Thursday, July 24, 2008


What does it mean for Tricky to say, "Remember, boy, you're a superstar," in the age of Guitar Hero?

The other day, I was knee-deep in another diatribe about the dire state of music, how progress has been replaced with pastiche and rehash, and I demanded some manner of explanation from my friend. He pointed to the decline of the recording industry - which isn't to say he's pining for the days of mafioso maneuvering and the artist-as-indentured-servant. The Big Four's throne is eroding not because people can get music for free, but because people don't really need music any more.

As a collectively-accessible storehouse/exhalation of lust, fear, anger, joy, desire, excess, lack, whatever: pop isn't insufficient, it simply isn't needed. The quest for communion over shared aesthetic tastes, the osmosis of the zietgeist over the airwaves, and (most importantly) the unrequited idolatry of pervert rock stars... This is all archaic in the age of MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and Guitar Hero. As encouraged and enacted by the parade of role-playing mediocrity on American Idol and its bottom-feeding spawn, the brave new wired world is less an information superhighway than a panoptical full-length mirror. Everyone can be the star of their own ipsocentric universe, smiling for the cameraphone, applauding their vlogged views as both pundit and audience, investing pale karaoke pageantry with the same vigor once reserved for the original object or event.

Perhaps contemporary pop's greatest mistake is its relentless effort both to mystify and demystify. Some artists, like Daft Punk or Animal Collective, concertedly create a folklore out of cosmic debris; others, like Kanye West or Bradford Cox, "just wanna be real as much as possible" and are exhaustively confessional, barely stopping short of blogging their bowel-movements. Yet there's an undeniable sense in Animal Collective and Cox being good friends: "Keeping It Real"-style demystification is simply "brutilitarian" antiglam, which itself is a form of mystification. Whatever the method's style, the end result is that the persona surpasses the music as the artist's essential product. Every action or utterance by an artist is an expression of a marketing campaign for themselves, not their art.

The more specifically tailored and ornately detailed an artist's identity becomes, the less empty space there is in which the audience can resonate with the artist. The most enduring & indelible legends of pop are such because of their ambiguity. How deep were Led Zeppelin's dalliances with black magic and mudsharks? What was Kevin Shields thinking during the three years it took to make Loveless? Who knows? Which is exactly the point: in those blank margins, the listener can articulate their relationship to the artist. These days, every artist write-up is so heavily footnoted (often so referential because they have nothing new to say) that the page is already full, no room to respond or reflect.

Writing nine years ago, Zizek already identified cyperspace's founding myth - the promise of a Global Village - as just that: a myth.
...What effectively happens is that we are bombarded with the multitude of messages belonging to inconsistent and incompatible universes — instead of the Global Village, the big Other, we get the multitude of "small others," of tribal particular identifications at our choice.
Individuals create ever-more elaborate online shrines to themselves, while filtering content to whatever crumbs do not clash with their constructions. These "small others" simultaneously proliferate and shrink in their specific scope, chipping away any intuitive sense of community until understanding is so rare that it appears more conspiracy than compassion. More and more of the rest of the world necessarily appears psychotic to any one person.

This is not a new point: Mark K-Punk has written probingly about modern youth's possession by depressive-compulsive hedonism, a desperate pleasure-hunt to fill their unnameable emptiness that leads to the hollow make-believe of MyFace, Rock Band 2, and the like. (Mark has dubbed these electronic IVs of fantasy "The OediPod," one of the better buzzwords I've heard since "-izzle" became a suffix.) There is also something larger at work. Rather than a simple swap of EMI for iTunes or Sony/BMG for Google, the sacrifice of the music industry to the ascendence of Web 2.0 marks a behemoth victory for capital. As the internet can amplify negligible differences into flamewar-worthy impasses, the Global Village has managed to divide and conquer itself, placing greater emphasis on bitchy bulletin-board retorts than building a progressive consensus. Capital is being fed by our infighting. What remains to be seen is if the Captains of Industry will score the truly horrifying hat-trick of resurrecting the old media industry while tightening its chokehold on the new one.

So how does Mr. Adrian Thaws figure into all this? I recall an interview on Canada's MuchMusic around the time of Angels With Dirty Faces (named after the classic Cagney mobster movie), wherein Tricky was queried about "urban" music's fascination with the antisocial & criminal element. I'm paraphrasing through the cobwebs of a decade-old memory, but he said (more or less):
Growing up in the ghetto, the only people who got out of the ghetto were gangsters and drug dealers. So those were my heroes growing up.
Aside from explaining the now for-granted characteristics of "ghetto" culture (paranoia from being constantly surveiled by police, the romanticising of strongmen, etc.), this speaks volumes about the types who would succeed according to the rules of capital. Also, amid the ruckus over Knowle West Boy, The End Times reminded himself (and us) of Tricky's role as class antagonist during a lengthy rumination on the socioeconomic tension he (Dan) endures as a bookstore wage-slave. Evidently, a hefty psychic tax has been exacted upon him by
the middle-class-and-over customers... [who] never once tak[e] pity on a face prematurely aged by harassment, as all working-class faces seem to be, but feel that they have to treat you like a piece of shit, and that you should be thankful for the privilege of even speaking to them.
I sympathise. My wife spent quite some time in the same gig, and my incumbency as a record store clerk forms the bulk of my CV. (My professional history gets no more glamourous either, with one fleeting exception from which I was ultimately sacked.) But before I raise my fist in solidarity with service industry drones everywhere, let's be clear about one thing: working in a bookstore is considerably different than working in a Chinese coal mine, Alberta oil rig, north Atlantic fishing trawler, Vietnamese sweatshop, or African diamond mine. Across the spectrum of employment, working retail ranks as pretty damned easy, comfortable, and safe - sufficiently so that I hesitate to designate it blue-collar.

Nonetheless, anyone who's ever worked in the service industry would affirm the presence of a seemingly inherent antagonism between the customers and the staff. The political persuasion of the antognism, however, is elusive. Retail work seems to be a Rorschach test for this fundamental antagonism's ideological framework: it can be racial, a Nietzschean upstairs/downstairs dynamic, the classic religious condescension which endorses the wealth of faith alone, or (in Dan's Case) black-and-white Marxian class struggle. Though the antagonism's nature is not given, its presence is - in every exchange, eye-roll, request, sneer, smile, and sale.

Since the predominant context of human interaction is within the work environment, the political vagueness of the interaction allows any ideology to be adopted as a basically-true filter through which to view all interaction. Of course, to adopt an ideology immediately disavows its exceptions, only hardening our opposition from the Other while doing the individual no justice. As Carl Jung put it more concisely than I can, "While reflecting an indisputable aspect of reality, it can falsify the actual truth in a most misleading way." More useful references for the antagonistic dynamic might be the Stanford prison experiment or the Milgram experiment, in terms of the persecutive nature of demands by authority. Again, this is not to dramatise the service industry as the frontlines of an epic battle for humanity's soul. But to frame the antagonism psychologically makes it a human problem, as opposed to a product of the necessarily dehumanising will to power of capital.

Does this complicate the issue? Almost certainly - but then, when has getting along with people ever been easy?

On another front of the class war: Ladies and gentlemen and fair folk in between... In a discovery that will be rivalled only by the eventual detection of the Higgs Boson, I have stumbled upon the single most pretentious and precious band name ever: To Kill A Petty Bourgeoisie. No, I'm not fucking around. They are beyond parody, people. A coed duo dressed all Derelicte, doing a digi-glitchy update on 4AD's glacial, gothy art-rock with the (somewhat tone-deaf) lady cooing into cavernous reverb, complete with a David Lynchian video whose self-important vapidity means it blows its load only a third of the way through the interminable seven-goddamn-minute runtime. The music crosses from tastefully minimalist to totally blank, from emotional coldness to zombiefied void - probably to avoid the embarrassment risked in articulating a position.

I mean, look at 'em - is that 100% class warrior or what? The only thing saving this band from being a pitch(fork)-perfect Brooklyn Vegan Spinal Tap is that they live in Minneapolis instead of Bed-Stuy.

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