Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Celine Dion as the Turkey Twizzler of Pop

.... uTopianTurtleTop responds to the charge of being a “riled up Maoist tribunal” (not precisely what I said but no matter) by… immediately ushering Greil Marcus before the court again!
… Ian Penman joins in the sport of the day (Marcus-bashing) (middle of this post)... and Zoilus comes with a forceful rejoinder to skeptics re. his Celine Dion project...

hmmm I’m not sure I either used or meant the expression “doomed to fail”… I guess Iwhat I do wonder with some bemusement is what “success” would constitute or be worth… someone struggling against their deepest aesthetic responses could be make for a compelling critical spectacle –but either outcome seems likely to be a Pyrrhic success – either the deconditioning will take, leaving Carl in a kind of aesthetic void with no reason to prefer anything over anything -- or it won’t, leaving him back where he started. I’m all for ambivalent writing, criticism rooted in mixed feelings, where attraction is met by an equal force of repulsion… I’ve done plenty of it myself… but what’s proposed here is something altogether together different: someone with a pre-existing strong feeling attempting to unlearn that response, question its legitimacy. Rather than the specificity of the example what’s most interesting is the moral genealogy of this impulse to auto-critique and self-rebuke…. which is not unique to Carl, but which he is now taking further than anybody.

The rising indignation in Carl’s tone suggests that he believes that at the end of the exercise a/ he will be a better person and b/ in some small way the world will be a better place. (Highly rockist reasons, incidentally-- High Rockism of the 60/70s sort!). The interesting question for me is: how did we reach this point where such a self-undermining (as opposed to “self-overcoming” as uTT attempts to detourn Nietzche) seems like a good idea, the acme of critical virtue? Indeed how did we even get to the point where it is thinkable? I can’t imagine this being done in other fields of criticism, and certainly not in earlier epochs.

The only critic of repute I can think of who has written at length about being a Celine Dion fan is Simon Frith. It was a piece in the Village Voice twinning Dion with another Frith MOR fave, Barbara Streisand, and I’d link to it but it seems to have been from just before the Voice went online. Trying to find it I did stumble across three juicy bits of anti-Celine sentiment, all from people who are anti-rockist to the core: original diva-worshipper and discophile Vince Aletti; Joshua Clover aka Jane Dark; and Momus. I can’t resist sharing:

----Aletti: “the sort of mechanical perfection and pull-out-the-stops showiness that Celine Dion has turned into a joke
-----Jane Dark compares his beloved Madonna with “the Celinator”, “whose cyborg bombast will crush Ray of Light like a bug
-----Momus avers: “Celine Dion is the Antichrist for me. She reminds me of what Brian Eno said about female wrestling -- you waste your energy hating things that are inevitable, so if you turn on the TV and mud wrestling is on, don't bother. I saw her on TV, and she reminded me of Freddie Mercury at his fascistic Nietzschean superhero height. She was definitely striking populist-fascist poses, but I'm not going to waste energy hating her.”

I had to quote that one because of the Nietzchean reference! the Terminator/Arnie analogy also has that undercurrent of Celine as ubermensch, or uber-diva.

I totally agree with Momus about not wasting energy hating her (my main bone of contention with Celine Dion is the stain she leaves on the name of one of my favourite authors). The card-carrying anti-rockism of those three writers shows that most people’s antipathy to Dion’s music is not a policy decision but visceral--immediate, enduring. I imagine Carl’s current feelings about Celine D are closer to these guys than Simon Frith’s qualified affection.
Anyway, my point is: it’s totally apt that Frith wrote a piece taking Celine seriously because the gesture that Carl is making in part of the current of thought and attitude that developed out of Cultural Studies, of which Frith is the godfather.

Cultural studies began in early Seventies UK– specifically the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University – and initially its prime focus was semiotic analysis and/or empirical research on oppositional subcultures–mods, skinheads, punks, bikers, hippies etc. Soon (partly through questioning its own biases towards the masculine-dominated, working class style tribes) it evolved into an approach that looked at all mass culture. The bulk of the conceptual groundwork for anti-rockism as we know it today was actually laid down by Simon Frith way back when in his book The Sociology of Rock (1978), also known as Sound Effects (if I recall right, a remixed/extended/better written version of the former republished in the early Eighties). All those basic ideas about the privileging of rock over pop, male taste versus teenage girl taste, proto-Bourdieusque notions about the class biases underlying taste hierarchies—it’s in that book. It was a major influence on both Frank Kogan and Chuck Eddy. (In an early issue of Why Music Sucks, Kogan poses a question to his readers—“does Simon Frith ever appear in your fantasies?”—and gets one affirmative response, “yes he does, quite a lot”, from WMS reader Simon Frith).

As the original title of Frith’s book makes clear, Cultural Studies came out of sociology, and a large aspect of the discipline was the pursuit of value-free understanding of popular leisure—a human science, its research aimed to increase the sum of human knowledge. But, distorting the value-free element significantly, Cultural Studies also came out of socialism—all of the CCCS theorists were left-wing and many were Marxists. Gramsci, mediated by Stuart Hall, was a particularly strong influence. The working class youth subcultures were understood to be unconscious expressions of anti-hegemonic resistance through rituals, attempts to escape class destiny through the symbolic victory of style. As cult-studs broadened its scope, it soon began scanning the entirety of popular culture for buried or encrypted expressions of resistance or utopianism—hence the much-ridiculed micro-discipline of Madonna-ology, the studies of Trekkies, the TV semiologist Fisk who thought that MTV was an explosion of jouissance and carnivalesque energy, a form of anti-repressive desublimation, etc etc.

This approach was based in a left-wing populism that wanted to believe that anything popular must have something good about it—because "the people", in their heart of hearts, are good. Left wing populists have to believe that the People are (or would be if only they’d listen to “us”) progressive/anti-authoritarian/tolerant/etc. Well, I’d like to believe that as well, but when you look at the world there’s a lot of evidence that people do/like/believe in/behave in all sorts of pernicious things/ways. “The people” are to some extent responsible for the fucked up nature of everything. And I’m not exempting myself from “the people”, at many, many points I intersect with them (apathy, selfishness, etc). One of the things to acknowledge is that popular culture is where a lot of this non-virtuousness manifests itself—and that, confusing things immeasurably, a lot of what makes pop culture work, makes it good (aesthetically), comes out of nasty stuff, the stuff that is ruining the world—aggression, ego, vanity, status, competitiveness, extravagance, not thinking about tomorrow. Rap and metal are two genres that can’t be properly understood without registering the roles of appetite-for-destruction and destructive appetites. And it goes beyond music of course: porn, junk food, and almost anything that can be described as "junk __" or "the new porn" etc etc. The cultural studies belief that there must be something good about anything that’s popular seems naïve and sentimental. A lot of popular things are reprehensible, or just lame.

The major legacy of cultural studies (which chunters on in academe with a well-past-its-day wan feel about it) as it filtered into rock/pop writing, is the critical sensibility of populist generalism. And one of tics of this sensibility is a squeamishness about the idea of aesthetic vanguardism, which is felt to be elitist, and an accompanying reluctance to describe anything as trash or middlebrow. The pervasiveness of this attitude is pretty unique to pop criticism—you might get a glint of slumming/inverted snobbery/populism idea here and there in film reviewing or literary criticism, but it’s pretty rare, and in other arts it’s non-existent. Outside arts & entertainment, it’s less than non-existent. Few people in our little world would have a problem with the idea that in politics certain ideas/values/policies are more progressive or enlightened than others. (Why, some of us might even go on Daily Kos and in our fury and frustration, fulminate against Republicans as “rethugs” or “wingnuts”, as morons or just plain evil). All these POP-ulist ideas to do with the equal standing of all musics, are variations on “50 million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong”. But few of us I think would have much problem asserting that 51 million Bush voters could be wrong—disastrously wrong, for the whole world. Few of us would be reluctant to reject the opinion of the X number of millions of Americans who believe gay marriage is an abomination, or X number worldwide who believe in the existence of a Jewish World Conspiracy. ...

Obviously these are real evils with stark implications, whereas “bad” culture is not pernicious in any easily proved way or obviously direct way. An example that lies somewhere in between the two extremes and may be slightly illuminating: food. Few with any firsthand experience of school meals in the UK or America would disagree that they are shit, nutritionally and in terms of taste. Yet kids love that shit. I’ve got a six year old, if left to his own devices Kieran would eat nothing but chicken nuggets and fizzy soda. And you can see why the stuff appeals to unsophisticated palates: they’re salty and fatty and tasty in a very narrow sense, the sugary sodas give a “loud”, effective rush. And yet this kind of food is really bad for kids both in the short term (mega-constipative--some kids go two weeks without a shit; affects ability to concentrate in school, moodswings) and long-term (early death). When Jamie Oliver during the series based on his School Lunch project showed the kids what nuggets and Turkey Twizzlers (if you don’t know, you don’t want to know--oh go on then, take a peek) are made from-–a pink gloop of mechanically evacuated meat-mush, chicken lips and turkey perineum—they were uniformly turned off; knowledge made them more discriminating about what they put in their bellies. And having the crap struck off the menu in the school cafeteria forced them to educate their dulled palates and they soon learned to tolerate, then actively prefer, Jamie’s fare.

From a populist perspective, though, you could argue that the Jamie Oliver School Lunchs project is elitist/pedagogically patronising/authoritarian… imposing healthy food on consumers who didn’t want it, who were perfectly happy with the prepared, just-heat-and-serve fare churned out by the catering corporations who are themselves the gastronomic asshole for the agri-business mega-congloms. In Kogan terms, it’s a PBS-ification of food! Indeed you do find populist types who sneer at the bruschetta-eating middle classes with their Mediterraean peasant diets, just as Socialist Worker Party hardmen back in the Eighties would jeer at vegetarianism as a self-indulgent bourgeois-bohemian lifestyle politics distracting from the real revolutionary struggle (to be fueled by proper prole nosh like Cornish pasties and bitter and Benson’n’Hedges)…

Now why is it that the idea of the vanguard—of advanced taste, an advanced sensibility-- utterly distasteful to so many within music, and only within music? I think it comes from this diffuse left-wing populism (which is itself, ironically, descended from the 60s and 70s Grand Era of Rock(ism).) The populist sentiment—which would like to believe the best of “the people”—has noticed and is anxious about the large gap between critics and popular taste; like the Democrats worried about "liberal elitism", it wants to close the (aesthetic) values gap. Perhaps in some distant sense it feels the pain of the loss of the more unified pop moment of the 1960s (when high and low and black and white and working class and middle class and dance and Art were all swirled up in one glorious mess)… a moment that has recurred at various points (... glam... New Pop… rave... ) but always along a waning arc of brevity and smallness of impact. Our divisions seem more impregnable than ever. The populist/generalist impulse desires to symbolically erase those divisions by a unilateral granting of respect. It wonders perhaps if criticism has helped create those divisions or at least confirm them, anneal them, through its history of condescendion to the popular. So, taking it back to specifics, a slight has been done to Celine Dion and to her millions of fan, by the lack of serious attention given to her music. Rockism, it appears, has demeaned and neglected a whole array of musics, an array of populations; reparation must be begun.. But has the “exclusionism” denied the artists and genres in question huge record sales? Hardly. Access to the radio? Nope. Peaceful enjoyment of their preferred music (not one whit: there’s no equivalent in music to Jamie’s School Lunchs project). No, the insult and the injustice boils down to certain styles not getting their “fair” representation on Pazz and Jop; and perhaps a deficit of column inches in certain magazines. The slight was never felt; the penance will never be noticed.

The idea of the Vanguard is now widely derided, even deplored (specious analogies with Leninism and Stalinism--of course, totalitarian societies uniformly put fetters on modernism and instigate a cultural regime of unmitigated kitsch). Let’s be honest, though, populist generalism pursues its own version of the cutting edge: it’s a sort of inverted vanguardism. If it’s hip to take seriously “the square”, what ensues is a chase to plunge deeper into the mass , to find new frontiers of things that rockism has disparaged and neglected. Carl’s Celine project makes him Albert Ayler to Ann Powers’ Charlie Parker and Joshua Clover’s Ornette. (Nate Patrin? Honking over there like Brotzmann maybe). See, at the first EMP, Ann Powers did a presentation celebrating mediocrity in pop, ie. the middling sort of chart hits that don’t stand out particuarly but mean a lot for various reasons to their fans (her examples were hits by Incubus, Enya, and baffling to me, Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy”—my favourite rap production of that year!), her polemical thrust being to challenge rockism’s privileging of the exceptional (the way it had learned to accept and exalt pop/hip hop/R&b whenever it fit criteria of extreme or innovative, but… well, you get the drift, groundbreaking in its way). And Joshua Clover offered a treatise in defence of disposability in pop, the target being rockism’s privileging of permanence and artistic durabililty. Oh there’s more to this impulse than critical brinksmanship, sure, but if you accept that, you must accept–must actively resist the kneejerk pop(ul)ist temptation –to regard any impulse to celebrate difficult/avantgarde/hard/weird/noisy music as merely based in elitism/cooler-than-thou-ism/snobbery. There’s more to it than that. Bourdieu is not the last word on the subject. There is the little matter of music, aesthetic rapture, the politics of pleasure, etc.

A while back I argued that anti-rockism, being essentially a form of deconstruction, is all about eliminating reasons to value, esteem, believe, etc. Well, as Carl’s project shows, it is also about eliminating all the bases on which one might dislike/disbelieve/disregard–for all the negative words are suspect too now: loaded, coming under interrogation from the tribunal. “Bland,” “too clean sounding”, “overproduced”, “slick”, “sterile”, “soft”, “shlocky”, “melodramatic,” “manipulative”.... these are all dead give-aways, wrapped up with all kinds of assumptions and preconceptions. Anti-rockism thinks it is valiantly resisting “the taste police”; actually what it is actually doing is encouraging people to internalise a kind of “value police”*, a inner tribunal in which any immediate or visceral response is warily inspected, any judgement to be endlessly qualified, situated/self-relativized, or simply deferred. A court that judges its own judgement process, in effect, with the potential for Bleak House-like deadlock. Critique will eat itself… and the taste is unmistakeably Turkey Twizzler-like.

*Carl sez that anti-rockism is not about removing aesthetico-moralism in toto but the specific one installed and upheld by old skool rockcrit, ie. what i call High Rockism. But I call bullshit on that: anti-rockism, if it is truly serious about its pursuit of the opened mind**, must surely interrogate poptimist biases too (reject the installation of a new set of inverted snob values e.g. glossy = good), it must continually scrutinise all systems of values, all aesthetic philosophies

** “open mind” -- I’m not actually anti this, in the sense that yeah yeah curiosity about new and different musics is splendid and necessary, listening widely is a good thing to do and have done. But I just think a/ this kind of open-ness is an elementary, goes-without-saying part of the job description, not something to pat yourself on the back about and b/ “open mind” is equated in a lot of people minds with the idea that all musics are of equal merit and deserve equal respect. As a vague and wishy-washy preliminary standpoint that’s okay as far as it goes, but to actually be a critic involves embarking on an ongoing and potentially endless attempt to work what you value in art, and it’s highly unlikely that incidences of this are going to be evenly distributed across the entire field of music; you might even find it clustering heavily in particular sites across the landscape of music. The “open mind” ideal, incidentally, is a highly moralistic one and therefore really rather rockist--it justifies itself by a/ ideas of justice, equal respect, egalitarianism, etc b/ the notion that you’ll be a better person for having one. The latter is an argument from the basis of edification, a sort of auto-pedagogy; it’s a PBS argument. The “open mind” cannot be justified by a recourse to a pleasure-determined argument, there is no evidence that people who listen to lots of genres have more enjoyment of music; there are people who only listen to one genre who have lives crammed with pleasure, and theoretically it’s possible that someone could listen to just one artist--or one album even--and have a life that was wall to wall aural bliss. The more you experiment and expand your range, the more you risk un-pleasure. (You can see an analogy of this with eating out: going to the same restaurant and ordering the same entrée you know you like almost guarantees 100 percent satisfaction; going to different restaurants with different cuisines each time and trying the most unfamiliar dish on each menu is going to produce much more mixed results. It was the schoolkids instinct for risk-management that caused Jamie Oliver so much grief when getting them to try his food). I would say as a listener whose professional duty and personal inclination makes me listen to lots of genres there is plenty of evidence that it reduces one’s listening-pleasure in toto--the more time you spend listening to things you like a little bit/are trying to learning to like/don’t really like but feel you “should” check out anyway for other critera, the less time you spend listening to things you really love. (There are also plenty of examples of critics who focus narrowly on one genre and have an incredible deep understanding and enjoyment of it). It’s this moral injunction to open your mind that interests me (in pursuit of justice and knowledge) and which I think goes someway to explaining the definite note of piousness that creeps into Carl’s rebuttal towards the end--especially the implication that that he is nobly relinquishing some of his privilege and power.

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