Tag Archives: Music


Recently at a gallery, a lauded music critic was asked about operating in her newly acquired position at a media conglomerate. The questioner was specifically curious if she felt an increased difficulty in covering “more authentic bands,” given her new environment.

“Ha!,” the music critic laughed. She continued, saying something like, “As if only bands are authentic. That leaves out so many other musicians. Many male music critics are only interested in the production qualities of music. Because of that, we don’t have any working in our office.” The room applauded.

The ground of the music critic’s denunciation of a search for authenticity also betrays concurrent devotion to the concept at a different register, namely that certain people appear more authentic than others. The horizon of the music critic’s judgement, shared by most, has been narrowed to a pinpoint. The death of any viable Left reduces politics to psychological struggle and moral posturing, neither of which could overcome the crisis of society. That identity politics today is neoliberal can be seen in the way that the music critic’s department now toes the party line as it covers the presidential election campaigns.

The music critic’s victory in a small fraction of a conglomerate’s hiring demographics may have anemic merit, but her acceptance of the job is a liquidation of any “punk” laurels that might have adhered to her. The cruel truth, however, is that the music critic was never an outsider to the all-consuming industry that accounts for even the hermetic hobbyist. Her participation is a symptom of the streamlined integration demanded by mass society.

The Function of the Ukelele Today

Although I like the sound of ukeleles in songs, it’s worth mentioning that I think their function today is that of a unique mediator between musician and expression. The ukelele allows the musician to make sounds, but with the protective assurance that the audience knows he doesn’t really mean it. The ukelele’s diminutive shape and range comforts any anxiety of being confronted by any onlookers.

Of course the exposition of the subject’s Inner life is not new, and goes back to Romanticism. Today, however, even that expressive gesture—the fallback of the subject in the face of the world—is under scrutiny by its very participants. Anyone who is sincere is met with smirks. “It’s all been tried by now,” they say. Self-expression as the primary function of art is itself symptomatic of regression in the moment of its birth. That even self-expression is mocked is further proof for the argument that there are no vital forces remaining that strive for human freedom. We are resigned to our lives, and feel anger for what sincerity reminds us of: the unrealized potential of our time.

In “Experience and Poverty,” Walter Benjamin writes on the exhaustion people feel after expending so much effort that still has not realized such potential:

Poverty of experience. This should not be understood to mean that people are yearning for new experience. No, they long to free themselves from experience; they long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty—their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty—that it will lead to something respectable. Nor are they ignorant or inexperienced. Often we could say the very opposite. They have ‘devoured’ everything, both ‘culture and people,’ and they have had such a surfeit that it has exhausted them. No one feels more caught out than they by Scheerbart’s words: ‘You are all so tired, just because you have failed to concentrate your thoughts on a simple but ambitious plan.’ Tiredness is followed by sleep, and then it is not uncommon for a dream to make up for the sadness and discouragement of the day—a dream that shows us in its realized form the simple but magnificent existence for which the energy is lacking in reality (734).

Rod Stewart on the Radio

Driving to the library today, I heard Rod Stewart’s song “Maggie May” on the radio, turning it on right as he sang, “Maggie, I wish I’d never seen your face.” it’s probably just a coincidence, but it reminded me so much of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Mag”, which I wrote about recently. It’d be nice to live in a world where pop stars regularly make allusions to the poetry of socialists, with the audience actually understanding it.

Premature Promises

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942)

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942)

Piet Mondrian’s painting, like the genre he alludes to, makes a promise of happiness grown out of his forms that it can’t keep—at least not yet. Gestures dancing around form give only a glimpse of what might be possible beyond the borders of the work, even though they themselves don’t know that the boundary they walk is still subsumed under an unfree world.

Even our reactions to the art are false, and we know it. Who hasn’t felt like a fool standing before a painting, or shaking on a crowded dance floor? My question is not meant to embarrass the viewer, listener, or dancer. In the social situation of art in different forms, one finds a peculiar distance between how one feels and how one wants to feel. The viewer is alienated from his own thoughts—from himself.

Taking Pop Music Seriously

What should we think about the popularity of Ke$ha’s song “Die Young,” which gives the hortatory suggestion, “Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young”—a thought emphasized by the repetition in the chorus, “We’re gonna die young”?

The song describes a utopian moment, but one based on impending death. We sympathize with the song, given our situation, and are happy for a moment’s peace of mind, even if it is due to an acceptance of an unfree life. The cause of this malaise is the natural state of things, we are informed. We simply are going to die. There is no window not opaque through which we might understand the social situation, and we take comfort in the act of renouncing attempts at comprehension.

Music and Abstraction

Detail of album of Windy & Carl's The Dream House

Detail of album art of Windy & Carl’s The Dream House

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that perhaps one of the reasons I like Windy and Carl’s album The Dream House (2005) is that one of the two great tracks on the album is named “The Eternal Struggle”. The title and the track itself open up a space of contemplation, and I often end up thinking about humanity—the constant struggle of chasing utopia, and how we’ve failed over the past 200 years with the rise of capitalism. Yes, utopia is always unreachable, but it must also always be our goal. As Leszek Kolakowski writes in “The Concept of the Left”, “Utopia is the striving for changes which ‘realistically’ cannot be brought about by immediate action, which lie beyond the forseeable future and defy planning. Still, utopia is a tool of action upon reality and of planning social activity” (147). That sense of remembering the project of utopian longing that has lasted for as long as humanity is sometimes difficult to remember. But when you read something like Walt Whitman’s poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” it comes back to you, and you are able to experience history beyond the reaches of your own lifespan:

The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated,
every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme, /
The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not, /
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so
many generations hence, /
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt (7-8, 20-22).

I might as well talk about the other track on the album, which is “I Have Been Waiting to Hear Your Voice”. Although the title points to a more personal emotion, I argue that it too provides a statement of love that is a form of abstraction of life: given the bombardment of daily personal experience, the simple act of awaiting was always remembered and maintained by the speaker. This one practice persevered. It was able to transcend all other distractions and remain an important part of the speaker’s life.

It seems that this practice of maintaining an abstract focus on life is important. Isn’t this an example of resisting ideology? To put it differently, isn’t it important to maintain the ability to see through the everyday forces of ideology? Off the top of my head, one way of saying it might be, Missing the point to see the point. Or, rather, missing the point in order to see the preconditions for the point. To put it in a broader sense of history, isn’t this what Slavoj Žižek is always talking about when he criticizes the idea that we’ve now reached the end of history, that all that’s left is to act and to live our lives? In a recent interview, concerning another aspect of this anti-intellectualism, Žižek states,

I think the danger today is precisely a kind of a bland pragmatic activism. You know, when people tell you, “Oh my God, children in Africa are starving, and you have time for your stupid philosophical debates. Let’s do something!” I always hear in this call (“There are people starving there. Let’s do something”), I always discern in this a more ominous injunction: “Do it, and don’t think much!” Today we need thinking.

There’s a reason I like science fiction. Its ability to defamiliarize everyday human existence can push the reader into the realm of this historical abstraction. I really am sounding sentimental right now, but I truly feel a sense of wonder sometimes when approaching the study of history in this more abstract sense.

A few years ago I read Archibald Macleish’s poem “Ars Poetica”, and one line in particular has stuck with me: “For all the history of grief / An empty doorway and a maple leaf.” Now, before I’m accused of wishing to naïvely reject the preconditions of our contemporary moment in order to start a pagan commune, I just want to point out that one could read the line as a call to reject the act of resignation in the face of the overwhelming pressure of history weighing upon our time. To accept the contemporary conditions openly is the position of the Right, but to strive to change towards utopia based on theoretical practices conscious of their place in history is the position of the Left.

Detail of album art of Fennesz's Endless Summer (2001, reissued by Touch Music in 2006)

Detail of album art of Fennesz’s Endless Summer (2001, reissued by Touch Music in 2006)

Another quick example of abstraction in contemporary music might be Christian Fennesz’s album Endless Summer (2001)—a love letter to the film of the same name documenting surf culture in the 1960s, along with the Beach Boys’s compilation album which came out a couple years later. Fennesz’s work here is highly abstracted, glitched guitar playing among other things, leading to a shining layered work that sounds very little like a pop song of that era, while at the same time sounding like the feeling of listening to songs from that era. Or better yet: his album sounds like experiencing summer.