…on musical genres
Some reflections by TR
This is a slightly re-written text (re-written with the approval of the author) originally sent as a long email, hence the often chatty style and personal form of address. It’s interesting and original, but there are some minor nuances that seemed worth critiquing. So the minor differences I have with it, after some reflections by a friend, follow this text. Plus afterwards there are a few quotes from other texts.
“The product of this method of labeling everything in heaven and earth, all natural and spiritual forms, with a few determinations of the general schema, and thus pigeonholing everything, is nothing less than a sun-clear report on the organism of the universe – namely a tabulation that is like a skeleton with little pieces of paper stuck all over it, or like the rows of closed, labeled jars in a spicer’s stall. While it is as explicit as both of these, it is like them in other ways too: here, flesh and blood are removed from the bones; there, the also not living essence of the matter is concealed in jars; and in the report, the living essence of the matter is left out.”
– Hegel, “Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit”
“Men with ‘pigeon-hole’ minds are not infrequent. Their diverse standards and methods of judgement for scientific, religious, political matter testify to isolated compartmental habits of action. Character that is unable to undergo successfully the strain of thought and effort required to bring competing tendencies into a unity, builds up barriers between different systems of likes and dislikes. The emotional stress incident to conflict is avoided not by readjustment but by effort at confinement. […] Such persons are successful in keeping different ways of reacting apart from one another in consciousness rather than in action. Their character is marked by stigmata resulting from this division”
– John Dewey, “Human Nature and Conduct”
What does this have to do with music? “Pigeonholing”. The way I see it, when the musicians I listen to took the first steps in making their music, they simply made music, not punk, grunge or indie, not even folk (just to make it clear, since you’ve already written in length about the commercialization of music in your Musical Notes: I’m talking here about the “pure” process of making music – when one doesn’t think about how he will “sell” his music, about musicians who don’t subdue themselves to the logic of the economy, or at least during the period before they even have the chance of making their music commercialized). Those boxes that ‘music critics’ and other people in the media and music-industry later put music into are for most of the time not a reality for the actual artist/group when they have that artistic intuition and write songs, or when they just play around and improvise until something really good comes out, they just don’t exist. It is similar in a way, at least in the way I see it, to how decades of unilateral “communication” of the spectacle and its media made the majority of people identify “communist” ideas or theory with a Communist (with a capital C) ideology of the Bolshevik kind. Do you catch my drift? Maybe it’s a bit out there.
Well, In the above-mentioned and otherwise insignificant TV-report they ask the organizer the usual question (which doesn’t really mean anything and doesn’t aim at meaning anything): “So, is punk dead?” the guy answers of course: “No, punk’s not dead”. If you ask me, punk-rock as a living artistic movement or tendency within popular music (and popular revolt) died the moment it was officially labeled, the moment it began to be regarded by the mass media and consequently by the punk-adherents themselves as a separate and fixed “thing”. It is kind of equivalent to what you said in your South-Africa piece that “all revolutionary history shows the part played in the defeat of popular struggle by the appearance of an ideology advocating popular struggle.” When something becomes a thing it stops being a movement. In popular music it usually becomes a mere genre that plays its prescribed narrow role among other dead artistic pseudo-movements, a taste, purely aesthetical, unchanging, predictable. Or even – god forbid – a lifestyle. The contemporary punk and anarcho-punk scenes are using (a very poor and limited use that is) the results of a historical phenomenon of spontaneous creative rebellion, decomposed into a nonthreatening lifestyle rehashing dead artistic and political formulas, celebrating the results of an alienated culture instead of combating it – the artistic equivalent to their accompanying decomposed “radical” political scenes (identity-politics as a mask that hides the nature of class-relations and ones own alienated existence, for example). Anarchism died quite some time before punk, then it killed punk and made it into a zombie, which, unlike the zombies in horror films, is utterly nonthreatening to the prevailing order.
“Truths which are no longer interesting turn into lies.” – Isidor Isou
– “Would you say that you would risk your life for these ideals of anarchism?”
– “If I don’t think so I won’t [sic] be here today, to be honest.”
– From a media report about the anarcho-communist organization “Akhdut” (“Unity”) which was filmed during a May 1st protest-march in Tel Aviv in 2012. interestingly, the interview is conducted by a far-right religious-nationalist channel and the anarchists participated in it and later uploaded it to their Youtube channel without any critique whatsoever about the actual meaning of their participation in this specific mediatic false-communication or in obeying the rules of its general charade. It can be watched here:
“We shout publicity hand-outs
– Subway Sect
“A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep and do the effects of watching”
– Macbeth, act 5, scene 1
I find that the phenomena of pigeonholing as described above by Hegel and Dewey is nowadays a lot more devastating, in all areas. But let us focus on popular music. Throughout my life (I’m 32 now) I see how people refuse to listen to stuff or even develop the slightest curiosity in something if it does not “officially” fit or isn’t labeled according to their favorite musical “genre” or sub-genre (or in the case of politically-minded people such as Bolsheviks and many Anarchists and Libcomists – if the musician in question was not “officially” stamped as “radical” or as having “radical” inclinations). I know how it works – I was exactly like that for some time until I grew out of it. This attitude treats music is as if it is merely an artistic sector in the division of labor and the producer/musician can only do his narrowly assigned job in the production line. In other words, I feel that the dialectics of musical creation are being eradicated in the minds of increasingly more and more people. It is becoming more and more reified: music is on its way to become a “thing” that one consumes, nothing more. Culture-candies for passive consumption. In conversations, instead of asking one-another “oh, what emotions does his music generate? How does it sound? What is the significance of it to you right now? How does it correspond to moments in your daily life, to your desires, to your endless nights or sweet delights? What kind of atmosphere does it create? How does it correspond to other musicians/musical movements/artists/writers/books?”, they now ask “Oh, what kind of music do they make? What genre do you like the most? etc. Like I said above, when good musicians make music, it usually doesn’t come from a place of “okay, now I am going do this or that genre, now I am going to write a song that will fit into the definitions of this sub-genre” and so on (well, as I said, unfortunately it mostly is the case for “alternative” scenes such as contemporary punk and other “sub-cultures”, we’ll get back to that). Anyone with a clear mind can see that a creation-process of that kind doesn’t make any sense. Real musicians just create, they materialize their intuitions, feelings, ideas and experiences into musical notes and/or lyrics. The way I hear the majority of people around me speak about music they might as well be speaking about what vegetables or fruits they prefer, It doesn’t feel like something that has any significance at all, the same case as with modern art. Dear Kurt, maybe it wasn’t only the pressure of playing the star-role, maybe he also blew his brains out as to not see how he’d become a vegetable.
People speak about genres as if they hold an absolute physical existence, as if they didn’t only just arrive, as if they were always here, without history:
“Even these seeming laws can only be guessed at. It is a tradition that they exist and were entrusted to the nobility as a secret, but it is not more than an old – and by virtue of its age, a plausible – tradition, nor can it be more, because the character of the laws demands that their existence be a matter of secrecy.” – Franz Kafka, “The Problem of Our Laws”
Indeed, the most obvious and stupid example of all this is with the punks. Especially considering how punk originally started out as a rebellion against – among other things – the commodification as well as the elitism of rock’n’roll. Back in Israel I have a good friend who once had a band that in my opinion were one of the best bands I ever heard in Hebrew. iSome relatively known producer even heard their demo and really liked them and thought about recording them (it didn’t work out eventually). But when they wanted to book a gig at the then sort-of “center” for punk shows in Tel Aviv (some small dirty club under a brothel) the kids who owned and ran that “DIY” place told them something like “we listened to your music, you’re not punk, so we don’t want you to perform here.” Eventually, only a handful of people still remember them today (of course it is not only due to that club’s refusal).
In his Preface to the fourth Italian Edition of “The Society of the Spectacle” Guy Debord wrote about how the spectacle, “since a sequence of internal transformations — economically useful in the short-term to those who control the means of production — has managed to retain the name and a good part of the appearance of these things, and yet has withheld the taste and the content from them.” With regards to popular music today, musical acts or movements lose what they can potentially become even before they begin, by being assigned – or what is becoming more common, by accepting willingly upon themselves – a frozen existence under separated labels (I think the word brand is even more accurate here) which obstruct their potential subjective function and obscure their dialectical nature and any significance they might have for our everyday lives and their liberation, even within the most narrow limits.
There is another interesting development here, which is getting stronger every day and becoming almost uncontested, and that is the phenomena of non-Anglo-Saxon musicians who write and perform entirely in English (English did not simply become “the international language” but the international language of a commodified world, and the function of such internationalization is making everyone speak the language of the commodity, the language that destroys all other languagesii). In Israel, for example, although the mainstream popular music and the traditional music within the communities is still performed mostly in the native language of its inhabitants (Hebrew, Arabic, Russian etc.), the case in the so-called alternative music scene, including the punk and the metal scenes, is the exact opposite: there it’s becoming rarer and rarer to find musicians who do not sing in English. And as I said above, very few people seem to care about this. But it’s not so surprising: when real communication is decomposing and becoming more and more limited, what difference does it make if one expresses oneself lyrically in a foreign language which one is less fluent in? In the Netherlands, by the way, it’s even worse than in Israel (I lived there for about three years). But this is an issue that I believe requires a discussion of its own.
Some brief reflections by a friend:
I think genres partly tie in to a wider sort of self-affirmation through culture and commodities and wouldn’t pick on any one of them in particular – they all tend to do that. I appreciate punk gets people because it was the “youth culture” that positioned itself most overtly antagonistic towards society and was so chronically recuperated and full of limitations and contradictions.
It was also pinnacle of a leftist/anarchist drift from acting on the world to reflecting it through culture, observing it and creating a sort of pseudo-separated living cultural critique of society that had found a comfort zone of oppositionalism without any real means, vision or will to directly attack the society it constantly called into question. Broadly speaking I think punk best expressed its own impotence – a sort of self loathing. In 1978 Crass, punk’s most overtly anarchist expression, spat out against the almost instant recuperation “Yes that’s right, punk is dead, it’s just another cheap product for the consumer’s head. Bubblegum rock on plastic transistors, schoolboy sedition backed by big time promoters…. I watch and understand that it don’t mean a thing, the scorpions might attack, but the system’s stole the sting.”
That said I think people can pull punk apart in so many directions it’s almost meaningless. It was a million things to a million people, but underlying it all was a genuine rage – an adolescent scream. For every posh art student or McLarenista there were a thousand working class teenagers hurling themselves savagely against their family, school, society, the system, etc.
I was one of them and within all that noise found Crass (etc), which led me to anarchism and anarchists and beyond. I could then sharpen my anger/desire to a finer point although I’m not sure where that’s got any of us. Haha.
But at least it’s a more authentic and grounded awakening than via the pompous cultural studies or social policy bullshit courses that pick over its corpse and produce all those fucking awful wanky politicos with their repulsive self-righteous prole-spotting anthropological voyerism or whatever the fuck it is that leads them to constantly narrate, disect and judge any struggle that managed to manifest itself against this world with their relentless off-the-shelf political verbiage, without ever confronting their own shitty alienated schizophrenic existence.
Ahh that feels better.
I agree about genres being limiting. I see them in some ways as a form of specialisation. Whether that’s a means of getting some status (the expert) or means of getting some self-affirmation (I am a…punk, goth, mod, whatever) or a way of finding friends, sex or whatever. All equally transposable into politics – we had a similar discussion about the ‘milieu’. Of course there are the many who just love the music or think it’s genuinely beautiful / significant / speaks to/for/about them (or for politics, genuinely want to change the world) so we shouldn’t get too caught up in our own cynicism.
Some reflections by myself (SamFanto):
TR says: “…when the musicians I listen to took the first steps in making their music, they simply made music, not punk, grunge or indie, not even folk (just to make it clear, since you already written in length about the commercialization of music in your Musical Notes: I’m talking here about the “pure” process of making music – when one doesn’t think about how he will “sell” his music, about musicians who don’t subdue themselves to the logic of the economy, or at least during the period before they even have the chance of making their music commercialized). ”
I understand this – often people will draw, play music, write poetry or other stuff without it having anything to do with making money (or even with trying to impress people). And only later, if at all, do they use it for financial reasons. However, music – like all forms of expression – is never “pure” and often commercialising it as a future possibility is at the back of people’s minds. And cultural influences mean that what one expresses in any of the various forms, even if not for money, is hardly “pure”. Moreover, historically even excellent music like blues, and even more so, jazz, rapidly became a way of making money, even if they were fairly marginal ways of making just a small amount of money initially. That they became commodified didn’t automatically lead to an impoverishment of their quality, though it undoubtedly led those who became famous for blues or jazz into a notion of life and themselves which was destructive of what had been life-affirming.
One of the main problems with musicians, as with those specialising in other forms of “creative expression”, is that they consider their forms of expression as the only form of expression for them, even when they try to make this form contest what they hate about this society. I know someone who, in order to get a bit of money, played the piano in a large bar-cum-restaurant frequented mainly by the middle class and upper middle class, people he considered were bourgeois. He was depressed and frustrated after his one and only performance there because – with his long uninterrupted heavily thumping, jarring and disconcerting disharmony – he’d hoped to piss off his audience, but no – they seemed to quite like him and applauded politely at the end. As if cultural forms are really shocking nowadays, as if they can ever genuinely contest anything. In fact, those who accept the world as it is often seek out shock culture – because it gives them something novel – they get a kind of vicarious appreciation of “rebellious” uniqueness and the illusion of avant-garde sophistication because they possess some special non-conformist consumer taste.
TR says: “…punk-rock as a living artistic movement or tendency within popular music (and popular revolt) died the moment it was officially labeled, the moment it began to be regarded by the mass media and consequently by the punk-adherents themselves as a separate and fixed “thing”.
But it became labelled that way right from the start, no? In effect, Malcolm McLaren was the primary founder of punk. His political influence came primarily from his participation (much hyped by him) in the late ’60s around King Mob, the first UK scene obviously heavily influenced by the situationists. I know someone who’d been a close friend of him, who in 1969, long before punk, said (to Fred Vermorel, another close friend of his, and later a collaborator with McLaren) “He’ll be an entrepreneur”. He aimed from the start to make “cash from chaos”. The whole phenomena started at the clothes shop “Sex” in trendy Kings Road run by his partner, the now internationally very famous Vivienne Westwood (now Dame Vivienne Westwood). So in a sense it was always partly a recuperation, even if it spilled out beyond recuperation (eg loads of punks participated in the ’81 UK riots) and often expressed genuine revolt (see my friend’s comments above).
TR says: “I feel that the dialectics of musical creation are being eradicated in the minds of increasingly more and more people. It is becoming more and more reified: music is on its way to become a “thing” that one consumes, nothing more. Culture-candies for passive consumption. In conversations, instead of asking one-another “oh, what emotions does his music generate? How does it sound? What is the significance of it to you right now? How does it correspond to moments in your daily life, to your desires, to your endless nights or sweet delights? What kind of atmosphere does it create? How does it correspond to other musicians/musical movements/artists/writers/books?”, they now ask “Oh, what kind of music do they make?…”
Unfortunately this is not a modern phenomena and I’m often as guilty of this as most people, which is certainly not to say that these aren’t genuinely searching questions I should pose myself and others. The “eradication” of “the dialectics of musical creation” is something that’s been going on for a very long time, especially since WWII, though initially confined to dominant culture. It would be a good idea to develop and answer these questions. And to reflect on how the answers change depending on historical changes and on individual historical changes, depending on changes in ones own daily life as well as more objective influences.
“This handy guide helps you with “The Punk Look” or How to “Dress Like a Punk, Gain Friends and Lose Your Parents”. Confused about what a punk should never wear? They have a list for you: tie-die, sparkles, glitter, rhinestones, etc., cowboy hats, love beads, fringe, peace signs, and the ilk, mini-dresses, K-Mart polyester specials, platforms, feathers, and disco clothes” – from this
“Rap shares with punk a one–dimensional emotional expression – predominantly youthful male anger and aggression at full volume defining the style within a narrow emotional spectrum.” –
from Some Musical Notes (a longish text about the blues, Gospel, Soul, Rap, Music & Social Struggles, Resonance FM Radio, Fame, Muzak and other aspects of music).
The following, written in 2003, is taken from here:
A BRIEF HISTORY OF REBELLIOUS MUSIC
…John Little, a 19th century American ex-slave said, “They say slaves are happy because they laugh and are merry. I myself and three or four others have received two hundred lashes in the day and had our feet in fetters; yet at night we would sing and dance and make others laugh at the rattling of our chains. Happy men we must have been! We did it to keep down trouble and to keep our hearts from being completely broken…”. From the development of the singing of slaves to blues to jazz to rock and roll one can see the development from a protective way of keeping one’s spirits up to a marginal sub-culture outside of any money-making to a marginal culture as a precarious means of survival to an utterly commodified form of big business, which nowadays goes so far as doing market research even before putting a band together. One can see elements of this in the development of Rai music in Algeria, which was originally part of the culture of the Algerian unemployed in the 80s, an expression of their hatred of the State and their disdain for Islam, music that spoke of love, alcohol and boredom, a music that was often repressed by State censorship. But now it’s so mainstream it can be part of the French equivalent of Fame Academy – “Star Academy” (whilst meanwhile, the French State surreptitiously supports the repression of social movements in Algeria from which Rai developed, supported by the silence of the same media that has made Rai utterly innocuous). The progression from a marginal form of “self-expression” in some ways in protest against the existing order to the commodification of this partial self-expression is nowadays not just enormously speeded up but, considering how far individuals are repressed and colonised by the tastes of the spectacularised market, is already there in this so-called “self-expression” from the age of 7. Today, people can only imitate – by coldly, soullessly, learning formal techniques – the qualities born out of risky experimentation and a truly rebellious life that created the life-enhancing music of the past. Weaned on and domesticated by Star Academy and other role models for ‘correct’ forms of banal ‘creativity’, young people would need a massive revolution to unleash the imagination, energy and passion needed to re-invent music as an extension of individual playful contact “to keep our hearts from being completely broken”.
An excerpt from “The Lingering Death of Rock ‘n Roll”, a section of the long text “Like A Summer With A Thousand Julys” (1982)
“Throughout the 1970’s music from the rock doldrums of the art of the decade through to new wave rock has been in a situation of constant crisis. In spite of repeated transfusions, music has not been able to recover its former powers. Punk began as an attempt to destroy rock n’ roll and the architect of this musical situationism (one of the by now familiar recuperations of Situationist theory), Malcolm Mclaren, called his company Glitter Best emphasizing the continuity between hoax and the guilty pretence of new wave.
Malcolm was able to mint “cash from chaos” just so long as publicity conscious notoriety overran more radical perspectives. He was the last buccaneer of the music biz, but rather ironically he was unmasked, music’s claim to even a pseudo reality also crashed. Punk had wavered as it dipped in and out of the music scene between genuine working class aggression and show case pretence. Attempting to live up to yet another immanent scandal for the sake of a few sensational headlines eventually drove Sid Vicious to murder and suicide. A sticker read “Mclaren wanted for vicious murder”. However as an ideology of radical art punk was lethal to all who got involved in it. Never before in the history of rock music had so much emphasis been placed on not ‘selling out’ which implied a critique of capitalism was taking root. So far so good. At the same time Punk’s original mentors have sold out with indecent haste forfeiting all open house claims to being a mass based egalitarian movement, as individuals and groups rose into the super tax bracket and stardom.
It took time to sink in but those who had meant at least some of it felt ever so badly let down. This bewildering mixture of image and reality, astounding hypocrisy and honesty even told on some of the recording artists whose heads had been turned by fat cheque books. Poly Styrene not happy like The Police with making “giant steps walking on the moon” fancies she has made several trips to Mars and is only now beginning to comedown………………………….
When rock music borrowed from more authentic R. and B. sources, essential details that place the music firmly in the context of everyday living would frequently be omitted. Punk did the same only this time by recuperating revolutionary critiques. Take for instance the flysheet promoting the Sex Pistols, Holidays in the Sun. The only reasonable bubble speak is the last line… “A cheap holiday in other people’s misery.” Otherwise it is a nonsensical mosaic of deservedly throwaway lines. “Wanna see some history cos I got a reasonable economy.” (?????) “I don’t want a holiday in the sun, I wanna go to the new Belsen.” (huh, you what?????) The Clash also at a recent concert in Paris refused to publicise the plight libertarian prisoners in Spain jailed on raps ranging from 10 to 40 years. Yet they were prepared to devote an entire album of 3 LPs to the Leninist/Guevarist Sandanistas in Nicaragua whom in comparison haven’t an ounce of revolutionary potential…”
Brief excerpt from “On The Poverty of Berkeley Life” (1983) by Chris Shutes:
“…it’s a matter of starting from the premise that culture feeds upon, and puts to work, real proletarian desires. Which are the aspirations that are recognized and manipulated by these cultural forms? In precisely which ways is dissatisfaction integrated and integratable? Beyond this, the question remains as to what the moments of choice for the people who produce and consume these cultural forms are going to be in the next few years. Narrowly, under what conditions can one expect the direct producers of these cultural forms to recognize and turn against the alienatation inherent in their activities’? More broadly, under what conditions will the consumers leave in the dust, or even directly attack, the cultural spectacle? The riotous activities of English youth, who put into practice the calls for “burning and looting” with which both reggae and punk had teased and manipulated them for years, have offered one of the clearest recent outlines of answers to the latter of these issues.”
i Footnote by TR :
They weren’t really a part of the punk “scene”… My friend did have the “punk look” but he didn’t adopt the stereotypical anarcho-leftist character that ruled the punk scene. Actually, I still remember to this day one of the first conversations I had with that friend, which took a while to echo-back on me. Back then I was discovering (a bit late) the world outside my school-life and the small community and area I lived in, and it was mostly due to the political awareness I was only starting to develop, which then took the undeveloped form of an evangelist and non-self-reflecting leftist morality. It was like a leap in my life, kind of “opened me up”, so it makes sense that I was so (in a retarded way, but still) passionate about it; it kind of took me a few steps outside my lonely and depressing life and my extremely disturbed family. Anyway, a small army-refusal group that I was involved with back then gave me a bunch of flyers to hand-out at my school (I’m not sure if the flyer was about refusal, about general or specific military oppression against the Palestinians, or both), and when I handed it to the abovementioned friend he expressed his contempt and lack of interest. I was surprised and a bit agitated, since was under the impression that every punk-rocker or punk-listener like me should naturally care about this. His answer was something in the vein of “the stuff that I care about is that we don’t have anywhere to hang-out and nothing to do on Friday night”. This can maybe give you a glimpse of that friend’s and his band’s attitude. I also think that there’s meaning in the fact that I still remember this incident so many years after. The music itself was not the imitative and predictable style that was, and still is, the most common in most punk scenes as far as I know (be it imitative of American hardcore punk, of old-school British punk, of pup-punk, etc…). It may be a corny word, but they were somehow more “authentic” than others, in the sense that they were not trying too hard to fit into a certain square in such an obvious way – unlike other bands I knew at the time. These guys seemed to use their music as a way to express their regular lives and to try to understand who they were. And to have fun, of course. Needless to say that this is only an afterthought and that they would probably laugh at me if they read this.
iiSam Fanto note : This is literally true. See, for example this : https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/18/world/18cnd-language.html “Some endangered languages …are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television.” [my emphasis] And of course, with each language that dies at the hand of “school…the marketplace and…television”, the specific knowledge and historical experience peculiar to that language also dies.
iii SamFanto note: my memory of this Buddhist saying is that it goes like this: “When the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger”, though other versions must exist. In fact, if you’re going to be as pedantic as I can sometimes be, you have to look at both the finger and the moon. The elitism, and fake humility, of Buddhism’s « wiseman » leads him to insist he should not be looked at, only the point he is making is worth looking at. He has a stake in people concentrating on his message, and dismissing the form of the message and himself as messenger, as if they could all be separated.