Thursday, June 01, 2006

The glittering metropolis towards which Paulie and Kylie are driving in Words and Music—“the capital city of Pleasure”, “the concrete city of information”—always struck me as no place I’d really care to visit. I imagined it as being something like an unimaginably vast and shinily sterile music megastore. That, or like the interior of an iPod, an impossibly dense, coldly seething non-space of sound transubstantiated into data. At one point Morley describes it as “a city of lists”, which make me wonder if he actually knew about iPods when he wrote the book, or even more intriguingly, somehow sensed they were coming, that the logic of music in the digital era dictated that a device like that would come into existence.

Well what do you know, Apple, or their ad agency, appear to have read W & M, whose subtitle, lest we forget, is A History Of Pop In The Shape Of A City. Just look at their new iPod/I-Tunes TV commercial. “Frantic City" is the spot’s title and it shows a frenetically self-assembling cityscape of skyscrapers and apartment blocks built out of CD covers, which collapse like houses of cards and deliquesce into a dazzling stream of audio-visual data that's then decanted at a furious bit-rate into, you guessed it, an iPod. Advertising Age comments, “Well, yes, an iPod loaded with a thousand or so songs from iTunes is something of a city of music” , and singles out for special praise the commercial's soundtrack, "Cubicle" by Rinocerose.” A Pro-Tooled and techno-turbocharged version of Jet/Vines-style garage punk, the tune’s chorus sneers “you spend all your time/in a little cubicle/a cubicle”. The implication seems to be that I-Tunes can free you up into a world of hearing outside the box, a brave new multiverse of shattered genre-barriers and listening-without-prejudice. Which is intriguing in light of the emerging critique of open-mindedness. Might there not be a sense in which Kapital wants and requires omnivorous consumers, non-partisan and promiscuously eclectic? And that conversely, obsession and fidelity are fundamentally opposed to its interests. Obsession, after all, asserts the irreplaceableness of the object of desire, its singularity and pre-eminence over all the other goods on the market; it rejects the idea of "plenty more fish in the sea". Devout fans of a particular band take themselves out of the market: at a certain point, there are simply no more things to buy (although the industry has tried to exploit the fixated and loyal by encouraging reconsumption—all those Deluxe Expanded double-disc versions of albums you already own, endless live DVDs, and so forth—a case perhaps of the corporate music biz imitating the black market of bootlegs and foreign-TV-appearance video-comps that has served fandom for so long). The ultimate example of fanaticism’s anti-consumerist logic is the diehard who arrests pop time at the lost golden age—the Teddy Boy or old skool raver, the period fetishist or genre patriot who only plays the golden oldies, over and over and over again. True believers and keep-the-faithers like these are no use to Kapital because they have opted out of its endless cycles of neophilia and obsolescence, the turnover that ensures a healthy turnover.

A few weeks ago I referred to Words and Music as Pop-ism’s Mein Kampf but I should really have said Das Kapital—what the book imparts is actually surprisingly non-egocentric, much closer to a structuralist diagram of how pop works, where its logic is leading. The City is a place where “all that’s solid melts into air.” Music becomes insubstantial—in the sense that it sheds all those various forms of “substance” prized by rockism, unburdening itself of the ponderous encumbrances of social context and biographical input that tether it to the Real, the freight of content and intent that keep it weighted down with Weightiness. Near the end of the book, Morley writes of pop’s role in a transition “from rooted reality dwelling into a rootless post-reality heaven and hell, where desires can be satisfied instantly, where pleasure can be constant… where our lives are run by remote companies in remote control of our needs and wants, where everything that has ever happened is available, all at once, all around us, in the universe in the shape of a city mashed into a room slipped inside our head.” That passage is the only wrinkle of ambivalence in the odd closing chapter, which is disconcerting because it doesn’t read like Morley but like something out of an early 90s edition of Mondo 2000 or Wired: techno-utopian verging on capitalist-mystical. The city where “everything that has ever happened is available” sounds bizarrely similar to the loony notion of a Universal Library written about recently by Kevin Kelly in a New York Times Magazine cover article—he envisages every book and every magazine article ever written, in all languages, and eventually every movie/TV program/cultural artifact EVER, being gathered into one vast database accessible to all—which glorious prospect isn’t enough for Kelly, who then imagines the Universal Library getting miniaturized and compressed into an iPod-size device that everyone of us will carry around wherever we go (presumably because on the subway to work you might just need to refer to an editorial from an 1865 editorial in the Brattleboro Reformer, or a Sanskrit scroll, or...). Where Morley writes about how in his city of sonic information every item on every (play)list leads to another set of lists, Kelley drools about the prospect of hyperlinks that connects the concepts and key words in any given text to myriad other instances, a
paper(less) chase of endlessly receding references and footnotes, a dementia of reading lists and annotations (share your margin-scribblings with your friends!). Both, intriguingly, allude to the immortal nature of these edifices of data, a hint of that extropian hope that it’s possible to cheat death. Kelley’s pocket-portable micro-cosmopolis, Morley/Apple’s “city of music” that fits into a cigarette packet-sized memory box---these are the latest versions of the Singularity that all West Coast techno-utopians seem to believe is nigh, the point where the exponenential curve of Progress reaches vertical: a smiley-face version of the Apocalypse, in which the accumulation of all Knowledge = Enlightenment = World Unity aka the Global Village/Love’s Body/the BwO/etc. A fantasy of Total Connectivity as the End of Difference and the End of History. What’s repressed in this scenario is the fact of finitude—the finitude of resources, of an individual’s time; the limits to the sensorium’s ability to process information (there’s a speed at which stuff isn’t even experienced as such). The liquefaction of culture is actually the liquidation of culture......

No, this City doesn't sound like a place I'd enjoy living at all.

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