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The below is adapted from a review of Agnés Gayraud’s Dialectic Of Pop, originally written for Review 31. Dialectic Of Pop is available from its publisher Urbanomic.
Pop, it sometimes seems, is no longer what it was. After the brief flourish of art pop in 2016-2017 – PC Music, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Kanye’s Life Of Pablo, Rihanna’s Anti and ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, Frank Ocean’s Blonde – the Anglo-American charts have reverted to the base substance of 2011: crude and structurally deformed dance-pop numbers, lackadaisical rap collaborations, emotional flatulence masquerading as profundity. Even the tendency across the last decade, noted by New York pop critic Craig Jenkins, towards a “consolidation” in chart hits of every winning songwriting gesture, a form of “pop centrism”, ends up producing curiously hollow results, “zeroing in on a median sound and simply cloning it ad infinitum”. Of course, as finger-wagging critics remind us, there are always exceptions: in the “hyperpop” trailing after PC Music’s comet; the remarkable and consistent inventiveness of Carly Rae Jepsen; the lunatic fringes of rap that overlap at unpredictable moments onto the mainstream; the vertically-integrated teenpop factories of South Korea and Japan, to say nothing of the enormous, underexposed creativity of the genre variations of the global south. And yet, this very structure of the exception seems to prove the rule: that pop as a musical form lives by extracting new ideas and materials, incorporating previously marginal industries and markets, to ward off an exhaustion that dogs it ever more closely, after the century when “mass culture” emerged and disappeared. Pop is no longer a form with a centre, just an endless tesselate of enclosed peripheries. As in the fate of the capitalist world-system itself, in a present ruled by Spotify and the cartels of the major labels, there is no new China from which to squeeze a further dollar, and the rate of profit can only fall.
As musician and philosopher Agnès Gayraud puts it, “pop has ceased to be a symbol, and has become a symptom instead.” It may survive, like many fields since the financial crisis, on the dribble of tech money but “it is as if its aesthetic truth has been left in limbo”. But paradoxically Gayraud’s study, which turns on an attempt to clarify what makes pop a unique and historically specific art form, in the same way people speak of classical music or the novel, ends by emphasising that this structure, in which pop apparently dies and returns, is part of its very essence. The pop and rock criticism that came into its own in the 1960s “project[ed] the golden age back to the first moments of rock’n’roll in the early 1950s”, while for the current older generation of critics, who were children when pop was getting old for the first time, the Fall from Eden is located in the mid-late 1970s. Both are, in a certain sense, right. Pop came into being as almost an accidental by-product of the industrial rationalisation of culture, and is a “primaverist” form, one which clings to the beginnings of things with no thought to what comes after apart from their disposal. But it can only become what it is through ageing and the loss of innocence, that allows it to become self-conscious and self-reflexive. The whole process can be seen, in miniature, in the Beatles’ career, as the ringing freshness of ‘I Wanna Hold Her Hand’ gave way to the summative grandeur of ‘A Day In The Life’, absorbing rock, music hall and avant-garde orchestral composition into an aesthetic form that seemed to verge on questions of life and death as closely as, say, Mahler’s late works. The history of pop, such as it appears in its official literature, is an overlapping series of deaths and rebirths, as the biographical lifespan of cultural generations overwrites the history of production.
Such a model of eternal recurrence in culture was, for philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno, a sign of popular music’s status as a mere commodity. Adorno trained as a composer with the thorny atonalist Alban Berg, during the period when popular music was first emerging as a mass and industrialised form. His writings on the “light music” of the 1930s are notorious for their unceasing assault on what even sceptical critics took to be harmless or edifying styles like hot jazz and swing. He’s thus become the great bogeyman of academic pop music studies, which has usually been an outgrowth of cultural studies: the untiring enemy of straightforward pleasure, the Satanic deflater of the artistic claims academics have consistently made for pop on behalf of subaltern groups (women, racialised populations, sexual minorities etc), the mandarin advocate of a grey, “serious music”. Pop academia, of course, won even as pop itself has decayed. So that seemingly nothing could be more Quixotic and unproductive now than taking Adorno’s aesthetic theories as the basis for a study of pop. And yet, Gayraud’s study illuminates central aspects of pop music, in all their double character, that scholarship centred on its redemptive and culturally representative character ignores. In refusing to wish pop music’s infernal aspects away, it takes pop seriously in a way that even the most nuanced and reflective boosterism doesn’t.
The book’s first part, after a short prologue, is devoted to a rehearsal of all Adorno’s arguments against pop, as a way of looking at “the critical structure of what we call [pop’s] aesthetic form”. Adorno believed that, like all products of the “culture industry”, popular music had no “autonomous” aesthetic character to speak of. The music that became hegemonic in the first half of the 20th century emerged from various sources – music hall, folk song, jazz crooning, cowboy ballads, Appalachian bluegrass, above all the blues – denatured and re-engineered, so Adorno claimed, according to the imperatives of combined capital. Where modernist art estranged and disenchanted the world, the culture industry’s products kept people in a state of artificial primitive reaction. The constrained jerking motions of the jitterbug dances of the 1920s made palpable the automatism of this “reflex character”. Pop songs’ rigid verse-chorus-verse structure, the repetition of the “hook” and its reiteration between hit songs, the constant churn of the same genre elements, bespeak a frozen, dead time, always appearing as the ever-new. The supposed Dionysian release of pop music is a strategy of containment, encasing people in the false freedom of their individuation: “‘fun’ is the steel bath whose liquid heat marries with the movements of bodies only to better paralyse them in place once they cool off and harden.” But this also involves outlining the moments where Adorno’s arguments admit of the aesthetic power of pop music.
Thus, Gayraud’s gambit is to suggest that all Adorno’s accusations about pop’s deformities are what make it unique – and that pop itself is conscious of them, working through them in its form and the broken images it thus offers of the good life. If pop shares in capitalism’s universal and minutely-planned squandering of human potential, its compromised pleasures testify, as Adorno puts it, to the lack of any natural necessity to the existing order the culture industry structures: “For people to be transformed into insects they require as much energy as might well suffice to transform them into human beings.” The self-enforced enjoyment of the jitterbug can be seen becoming, Gayraud suggests, a demystifying rage in the punk pogo. Like all such features of art, it has the potential to slide back into commodification, but every reified element – sometimes the least expected – can also offer a glimpse of liberation. For pop, as a music utterly saturated with the logic of the commodity, contains a utopian kernel – what Gayraud calls “the utopia of popularity”, “the reconciliation of an art that would exclude no one and an entertainment that would not be deceitful”. But if pop ever tries to realise this utopia, it betrays it, crystallising it into dumb objects to be bought with money: “[t]he pop dream always ends up in ashes”. In that sense pop should be seen as a “broken form”, constantly caught in the “negative dialectic” that Adorno saw as the condition of philosophy under a totalised society.
In the book’s long second section, Gayraud outlines what she sees as the core aesthetic figures that structure pop music. Here, in a sense, lies its difficulty: while the critical constellations of images in Adorno’s works on modernist music – particularly in Aesthetic Theory and the essays on Mahler and Beethoven – projected identifiable traits of artworks, as shadows of their negativity, the shift from his critical theory back towards the actually-existing commodities of pop music is much trickier. To dissolve actuality back into the dialectical movements of its becoming might require starting in media res, in the commodity’s dark heart, or far outside it – for example in hip-hop’s modernist unfolding of the materials of black America’s musical traditions. The book feels like it departs here from the remarkable vocation of its beginning, and the four chapters can seem repetitive and at times unnecessarily complex in their structure, as if the effort to reinsert the dialectic into frozen ‘essences’ of pop were too much for the method to bear. Indeed, they take their coordinates from quite familiar tropes central to the literature of rockwrite: authenticity, the democratic dimension of pop, the ‘hook’ and its structural role in hit music, the amnesiac innocence of pop music. However, she unfolds their social stakes and contradictions in a way that seems to bring them into a new focus and clarity. She emphasises the strange temporality of pop music, which recreates the vanished past of folk and vernacular music, but only through the recording and distributive technology of modernity. The uprooting and destruction of folk cultures finds its way into pop music not just as a globally plundered array of instruments and melodic material, but as a redemptive dream of art for the mass societies that replaced them. Anyone, Gayraud emphasises, can write a pop song: what makes a pop hit great is unpredictable and unclassifiable. Hence, the “pop subject” is unprecedented in the history of art, a partial realisation of the 20th century avant-garde’s idea that art and life should become one. Pop is branded by being the work of particular individuals, invested with their “embodied” characteristics of race, gender and so on, but it always gestures towards universality: a pop record wants to be bought by everyone. This finds its realisation in the twin figures of the fan and the star, with the former always having the potential to become the latter. But the existence of pop stars is only ever realised through a dependence on a vast majority of ordinary people who work shit jobs and buy their product, with the market having the final say on who becomes what. As Gayraud puts it, in lines that cleave closest to the dialectical character of pop in the book, “this celebrity is something of a betrayal of pop embodiment… The chance of idiosyncracy lay in its incommensurable character, the small difference of the being of one thing in so far as it is not another. Once established as a ‘famous personality’ this individuality only establishes types of individuals”.
The remaining two chapters, on song form and pop’s relationship with concepts of musical “progress”, are unfortunately the weakest. The latter in particular often seems to wander very far from Adorno, getting bogged down in what feels like a literature review. But it culminates in a remarkable defence of pop as an aesthetic form continually in flux, against the suspicion of decline I noted above. If measured according to modernist standards, Gayraud notes, pop music will always be on the back foot, as the revivified body of “expired tonal material”. The claim that one era’s pop music can be judged less innovative or compelling than that of the past – an argument made anew in the last decade, against considerable resistance, by Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds – makes no sense when viewed outside that context, from the point of view of the aesthetic form of pop itself. Pop’s is an “off-ground modernism”, one dislocated from the soils of high art nostalgia on which it first grew, appropriating the material and technologies of modernist music into a project with a different vocation. As Gayraud concludes, “[i]t is not in the history but in the historicity of pop – the ways in which subjectivities produce narratives of this history – that the idea of progress finds its meaning”. And yet this would surely include the accounts of “those countless figures in pop who impugn the idea of the hit” (a category which – full acknowledgement – Gayraud includes myself in) and attack the current contents of the charts on behalf of the idea of pop. While Gayraud ends by showing how pop’s increasing self-consciousness internalises this moment of the negative in pop’s history, it otherwise seems to disappear or be dismissed. Against the idea of pop’s historical decay or slow collapse, she sets the knowledge that “so long as human finitude still has something unique to offer, be it a sigh or ‘just a little blip’, popular music and its joyous possibilities will still remain desirable” – a claim that, by the time it arrives, can seem like a pep talk rather than the rousing culmination it should be. The dialectical element of Dialectic of Pop unfortunately seems to wane as it goes on, falling into a presentation of pop’s aesthetic power and its essentially tragic aspect – its damnation by its origins in the culture industry – in the style of “on the one hand / on the other hand”. The closing focus on a promise that sustains itself even a seemingly exhausted pop – a promise of the negative that would prevent the dialectic’s extinction within the artform – consequently feels like only one swing of the pendulum rather than a synthetic claim.
The claim that it’s pop’s historicity, not its history, that matters is part of what places Gayraud’s study awkwardly within historical materialist traditions of pop criticism. If an artform can arise at a particular point in history, it can, and no doubt will, die – this is one of the logics that has made periodisation so central to Marxist cultural criticism. While liberal rockwrite practically made a fetish of the periodising move, seeing breaks in “the culture” every six months, tracking the slight mutations of musical tropes, performance styles, subcultural codes and vibes, the school associated with Fredric Jameson has largely passed over popular music. Within the Anglophone pop academy, if you’re not an anti-pop Adornian (of the orthodox or unorthodox variety) you’re a Cult-Studs guy. (If you write for any music press publication that covers pop, you’ve probably already drunk the Cult-Studs Kool Aid without knowing it.) Why pop music should be resistant to or overlooked by a form of criticism that sees reification and utopia intertwined in mass culture remains obscure. But it is an important lacuna, not least because it allows a silence in historically-informed criticism to settle over the actual world-historical shifts in pop since punk. Put more simply: the negative claim that, since the hegemonic establishment of neoliberalism and the extinction of modernism (perhaps even the “popular” variety), pop music has changed vitally and been sapped of the energies of the ‘popular’ itself – an outcome latent within the vocation of popular music as an artform from its origins in the world market – can be glossed over or internalised as simply a moment in a perpetual dialectic. The history of pop – even if it’s structured at a deep or micro-level by the “dialectics at a standstill” of its citable historicity – is irreversible, and remains written over the surface of pop even outside of its historical self-consciousness, as a general depletion of the formal energies once stirred up by postmodernity. Poptimism may have said that belief in “progress” is unnecessary at best, an oppressive imposition at worst, as the pop form itself once did in its salad days. But what does it mean for pop when it becomes actively impossible, as the organisation of production that gave it its genesis circles through the same social and ecological crises, in a time without time? (Joshua Clover’s recent book-length essay on The Modern Lovers’ ‘Roadrunner’ is an excellent analysis of exactly this problem over the longue durée.) Such an approach would require a form of synthesis, movement between theories and levels, beyond most critics (certainly beyond me), but in the absence or eclipse of a “real movement which abolishes the present state of things”, it’s a minimal demand for theory.