman’s composing career in the world of the pop factory took this logic to the point of dehumanisation. A songwriter of the shadows who composed a collection of minor masterpieces for others, sometimes regretting that he himself was not the performer being promoted by the label,40 Gouldman worked initially for Robbins Music Publishing and producer Mickie Most in 1967, and later in the offices of Kennedy Street Enterprises in Manchester. Of those years, the future member of 10cc said, ‘it was like going to the office: I went there every morning at ten o’clock and I stayed there working on my songs, to finish each evening at six o’clock’.41 Later, producers Kerry Kasenetz and Jeff 39. Quoted in S. Frith, Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock (London: Pantheon, 1981), 132. 40. It was for his own band, The Mockingbirds, that he wrote ‘For Your Love’ in 1964. But his record label, Columbia, rejected it. A year later, the song, in The Yardbirds’ impassioned interpretation, became a huge hit. ‘There was one strange moment when The Yardbirds appeared on the show doing “For Your Love”. Everyone clamoured around them—and there I was, just part of an anonymous group’. As reported by George Tremlett in The 10cc Story (London: Futura, 1976), quoted in P. Dunbavan, An Avid’s Guide to Sixties Songwriters (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2017), 243. It was followed by other hits for the Yardbirds: ‘Heart Full of Soul’, ‘Evil Hearted You’, and then ‘Look Through Any Window’ and ‘Bus Stop’ for the Hollies, ‘No Milk Today’, ‘Listen People’, and ‘East West’ for the Mancunian Herman’s Hermits. In 1968, the album The Graham Gouldman Thing appeared, with Gouldman playing, under his own name, a collection of songs he had written and which others had made into hits. Strangely, some of his performances seem rather subdued, and above all they pale in comparison to the famous versions. 41. Tremlett, The 10cc Story, 13.

Katz of Super K Productions hired him to write bubblegum (infantile, sugary


pop with nonsensical lyrics) which, by his own admission, Gouldman composed episode, though prized by some nostalgic fans, was anything but miraculous as far as the disillusioned Gouldman was concerned. Above all, the imposition of this Stakhanovite regime on the young composer was not exactly conducive to sustainable performance. Hardly rational in the end, the method only succeeded in exhausting the ‘goose that laid the golden eggs’, as a burned-out Gouldman quit the Kasenetz and Katz treadmill. In the Cheiron studio he founded in 1992 in Stockholm along with Tom Talomaa, Denniz PoP took a somewhat less brutal approach to optimising the division of labour in the production of hits. First of all, songwriters, composers, and arranger-producers were different people; a number of songwriters were assigned different parts of pieces which were then compared to one other before being mixed, inverted, or stacked in a combinatorial game at once blind and controlled, until a ‘nice surprise’ cropped up. The hit was no longer a song by a given person, but the collaborative work of an efficiently organised team. Martin Sandberg—the future Max Martin—a young member of local glam metal group It’s Alive, would in time come to occupy a special place in this system because of his greater knowledge of writing techniques, along with what must be described as his melodic genius. Often associated with another figure, producer Lukasz Gottwald AKA Dr Luke, Martin practically manufactured the cream of the 2000s Western pop charts single-handedly.

CRAFT The very fact that particular names rise to the top in the history of the industrial manufacture of hits lends some nuance to their industrial character and the depersonalisation that results from their collective and rationalised production. From Carole King and Graham Gouldman to Max Martin and Dr. Luke, even at the height of a systematised division of labour the pop factory seemingly cannot do without ‘geniuses’ to infuse its workshops with their vision. And so we pass, in the story of pop, from an author-genius identified with the songwriter (the singer-songwriter) to a producer-genius lurking in the shadows, capable of transforming any performer who passes through their hands into a solid gold voice.

C raft

‘like a machine’ at the rate of twenty-two titles in two weeks. This bubblegum


Dr. Luke, the producer behind the successes of artists such as Ke$ha, Katy

C raft

Spector for the teenage culture industry—is not considered by fans as a mere

Perry, Miley Cyrus, Backstreet Boys, Flo Rida, and Pitbull—a kind of Phil product manager, overseeing the assembly line in an efficiently functioning musical factory. Neither is he just a Pygmalion—with all the ambiguity that this implies in the transformation of the artists it produces42—but as a creator in his own right: ‘He’s had so many hits’, says Doug Morris, boss of Sony Music and founder of Vevo, ‘and that really is the heart of what the record business is all about—the people who can deliver hit after hit after hit. Creatures like that are enormously rare’.43 At the heart of its rationalised system, then, the industry needs certain individuals who are more gifted than others, craftsmen of genius whose talent today has eclipsed that of the performers themselves. So that at the height of a certain rationalisation, the shaping of songs still seems partly to obey a craft logic. Adorno picked up on this in the 1940s, and now seventy years later it is still the case in the hit factories: no matter how rationalised, the system only works when hitched up to the ‘talent’ of isolated individuals working in small teams, even if they are entirely structured by a strict division of labour— songwriter, topliner (melody writer), arranger, and producer, along with one or more star performers. Between the highest echelons where mainstream hits are fabricated and the underground of pop creation, then, there is an artisanal plane of equality. And on this plane at least, the independent producer of more obscure artists can compare their work to that of the star producers, the key figures of the contemporary mainstream. The democratisation of the digital means of production has further consolidated this plane of equality: like any isolated musician shut up in his room in the parental home, Dr. Luke and Max Martin work with Pro Tools and other widely available software, along with a few analogue machines. Any aspiring hit writer can acquire the samples, instrumental loops, and beats of the moment with a click on GarageBand or, a few links away, on forums for budding producers. But this apparent democratic utopia has only 42. In September 2013, a fan named Rebecca Pimmel launched an online petition to ‘free Ke$ha’ from Dr. Luke’s claws. The petition accuses the producer of stifling the singer’s creativity by always making her sing the same generic, predictable, and recycled pop songs: ‘Dr. Luke controls Ke$ha like a puppet’. This ‘unhealthy control’ seemed to peak during the time of their collaboration between 2005 and 2014, when the artist accused the producer of rape and harassment (charges for which Dr. Luke has not yet been tried). Quoted in Seabrook, The Song Machine, 277. 43. Ibid.

served to reinforce the paradox: the advent of home studios for all has not in


fact resulted in a proliferation of small independent hit factories capable of tion of the means of production, the gap between music produced industrially by handpicked teams of interpreters, topliners, arrangers, and producers and the myriad of individual productions posted on sharing platforms but destined for obscurity has only widened. The residual element of craftsmanship within the pop factory is therefore an essential lynchpin of the industrial fabrication of global hits. Essential, but not sufficient: Dr. Luke may be undeniably talented, yet it is not just his talent that matters, but also the rationalised integration of the benefits of that talent into a system capable of multiplying its impact and deploying it in the charts. Just as essential as the element of craftsmanship in the fabrication of pop works is its being placed under conditions of productive pressure which predetermine it entirely, and where the status of the different actors involved, from producer to performer, depends on their performance in delivering hits. ‘Is it a hit?’ And was the marketing plan right?, Dr. Luke asks of ‘American Girl’, the new single by Bonnie McKee, topliner behind Katy Perry’s hits ‘Roar’, ‘Teenage Dream’, and ‘Part of Me’, who made a comeback in 2013 as a singer-songwriter, as he nervously watches the view count for its video leaked onto YouTube the previous night, waiting for the verdict to come in.44 Because, under condition of the law of success (that is to say, the law of profit, which remains the essential law of the industry), ugly ducklings (even talented ones) that don’t achieve a good position in the charts plunge into limbo, and are driven from the spotlight back into the shadows of the studios. But the rationalised craft of pop has also learned to back the right horse (to continue with the animal metaphors): enough so as to guarantee that failed Dr. Luke-produced songs will only be relative failures and will still achieve considerable popularity, at least for a time.

STANDARDISATION ‘Why is popular music popular?’ This is the question that presides over all of Adorno’s studies of light popular music. During the period when he devoted himself to his American studies, most of the pieces that he heard on Princeton 44. See ibid., 267.

Standardi Sation

competing with the mainstream industry. It is as if, along with the democratisa-


Radio were in a kind of radio jazz genre (the pieces rarely exceed five minutes in length):45 more or less symphonic dances or sentimental numbers performed

Standardi Sation

by orchestras of expert musicians. And then there were the ‘sweet’ songs, on the model of Irving Berlin’s great successes, including the famous ‘Cheek to Cheek’ performed by Fred Astaire in The Top Hat, and ‘White Christmas,’ to this day one of the best-selling hit singles in history, with over fifty million copies sold (the most famous version probably remains Bing Crosby’s 1942 rendition). Out of this eclectic flux of a few months of radio programming, Adorno makes a single snapshot observation at time t, as if he were to study mainstream pop today by focusing on the top ten alone. At no point, it must be said, does he interrogate the songs’ musical genealogy or even the social context in which the hits appeared and were distributed: not a word about the influence of hot jazz, thriving in the 1930s, or about the segregation of the charts, which would be decisive for any understanding of how radio stations were programmed (indeed, with the notable exception of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, all the musicians and orchestras mentioned by Adorno are white).46 His method is knowingly indifferent to all of this. Because beneath the appearance of diversity, what he is trying to detect is a structural conformation imposed upon all light popular music by virtue of its attachment to popularity. The answer to the question ‘Why is popular music popular?’ is given immediately, and it is a tautological one: ‘Because it is popular’. What Adorno hears in the radio broadcast is not a music that is accidentally popular, but a music conceived, produced, and promoted with the intention of being popular, with all the ambiguities harboured by such popularity. According to Adorno, in this subsumption of music to the function of popularity understood as ‘market success’, the recorded songs of popular music are subject to a structural

45. It was during the interwar period, when the first great purveyors of modern pop tunes such as Cole Porter and George Gershwin emerged, that the single format became current. But it was not until 1949 that 45s appeared, promoted to feed the jukebox industry. 46. Rather than a critical failing—Adorno, we must suppose, did not approve of such a division—we can see this as a theoretical strategy. The issue of segregation brings into play sociological and human issues that Adorno has to strategically avoid in order to pursue his critical project: the discovery of a universal logic of standardisation. By demonstrating the role played by this standardisation in music radio broadcasts taken as a whole, especially in the white mainstream, he knocks down white popular music’s claim to artistic legitimacy, something it attributes to itself at the expense of black music.

operation: a ‘standardization extend[ing] from the most general features to



the most specific ones’.

Adorno borrows the term from the entrepreneur Henry Ford who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, made it the slogan of a rationalised and standardised method of production designed to achieve increased returns on everyday consumer products distributed on a large scale. The Ford car was conceived as a consumer product, a model for the usage of the greatest number, adapted to the needs of the average individual, employed but on a limited budget. Economically, it was made affordable by the rationalisation of its large-scale production. The more units are made, the more affordable it is. An entente cordiale is thus established between the interests of industry and the interests of the consumer: what is desired is not an especially high quality product, a luxury product reserved for exceptional use and whose manufacture would require special finishes and details, but a general product endowed with sufficient qualities to make it adequate for a standard use. Adorno’s hypothesis is that the industrial production of cultural goods is based upon the same tacit agreement. In terms of the success of light popular music, the industrial yield of hits comes at the cost of a rationalisation of their production for the use of the greatest number: just as with the most popular car model, here it is about ‘musical products’ of sufficient quality to satisfy a standard democratic use, that is to say adapted to the needs—which are called ‘tastes’ within the domain of cultural products—of the greatest number. Now, just as the rationalisation of the production of the Ford car was only made possible by the mechanical reproduction of a stereotype meeting all the standard criteria, so cultural goods designed to be popular are not produced in isolation as singular works, but are reproduced according to a model that guarantees their success. ‘[T]he reproduction of music has a tendency of replacing to a greater and greater extent its production’, writes Adorno.48 Recording gives rise to the phenomenon of technical reproducibility; the industry and certain anthropological features of the nostalgic or simply lazy listener give rise to standardised aesthetic reproduction.

47. Adorno, Current of Music, 281, emphasis ours. 48. Ibid., 455.

Standardi Sation

To grasp this concept of standardisation we must first consider its origin:


STANDARDS In the short history of recorded popular music available to him, Adorno observed


how new successes are fashioned from old. This was the case with the song ‘Deep Purple’,49 composed in the early 1930s by pianist Peter DeRose, a sentimental ballad that sold out upon publication. Soon embellished with lyrics, it became an indispensable standard for orchestras and radio programmes. Adorno no doubt studied the version by Bea Wain accompanied by Larry Clinton and his orchestra, but the song was also reprised by Artie Shaw, The Dominoes (in a doo-wop version) and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. In 1963, April Stevens and her brother Nino Tempo’s version got to number one in the US charts, the vocal harmonies and the suddenly more adolescent tone anticipating the Beatles era that was about to begin.50 It is invariably the case, says Adorno, that a reprise of a great success becomes a new success, subjecting the public to a Pavlovian test of conditioned recognition. These successes established as sound investments in the canon of popular music then become stereotypes to which pop will incessantly return. The shape of one confirmed hit generates that of the next hit to come. The new ones must themselves contain this tacit familiarity, thus locking music into a constraining musical schema. In the presiding schema at the moment when Adorno is studying radio programmes, ‘[b]est known is the rule that the chorus consists of thirty-two bars and that the range is limited to one octave and one note’.51 Such a rule may seem too rigid for most of the pop hits we know. But it is at least partially followed in many of these songs, even if no one listening to them considers it as an abstract law. Part of the pleasure lies in the fact that, implicitly, we do recognise it. In differentiated genres, the predetermined schema is no less restrictive. Indeed, the norms of the time may even be more tangible, from the phrasing rules of twelve bar blues to the predictable musical narrative of pieces that employ the ‘PoumTchak’ pattern.52 In July 2014, the cartoonist John Atkinson published on his blog Wrong Hands 49. The hard rock group Deep Purple were named after this song—it was the favourite song of guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s grandmother, and she was desperate to hear it covered by her grandson’s band. 50. In late 1970, Brian Wilson recorded a version for the album Adult Child, as yet unreleased. 51. Adorno, Current of Music, 281. 52. See, for example, Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen’s thesis, The ‘PoumTchak’ Pattern: Correspondences Between Rhythm, Sound and Movement in Electronic Dance Music, Department of Musicology, University of Oslo, 2010, .

a humorous diagram entitled ‘Anatomy of Songs’.53 In one page and six colours,


the principal strands of six genres are laid out on a rough timeline from beginning salient detail that attracts attention, each sequence reveals the compositional clichés of the period. The song labelled ‘indie rock’ therefore opens with a short introduction on the banjo, punctuated with a ‘hey!’ followed by the evocation of ‘twentysomething problems’ and ending again with a conclusion of ‘hey!’ and the return of the banjo motif at a faster pace. The mainstream pop song starts with an ’80s sample, followed by autotune vocals, a cameo from Pitbull (then ubiquitous in the charts), followed by a ‘weird key change’ and ending with a lazy fadeout. The online popularity of these kinds of satirical memes certainly shows, as Bonnie McKee (Katy Perry’s lyricist) says to John Seabrook, that ‘people have caught on to formulas to some extent’, meaning that in order to reenthuse them for a hit one must sometimes break the rules a bit and, as Max says, ‘let art win’. But in general, she adds, ‘People like hearing songs that sound like something they’ve heard before, that’s reminiscent of their childhood, and of what their parents listened to. I mean, every once in a while something new will happen, like dubstep, where it’s like, “This is robot future music!”, but most people still just want to hear about love and partying’.54

It does not even require Adorno’s mean-spiritedness to expose these moments of the renunciation of art, that is to say, of innovation, in the industrial production of mainstream pop. Dependent on the anthropological principle of the supposed conservatism of listeners, the fabrication of hits plays a role in this necessary rehashing. The great canon of the big hits, the gold and platinum discs, is the starting point for new production. Admittedly, it is also fuelled by innovations in more marginal genres, which pop manufacturers integrate into their productions according to the fashion of the moment. Thus the very specific sounds of the Roland TR-808 drum machine—used by underground bands in the 1980s such as the pioneers of Japanese pop synth Yellow Magic Orchestra—invaded the 53. . 54. Seabrook, The Song Machine, 265.


to end of a song. Ironically mixing lyrical and sonic elements, focusing on the


mainstream in the 2000s. But once they have been introduced and become factors of success, they resemble the rule of the thirty-two-bar chorus spoken

F ormat

of by Adorno: a cliché now instantly assimilable, apparently modern yet actually become totally familiar.

FORMAT In the standard, the pop form produces a schematic version of itself. When this schema is itself subject to the concrete conditions of the dissemination of songs—radio, television or internet streaming—we call it a ‘format’. The case of radio is paradigmatic—and radio is a structuring factor in the history of hits, given the role it plays in promoting them. For almost a century of mainstream broadcast pop, the length of songs has rarely exceeded four minutes.55 Since the 1960s, the few notable exceptions can be counted on the fingers of one hand: ‘Hey Jude’ by The Beatles (8’09”), ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin (8’), ‘Simple Man’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd (5’50”) and ‘The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys’ by Traffic (11’41”), long popular titles on American radio. In the UK, only eleven songs longer than Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (6’06’’) have ever been ranked No. 1, including ‘All Around the World’ (7’02’’) by Oasis. A song without a chorus or a purely instrumental composition is unlikely to be selected by programmers for the playlists of general interest radio stations. Radio, as a privileged distributor of songs seeking to become hits, has shaped musical content (its duration, its sound, its dynamics): it favours certain frequencies, such as those that bring out the vocals and the sound of snares clearly. The widespread practice of listening through the built-in speakers of laptops, which have only a narrow bass spectrum, encourages mixing and compression-boosting mastering to rebalance the mix. As Jonathan Sterne shows in the case of the MP3, these distribution tools are not just ‘containers’ for sound that leave unaltered the music they contain: they transform it, condition it, and favour the transmission of certain forms of information over others. In particular, the dynamics of the sound, defined by the perceptual gap between the quietest and the loudest sounds within a track, is the most heavily constrained dimension: 55. We are speaking here of radio hits. The format of dance hits in the first Jamaican sound systems and contemporary clubs has always been much longer, and even greatly extended so as to please dancers.

radio transmission demands a certain homogeneity of spectra and intensity. As


everyday background noise, radio is ill-suited to sudden interruptions, subtle air’) makes a glaring hole in the dense frequencies of the familiar hum of waves, threatening the continuity of the transmission. Pauses, breaths, and sudden alternations between piano and forte demand a level of attention that the default listening conditions that govern the sonic aesthetic of broadcast radio do not allow. The same goes for changes in tempo, which could introduce a disconcerting arrhythmia. Intended for frequent or intense radio broadcast (some radio stations can play the same hit twenty times a day at the peak of its popularity), the hit is especially subject to these socioacoustic preconditions. Only if it obeys these stringent conditions of broadcast will it be admitted onto the playlists that will ensure its success. Quite obviously, this state of affairs will have aesthetic consequences.

THEY CHANGED MY SONG ‘Look what they’ve done to my song…’ sang Melanie Safka in 1970, ‘They turned it upside down, they wrapped it in plastic bags’.56 When the industry launches a song to conquer the greatest number, it is always wrapped in the cellophane of the format. And even though this packaging may bolster its immediacy and effectiveness according to the cultural and psychoacoustic criteria of the time, it obviously betrays the song’s own spontaneity, erasing layers of complexity reserved for the attentive listener, overemphasising things that ought to have been more discreet, making overt what should have been suggestive and subduing what should have leapt out at the listener. The history of pop is full of hits disavowed by songwriters or performers who feel themselves betrayed. Between innovations and hits there is a wide gap, which is spanned by the standardised reshaping of tracks. In 1994, Method Man, a member of the collective Wu Tang Clan, released the landmark album Tical, featuring the track ‘All I Need’, to great acclaim from his fanbase. In 1995 the song reappeared, modified, under the title ‘I’ll Be There For You’, remixed by Puff Daddy. The result: the first Method Man hit, selling 1.2 million copies. The gap between ‘All I Need’ and 56. Melanie Safka, ‘Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma’, on the album Candles in the Rain (Buddha, 1970).

T hey C hanged M y S ong

nuances, and crescendi and decrescendi in music. On the radio, silence (‘dead


its radio edit ‘I’ll Be There For You’ allows us to gauge the aesthetic impact of the requirements of the radio format. In RZA’s original production, ‘All I Need’

T hey C hanged M y S ong

sounds like a model of hip-hop minimalism, allowing Method Man to unfold a dark, sinuous flow, punctuated by a half-muffled synthetic gimmick. ‘I’ll Be There For You’ offers a very different version. The song is shortened from five minutes to three minutes forty-five. The chorus is now far more audible, heavily emphasised, and less cryptic than in the original version, and now features the voice of the singer Mary J. Blige over two samples, one from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1968 hit ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’, the other borrowed from Notorious B.I.G. A short track, choruses, two callbacks to previous successes, the neutralisation of all pessimism and all sonic aggression—the format smooths out some of the audacity of the form: any questioning, reflection, and suspension of time the work was capable of provoking has been reintegrated back into the homogeneous and continuous flow of domestic life. The industry rewarded this transformation: ‘I’ll Be There for You’ enjoyed a success the original could never have hoped for. And so the industry confirms its reproductive method.

IV. COSMETICS studies, he hopes to be able to demonstrate that the principle of reproduction that governs the industrial production of hits is also the principle of its decline, since ‘the imitation of a major hit without exception leads to each subsequent hit song being ever more mediocre’. By planning its system of reproduction around what works, and therefore around the mediocre, the hit industry, he thinks, is heading toward its own exhaustion, like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy irremediably degrading the original image. Nonetheless Adorno is aware that this logic of reproduction is not univocal. Indeed, one must take especial care to note the differences between hits. Because it is never standardised products as such that are acclaimed as hits. Every manufacturer of hits is aware of this requirement: unlike other industrial products, nobody wants generic hits. They must gesture toward spontaneity, originality, genius. Even if theoretically hits are reducible to identical formulas, they can only become hits by promoting their differences.

PSEUDO-INDIVIDUALISATIONS This is the paradox of the hit: it must seem original yet be instantly familiar, it must remain highly predictable yet must spring some kind of surprise. Even if ‘everywhere the changes mask a skeleton which has changed just as little as the profit motive itself’,57 it must nonetheless wrap these bones in a flesh that is always new and desirable. In compensation for the patent impersonality of the musical format, Adorno detects techniques of what he calls contemptuously ‘pseudo-individualisation’, operating as a ‘varnish effect’ designed to relieve the boredom that threatens to overtake a listener hearing the same formulas over and over. The artistic director ‘wants a piece of music that is fundamentally the same as all the other current hits and simultaneously fundamentally different from them’.58 But the contradiction, Adorno thinks, is only superficial: it is the sameness that is essential, the difference being nothing but a superimposed effect; the two are not opposed but are both ingredients in a recipe in which 57. Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, 14. 58. Adorno, Current of Music, 293.

C osmetics

In a letter to his parents dated 2 July 1943, Adorno notes that, through his



the difference plays the role of icing on a cake that always has the same stale (albeit more or less successful) taste. It doesn’t take much:

P seudo - I ndividualisations

To be plugged, a song-hit must have at least one feature by which it can be distinguished from any other, and yet possess the complete conventionality and triviality of all others.59

These ‘features’ that are accidental from an artistic point of view are essential for communication. Little by little they provide the famous musical ‘details’ in which all of the expressivity of the art of pop music is concentrated.60 For Adorno, they are fetishes—abstract signs of originality, of a superficial subjectivity designed to enable the recognition of an artist or genre. For example he points out ‘the musically nonsensical staccati with which Guy Lombardo [a Canadian violinist and conductor very popular in the 1940s] likes to end certain legato phrases’61 or a piano solo by Benny Goodman that he judges to be aberrantly ‘concerned with the arbitrary playing of false notes and similar devices’, and which suspends ‘the musical scheme for a few bars, leaving the listener helpless’.62 These ‘false notes’, like poetic license, are just so many actings-out of individuality presented as strokes of brilliance. Because what really matters here is to maintain ‘the idea that everything depends upon the free decision of momentary, individual, non-standardised inspiration by the powerful personality’.63 And indeed, what Adorno observed in the successful musicians of the early 1940s applies equally to the over-emoting of vocalists, the signature upon which pop hits today have increasingly come to rely.

59. Ibid. 60. Contingent features, tics, fetishes: these are the names given by the musicologist to these essential details. From the perspective of modernist musical aesthetics, they are ineligible because they deviate from an ideal of the immanent development of music. But it is obviously not from the point of view of the aesthetics of serious music that the (not only psychoacoustic but also aesthetic) significance of these individualisations via ‘features’, details, is to be understood. The hit, as we have seen, reveals to us a poetics of the hook, where the communicative relationship extends an invitation: it is therefore an aesthetics of seduction. And it is only in view of this aesthetics of seduction that the indispensable cosmetic moment of the making of pop can be understood. 61. Adorno, Current of Music, 142. 62. Ibid., 402. 63. Ibid., 298n.



In the almost faultless stream of successes produced by Bacharach and David, ing on all their demos, she introduced specific inflections that singers including Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield could then appropriate into their own vocal singularity. But there came a moment when Warwick’s voice became the best possible voice, their favourite performance, and thus Warwick’s career as a performer in her own right was launched. Her renditions of ‘Do You Know the Way to San José’ (1969) and ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’ (1971) rose to the top of the charts. According to the rudimentary equation for hit design established some decades later by Dr. Luke, ‘the good song’ is nothing without ‘the right artist at the right time.’ And in those last two parameters is contained the all-important dose of the imponderable within which the ‘magic’ of the pop hit still stubbornly holds out. This being so, the fabrication process of pop has its own tricks for bringing all of these dimensions together with relative certainty, but also for bringing about the generation of unpredictable singularities within the framework of standardised production. The track-and-hook method, which became the standard for writing in the mid-2000s, is flexible enough to allow for unanticipated sonic and expressive events within the standardised process of writing. The producer creates a base track containing at least rhythmic elements and chord progressions, and perhaps a few instrumental arrangements, then invites several performers to explore the potential of melodies and lyrics proposed by topliners, listening out for hooks that can be instantaneously captured to become the signature of the song. ‘The method,’ recalls John Seabrook, was invented by reggae producers in Jamaica, who made one ‘riddim’ (rhythm) track and invited ten or more aspiring singers to record a song over it. From Jamaica the technique spread to New York and was employed in early hip-hop. The Swedes at Cheiron industrialized it. Today, track-and-hook has become the pillar and post of popular song.64

64. Seabrook, The Song Machine, 200.

P erformers, etc.

the vocal interpretations of Dionne Warwick played a determining role. Perform-


The technique is entirely dependent on the inventions of the performer, but

E clecticism

fashion catchy vocal inflections by manipulating the recorded sequence, some-

subsequently also on the selection of recorded tracks by the producer, who will times highly artificially: this pronunciation strikes a vowel faster, that syllable is strangely truncated…. In addition to the use of effects, from variously configured vocoders to autotune, this practice of comping, systematised by Max Martin, flips vocal individualisation into another dimension: that of a fully assumed artificiality where timbres, accentuations, and vocal ranges are individualised independently of any reference to a preexisting human individual. The voice of Rihanna, indisputably the major factor in the singularity of her hits, did not fully exist in advance of this modelling process.

ECLECTICISM But the ‘veneer of “individual” effects’65 does not only relate to the voices of performers and their comped studio avatars. It also brings about a certain relationship between the mainstream and the different genres of popular music—a notable penchant for aesthetic pluralism. In the kingdom of hits, all genres are indeed welcome, provided they do not assert themselves against each other. Made up of a wide range of artists that have seduced the global mass audience, the mainstream brings together the most stylistically various productions. In principle, anything goes so long as it sells, side by side and simultaneously. In the years between 2000 and 2010, the top echelon of the charts featured a veritable hodgepodge: the rock song ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes, Amy Winehouse’s extremely Motown ‘Rehab’, the R&B song ‘Diamonds’ by Rihanna, and old school funk revisited in Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. Although these may be comparable products in terms of their success (sales figures, top chart positions, television and radio broadcasts, royalties, etc.), they also demonstrate why the French still call mainstream music ‘varieté’:66 in and of itself, it has no 65. Adorno, Current of Music, 282. 66. French ‘varieté’ of the late 1970s provides another illustration of this eclecticism wherein the figure of the singer is celebrated amid an absolute contingency of musical style. Usually surrounded by studio musicians with a broad range of technical skills, the varieté singer relies on their embodiment and singing, rather than their own musical style, to mark them out. The repertoire of Alain Souchon is exemplary in this respect: ‘Sous les jupes des filles [Under girls’ skirts]’ (1993), a piece arranged with a reggae rhythm, cohabits with traditional Celtic music in ‘Le Bagad de Lann-Bihoué’ (1978) while ‘Poulailler’s Song’ (1977) affects the folk march of a protest song and ‘La ballade de Jim [The Ballad of Jim]’ (1986)

stylistic specificity. In it we hear a mixing of styles drawn from the ever more


compartmentalised spheres of pop aesthetics, where genres are constructed eventually ends up circulating: the dense guitars of rock, the rhythmic loops of hip-hop, the synthesized voices and arpeggiators of electronic music. This fact lends the general aesthetics of hits an objective tendency toward eclecticism. Mix feminine and masculine voices, add dancehall zest to a varieté song, add a shot of hip-hop and an element of rock or, as Denniz PoP has long delighted in doing, combine the beat of black music and the naive melodies of pop, the pulsations of dance music and mainstream vocals,67 and you reach one of the recipes for pop hit composition, a kind of ‘trans-genre pollination’, as Dave Penn describes The Chainsmokers’ ‘Closer’ (2016),68 which, in exactly this eclectic spirit, combines EDM synthesisers with alt-rock guitars. This eclecticism provokes a sensation of originality and reinforces the track’s capacity to be appreciated and remembered from various points of view. The incongruity of the mixture of aesthetic peculiarities foreign to each other boasts the twofold advantage of producing a sound that is a crossover of what already exists (borrowed from different but already respectively familiar sounds) while also seeming new—a novelty suggested by the very incongruity of the assemblage. The recipe goes back to well before Denniz PoP’s nineties success. ‘When Doves Cry’, Prince’s hit from 1984, already illustrates the principle. The heterogeneity of sounds and styles that cohabit in this innovative work are remarkable. The piece opens with a virtuoso guitar solo and hard rock saturation. The voice, initially low, rises higher, alone then supported by a soul choir, then in dialogue with a minimalist rhythmic sequence that combines electronic sounds with reverbed percussion. The whole is gradually enriched by a brief piano motif, and the methods of synth pop in the manner of Robert Palmer’s ‘Johnny and Mary’ (1985). Beyond the melodic and textual qualities of the songs, these various arrangements offer so many flimsy stage sets for the singer’s voice, over the succession of which one can follow the adventures of his persona. With a certain amount of self-irony, the singer remains exactly the same, while the styles move along behind him like painted wooden panels behind a theatrical character. It’s not all that far removed from clowning—including its mandatory dose of melancholy. 67. This, remember, is anathema. See the interview with the musician and DJ David Blot for Gonzaï magazine on 1990s club culture: ‘People would stop dancing if you played a track with vocals’. Interview, Gonzaï (2016), . 68. Dave and Yael Penn, ‘Hit Songs Deconstructed on The Chainsmokers’.

E clecticism

against each other and do not usually mix—although of course, everything


soon swathed in a broad synthetic orchestral blanket within which a Hendrix-like guitar solo again unfolds, followed by the high-pitched cries of the singer

E clecticism

and the staccati of a synthetic violin, all without any bass whatsoever and all performed by Prince himself, a consummate multi-instrumentalist. The track isn’t just a hit, it’s a timeless classic. Its eclecticism, the work and expression of a single man, takes on a demiurgical sense: it seems as if the whole of pop, all of its possibilities at a given moment, are emerging from one musician’s playing and singing. Less organic but equally eclectic, Avicii’s hit ‘Wake Me Up’ pushes the principle to the point where the aesthetic antagonisms that usually set genres against one another are neutralised. This 2013 global hit unflinchingly mixes the rural features of a country aesthetic with the urban and machinic features of a dance aesthetic,69 styles that would seem to be mutually exclusive: beginning in the style of a country and western song, underpinned by singing that suggests commitment and authenticity, the piece switches—after a dramatic pause and a synth jingle—into a typically EDM arrangement. Musically speaking, the typical country ‘one to the floor’ rhythm of the introduction is easily morphed into a techno beat; in terms of style, however, the movement between the two is incongruous, the development almost unnatural-sounding. It is as if the mainstream has adopted the particularist principle of aesthetically differentiated genres of pop, but deprived it of the exclusivity it demands in principle, at least for those who care about being faithful to a style, its ethos, and what it stands for. In this way a hit can facilitate the coexistence of markers of stylistic belonging that by rights ought to be mutually exclusive. In doing so, it gains access to listeners from disparate musical cultures, and benefits from ostensible signs of character that appeal to those who don’t care about musical culture. The fact remains that this pluralism has a price: it neutralises all aesthetic radicalism and any partisanship that divides the art of sounds and expression. In the pax romana of Avicii’s hit, ravers mix with dudes in cowboy boots, and the light of the sun setting on the porch of an old house is transformed into the strobes and lasers of the dancefloor, all in less than four minutes. Magic is back in the game: there are no obvious causes for all these effects. But this 69. The accompanying video, which to date has clocked up 1.8 billion views on YouTube, illustrates the disconnect between scenes of rural life of yesteryear and contemporary urban existence.

magic is also derealising. The pacific coexistence of ravers and country folk


lacks all reality, like the texture of the world imagined by Jory in Philip K. Dick’s not in the way that the militant defenders of these genres believe in them, as all-encompassing world-views. Here, stylistic markers operate not as specificities but as signs of specificity. They become ornaments, interchangeable on demand, to be embedded in the hit sounds of the moment. This neutralisation of the exclusivity of aesthetic partisanship lies at the origin of all the betrayals of which the mainstream is accused: it pacifies the war of genres, but it also lacks the fidelity that genres cultivate by pursuing their respective possibilities to the very end. As false universal, the mainstream seems to ‘teach the world to sing in perfect harmony’ only by denying disagreement, to bring together all particularities only by weakening each one of them. What eclecticism gains in universality it loses in specificity, and therefore also in the power of concrete evocation. If a hit fails to transcend this sacrifice to become a masterpiece—a song confirmed, beyond its status as a hit, as a classic—it is emptied of its substance, and becomes inaudible once, sooner or later, its moment has passed: the eclecticism that boosted its power of seduction in the moment now renders it irremediably dated.

GLAMOUR, OR THE ART OF THICKENING As if to compensate for the abstract universality that eclecticism calls for, to which it has recourse so as to give songs their indispensable character, the cosmetics of hits give rise to another observable feature: a certain glamorous treatment of music, understood here as an art of thickening. Adorno noticed this trend in the hits of the 1940s: ‘The orchestration must have richness and roundness (or a compensation for them)’ and ‘one seems to try everywhere to get the most full, rich, so to speak “fattish” sound, the model of which seems to be drawn from the tutti of the string orchestra’.70 In this taste for thick sound Adorno recognizes a feature typical ‘of the Wagnerian style’71 of an expressivity he considers outrageous and manipulative. Already suspect in Wagner, the art of thickening resembles, he says, the make-up of glamour girls, 70. Adorno, Current of Music, 293n, 455. 71. Ibid.

G lamour , or the A rt of T hickening

novel Ubik. It’s impossible to believe in this country or in this EDM—at least,


which swells their lips into a glossy red and overloads their (fake) lashes with thick mascara. Beneath the makeup, the girl could be plain, but the thickening

G lamour , or the A rt of T hickening

of her features at least gets her noticed. And, just like the glamour girl, the song thereby makes its seductive intentions entirely overt while, in a more subliminal way, assuring the listener that it is worth their money. Usually in hits the chorus presents this overt moment of seduction, with a build up of instrumental density or virtuosity. In the economy of the most common hits, these sequences of ‘big plays’ alternate with sequences of respite to give the listener a break and to reinforce by contrast the intensity of the most powerful sections (although the pop mainstream does provide certain cases of sustained maximalism).72 The art of thickening operates in various ways: in the performance or in the choice of chords marked by emphatic modulations—as, for example, in the movement from the E major verse to a chorus in C in Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ (1992). Or equally, by the general treatment of sound itself. It has been observed how, over a long period taking in the development of Western luthiery since the seventeenth century, gradually increasing importance was placed upon sustain (the duration of the resonance of an instrument after a note has been played). The electrification of instruments in the twentieth century boosted this capability, but it had already been enhanced by the forte pedal of the piano, introduced in the nineteenth century to overcome the limitations of a dry sound. In the more recent history of pop, the widely used technique of compression—reduction of dynamics— produced yet another form of thickening: the fat, literally ‘thick’ sound of the 2000s, characterised by productions whose sounds saturate the sonic spectrum, especially in the bass and mid ranges. The phenomenon of the soar, as described by journalist Daniel Barrow, concentrates all of these techniques at once. Succeeding ‘a dynamically static midtempo 4/4 verse’, the soar consists in an effect of propulsion, literally a heavenly

72. Adele’s ‘Hello’ maintains high-intensity power ballad singing for a full two minutes and forty seconds, that is to say 43% of the entire composition: once hostilities are opened in the second chorus at 2.37, the energy only intensifies, reaching its climax in the third and final chorus of the song, while a brief six-second piano outro affords a final sequence of respite (but also of preparation for the reiteration of the piece, since it is the very same atmosphere that defined the beginning).

ascent ‘to a ramped-up major-key chorus, topped, in the case of female singers,


with fountaining melisma’. This is the moment of the tutti of orchestral pop, 73

hook for which the whole of the rest of the song is a mere appendage, a prologue and epilogue that only the chorus validates.

According to Barrow, at the end of the first decade of the 2000s this trope was inescapable: it can be found in ‘Empire State of Mind’ by Jay-Z, ‘TiK ToK’ by Ke$ha, ‘Teenage Dream’ and ‘California Gurls’ by Katy Perry, and even in Flo Rida’s ‘Club Can’t Even Handle Me’. Certainly, there have always been changes in tone and tempo in the chorus, and choruses tend to be moments of exaltation, but nonetheless Barrow sees here a moment of aesthetic rigidity, a pure systematisation: the chorus, and its expected affect—pop’s overpowering and seduction of us—can be started as if one were flicking on a switch; the sudden, vertiginous leap of the pre-chorus […] designed to elicit a purely Pavlovian response, like an electroded corpse twitching when the current’s switched on.74

The glamorous thickening of pop’s charm and invitation collapses into authoritarian, almost martial seduction: Productions like […] Beyoncé’s ‘Upgrade U’ or Outkast’s ‘So Fresh So Clean’, were sci-fi reveries, strange fluid structures whose rhythmic logic exerted a libidinal compulsion almost by stealth, shunting and invading the body as if in the midst of seduction; […] something like David Guetta/Rihanna’s ‘Who’s That Chick’ seeks to tyrannise you, forcing hands to go up and legs to jump, writing itself in bodily motion as the state once wrote its domination on the body of the criminal.

73. D. Barrow, ‘A Plague of Soars: Warps in the Fabric of Pop’, The Quietus, 13 April 2011: . 74. Ibid.

G lamour , or the A rt of T hickening

the moment the producer deploys the riff, the synth-gush, the shouted vocal-


Originally, Barrow remarks, dance avoided the overdetermined form of the soar:

G lamour , or the A rt of T hickening

grotesque’ choruses. With the new standard, it is ‘as if pop were forcing itself

house, centred around rhythmic plateaus, never featured these ‘body-builder back to its defining characteristics—chorus hooks, melody, “accessibility”—and blowing them up to cartoonish size’. In the anabolic architecture of these tracks we feel the ‘pulse of a viral anxiety’, the need to offer the listener a return on investment, in short, to deliver the ‘sonic money-shot’ as quickly and clearly as possible. In this perhaps we can hear an industry ‘struggling more than ever to make money off a pop economy made up of YouTube views and Spotify plays rather than singles sales’. But the aesthetics of thickening—another name for kitsch, although without such a trenchant value judgement—is older than the collapse of the traditional foundations of the record industry. It is endemic to mainstream pop: it will come around again, it has already been around,75 and most often under the sign of irony—the irony that, whenever a popular song tries to be all-powerful and emphatic, it reveals itself as a caricature, as if the pop universal has finally unmasked its own falsity in the form of conscious or unconscious derision. For deep reasons rooted in the ambiguous relationship between popular art and the epic, long reserved for more noble forms of expression, there is a thin line between the impulses of nobility and caricature, between the glamour of the face of the carmine-lipped dancer who the audience falls in love with and a clown’s grimace. The kitschy thickening that gives the final polish to the standardised hit indicates this potential switch: at the moment when it attains its maximum degree of artisanal perfection, the hit loses its grace. The dancer smiles like an evil clown, and the reified ‘soars’ of 2011’s hits bounce off the ceiling and fall flat on their faces. The cosmetics of the hit, an indispensable complement to its standardised manufacture, cannot guarantee the production of classics—even though it is at work in all of them. Just as the unremarkable face is still there beneath the made-up mask, so the injection of individual features (performance, eclectic 75. Joshua Clover finds it in the late 1980s in ‘Freedom! ’90’ by George Michael or ‘Joyride’ and ‘Listen to Your Heart’ by Roxette, interpreting this excess as the obscure, compensatory double of a Western capitalism fixed in its propaganda and deprived of any real events, lacking direction, changeless. J. Clover, ‘Good Pop, Bad Pop: Massiveness, Materiality, and the Top 40’, in This Is Pop (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

references, the aesthetics of thickening) cannot always compensate for the


standardisation of the format: when it fails, it only makes that standardisation

INTERNAL DIALECTIC There remains the constant and fruitful possibility of approaching the hit through its form rather than its format: of challenging the techniques of rationalisation that fix the pop hit into frozen figures of expression and wagering on newness rather than recognition—in short, of forcing open a utopian path leading from singular expression to universal reception, breaking the deadlock of the supposed conservatism of listeners. And in fact, it is this idea that drives most pop composers. The all-comers of mainstream hits may well be subjected to the objective constraints of standardisation, but the promise of the utopia of popularity76 that fights against this subjection continues to inspire those who make the hits and those who listen to them. The history of pop hits is about industrial mediation, but equally it is about more idealistic attempts to reconcile art (in so far as it challenges the norm) with mass appeal. To shatter the established codes of a petrified mainstream: this is a widely shared ambition, to varying degrees of radicalism and urgency, among mainstream hitmakers themselves. In the early 2000s, the arrival of an innovative R&B sound into the mainstream was defined by this kind of ambition. Beginning in 1999 with the intriguing hits of Aaliyah produced by Timbaland, ‘Are You That Somebody?’, ‘Try Again’, ‘More Than a Woman’, and ‘We Need a Resolution’, and the gleaming chrome-plated productions of The Neptunes, the critics were swept up in a wave of poptimism.77 ‘The haughty old New Yorker could be found praising one-hit R&B wonders’,78

76. See above, Part One, ‘The Utopia of Popularity’, 65–7. 77. As Canadian critic Carl Wilson recounts, in the 2000s, a certain aesthetic of difficulty common among rock critics—invested in modernist taboos—found its counterpoint in self-baptised ‘poptimist’ critics tired of the utopian rhetoric hidden beneath complexity and difficulty of access: ‘After years of pursuing music in which the “difficulty” carries intimations of “another world” [Wilson cites the words of sociologist Simon Frith], sonic forecasts of transformation, I’ve begun to wonder whether “easier” music might contain hints for reconciliation with the world into which we’re already thrown’. Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love, 22. 78. Ibid., 14.

I nternal D ialectic

all the more cruelly obvious.


wrote Carl Wilson, a decade before Kanye West and Beyoncé became obsessive targets for the most abstruse intellectual criticism.79

I nternal D ialectic

Beyoncé Knowles’s ‘Countdown’, released in 2011, is one of those experimental comets that regularly streak across the mainstream sky—even though it only made a modest 71 in the American charts. Presented as a sort of commentary on Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing Me Softly’ (1973), reprised by Fugees in 1996, the track is a collage that explicitly telescopes soul, funk, dancehall, afrobeat, a brass section evoking 1970’s music, and deconstructed beats from the 2000s, all arranged around a sample imported from the 1990s (Boyz II Men’s ‘Uhh Ahh’), in an overtly postmodern countdown that takes the form of a potpourri recalling the most common musical trends of the prior half century. With all of this squeezed into a standard format time of three minutes thirty-two seconds, the piece pushes the eclecticism and glamour of pop to an unusual degree of self-consciousness. In pushing the formula of the hit to the extreme, ‘Countdown’ almost destroys it: You want hooks? Here they are—more than you can handle. You asked for a chorus? Here it is, and perfectly effective it is too, although it has almost nothing in common harmonically with the verses, which already seemed like a kind of chorus themselves. And finally, you want the new and the familiar? Here in three minutes you have a mixture of historical reminiscences and an unprecedented unity of the whole. In this collage where the succession of parts seems overtly contingent, only the singer’s voice and lyrics maintain a thread of continuity, thanks to the mathematical predictability of the ‘countdown’. And the lyrics? Beyoncé speaks of loyalty in love, thus marrying this disjointed and chaotic music with a strangely familiar message. The injection of this kind of audacity into the pop mainstream encouraged a resurgence of confidence in the utopia of popularity among pop fans: hits 79. Journalist Étienne Menu’s rundown of Anti, Rihanna’s eighth album, the title of which literally formulates a spirit of pop negativity, illustrates this dialectic between the mainstream and the persistent modernist ideal of ‘innovation’, ‘If “Consideration” is as successfully secure in its almost Lauryn Hill-like simplicity, titles like “Woo”—a beautifully degenerate beat co-produced by Hit-Boy, Travis Scott, The Weeknd and The-Dream—“Work (feat Drake)”—a curious digital reggae-groove which, seemingly nothing, gets stuck in the brain—the brief “Higher”—a vintage soul track again, but whose flickering instrument seems to be coming from a distant room or a daydream—and the astonishing jazz-lite of “Close To You” show everything that pop is capable of in 2016: new ideas transformed into hits, not in spite of but by virtue of to their singularities’. E. Menu, ‘On a écouté le nouveau Rihanna’, gqmagazine.fr, 28 January 2016 .

could be both acclaimed by all and judged to be avant-gardist by the critically


conscious. By locating hidden references in productions, the discreet artistic strangeness concealed beneath the obviousness of the hit, attentive listeners could discover something other than a pure standardised format—they could discover pop as a form, as an art—one in which expression, as one would expect of such a work, challenges convention and the norms of a format that has been rehashed to the point of exhaustion.

I nternal D ialectic

touches of avant-garde producers, manifestations of melodic and rhythmic

V. SUBJECTIVE SUPPLEMENT The aesthetic idea of ​​hits is inseparable from childhood epiphanies. Searching oneself for the purest experience of delight at a hit song, one will usually come back to some childhood memory, a memory from an age when the suspicion of standardisation was not so acute. Sometimes a revisionist adult impulse leads us to judge with condescension the tastes of the child that we once were, a fan of the radio hits of Herman’s Hermits (‘No Milk Today’) and Daniel Balavoine (‘L’Aziza’, ‘Petite Angèle’). But it is very often thanks to this simplicity that the promise of pop was first revealed to us. The delight to be had from listening to new hit songs is hardly comparable—worse, it sometimes gives way to a form of disbelief at the fact that songs so lacking in personality can be such popular successes. In the 1990s, Michka Assayas asks, when ABBA was universally regarded as a tacky group, not yet reassessed by critics, was it so absurd to find more innocence, more instinctive intelligence, more eagerness to do well—which for me are the seminal qualities of the 1960s—in ABBA than in all these hawkers who sell the authenticity of the ‘street’ and feigned enthusiasm with media backing?80

Of course, whatever the objective strength of the Swedish group’s compositions, the qualities recognised here (‘innocence,’ ‘instinctive intelligence,’ ‘eagerness to do well’) are also those that the critic misses from his own childhood experience of music. Undoubtedly, aesthetics and personal experience merge here. The songs from our childhood were perhaps no less standardised, no less systematic than those that dominate today, but our primitive brain recognised in them so many emotions that we are no longer even able to judge. In retrospect, listening to ‘The Winner Takes It All’, ‘Like an Angel Passing through My Room’, or ‘The Day Before You Came’, the sophisticated critic finds good reason to agree with the child who loved these songs. Here too it is a utopian reconciliation that is in question, this time between ages of the same individual, between childhood and maturity. But the gesture here is not just reconciliatory. 80. Assayas, In A Lonely Place, 208.

S ubjective S upplement




It is a reconquest: a subjective reappropriation of a group and a music that dominated the charts for a decade, between 1972 and 1982, that boasted its

G host T rain

share of ridiculous ostentation, and that finally became a kind of crushing norm for mainstream pop. But once fallen, remote, exiled to the limbo of childhood memories, the songs of ABBA become independent of the mainstream—even though most of them are still very famous. Relieved of the weight of their own time, they flow back into the consciousness of listeners as aesthetic promises of an elsewhere become desirable once more.

GHOST TRAIN The most accomplished hits of mainstream pop, at the moment of their greatest domination—smash hits, statistical explosions, the name of the stars on everybody’s lips—sometimes seem like ghost trains. Whether or not you join the ride, and whoever else may be on board, the same mechanisms that bring forth vampires, witches, and terrifying zombies will be triggered. Designed to frighten those who don’t see the strings, these all-too-predictable monsters will soon no longer scare anyone. The disenchanted spectator is just indifferent. But even in the absence of spectators, the ghost train continues along its tracks. The radio blares even if nobody is listening any more. The hit that triumphs, that absolutely dominates, no longer needs a listener, any more than the monsters of the ghost train need a spectator to frighten. To the mechanics that spring them out of the darkness, to the huge cobwebs, the fright of the passengers is ultimately entirely dispensable. The smash hit sometimes has a comparable effect: the listener seems supernumerary to it, and, in the end, can feel quite justified in abandoning the hit to its solipsistic chatter.

‘ALMOST-HITS’ AND ‘ALREADY-NO-MORES’ Over and above such replete figures of mainstream pop which are no longer addressed to anyone, pop fans often prefer the ‘almost-hits’, the number one songs in heaven, intimate hits (like Teenage Fanclub’s song ‘Baby Lee’, in which the singer describes a world in which it would have been a number one; this world is certainly not ours, where the track went largely unnoticed except by existing fans of the band) or those in which our own sadness becomes a universal hit, as in the song by Prefab Sprout (‘once more the sound of crying

is number one all over the Earth’); fans often prefer the promises of impossible


hits to actual hits, or hits that are already no more, forgotten, obsolete, returned Dancing in a Lesbian Bar’ of which many versions were recorded by the artist, none of which seems to hold all the essence of the song. In this ‘not yet’ or ‘already-no-more’ there opens up a breach into which the subjectivity of the listener can finally slip. Ghost train hits exist without us; these dreamt-of hits exist for us and us alone. The invocation of this subjective mediation can be annoying for the musician who holds to the objective qualities of the artistic object, since it involves confusing artistic value with the affective dimensions of listening, genius with nostalgia. But since the pop hit is shaped by a poetics of the hook, which is always addressed to the listener as an invitation, it cannot do without this subjective supplement.

EMPATHY FOR THE REIFIED Beyond the ‘almost-hits’ and the ‘already-no-more’ of all these unfinished forms of the utopia of popularity—in which this utopia is outlined all the more insistently—the subjective supplement can take on the dimensions of an aesthetic salvation, especially in the face of the most reified pop objects. For in it there is a breach through which there enters that melancholy sometimes inspired by reified things, which are nothing but things, deprived of all expression; replaceable, standardised objects that have become solitary. The authoritarian, pummelling ditties of the mainstream are nothing but songs, reminding us of mere tat, colourful entertaining objects that have become garbage piling up in a backyard, the ‘bicycle for two’ and candlesticks that Paul McCartney evokes in the song ‘Junk’: ‘Buy! Buy!’ says the shop sign opposite, ‘Why? Why?’ answer the worn goods, resigned to their uselessness.81 As if the commodity itself, at the height of its reification, assumed a new consciousness and denounced the whole system that produced it and made it so useless.

81. ‘Motor cars, handlebars / bicycles for two / broken hearted jubilee / Parachutes, army boots, Sleeping bags for two / Sentimental jamboree. / Buy! Buy! Says the sign in the shop window. / Why? Why? Says the junk in the yard / Da da ya da da da, Da da da, da da ya da da, Da da da da da da da. / Candlesticks, building bricks, Something old and new. / Memories for you and me. / Buy! Buy! Says the sign in the shop window. / Why? Why? Says the junk in the yard’. Paul McCartney, ‘Junk’ (1970).

E mpathy for the R eified

to the rear-guard; like the tremulous indie hit by Jonathan Richman, ‘I Was


By way of a nostalgic, empathetic listening, moved by what is ultimately vulnerable and touching in aesthetic conventions, the old hit song is transfigured.

E mpathy for the R eified

It is probably an experience of this kind that Adorno speaks about when, against all odds, he finds himself moved by ‘a degenerate English song’ by Guy Lombardo: ‘Penny Serenade’ (1938).82 Because this song is a tale of poverty that has no other recourse than to avow its own poverty. None of the sparse verses explain the story of the chorus, indeed there is barely even a chorus and verse: this ‘hit’ does little more than invoke itself. Verse and chorus are both very short, the verse is twelve bars, the chorus or ‘serenade’ a mere eight measures. All this is already so tiny, as cramped as the memory that Adorno finds coming to mind after many years:83 The name of the song might have come from The Threepenny Opera. But instead of just inviting the poor, it publicly declares its own poverty. The Italian syllables […] shake their heads like an old beggar; they are certainly not affirmative. The serenade’s only content is that it can be heard for a penny: ‘Just a Penny Serenade’.84

And the song, in its very poverty as a mere commodity, finds itself salvaged by the expert listener who listens for how the ‘musical fetish comes into its own’. Adorno writes: 82. A composition by Melle Weersma and Hal Hallifax, which Adorno was listening to in Guy Lombardo’s Swing version. There is also a French version by Lucienne Delyle, ‘Sérénade sans espoir’ (1939). 83. Adorno, Quasi una fantasia, 49. This narrowness does not deter Adorno from making a lexical and musicological analysis. He observes that ‘Thinly, but not without grace, the verse puts on display its three introductory sounds: an impressionistic ninth chord is shoved in and at once reversed into the principal key, so that you shouldn’t have to take it seriously. Over the dominant, when the trademark is first quoted, a plagal syncopation provides a pretty, casually mournful inflection. The miniature refrain is really only a motif which occurs twice. But even “a penny” is no more than a direct inversion of the “Si, si, si”. The whole thing, verse and chorus is repeated; the unusual hit-song practice of varying the refrain and dropping the verse is, as it were, cheated of its material. It has become so very unassuming that the mechanism has nothing to get a grip on. In contrast to the main section there is also a trio in the tonic minor taken from an inverted motival remnant of the refrain. The trio, too, only lasts for eight bars. It carries its seconds like a helmet of invisibility, you scarcely see it. The fifth with which it closes is tacked on to the verse which faithfully follows for the third time: its minims match those that appear at the main focus of the verse. Then the refrain returns once more, followed by a coda to fade out with.’ The lyric, meanwhile, ‘begins with the obligatory love story’. A ‘lovely lady’, a last smile, a disappearance, and an old beggar ready to sing the story for a penny. 84. Ibid.

If exchange value really gazes out from the capital letters of the hit song like an


idol, it is redeemed once the word ‘penny’ falls. Its magic is broken, like that of

Thus the ‘commodity world which always promised more than it gave, but ultimately can promise more than is given by the world which is its home’.85 The cheap serenade that seems to sing of its own miserable condition as a manufactured object with aesthetic pretensions, lost to both art and to the market, moves the listener. In naming its own reification and its extreme humility—worth nothing but a few pennies (‘naked numbers’)—the song acknowledges its low value, as an industrial product ousted from the circle of valued commodities. But in being driven out of the circle of value, as a trashy thing among other mass-produced replaceable objects, it acquires, for critical subjectivity, an expressive power that other products do not have. Admittedly, the solution remains ambiguous because here subjectivity takes the upper hand: for it is subjectivity that literally salvages the object, just as the dandy or the snob bolster themselves as subjects by loving songs that everyone else finds in bad taste. Ultimately, what is privileged is a subjectivity that is moved only by fallen objects; its supplement becomes the very substance of aesthetic judgement, while in parallel it is ruthless with more ambitious works that demand much less of it. But in the end, is it the song that wins here, or the narcissistic satisfaction of having saved it? To transmute the magic of a hit into pure reverie for the listener is perhaps to escape the dehumanisation into which the advanced rationalisation of the hit song seems to propel it; but it is also to migrate onto the side of subjectivity a promise that it would be better to hold to as something objective: that promise of reconciliation in which our being amazed and delighted together would not be an indication of propagandistic manipulation, but the experience of a universal aesthetic community, the actual realisation of the utopia of popularity. * Hits enjoy an ambiguous status: the Holy Grail of pop as a musical art, they are subject to a kind of class contempt in aesthetic consciousness. They suggest 85. Ibid.

E mpathy for the R eified

the Medusa when Perseus confronts her with her own reflection.


formatting and hype, the manipulation of the masses, a cultural fact that combines the transitional tastes of a generation and the norms imposed by the

E mpathy for the R eified

dominant media of an era, rather than an essential mode of the existence of pop works. For this musical art, however, which never seeks to deny these industrial conditions, it is the aesthetic sense of the hit that proves crucial. Its poetics of the hook, its aesthetic relation which involves the listener in a strange rapture, is like a gravitational force acting on pop productions: the force of the ideal of popularity itself, which carries the utopian promise of a reconciliatory aesthetic experience without any arduous initiation into musical truth. The music industry does not negate this promise; it is the most efficient and adaptable rationalised system of production ever invented to realise it. However, like any realised utopia, it can end up reversing the utopia it claims to realise, instead fabricating the aesthetic dystopia of a false reconciliation. Whenever it makes its appearance as a false universal in which the reconciliation is only apparent, the mainstream, as a neutralised zone of dominant music, embodies, for aesthetic consciousness, this realised dystopia. In it the magic of the pop hit is rationalised, frozen into a normalised and normative expression that contradicts its promise of emancipation, and rapture gives way to an auditory hijack as crude as it is irresistible. But the realm of hits extends beyond this objective realm. In search of a certain utopia of popularity, the false universal of the mainstream is continually unmasked, criticised, negated, in new attempts at works that seek to be popular forms—and not just formats. The promise of reconciliation survives, dialectically. To please the greatest number is the goal of the pop format; this is also, but dialectically, the promise to which the pop form constantly refers. Examined more closely, this duality indicates a tragic ambivalence. Divided between the promise of the popular, a universal and true reception, and the rejection of standardisation, which is the concrete destiny of ‘that which can please everyone’, pop consciousness is condemned to be torn between the two. Because that’s what the Pythias at the entrance to the kingdom of real hits tell us: that we must seek to be popular but we must not be standardised. But to be popular always implies either corresponding to a standard or defining one. The utopia of popularity can only be aimed at under this twofold constraint—that is to say, in effect, according to a contradictory injunction. Anyone who aims to create the hit as utopia of popularity may well mobilise both knowhow and

critical awareness, but they will have little chance of cracking the enigma without


sacrificing one or the other. So who can blame them for wanting to be a magician? E mpathy for the R eified

CHAPTER 4. POP AND PROGRESS: HISTORICISED INNOCENCE No critique of progress is legitimate save one that names the reactionary element. Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music (1949)1 Georges: How about some music? Know Blue Wet Shirt? They’re hot right now. You hear them in airports, bars, corridors, parks…Listen, now you’ll see what it’s like in today’s world. [Fifteen seconds of incomprehensible, supposedly futuristic music] Georges: Well?…No?… Blaise: [Uncertainly] Yeah… Georges: Yeah, you’ve missed out on a whole bunch of stuff in seven years. Steak, dir. Quentin Dupieux (2007).

MODERN In the world of independent pop, there is a certain delight taken in pronouncing the word ‘modern’. In France, the word makes us think of Jacno, founder of the first French punk band The Stinky Toys, and later an oddball post-punk solo artist, and of elegantly obscure ’80s groups such as Modern Mathematics, Martin Dupont, and Marquis de Sade—an at once snobbish and unifying movement of ‘jeunes gens mödernes [modern youths]’ still full of irony and punk irreverence but with a kind of wry detachment reminiscent of the fatalism of Baudelaire’s dandy. This was pop under the influence of Kraftwerk’s albums Trans Europe Express and The Man-Machine, and the avant-garde aesthetic of the 1930s used as propaganda by the great totalitarian regimes. ‘Modern’ means young but lucid, already jaded but convinced that the future, which has faded away in a sclerotic society, may return ‘at any moment’, aided by electrical shocks created haphazardly by the friction between humans and the portable sound devices, drum machines, and 1. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, 4.


cheap synthesizers newly available on the market. Here ‘modern’ retains all the charm of one of the great aesthetic concepts of the twentieth century, but

M odern

pronounced in the drawl of a 1980s youth, a disaffected high school student who has instinctively understood how this word allows them to distinguish themselves from the crowd: those who don’t champion it are sent packing—washed-up rockers to their street fights, hippies to their sheep. When Yves Adrien theorises the advent of this scene and its New York model by drolly invoking the concept of ‘Novö’, he understands it in this highly competitive sense in which arrogance is elevated into an existential stance: ‘The modern is the person who won’t let anyone else be the first.’2 ‘Modern’ is the avant-garde, ‘modern’ excludes, and ‘modern’—even when its cult object is the ephemeral, in the decadent spirit of a Des Esseintes—inscribes pop within a history that progresses and holds out the promise of a future. This then is the simplified, sloganised version of that regime whose far deeper meaning Adorno’s aesthetics had grasped in the history of serious music, almost half a century earlier: aesthetic Modernity. But ‘often’, as Adrien writes in his praise of electric rock, ‘it’s the ersatz that gives you a taste of the real thing’.3 Adorno, of course, disagreed. Writing a few years earlier, he jeered at the very notion of a jazz modernism: Anyone who allows the growing respectability of mass culture to seduce him into equating a popular song with modern art because of a few false notes squeaked by a clarinet; anyone who mistakes a triad studded with ‘dirty notes’ for atonality, has already capitulated to barbarism.4

Aesthetic Modernity may have made pop its foil, but regardless, modernism has flourished above ground, on the neglected terrain of recorded popular music.

2. Yves Adrien, in Jérôme de Missolz’s film Des jeunes gens mödernes [Modern Youths], 2011. 3. Y. Adrien, ‘Je chante le rock électrique [I Sing the Rock Electric]’, Rock & Folk, January 1973. 4. Adorno, ‘Perennial Fashion: Jazz’, in Prisms, tr. S .Weber and S. Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 126.

I. OFF-GROUND MODERNISM 5 There were modernists in popular music in its broad sense (music that is not written down but recorded) long before the time of ‘modern youths’: among advocates of the complex atonal bebop of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk in the late 1940s who opposed themselves to the old guard of hot jazz; among the youth movement of ‘Mods’ (literally, ‘modernists’) from the north of England, fans of rhythm and blues, i.e. black American music, in the 1960s; and in the avant-garde milieu surrounding Brian Eno and certain German musicians such as Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius (Harmonia) in the mid1970s. But it was back in the 1930s, with the emergence of magazines devoted to a modern music6 itself driven by the democratisation of the phonograph, that cutting-edge critics began writing articles and reviews advocating the advancement of jazz and modern popular music, hierarchising records and placing them in a pantheon of works not just worthy of being distinguished from all comers, but capable of signifying the present moment, setting up a new historical truth dissonant with tradition. Long before rock critics, it was jazz critics who sowed the intellectual soil with the seeds of a modernism that borrowed from the critical conception of Adorno as well as the reflective 5. [‘Off-ground’ (hors sol): an agricultural term which in French is more often used figuratively, ‘off-ground’ designates cultivation without native soil support as in vertical farming, hydroponics, etc. The idea, as discussed in detail below, is that musical modernism survives and even thrives in pop, but in a new environment, alien to its original isolated and elitist soil—trans.] 6. In France, Henry Prunier and Andrew Coeuroy’s Le Revue Musicale, founded in 1920, initiated a critical approach to contemporary music, combining critiques of jazz and classical works. Jazz Hot, founded in 1935 by Jacques Delaunay and Hugues Panassié, stands out as the first magazine devoted exclusively to jazz. A short time before this, the review magazine Disques appeared, specifically devoted to recorded music. Initially focused on technical aspects and the assessment of the fidelity of sound reproduction—the magazine was originally a supplement to Phono-Radio-Music, the ‘Journal official de la Chambre syndicale de l’industrie et du commerce français des machines parlantes [Official Gazette of the Union Chamber of Industry and of French Commerce of talking machines]’, that is to say a promotional paper officially linked to gramophone producers—the criticism took a more aesthetic turn when the magazine became independent in 1935, with more literary writers such as Jacques Robert-Sigl, with his particular focus on jazz records and songs. See J. Robert-Sigl, ‘Le Jazz-Hot’, Disques 3 (1935), 2, or his articles on singers Damia and Germaine Sablon. For a detailed and precise investigation of the history of music reviews, see M. Heizmann, ‘La critique musicale face au disque, emergence d’une critique sans sujet’, Discotheka, .

O F F - G R O U N D M odernism




conception of Clement Greenberg, arrayed together against the kitsch nature of popular art. In France, the concert given by Dizzy Gillespie and his big band

O n a Par with the Achievement of the Age

in February 1948 at the Salle Pleyel in Paris signalled the opening of hostilities between supporters of an authentic jazz—with Hugues Panassié, critic and pioneering founder of Jazz Hot magazine, at their head—and the ‘modernists’, led by Boris Vian, eager for formal innovation and fresh new energy. While the first camp saw the music of the ‘boppers’ as mere noise, pretentious chaos trying to pass itself off as virtuosity, the latter heard it as the sound of freedom, and as heralding a welcome musical progression. In the midst of this schism, jazz criticism made the theoretical distinction between a reactionary swing, an authentic hot jazz, and a modernist bebop, thereby incorporating—in modified form—an aesthetic dialectic hitherto reserved for scored music. In the history of rock, the reaction to Bob Dylan’s concert at the Newport Festival in 1965 can be seen as an equivalent to the outcry Gillespie met with at Pleyel. The audience had expected an acoustic performance, but Dylan showed up with a Fender Stratocaster, accompanied by a band heavily amplified so as to reproduce the electric sound of Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan thus braved the supposed antagonism between the authentic music that folk claimed to be and the electricity of rock‘n’roll, considered by the more austere folk fans as a fraudulently wild music for scruffy hedonistic teenagers. Peter Guralnick recounts how students had previously snubbed a furious performance by Chuck Berry at a university festival in favour of the harmonies of a local folk group now totally forgotten. In a similar climate, Dylan was now decried by an audience of purists who had championed him a year earlier. This great scene of pop martyrology has since been inverted to emphasise the singer’s authenticity and daring, and is recounted by critics as a heroic rock‘n’roll gesture. For as soon as criticism became ‘modernist’, it no longer associated authenticity with sincerity or commitment, but with the need to have a sense of history, a consciousness of the Zeitgeist. And indeed, these are the terms in which Adorno’s modernism set out the conditions of valid originality. ‘An originality which is on a par with the achievement of the age, but does not spring from an intimate knowledge of what is essential to it, does not count’, he wrote in 1959:7 similarly, in jazz as in rock, a diffuse modernism propagated the idea that the truth of a work no longer made sense unless it was 7. Adorno, Quasi una fantasia, 115.

positioned as part of a historical dynamic. From this point on, aesthetic truth


could only operate on the principle that ‘The Times They Are a Changin’’, as hour showing on the countercultural dial.

‘PREVIOUSLY UNIMAGINABLE’ In the aesthetic evaluations of rock aficionados as in those of jazz fans before them, the prestige of the avant-garde continued to grow. The essential artists were those who discovered the unexpected, slicing the history of their art in two, making ‘before’ and ‘after’ totally incommensurable, and opening up the future by leaping straight into the next generation. In the early 1970s the critic Lester Bangs said that he had seen rock‘n’roll die twice, and now hoped for the advent of an innovative music that would use the most groundbreaking and primitive rock impulses as a springboard to leap into the ‘atonality and primary cries’ employed by free jazz musicians such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler. Listening to the album Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, released in 1969 and produced by Frank Zappa, was a revelation for Bangs: Trout Mask Replica […] wasn’t just the fusion I’d been waiting for: it was a whole new universe, a completely realized and previously unimaginable landscape of guitars splintering and spronging and slanging and even actually swinging in every direction, as far as the mind could see.8

An epiphany of newness, but one connected to a tradition against which it railed, and by which it had yet to be heard. Lester Bangs admired the animalistic voice of Michael McLure belching ‘images at once careeningly abstract and as basic and bawdy as the last 200 years of American Folklore’.9 Characteristic of pop’s dialectic between roots and progress, Bangs’s criticism already set out the ambiguity of off-ground ‘modernism’ as applied to recorded popular music: anchored in distant folk sources on one side but oriented toward the future and the 8. L. Bangs, review of Trout Mask Replica, New Musical Express, 1 April 1978. See . 9. Ibid.

‘ P reviously U nimaginable ’

Dylan would sing in 1964, marking with this most timeless of phrases the exact


quest for the thrill of the hitherto unheard on the other, this modernism offered

T eleology

The story of popular music now began to be told in terms of a chronology of

pop a consciousness of its own historicity and a confirmation of its artistry. innovations in the form of ruptures: the wild irruption of rock‘n’roll, the golden age of the sixties, the decomposition of pop classicism by psychedelia and the counterculture, the general disenchantment of punk, the reconquering of emancipation through the exploration of machines in electronic music…. While it was conceded that three quarters of all pop songs would inevitably chug along with exactly the same three chords, it was now also understood that there was more to this art than could be discovered by musicology or a shortsighted sociocultural study of its aesthetics. And from the microtonal variations of the blues to the unprecedented aggression of the guitar of Link Wray or Dick Dale, from the oceanic textures of shoegaze to the broken rhythms of dubstep, decades of recordings of popular music have indeed well and truly delivered the new.

TELEOLOGY Rock criticism, in journalism and later in essay form as the writings of its great figures were compiled and began appearing in bookstores, has for many decades now developed a discourse confirming this ‘progress’. British critic Simon Reynolds, theorist of the advent of punk and the rave movement, has worked within this optic since the end of the 1980s. In an appendix to Retromania—his melancholic book on the eventual fate of this modernist criticism—Reynolds defines himself as ‘a died-in-the-wool modernist who grew up during a period of full-tilt innovation (post-punk) and later participated as both a wide-eyed fan and crusading critic of another (rave)’.10 His modernism, he says, consists in [t]he belief that art has some kind of evolutionary destiny, a teleology that manifests itself through genius artists and masterpieces that are monuments to the future. It was there already in rock, thanks to The Beatles, psychedelia and progressive rock, but post-punk drastically amped up the belief in constant change and endless innovation. Although by the early eighties modernism was thoroughly eclipsed within art and architecture, and postmodernism was seeping

10. Reynolds, Retromania, 404.

into popular music, this spirit of modernist pop carried on with rave and the



experimental fringe of rock.

also scored music, seemed to have moved on to other things, the critical consciousness of pop remained oriented by the modernist credo. And indeed, it’s a credo eminently suited to pop, in so far as pop is regarded as an art that must constantly push forward into new territory, reacting against its own immediate predecessors in violent gestures of severance, jettisoning its superseded stages like a rocket shooting into space.12

This image of the conquest of space is certainly already somewhat nostalgic, and anticipates the way in which this modernist ideal, this ideal of the future, was itself always fated one day to become the object of a revivalist desire. In fact, in the 2000s a new phase opened up for this consciousness, in contradiction with the modernist narrative: that of an era of abundance and a rhizomic culture that would render this linear narrative impossible by confronting pop with a postmodern situation in which the future itself now seemed to belong to the past, to the point where those who laid claim to it were no longer prophets but museum curators. Like elite Modernity when, in the 1950s, it had to face up to a consciousness of its aging condition, pop modernism has fallen into the grips of an overwhelming sentiment of aging and mourning. Neophilia, writes Reynolds, has been succeeded by a form of necrophilia. But even when it seems that nothing unprecedented had come to his ears, that no music would change the game for the next generation, the modernist rock critic still prefers to stick with modernism and just give up hope. But to what extent does the modernist paradigm really do justice to the history of recorded popular music? Why did the off-ground modernism of conscious rock criticism, having made possible the essential recognition of the historicity of popular music, end up infusing it with a sense of morbidity?

11. 12.

Ibid., 403–4. Ibid., 404.

T eleology

When the critical consciousness of other arts such as painting or literature, and


A PARADOXICAL TRANSPOSITION It must be said that this was a most paradoxical transposition.

A Paradoxical T ransposition

As we saw in Adorno, Modernism was set up entirely against popular music, designed to exclude it by definition from the realm of art. The ‘modernism’ defended by art critic Clement Greenberg in the field of the visual arts was no more accepting of popular art. In ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, a text from 1939, the American critic sets up the terms of the opposition: One and the same civilization produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T.S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover. All four are on the order of culture, and ostensibly, parts of the same culture and products of the same society. Here, however, their connection seems to end.13

Whereas for Greenberg the avant-garde is the determining figure for the progress of a self-conscious art oriented toward purity and abstraction, kitsch is nothing but a cultural product fashioned out of redundant bygone junk retrofitted to appeal to current tastes. It caters to a consumer, not an aesthetic subject; as Greenberg writes, kitsch ‘pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time’.14 Although contemporaneous with great works, it does not exist within the same historical regime; it does not fall within the history of art. Mass culture may well present us with products of industry juxtaposed with works of art, but the former will be swept away by history, and only the latter will change it. For Adorno the point is even clearer than this, and better substantiated: it simply makes no sense to speak of progress in light popular music. Although, like the rest of culture, such music exists under historical conditions, it has no historicity proper to itself: its ‘assembly line’ production regime stands in contradiction to the disruptive logic of progress. Pop stereotypes can only be predictably, indefinitely reproduced. As Adorno explains:

13. C. Greenberg, ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 3. The essay was originally published in 1939 in Partisan Review. 14. Ibid., 10.

through standardization the history of light popular music has become a


sequence of minimal changes which actually do not constitute what is dignified old-fashioned not only do not signify difference in structures, but can only signify very superficial modifications […] [T]he very principle of this type of music forbids anything basically new.15

In the domain of light popular music, the ‘new’ is just an advertising fetish designed to make the merchandise desirable. In ‘a world of standardised frameworks and effects […] [m]usically and intrinsically […] the term “fresh talent” is an anachronism’.16 For the historical mode of appearance of a standardised cultural product is not that of progress but that of the cycle: hype on a historical scale, and the eternal return of the same old formulas.

CYCLES The example of prolific composer Irving Berlin’s standard ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ is illustrative of the phenomenon. Composed in 1911, the song had already returned several times to the airwaves. Ted Lewis released a quietly melancholic version in 1927. Ten years later, Benny Goodman’s version boasted a slightly accelerated tempo and richer orchestration. But in 1938, twenty-seven years after its composition, the success of the song reached staggering proportions when it took centre stage in 20th Century Fox’s lavish production of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, directed by Henry King. This musical comedy tells the tale of Roger Grant, a young man from high society who scandalises his family by giving up a concert career in ‘serious’ music to form a ragtime band. Through Grant’s story viewers are also invited to recognise the history of jazz: from the popularisation of ragtime at the beginning of the century to the recognition of swing as an art in its own right. Against those who, in the past, had been unable or unwilling to recognise its importance, the film sets up a story with an origin, a heroic gesture with obstacles overcome, and an ineluctable ending: the universal triumph of swing. The title song becomes the anthem of a popular music that had won a bitter struggle for aesthetic autonomy against a sclerotic bourgeois society. 15. Adorno, Current of Music, 299n. 16. Ibid., 282n.


by the name of musical history. In this field, the concepts of the modern and


Orchestrated by Irving Berlin, along with the twenty-eight other pieces in the original soundtrack (two-thirds of which, a sarcastic Adorno remarks, had

A esthetic P endulum

already been hits), the song is furnished with lyrics for the occasion, sung by actress Alice Faye. This ragtime classic thus reappeared haloed by a certain avant-garde passion, endowed with all the qualities of a hit which everyone finds irresistible, no doubt, because of the pleasure associated with the rediscovery of a tune that is familiar yet forgotten. Especially since, through the magic of the culture industry, this expected success is anticipated and played out on screen. The song’s combination of old-fashioned charm and novelty stuck in the memory for a long time, before fading away so that it could be wheeled out once more at a later date. After a period of being forgotten that certainly lasted longer than the previous hiatuses, the piece was resurrected again when, in 1997, it reappeared, re-recorded in a rather sentimental rendition, on the soundtrack of the film Titanic, on the basis that the song was probably on the setlist of the orchestra that played on the liner during its maiden voyage. This standard recounting the triumph of modern popular music is a timeless hit that the industry has been rehashing for nearly a hundred years. And it’s not an isolated case. The hit ‘Tiger Rag’, which Adorno studies in the unbridled version by a young Duke Ellington and his ‘Jungle Band’, and which today is the most recorded jazz standard of all time, illustrates the same logic of recycling. Committed to cylinder for the first time in 1917 by a white orchestra, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, it was already being performed prior to this recording by black orchestras. The exact origin of the composition remains uncertain, but the most likely hypothesis is that it represents a black adaptation of a former French quadrille. From one version to another the arrangement changes and the sound evolves, but the essential musical phrase of the standard, its easily identifiable melody, returns in identical form each time.

AESTHETIC PENDULUM Obsessed by the complicity between this logic of standards and industrial standardisation, Adorno can only see it as a negation of historicity. He can only interpret the principle of the jazz standard or, more broadly, of the reprise, in terms of the return of the same. Because he stubbornly underestimates the power of aesthetic differentiation of the performance and the specific

sound—those elements that constitute the work-as-recording—Adorno hears


different versions of a song as bare repetitions of a ‘skeleton which has changed the versions of the jazz standards that he studies, he certainly observes differences in performance and arrangement, which the recordings reflect with ever greater precision. But these variations do not, to his ear, constitute progress. It is more often, he argues, a case of mechanical alternation between periods of a hard and a soft sound, between a fashion for the more percussive and a fashion for the more melodic. Certainly, young fans of swing17 and hot jazz in the late 1930s had nothing but contempt for the ‘sweet’ style fashionable in the previous decade.18 But the reciprocal movement of this generational pendulum is not enough to give rise to a historical dynamic in which the avant-garde of each new generation would transgress the aesthetic conventions established by the previous one. The short-term dialectic that makes the formulas of the past seem so lame may well mimic modernist progress, but its deep logic is more limited. It is as polarised and repetitive as the traditional conflict of generations. While rebellious youths recognise themselves in the most danceable, unbridled forms, the more mature are happy to replay the tranquilising clichés of their youth. The press then calls the first group ‘moderns’ and the second group ‘traditionalists’. This alone, Adorno thinks, is not enough to place popular music in an aesthetic history: ‘One could not possibly offer any musical criterion for certain musical formulas today considered taboo because they are corny’,19 he states. Does swing’s emphasis on the eighth beat, moving the offbeat onto the sixteenth, 17. Directly inspired by a feature of jazz interpretation—a swing beat is a dance beat characterised by a syncopated triple rhythm, emphasising the downbeat of the rhythmic unit—swing was a popular development in 1930s jazz. It was named after a 1907 composition by Jelly Roll Morton, ‘Georgia Swing’, but exploded in the 1930s, and was played by the great majority of white bands, including guitar, bass (sometimes two basses), drums (Charleston) and a horn section. Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson are among its major representatives. 18. When he turns to swing, Adorno cites ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ by Benny Goodman, the ‘King of Swing’, the famous ‘Tiger Rag’ in Duke Ellington’s interpretation, ‘La Cucaracha’ by Shakey Horton, ‘I’m Just a Jitterbug’ sung by Ella Fitzgerald; and on the ‘sweet’ side, ‘Avalon Town’ by Guy Lombardo, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ by George Gershwin performed by trombonist and bandleader Glenn Miller, and the tender ‘Two in Love’ by Frank Sinatra, not to mention Irving Berlin’s great successes ‘Cheek to Cheek’ and ‘White Christmas’. 19. Adorno, Current of Music, 321.

A esthetic P endulum

[…] little’, merely wrapped up in decorative flesh to make it consumable. Between


indicate a higher degree of musical sophistication? Adorno doesn’t think so: it

D id S omeone Say P rogress ?

were less schematic and more complex than they are today’.20 Since then, swing

is even probable that ‘in the pioneer days of jazz the rhythmical improvisations has taken on the air of a ‘perennial fashion’, according to his expression in the 1953 text quoted above.21 For this ruthless critical gaze, the appearance of constant renewal owes purely to the fact that people forget. Because memory is short, fashions or ‘fads’ can be manipulated so easily that at any given time the modern can be made old and the old-fashioned modern.22

Imprisoned by this cyclical logic, itself driven by the great generational pendulum, the history of recorded popular music seems not just to be foreign to progress, but to stand in outright contradiction to it.

DID SOMEONE SAY PROGRESS? Why does music need the theory that sees it as progressing? What is presupposed by the idea of new forms that make previous forms obsolete? What is the meaning of Simon Reynolds’s dream, formulated sixty years after Adorno’s first texts on the subject, of seeing every decisive moment in the history of pop ‘jettisoning its superseded stages like a rocket shooting into space’?23 This conception is more than the simplistic idea, which nobody would defend, of an improvement to be observed in works through the history of the arts. Any fan would find absurd the idea that a song by The Strokes constitutes an improvement in pop compared with a song by The Velvet Underground, Blondie, or Television, or that the nu-soul of the 1990s constitutes musical progress relative to 1960s soul. There is every chance that they would argue to the contrary. But if ‘progress’ does not mean a slow and steady march toward a better (musical) world, then how is it to be identified? Adorno’s response consists in isolating an entity—the ‘musical material’—at the heart of the music, which determines 20. Ibid. 21. Adorno, ‘Perennial Fashion–Jazz’. Note that in 1953, the advent of bebop, emancipated from the discipline and the entertainment function of big bands, renders his diagnosis seriously problematic. 22. Adorno, Current of Music, 299n. 23. Reynolds, Retromania, 404.

and structures it, and in which the scholar can observe transformations—this


capacity for observation requiring knowledge of both written music and its history. art’s very capacity for innovation—the scholar can recognise and anticipate certain ‘rational’ processes. This rationality is understood to be immanent to the material; by means of it, the art of music reinforces its autonomy and resists its domestication by an instrumental rationality.24 The identification of this material and of the rational process that sets it in motion allows one to observe the relationship between works and the historical musical conventions of the time. The solutions that works propose in their confrontation with this historical situation, its constraints of composition, and the obsolescence of certain codes, comprise what Adorno calls their ‘attitude to objectivity’.25 Their progress is thus distinguished from the simple idea of​​ novelty in the sense of the mere appearance of something unprecedented. Novelty focuses on the incommensurable individuality of works. Progress, on the other hand, inscribes them into a collective history that connects works to one another along rational lines.26 All of this may seem rather remote from our experience of pop music. But any journalist raving about a group at the ‘vanguard’ of a movement presupposes some such logic, even if they don’t articulate it theoretically, or isolate exactly what the ‘entity’ is that is undergoing transformation. Any modernist approach must presuppose such an entity. But what ‘entity’, what ‘material’ proper to the art of pop music can we claim to have seen progressing, rationally and consciously—for in modernism, progress is only ever realised consciously? Beyond the sheer pleasure of brandishing the new against the old, taking the 24. Instrumental rationality is operative in the industrial organisation of the communication of musical goods. It binds music to a certain function. This rationality is another name for the standardisation of production, the production technique of the eternal return of the same: it is the opposite of progress. 25. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 3. 26. The reference to a historical rationality is in part borrowed by Adorno from the theories of Max Weber. In his Rational and Social Foundations of Music, Weber puts forward a theory of music as part of his great socio-history of modern rationalities. He understands music as being subject to a progressive rationalisation. However, since it is so exclusively dedicated to the rationality that Weber identifies as having been at work in the history of Western music since its Mediterranean origins, from the chromaticism of ancient Greek music to atonality, popular music makes no appearance in his account. See M. Weber, The Rational and Social Foundations of Music, tr., ed. D. Martindale, J. Riedel, and G. Neuwirth (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958).

D id S omeone Say P rogress ?

Without considering them as perfectly predictable—which would contradict


side of the dishevelled youth against the old guard, opposing edgy naivety to the tired nerves of the older generation, is there anything more in the history of

D id S omeone Say P rogress ?

this art than the eternal return of the same? Can we unearth some entity within it, some material that progresses, in the sense that its progression irreversibly affects artistic consciousness?

II. MUSICAL MATERIAL Adorno the theory of material is inseparable from the theory of progress. For it is never ‘music’ that progresses, but what the philosopher describes from the outset as ‘musical material’—which cannot be reduced to the idea of ​​sound material, but also includes the form and structure of compositions: Material, by contrast, is what artists work with: It is the sum of all that is available to them, including words, colors, sounds, associations of every sort and every technique ever developed. To this extent, forms too can become material.27

If we have to identify in the art of pop music some such material that progresses, that is handled by artists conscious of its fixed forms and of the conventions from which it should be freed, then what will it be? The song form? Tonality and its harmonic constraints? Sound colour, frequencies, and timbres? And given that the art of pop music has no monopoly over these potential materials and their development, how can we identify a specifically pop progress of these materials? Let’s go ahead and take a first listen.

FIRST LISTEN Up to this point we have steadfastly refused to enclose the musical possibilities of the pop form within any preordained musicological schema. However, when in search of the material of pop music, it seems unavoidable to confront what we might call the regimes of expression that seem to be privileged within pop, first and foremost the song as a structural form, but also tonality as a musical language, and finally, the special attention afforded to what lies beyond the constraints of tonality—the properly sonic dimension of music.

27. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 148.

M usical M aterial

Although it is not often invoked by those wielding modernist arguments, in



The Song Form Defined as a combination of lyrics, music, and performance,28 the song is the

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most common expressive unit met with in the art of pop music. If we understand the word ‘form’ here to be synonymous with structure, then it is the most common form taken by this music. And not only in pop as a genre: ‘Peggy Sue’ by Buddy Holly, a pop classic, ‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath, at the origins of hard rock, and ‘Freaky Gurl’ by Gucci Mane in the trap genre are all songs, certainly of variable geometries, but all obedient to the classic triangulation of lyrics, music, and performance that places on the same plane The Platters’ ‘Only You’, ‘Ambulance Blues’ by Neil Young, and all seventeen minutes thirty-four seconds of the guttural death-metal-style grunting voice and cavernous timbre of Sunn O)))’s ‘Aghartha’. From this perspective it can be said that the song as a form is the most fundamental of pop materials. Regardless of the traditional themes that its words may seem to convey, it imposes its structure upon pop works, it conditions them. The song, of course, is much older than the recording and synthetic production of sound. We can trace its genealogy back at least to the European poetic traditions: in France, for example, to the epics, ballads, and rondeaux of the Middle Ages, to the pont neuf protesters of the Louis XIV era, and to the repertoire of revolutionary songs and the chansonniers and goguettiers of the nineteenth century29—to cite just a few well-known historical examples—but also to the liturgical tradition, whose ‘kyrielles’ and ‘responses’ are inherited by the modern form of the song, which borrows from them the principle of the repeated chorus. Reflexivity. Because of its brevity, or perhaps because of the customary simplicity of its language, the song is considered to be a rather limited form. This narrowness sometimes sees it ejected from the field of ‘real’ art because as a form it seems modest or childlike, and it is demoted to the status of a minor art. 28. Stéphane Hirschi develops her ‘cantology’ on the basis of this holistic approach, considering the modern (particularly French) song as an ‘organic whole’ combining the three dimensions of melody, lyrics, and performance. S. Hirschi, Chanson, l’art de fixer l’air du temps: de Bérenger à Mano Solo (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2008), 25. In the case of the recorded song, we are talking about the meeting of a lyric, a performance, and their sonic implementation (because music can be understood as melodic regardless of its sonic setting). 29. On the rich genealogy of French song, see Claude Duneton’s two-volume work, Histoire de la chanson française, vol. 1: Des Origins à 1780; vol. 2: De 1780 à 1860 (Paris: Seuil, 1998).

The paradox is that this limitation is doubtless what makes the song form so


reflexive. Ever since songs have existed, countless numbers of them have sung of reflexivity. As a digression from his romantic advice, Clément Marot evokes his own ‘Langage / Bien sage / Dansant, chantant par bons accords [Words / Most Wise / Dancing, singing in harmonious accords]’.30 Louise Labé addresses a song to her lute,31 and Paul Verlaine bids his song safe passage to its recipient.32 There are songs that say what they are saying (‘Sad Songs’ by Elton John). There are songs that neutralise what they say: ‘Chanson toi qui ne veut rien dire [Song, you who wishes to mean nothing]’ Marguerite Duras wrote in ‘India Song’ as performed by Jeanne Moreau, a song that signifies nothing except for the nostalgia aroused by the mere mention of a song. There are songs that say what they are not, such as PiL’s ‘This Is Not a Love Song’, a polemic against the amorous clichés of pop songs. And then there are songs that refuse to say what they are, like the strange ‘Pop Song’ by David Sylvian, which palpably fails to deliver the hit single that Virgin, his label at the time, had eagerly asked him for.33 There are even songs that invoke themselves, turning the body of the performer into a ventriloquist, as in ‘La revenante [The Revenant]’ by Wilfried*: J’étais une fois, je suis deux fois / Je me répète si tu le souhaites / Je veux te donner du bon temps / Je suis à toi, tu es à moi / Je bouge tes lèvres si tu le veux / Et l’on s’élève tous les deux / D’une seule voix. [ I was once, I am twice / I’ll repeat myself if you want me to / I want to give you a good time / I am yours, you are mine / I’ll move your lips if you want / And we’ll rise together / In one voice.]34 30. C. Marot, L’Adolescence clémentine (Paris: Gallimard, 2007), Song XXIV. 31. L. Labé, ‘Luth compagnon de ma calamite / De mes soupirs témoin irréprochable / De mes ennuis contrôleur véritable / Tu as souvent avec moi lamenté [Lute, my companion in calamity / Irreproachable witness of my sighs / True auditor of all my troubles / How often you have lamented with me]’, Sonnet 1555. 32. P. Verlaine, La Bonne Chanson (1872), ‘Va, chanson, à tire-d’aile / Au-devant d’elle, et dis-lui / Bien que dans mon coeur fidèle / Un rayon joyeux a lui [Fly, song, wing your way to her / and tell her that in my faithful heart /a joyous ray shines forth and day is come!]’, Œuvres poétiques complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 5 vols., 1962), vol. 7. 33. David Sylvian, ‘Pop Song’ (Virgin, 1989). 34. Wilfried*, ‘La revenante’, on the album Matrice (Clapping Music, 2013).

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of themselves. They relate themselves to what they are via all possible regimes


Finally, there are songs that dissect and analyse themselves, end up being

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very eyes, as when Robert Wyatt makes his song ‘Signed Curtain’ confess the

nothing more than this analysis, and melancholically self-destruct before our abstract nature of its all-too-predictable construction: ‘This is the first verse [...] And this is the chorus / Or perhaps it’s a bridge.’35 Sung with an expressive commitment that contrasts with the apparent formalism of the text, ‘Signed Curtain’ is a song about the faith that is a condition of all expression. And the song ends when Wyatt sings: ‘I lost faith in this song / ’Cause it won’t help me reach you.’ The song so quickly runs up against its own limits that it often ends up reduced to its rapidly diminishing form alone. The more it probes itself and reduces its own formal conditions to reflexive statements, the more humble and moving it becomes, precisely because its possibilities of expression are revealed to be so rudimentary. But from this almost nothing it can expand outward and access a whole world: its minimum can speak the maximum, as in Jim O’Rourke’s cover version of ‘Women of the World’ by Ivor Cutler on the album Eureka, which extends to a duration to eight minutes forty-five seconds with the repetition of just one lyrical and melodic phrase: ‘Women of the world take over / ’Cause if you don’t the world will come to an end / And it won’t take long.’ A looping sequence of sound, its repetitive structure is immediately obvious, but it generates more than just a return of the same. The lyrics announce a world coming to an end; but the song itself never ends. With its paucity of means, the ritournelle (in a different sense from Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘refrain’) engenders itself, an errant motif that has neither beginning nor ending: it arrives with a fade in (which means it was there before becoming audible) and disappears into a fade out. This is its power: that of a ritournelle committed to resound again and again, perhaps even after the end of world that it announces. The song is thge strangest of forms: it seems to encompass extremes—the miniature and the totality, the humility of a rudimentary expression and the sublimity of infinite wisdom. And this endows it with tremendous elasticity. 35. ‘Or just another part / Of the song that I am singing / And this is the second verse / It could be the last verse / It’s probably the last one / And this is the chorus / Or perhaps it’s the bridge / Or just another key change / Never mind / It doesn’t hurt / And only means that I / Lost faith in this song / ’Cause it will not help me reach you’. Robert Wyatt, ‘Signed Curtain’, on the album Matching Mole (CBS, 1972).

Weakening of constraints. In pop Modernity, songs seem elastic in their writing


because they rarely proceed according to formal constraints. Most of the time the latter rather than following the rules of any metre or the principles of poetics. From the ancient roundeaux of Charles of Orleans and François Villon36 to modern songs by Barbara and Anne Sylvestre, patterns of poetic writing have become more flexible, and now generally observe only the constraint of isometric verses. In distinguishing between genres of modern songs, it seems that the decisions as to the sound and rhythmic aspects (dependent upon instruments, electric or acoustic, and production style) count more than the inherited constraints of songwriting. Modern songs are classified not according to their number of verses but according to tempo (downbeat, midtempo, upbeat), rhythmic structure, and ‘atmosphere’. It is these parameters (the performance, the sound, the groove), far more than the metre or structure of the lyrics, that allow us to define what differentiates a languorous romantic Sade ballad from a hardcore song of spite against a lover by Hüsker Dü, even though their themes may not be so distant and their lyrics comparable. Of course, some standard structures must be retained, if only because they are customary. Composers are not necessarily aware of them, though they may use them: a song by Georges Brassens obeys explicit poetic constraints, as does a rap by Booba. But pop poetics will never keep a constraint in place if the song would work better without it. Dividing a couplet in two, replacing an ABBA with an ABAB rhyme scheme, changing from octosyllables to decasyllables: all of this is common in pop songs. In the 1965 song ‘Les marionnettes [The Puppets]’, Christophe rhymes an enneasyllable (a line with nine syllables) with a hexasyllable and an octosyllable. In the absence of any diaeresis in ‘marionettes’, the first nine-syllable line (‘moi, je construis des marionnettes [me, I make puppets]’) is lengthened by the pronunciation of the final ‘e’ of ‘marionnettes’ which would normally remain silent. The second line has ten syllables ‘avec de la ficelle et du papier [with string and paper]’ and the third, which strictly speaking contains 36. Ancient rondeaux are known as rondeaux quatrains. They are composed of thirteen verses grouped into two quatrains followed by one quintil: the first quatrain has an ABBA rhyme scheme, while the second has an ABAB rhyme scheme and takes up the initial two verses of the first strophe as its last two verses.

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they are shaped on the basis of the melodic or sonic material, and emphasise


eight, is extended by two syllables by a kind of strange diaeresis owing to the repetition of the ‘e’ before the two ‘t’s, giving the impression of a kind of

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stuttering as the narrator descends into his sweet madness (‘elles sont jolies les mignone-e-ttes [they are pretty the cu-u-ties]’). Christophe did not invent such poetic license, but this song presents a characteristic example of the way in which vocalisation and its phonographic recording favour this flexible relation to the formal constraints of poetic writing. This original, elastic interpretation, compensating for imperfectly paired rhymes, initially worried the artistic directors of the record company, but helped make ‘Les Marionettes’ a hit. The song form that underpins the pop form thus imposes upon the latter only weak poetic constraints, at least weaker than those that governed their traditional written form. This freedom of form (in the sense of relative indeterminacy) makes it difficult to identify any progressive rationality like that which Adorno identifies in tonal language or like the deployment of a world view like that which Charles Rosen, for example, sees emerging in his study of the sonata form.37 The poetic form of the song neither complexifies nor simplifies over time: it becomes more flexible in order to give free rein to the expressivity of singing. Expressivity. A space of possibility judged to be narrow in comparison to more expansive musical forms, the template of the song can nevertheless contain the most minute variations of everyday experience, the finest grain of an era. Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’, the latest offering in the long line of ‘telephone songs’ mentioned above,38 introduced into the charts a poetry of the cellphone which no other musical art could express so simply and directly. Because their performance itself is dependent on the embodiment of situated individuals, pop songs are able to capture in their expressive net the specifics of a mix of emotional and cultural experience that other musical forms filter out. This disposition inevitably dates them; but it also means that they offer the most universal form for the expression of democratic modernity, everyday industrialised life. Just as contemporary songs draw from ageless formulations, decades- or even centuries-old songs contain a treasury of ‘punchlines’ that it’s easy to imagine being sung today, with the frisson of speaking the language of the moment.39 37. C. Rosen, Sonata Forms (New York: Norton, 1988). 38. See Part 2, Chapter 3, ‘Hits and Hooks’, above. 39. In 2014, Arte ran a quiz challenging players to distinguish the text of a ‘pop song from 1914’ from a ‘Hip Hop track from 2014’. And indeed, distinguishing between the rhymes of Paul Méthus, Paul

Of the three dimensions of song, it is performance that shifts the most over


time. Listening to the spoken and sung voices of the past and those of today, speech and vocal styles, the particular accents of their periods, that enables one to date performances with some precision. The day when Edith Piaf stopped rolling her ‘r’s marked an irreversible shift between her performances and those of the singers that had preceded her such as Damia, whose audacious lyrics (‘Sombre Dimanche’) made her the idol of the French chanson of the interwar period. Of course Piaf was not the only one to introduce this change: already in 1936, Marie Dubas was singing ‘Mon légionnaire’—later to be reprised by Serge Gainsbourg—without rolling her ‘r’s. But her success helped to mark out prewar singers as adherents of an archaic vocal style. The French sung by Marie Dubas is not the same as that sung by Barbara, and sounds different also to that of Yvette Guilbert, a pre-First World War singer, or that of Anne Sylvestre, even though there remain affinities and constants in the (lyrical and melodic) composition of the songs. Accents, inflections, vocal styles and speech patterns which define an era, individual situations, and individual idiosyncrasies change everything. Reversals. An unchanging foundation but one that is infinitely malleable through performance, the song form favours relentless appropriation. As vast as the pop repertoire is, it is made up of an infinite number of duplicates or reprises. But, contrary to Adorno’s claims, the reprise reveals far more than pop’s inability to innovate. In fact it represents pop’s own specific mode of innovation, namely appropriation, not in the sense of stealing, but that of the incorporation of a given form—in this case, the song form—by an individual who will then deliver it in their own language, their singular idiom. The artistic reproduction of a work in the age of technological reproduction is not pure redundancy: for a reprise is not a copy, and pop works exist precisely in the gap that separates one from the other. In the subtle changes between one version of the same song and another we hear the history of popular music play out: Lack, and Harry Fragson, three singers from the 1900s, and those of contemporary rappers Orelsan, Booba, and Kaaris is sometimes difficult. There is no less vulgarity in one case than in the other, and some slang terms have remained common, especially those describing money and sex. Of course, the test would be quite different if the performances, and not just the lyrics, were being compared: .

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even before we consider the properties of individual voices, it is their modes of


listening to the blunt and almost sweet blues version of ‘That’s All Right Mama’

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of his blues label started to dry up) and comparing it to ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’,

by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, its composer (dismissed by Sun Records when sales the stripped-down, jumpy, jittery version by Elvis Presley recorded without brass in 1954, we perceive quite clearly a tipping point, and a history in the making. The origins of the term ‘rock‘n’roll’, first used ten years earlier in the context of ‘race music’, can be traced to the rhythmic characteristics of Ike Turner’s 1951 ‘Rocket 88’, with its saxophone solo and honky-tonk piano. But the aesthetics of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry mark a major transformation: ribaldry gives way to a cruder and rawer sexualisation, singing bodies begin to dance, and voices become more juvenile or adolescent. When Nina Simone recorded her edgy and adult 1965 Afro-jazz version of the gospel song ‘Sinnerman’, a song she herself had heard since her childhood at her mother’s Methodist meetings, an entire history of music came into view between versions—from the almost parodic version performed by a cavalcade of cowboys led by Les Baxter in 1956 to the galvanising 1959 choral version recorded by The Weavers exalting the spirit of Christian youth, to The Seekers’ 1966 rendition, which added banjo in response to and in preparation for the pre-hippie folk aesthetic in which religious speech would be secularised, and the reggae version by Peter Tosh and The Wailers in the same year which gave the song’s supplication to God a new, more politicised meaning. The song is the same, the standard is unaltered. But with every new rendition, the embodiment and world view expressed in the song change, and these changes themselves recount an original history that runs from reincorporation to reincorporation. * But although newness is undoubtedly to be found in the history of songs with each of these reincorporations, it is difficult to identify any progress in their form qua material. In fact, recording made versification less decisive and less restrictive, revealing the elasticity of the song form. But it’s difficult to say whether this relaxation of constraints made popular music more complex—by bringing it closer to the variable inflections of spoken language—or, on the contrary, simplified it. Between the literary lyrics of Jean-Louis Murat, singing of ‘toutes

ces amours de courte haleine embellissaient nos vies / d’un éclat mauve de


bruyère au mont Sans-Souci [all these breathless love affairs that graced our chanted slogan ‘QLF [Que la famille, “only the family”]’, in what direction is the progress heading? Just as tonal material decomposes, so the language of the song may seem to progress only via decomposition. But within pop, glossolalia and baby talk41 are contemporaneous with the most sophisticated lyrics. Such is the elasticity of its three variables—lyrics, performance, and sound— that the song can stretch out in all directions. It can contract into a radio format or expand to the breaking point of an adventure in sound. In ‘Less Than You Think,’ Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy extends a song for more than fifteen minutes: after a few verses, it degenerates into an irritating drone that is supposed to capture the tinnitus suffered by the composer-performer. But the gains to be had from such explorations of the limits of the song are always matched by losses elsewhere: a loss of simplicity, immediacy, or expressiveness. An extended song is not necessarily progressive, except in regard to some arbitrarily fixed concept of song length. What about performance? We can certainly see development here, but above all differences from work to work, from version to version that of themselves do not yield any linear narrative: between an wilder performance and a more sober one, between the perky voice of Charles Trenet and the viscous, ill flow of the rappers of Lunatic, which, in terms of art, are we to judge as the most advanced? Between the warm version of ‘Nature Boy’ by crooner Nat King Cole and the desolate, almost post-apocalyptic version by Alex Chilton, between the cool blue rendition by Miles Davis and the funk version by George Benson, is there any progress whatsoever? Only choices. And the preferences of listeners who respond to those choices: one defending the lightness that relieves us of the sadness of reality and condemns cumbersome gravity, another hearing lightness as a failure of conscience and instead privileging the profundity of a performance. In debates over performances, conflicts over tastes, there is no way, to impose some unilateral meta-aesthetic standard, except possibly the stipulation that a performance must be singular. One can compare degrees of 40. Jean-Louis Murat, ‘Au Mont Sans-Souci’, on the album Mustango (Virgin, 1999). 41. See ‘Hits and Hooks,’, Part 2, Chapter 3, above.

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lives / a burst of purple heather on Mont Sans-Souci]’40 and rap group PNL’s


execution, the more or less successful realisation of intentions, but one cannot


of the world, forms of life: pop exists precisely to accommodate them all.

hierarchise styles of performance, since they all express embodiments, visions

Tonality Nursery rhymes and ‘natural’ music. Tonality is another candidate for the musical material that progresses in pop. Popular songs are largely comprised of tonal harmonies, in which dissonance is usually accidental. Adorno therefore thought that they resembled eternal nursery rhymes heard since childhood and whose harmonies for this reason seem natural. But what makes music ‘natural’? Nothing originary, in truth, but just the sum total of all the conventions and material formulas in music to which [the listener] is accustomed and which he regards as the inherent, simple language of music itself.42

This language is rooted, for the American listener whose preferences Adorno was studying, as for us all, in the subject’s ‘earliest musical experiences, the nursery rhymes, the hymns he sings in Sunday school, the little tunes he whistles on his way home from school’, a language which in fact boils down to ‘the major and minor tonalities and all the tonal relationships they imply’.43 As the hidden truth of all self-evident musical truths and all widespread public agreements of taste, this language of naturalised convention accounts for the incomparable immediacy of popular music, but also sets its limits. For the sedimented experiences that constitute what is ‘natural’ in the popular experience of sound ‘set barriers to whatever does not conform to them’. This, Adorno thinks, is what makes popular music backwards looking, and resistant to the formal transgressions that are the essential dynamic of advanced music. Under what is apparent ‘natural’ there lurks the normative and its natural repulsion for innovation, the essential driving force of the history of art.

42. T.W. Adorno, ‘On Popular Music’, tr. S.H. Gillespie, in Essays on Music, ed. R. Leppert (Berkeley, CA, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2002), 437–69: 444. 43. Ibid.

Folk Resources. A deep knowledge of folklore, from which pop has continually


drawn and rejuvenated its compositional material, affords a swift route out of Adorno, for his part, remained convinced that folklore offered no musical resources for the future. Without ever seriously studying the already comprehensive collections and material of folklorists and ethnomusicologists available in the 1930s and 1940s, he asserts, rather arbitrarily, that folk material is musically sterile. When we examine the ‘primitive modes’ of folklore [f]rom the standpoint of the rational tonality of European music whose subsequent modifications they appear to be, even though they may be older in fact, it becomes difficult to distinguish their primitive keys from one another.44

Thus, in ‘Hungary as in Spain the monody of earlier centuries supresses the more recently developed dimension of harmony’.45 A musical structure based on a single voice or voices in unison, monody, as opposed to polyphony, was omnipresent in the songs of troubadours and minstrels. Until the advent of modern pop, it served as the basis of the song, which in its most common form is nothing but a sort of monody accompanied by chords. To disqualify monody in the name of harmony is thus to disqualify popular music at the very root. From the point of view of modernist musical consciousness, which sets the direction of progress, it is quite simply behind us, irremediably so. And the same goes for the ostinato: ‘The ritual repetition of one and the same motif becomes an unconvincing means of creating form.’46 Essentially underpinned by the repetition of ‘motifs’ as opposed to their development, folk music falls 44. Adorno, Quasi una fantasia, 19. 45. Ibid., 19. Note that we cannot precisely identify from this passage what musics Adorno means to specify as primitive, but it is probably the seven ancient diatonic modes—Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Ionian, Locrian—as systematised in Glarean’s (1547) Dodecachordon. By associating these modes with a pretonal age of serious Western composition, Adorno passes in silence over the return of modal harmonies in the nineteenth century, particularly among the French Niedermeyer school. But his discreet concession that these ‘primitive’ methods may still appear to modern hearing as a ‘later transformation’ of ‘European rational tonality’ is striking: without being able to offer a Hegelian, progressive account of them, Adorno seems to recognise an ‘air’ of Modernity in these modes which, being pre-tonal, anticipate the breakdown of European tonality, and therefore herald atonality itself. 46. Ibid., 19.


this impasse.


well short of the ‘form’ characteristic of the autonomous musical discourse achieved by European tonality.


The time of repetition, identified as a ‘ritual’ time, becomes archaic in relation to the rational time of development, dialectically expressed in the nineteenth century by the sonata form. In fact, it was this rhythmic time which, through black music and blues, became the basic material of rock‘n’roll and, beyond that, of electronic dance music in the late twentieth century. But the modernist aesthetic of music tends to see the rhythmic and monodic dimension as a regression rather than an alternative. From the modernist point of view on the progress of material, the musical material inherited from folk is already exhausted: those who seek to reclaim it merely confess their own morbid inability to truly embrace the direction of progress. Modal and Microtonal Alternatives. In fact, the terrain of folk has proven very fertile. Indeed, the history of music has made great advances by venturing into extra-tonal fringes unexplored in the history of academic Western music. Since the first decades of the last century, certain experimental serious musics have adopted ostinati, monodic drones, and polyrhythms of non-Western inspiration as their materials. The Californian composer Henry Cowell (1897–1965), a passionate admirer of ancient, popular, folk and non-Western musical traditions, came up with a number of unconventional compositional devices, among which was a ‘theory of dissonant counterpoint’, a kind of polytonal alternative to Schoenbergian atonality, from which it distinguished itself by its assiduous attention to rhythm, introducing the influential technique of the ‘cluster’, a ‘block of notes, unilateral or together, produced by striking the piano keyboard, with either all the forearm or the fist or the extended hand or elbow or a wooden bat.’47 In New Musical Resources, Cowell’s treatise on harmony written over a period of a decade, he proposes to establish a new interdependent relation between rhythm and harmony, setting the tempo according to the interval between the pitches of the notes, and especially their harmonics (with the ratios between the notes of any chord serving to develop the rhythm of the corresponding measure). He also pays special attention to what he calls the ‘sliding tones’ of natural elements 47. J.H. Huber, ‘Cluster’, . See also H. Cowell, New Musical Resources [1930] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

(wind, for example), which are more difficult to describe using structures of



pitch and harmonics.

motifs deemed ‘archaic’, in the 1930s Harry Partch (1901–1974) challenged Hermann von Helmholtz’s eighteenth-century theory of temperaments and set out to reintroduce the unequal temperaments of the ancient Greeks, in which the pitches of notes are determined by the pure intervals dictated by natural harmonics. He divided the octave not into twelve but into forty-three parts, which then led him to create his own instruments. Usually large enough in order to involve the entire body, in the interests of a ‘corporeal music’, these include the Diamond Marimba (a giant marimba), and plucked instruments including the Harmonic Canon, an instrument made of Pyrex bottles provided by a laboratory in Berkeley, and Cloud-Chamber Bowls. On the margins of musical Modernity as conceived by Adorno, the experimental serious music of Cowell and Partch, although interested in folk, does not immediately fall into kitsch, much less into ‘self-limitation’. It opens up another avenue of musical Modernity that has proven highly inspiring in the field of recorded popular music, where a generation later it would find emulators in Cage, Glass, and Stockhausen, fascinating young artists in search of musical innovation.49 Listening to the piece Barstow (Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing of Barstow, California), created by Partch in 1943 based on the graffitied messages of hobos which speak of their existence as pariahs during the Great Depression, in this piece traversed by infrachromatic sound and borne along by a strongly narrative libretto, one is reminded more of the tortured white blues of Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart than of a piece of ‘serious’ modernist music. And after all, the ‘blue note’ of the blues is an example of micro-tonality located right at the heart of popular music. Academic Theories/Pop Accidents. Still, we must face facts: the underground route through which pre-, micro- or semi- tonal resources are explored and analysed in depth remains that of academic musical research. This is the 48. Ibid., 20. 49. Harry Partch is not far away when King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard compose their album Microtonal Flying Banana (Flightless, 2017), with a ‘prepared’ guitar, modified (by adding frets) to enable it to play microtonal scales, with accompaniment from a modified harmonica and a DX7 synth. Listen for example to the song ‘Sleep Drifter’.


A sophisticated but maverick explorer of the expressive possibilities of


case with ‘xenharmonics’, to use composer Ivor Darreg’s term, denoting all scales structured otherwise than in twelve equal tones: quarter-tone scales,


microtonal scales, those based on the theory of just intonation, infrachromatic and ultrachromatic scales (whose units are more or less than a multiple of a semitone). From Alexander John Ellis, who inspired Partch, to the Mexican composer Julian Carrillo Trujillo, theorist of the ‘thirteenth tone’, the pioneers in this field come from the world of academic music. Moreover, their microtonal creations are inseparable from rigorous theories of harmony and even the creation of new, specially adapted instruments. If pop comes close to the possibilities opened up by this kind of systematic study, it is thanks to the flexibility of its production technique and its openness to chance: orality, combined with a recording that indiscriminately captures all acoustic fluctuations of any volume. The slight inaccuracy of a singer, badly tuned instruments, distorted tones obtained by effects used at the time of recording or added at the mixing stage—all of these regular procedures of recorded pop have accidentally opened up recorded popular music to the possibility of subtle xenharmonic differences. But beyond an attraction to aural strangeness that leads to experimentation with unusual sounds, the musical art of pop has not worked specifically to systematise or order them.50 In practice, it produces pure expressions ‘on the job’, where sometimes technical incompetence is indistinguishable from avant-garde ambition, as in The Shaggs’ legendary LP Philosophy of the World, recorded in 1969. The divinely inspired Austin Wiggin Jr., having had a dream that his three daughters would become rock stars, forced them to form a band to follow the royal road of this glorious fantasy. And in a sense Helen, Dorothy, and Betty Wiggin did realise their father’s dream, but under the sign of total maladjustment: listening to the dissonances and strange rhythmic 50. We can count on the fingers of one hand attempts to systematise recorded popular music. Cipher, the group formed by Marcha Mann and José Garcia (from Los Angeles), and associated with the New Wave scene between 1977 and 1983, made systematic use of the twenty-two-tone scale developed by composer Erv Wilson, which Jose Garcia adapted for bass and guitar. The Japanese group Syzygys, formed in the mid-1980s by Hitomi Shimizu and Hiromi Nishida, played pop microtonal instruments adapted from a Harry Partch concept proposing a scale of forty-three microtones. The work of the two musicians, an organist and violinist respectively, attracted the attention of György Ligeti, who cited their piece ‘Fauna Grotesque’ (1987). But, in each of these cases the theoretical foundation is borrowed from an earlier academic musical theory, rather than resulting from a practice specific to the art of pop music.

disjunctures of Philosophy of the World we are introduced into a philosophical


world in which the conventions of popular music seem to melt away one by is carried out by default, because of their inability to play in any other way. Between a drumbeat unevenly maintained by Helen and the out-of-tune voice and guitars of Dot and Betty, the songs of The Shaggs emerge miraculously from the obstinate autonomy of their instruments. Betty’s jerky riffs proliferate sua sponte, while Helen’s rhythms renounce even the slightest regularity, generating a forgotten primitive expressiveness with every unpredictable impact. As for Dot’s melodies, they have the grimacing grace of the aspiring child model not pretty or well-dressed enough to receive any praise. Sung with tuneless obstinacy, in unison—but out of sync—the melodies rise towards the sky in leaden boots. ‘It’s Halloween, it’s Halloween,’ sings Dot, and everybody has come: zombies, vampires, hoboes, and even Dracula. Years later, when these wonderful humpback songs were rediscovered, only a hundred copies of the album having originally been pressed (the promoter who was supposed to have ordered a thousand of them had disappeared into the wilds), true fans of oddity weren’t disappointed: in the early 1970s, Frank Zappa declared that the Shaggs were ‘better than The Beatles’. At one remove from these haphazard and idiosyncratic innovations, the evolution of the pop instrumentarium encourages the use of new chromatic scales via digital interfaces. In this form they become available to aspiring composers who can discover simply by applying presets what a Lydian or a Mixolydian scale sounds like—or an accidental mixture of the two. Better still, musical composition software tools such as Mutabor, Scala, and Schismata, designed according to the theory of just intonation, allow the user to work using the tuning and harmonic structure of their choice. And even if these programs are not altogether straightforward to use, today microtonal scales have been totally democratised in apps for the iPhone and iPad such as Droneo—which allows the user to create drones for eight voices51—and Orphion, which by spatialising microtonality renders it even more intuitive. Thus democratised, these resources seem set to enrich the harmonic possibilities of recorded popular music even in its most standardised forms. 51. .


one like a cardboard stage set left out in the rain. But this fascinating operation


It nevertheless remains the case that the pop musical art recovers these possibilities from elsewhere; that popular and/or non-Western musics were an initial

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inspiration for certain fringes of experimental serious music, but that the pop artist who relates to microtonality as a ‘musical material’ is ultimately borrowing from a more scholarly approach to the subject.

Colours and Sounds The usual objection would be that recorded popular music is truly innovative not on the compositional plane but on the plane of sound itself. In most recent musical histories focussed on recorded popular music, the predominant criterion to describe the idea of progress, in terms of the evolution of pop material, is sonic texture. An art determined by the technique of recording and amplification may indeed significantly expand the palette of sound colours.52 Treatment vs material. Adorno’s Stipulation. Once again, strategically, Adorno rejects this possibility in advance. In his studies of the standards ‘St. Louis Blues’ and ‘Tiger Rag’ and their different ‘sweet’ and ‘swing’ arrangements of the same melodic sequences, the critic sets up an analytical opposition between ‘treatment’ and ‘material’, claiming that in light popular music there is a ‘prevalence of treatment over the material’.53 Only the ‘style’—in this case, sweet or swing—distinguishes the different versions from one another. The mood-lighting may change, but the thing remains the same. All of this further undermines the idea that there might be innovative possibilities in popular music: in treatment, says the critic, the material is not actually ‘developed’; it is merely disguised. […] Strictly speaking, we cannot speak of treatment, but only about ‘make-up’ in the same sense that

52. ‘Historically,’ notes Guillaume Kosmicki, ‘musical instruments were the result of the most advanced scientific discoveries and technological innovations of their time. The design of the harpsichord, the violin and the piano were the products of the most sophisticated expertise. It was quite natural that electricity, the most important invention of our time, became one of the foundations of the new stringed instruments of the twentieth century, followed by the computer. [...] Even where acoustic instruments are still employed, the desired sounds are today deeply influenced by the contributions of these technologies, if only by listening to recorded music before playing them.’ Kosmicki, Musiques savantes, 22–3. 53. ‘[A]n experiment on the preference for musical material or treatment in two popular songs by twelve subjects’ between the songs “Avalon Town” and “Lullaby”.’ Adorno, Current of Music, 276n.

a woman’s face remains fundamentally the same in spite of the rouge on her



cheeks and lips and the mascara on her eyelashes.

ment/make-up) and its compositional reality (material/face), Adorno admits his preference for sweet versions of standards, which, in his view, hide less of the composition itself under arrangements and effects, while swing versions lend an avant-garde appearance to even the most hackneyed compositions. But is there really any sense in detaching compositions from their treatments? Recorded popular music is not just ‘made-up’ by the recording process, but made by it. By imposing this ontological division between material (now identified as purely compositional, reduced to the chords chosen) and treatment, Adorno deaestheticises an essential dimension of pop musical material, precisely the one in which we can recognise a history, one of vanguards, experiments, and even revivals: the sound of the music.55 Adorno however is not deaf to the possibilities opened up by new sonic experiments associated with electricity. In Current of Music he discusses the musical materiality of radio as such, and later even considers using the radio as an instrument.56 Through the decomposition and amplification of sound, he writes, 54. Ibid., 401–2. In Adorno’s aesthetics of serious music, this devaluation of treatment echoes his distrust of compositions that favour ‘musical colour’, which he judges both too ‘culinary’—too conducive to the immediate consumption of music as an instant pleasure—and too ‘magical’—liable to use the effects of the arrangement to dissimulate what is really happening in the composition. Thus Wagner, whose stylistic mark is precisely the emphasis he places on the ‘two dimensions of harmony and colour’, announces—but in a form which for Adorno is too ‘phantasmagorical’ (that is, in a Benjaminian sense, too ‘dissimulating of the concrete mode of production’)—the ‘harmonic discoveries from the twelve-tone continuum’. Adorno recognises that Wagner resists the technicisation of musical material, which without sonority would amount to exhibiting the silent skeleton of the composition, but he rejects even more strongly the idea of a musical expression which hides its mechanisms, which enchants and addresses itself to a listener whom it ultimately seeks to capture and enslave. T.W. Adorno, In Search of Wagner [1966], tr. R. Livingstone (London: Verso, 2005), 52. 55. See Delalande, Le Son des musiques. 56. In a very late text, ‘Über die musikalische Verwendung des Radios [On the Musical Employment of Radio]’, Adorno envisages, in a materialist way, the musical possibilities that emerge directly from the new technologies available to composers. His suggestions on radio, for example, are reminiscent of the research of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in musique concrète: a music that breaks with the temporal logic of development, a music that would be made of flashes, instantaneous images: ‘compositions which would truly be equal to today’s radio should submerge the listener in a fruitful strangeness.’ Adorno therefore advocates ‘the renunciation of functional and perspectival harmony,

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Introducing an opposition between the surface appearance of the music (treat-


the radio enables the ‘study of details which previously could be obtained only

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the whole, which, although totally different from the traditional, may ultimately

by studying the abstract score of the music’ and thereby a ‘new apperception of make good its losses’.57 Radio broadcast is characterised musically by a ‘lack of articulation’, but the new, more intimate perception enabled by radio also suggests that composers could place less emphasis on the ‘surface contrasts’ of sound, in favour of attempts to ‘produce an unbroken unity, a sort of musical texture, so to speak’. Adorno concludes that [i]f the most modern type of musical interpretation draws the articulation away from the surface of sound into deeper layers of the connection between motifs and themes, then the way radio presents music by smoothing away outward articulations would unexpectedly again be up-to-date, an executor of musical tendencies of which it certainly is not aware.58

Strangely, although he repeatedly formulates these openminded hypotheses, Adorno refuses to pursue them, and for a long time sticks with the position established in his 1939 lecture ‘Music in Radio’, where he says that although the idea is ‘funny and paradoxical’, ‘[w]e confess our utmost skepticism as far as the creation of so-called positive contents out of the tool is concerned’.59 At the very moment he envisages the musical potential of the electric instrument, then, he swiftly backtracks. As Robert Hullot-Kentor suggests in his preface to Current of Music, this is not simply negligence on Adorno’s part, but indicates the path that he believes must be taken by the ‘new music’. If the radio offers new creative resources, should music rush into the new space opened up? Having exhausted the resources of tonality and atonality, can great music revitalise itself by drawing on the largely uncharted resources of in favour of singular sound, answering to itself; and perhaps, finally, the withdrawal of counterpoint’ in order to ‘give priority to the singular motif, characteristic in its invention, and to sound-colour.’ ‘In any case,’ he concludes, ‘in contemporary composition, sound-colour has earned its rights: it participates quite legitimately in the construction’. T.W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften in Zwanzig Bänden (Berlin: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, 20 vols., 2003), vol. 15. 57. Adorno, Current of Music, 64. 58. Ibid., 65. 59. Adorno, ‘Music in Radio’ [1939], quoted by Robert Hullot-Kentor in the preface to Current of Music, 31.

frequency modulation? Six years later, in Philosophy of New Music, where he


contrasts Schoenberg’s modernity to what he considers to be Stravinsky’s Adorno has made his choice, opting for a new music which, even if it breaks with traditional structures and harmonies, remains dependent on written scores. In fact, this choice isolates him. At the very moment when Adorno was struggling to defend the modernist theory of a musical material confined to the possibilities of what can be transcribed onto paper, serious twentieth century composers, on the contrary, thanks to the new technical means available, were avidly embracing the material of sound. The promoters of musique concrète did not hesitate to break the Adornian stranglehold of purely compositional ‘musical material’. ‘The concept of material finds its origin and justification in the practice and cult of writing’, writes the composer François-Bernard Mâche.60 Originally a simple technique of memorisation, transcription has become autonomous, at the expense of the concrete experience of sound, closing off non-scriptural possibilities of sound exploration. As Mâche insists, we are beginning to realise that there is in rationality a potential alienation just as dangerous as that of the routines of instinct or the whims of affectivity. [...] This notion of musical material must be questioned. A convenient fiction, and sometimes unavoidable for the composer, it is increasingly at odds with the importance [...] of ‘timbre’. The neutrality of the material becomes fictitious once the choice of an instrument or a mode of articulation can prove more important than the choice of notes.

This work on timbre, modes of articulation, and textures realised by musique concrète and by the American minimalists via tape recording techniques would be continued and further enriched by the advent of computer music in technical academic composition, thirty years before the democratisation of digital tools

60. Mâche, Musique, mythe, nature, 34. The author seems to refer here to Adorno’s most restrictive definition of ‘material’ as entirely determined by conditions of musical transcription.

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reactionary dilettantism, transistors and electricity are nowhere to be found.


in popular music.61 In drawing on these methods, serious music managed to

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elements usually ignored or repressed by writing. Its contemporary evolution has

master certain concrete aspects of sound and improvisation, and to integrate proceeded largely, at least since the 1950s, via the exploration of sound material, to the limits of its most tenuous infraacoustic effects. It is quite evident that the musical art of pop feeds off all of these experiments in the ‘treatment’ of sound, and that this treatment can even be said to be the object of its most singular sonic research; but we must acknowledge that it is not the only object, nor necessarily the most important. A (Shared) History of Sound. With the development of the medium of the phonograph, it was not only all pop music, but virtually all music that entered the ‘electroacoustic paradigm’.62 Radio broadcasting and recording techniques transformed the perception of musical material, not only in its reproduction but in its composition too. In the work of Steve Reich, for instance, the tape recorder enabled the development of the phase shift technique as a ‘propaedeutic in its application to playing instruments’.63 In his Writings on Music Reich says that his pieces for tape function [o]n the one hand to realize certain musical ideas that at first just had to come out of machines, and on the other to make some instrumental music that I never would have got to by looking at any Western or non-Western music.64

It is not by chance that Reich is one of the composers of contemporary music who has been most influential on pop artists. His influence can be heard in 61. ‘New technologies of computer music,’ noted Mâche in the early 1990s, ‘are upsetting the play of signs by bringing back sound without losing anything of the combinatorial riches that control by writing granted to it. The sequencer, coupled with the synthesizer, the sampler, and automatic transcription software, enables the immediate inscription, in tablature form, of the most complex musical gesture, with a fidelity equal to sound recording itself. The work of composition can be practiced in real time at will, through improvisation, and then by reworking the transcription of the improvised elements. And the musician, instead of working with sounds, can now work directly on sound itself, and thus think simultaneously what was traditionally separated into form and material.’ Ibid., 35. 62. See Delalande, Le Son des musiques, 42–50 and ‘Le paradigme électroacoustique’. 63. J.-O. Girard, Répétitions: l’esthétique musicale de Terry Riley, Steve Reich et Philip Glass (Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2010) 51. 64. S. Reich, Writings on Music 1965-2000, ed. P. Hilier (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 54.

artists as diverse as King Crimson, Bark Psychosis, Tortoise, Wilco, and God-


speed You! ​​ Black Emperor. In 2012, he himself composed Radio Rewrite, a work This interaction confirms the permeability of music, from one musical art to another, not so much through the transference of compositional techniques as through the transference of techniques for the transformation of sound—but it by no means guarantees pop any primacy in innovation in the field of sound technology. Here we could mention the sonic experiments of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—the product of Paul McCartney’s curiosity about the works of the Darmstadt avant-garde and the works of Stockhausen. Stockhausen’s synchronisation of tape loops in Kontakte and his tiering of electronic voices in Gesang in der Jünglinge inspired certain psychedelic effects hitherto unheard in pop. With their looping ad libitum sequences and their influences from musique concrète—truncated attacks and amplified chord resonances in unusual tempos—Beatles songs such as ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and ‘A Day in the Life’ bear witness to this inspiration.65 On ‘Revolution 9’ on the White Album, John Lennon and Yoko Ono created a montage in which, for a split second, we hear Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, recalling the technique used in Stockhausen’s Hymnen.66 Beyond The Beatles, throughout the history of pop—especially in the 1960s—academic music influences have inspired other pop explorers of sound. Frank Zappa was fascinated as a teenager by Varèse’s Ionisation and was proud to hear one of his compositions directed by a cautious yet curious Pierre Boulez. The case of Ionisation, if we take a moment to think about it, is revealing of the breakthroughs in sound made by musical theorists and which then became characteristic of experimental genres of popular music. Varèse’s six-minute-long 65. See M. Hertsgaard, A Day in a Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles (New York: Delacorte, 1995), 7–8, and M. Lewishon, The Beatles Recording Sessions (New York: Harmony, 1988); also G. Emerick, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles (New York: Gotham Books, 2007). 66. Stockhausen emerged as a real star of serious music for the rock stars of the 1960s. In addition to the artists already mentioned, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were present at the Stockhausen conference in Los Angeles in 1966–1967, while Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay, respectively the bassist and keyboardist of Can, were students at his conservatory. In the early 1990s, the Warp Works & 20th Century Masters concerts with the London Sinfonietta brought together works released by the record label Warp with works by John Cale and Steve Reich.

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based on two compositions by the band Radiohead.


piece, written in 1933 for thirteen percussionists and thirty-seven instruments including two sirens and a piano used as percussion67 can be seen as the direct

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forebear of the noisiest and ‘freest’ jazz such as that unleashed in the chaotic seventeen minutes and eighteen seconds of brass and percussion of the Peter Brötzmann Octet’s Machine Gun. If Varèse introduced an aesthetic of the explosion into serious music, it continues in the experimental electronic music of White Noise, for example, in the aptly named track ‘Black Mass: An Electric Storm in Hell’ (on the album An Electric Storm).68 Yet the element of chaos, fuelled by the use of percussion and the anarchic possibilities of recording and amplification, is more conscientiously and systematically deployed in the art of pop music. For every Ionisation, how many pop compositions have been raw and untethered? Still, if we are looking for innovation, this imbalance is misleading: on almost every occasion when there is an innovation in sound, serious musical art provides a precedent. La Monte Young’s minimalist works influenced the music of the Velvet Underground, and John Cale in particular. In the early 1990s, independent American rock was influenced by composers including Charles Ives in the case of Sonic Youth and Jim O’Rourke and Harry Partch in the case of Beck.69 In electronic music, Richard D. James has collaborated with Philip Glass—himself the author in the 1980s of a record of pop songs with Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Suzanne Vega, and The Roches—on a remix of ‘Icct Hedral’. Such encounters, as few and far between as they are, alert fans to the secret bridges between the arts. Musical influence flows—and, to be sure, in both directions.

67. Ionisation is considered the sixth work in the history of Western music to require only percussion, after the second and seventh parts of Dit des jeux du monde by Arthur Honegger in 1918, Schädlertanz (Dance of the Skull) from the ballet Ogelala by Erwin Schulhoff in 1925, the second movement of Symphony No. 1 by Alexander Tcherepnin in 1927, the interlude between the second and the third tableau of Nez by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1928, and Ritmica V by Amadeo Roldán in 1929. 68. On the history of chaos in music and, in particular, its enthronement in the music of the twentieth century, see T. Lessour, Chaosphonies (Paris: Ollendorff & Desseins, 2016). 69. A great admirer of Partch, in 2009 Beck released a song called ‘Harry Partch’ on his website: ‘In tribute to California bred composer Harry Partch’s concept of “Corporeality”—the integration of the body with all art forms. The song uses a 43-tone scale in reference to Partch’s innovations with alternate tonalities. A peregrination across disparate territory to ascertain an unassumed frame of reference’. The last words illustrate the concept of corporeality dear to Partch: ‘The sound becomes my body and my body is the sound’.

Yet these flirtations with serious music do not help recorded popular music


prove its autonomy in innovation: they rather testify to its debt to research the exploration of textures and timbres, Mâche judges that pop songs only ‘take it up en masse after a half-century delay, and only in search of a typical sound and particular colours’, sticking with sonorities which, as he continues in a spirit that would have pleased Adorno, ‘are often intended to compensate, to a greater degree even than the lyrics, for the stereotypical ostinati and melodic or harmonic formulas’.70 Pierre Henry expresses similar disappointment with techno, which, without speaking of delays, he subjects to a comparable diagnosis.71 Of the piece ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ (1991) by the ambient group The Orb, which was based on a sample of his composition Electric Counterpoint published four years earlier, Steve Reich exclaimed, ‘These people don’t appreciate my music, they’re stealing from me!’72 In the aesthetics of electronic music there is a very fine line between sampling and stealing. Yet it would be wrong not to recognise the possibility of reciprocal emulation. From this perspective, Mâche’s claim of a ‘half-century delay’ is false: the works of La Monte Young and The Velvet Underground are more or less contemporaneous, as are those of Stockhausen and The Beatles or Can. But still, the exploration of sound material cannot be considered to be a mode of innovation exclusive to pop. Pop undoubtedly offers unprecedented timbres and forays into the undecidable fringes of harmonisation and tone, but even if, unlike Adorno, we recognise its merits in this area, it is difficult to claim that it makes its own way forward.

70. Mâche, Musique, mythe, nature, 34. 71. Pierre Henry does not repay techno the admiration that representatives of the genre have shown him: ‘We’ve been recently talking a lot about techno music. I think it’s unfortunate that it is for the moment too much connected to the place it is listened to. It’s too dependent on the loudness, which allows the bass to be too powerful. It’s a music far too much connected to physiological reactions and not enough to mental reactions. It has no sensitivity, it’s not surprising enough, and it lacks poetry’ (R. Young, ‘Roll Tape: Pioneers in Musique Concrète’, Interview with Pierre Henry, in Shapiro [ed.], Modulations, 22). 72. F. Mallet ‘Gravité et jubilation. Interview’, Artpress 359 (2009), 30.

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taking place outside of its own field. Without denying their ‘obvious taste’ for


SECOND LISTEN In order to identify the distinctive character of pop material we should probably

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be more materialist than we have been so far: so let’s take a second listen, starting this time from the ways in which pop sound is inseparable from the technical conditions of its recording and transmission. Here an essential fact emerges: the sonic material of pop is always mediated by technology that does not present itself transparently. Even in recordings presented as ‘faithful’, this fidelity is most often suggested, paradoxically, by the acoustic distortions created by recording—an increase in noise, for example, in some frequency band. Rather than looking for a musical material that exists prior to its conditions of transmission, let’s lend an ear to the sound of the technological mediations that make that transmission possible.

Degraded Transmission–The Sound of Electricity The history of pop is linked to the history of sound via the intermediary history of the machines that produce and transmit sound. Frequency modulations are only ever experienced through a whole range of distribution tools made available by the industry (phonographs, domestic radios, televisions, stereos, computer or tablet speakers). That is to say, they are never experienced under the optimal acoustic conditions of a sound research laboratory. The original sound material of pop, as broadcast and heard on an everyday basis, is a material always already altered by its electrical transmission.73 By bringing together his research on popular radio music under the title Current of Music, Adorno already makes it clear that he is aware of this electrical aspect of the question. Seen in the light of the technical conditions of sounds, popular pop songs are aesthetically determined by the acoustic characteristics of the radio, just as the drastic reduction of sound dynamics by compression and the consolidation of bass in mainstream productions of the 2010s are inseparable from the constraints imposed by the sound system of laptop speakers. These technological, cultural, and economic mediations of transmission can and should 73. In musicological terms, alteration refers to the modification of the initial pitch of a note, making a note lower or higher by modulation, transposition, or ornamentation. It is something that has a specific notation in written music. The alteration in question here, even if it potentially involves changes in pitch and timbre, is not subject to notation, it is a degradation or deformation of sound by the distortion, limitation, or modulation of frequencies lower than those of the pitch of the notes.

be the subject of a critique of listening habits and acoustic norms.74 But it would


be naive to think that one could separate off a pure sound of pop works that transmission, the sound material of pop is degraded, and it is this reproduction of sound unfaithful to its source that constitutes its initial material. We must therefore return to the constraints imposed upon sound by its historical medium of broadcast: the radio. In his studies of radio, Adorno insists on the poor sound quality of the recording and broadcast of radio concerts in the 1940s. This was the period during which commercial radio was increasingly making use of FM transmission, broadcasting via frequency modulation and restricted to high frequencies or shortwave, between 87.5 and 108 MHz, a decisive step forward in the history of signal-to-noise stabilisation. But ‘noise’ is a fundamental characteristic of radio broadcasting. The experience of radio transmission is always one of a degraded signal. And the sonic experience of pop always involves sonic impurities—whether on the radio or in television broadcasts, drowned out by the hubbub of a conversation, as background music at the supermarket, on speakers next to a fan on a computer, on cheap headphones…and it is from within this experience of degraded sound that the innovations and aesthetic codes of different pop genres emerge. For the mediation that alters the sound material is not ignored but assumed as an aesthetic condition. The sonic material of pop is never a pure material: it is seized, recovered, reproduced in its given acoustic situation—that is, in the technical, social, and cultural conditions of its diffusion. The constant polemical relationship between pop composers and the industrial promise of high fidelity negatively thematises the importance of effective limits in the transmission of sound.75 Far from proceeding directly from the 74. Jonathan Sterne’s writings are the works of reference in this domain: see The Audible Past and MP3: The Meaning of a Format. 75. This is the origin of the materialist objection of lo-fi aesthetics to the technologically ‘purified’ vision of listening promoted by the development of hi-fi from the late 1970s onward. More broadly, an entire fringe of pop aesthetes today accords superior aesthetic value to the analogue technology of yesteryear. In a digital age, it is the loss of the fuzziness of the analogue technologies dominant up until the late 1990s that some now mourn. What is the fundamental difference between the two forms of technology, besides the fact that analogue machines now cost much more than digital machines and other programs integrated with production software? Analogue technology translates acoustic pulses into electrical phenomena, digital technology encodes digital information into 1s and 0s. Inseparable from informational language and its infinite computational resources, the second is potentially far more accurate than the first. But those nostalgic for electric transmissions of sound

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would exist outside of these mediations. Inseparable from the conditions of its


history of technology to functional high-fidelity, most of the pop works that

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with the so-called ‘possibilities’ offered by recording studios at the time. It may

have entered the canon were born of marginal visions, completely out of step have taken a twenty-four-track studio to produce Dark Side of the Moon, but Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’, considered an aesthetic standard of the 1960s, was the result not of a scrupulous use of new technologies but of an inventive use of a technologically obsolete mode of production. To conduct his polemical ‘Back to Mono’ crusade against stereo when it began to appear in 1958, Spector used a three-track Ampeg recording device (at a time when most professional studios of the period already used four- or eight-track),76 on which he superimposed dozens of monophonic tracks, densifying the sound to the extreme until he obtained his signature overwhelming effect. Spector used the limits of his medium to overload it with power: instead of seeking to advance recording techniques and the fidelity of sound reproduction, he exploited the narrowness of mono and turned it into a virtue; rather than trying to purify material, he cultivated impurity itself. Against All Purification. It was Clement Greenberg who stated most clearly that one of the laws of modernist art was the purification of the medium.77 Formulated with respect to the visual arts, the thesis is also suggestive for serious musical art, at least for its most radical and most formalist representatives. The purification of instrumental music via the minimisation of vocals, a progressive purification via the abolition of motifs and development in repetitive music, a purification via absence of any reference to the sound source in musique concrète. Step by step, the reflective qualities of music are abstracted and decomposed. identify an aesthetic loss in this ontological difference, according to which the alien and cold body of computer language breaks an encoded electric continuum into a digital code that is not itself dynamic or intense, but is only a language about dynamism or intensity. For over a decade now, democratised digital sound technology has been greatly enriched by algorithms to ‘warm up’ the sound by emulation—that is, through the synthetic recreation of analogue sound. In the success of these synthetic measures, the affinity of the pop aesthetic with characteristic alterations of the electric transmission is further confirmed—albeit by retroactive re-creation, in digitised sound material, of these alterations. 76. Pirenne, Une histoire musicale du rock, 82. 77. The idea of ​​a ‘process of self-purification’ of any medium, be it painting, sculpture, music or literature, is designated by Greenberg as one of the fundamental laws of artistic modernism. To each falls the approach to empowerment via abandonment of ‘the conventions not essential to the viability of a medium’. From this conception there stems the modernist bias in favour of painterly abstract art over figurative painting. C. Greenberg, ‘American-Type Painting’, in Art and Culture, 208.

‘I shouldn’t be surprised if the music of the future were in unison,’ wrote Ludwig


Wittgenstein. Unlike in the case of Phil Spector, here the monophony is not to a single voice: Or is that only because I cannot clearly imagine several voices? Anyway I can’t imagine that the old large forms (string quartet, symphony, oratorio etc.) will be able to play any role at all. If something comes it will have to be—I think—simple, transparent. In a certain sense, naked. Or will that hold only for a certain race, only for one kind of music (?).78

If we think of the advent of minimalist and repetitive music, Wittgenstein’s musings here acquire an almost prophetic significance. On the other hand, it seems less easy to transpose the movement described here into the history of pop, in which one might even say that this process is reversed: rather than following a logic of purification, pop has seen a continual and apparently constitutive assimilation of the impurities of its mediations. While academic modernist music identifies progress with the progressive extraction of sonic material from the reified situation of the transmission of sound, pop seems to be able to orient itself only within this very reification. Its broadcast media become its instruments: hard rock was born from the feedback of amps (or Dave Davies, The Kinks guitarist, slashing the speaker cone of his amp with a razor blade to produce the sound of ‘You Really Got Me’); scratching from a virtuoso treatment of turntables that mimics their faulty operation (interruption of playback and reversal in direction); acid house from misused bass generators; chiptune or 8-bit from the brief, bassless, functional sounds emitted by ’80s games consoles. With this collapse of transmission into production and the blurring of the line between medium and instrument comes a question of playing, by trial and error, with the current technological mediations, with feedback, with tones, with the very apparatus by which music is distributed and shared. In his marginal notes on the radio mentioned above, Adorno points out that the radio could one day achieve a form of ‘emancipation in the medium’: 78. L. Wittgenstein, Public and Private Occasions, ed. J.C. Klagge and A. Nordmann (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 49. Quoted in Girard, Répétitions, 9.

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that of the transmission source, but that of monodic composition, restricted


[I]f, instead of broadcasting the reproduction of music, it played on the radio

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the radio in the same sense that one plays on a violin.79

itself: The idea is that we should no longer broadcast over the radio but play on

What the cautious philosopher presents as an almost-too-audacious theoretical hypothesis is a commonplace in the history of pop, which, in fact, has continued to ‘play on the radio’, and on all other available mediums.

Playing Electricity Distortions. The story goes that it was in order to adapt the sound of his guitar to the conditions of a jazz orchestra that Les Paul developed the technology of one of the first electric guitars, called ‘the Log’, which was equipped with a solid body rather than a sounding board so as to avoid undesirable feedback effects. Yet the requirements of live broadcasts, which had continued for many years without electrification, even when guitars accompanied large bands, cannot alone explain this shift. We may assume that it was not only the limits of the acoustic broadcasting of music but also the experience inherent in its ‘electrified’ broadcast—that is, the unprecedented popularity of radio—that gave producers and musicians a taste for the electrification of acoustic instruments, and for the feedback effect which has now become symbolic. In the invention and spread of electric guitars in the late 1930s one can see a desire for power (in so far as it is important for solo guitarists to compete with the sound of big brass sections) and a mimetic need for the distorted sound which radio broadcast has rendered familiar. If this distortion refers to the deformation of an object with respect to its original form, the electric guitar sound is indeed distorted from the start: its acoustic and aesthetic qualities are modified. It becomes that sound full of static which resonates so well for the first rockers in search of a wilder and more authentic form of expression. The distorted sound of the electric guitar resulted from the intensification of the distortion of sound linked initially to electrification. Except that over time this deformation took on the meaning of a gesture, albeit one very much continuous with what radio itself and the electrification of instruments in general had 79. Adorno, ‘Music in Radio’, Current of Music, 21.

already suggested. Before Dick Dale worked with Fender to design a then


unequalled 100-watt power amplifier in the 1960s, before the appearance of the in 1962, blues and rock‘n’roll musicians had experimented with the possibilities of early amplifiers by pushing their volume beyond the expected limits and ‘modifying’ the resistance of the pickups on their guitars. In the playing of Chicago bluesmen Elmore James and Buddy Guy, as in the primitive rock of Goree Carter (whose 1949 song ‘Rock Awhile’ anticipates the distortion in Chuck Berry’s solo in ‘Maybellene’ in 1955), distortion was applied by deliberately manhandling amps. To record ‘Rocket 88’ Willie Kizart, Ike Turner’s guitarist, used an accidentally damaged amp. Link Wray pierced the loudspeaker of his own amp with a pencil. The effects of this wilful damage were quickly incorporated into instruments manufactured specifically for the pop industry—for example, preamps and amplifiers that pushed the limits of gain. But this incorporation itself, by standardising degradations of sound, entered into a polemical relation with the ‘progress’ of sound techniques. Hence older and less predictable tube amplifiers were preferred over the transistor amps that were invented in the 1960s to limit the wide—and therefore hard to control—dynamics of the sound of electric guitars. The art of pop music privileges and capitalises on an electrical power that is not yet fully standardised. It regularly kicks back against engineering developments that smooth out bugs and the disruptive and uncontrollable effects of the manipulation of electrical circuits. The legend that Van Halen recorded ‘Running with the Devil’ by overloading the voltage of the amplifier, a dangerous procedure, is more than just an anecdote. The body of the musician himself is exposed to the distorting effects of electricity, is also endangered and transformed by them. More than just one sonic possibility among others, distortion is one of the privileged textures of pop music. In a certain sense, through distortion pop celebrates its primal scene: the incompletely domesticated electrical power of music broadcast on the radio. This is illustrated of course in the aesthetic of guitar-saturated genres, from rock to the heaviest hardcore. But the modulations of electronic music, based on the transmission of information at low electrical intensities, have also enriched the possibilities of altered sound.

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first fuzz effects pedals such as the Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone released by Gibson


Modulations. In the history of electronic music one encounters all kinds of fig-

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researchers and avant-garde musicians.80 Obviously, the tradition of scored

ures who are entirely foreign to pop: from eccentric inventors to electroacoustic music is challenged by electronic music, where sound material is made absolute at the expense of notes or tonal pitch, and escapes the parameters normally controllable by written music to explore frequency bands, waveforms, and infinitesimal variations of pitch. When in 1956 the couple Louis and Bebe Barron composed Heavenly Menagerie, the first entirely electronic movie soundtrack, for the Fred Wilcox film Forbidden Planet, MGM attorneys’ fear of objections from the American Federation of Musicians and the Hollywood Composers Guild eventually led to the Barrons’ composition being described as ‘electronic tonalities’ rather than as ‘music’: the couple’s contributions went uncredited except as sound effects. Inspired by the mathematician Norbert Wiener’s work on cybernetics81—or the science of ‘control and communication’—the Barrons had developed a home studio for sonic research and built circuits capable of generating sounds from complex patterns. Owing to the fragility of the circuits, which quickly overloaded and often burned out, the sounds had to be recorded and mixed immediately on magnetic tape, before a long labour of editing began. Interviewed by Eric Chasalow in 1977, Bebe Barron fondly remembers this period of research and development: We used many circuits from Norbert Wiener’s book Cybernetics […] we recorded and amplified the electronic activity and endlessly processed it. Since they were all mathematical equations, they seemed to have a kind of order and organic rightness. Entropy and information theory contributed ideas on probability and

80. On the history of electronic music, including the ancestors (many and diverse) of the synthesizer, see L. de Wilde, Les Fous du son: d’Edison à nos jours (Paris: Grasset, 2016). A multidimensional story ranging from the invention of the ‘telharmonium’ (1897) by Taddeus Cahill—a colossal electric organ whose sound was broadcast by telephone—to Elisha Gray’s ‘musical telegraph’ (1874), to Lev Sergeyevich Termen’s theremin (1917) and the Ondes Martenot (1928), the Hammond organ (1938), a polyphonic instrument designed for churches, Raymond Scott’s complex ‘Electronium’ (1950) incorporating a synthesizer and a sequencer, up to the digital emulation of the sound synthesis manipulated by computer. 81. Especially his famous work of the time, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1948).

randomness—which we had to use since that was the only thing our circuits


were capable of. We thought of our circuits as characters in a script and used pitches at all. The emotions which seemed to come out of the circuits such as romance, monsters, space travel were almost always uppermost in importance. Each circuit we built had lifespans of their own and I just can’t stress that enough, because that was always amazing to me, because once they died you never could revive. We always were innocent with a sense of wonder and awe of the beauty coming from the circuits. I mean, we would just sit back and let them take over.82

Left to express itself, the machine escapes all traditional instrumental mastery. While the traditional instrument obeys the will of the instrumentalist, who must master it to bend it to his will, electronic machines introduced a new paradigm which totally changed what it meant to learn to play an instrument. One simply allows the machine to make sounds. Sat before an electronic machine, a series of integrated circuits or a panel of potentiometers hooked up with interlinked cables connecting various modules, the player is no longer a master instrumentalist, but witness to a process that is being played out independently of them. There is no longer a connection between a voluntary impulse and its product: the machine turns into the musician. This lack of control explains why the synthesizer has sometimes been refused the status of musical instrument.83 Because the scandal of the synthesizer is that the machine plays itself; hence 82. Interview with Bebe Barron by Eric Chasalow, . Cited by JeanYves Leloup, on the Global Techno blog, 12 December 2009, ‘Discovering electronic pioneers’: . 83. In his philosophical study of the musical instrument, Bernard Sève does not count the synthesizer as an instrument, on the basis that it does not involve the causal chain that determines instrumental practice as he conceives it: decision, impulsion, sound production (an action on a string as motivating cause of sound, inducing a response proportionate to the voluntary impulse exerted by the ‘musician-body’). It is only in reference to this chain that one is able to identify a ‘false note’ as false owing to a mismatch between decision, impulse, and the resulting sound. This causal chain and the assumed reciprocity between impulse and sound emission excludes from the regime of instrumentality any devices that generate purely electronic sounds without any possibility of nonelectronic acoustic emission. Under these conditions, even before the synthesizer, the organ seems to present the philosopher with a problem of definition. For the play of the fingers on the keyboard of an organ is not enough in itself to produce the sounds emitted: the emission of sounds requires the activation of bellows. B. Sève, L’Instrument de musique: une étude philosophique (Paris: Seuil, 2013).

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the unfolding of pitches as they came out of the circuit. We didn’t control the


it dispenses with musical gestures, and a fortiori all virtuosity. The gesture

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the circuit makes it possible to transform the sound emitted, depending on

remains completely technical: a connection or disconnection of the cables of whether it is passed through a frequency modulator or a low-pass filter, etc. In newer, even more democratic practices, one need only press a key or turn a knob to produce a complex sound that will modulate itself with the application of a filter, independent of any instrumental action. It is, so to speak, the machine that sings, and the musician-body seems to have entirely fused with the figure of the listener, who listens to the singing of the machine and then chooses, a posteriori, the modulations of the song. The traditional authority of the instrumentalist is eroded in favour of pure chance: a set of parameters that physics may be able to describe after the fact, but cannot quite anticipate or reproduce. While the impulse that leads to the vibration of the strings of a violin or the blowing of a trumpet remains, if not completely voluntary, at least somewhat controllable, the sound emitted by an analogue machine once it is connected to a power source at a certain voltage remains always partially unpredictable. The musician Hideki Matsutake tells of how, at the time of the first analogue Moog synthesizers, it was impossible to ever manage to reproduce a given sound. On analogue instruments, positioning the knobs of potentiometers initially enabled settings to be stored only approximately—and significant differences could occur once amplified, reverberated, and delayed many times in the machine. Hopeless at first sight, this limitation of the original analogue synthesisers in the absence of any memory patch partly explains what lies behind the enduring fascination exerted by these machines: their unpredictable character. It is this non-docile nature that made electronic sounds a revolutionary material for modern composition. Not only can these sounds not really be scored, they cannot even be completely controlled. Only the digital technology that enabled their memorisation would finally allow the storage and standardisation of synth sounds according to exact parameters that could be recalled to produce the same effects, finally allowing users to make use of a stabilised synthetic sound material. But even if a composer of electronic music controls the sound settings they use, chooses the waveform, voltage, oscillators, and everything that defines the attack, sustain, decay and release envelope of sound, as well as the filters that allow it to be shaped, the

product of this sonic synthesis is never quite as predictable as that of a chord


plucked by a guitarist. The sound is not the predictable outcome of a control or less satisfying for the musician who conducts them, and who finds themselves more than ever in the role of the listener. Although troubling for an aesthetic based on control and musical transcription, this at once unintended and unpredictable character of sound is not in the least disturbing to popular creativity’s self-image. On the contrary, it even could be said to have greatly contributed to its magic. All of a sudden, the classical parameters of creation, instrumental and compositional technique were shattered by the unprecedented expressiveness of machines left to speak their own language. Compared to classical composition’s harmonies, rationalised right down to the bone, from Bach to Schoenberg, it was ultimately the unintentional expression of the machine (at least as projected by the listener) that for a time offered to music an unimagined future: one of errant sounds at once unpredictable and regular, like the very waves that structure the physics of sound. New Perceptions (The Music of the Future). In the interplay between the unpredictability of machines and their gradual domestication, electronic music found a mode of expression both highly innovative and emancipatory. Between control and the relinquishing of control, the pioneers of techno and house music continually invested electronic sounds with an epic political and human promise, like that of the underground movement of Afrofuturism initiated by P-Funk.84 In the landmark Detroit techno track ‘Night Drive (Time Space Transmat)’ by Juan Atkins (as Model 500), electronic sound is more than just a vaguely nonhuman-sounding emission, it is the evocative vehicle of a more technologically, anthropologically, and even morally advanced age. This emancipatory hope invested in machines does not specifically call for a machinic world: rather, it promises higher forms of life, and access to life’s deeper meanings, as in Derrick May’s cult track ‘Strings of Life’, another classic of the genre, or ‘Truth of Self Evidence’ by Reese & Santonio, which samples fragments of a Martin Luther King speech.

84. On this subject see Eshun, More Brilliant Than the Sun.

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technique, but the result of an experiment, a series of tests that will prove more


Heavily influenced by the history of techno, whether the unprecedented power of ‘Energy Flash’ by Joey Beltram or ‘Can You Feel It’ by Larry Heard (Mr. Fin-

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gers), the ‘modernist narrative’ of pop has always seen electronic music as the music of the future:85 singing machines announcing a post-human age, opening up new paths through a physics of perfectible sounds to an unprecedented vision of the world, the social world included. This futuristic utopia animates the entire history of EDM, right from the mythology of the big raves of the 1990s. But before it grew to the scale of a movement, it was already latent in the extravagant possibilities opened up by the democratisation of the manipulation 85. Although this association remains ambiguous: Inseparable from the machines that produce them, electronic sounds, even more than the electrification of traditional instruments, symbolically suggest futuristic projections. But the relationship between time and history which they convey is paradoxical. Heard as the sounds of the future because they are linked to advanced technology, they simultaneously evoke archaic sounds because of their particular affinity with simple sounds and acoustic resonance in airy and aquatic environments. What could illustrate this better than the strange and futuristic music produced by the Barrons for the Wilcox’s film? A drowned world: the world of the Krells, an advanced technological civilisation that had disappeared before the explorers arrived on the planet. The anecdote promulgated by a Vogue journalist according to which the Barrons’ music was meant to correspond to the sounds of their own dreams again illustrates this ambiguity. Electronic music seems to resemble a kind of secret music of nature (the songs of humpback whales, or the modulating frequencies of the emissions of seals under the ice as heard, for example, in Werner Herzog’s documentary film Encounters at the End of the World), the music of the body, of the heartbeat and the circulation of blood. So electronic music sounds no less like an ur-music than it does the music of the future. Well beyond the cultural concept of retro-futurism, it suggests an aesthetic of an archaeo-future: the idea of a​​ sound-fossil made audible by advanced technology, belonging to Nature but concealed since the beginning of time. Like the camera for Walter Benjamin in his reflection on film technique, the synthesizer in this regard is an instrument of perception, a medium, a filter (Peter Szendy) which, like a magnifying glass or the zoom of an optical lens, provides access to the real in a completely new way, even though nothing in this reality has changed. From this point of view, the sound of synthesizers challenges the historicity of music. Even as they are characteristic of the twentieth century and seem to belong to it, like the sound of aircraft engines, their content remains archaeo-historical, rooted in a form of eternity: namely the sonic life of matter, wind, the pink noise of false silences or lightning flashing through the night—not for nothing the cover of White Noise’s historic 1968 album An Electric Storm. It is partly because of this ambiguity between the archaic and the artificial that composers seized on the opportunities of electronic music. According to noted composer Isao Tomita, who included Moog synthesizers in his instrumentarium: ‘Well, I’ve worked with orchestras for a long time, and I don’t really categorize music as electronic music or traditional acoustic music. I only decided to try the Moog because I felt limited by existing instruments at the time, so I view it as part of my continuous experiment in music. Back then, I was often criticized for using an electronic instrument, but the sound of thunder has been around since the dawn of time, and that’s electricity. The human heart has a pulse. In fact, the right and left sides of the heart don’t pump blood on the same exact beat, there’s a slight delay effect.’ (Interview with Isao Tomita by Yu Onoda, Resident Advisor, 13 July 2012, .)

of electronic sounds. Faced with the objective innovations of these genres and


the collective movements they were able to awaken, the critics could not but the ‘futurist’ concept of progress to the newly available machines—in short, to the technical progress of the pop instrumentarium.

Technical Progress Future Engineering and Domestication. In pop, modernist critics are invariably fans of electronic music. At first, ‘everybody outside of the electronic music field thought that synthesizers were supposed to imitate traditional instruments’. But those involved in electronic music, on the contrary, ‘wanted to use synthesizers to make completely new sounds’, recalls Robert Moog, inventor of the first modular synth in the early 1960s.86 Listening to Switched-On Bach by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, the first synthetic variation on the music of Bach performed with synths designed by Moog and released in 1968, ‘you don’t hear anything like traditional sounds’. The ‘synthesis’ involved in the idea of ​​synthesizer is not a matter of imitation: it involves ‘building a complete object by assembling components,’ and the sound produced is the result of a combination of various modules (voltage control, cable connections, actuated switches) whose tangible counterpart is a completely new sound.87 But this, let us not forget, is the perspective of an engineer—and also a salesman. In 1963, Moog brought to market the first modular synthesizer constructed in series:88 composed of analogue electronic circuits organised into electrically interconnected modules, intended for use by composers, and equipped with a keyboard to facilitate the use of piano techniques. With this device, measuring twenty metres square, which made it a rather imposing object, if less so than its laboratory ancestors, a good curious keyboardist, after many hours spent with the machine, could become a virtuoso at adjusting the sounds—modulations, filters, echoes—of the notes. Attracted by the possibilities of greater control over the various parameters of sound, and a certain stability achieved at the level of timbre and tone, pop musicians were quick to seize on it. By the time Stevie Wonder 86. Interview with Robert Moog, in Shapiro (ed.), Modulations, 207. 87. Ibid. 88. Meanwhile, Donald Buchla in the US and Paolo Ketoff in Rome marketed their own comparable models.

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bestow upon them the legitimacy of an avant-garde. But in doing so, they linked


integrated Moog sounds into his own compositions, the machine had been well and truly tamed, with its new textures now embellishing more traditionally

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played compositions. In other words, in becoming an instrument, the synthesizer was cut off from its original unpredictability, and became more familiar than the singing machine that had escaped the authority of the instrumentalist. But this is also what enabled it to be integrated into the pop instrumentarium, which would go on to draw from it considerable new resources for musical creativity. At the end of the 1960s, the arrival onto the market of new, even more manageable and often cheaper models (in particular the Minimoog, development of which began in 1970), designed by companies such as Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Arp, EMS and Oberheim, accentuated this movement of the democratisation of the synthesizer. Twenty years later, in 1986, when Yamaha released the DX7, the first digital synthesizer with a keyboard and a memory bank, freeing composers from the residual unpredictability of analogue synthesizers, the domestication of synthetic sounds seemed complete. Now not only did the keyboard allow one to play the transformed sounds in the traditional scale, over four or five octaves, the memory bank released the keyboardist from the temperamental nature of the analogue machine. But this domestication came at a price, as Pierre Henry laments: During the evolution of technique, engineers wanted to bring out finished products, to standardize manufactured products. What was interesting in electro-acoustic music was to search, to find new ways, new possibilities.89

From the unpredictable and experimental machine it had been at the beginning—with all its astonishing, electrosensitive ancestors that seemed to have a life of their own—the synth had become a practical and cheap composition tool: an electronic instrument for use by musicians, producing sounds prized for their imitative qualities, especially the string sounds as used in dance music, partly descended from symphonic soul—an ersatz cut-price orchestra and ultimately, in the eyes of a whole fringe of independent rock, a musical lie, a deception.90 89. Interview with Pierre Henry, in Shapiro (ed.), Modulations, 23. 90. Especially in English pop of the 1980s and 1990s, when the use of synthesizers became widespread: among the representatives of independent rock of the time, such as Morrissey or, later, the Gallagher brothers of Oasis, every interview became an opportunity to declare a hostility to synths.

The Dilemma of the Ready-to-Play. Behind the modernist fantasy of electronic


sounds heralding access to the landscapes of the future, pop synths, more proFactory-set, they arrive ‘ready to play’ like ready-to-wear fashion, into the hands of all aspiring pop composers. Depending on the decade of their manufacture, the sound of specific machines is identifiable in countless pop productions of the time. This is true of the Prophet 5, a five-channel polyphonic synthesizer with a sixty-one key keyboard manufactured by Sequential Circuit, and which was used by Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and PiL, but also by more mainstream groups such as Duran Duran, A-ha, No Doubt, and Genesis. Similarly, the New Wave pop of the 1980s was defined by the use of drum machines and synthesizers made by Yamaha and Roland, as much standard issue equipment for these groups as the Ford car had been for the suburban household of the 1950s. In line with this logic of standardisation, up until the development of CAM (fully digitised computer-assisted music), even the most inventive electronic music of the 2000s was essentially composed using factory presets made available by virtual synthesizer software and created by professional sound designers. By way of these presets, complex configurations of sound are stored and made available to users who, without them, would of course always be able to manually build up a sound starting with an LFO (low frequency oscillator) then appending other voltage, envelope, and filter parameters which are applied to the source according to a cumulative logic which allows no easy way of backtracking, or any re-decomposition after synthesis. The deeper the programming of a patch is, the more numerous the layers of parameters involved, the richer the resulting sound is and the more it competes with the factory presets. But such a process, essentially an advanced digital reproduction of the classic basic settings of analogue synthesizers, requires that the user devote a disproportionate amount of their composition time to the simple preparation of their instrument, something which is also possible using more expert software such as Max/MSP, Pure Data, or SuperCollider which allow for real-time audio synthesis and algorithmic programming. The complexity of the process and the learning time required means that most users in the composition phase will choose software that offers pre-prepared soundbanks, modifiable through the available settings. Their work on sound, regardless of complexity and depth,

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saically, are standardised instruments provided by the industry to all musicians.


thus starts out from prearranged material, not by creating new sounds but by

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the popular virtual music studio developed since 2003 by Vadim Zavalishin for

modifying given sounds. Mike Daliot, one of the sound designers for Reaktor, Native Instruments,91 has explained the increasingly insurmountable obstacles that present themselves to users who want to make their own sounds from scratch.92 While the software offers a dual input with presets on one side and sound synthesis by the user on the other, it is absolutely impossible for one individual to cope. People trying to program their own sound end up frustrated when they compare their results to what is offered on the market.93

And this because the available sounds are the result of a highly standardised production process: It’s the difference, says Daliot, between assembling Lego and the manipulation of atoms. [...] It took three programmers over two years to create ‘Molekular’. After that, there are the sound designers, graphic designers, marketing department, the video department.94

Even if an isolated individual trying to do without presets is a good programmer, they are competing with an industry that brings together many skillsets rendered optimally efficient within the framework of a rigorous division of labour. So much so that the complexity required to compete ultimately does not even seem like an opportunity to deepen the creative process. but more like a sterile diversion of energy that could be devoted to composing music. If complexity is necessary to produce avant-garde sounds, this complexity now seems to be a task delegated to industrially organised designers.

91. Designer of the virtual synthesizers Massive and Lazerbass, popularised by the ‘Brostep’ current of which Skrillex was the figurehead. 92. S. Goldmann, ‘Le grand complot des presets’, interview with Mike Daliot, Audimat 5 (2016), 171–2. See also S. Goldmann (ed.), Presets—Digital Shortcuts to Sound (London: Bookworm, 2014). 93. Goldmann, ‘Le Grand complot des presets’, 173. 94. Ibid.

Still, it cannot be said that standardisation reduces complexity; rather, it democ-


ratises it on an unprecedented scale. After all, concludes Daliot, ‘complex of the industry reinforces the logic of the ready-to-play pop instrumentarium: the engineering of sound designers preconfigures the sound of pop upstream from composers. Misuse and Appropriation. But the history of pop is not just the linear history of the progress and standardisation of the new technologies that come to enrich its instrumentarium. It is also locked in a perpetual struggle with this standardisation. In the case of contemporary digital software, the possibilities are manifold, almost endless, which leaves space for contingency and the creativity of appropriation. But it is not simply a matter of taking advantage of a margin of indeterminacy. This indeterminacy must be provoked via détournement. Faced with cheap and limited machines and the analogue and digital hardware industry, the typical gesture of reversal in pop consists in making standardised instruments into expressive objects. Faced with synths—even those that are mass-produced products—a creative culture of experimentation encourages musicians to see them as something other than a static range of easily available sounds. The instrument-machine is there to be tinkered with, diverted from its preset factory use, even when this means making it speak a language that the manufacturer had not taught it. Hence the well-known case of appropriation of the Bass Transistor or TB-303, designed by Tadao Kikumoto and marketed by the company Roland in 1982. The machine is not exactly simple: it is an analogue synthesizer optimised for producing bass sounds, equipped with a functional keyboard alongside an integrated sequencer (without a visual interface), control dials (tuning, resonance cut off frequency, decay), and an option to switch between two types of waveform. Initially intended for folk musicians in need of a substitute bassist, the machine could hardly compete with the nuanced touch of the electric bass (invented thirty years earlier by Fender, based on the double bass) and initially attracted little interest. It ended up in bargain bins, from which it was dug out by penniless Detroit musicians searching for new experiments. In a reappropriation that was to have historic aesthetic consequences, in the 95. Ibid., 174.

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designs are stored in presets and people use them happily’.95 But the power


hands of Jesse Saunders, Marshall Jefferson, Larry Heard, and DJ Pierre it became the foremost instrument of acid house.96 The lack of realism in its

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sounds, the difficulty of the programming process, the lack of any instruction manual for the machine, in short all of the ‘supposed defects of the machine’ became ‘so many advantages’ once grasped from the reverse angle of intuitive usage, guided by the search for unprecedented sounds instead of the synthetic reproduction of a ‘real bass sound’. Emancipated in this way from its intended use, the TB-303 became a ‘very democratic instrument—a novice had just as good a chance of producing a usable bassline as did an expert musician’.97 In reopening the breach of the singing machine anew, beyond its domesticated usage, the creators of acid house discovered new resources for themselves in the sounds of electricity, and affirmed their status as avant-garde figures.98 As Kodwo Eshun remarks, employing an Aristotelian term, Juan Atkins and Derrick May invented techno by revealing the entelechy of available sound machines: they actualised the unheard potentials of technology.99 So the idea of ​​‘misuse’

96. We hear this characteristic acid sound in 1984 in the pieces ‘Jam on It’ by Newcleus and ‘Acid Tracks’ by Phuture, in the second wave Detroit techno of Richie Hawtin (Plastikman), and then across the Atlantic in the hit ‘What Time Is Love’ by The KLF, and on the album Technique (1989) by New Order. 97. M. Berk, ‘Technology: Analog Fetishes and Digital Futures’, in Shapiro (ed.), Modulations, 193 98. This affinity between destruction (of a norm or standard) and innovation is not new. In a strange passage at the end of his essay ‘On the Fetish Character in Music’ Adorno describes what is something between a jest and prophecy, a playful scene in a film by the Marx Brothers where they ‘break up a grand piano into pieces in order to take possession of its strings in their frame as the true harp of the future, on which to play a prelude’. To the eyes of Adorno this ‘most estimable piece of refined entertainment’ describes the fate of a Western art music in which string instruments, meant to produce tonal harmonies, are doomed, like tonality itself, to decompose, as shown by this deconstruction of a harmonic instrument into purely percussive, atonal, and perhaps unmusical parts. Adorno emphasises the comic character of this: amidst the debris of the piano, laughter erupts as grand music is toppled from its spiritual pedestal. We too can smile, but for another reason: the two players remind us of pop musicians. Unable to play the piano as mandated by real musical skill, they open up the instrument, rip out the parts, and start again on a basis which seems more practical, even if unintended: the harmonic frame becomes a harp, in line with an anterior, almost Pavlovian aesthetic reaction to get one’s hands directly on the instrument, and suggesting an ancient bard. In the same spirit, one thinks of the hilarious scene in in The Playhouse (1921) where Buster Keaton embodies a whole orchestra of jazz musicians conscientiously abusing trumpets, drums and double bass by treating them as tools (saws) or machine tools. 99. See his interventions in John Akomfrah’s film The Last Angel of History, 1995. The concept of entelechy in Aristotle refers to the actualisation of a power that lies within a being (the statue is thus the entelechy of a marble block).

may be questioned here: the operation resulted rather in the twofold revelation of a technological potential and a new sonic language.



which offers emulations of the whole range of drum machines and synthesizers used in original house and techno), the acid house sound of the TB-303 has been integrated into the presets of the ready-to-play pop instrumentarium. Emulation, as a process of imitation, a software simulation of old materials, and the latest manufacturing standardisation serving democratisation and commerce, standardises what initially sprung from a creative use of technology. Not that this integration is the sign of decline or disaster: it expresses the dialectic in the history of pop between the engineering of sounds and instruments, and their transformation and distortion by those who use them. It may be tamed by rationalisation and industrial standardisation, but the sound of electricity that forms the sonic pulp of pop—whether distortion or modulation—is also destined to be forever altered by new appropriations. Or even better: the reification of pop material, taken up in its electric transmission and standardised by the engineering of its democraticised instrumentarium, is the paradoxical condition for all of its expressive appropriations.

THIRD LISTEN Any Music Whatsoever Our second listen focused on the sound of pop as it resonates concretely, mediated by technologies of transmission and production. From this listening position, attentive to the ways in which it alters sound, we can now move on to reconsider at a third level of listening the way in which pop relates itself not only to sound material, but to musical material. In terms of the various possibilities of composition, pop, we might think, offers the same neutrality that the electrical medium presents for information: no discrimination at all. All musics can flow through electrical circuits: Beethoven and T. Rex, electronic binary rhythms and gamelan polyrhythms. As far as its 100. In an article dedicated to this legend of the ‘misuse’ of the technology of the TB-303, the musician Mark Fell questions the idea of defining an intuitive use of technology as a misuse: ‘All uses of technology simultaneously alter and define the same technology.’ M. Fell, ‘Collateral damage’, The Wire, January 2013, .

T hird L isten

Now revived in software versions (including the software package ReBirth,


musicological material is concerned, pop is equally indiscriminate, open to everything that can be heard. Perfectly omnivorous, it gobbles up and digests

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everything. Rejecting the sounds of old as reactionary or outdated, it has no scruples about using all accumulated musical material available in living memory, and now in the memory of machines, provided that it they offer expressive meanings to those who seize on them at a given moment of their existence and of cultural history. Recovered Materials. The genres of pop are made up of disparate elements, the fruits of human migration, approximate borrowings from oral traditions, with deformations at every stage along the way. The blues, matrix of the styles that have characterised the history of the recorded popular musics of rock and hard rock, all the way to the hip-hop that now samples it, only emerged at the end of the nineteenth century thanks to a syncretism that combined field hollers with religious songs (spirituals), memories of African songs structured by traditional patterns of call and response—transposed into a dialogue between voice and guitar—and by a fluctuating emphasis on the third and the fifth or seventh of the dominant chord.101 According to some theories, the influence of American Indian powwow drums also played a role here, as well as minstrel ballads, while the rhythmic structures of ragtime reappear in the elaborate picking style of Piedmont blues. A composite form combining materials that evolved along parallel historical lines and merged by virtue of the displacement of populations into incongruous environs, blues can hardly be said to be part of a story of the standardisation of musical material, let alone a process of purification. The story of the blues can be told, and indeed explained, but cannot be deduced according to the logic of an autonomous rationality that operates a purification of it over successive generations. (This narrative of rationality, if it existed, would have to connect the historical stages of blues together as a process incorporating social and historical mediations that involve far more than just musical material). Different versions of the pentatonic scale used in American blues have been observed by musicologists in diverse ancient traditions in Japan, China, Vietnam, in the Inca and Celtic traditions, in North Africa, in Eastern Europe….

101. The English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor introduced the ‘blue’ note in the ‘Negro Love Song’, contained in his African Suite for piano, written in 1898.

As well as manifesting itself in the mixing of scales and harmonics, this princi-


ple of détournement is also applied to the use of instruments. The first, 1923 to 1908—was the work of a certain Sylvester Weaver, born in Kentucky, whose performance is distinguished by a slide guitar style obtained by sliding the blade of a knife or the neck of a bottle over the frets. Far from being characteristic of the blues alone, this aptitude for recycling and appropriation is common to all genres of deterritorialized popular music: gypsy violins imported into country fiddling, Indian raga infusing the African spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane (‘Journey in Satchidananda’), ‘Beatlesque’ pop fuelling música popular Brasileira, and Cuban rhumba reimported back to the Congo, country of its distant roots. These imports, exports, and recoveries include not only transfers within popular music, but also transfers of the classical written repertoire into pop music. The examples are legion, especially in symphonic progressive rock: the first Deep Purple album contains a song diptych derived from a piece by Rimsky-Korsakov.102 Emerson, Lake & Palmer made a hit from a theme by Mussorgsky. Motifs from Purcell (Klaus Nomi), Prokofiev (Sting), and Dvořák (Gainsbourg) have been recovered and subordinated to the periodic rhythms and diatonic harmonies of the pop song. Steeleye Span, who mix the cantatas and rhymes of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Bach Goes to Limerick (1975), acknowledge the anachronism quite openly: the drawing on the cover, in the style of a medieval woodcut, shows a troubadour juggling with vinyl records. With no allegiance to any exclusive creed or fixed musicological law, pop seems to be able to build itself out of any musical material it recuperates. Scraps of Modernity. If there is a pop musical material then, on this account, there is nothing unified about it. Musically, pop works seem to be patchworks. Yet this capacity for the syncretic combination of historically disparate materials can be taken in two ways: as an expression of creative freedom paving the way toward the kind of imaginary suggested by surrealist collages, or as a kitsch inability to produce representations truly unified into an accomplished artistic vision. But the accusation of kitsch ultimately remains a superficial judgement. Not only because kitsch is not in itself a repudiated and hence disqualifying form 102. ‘Prelude: Happiness’ on the 1968 album Shades of Deep Purple, adapted from the first movement of Scheherazade by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

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recording of ‘Saint Louis Blues’—a standard whose earliest score dates back


of representation in popular music, but also because pop syncretism operates not as a form of naivety but as a challenge—ironic or otherwise103—to any

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conception of an irreversible linear logic of aesthetic progress. For musical modernism, tonality and its melodic and harmonic potentials are forever lost to the past. It is virtually forbidden, even shameful, to regress to that stage. But plainly pop does not observe this prohibition at all. It feasts shamelessly on the scraps of Modernity. Monodies, drones, folk scales, isomorphic rhythm and modal forms, harmonic sequences borrowed from music hall, opera arias, and yesterday’s mainstream hits—all of these remainders of modernity are among the preferred materials of pop compositions. But rather than ignoramuses unconsciously spreading monstrous hybridisations, the makers of pop resemble the ‘ragpicker’ described by Walter Benjamin, who collects up the scraps of modern life, irresistibly attracted by materials left behind by the march of ‘progress’.104

103. In fact, some pop works explicitly exhibit a hint of irony, or at least a melancholy distance, in relation to the disparate materials (styles, types of harmonies, sounds, and instruments) they summon. When recuperated forms serve as a nostalgic citation of a musical heritage, or a reference to a bygone aesthetic past, circumscribed in its time and explicitly presented as dated, one can indeed speak of postmodern recuperation. But just because it recovers different musical traditions, it cannot be said that the history of pop works in a systemically postmodern way. The idea of kitsch from a postmodern perspective does not correspond to a process of recycling and recovery: it is a standpoint taken in relation to this logic of recovery, a judgement on it. This judgement can indeed play a part in pop’s aesthetic consciousness, as it can in any art; but it is not an unsurpassable horizon for pop, much less a principle. If the genres of pop music borrow materials that are hackneyed and reified from the modernist point of view—that is to say, materials left behind by the historical development of Western musical consciousness, essential but now outmoded milestones—it does not necessarily relate to this consciousness ironically. In most cases, pop works do not relate to their diversity of musical material with the detachment or irony of lucid postmodern consciousness, which somehow comes after that of progress. Read Paul McCartney on Purcell or Kate Bush on traditional Bulgarian folk songs, from which they respectively borrowed: they retain the enthusiasm and curiosity of one who takes what others have abandoned to the past and sees in these forgotten forms, suddenly refreshed by their discovery, the possibility of a future. The history of pop is defined more by this kind of enthusiastic recuperation than by scholars so overburdened by the history of culture that they feel powerless to represent the possibility of any future. 104. The figure of the ‘ragpicker’, in counterpoint to that of the flâneur, is particularly present in W. Benjamin, ‘Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, in Selected Writings, vol. 3, 1935–38, tr. E. Jephcott, H. Eiland et al. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 32–49. Adorno discusses this with Benjamin in a letter of 10 November 1938, T.W. Adorno and W. Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence 1928–1940, ed. H. Lonitz, tr. N. Walker (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 280–87.

Samples and Friction. In order to disqualify the musical language of the jazzman,


Adorno wrote that this figure worked with aesthetic debris fixed in the collective synthesis. Indeed, scrap, by definition, has a certain resistance to synthesis and digestion. With scrap we are dealing not only with a neglected material whose recovery constitutes a form of salvage, but also with a material that resists incorporation into a new form, just as patches remain visible on a garment because of the differences in texture, pattern, and wear between the patchwork of parts that make it up. Scrap is resistant to forming a whole. To the idealised representation of organic music scrap opposes its mechanical resistance, producing a friction which, in the best case, miraculously animates a pop work like the body of Frankenstein’s monster traversed by electricity. The widespread use of sampling105 is a good example of friction between scraps, indeed, sampling is a systematic employment of the effect. When Holger Czukay and Rolf Dammers assembled ‘May Ho Nim (Boat-Woman-Song),’ a long piece clocking it at seventeen minutes and five seconds, released in 1969 on the album Canaxis 5,106 they created a veritable sound-manifesto of sampling.107 Composed of a looped fragment from a twelfth-century Picard polyphonic rondeau by Adam de la Halle—a few seconds, comprising a single plagal cadence—and another from an ethnographic recording broadcast over radio of two Vietnamese women, fused together in a minimal undulation of frequencies, the piece provides a sonic unity that is both homogeneous and riven, 105. In 1948, musique concrète was already using this technique to make compositions from samples of various noises, birds singing, etc. But what pop lends itself to more specifically is not simply sampling and the cutting up of recorded tape but the explicit reuse of sound sequences taken from other musical works, thereby revealing the possibility of a circulation not only of motifs and themes but also sound snippets between works—something which, from the perspective of serious music, could only be seen as a threat to the integrity of works. The ‘plundered’ work is filleted and deprived of its organic unity while the work that plunders it is forced to assume, at odds with the romantic ideal of absolute singularity, a secondhand character. 106. Technical Space Composer’s Crew, Canaxis 5 (Music Factory, 1969). 107. According to Holger Czukay himself, they worked with the help of Stockhausen’s assistant, the flautist David C. Johnson (who would become part of the first line-up of Can). See the interview with Holger Czukay by Robert Barry, ‘A Different World: Holger Czukay on Canaxis 5,’ 17 March 2014, The Quietus, . Released in 1972, Irrlicht, the album by Klaus Schultze (Tangerine Dream’s drummer), is made up of tape collages of recordings of keyboards and orchestral choirs, allowing the reproduction of sounds modulated at variable frequencies at the pitches of the traditional notes of the scale.

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memory, which he reinjected into his performance without offering any new


stretched between the continuum of the drone and the hypnotic mechanically

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to see how European music could work with music from a different world, given

repeated sample tracks. This combination, according to Czukay, was an attempt that the intervals of the different scales are in themselves incompatible. This search for an effect of inconsistency, of friction between materials, distinguishes Czukay’s approach from that of his own master, Stockhausen, in whose studio at the West Deutscher Rundfunk in Cologne Canaxis was (unbeknownst to him) recorded. Two years earlier, Stockhausen had visited Japan and produced the piece Telemusik in the studios of the NHK. Despite his hostility to folk music, in this piece he combined singing Japanese monks and Hungarian csárdás rhythms, radio snippets in Vietnamese and pieces of traditional Spanish dance, according to principles derived from the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio. The idea of ​​this assemblage came to him in a dream: to write not his own music ‘but a music of the whole world’ from ‘all countries and all races’. Far from this ambition of a total language, and without any golden number to render its contingent associations necessary, Czukay and Dammers’s piece was based instead on an intuition of the incommunicability of different languages, in short, their friction: the inevitable friction of archives foreign to one other, but nonetheless productive of a strange expressive unity. Sampling has of course become widespread in more overtly popular genres of recorded music, to the point of creating an effect of the organic fusion of sampled materials. In the Massive Attack hit ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ (1991), a short sample from the Mahavishnu Orchestra—a detail by Fender Rhodes—becomes a structuring riff of the song. A similar effect is heard in ‘Safe from Harm’ (1991) where the sample is a rhythmic loop of a drum part played by Billy Cobham in the song ‘Stratus’ on the instrumental jazz fusion album Spectrum (1973). A few years later, in 1996, DJ Shadow systematically used this principle in Endtroducing, an album composed entirely from samples of preexisting audio sources,108 a full 108. Before him, Canadian saxophonist and composer John Oswald in 1989 released Plunderphonics, a compilation, or rather an epileptic compiling, of pirated samples, which contained ‘Dab’, his version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ compressed into a truncated series of spasms of variable length. In 1985, Oswald presented his manifesto ‘Plunderphonics, Or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative’ at the Wired Society Electro-Acoustic Conference in Toronto. The text opens with the material fact: ‘A sampler, in essence a recording, transforming instrument, is simultaneously a documenting device and a creative device, in effect reducing a distinction manifested by copyright’: .

listing of which has only gradually been established since the album’s release,


ranging from Meredith Monk to Grandmaster Flash, via David Axelrod and is fashioned from film clips (Prince of Darkness and Blade Runner) and other elements as diverse as samples of ‘Variazione III (Tredicesimo Cortile)’ by Osanna, an Italian progressive rock band of the 1970s, the song ‘Blues So Bad’ by The Mystic Number National Bank, a psychedelic blues quartet from Kansas City active in the 1960s, ‘Oleo Strut’ by Steve Drews, and ‘1-800 Suicide’ by New York hip-hop crew Gravediggaz. Between these scraps refashioned within the architecture of what is an innovative work in its own right, Q-Bert’s scratching makes the idea of ​​friction explicit. But the tracks on Endtroducing are not purely random patchwork: they subjectively digest the friction between the organic and mechanical: thick sound materials, torn from their original body, cut, stitched, looped, and sequenced. While the friction is tangible, the music of Endtroducing cannot easily be broken down into disparate elements: it is heard as a cybernetic totality in which the organic development of the music and the artificial joins of its reanimated scraps are communicate with one another. In this way, the new musical entities produced do not just suggest a dislocated style, they reflect dislocation as a contemporary form of experience. Since then, the use of samples has become widespread in pop in an even more systematic manner since they are now incorporated into ready-to-play instruments. In democratised software packages such as GarageBand, one can use rhythmic sequences drawn from sound banks featuring, for example, recordings of great drummers with a unique sought-after feeling and timbre. These borrowings pose different aesthetic difficulties depending on the genre concerned. As Simon Reynolds remarks: With genres that foreground their anti-naturalism (R&B, electronic pop, etc.) this doesn’t seem to matter so much. But it is particularly unsatisfying—even vaguely perturbing—when the music offers a simulacrum of live energy (as with most rock productions), but what you hear does not have the integrity of a musical performance, is riddled with non-presence.109 109. Reynolds, Retromania, 316.

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Björk. The track ‘Stem/Long Stem’ together with the interlude ‘Transmission 2’


The concealed use of samples produces ‘subliminal sampling […] different from the blatant aesthetic dis-integration of rap and dance music’. Aesthetic judge-

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ment may try to draw a line of demarcation between good and bad sampling, but as we now know, as a cannibal, pop feeds not only on the past, but also on itself. ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’, as the mid-’80s Stourbridge band proclaimed. Obsessed with this idea, the modernist (compelled, upon observing the demise of the paradigm of progress, to convert to postmodernism) sees no future for pop except under the sign of disgust—in the spirit of the album Plexure, where John Oswald launches a twenty-minute bombardment of crescendos, choruses, soul-screams, whammy-bar back blasts and power chords. Here the clear intent was to expose the American radio-scape as a moronic inferno of kitsch and schlock.110

But in this vast enterprise of denunciation, a critical surplus threatens to overshadow the expressive stakes of popular music. Deprived of the questionable yet all-important belief in individual expression necessary to achieve the margin of manoeuvre that pop needs in order to be more alive than the sum of its appropriations, the hyperlucid ‘pop’ of Plexure runs the risk of being merely cadaverous. A certain awareness of the historical decay of pop material has, and must have, an effect on pop production: but nothing demands that it has to sacrifice the living relationship that an individual is still able to form with dying, dead, or reified material. Because there is nothing new under the sun here: ever since the first recorded blues, pop has been using the shock of reappropriated disparate junk to forge new languages. Bricolage. In the comical liner notes of his album Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes (1963), the guitarist John Fahey describes his composition ‘Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania/Alabama Border’: The opening chords are from the last movement of  Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony. It goes from there to a Skip James [bluesman born at the beginning of the century, originally from Mississippi, active until the end of the 1960s] motif. 110. Ibid., 319.

Following that it moves to a Gregorian chant, Dies Irae. It’s the most scary one in


the Episcopal hymn books—it’s all about the day of judgement. Then it returns then back to Skip James and so forth.111

During the six minutes and fifty-eight seconds of his ‘composition’, it seems clear that this impressive musical culture is exemplified by snippets, held together here in a new and unique unity by Fahey’s highly idiosyncratic guitar playing. Fahey’s modus operandi recalls the definition of bricolage according to Claude Lévi-Strauss. For the bricoleur, ‘the rules of his game are always to make do with “whatever is at hand”, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous’, he says.112 The analogy with the recyclings of pop musical art seem all the more suggestive in that Lévi-Strauss opposes the figure of the bricoleur to that of the engineer, who we might assimilate to the figure of the serious composer, at least in its ‘purified’ modernist guise. The bricoleur’s technique ‘works rather like a kaleidoscope, an instrument which also contains bits and pieces by means of which structural patterns are realized’,113 with the bricoleur configuring a series of new arrangements as his imagination dictates. Note that the metaphor of the kaleidoscope is not straightforwardly applicable since ‘the fact that the available material constitutes a closed set, consisting of preexisting elements, leads to discarding the idea of a​​ creative imagination which would operate without limits.’114 Of course, the creator of pop works may be quite happy to trade creation ex nihilo for the idea of ​​‘new arrangements’. But the twofold problem of bricolage theory remains: on one hand, it cuts off the bricoleur from any possibility of innovation, and on the other it assumes that the engineer, unlike the bricoleur, has access to a pure material.115 In the case of musical practice, it is assumed that the bricoleur must wrestle with a reified material that the engineer need never come into contact with.

111. . 112. C. Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1966), 17. 113. Ibid., 36. 114. A. Mary, Le Bricolage africain des héros chrétiens (Paris: Le Cerf, 2000), 75. 115. For a discussion with Lévi-Strauss (initiated by Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida) on this concept, see A. Mélice, ‘Un concept lévi-straussien déconstruit: le bricolage’, Les Temps modernes 656 (5/2009), 83–98.

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to the Vaughan Williams chords, followed by a blues run of undetermined origin,


Now, the idea that ‘serious’ music involves an especially ingenious design

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abstraction, Mâche emphasises that ‘[a]ttempts to treat timbre as a parameter

process in which bricolage plays no part, is itself naive. Opposing modernist soon failed’. Although it still disturbs ‘a whole family of minds for whom the purely qualitative is a weakness unworthy of any music that wants to set itself up as a mode of thought unto itself’, timbral relations can in fact be ‘negotiated “case by case”’ without the need for an overarching theory or any laws of equivalence established by the fixed intervals of tempo and the predetermined pitches of scales.116 The musical composition that identifies itself as serious is not pure thought, and it too must negotiate with the concrete regime of experimentation. But while this seems like the lifting of a taboo in the field of the art of serious music—via musique concrète—such trial-and-error experimentation has never been taboo for pop creation. Still, the idea of bricolage in Lévi-Strauss does not only involve manipulating reified materials. Having established that the bricoleur’s approach is always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, with ‘a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous’, Lévi-Strauss concludes that the composition of the whole [...] is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions.117

Many pop composers would unhesitatingly affirm this same principle, insisting that heterogeneous materials are themselves partly responsible for setting the rules of their assemblage. The question ‘What did you do?’ is a difficult one to answer: sometimes one prefers to invoke instinct, chance, or non-intentionality rather than a preestablished logic of creation. But this apparent indifference, or at least openness towards contingency, does not equate to a lack of consciousness, or, as Lévi-Strauss puts it, the absence of a ‘project’ of artistic design. It could even be that it involves a rather more creative use of technology which, rather than exploiting it at a level below its true potential, solicits it on a higher, expressive rather than constructive, level. 116. Mâche, Musique, mythe, nature, 33. 117. Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, 16.

In a largely biographical manifesto, the artist Qubais Reed Ghazala, a curious


and inventive mind who recalls how since his childhood he has been lost to the a ‘chance electronics’ conceived according to a practice of random connections ‘out-of-theory’ in electronic circuits of his own invention, so that certain zones of the circuits he assembles are ‘chance-wired’ by contact-test, and then properly connected if they produce an interesting sound, thus transforming the equipment into an ‘immediate canvas’ of expression.118 That the set-up is open to non-expert experimentation does not mean it is devoid of any project: here the explorer chooses to fix some connections over others, on the basis of a mode of listening itself informed by a certain vision; he constructs his technological tool according to its expressive results. At no point does electronic chance as modus operandi imply a completely random aesthetic. The somewhat outdated figure of the bricoleur gives way to the figure of an engineer of chance, working not with heterogeneous objects but within a system whose uniformity it is his specific intention to break down. In the same way, in less openly experimental registers, we cannot exactly agree with Lévi-Strauss that bricolage ‘is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it’.119 Regardless of its value, a work cannot be ontologically defined as a contingent result. To emphasise this contingency in the result—and therefore in a work—means to sacrifice the idea of ​​an aesthetic project, and to refuse the subject of expression its minimum of authority (which would agree with the principles of structuralism, but then the same principle would have to be applied to the figure of the engineer). If some musical materials are made available to a composer by chance—by their life chances, their musical culture, their tastes—this does not mean that the assemblage of these materials is contingent, but only that contingency is an aspect of the creative process. Once the labour of assembly and articulation have produced a work, it cuts contingency short, if only because at the very minimum it is now a chosen contingency. * 118. Q.R. Ghazala, ‘The Folk Music of Chance Electronics: Circuit-bending the Modern Coconut’, , quoted in Fell, ‘Collateral Damage’. 119. Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, 16.

A ny M usic W hatsoever

official schooling system, has developed through his personal work the notion of


Throughout the three stages or modes of listening undertaken above, we have sought to discover what meaning can be attributed to the idea of a pop musical

A ny M usic W hatsoever

material. Initially (first listen) we looked to specific registers of musicality (the song form, tonality, work on sound itself), and then, more productively (second listen), we tried to identify a specific pop material in the techno-aesthetic phenomenon not just of sound but of its alteration by distortion and modulation; finally (third listen) we considered pop’s special relation to available musical languages​​, which we conceived in terms of an omnivorous appropriation. In studying these different candidates for the status of ‘pop musical material’, we have tried to find potential forms of ‘progress’ according to the Modernist idea. With each pass, we discovered logics which, while not directly contradicting the idea of ​​innovation, call into question the idea of ​​progress, its rational linear authority, and its fundamental historical consequence: the designation of certain artefacts as the mere scraps of history, as outmoded and obsolete possibilities of experience. Nevertheless, we continue to experience pop in its historicity.


no’s ‘perennial fashion’, but that brings about aesthetic effects through pop composers’ constant negotiation of their relationship with it. There is nothing like a one-way line along which the Hegelian Spirit could proceed—rather, pop is woven of a tormented reflection on its own history. Awareness of this history is not the preserve of critics: within the songs themselves pop passes its time recapitulating itself. In 1977, Giorgio Moroder’s album with Donna Summer I Remember Yesterday presented a veritable sonic manual of the history of pop. On the A-side of the LP, the song ‘I Remember Yesterday’ restages the rise of disco in the form of a 1940s swing sound, before ‘Love Is Unkind’ replays the same theme with castanets and a chorus recalling the girl bands of the early 1960s. The third track ‘Back in Love Again’ is reminiscent of Motown and Phil Spector. On the B side, ‘Black Lady’ references classic disco. It’s followed by ‘Take Me’ which, with its slap bass, condenses the sound of the present, before the listener arrives at the irresistible final track of the record, understood to represent the future: ‘I Feel Love’, a song that singlehandedly gave rise to hi-NRG disco. From the era when the old-time music of the 1920s drew on the rural aesthetics of early American settlers, up to the moment when in 2017 Kendrick Lamar sampled the legendary ‘Poverty’s Paradise’ by 24-Carat Black which first appeared in 1973, pop memory has never been the privilege of historians; it animates an art that is more hypermnesic than any other, because of its inherent link to recording (both as the form of its works and as its instantaneous archive). It is this memory and reflexivity that have made the transplantation of modernism possible, the off-ground modernism whose paradoxes we have studied above. It was already at work, as we have seen, in the jazz consciousness of the 1940s. In rock, it emerged in the postwar period and developed further with the beginnings of the counterculture. It fostered the telling of a unique and exciting story with its own landmarks, battles, and betrayals. But to subordinate an entire

A nother H istory of the M usical A rt of P op

In disqualifying a certain idea of progress, ​​ we need not sacrifice the idea that the musical art of pop has a history. It’s a history that not only exceeds Ador-



period or generation to the conditions of this kind of supposedly objective narrative has always smacked of totalitarian delirium. Just as we cannot subordinate


all serious music of the early twentieth century to Schoenberg, so we cannot make the whole second half of the 1970s dependent on punk. In 1977, on opposite poles of the aesthetic spectrum, ABBA released Arrival, and Fleetwood Mac put out Rumours, two productions equally important to other pop narratives, while a little earlier, Ethiopian musicians led by Mulatu Astatke and Mahmoud Ahmed, inspired by jazz and Latin music, developed a still unclassifiable Afro-jazz that would only been discovered by the West in the 1990s.120 With the advent of the internet confronting us more cruelly than ever with the discovery of this rhizomatic, pluridirectional wealth of narratives practically impossible to force into the Procrustean bed of rational linear progress, the modernist is forced to acknowledge that their aesthetic narrative applies to the testimony of one generation and to the experience of certain countries and certain social classes only.

ERUDITE SUBJECTIVE NARRATIVES Wary of this modernist trap, contemporary pop memory has begun to fetishise the great ruptures a little less; it has traded in its futurism for a more nostalgic taste in retro-futurism. In 1999, the British DJ John Peel began to broadcast a series of one hundred shows on BBC Radio 1, presenting a selection of four songs per year from 1900 to 2000. The totality made up what he called his ‘Peelennium’, an ode to both connoisseurship and subjectivity ranging across a hundred years of mainly British and to a lesser extent American recorded popular music. (Stephen Merritt and Richard Thompson have compiled similar, though shorter lists). Following a colossal labour of research in the BBC’s music archives, a motley collection of forgotten songs was selected that told a particular story of recorded popular music, almost like a natural history, an empirical collection exemplary rather than exhaustive, ordered by date but neither classified nor hierarchised. The task John Peel set himself was to place each year of the century on an equal footing, taking four different ‘interesting’ objects from each. We heard the amazing Vesta Victoria who in 1903 sang the dashing ‘Riding on a Motorcar’, 120. In particular, in France, on the occasion of the release of the collection ‘Éthiopiques’ on the Buda Musique label.

her enthusiasm for emancipated women accompanied by the merry honking of


klaxons; the improvised trills of Isabel Jay in ‘Poor Wandering One’ from 1904; When I Want It’, its chorus punctuated by imperious cymbal rolls, anticipating the arrogance of rock‘n’roll; a 1922 rendition of the Mexican-inflected aria ‘Rose of the Rio Grande’, later to become a jazz standard, but in this version anticipating the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone; the virtuoso clarinet of Austrian immigrant Nat Shilkret in 1928’s ‘Flapperette’; the murmur of Blind Willie Johnson in ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’; 1953’s ‘Crying in the Chapel’ performed by the vocal group The Orioles; a song by American soul singer James Carr, who languished in the shadow of Otis Redding and Percy Sledge; the irascible ‘Big Eyed Beans from Venus’ by Captain Beefheart, released in 1972; the post-punk 1980 single ‘Dead Pop Stars’ by Altered Images; ‘Shipbuilding’, a political song sung by Robert Wyatt, written by Elvis Costello in protest at the Falklands War in 1983; ‘Ping Pong’ by the French-British group Stereolab; the fierce Indian songs of the Canadian Whitetail Cree Singers in 1993; the tangled samples of ‘Alamoana Fade Away’ by Princess Kaiulani, a mysterious project released on a Japanese label in 1999…. This voyage through pop is openly subjective—and Peel’s preferences become ever more obvious when he arrives at the years during which he himself was active as a critic, writing tooth-and-nail defences of groups such as The Undertones and The Fall. But as a whole, the ‘Peelennium’ does indeed exemplify something like a history of Anglophone recorded popular music, even if it only sets out one possible narrative. A voyage through the various styles of pop, the selection also illustrates how it evolved sonically over the century. We hear a variety of human types, distinguished by their singular voices, varying also in their seriousness or irony toward ‘popular’ styles, repeating and transforming chord sequences and harmonies but perhaps most of all rhythmic patterns, changing representations, returning to old representations, echoing distant orchestral arrangements embellished with playful percussion; we hear music-hall melodies vanish beneath percussive covers of jazz standards, the mixing of black and white influences, and finally the sounds of electric and electronic instruments. In the succession of pieces Peel chooses, what we hear is as much a history of the phonograph and of the recording industry as it is a strictly musical history.


the baritone George Alexander, a Baltimore native, singing ‘I Want What I Want


We hear the evolution of broadcast media, but also changes in the expression of subjectivity, its relation to authority and marginality, masculinity and femininity,

A rchipelagos

contemplation and dance, and also the evolution of genres, the shift of rhythmic accents, the transformation of pop’s instrumentarium. These works are not just indications of the technological transformations that marked the century or symptoms of cultural evolution, or even sonic illustrations of this or that musical possibility: they speak to each another, one interacting with or opposing the other, reconnecting via their sonic and expressive biases and shared visions of the world, within which we can detect Peel’s own taste. Systematic but not exhaustive, the veteran DJ’s selection materialises a cross-section of aesthetic history, but what is more, it also materialises an aesthetic. From Vesta Victoria to Robert Wyatt, Peel opts for an aesthetic history of the marginal, from the music hall excluded from polite society to the rock songs of rebellious youth and reckless experiments indifferent to the radiophonic constraints of the mainstream. In this story, a particular aesthetic subject illuminates the object in question, which then in turn yields a description of that subject. Ultimately, listening to Peel’s selection, we hear more than a subjective history of popular music, we hear a historicised aesthetic, a line of taste that passes through every historical stage of pop, even as it arranges itself according to the most ‘neutral’ structure possible, proceeding year by year. And yet, at the time, Peel’s egalitarian division (four songs per year) did not seem an entirely equitable approach given the traditional narrative of the history of rock, which would for example grant far more space to productions from the years 1956, 1967, and 1977.

ARCHIPELAGOS In the late 1990s, this egalitarianism reflected a suspicion of the grand narratives of the history of rock that would become characteristic of the 2000s. These narratives have constantly insisted on hypostasising as decisive steps in the progress of music certain moments when ‘everything changed.’ Faced with a modernism suspected of extreme partiality, Peel’s approach was a subjectivism tempered by encyclopaedic knowledge. And this knowledge was above all an opportunity to tell another story of the musical art of pop, a history reflective of contemporary consciousness, with its acute awareness of hidden treasures of recorded popular music productions that have thus far languished in total

obscurity or indifference. In this alternative, more flexible narrative, the unquan-


tifiable diversity of works is captured in the form of archipelagos, small islands from video to video.121 Given time, recordings of popular music take a kind of revenge on the momentary popularity of hits and on pop’s official history.

EPIPHANIES This approach allows us to entirely dismantle the framework of a linear history, to the point of breaking with the very idea of genealogies. We can admit, as Greil Marcus writes, that what really ‘changes everything’ is [t]he moment when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, of discovery, that is worth listening for. It’s that moment when a song or a performance is its own manifesto, issuing its own demands on life in its own, new language […] grasped by any number of people who will swear they never heard anything like it before.122

In other words, just a handful of songs suffice to give us the meaning of this history of ever-renewed epiphanies. Marcus considers that the list of ‘greatest hits’ could be composed exclusively of recordings published on the Sun label in Memphis in the 1950s, or recordings by female punk bands of the 1990s. From this perspective, there is no reason to be responsible to chronology, to account for all innovators, to follow the supposed progression of the form. The Maytals’ ‘Funky Kingston’ is not a step forward from the Drifters ‘Money Honey’ or OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya’ a step forward from ‘Funky Kingston’: They are the rediscoveries of a certain spirit, a leap into style, a step out of time.123 121. In 2017 the reissue by Palto Flats and We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want Records of Through The Looking Glass, the 1983 ambient album by Japanese percussionist Midori Takada, was in part made possible by its fortuitous rediscovery thanks to the ‘YouTube Mix’ and its ‘recommendations’ model guiding listeners to videos selected according to their preferences. See M. Pepperell, ‘How YouTube Autoplay Gave a Lost Japanese Classic New Life’, Dazed Digital, April 2017: . 122. G. Marcus, The History of Rock‘n’Roll in 10 Songs (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 11. 123. Ibid., 12.

E piphanies

of which can occasionally be discovered with the help of YouTube’s navigation

IV. RETURN OF THE NEGATIVE ration of archipelagos, and Greil Marcus’s vision of history as epiphany—have their limits when it comes to thinking about how the history of pop itself is produced and transformed. In the end, both are the reports of listeners, enthusiasts, and historians made partly in hindsight, without an active engagement in the dynamics and contradictions through which the works were pitted against each other, and not merely placed alongside one other. In truth, there is a certain power lacking in the pacified retrospective gaze, a power which the modernist at least has the merit of stubbornly taking into account. What is lacking is the power of the negative. Here we understand the negative in the sense of that which works against the given, but always on the basis of the given. We have already said that pop has a certain self-relation, that it consciously—albeit partially, even confusedly— relates to its own works and to its own history. This relation is the key to negativity. Hegel defines consciousness as an experience of inadequacy, of a division that is instantaneously brought about when the relation of consciousness to itself breaks the unity of immediacy. Once pop begins to refer to itself, it produces negativity in the disparity between what it could be and what it knows itself to be. In a certain sense, the modernist paradigm of the avant-garde is the first expression—a fundamental expression—of this negativity. It is the negation of an established aesthetic norm by virtue of a new song’s singular objection to it. But the avant-garde is not just the epiphany of the new; it works against a given heritage and, still more explicitly, against its domination, its imposition; in the kingdom of pop, this given is the mainstream.

INADEQUATIONS It’s true that one can never be entirely sure whether to concede to modernism that a work can be absolutely new, unprecedented, and can represent ‘progress’. But we can at least recognise the negativity that is at work every time an artist states what they are breaking with, the norm they are tired of and want to smash with their works. And negativity, the aesthetic conflict resulting from this

R eturn of the N egative

Both of these models—the Peelennium model of charting history via the explo-



experience of the inadequacy of expression in the fixed codes one has inherited,


pop consciousness to what it is (in its most popular genres, its current hits) is

is at work throughout the history of pop. It arises every time the relation of conceived of as a relation of inadequacy. It arises whenever specific individuals protest against its apparent universality. As we have seen, the history of pop is broadly speaking a history of the extension of the field of representation by these groups of individuals or isolated individuals claiming their right to self-expression: blacks, women, homosexuals, poor but cultured students, marginals of all kinds, adolescents, singers with bizarre voices, autodidacts, etc. Precisely because pop is an art of expression, singularly shaped by the individual, it has given these individuals a chance to objectify their difference from the expressive codes that culture, memory, and certainly industrial standardisation always end up fixing in place. Every singular work presents an objection to the existing state of music. This objection may be weak in its intensity, it may be indicated by only the tiniest idiosyncratic difference, but its necessity lies only in its coming to understand what it is against. Remembering his youth, Bob Dylan remembers how he agonized about making a record, but I wouldn’t have wanted to make singles, 45s—the kind of songs they played on the radio. Folksingers, jazz artists and classical musicians made LPs, long-playing records with heaps of songs in the grooves—they forged identities and tipped the scales, gave more of the big picture. LPs were like the force of gravity […] I had no song in my repertoire for commercial radio anyway. Songs about debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children, Cadillacs that only got five miles to the gallon, floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the bottom of rivers weren’t for radiophiles. There was nothing easygoing about the folk songs I sang. They weren’t friendly or ripe with mellowness […] Not only that, my style was too erratic and hard to pigeonhole for the radio, and songs, to me, were more important than just light entertainment.124

Here we see a folk musician who wanted to be like the jazzmen, wanted to lay claim to an authenticity in music that the mainstream of the time had neutralised. 124. Dylan, Chronicles, vol. 1, 34.

By rejecting the vacuity of the hits of the time, Dylan crystallised the aesthetic


impulse of a counterculture that believed music should be serious and anti-comlate 1960s into infantile and regressive ‘bubblegum’ pop. This countercultural consciousness, in its separation from the pop mainstream, reinforces the concept of the ‘underground’, the spatial metaphor for this inadequacy, this negative. If the mainstream was the totality (at least apparently so), the underground emerged as the part that overflowed this totality, seeped beneath it, and undermined it. By the very fact of its existence, it manifests the untruth of the mainstream as a whole. And the entire anti-commercial movement in pop musical art up to the present day has invariably related itself to this site of inadequation. Similarly, the progressive impulse of Paco de Lucía’s flamenco in the 1970s can only be understood as an experience of the inadequacy of what was the ‘norm’ at the time—flamenco puro and the stubborn fixedness of (gypsy and literary) flamenco purists. As he confessed in 1971: Today flamenco is in a period of transition. There are one or two people who could do something. There is a lot of junk [camelo], lies, deception, within the domain of what is called flamenco puro. Gypsies are very good performers, they are real artists, but they create very little, because they are afraid of reality. They progress in terms of technique, but not in terms of inventiveness. The old guard—the patriarchs of flamenco—aren’t opening up any new paths. They don’t want to see the art evolve [no quieren que evolucione]. And the younger ones dare not contradict them. For forty years, that is to say from the time of Ramón Montoya, who was the forerunner of everything that is done on the guitar today, no advance has been made [no ha salido nadie]. We saw Sabicas and Mario Escudero, who perfected what Ramón Montoya wanted to do. They surpassed him in terms of technique, and perhaps in terms of sentimiento, but they did not give a new form to flamenco guitar.125

125. Interview with Paco de Lucía by José Luis Rubio, Triunfo, 1971.


mercial, before the inventive pop of the psychedelic period degenerated in the


The argument is here entirely modernist—Paco de Lucía sketches out a history

A M usic T hey Can ’ t Steal from us

finds abstractly brandished as an avant-garde principle; it is rather the reality of

of the material of flamenco guitar—although it is not ‘progress’ as such that one the music itself that makes one sense the inadequacy of sentimental flamenco to the impulses of musicians like himself or his friend, the cantaor Camarón de la Isla, aware of the aesthetic development of the popular music of the time in contemporary jazz and rock. Against a flamenco frozen in traditional music, they set out the terms of their authenticity: the demand that forms of expression must coincide with forms of life. Not only does Paco oppose the proponents of flamenco puro with a progressive ideal, he opposes them with his work and with his youth, just as Dylan, in his own culture, set his political awareness against the commercialised acts of the time. And in declaring this inadequacy, they implicitly declare the conditions of their authenticity. A year later, in 1972, Carole King would leave the Brill Building in New York, where she had composed the mainstream standards of the era, to release Tapestry, a disc that enshrines the 1970s figure of the independent singer-songwriter. Now an ‘aesthetics of intimacy’ is asserting itself as the negation of the depersonalised conditions of the division of labour in mainstream pop production. ‘You’ve had lots of lovely women / Now you turn your gaze to me / Weighing the beauty and the imperfection / To see if I’m worthy’, Joni Mitchell would sing in 1974 in ‘The Same Situation’: across a rich and labyrinthine output the singer and guitarist, unparalleled both as composer and as lyricist, creates over hundreds of songs the skein of a complex female subjectivity whose voice had hitherto been lacking.

A MUSIC THEY CAN’T STEAL FROM US Thirty years earlier, in jazz, bebop’s rebellion against the dominant swing of the day announced a strategy of negativity that Paco, also, would take advantage of: extreme complexity. ‘We’re going to create something they can’t steal, because they can’t play it’, Thelonious Monk reportedly said.126 Meeting for afternoon jam sessions during 1941 and 1942, Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, along with other keenly innovative and 126. According to Mary Lou Williams, Écoutez-moi ça [1956], ed. N. Hentoff and N. Shapiro (Paris: Buchet/Chastel, 2015), 346.

original musicians, invented harmonic progressions that defied the expectations


of swing standards and even the hot jazz which at the time was celebrated for Gillespie said, of discouraging undesirables, ‘those who aren’t up to scratch’.127 The use of unusual intervals such as the diminished fifth, the proliferation of chord substitutions, the use of very fast tempos with the beat kept not on the bass drum but on the cymbals, contrary to the practice at the time, the use of passage chords: all of these compositional shifts required an instrumental virtuosity which made bebop a project capable of fulfilling the condition of modernism as defined by Clement Greenberg, namely ‘the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence’.128 Jazz not only explored existing musical possibilities, it also realised its own by undoing the straitjacket of the standard and the fixed codes of improvisation. In the history of the musical art of pop and its highly polemical relation with popularity, notoriously difficult musics (whether compositionally or, more directly, acoustically complex, as in the case of the most aggressive noise music) constitute a decisive counterhistory in which the pleasure of listening can only be articulated dialectically.129 The gap between such difficult musics—which persist more or 127. See E. Gonzalez, ‘Le Jazz: Modernité, Modernisme, Identité’, Revue française d”études americains 5 (2001) 84–96, . See also by the same author ‘The Name and Nature of Modernism’, in M. Bradbury and J. McFarlane (eds.), Modernism: 1890–1930 (London: Penguin, 1976), 19–55, particularly 27–8. 128. C. Greenberg, ‘Modernist Painting’, in F. Frascina and C. Harrison (eds.), Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology (London: Sage, 1982), 5. 129. A critical article by Olivier Lamm about the Stockholm producer Peder Mannerfelt (a ‘producer of a kind of faulty techno’ with a ‘post-industrial groove taken down to the bone’, ‘tarry materials’ and ‘threatening drones’) revealed this potential for a dialectic between difficulty and listening pleasure. After a reader of the website protested against the elitist aesthetic viewpoint taken by the publication, the author argued for the ‘bounteous, wholehearted, if somewhat complicated happiness’ that can be had through ‘extended listening to this kind of object, all the more beautiful and exciting for the sense that it blossoms in its reactivity’. ‘Without invoking the theories of Hermann von Helmholtz on the physiological happiness of dissonance, the Burkean sublime or the ruins cherished by the English Romantics’, Olivier Lamm finally defends an aesthetic of mediated pleasure, arguing that ‘pleasures achieved too simple and too quickly have an unfortunate tendency to quickly melt away in the mouth’. Le Drone, 11 March 2014, . On the tension between intellectualisation and the temptation of consternation, see A. Gayraud, ‘Dans le marécage postmoderne. L’exemple du vidéozine The Drone’, in T. Picard (ed.), La Critique musicale au XXe siècle (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, forthcoming).

A M usic T hey Can ’ t Steal from us

its authenticity. Intentionally complex, these progressions had the advantage, as


less in maintaining an at least polemical relationship with the aesthetic stakes of the popular musical art—and facile and fashionable song can only be gauged

R evivalism

in terms of this negativity. But complexity and difficulty do not have sole rights to negativity. Negation, in the sense of determinate negation, can bear upon any of the aesthetic dimensions of the musical art of pop. In terms of complexity, punk—although it can be understood as an acoustically difficult music because of its commitment to noise—set itself up in opposition to the technicality of progressive rock, yet critics had no difficulty in recognising it as a manifestation of modernist radicalism. In a sense, the punk claim to instrumental incompetence and polemical stupidity as a deliberate stance still serves ‘to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence’ as outlined in the modernism of Greenberg. For what is at stake here is still the project set out in the phrase attributed to Thelonious Monk: to create ‘a music they can’t steal’. Ultimately it is those that voluntarily exile themselves from the ‘reconciled’ (neutralised) music of the mainstream, turning the exclusion they’ve experienced into a polemical relation, a negation, who shape the history of the musical art of pop. It is they who invent the aristocratic postures of the most democratic art ever invented. But in so far as it is a question of negativity, it would be incorrect to try to understand them independently of this neutralised mainstream. One often hears talk of a genre being corrupted when some avant-garde pop spontaneity is absorbed into the mainstream, as if a pure version of pop existed before it was recuperated, but we could just as well defend the opposite view. The mainstream announces a positivity from which all those who find it unsatisfying then exclude themselves. The form is obtained by deforming the format, and innovation itself depends upon the authoritarian clichés it will denounce.

REVIVALISM Alongside the advocacy of complexity or of the greatest carelessness, revivalist nostalgia presents another figure of the aesthetic consciousness’s registration of inadequacy. The modernist mistake is to believe that the negative has only one direction: that of the future, of innovation at all costs. But it may just as well, against present norms, be expressed as a fidelity to origins, to past aesthetic codes that should

be restored. In the history of pop, the impulse to revival also operates as a deter-


minate negation. It can even be said to be a major figure of negativity operating While Modernism was like a kind of a mad rush forward, the art of popular music is constantly driven by a contrary impulse, a hope of returning to the origin, as a place of lost authenticity where culture, if it could somehow make it back, would finally be at peace, reconciled.130 It was by invoking a return to certain roots that punk declared itself an enemy of what rock had become. At the very end of the 1960s, Lester Bangs, who anticipated this in The Stooges, wrote: The only hope for a free rock‘n’roll renaissance which would be true to the original form, rescue us from all this ill-conceived dilettantish pap so far removed from the soil of jive, and leave some hope for truly adventurous small-guitargroup experiments in the future, would be if all those ignorant teenage dudes out there learning guitar […] pick up on nothing but roots and noise and the possibilities inherent in approaching the guitar fresh in the age of multiple amp distorting switches.131

The phrase ‘roots and noise’ here captures all the ambiguity of the relation between revivalism and modernism that is played out across the history of pop. An attempt to reconnect with an age anterior to rock‘n’roll, just as 1920s country reconnected with old-time music, does not amount to a denial of the historicity of pop. Revival is not the obliteration of the historicity of this art; on the contrary, it confirms that historicity.132 It proceeds precisely from a judgement relating to the development of this history, a critique of the present in favour of a previous model. Contrary to Adorno’s claim that pop is trapped within a cyclical logic of the eternal return of the same, revivals are not proof of the ahistoricity of pop but of its historicity. In its very nostalgia, the revival takes note of the successive layers of consciousness, of the individual and collective experiences that envelop each of the aesthetic events that matter in the story. This is why the folk revival of the 1920s is different to the revival of the 1940s, different to 130. See Part 2, Chapter 1, ‘The Hillbilly Paradox’, above. 131. Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, 43. 132. On revival see my contribution to Goodman, Heys, and Ikoniadou (eds.), Audint— Unsound:Undead, ‘Revivalism’, 153–5.

R evivalism

as a constant aesthetic counterweight to the modernist credo of ‘progress’.


that of the 1960s around Greenwich Village in New York and Dylan, and different again in the late 1990s (anti-folk), even although all refer to certain common

R evivalism

original models. Indeed—and this one of the most common experiences in terms of individual psychology—what has happened once cannot be repeated identically, but always returns modified, altered by our consciousness that it is past even as we repeat it. Similarly, whenever a movement invokes the original blues, it does so after all of those who have invoked it before. And this after makes a difference, not in terms of its musicological or even acoustic qualities, but in terms of the relation that a nostalgic consciousness can have to it. When Dexy’s Midnight Runners, in 1980, titled their album Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, with all the honesty of sincere young fans of the soul music of the 1960s, their nostalgia did not return their record to the past, but presented itself as an inheritance from a past they look back to but to which they cannot return. And the tragic nature of this impossibility, which is at least partly responsible for the beauty of the gesture, also plays a part in constituting its novelty. If we were to imagine a spatial image of this nostalgic historicity, we might say that it produces a helix each turn of which is superimposed in time, with the effect of each turn being superimposed upon the last.133 Even when it returns to its past, pop consciousness does not regress along a linear timeline. Return to a musical origin is never a return to the same source, but to an origin mediated by all those occasions on which this consciousness—even if it is only an individual consciousness—has already returned.

133. In geometry, the so-called ‘circular’ helix is a curve whose tangent at each point makes a constant angle with a given direction. The projection of a circular helix onto a plane orthogonal to its direction is a circle. On a plane parallel to the direction of travel, it is projected as a sinusoid. If we represent the movement of consciousness as following the structure of a helix, the spirals that succeed one another like so many returns of consciousness, or recollections, come, over time, to be superimposed on the initial endpoints (on a two-dimensional plane, the abscissas do not change, the ordinates do) while ineluctably moving away from the initial ordinates. Although the movement of revival is cyclically renewed at the abscissa defined by the original starting point, the new path that it generates necessarily modifies the initial ordinate, and it is within the circle newly defined each time that the aesthetic stakes of the musical art of pop during a given epoch, in its cultural present, are inscribed, in the last open circle superimposed on the superposition of the open circles of previous spirals. The dynamics of the revival does not deny that a story is unfolding, nor does it reduce it to a regression on the timeline or a simple cycle: rather, it produces a helical figure.



The historical consciousness of pop, today more than ever, is hypermnesic. available online in a more or less anarchic fashion; accessible external memory is gradually emerging as an inheritance the scope of which exceeds the capacities of any single listener. Whatever their culture or knowledge, no listener can listen to everything, but neither can they ignore what has already been done, and that everything that has already been created can now be recalled more or less instantly and compared to their own work. Now that a vast mass of recorded pop is available in a few clicks, it is easy to call upon this externalised memory to obviate the shortcomings of individual recollection. One can instantly check the way a riff sounded in 1960 and how it sounds today. So much so that it is easier to be convinced of an authentic archaic version of the Song of the Sybil134 or to backdate an atonal composition of the Renaissance by making it pass for serialism—to take just two examples of recent historical forgeries—than to convince oneself of the innocence of a new pop group who, fifty years on, sport sixties-style gear and Beatles haircuts. Now, the more this hypermnesia imposes itself, sacrificing the virtues of forgetfulness that have always permitted rediscovery and therefore novelty itself within pop, the more the loss of innocence is consummated: a tragic admission for an art so bound up with the liberating promise of spontaneity. Inversely, we have internalised the story that the vitality of pop creation was never greater than when the experience of war separated the generations: European pop groups were the children of parents who had experienced war, deprivation, and rationing. It was not that a considerable archive of music played on the radio and recorded on discs hadn’t already been accumulated by popular musical art by that time. But precisely because war had overshadowed the seminal figures, blues or folk could subsequently be rediscovered and recuperated. Their revival consisted of bringing back into the contemporary world the unsuspected treasures of the past, which in their own time had appeared on the margins of culture. They broadened and transformed the scope of older marginal forms of expression. 134. On the reconstruction of the ‘old’ or even archaic in the history of art music, see J. Abed, ‘Le chant de la sibylle. “L’ancien” selon quelques contemporains (Jordi Savall, Maurice Ohana, Pascal Quignard’, Comparatismes 1, Traditions, modernité: un éternel retour? (February 2011), 181–95, .

H ypermnesia

Forgotten music is exhumed daily from the archives which are being made


In the hypermnesic context, on the other hand, revivals are weighed down by a

Loss of I nnocence

over the excitement of rediscovery. Hence Simon Reynolds has emphasised the

new feeling of culpability, in which the burden of the memory of the past prevails pathological figure of revivalism in the history of pop: ‘Retromania’, where the dialectic of nostalgia and innovation is sacrificed to an aesthetic that focuses exclusively on the already-acquired, the consumable because already-consumed—in short, familiarity; as if the rate of digestion of the history of accumulated pop was now too slow to even look at a new dish without gagging.

LOSS OF INNOCENCE The hypermnesic situation of popular musical art over the last fifteen years reinforces this feeling of disgust. But the feeling is related to an older obsession that is more structural to the dynamics of pop history. Really it is only the latest expression of an age-old sentiment of maladjustment, one much older than the reforming of 1980s rock groups during the 2000s: namely, the loss of innocence. When Lester Bangs appeals for a return to roots and noise, he imagines ‘ignorant teenage dudes’ playing ‘in hick towns and forming bands to play “96 Tears” and “Wooly Bully”135 at sock hops’, kids ‘evolving exposed to all electric trips’ but remaining ‘relatively fresh and free’ to rediscover the ‘raw expressiveness of rock‘n’roll’.136 It is against the ‘intellectual elite who could appreciate some arcane folksong’ and what he called the ‘folk/Sgt Pepper virus’ that he is writing—that is to say, against all those conscious representations of popular music which, at the end of 1960s, made it culturally legitimate. As seen in Nik Cohn’s writings from around the same time, critical consciousness had begun to express a regret for the ‘Awoopbopaloobop Alopbamboom’ of the original intensity of an art practiced by young people so physically overwhelmed by the expressive truth of this ‘new’ music that they did not need to reflect on its conditions or claim to deepen its form. Cohn writes: It was a great time—every month would produce someone new, someone wilder than anything that had gone before. Pop was barren territory and everything was 135. Songs respectively by Question Mark and the Mysterians from 1966 and by Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs from 1965, paragons of light and melodic popular rock‘n’roll, played with exoticism while remaining typically American and above all free of intellectual pretension. 136. Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, 43.

simple, every tiny gimmick was some kind of progression. Around 1960, things


evened out and much of excitement died out. Pop had become more sophistiwas just pop, when it was really something to switch on the radio and hear what was new right that minute. Things could never be so good and simple again.137

Faced with this loss of innocence, critics have always preferred to declare the death of rock—the most absolutist and dramatically negative scenario—than to think through what is at stake in its passage to adulthood. For adulthood is symbolic death: ‘“I hope I die before I get old”, that was the stuff’.138 As if the intimate bond between the aesthetic experience of pop and individual biography needed further confirmation, the historical age of pop innocence invariably coincides with the childhood of the person proclaiming it. The rock critics that emerged in the late 1960s project the golden age back to the first moments of rock‘n’roll in the early 1950s, while for authors in their fifties in the 2010s, it is the late 1970s, with punk or glam rock (and the first appearances of Marc Bolan on the television show Top of the Pops)139 that are paradise lost. This realisation introduces a significant dose of contingency into all pronouncements on the death of pop, as generations succeed one other and innocence, it seems, always gets another chance, subjectively crystallised into particular moments of history. Whatever else, the diagnosis of the loss of innocence always reinforces the privilege of individual biographical experience in aesthetic history. It legitimates reevaluations in which the most scorned is suddenly turned upsidedown to become the very height of taste: from metal to disco through exotica lounge and prog rock, from ABBA (paragon of the inauthentic mainstream for rock critics of the 1970s) to Eurodance, there is nothing that the nostalgia of the fan can’t reevaluate in the cause of lost innocence. Thus a hip musician can take pride in his taste for old-fashioned 1970s French varieté, reevaluating it for its style and