Thursday, April 19, 2012

Routinized Freedom

The lyrics of Young the Giant’s “Cough Syrup” present an interesting contrast between surreal images of abstract danger and the quotidian flatness of everyday life. On the one hand, the song paints compelling scenes of illogical fear—“These fishes in the sea are staring at me,” and “These zombies in the park they’re looking for my heart”—and on the other, it names the unimportant inconsequentiality of it all, “Life is too short to even care at all.” The paranoid images are explained in part as the hallucinogenic effects of over-medication on the part of the song’s protagonist, effects he seems to be waiting out. “I’m waiting for this cough syrup to come down, come down,” he sings. But at the end of the song, the protagonist continues taking the medicine in order to prolong the effects: “One more drop of cough syrup.” The song, then, is primarily about the dissatisfaction with an unheroic and uneventful life and the desire for something more epic, a desire that seems to be normative—“If I could find a way to see this straight/I’d run away/To some fortune I should have found by now.” Life is a disappointment to the protagonist because it does not live up to his poetic expectations, and, therefore, he turns to the cough syrup to escape it, even if that escape fills him with dread and not happiness.

“Cough Syrup” points to one of the most interesting and contradictory aspects of everyday life. Because so much of our life is lived according to imposed schedules and routines, whether those be work or school related, we feel that our private life is the place in which we really get to be ourselves. In the freedom of the home, the weekend, the vacation, all those unregulated times and spaces that we claim exclusively our own, we can be fully expressive in the way we can’t be when he have to live and act by the rules of others. Unfortunately, for many people, domestic life also seems to be filled only with monotony and boredom. Many of us spend our free time looking for diversions, either cheap or sophisticated, to fill up the hours that modern capitalist society leaves for our consumption. Moreover, the sense that we spend our free time in the same way that everybody else does is a familiar doubt to most people. In short, the freedom of everyday life is compromised by the sense that our private lives are as prosaic, common, and repetitive as our work lives and that this phenomenon is widespread. In the space that we are granted to be most ourselves, we wind up being like everybody else.

The structures of everyday life, Braudel called them. The facet of life that we claim our own as the spontaneous expression of our very personhood is in fact ordered according to normative categories that have developed over time. Everything about the intimate and the domestic has a social dimension that is historical in origin. If everyday life does not offer an escape from the regulations and norms of capitalist modernity it is because what constitutes the quotidian is historically inseparable from the development of modernity itself. Hence the lure of one more spoon of cough syrup.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Residue of the Past

The chorus of “Inténtalo” by 3BallMTY evokes memories of childhood for me. The weakness of the singer’s voice produces the effect of listening to music on the radio in El Salvador in the 1970s. The voice seems to come from far away, quiet and thin, reproducing the distortions in fidelity created by the technological limitations that were part of Salvadoran media at the time.  For reasons I can’t define, it reminds me specifically of listening to Celia Cruz y La Sonora Matancera as a small child—although to mention these bozos in the same breath as the incomparable combination of Celia Cruz and La Sonora Matancera is pure blasphemy. But the very tenuousness of América Sierra’s singing in “Inténtalo” is part of its appeal. Against the abrasively precise electronic sounds of the music, her singing strikes a sweetly archaic tone. Its combination of electronica and old-fashioned singing has made it a commercial success, and I always turn it up when it comes on the radio. (A brief aside: although I link videos in this blog so that you may listen to a song if you want to, I don’t ever mention them because they are visual interpretations of the music, which is exclusively an auditory medium and I like to treat it as such. The video of “Inténtalo," however, is a special case. This fucking thing made me want to hate this song; everything about it is detestable. So if you’re on the fence about this song and you want a reason to dislike it, watch the video.)

The antiquated flavor of América Sierra’s chorus is somewhat similar to the musical structure of the singles by Mumford and Sons, which have also received considerable airtime recently. Mumford and Sons is of course a willfully old-timey band. Eschewing the emphasis on bright rhythms that dominates much music today and relying on peripheral instruments like the banjo and stand-up bass, Mumford and Sons need only a barker with a speaking-trumpet charging two bits a gander to achieve the early-twentieth-century aesthetic they’re aiming for. But the rawness of their lyrics bespeaks twenty-first-century sensibilities. They are a very contemporary band whose musical inspiration comes from an earlier era of popular music.

Unlike the complicated ways sampling deals with history—something I wrote about in an earlier post—this persistence of an older musical diction in contemporary music speaks to the deep residual elements in culture as a whole. Raymond Williams describes this feature of culture as the continuation of meanings that were generated in earlier social formations that keep having relevance for us because they represent lingering forms of human experiences, aspirations, and desires that the dominant culture of the present derides, ignores, or even fails to recognize as such. Williams' understanding of residual culture involves a much longer historical time frame than what I’m addressing here but it is nonetheless helpful for my purposes. If contemporary popular music is successful while emphasizing elements of an earlier period, it is because we feel in that musical language the unfulfilled strivings of the past, even if the present remains mostly indifferent to them.