Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Together Alone Together

The present is an age of shared solipsism. Isolation and alienation are nothing new. They have defined in large measure the personal experience of modernity. Individualism arose in this period as an ideological vocabulary that helped explain that experience as something else. Rather than facing the routine and banality of life we turn inward, where the real me resides. The thought that people don’t get you because you are “too complicated” and that your occupation is only “what you do and not who you are” are common expressions of this sentiment. Individualism, then, speaks to the adjustment that we make in order to transform the given conditions of social life into some kind of sense of happiness.

But like all ideological discourses, individualism is only mostly successful. As self-sufficient as it allows us to feel, it doesn’t quite do away with our need for belonging. The most up to date attempt to overcome that need is found in interwebian (I know, it’s a made up word) social networks. There the illusion of reciprocity, of interaction, of belonging, of being embedded in actual social networks is artfully maintained. You can easily forget that the warmth you feel is the radiant heat of electricity and not the emotional warmth that comes from human interaction. This is what I mean by shared solipsism. The interwebs make it possible for innumerable isolated people to engage with one another; they allow us to be alone together.

This too, however, does not satisfy our need for real human contact. Grouplove’s “Tongue Tied” captures with aching sweetness that need, I think. Something about the very musical composition of the song suggests commonality and collaboration. (And, like duh, the name of the band.) Its multi-instrumental and loose arrangement creates the sense of a bunch of friends playing together. The lyrics begin with an imperative, “Take me to your best friend’s house,” that transports us straight to adolescence. That was a time in which doing something meant gathering a group of friends, meant riding in someone’s beater car to someone else’s house where the party might be. Is this objectively true about the teen years or is it the kind of fantasy that we create by mixing nostalgia with wish-fulfillment? Fuck if I know. I have NEVER been good at making friends and if I get more than one call a week I think that my phone is “blowing up,” so maybe I’m not the best person to address this question. Regardless, “Tongue Tied” generates the equation of youth, love, longing, and togetherness. It’s wonderful. As is the vulnerability expressed in the fear of being alone, of being “kissed goodnight.” And so the song pleads and pleads to find the right expression that will make the moment last, to stay up through the night, to stay together. Ultimately the song reminds us that the only way to not be alone is to be with other people. The obviousness of this observation in no way diminishes the charm and tenderness of the song. It begs for togetherness in a way that few of us would but that all of us in a way want to.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

We Might Be Too Uptight to See It But They Ain’t Afraid to Show It

LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” must drive people who take music very seriously crazy. For some art is a kind of secular religion. This isn’t an idiosyncratic quirk on their part but rather an effect of the history of the function of art in modern society. The belief that art must come from inside the soul and express its content is a fairly new idea. In fact, the very sense of interiority that underwrites it is itself novel. Before the modern period meaning and value were not confined within the subject, as his or her own self-generated individual property. Pre-modern Europeans, Charles Taylor reminds us, thought that the objective world contained meaning, and, therefore, ideas and valuations existed in the world and not just within the subject. Pre-modern Europeans considered that the very essence of their selfhoods belonged not within the person but rather in the material world and the corporate collectivities to which people belonged, these were the things that made us human. External reality, not a self-made and carefully maintained interiority, was the location for self-knowledge in this cultural perspective.

But this changed, obviously. In the long trajectory from the medieval world to capitalist modernity, European thought came to imagine the subject as radically separated from the objective world. After this transition, knowledge could no longer be imagined as the property of external reality. Rather, knowledge was seen as the product of individual thought processes that were now located internally within the person. In this intellectual tradition, understanding was the work of an interior self, which was the product of an intense project of self-reflection. Thus souls, as we understand them today, were born. And, we came to believe, that it was there, deep in our unfathomable souls that we discover or create that which makes us special and different from others. People who take music very seriously are particularly committed to this idea. They want songs to be like souls: unique, expressive, deep, authentic, and so on. In short, they want music to be soulful.

People who value soulful music will be outraged by the relentless superficiality of “Sexy and I Know it.” First of all, the very self-consciously somatic excess of the song mocks the pious devotion to interiority: “When I walk in the spot this is what I see/Everybody stops and they’re staring at me/I got passion in my pants and I ain’t afraid to show it/I’m sexy and I know it.” There really isn’t a lot to interpret here. It’s all about visuality and surface—in particular, bulging crotch surfaces! Fantastic. The whole song is a well-executed joke at the expense of artistic gravity. I LOVE that one of verses of this song is simply the repetition of the word “wiggle,” as if it were Sesame Street song. This is a childish song with an adolescent sexual sensibility and an adult’s sense of irony. If you care only about depth, then you will forget that sometimes we want highly polished surfaces, if only to have something on which to check ourselves out.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why Pop Songs Are Not Novels

Although this seems self-evident it’s worth explaining. As Bakhtin long ago observed, novels are heteroglossic. That is, although one consciousness or voice may dominate narration, the novel is compelled by its own philosophical-formal orientation to include other voices. I’ll mention just a couple of dimensions of that imperative here. First, novels are systems of narratives. Unlike short stories, which tend to focus on one event in the life of a character and finish at the conclusion of that event, novels are made up of many stories that while hierarchically ordered also amplify and extend the aims of the work. While it is possible to imagine a short story that is longer than a novel, novels are almost universally longer than short stories because stories are their building blocks. Second, novels aim to render the extensive totality of being. They want to show what they imagine to be real people living in their social world. That vision may seem provincial or metropolitan, shallow or profound, artificial or organic to the reader depending on his or her ideological or historical relationship to the work, but the work itself is written with the belief that what it is representing is an adequate representation of the world. Because they intend to represent an image of society through a system of stories, novels must be made up of many voices. A narrowing of that heteroglossia leads novels to navel-gazing and narcissistic abstraction at best or to motivated and misleading propaganda at worst.

Pop songs are deeply monological. That feature only asserts itself, however, when one is confronted with songs that take up a dialogue, for example Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” The song begins with a moody, sparse, yet playful instrumental section seemingly taken from the Tom Waits songbook. It moves from there to a terse recounting of nostalgia, resentment, and bitterness regarding a past relationship. Good stuff! It reminds me that I look forward to being unhappy in another relationship someday. The song continues in a minimalist vein, creating a kind of empty sonic space in which the tortured words of the singer resonate. Then some weird shit happens. Someone else starts singing and what she’s singing offers a counterpoint to the earlier claims. It’s jarring because a dialogue is so unusual in pop music. I’m sure there are more examples but I can only think of two off the top of my head: The Postal Service’s “Nothing’s Better” and The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby.” These songs are very different from traditional duets, which despite the presence of two voices only offer one narrative. Compare Gotye’s song to Matt Nathenson and Sugarland’s “Run,” another song currently on rotation on commercial radio. The two voices in the second song are working together to explain one emotion. This isn’t a dialogue; it’s a soliloquy in two voices. So why are pop songs primarily monological? Probably for the same reason that they succeed in ways that novels can’t: music can convey emotion in a much more immediate way than novels and what it loses in its social vision it gains in the instant and deeply personal contact it can make with listeners. We like monological music because we want to be alone with songs and we want them to be alone with us.