Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Trains, Payphones, and Other Archaic Stuff

It was probably close to 1:30 in the morning when I got out of the cab. This was the mid 90s. I was deep in the suburbs of Portland, somewhere near the border between Beaverton and Tigard. She lived in one of the sprawling apartment complexes with names like “The Outlook” and “Cedar Crest” that sound like nouveau riche country clubs. These indistinguishable shitholes encroach on one another, vying for the rental dollars of white people who for all kinds of avowed and disavowed reasons can’t stand living in actual urban spaces. I hated myself for going out there but my self-loathing did not slow me down one bit. She usually stayed with me downtown, so I had been there only a couple of times before and never sober, but I was able to find her apartment without much trouble. I knocked on her door, loud enough to wake her but not loud enough to trouble other people. She didn’t come to the door. I knocked louder. Nothing. I knocked louder still. One of her neighbors yelled out the window, then another did. I swayed in place trying to figure out what to do next. Sometimes alcohol turns your mind into a magician and you fall for the misdirection and slight of hand. I believed that she just hadn’t heard me and that if I called her then she would for sure wake up. I remembered the cab driving past a payphone near the manager’s office. I backtracked to the payphone. I put three coins in, dialed the number, and heard the beep-beep-beep-beep of the busy signal. I dialed again. After a few times I realized all at once the truth of the situation. But even after I understood that she was never going to answer the phone or open her door I continued to dial her number over and over because there was some comfort in the repetition.

I tell you this story in order to illustrate why I understand the situation described in Maroon 5’s “Payphone.” The song’s protagonist is separated from his love and he spends what little he has left on a machine that he hopes will bridge the gap. Many young people can relate to the pathos I’m sure, but how many can relate to the events that concretize the song’s intent? I’m fairly sure that most people under 30 have only infrequently used a payphone and that many people in their teens and early 20s never have. Payphones, at any rate, are almost completely irrelevant to the lives of the vast majority of the people to whom this song was directed. It reminds me of Tom Waits’ incredible “Train Song,” a tune equally anachronistic. When was the last time you skipped town on a train, the trailing smoke a lingering reminder of everything you left behind evaporating into nothing? A payphone and a train can continue to function as metaphors of desperate loneliness despite the fact that they are no longer features of our everyday lives because culture always trails behind experience. Humans act in the world and culture provides the terms through which we understand what we did. That trains and payphones continue to be adequate figures speaks to the belated quality of culture, always interpreting the present through the categories of the past.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Earnestness in an Ironic World

Modernity has created a reality characterized by distances. There is a grave gap between the categories through which we consider the world and the world as it actually is. We think of political freedom as a constitutive feature of modern society, yet we are often confronted by the contemptible cynicism of our elected officials and the outright hypocrisy of the political system that governs us and which makes an unfunny joke out of our notion of free political choice. We consider free economic choices to be the sine qua non of the modern order, but the monopolistic drive of capital has created such systemic imbalances that the only really free economic actors seem to be multinational corporations and the transnational elites to whom they are beholden. Lastly, individual freedom is the most important feature of the modern social imaginary, but it is abundantly clear that we are extraordinarily self-regulating and that we willingly curtail our personal freedom in order to create a stable society even in the face of poverty, inequality, and injustice. We internalize the world’s distances as the space between who we are and the image of what we think we should be. As the Buddha observed a long-ass time ago, the desire born out of our inability to accept ourselves as we are places us on a wheel of suffering that turns on and on without relief. Modernity has intensified this existential restlessness. We constantly “work on ourselves” in order to change into the image of who we think we should be, or we “give up” and accept that we will never be who we were intended to be. Either choice or their countless variations reinforce the belief in the space between our two different selves.

Irony in modern art is the recognition of this condition. In The Theory of the Novel, Lukács argues that irony is essential to the form-giving ethical intent of the modern artist. In order for a novel to be a true artistic object, argues Lukács, it must be saturated by the ethical intent of its creator, otherwise it remains an abstraction, or, even worse in his mind, entertainment literature. But because the artist concedes that in a world of distances his/her ethical intent cannot be simply incorporated into the work without it seeming one-sided or subjective, s/he must treat that ethical intent ethically and subject it to a kind of objective scrutiny. In other words, the work must treat its own ethical intent critically, must constantly question its own intentions. Simple earnestness appears from this perspective to be painfully naïve or perhaps even stupid.

Self-aware sincerity is a problem for everything I said above. Take for example “Hold On” by Alabama Shakes—or their whole album “Boys and Girls,” which is uniformly great. “Bless my heart and bless yours too/I don’t know where I’m going to go, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she sings. The second verse I cite here is a typically modern affirmation that the aims of life and the manner through which to achieve these aims are no longer directly given. We have all become seekers in a world in which meaning is no longer immanent. But the first verse is a declaration of something totally contradictory: the belief in the transcendental that the song later repeats by insisting, “there must be someone up above/saying […] you’ve got to come on up!” In this context, the sincerity of this belief does not appear naïve or unsophisticated—it is made soberly while taking into account the modern predicament. This kind of earnestness is simply a problem that outlines the contours of the unevenness of modernity, a modernity that has spread everywhere but is experienced differently in every place.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What’s up, motherfuckers?

When “Bailando por el mundo” by Juan Magan, ft. Pitbull and El Cata, comes on the car radio I can’t help but squirm in my seat in a poor pantomime of dance. Unless you’re dead inside, the hard rhythms of the song push your shoulders and hips back and forth, moving you across an imaginary dance floor in a graceful glide that you could probably not easily reproduce in real life. The lyrics also put you in the close company of a partner and here memories fill the mind with all those sensations of dancing near someone whose smell makes you dizzy with lust, whose accidental touches seem to electrify your skin.

But the song also takes me to other places in the past. It reminds me of block parties in Santa Ana, El Salvador in the 1970s. There were moments in those evenings when a crowd-pleasing rump-shaker like La Sonora Dinamita’s “El ciclón” would come on and everyone would rush in and start dancing. And even if you thought of sitting this one out some feverish laughing fat aunt, her hairline soaked with perspiration from dancing, her silly pink rouge nearly washed off her brown skin, would grab you by the arm and pull you out into the dance floor. I was a small child, and I remember the mix of embarrassment and joy as I was dragged out to dance. She would take one of your hands in her chubby fingers and place the other one in the small of her back, where you could feel the sweat evaporating through her thin, polyester dress—I know I was not alone in feeling some relief when in the 80s the “Poque-Poque,” a dance you did solo by pivoting on the balls and heels of your feet, displaced couples' dancing in Santa Ana. Then you and your aunt would take your place in the throng of dancers, everyone turning this way and that, the crowd shifting deliriously and unpredictably like leaves blowing in a swirling wind. The block parties were always in July, during a month-long municipal celebration that coincided with the rainy season. The damp air enveloped you, contained you as if in a palpable medium, and promised rain. I have no memories of storms interrupting the parties, just of everyone dancing under the threat of rain.

Are “Bailando por el mundo” or “El ciclón” great songs? How do you answer that question through an abstract definition of art that separates the aesthetic experience of music from the social experience? Under scrutiny as isolated aesthetic objects, dance songs do poorly. Their lyrics are often not very sophisticated and their musical structure tends to be simplified and repetitive. But to treat them like this confuses the issue. It’s on the dance floor, among a community of listeners, where these songs reveal their true intention. They aim not to transfix the individual listener but to get everyone to participate in the musical experience. They are the truest, most democratic kind of popular music: they intend to engage the most people in a shared form of artistic enjoyment. (And yes, this is why they are the most commercial form of music. And yes, this is also why record companies try to homogenize and package them for easy consumption.) The quick rejection of commercial dance music among some smarty-pants-a-holes I know signals, in my mind, an affirmation of the solipsistic tendencies of modern life and a rejection of the social and collective practices contained in the word “popular.”