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.