Wednesday, December 02, 2009

life after "death"

Amazing that so many (90 percent maybe) of the negative responses to my piece on the stagnation of rap were exactly the sort I deliberately parried/piss-took in advance (prolepsis can work, sometimes), i.e. running up frantically brandishing some
half-decent recent rap CDs and spluttering indignantly "look, LOOK how can it be dead?!" As if a smatter of fairly-good records could actually out-weigh the larger argument about a music formation passing its prime/time...

Not one person stepped up with an example of an actual sonic innovation the last half-decade of rap could claim for itself… nor a compellingly original personality who'd emerged from rap's ranks in recent years… (well okay Tom Breihan suggested that Gucci Mane was what I was looking for--can't say he's grabbed me really… but even if… one swallow does not a summer make).

Here's a genre defined in its prime-time by refreshment through constant innovation, by huge personalities with originality of style. A genre further defined by world-conquering/can't-hold-us-back ambition. How can it withdraw back into being a kind of sub-mainstream? There's already one undieground hip hop.

The other 10 percent of the negative responses boiled down to the familiar argument: if you just scale down your expectations, take a small-picture view of things, then everything's fine. (Genre patriots often seem like people locked in bad marriages, hoping things will improve, grateful for small mercies, settling for less and less, because they've made that "for better or worse" pledge).

I prefer my bi-polar view of music history--ups and downs--to the steady-state flatline that many seem to have grown (up) accustomed to. It creates the kind of affects I enjoy.


There is actually an interesting book devoted to the subject of whether musical styles can be said to die or not: Is Rock Dead? by Kevin J.H. Dettmar, from 2005. It's about the discourse of rock's death, but the ideas are applicable to anything--rap, electronic dance music, whatever. There is a large aporia in the book, though, in so far as Dettmar can never for a second countenance the possibility that a music could actually die (in the sense of becoming irrelevant, uncoupled from the Zeitgeist, etc). So the book quickly becomes a series of ripostes to critics and academics who have at various junctures advanced the argument that rock was dead or dying, from Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer to James Miller and Lawrence Grossberg. The angle pursued much of the time is the "projecting own fading life-force onto the music" one. So e.g. with James Miller and his 2000 book Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Rolll, 1947-1977 (which argues that rock completed its arc with punk and thereafter was just a series of variations on established themes) Dettmar argues that Miller's "eulogy for rock & roll is throughout, and transparently, a requiem for his own youth". Dettmar further points the finger at babyboomer triumphalism, "a kind of generational ethnocentrism" (he sees punk as a late boomer invention, as it happens, its last blast). And yet Miller's remark that "rock now belongs to the past as much as to the future" seems fairly on the ball, and quite fair: I don't know if I'd take the turning point to be as early as 1977, but generally the notion seems pretty incontestable, and the "as much as to" is probably quite generous.

The truth (which Dettmar acknowledges) is that the prospect of rock's death has been a thread of anxiety running all the way through the music's history--voiced not just by critics and academics, but by musicians and fans too. It's the very excessive life-force of the music/culture--the energy, currency, newness, collective self-confidence, and sheer command over its own era--that unavoidably and inherently raises the possibility of a fading away, and raises that prospect remarkably early too. That fade can be characterized in lots of different ways, depending on the ideology-of-rock that's adhered to, what you consider to be the essence of the music, why it mattered in the first place. A commonly-held one would be the relapse of rock back into what it once defined itself against (showbiz/MOR/mere entertainment). But whatever the deemed essence is, the insistence on the possibility of a music form's death/betrayal is actually a form of fidelity towards its vitality. Dettmar acknowledges this, writing that "the birth and death of rock aren't just coincident… they are, in fact, two different ways to talk about the very same thing."

Here, ironically, he finds himself in agreement with Lawrence Grossberg (otherwise relentlessly excoriated throughout) who wrote about the possibility of rock's death as "a discursive haunting within [rock] and, of course, a possible eventual reality"... "the becoming-residual" of "the rock formation" (i.e. not just the music but the whole culture and discourse surrounding it). In an early essay from 1984 Grossberg talks about how rock is a historical phenomenon and therefore has to end at some point; he picked up the theme a decade later in another essay, "if the rock formation had a beginning, it is also possible that it has an end," noting further that the music might not disappear but it might be so drastically altered by changes in the context surrounding it and the uses made of it that it was to all intents and purposes no longer itself (a kind of death).

Oddly absent from Dettmar's book is any reference to the best ever piece of writing on this subject, Greil Marcus's 1992 essay "Notes on the Life and Death and Incandescent Banality of Rock'n'Roll". It's a wide-ranging, really rich piece (one of the evidences presented for "rock"--in the largest sense--having life in it yet is actually the Geto Boys song "Mind Playing Tricks On Me"). But the nub of the essay--or at least one of the nubs, the nub relevant here, is this: after quoting some French critics describing the 1950s art world in terms of "pointlessness surrounded by repetition" and "a dismal yet profitable carnival", Marcus suggests "it's as if the source of the depression is not that rock is dead but that it refuses to die".