Monday, February 8, 2010

Time and pop music

“All uncultured peoples sing and act, and what they act they sing, and they sing their treatises. Their songs are the archive of the people, the treasury of their science and religion, their theogony and the cosmogony of their fathers, and the events of their history; the impression of their hearts, the image of their domestic life in joy and sorry, in the bridal bed and the grave. Nature has given them a comfort against the many evils that oppress them, and a substitute for many of the so called blessing we enjoy, that is, free love, laziness, tumult and song.” - Herder.

The country folk cutting furze for the Guy Fawkes bonfires the third chapter of Hardy’s Return of the Native – called the “Custom of the Country” – are presented to us, at first, as anonymous creatures in the falling dark, as they would have been seen by ‘a looker-on posted in the immediate vicinity.’ When the bonfires “sprang into the sky”, the faces of the people around them emerge – although, as Hardy is careful to state, this illumination – good for our supposed on-looker – blinds the people around the bonfire to what is happening in the further darkness outside of it. Having lit the pile, what do they do? An old man begins it:

“With his stick in his hand he began to jig a private minuet, a bunch of copper seals shining and swinging like a pendulum from under his waistcoat: he also began to sing, in the voice of a bee up a flue—“

Naturally, they sing. For a contemporary on-looker, the strange thing revealed in the songs and the following conversation is what is left out: there is no indication that, among the young and the old gathered there, any song is particularly tied to an age group.

Hardy loved his dying festivals of the folk – another one, a dance, is put at the beginning of Tess. However, even if one goes a long way into the darkness around the bonfire on the Rainbarrow, until one meets a more urban local – pop culture as we know it, with its explicit, commercial effort to produce demographics as units of exploitation didn’t exist. Popular culture existed, of course, in abundance – the archive of the folk was being written and rearranged, visual and text culture was definitely colonizing the collective sensorium, but at what we would consider a very primitive level.

Our popworld is quantitatively different. And among the curious effects it has wrought, none is so curious as the way in which age group identification has fused with artifacts that are built to obsolesce. Such as songs. Why people in the Western world, between the age of 13 and 30, identify so ardently with songs, and why those songs then become age and generational markers for them, remains, as far as I can tell, an under-researched question.

I’m thinking about it because of a novel I am reviewing. The novel is basically about a middle aged man – my age, in fact, or thereabouts – who is in a horny sweat about young women. Now, this familiar character type is still good for loads of fun – he is a perpetual Punch, except instead of carrying a stick to beat Judy on the head, he carries a dick to beat himself – figuratively – on the head. All one needs, really, for comedy is a man and a stick – Moliere knew this, as did, well, every farceur going back to Aristophanes.

But the novel pitches uneasily between farce and sentimentality. The character has a penchant for remembering past girlfriends. All of his memories are sound tracked. The sound tracks are the songs of certain groups that came out when he was 13-30. And it is his melancholy observation that these songs are unknown to the youth.

This is an old American trope – or at least as old as the Cold War culture. Curiously, having set your heart on a certain set of songs precisely because they are new – and thus, wear their obsolescence on their very faces – Americans, as they grow older, use the fact that those songs don’t have the same effect on others who are in the 13-30 range, or might not even be known by them, to ‘feel old’.

On one side of this transaction, then, we have the pop culture industry producing goods that are marked explicitly within the continuum of the old-new – a time scheme appropriate to a consumer economy built around obsolescence. On the other side, you have consumers who actually identify, in some way, with these songs. They use them as elements in their own personal soundtrack. And even as they accept them as new, they then continue to drag them around as petrified mementoes of the new. In this way, the middle aged consumer can feel simultaneously new/old, while – in the pop world – a culture that is managed almost exclusively by the middle aged manages to produce zip that one could call, middle aged culture. There is nothing new for the middle aged – it is always the once-new.

This is, actually, an amazingly valuable paradox, and it may be reaching an endpoint. Fortune had a recent story about the amazingly shrinking music industry:

“In 2008, just 35% of album sales came from new releases, the lowest percentage since Nielsen began tracking the data in 1991. Instead of breaking new acts, major labels are increasingly relying on legacy artists and their catalogues.
Case in point: EMI with the Beatles. "EMI is run on catalogues," says Steve Knopper, author of Appetite for Self-Destruction, an account of the record industry's demise. "It prevents them from ever being completely destitute."”

Indeed, apparently EMI has become the house of Beatles, as that fifty year old, long dead band has become their core profit center. The long dead John Lennon, who would have been seventy this year, is going to be pimped out by EMI’s zombiemasters in order to squeeze more pence out of … out of who?

Surely the 50-70 demographic. Nostalgia is the emotional surplus value of the pop product; the “greatest hits,” “collectors edition”, “reunion tour” turns it into profit. The youth culture thus petrifies inside the non-young, as if they never can give up the taste of the yolk they once were on their tongue.

This juxtapositon of the obsolete/new is more, I think, than the temporal scheme manufactured by the pop industry. It is the sign under which America itself, the Cold War country that created the world’s first pop industries, has gone dysfunctional. Under the gun of nuclear war, the Cold War generations experienced the new/obsolete schema when it was, itself, fairly new. It was never really part of the deign that the consumers would take up their pop songs like a cross of age and trudge with it to the grave. But they have done so. The rival time scheme of both the “songs of the folk” and high culture were marginalized – the eternal return, or the eternal now – and in their place we live in the popdome 24/7. It once had energy, it once liquidated all the barbarous hierarchies, but it now sits on our neck, trivializing our every season. The empires of pop manufacture – all those horrible record companies, those multi-media ‘entertainment’ enterprises - are going down, and we are going with them.


yoni said...

roger lodge-
where is that herder quote from? would come in handy for a project i'm doing.

Roger Gathmann said...

I got it from Ausgewählte Werke, Volume 2 By Johann Gottfried Herder, p.55, where it is at the end of an essay on the Similarity of middle english and german poesie [Dichtkunst]. While the German expressly says song, you'll find it is often quoted as "poetry". I'm not sure if those quotes mean that Herder recycled this with some change elsewhere, or lit crit people are too embarrassed to call it song. The volume also contains Herder's essay on Volkslied, which is a term he invented.