Monday, November 2, 2009

Tim Finney came up with an intriguing comment on an ILM thread, describing a certain contingent at Dissensus in the following terms (the comment coming out of a discussion of MIA and the debates here about popism):

"When one of them finally and openly says "I love this piece of music but objectively speaking I shouldn't and therefore won't love it any longer", we will know that they take their own nu-rockist anti-enjoyment crusade seriously."

It sounds so puritanical and unpleasant doesn't it, the way he puts it!

But on reflection, I thought of plenty of instances such pleasure-denying might actually be an appropriate thing to do.

In real life there are myriad such either/or choices (coveting thy best friend's wife; priest struggling with the urge to fondle choir boy etc etc), and while you might say culture is a whole other domain from life, i'm not sure.

for instance, you can imagine someone who loved dancehall but decided to deny themselves that pleasure on account of the batty-boy-bashing. (Actually, I can think of an example where I've done precisely that-- that big TOK tune about we bun the chi chi man, before i knew what chi chi man meant that was my favorite dancehall track of the year, i loved it, but when i found out, simultaneously with finding out the name of the artist, i just couldn't bring myself to buy the CD. But i haven't go so far as to say, stop enjoying 'big it up' by buju on account of his other records or statements). Or another example: i don't rate whitehouse's music at all, but i can easily imagine a scenario of loving it to death but refusing myself that delight on acocunt of finding the serial killer/nazi commandant eulogizin' element offensive (even more offensive, actually, if it's all a giant put-on).

of course Tim is talking more about theories about music and what matters etc becoming so rigid that you close yourself down to avenues of pleasure

what interests me about this line of thinking is that it's either based in, or ends up with, a kind of moralism of pleasure -- in other words, the essence of popism is that it brooks no laws or prohibitions EXCEPT
thou shalt never deny yourself any pleasure. no principle , or set of ideas, could possibly be worth denying yourself a specific source of enjoyment -- open-ness as a value in itself

pleasure is the first and the final arbiter

but pleasure alone has never been enough as either spur or subject matter for critical discourse. There's always been an X(-tra)-factor. melded with pleasure. Kpunk, borrowing a lick from Zizek, has argued, “there is no emancipatory potential in pleasure”. It is these X(-tra)-factors that adds the element of emancipation. At various points in pop history, fun/pleasure/desire/jouissance/ecstasy has been allied with other forces (rebellion, expression, aesthetic shock, innovation, dissidence, quest, etc). This combination has time and time again “made of joy a crime against the state” (Barney Hoskyns). That statement should be understood figuratively most of the time--'state' as socio-cultural stasis--and over time as music has become more self-reflexive, it's degenerated into intra-aesthetic taste games (the transgression buzz of liking something kitsch, moving into forbidden zones of music). But "joy as a crime against the state" has been literal too, at various points--most recently, rave. (In Utah, a few months ago they sent armed troopers in to shut down a rave).

There are also plenty of things i enjoy musically but would never be stirred to write about particularly, in the absence of these X(-tra)-factors.

On another tack, i would say that a lot of my own choices are based in a kind of aesthetic morality of finitude. In other words, life is short, so why waste it on lesser pleasures?


Proposition: any argument in favour of any kind of music that attributes to it “edge” or “worth” = rockist (regardless of whether the music in question is made with electric guitars).

The reductio ad absurdum of rockism is the artist or genre that is all edge and no entertainment (power electronics--sorry Infinite!), or all worth and no entertainment (an early Eighties Jackson Browne 'socially conscious' album maybe)

Personally, something that is devoid of entertainment has no appeal to me. My choices are all in the grey fuzzy area where entertainment and Something Xtra are mixed up. There might be a record, for instance, that is entertaining but not so exceptionally entertaining that I’d want to overlook or put up with other aspects that I find distasteful or irritating. Especially given there’s an unlimited number of fish in the pleasure sea.

(In addition to, and closely related to, the Aesthetic Morality of Finitude is the Aesthetic Morality of Over-Abundance. So many pleasures, which to pick? And what justifies the decision to reject something?)


The X(-tra) factors that refer to something beyond pleasure generally come either from the discourse of Art or the discourse of Folk. Rockism’s arguments are mostly all Art-derived (innovation, avant-garde type talk of shock and formal advance; Lit-crit type lyric-based stuff about imagination-activating, soul-enlargening, making us more sensitive, imparting life-wisdom) or they’re Folk-Based (the social/political, solidarity, resistance, community, voice of the people/the streets, social realism, etc). Rockism tends to oscillate back and forth between these sets of arguments (Dylan in that sense is foundational, shifting from community-based protest to individual artistic expression); you can see them going on in the punk and postpunk era (TRB and Sham versus the more existensialist side of postpunk-as-artrock-reborn).

These are both discourses of truth. The X(-tra) factor therefore is always a species of truth. As in, unfortunately, the Manic Street Preachers, “this is my truth tell me yours”.

(The exception to this is formal innovation, which isn't "truth" in that simple sense of the word, although didn't someone once say that form is sedimented content).

The greatest, most provocative, artists are perhaps those who operate in some undecidable zone between the political and the personal. “Dissident” might be the best word that captures the mixture of political, cultural, existential/shamanic/outside-of-everything. I’ll concede Dylan although I don’t feel it owing to some quirk of my growing up; Lennon, Lydon, Morrissey, Mark E. Smith, and so on, loads more examples. Where “protest against society” meets and becomes indistinguishable from “protest against life”.


Q: Isn’t pleasure emancipatory in itself?

A: Maybe once, long ago, claiming the right to pleasure was emancipatory, a movement across a limit. The 1950s, for sure, and the 1960s, for certain kinds of pleasure, certain kinds of fun. But the victory of pop, its success, means that fun is lfar ess proscribed today than it is prescribed. That victory was more or less established by the early Seventies, when rock became, give or take some residual art-talk, “just entertainment, mere showbiz”. Punk was the restoration of the idea that there was more to music than just entertainment. So when the Sex Pistols sang their version of “No Fun” it wasn’t just a complaint; it was interdiction, threat, promise.


An account of a piece of music purely and entirely in terms of the pleasure it gives the listener would have not much interest for me. At bottom I couldn’t really understand what would motivate someone to pick up pen or keyboard and issue such a piece of writing. Why not “enjoy in silence”?

Such a piece of writing would be as useful to me as a munch by munch account of a meal. (I love food but I rarely read restaurant criticism. I did once cut out and keep a piece on steak houses in New York by a famous food critic whose name i forget, because it’s voluptuous, slightly fey imagery reminded me of Chris Roberts).


A lot of talk on the blogs, forums, etc, involves trading information, pointing out pleasures, the mutual burble of delight. It’s in the spirit of Everett True’s remark “I don’t need to know why something is good, I just need to be told what is good and where it is ” (I quote from faded memory). And that is totally fine, a useful activity for fans who share tastes and assumptions; I engage in it myself. I would call it sub-critical, not as a diss but as an accurate description. But the stuff that really excites me is the stuff that questions the terms, enlarges the frame of reference, sets a little fire in your brain. There’s a symmetry there, in so far as I’m looking for similar things from the music: pleasure, yes, but also that it spur me to new thoughts. This year my interest in grime has started to wane a bit because it feels like it isn’t moving fast enough and therefore is failing to generate new thoughts in me. I might be mistaken there, it could be a failing of my own rather than the genre; but I doubt it. (By contrast, I lost interest in drum’n’bass when its entertainment quotient started to go into steep decline; for all I know it might have generated a steady stream of new thoughts--in fact it did, in the sense of repeatedly coming back to the subject of “why did D&B turn crap?”--but the hedonic factor had dropped away completely).


But… but… but… Simon… I’m sure you’ve written many pieces that are just purely about the pleasure and surface delight of a record

Well, you might be right. I’d be surprised if there were many that were devoid of any reference to the X-factor. But I daresay when writing a column of jungle 12 inch reviews or 2step or whatever, they might be almost entirely about the sensation-al and formal delights of the music. But then it would be taken for granted that the X-factor aspects had already been established; that understood-and-more-or-less-agreed set of values and claims would be the context for this second-tier form of consumer-guidance writing. Also it would probably have a tone of urgency about it that would in spirit echo the larger project.

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