Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Black and Blue

Train and Ashley Monroe remind us in their latest single, “Bruises,” that all of us go through shitty stuff at times. This is a somewhat platitudinous observation but there is no sense in getting irritated with the failure of anything related to Train to penetrate beyond the surface of the human condition. That would be like getting irked with water for getting you wet. Train’s collaboration with Monroe does, however, illustrate something that is indeed universal: we all get our hearts broken or as the song puts it, “everybody loses.” And those heartbreaks, bruising though they are, ultimately don’t change us in fundamental ways. We get hurt, time passes, then eventually our heartaches become stories. In the song’s words, “these bruises make for better conversation.” But life also confronts us with experiences that do alter us, deform us. These experiences don’t make for good conversation. We don’t talk about them easily and when we’re the audience to these accounts we find it difficult to think of a response that is adequate to what we heard.

I was in El Salvador drinking beer with my brother in his living room when he asked me what it was like for me after we were separated and I moved to the U.S. with our mom. By way of answer, I tried to tell him about how I hated going to school and so from the time I was 12 I would often ride the bus out to the Santa Monica pier instead. Riding through west Los Angeles, away from the immigrant communities in which we lived, I would look out the window to a foreign and distant world. It was all surfaces and disconnected images. Giant billboards selling things I had never seen. Buildings in dramatic shapes, white people going in and out of them. Everything taller, cleaner. The roads wider, their surfaces smooth and black. The poverty more dramatic when contrasted by the obvious wealth. But more than anything else it was the white people. They terrified me. I could never imagine getting off the bus and mingling with them. They concretized my loneliness and isolation. I rode the bus for over an hour, until the last stop. I got off, crossed the street, crossed the park, crossed the bridge, and walked up to the pier. I read on the benches, ate a slice of cheap pizza, and read some more. After a few hours, I would ride the bus back home. But I couldn’t convey to my brother how lonely I felt and how that bus ride was my way of filling up the time of my loneliness. I didn’t think he understood. Then he told me his bus story.

He told me that while I was still a baby when our mom first left for the U.S., he was old enough to remember when Mama Fina, our grandma, took us all to the bus station to put our mom on the bus to Guatemala, the first leg of her trip. When our mom got on the bus he burst into tears and while crying uncontrollably he tried to tear out of Mama Fina’s arms and get on mom’s bus. He remembered that it was a Pullman bus, not one of the local buses. He told me that for years afterward every time he saw a Pullman he would start crying and he would ask any adult nearby if that was our mom coming home.  

After that there was nothing left to say, so we drank in silence, each of us alone with our stories.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Pop’s Historicity

It is nearly impossible for popular music to represent history. The historiographic imagination is beyond it, I think. Linearity, plot, and telos are too important to the telling of history and too foreign to the form of popular music. Historiography must transform the heterogeneity of the past into a story that has a clear trajectory and a defined cast of characters. The telling of history relies on and is limited by the constraints of storytelling—the fabula and syuzhet of historical narrative negotiate the relationship between what happened and what we tell about it, reducing the massive complexity of the past into the comparative neatness of a story. Pop is relatively free of narrative. Even songs that appear to convey a story do so by volatilizing it to a series of scenes that are punctuated by repetition. Think of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” for example (a truly great song, no?). She creates a vivid image of her former lover by seemingly telling a story of who he was. Yet she tells us this through the imagistic recounting of three events that in themselves do not constitute a narrative. In fact, the refrain of her dreams as “clouds in my coffee” reveals more about her lover’s fickleness—whose love and the longings it inspired seem to have lasted only a passing instant—than the events that song poetically recounts.

Don’t misunderstand me, just because historiography is relatively foreign to the form of pop music, pop is still historical through and through. I have attempted many times here to place songs in a historical context. Pop music, like all culture, responds and attempts to make sense of its historical condition—and if you didn’t know that coming to terms with its own historicity is one of the central concerns of all culture, then you are kind of a dum-dum. Let me be clear, pop is historical although it cannot represent history. It deals with its own historicity but not through historiography.

This is not a weakness. In fact, the ways in which the past can erupt in pop music demonstrates how much more faithful pop is to the multiplicity of history. You see, while historiography reduces the past into a story, history—the things that happened in the past and their effects on people—itself is much larger, much more complicated and contradictory than any story we can tell of it. For this reason, the past can surprise us with its reappearance: old hatreds spring back to life, old cultural identities resurface to give people meaning, old knowledges are used to solve new problems. Historiography is linear but history is not. Benjamin captures this perfectly in the “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Nothing in the past is safe from the rapaciousness of the victors, he says, but so too can all the past that remains unclaimed by the present be used in the struggle for human emancipation. He prophesizes beautifully that the past awaits the moment when it can be brought to life against those that turn history into a justification for the condition of the present.

Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” (I don’t like this song but whatever) demonstrates the way in which the past as an eruption is formally consistent with pop music. The song does not tell the story of pop’s past; rather the past is made present by the guitar rhythms that give the song its momentum. In those rhythms you hear echoes of Prince’s “Controversy” (I like that song a lot but whatever) and other songs of the period. The past in “Get Lucky” is activated for aesthetic reasons not political ones, nonetheless, it’s the manner in which it is activated that interests me. The song takes hold of a fragment of the past and brings it to life, so doing it reminds us that while historiography has dominion over the telling of history, history in all of its non-linear totality is legible in every cultural artifact.

Monday, May 13, 2013


She gave me a picture of ducks. When she left a few weeks later, I put that picture at the top of the box of her things. I didn’t want the ducks to remind me of walking together with her hand curled in mine. I live near ducks. Unexpectedly, I delight in their comings and goings. She found this out of character interest in bird spotting endlessly amusing. One day I pointed out the return of the canvasbacks and she looked at me, her mouth agape, with a who-the-fuck-are-you expression that melted away into a smile. Coots are my favorite birds. They are small and black and everything they do looks difficult. Against the effortlessness of most other birds, coots seem to struggle to do the most basic things, like walking and swimming. She humored my love for coots. We took pictures of them. She held the camera while my legs dangled over the side of the embankment that borders the lake and the coots wandered over to see what was up with me. This was my favorite photo that she took that day.
At any rate, the first thing I thought to do the night she told me she had to go was to take the picture of the ducks off the wall. If she took that picture with her, I thought, I wouldn’t think very often of the dozens of times we walked around the lake chatting about this and that, me pointing out which birds were around. What a fool I am.

Rhye sing: “I’m a fool for that shake in your thighs/I’m a fool for that sound in your sighs/I’m a fool for your belly/I’m a fool for your love.” Beautiful sentiment. The images reveal the kind of intimacy that buckles your knees when you are in love.  Sometimes all you want to do is see the person you love turn in bed and get up. The movement of their body is enough to overwhelm you with affection. Or to have them close enough to feel their breath on your body. Is there anything better than that? I don’t think there is. When you feel that way, there is nothing that can replace those things, and thus you are vulnerable to all the sorrow that can accompany that kind of surrender. We are fools to let ourselves go but only bigger fools would deny themselves that surrendering. More so than the lyrics, the musical atmosphere of the song places you in that circle of desire, makes you want to love and be loved with blind abandonment. Even while the song reminds you of the perils of giving yourself up to love, it nonetheless makes you wish you were in love.

Giving her the picture of the ducks back did not let me think of her any less. The lake and the birds still reminded me of her. I still wanted to go back to loving her. The picture of the ducks became a memory that folded back into other memories, so that instead of being something that reminded me of her, it ended up becoming something I remembered every time I remembered her.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Come and Get It

The tabla gets your attention when you hear it on commercial radio. On the intro to Selena Gomez’s “Come and Get It” it is arresting. Then the song opens up from the vague South Asian gestures of the introduction to the luscious layering of sounds that one expects from thoroughly considered and executed pop. The rumor is that the song is about Justin Bieber. This song isn’t what people have in mind when they talk about “world music” but it counts just the same, doesn’t it? A Latina singing about a white Canadian in the international lexicon of pop, backed by traditional “third world” instruments, what’s more “world music” than that? The song overcomes the cultural borders that separate people, moving toward the multicultural utopia that goofball first-worlders soundtrack with world music. I’m kidding, of course, but the global character of the song nonetheless expresses a certain sensibility that is peculiar to our age. The song’s ability to seamlessly interweave traditional sounds within a highly commercial framework functions as the musical form of the singer’s own ethnic identity, which is both marked by racially coded signs like her name and skin color and rendered secondary and insignificant by a popular appeal that allows her to transcend the ethnic aesthetic pigeonhole that she might otherwise be placed in. The musical, racial, and global fluidity of “Come and Get It” makes it a document of postmodern culture and it can be celebrated in the way that postmodern culture often is. By refusing to abide by the distinctions that shaped older forms of popular culture, “Come and Get It” can be seen as containing the emancipatory impulses of our times, impulses which have made many archaic differences seemingly insignificant.

But there is another way of looking at it. The song's novel combination of cultural and racial vectors can also be seen as a necessary outcome of the acceleration of capital’s drive for profitable new commodities. In other words, the collapse of the old distinctions between say popular music and traditional music, between ethnic or racial identities, or between local musical forms and transnational commercial music is the effect of late capital’s ever-increasing, ever-accelerating search for different commodities. Because the rhythms of consumption have increased in our times, the cycles that allow us to consider something new or fresh have become shorter, thus mass cultural products like popular music have been forced to seek new sources, try new combinations in order to capture an audience that wants novelty—familiar versions of novelty anyway. So the postmodernity of which “Come and Get It” is a part is not so much the liberation from the categories that stifled human flourishing, rather it is evidence of the scope of capital’s power. Capital erodes the boundaries between what had been separate realms in order to expand the possibilities of what can be turned into a commodity. Let me put it this way: the tabla as a devotional or popular instrument in South Asia could not be brought into capital’s circuit. As part of the commercial output of world music, the tabla could be commodified, but its profitability was always circumscribed by the small reach of that genre. As an instrument that provides the musical counterpoint to a song that is produced for high popular appeal, it is finally made productive in capital’s profit-driven logic. The sound of the tabla in “Come and Get It,” then, is less the sound of borders coming down than it is the sound of capital overcoming a border in its hunger for profit.