“I was wrong. I admit it. I believed that there were things which still mattered just because they had mattered once. But I was wrong. Nothing matters but breath, breathing, to know and to be alive.”
— Faulkner, “Absalom, Absalom!”
“I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time”
— T. Swift
Popular culture is a perfect machine, always somehow magically fitting the form of the time and the people in a way that is illuminating, damning, heroic, humiliating. It speaks to us first as it is molding its gilded form to the contours of our face, glittering and gliding down into our pores in a seductive embrace; after, when it has hardened and fallen, we can take in its solid form, and really see, in the crevices and grooves, all the details we missed in the heat of the moment. This is especially true in chaotic times, as if there is ever any other kind, really: When art seems but a banal response to events in life that are out of control, our cultural products were there all along, commenting and slyly coaxing us along the conveyor belt to oblivion.
If music is ritual, pop is the witchcraft of the rich and recently young, with death and desperation lurking right beneath the surface of even the sunniest song. It is no coincidence that the pop song emerged to prominence in the American psyche precisely when the phenomenon of the teenager erupted in our global consciousness: Everything about the popular song as we know it is rooted in an adolescent mindset, when life, love, sex, death and armageddon all occupy equal real estate in our post-war Thunderdome of mental and civic disarray. Music is the ultimate distraction from reality, but popular music’s ubiquity within every space of our waking life has given it the power to shape our senses and twist our minds, such that even innocuous-seeming tunes can seem emboldening or sinister in context. In 2017, the sheer po-faced business-as-usual party-time sheen of the most inescapable of songs has been fused onto 12 months of lunacy and horror — for most, the last year found elaborate algorithms soundtracking the act of whistling past the graveyard.
We Need To Talk About Ed
“The first things that the Nazis did when they moved into Poland was to engineer a huge proliferation of pornography, because the more that you could encourage isolated sexuality, sexuality that had very little to do with real communication and outreach to other people, the more that you could encourage it to be violent and isolated, i.e. one person alone in his room with pornographic materials, jacking off. The more you could do that, the more people would be isolated each from one another in other areas, namely political ones; the less eager they would be to get together to talk about anything — including resistance.”
— Robin Morgan, “Not A Love Story”, 1981
There are those who see our current global slide into authoritarianism and wish for our cultural heroes to speak out, to bravely stand up to tyranny, to unite the people against injustice. But our celebrity culture does not reward heroes and isn’t effective with on-the-nose messaging. Pop music has, for generations, prepared us for life under authoritarian rule, because pop’s every aesthetic and functional detail serve one purpose: burying subversion beneath distraction and misdirection. Love and desire are the surface messaging; beneath those platitudes, however, are missives on ways to manage and survive tyrannical rule. A lifetime of tangential consumption of popular music leaves a treasure trove of useful survival techniques burrowed deep in the brain: While dancing, while driving, with the radio on, while crying, we learn to endure the worst that this world can dish out, to see beyond disappointment and the heartache that is the triumph of injustice. The more overt the political or radical message of a song, the less use it is to society, in terms of actually disseminating psychic information. The piping of seemingly-innocuous aural wallpaper across the expanses of our shared sound spaces has given our musical masters a grand canvas on which to wage fierce ideological battles for the psyche of the people.
Americans aghast at the dissembling of our democracy currently underway may find this hard to believe, but cultures under the thumb of fascists and dictators have continued to have pop music, awards shows, chart competition, screaming fans, celebrity worship — all the trappings of the musical universe that one imagines is a distinct privilege of a democratic and free society. However, as the screws tighten on a people, as hardships befall and bedraggle a society burdened with a surfeit of hope for the future, those songs that seemed frivolous during the good times begin to represent something deep and freeing.
If music is ritual, pop is the witchcraft of the rich and recently young, with death and desperation lurking right beneath the surface of even the sunniest song.
Our perception of the power of popular culture still contains strong elements of the mythology of the baby boomer: That of charismatic populists penning powerful songs that united generations and encouraged Americans to be good to one another and build a better world. Like so much American myth, it is one plucked from so many of the very people we ourselves vanquishes so that we could replace idealism with libertarian-fueled military madness. For example, 1960s Chile was in many ways a paragon of the kind of idealism that 1960s Americans mainlined, with a popular left-wing government that had its own state-sponsored musical movement, Nueva Cancion, which aimed to fuse forward-thinking protest songs with elements of Andean musical tradition. It was a thriving form with its own superstars and state-released records. It came to a sudden end on September 11, 1973 when the U.S.-backed military coup staged by General Augusto Pinochet began its bloody takedown of Chilean democracy. Nueva Cancion’s star performer and songwriter, Victor Jara, was tortured and killed a few days later, along with thousands of other political prisoners, in Chile Stadium; his tormentors allegedly broke his fingers and then exhorted him to play them a song on guitar before killing him and displaying his body outside the stadium as a warning to any other would-be protest troubadours.
That said, Nueva Cancion was hardly the main musical preference for the average Chilean in the years prior to the military takeover; most citizens, even adherents to the Allende political party, preferred the romantic warblings of the baladistas, a musical trend that continued even under military rule. Performers of the style for the most part knew not to directly call for revolution, but many were sly enough to both speak to the discontented rabble and still curry favor with the regime in order to retain access to tv spots and stadium stages. Fernando Ubiergo, for example, managed to skyrocket to fame during the Pinochet regime without ever giving in to the demands of the state; he declined numerous invitations to personal meetings with Pinochet, instead leveraging his clean-cut sappy-song image with his willingness to play events for left-wing university audiences and occasionally cover tunes by Nueva Cancion-ers like Jara.
Perhaps our future will see someone like Ed Sheeran become a Ubiergo-like figure in Western society, able to remain, on the surface, apolitical while still using his vice-like grip on the id of Western civilization’s young people as leverage to slow our slip into sheer demagoguery. Perhaps “Shape of You” and “Perfect” are not quite the odious slime-ballads that they might seem; perhaps if Sheeran can continue to cause human beings to melt into lumpen ooze by the stadium-full night after night, year after year, with his goopy strum-and-croon hack attack, he can subtly unify the exact populace that our authoritarian overlords seek to alienate and disaffect.
Sheeran might actually be more akin to Julio Iglesias, the Spanish loverman who enjoyed enormous worldwide success in the 1970s and 1980s (eventually breaking the U.S. Billboard Top 5 in 1983 with his Willy Nelson duet “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”). Pinochet’s terror did damage to Chile’s local music talent pool, and as a result the airwaves of Chile were awash with the sonorous ballad-work of foreign imports like Iglesias. In a tense 1983 interview with Mexican newspaper El Pais, Iglesias was accused of being at best Pinochet-agnostic for having played a stadium in Santiago (allegedly the same stadium that Jara was murdered in); his defensive-yet-profound response: “Yo tengo que decir que dispongo de la inmensa suerte de cantar para los pueblos, y no para los gobernantes”; “ I have to say that I have the immense luck of singing for the people, and not for the rulers.”
Ready For It
“Those who write songs that say nothing or only obscenities, songs that curtail human dignity and do not contribute to the cultural growth of the people or youth, they also sing political songs.”
— Víctor Jara, March 1973
“I couldn’t have asked for a better year.”
— Taylor Swift
The advent of the pop-singing celebrity in America, especially after the dawn of the rock and roll era, ushered in a kind of cultural terrorism: To generations of frightened elders, an ever-ballooning cabal of amoral pranksters placed their children in thrall to a lunatic ideology that we now know of as Teenage Rebellion. In the sacred texts of the baby boomer ethos, dutifully taken down by the scribes at Rolling Stone magazine and countless other counter-cultural outlets, the abdicating of societal responsibility by a generation of affluent young people was presented as a moral triumph; the trouncing of egalitarian communalist folk music culture by commercially-minded libertarian hardliners has been been heartily endorsed by 50-plus years of American pop cultural myth-making. As a result, it is a given that no popular musician, upon attaining the mantle of pop idolatry, would ever be made a martyr to a civic cause in the manner of a Victor Jara. This is, simply put, not how things are done.
Country music teen wunderkind Taylor Swift currently finds her meteoric career at a fascinating and gripping inflection point: Through a series of deft moves that involved using social media, feminism, hip-hop and pop songcraft, she found herself by 2014 with the once-in-a-generation power of a pure pop music titan. She could win awards and sell records and fill stadiums, that was a given; more importantly, though, she was in a rarefied position to make some serious cultural action happen, positioned as she was with a legion of devout believers and an even greater constituency of casual music/pop culture fans sympathetic to her carefully crafted persona. As she ran victory laps around the rest of the residents of popular music’s pantheon, obsessed as they were with the imminent collapse of the music industry and the implosion of the star system that had served show business in a pre-internet world for generations, Taylor Swift could finally raise her chalice and drink deep to her victory over all who had opposed her on her way to the top of Mt. Olympus.
The incipient rise of authoritarianism in the most powerful country in the world, culminating first in last year’s presidential election and followed by this year’s grand guignol panoply of horrors, proved to be most inconvenient for Swift’s heroic narrative; because unlike even the most banal pop performer, her particular brand of drama-no-drama pop puffery is the polar opposite of the kind of performative martyr-posing required of a pop star in an authoritarian landscape. The long build-up to the release of this year’s Reputation was tortured and tone-deaf, as each new soundbite or song fought with that day’s descent-into-totalitarian degradation for the prize of a headline: The August drop of “Look What You Made Me Do”, a stuttering ode to Swift’s new, meaner self, wherein she lyrically literally kills her old, nicer persona, arrived as Houston, Texas found itself completely underwater; “North Korea Says It Has Developed An Advanced Hydrogen Bomb” read the chyron on news sites everywhere on September 2 when Swift leaked “…Ready For It”. The timing was unfortunate.
But it was more than timing, it was, as is said often nowadays, “reading the room;” even though Reputation is the top-selling album of the year, the confused reception to Swift’s new work has to do with her refusal to fuse herself to a culture forming and swelling in opposition to the acquiescence of our nation to naked dictatorial power. Said confusion, however, fails to register the high wire act that is being a modern popular musician who can succeed in both the world of pop and the culturally conservative world of country music. Pander entirely to one side at the peril of completely going Dixie Chicks with the other side; Taylor Swift has to manage to please casual fans on both extremes of the political spectrum, or else risk complete and utter ruin in an ocean of sheer schadenfreude.
The release of new music in our modern era is, typically, a marketing event just oozing out of control hubris and dripping desperation. Increasingly, in this age of a waning celebrity musical star system, the grand public isn’t buying in.
The odd thing, when you think about it, regarding Taylor Swift and her apparent refusal to stand up to tyranny is the notion that pop music is in some way itself predisposed to oppose authoritarianism. This is, of course, preposterous: If anything, the evolution of the pop and rock star of the recorded sound era has provided a blueprint for every tin pot dictator from Idi Amin to Saddam Hussein. Popular musicians use any means necessary to get ahead, often employing elaborate misinformation campaigns to slander opponents, obfuscate the truth and obliterate objective reality, all in service to nothing but the accumulation of personal wealth and the obligatory booking of rally events at the largest, most expensive venue permitted, all in service to the flagellation of the fandom at the altar of the artist’s alleged genius.
This is, of course, when the artist actually deigns to grace the great unwashed with his or her actual presence; once stardom is attained, there are often more exclusive audiences to curry favor with as well. Western pop stars have had a relatively poor track record with turning down the requests of despots — and this isn’t even a reference to poor Kanye West, prior to his 2017 mental breakdown, boarding the golden elevator to meet America’s president-elect at his namesake midtown tower; Usher, Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, to name but a few, have all accepted exorbitant payouts in exchange for intimate concert performances at the behest of well-known tyrants. In December 2015, Nicki Minaj netted a cool $2 million to perform in Angola, with the check cut by Unitel, a mobile phone company partially owned by then-Angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, a fearsome figure who ruled the country from 1979 until this past September, when he put the country in the safe hands of his vice president and a cabinet made up partly of his children. In country pinned down by its own military, where the vast majority of the population subsist on less than a few dollars a day, dos Santos and his family are among the wealthiest human beings on the planet. Nicki Minaj, as to be expected, observed this affront to human dignity in the most American manner possible: Bowing down to a fellow player of the game, dos Santos’ daughter Isabel, herself Africa’s richest woman:
Celebrity and star power seek out like powers; for those whose trade is songcraft, the best that can be done is subversion through song, to see what one can get away with while still finding a way to please the rich and powerful; the ultimate goal, of course, is to become the rich and powerful so that one can become the one that people mean to please. Which raises the question: What kind of songs will we be forced to sing when all the singers are also our overlords in the hellpits of the future?
Utility and Silence
“The operationality of music precedes its entry into the market economy… Its primary function does not depend on the quantity of labor expended on it, but on its mysterious appositeness to a code of power, the way in which it participates in the crystallization of social organization in an order.”
— Jacques Attali
As participants of mass popular culture in this modern age, we take for granted the concept of the “fan”: That we see ourselves as more than just consumers of media, but as fanatical followers of aesthetic schools of thought. This is, naturally, a relatively recent order of artistic expression: The artist as cult leader, the audience as blind follower, in theory willing to die as a show of solidarity with the intentions of the artist’s maxim. Modern artistic movements almost always entail fanaticism, the radicalization of a casual observer into an ardent follower willing to sacrifice for the ritual of the art.
Music is of course a chief conduit for modern fanaticism, primarily as a platform for charismatic cults of personality. We are drawn in by a few tunes, come to see the artist as an idealized form of something we’d love to be, and next thing you know you are in a crowd with your fist in the air, pledging allegiance to your artist of choice, willing to sacrifice your time and your mind to whatever their cause might be — typically fulfilling the delusion of the artist’s boundless need for anonymous ego gratification. The release of new music in our modern era is, typically, a marketing event just oozing out of control hubris and dripping desperation. Increasingly, in this age of a waning celebrity musical star system, the grand public isn’t buying in.
Streaming music platforms, digital devices and automated playlists based around invasive algorithms are seen by some as antithetical to the personality cult of musical creation; each year since the dawn of internet music has seen music sales plummet, ownership of musical wares decrease, and the sonic interchangeability of recorded music approaching infinity. We have been taught by adherents to the rock and pop psychic revolution that music that all sounds the same is bad, and that music serves its purpose as a vehicle for the personal expression of the artist; that getting caught up in the drama of a popular music celebrity is a worthwhile pastime; that it is up to us as fans to keep the spirit of popular music as an art form and as a way of life alive.
German musicologist Paul Nettl is said to have coined the term Gebrauchsmusik, or “utility music”, in a 1921 comparison between 17th century music that was danced to, and music of the same period that was written in a similar form but, by nature of its more abstract form, may have actually been intended merely for listening. Vortragsmusik is music made purely for the pleasure of listening; as such, it serves no real purpose. To our 21st-century sensibilities, this distinction seems absurd on its surface; to us, we think, all music has utility, and who cares about utility anyway when music is art and art is about more than just serving a purpose?
The fact that we acknowledge different musical genres at all betrays the fact that we acknowledge that different styles of music serve different real-life purposes in our life. We won’t run on the treadmill at the gym to ambient soundscapes in the same way that we won’t do work that requires concentration and thought while blasting screaming techno.
Yet popular music has always been silo’d into Gebrauchsmusik classifications: The fact that we acknowledge different musical genres at all betrays the fact that we acknowledge that different styles of music serve different real-life purposes in our life. We won’t run on the treadmill at the gym to ambient soundscapes in the same way that we won’t do work that requires concentration and thought while blasting screaming techno. The algorithmic data-sorting of streaming services like Spotify aim to prescribe music for moods and sounds for different real-life scenarios. The most extreme extrapolation of this type of service essentially treats music as a tap to be turned on and off, hot and cold, with music accompanying more and more of one’s waking (and non-waking) life.
This is the sort of disruptive futurism that is clinically calibrated to upset music fanatics; the fan will say it is upsetting because it devalues the labor of the artist, but in actuality the tap-water-ization of music really devalues the labor of the music fan. All of that time and money invested in learning about genres, exploring the genius of individual writers, singers, bands and collectives is officially proven to have been a misallocation of one’s finite resources; soon, all music will be forced to kneel before the panopticon of the eternally streaming Ur-music source that is whatever streaming platform can survive the upcoming bloodsport of warring services. The winner will contain all music, multitudes; much more importantly, they will also control the data of users, perfectly tailoring sounds for all moods and occasions until, within a period of time that will probably be much shorter than one could predict today, music exists in a digital aether with no noticeable genesis of creation within a living human being.
This future is already upon us: A perusal of top hits on the pop charts shows a ream of artists who may scarcely be remembered this time next year, let alone in any sort of distant future. Next year’s hitmakers will continue to sit hunched over a console studying the hits of the prior year, making imperceptible modifications to precisely engineer, say, the ultimate moombahton banger or the greatest song to listen to at the beach. Many music observers are of the opinion that the current producer-heavy musical wave that is cresting right now will subside, to be replaced by a musical clime more amenable to individual artistic expression; but I wouldn’t be so confident in that prediction, if only because there are no signs that surgically crafted music streamed to users via automated playlists is not itself the future of music.
Tight genres of music have already been implementing the Draconian commodity theory of musical value on their own production, which is why from metal to country to r&b, newer albums seem a) more plentiful; b) increasingly well-produced; and c) more and more interchangeable, sonically. Now that pop is following suit, it seems only natural to begin placing odds on the end of the charismatic musical artist as we know him and her. Perhaps songs themselves will die on the vine as well, and music will present itself as an ever-shifting sonic lapdog, trailing along and morphing from style to style as one moves location or switches emotions. Room to room, building to building, happy to sad to bitter to celebratory, your personal soundtrack will swell and subside based on your algorithmic preferences.
If by some miraculous stroke of fortune we as a human civilization manage to toss off the yoke of authoritarian repression on our journey toward this utopia of musical-systemic synergy, our only hope for continued happiness and sanity will be that this streaming musical mainline will have a working volume knob, or, even more desirable, an on/off switch. As we all know, the most soothing dream within the bosom of even mankind’s most pleasant outcome will be primarily soundtracked by sheer bloody silence; in the meantime, as we prepare to flip our digital calendars to 2018, I suggest that we all take as much time in the coming year turning the volume dial all the way down and savoring as much sweet silent bliss as we can possibly get, before we’re all forced toward the inescapable clanging din awaiting us in our future.