Coda, or, the Run-Out Groove

The seminars are over and the papers marked for Pop/Music/Theory, so the course site here will be going into prolonged hibernation for the next long while. I’m not scheduled to teach the course again next year and don’t think I will have the chance to teach it again until 2015-16 at the earliest. Both theory and pop move at such a rate that the course then would inevitably be a wholly different experience. As much as all courses are, in their own way, irreproducible, this one seems especially so.

A number of absolutely superb papers came out of these irreproducible conditions and I’d like to thank my students for the work they did in class this year and for the pleasure of being able to read the arguments, investigations, and speculations they generated. Students in the class had the opportunity to submit their work using tumblr, blogspot, wordpress, or any other blogging format. The primary benefit of such technological experimentation was clear: they could integrate the songs and videos that were the subject of the papers.

Another benefit is that I can post the papers here so that they can read each other’s work and that you too, however you have stumbled across our space here, can sample them. The papers below are linked to with permission of their authors, so do enjoy. And respect to those who doggedly submitted hard copies throughout the year; you produced excellent work as well and showed that words alone could do the heavy lifting required in describing and analyzing the sights and sounds of pop music.

The links below appear in alphabetical order. The first thing you’ll notice is the sheer range of things that people wrote about. In the wake of reading the Sianne Ngai, “cuteness” was on the cutting edge, and the concept of “cruel optimism,” drawn from our reading of Lauren Berlant, also pops up in different ways in different papers. The Joshua Clover book, 1989, makes a few appearances, not least as an aid in thinking about the ebbs and flows, the emergences and residualities, of pop history, and, finally, there is the presence of Walter Benjamin just about everywhere, as he, perhaps unexpectedly, was our greatest ally in thinking through any phenomenon in pop, from the past to the present day.

Hilary Bergen. “Horns and Thorns, Knock-Kneed and Upright”: Joanna Newsom and The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.

Geoff Davis. On Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.

Rotem Diamant. “If You Believe In Dreams”: Subjectivity and Femininity in the Music of Björk

Neil Exell. A Consolidated Ministry: Christian Hardcore in Post-911 America.

Amy-Leigh Gray. Kate Nash’s Girl Talk: “Kitsch”en Sink Quirk Meets Riot Grrrl.

Carson Hammond. Banality or Commentary: Lyrical Images of Emergent Technologies in Pop.

Matthew Montgomery. Enjoy at all Costs.

Jonathan Squires. Extreme Metal and the Effect of Affect in Commodified Aesthetics.

Joshua Whitehead. Anal Dentata: The Fear, Anxiety, and Desirability of the Remixed Anus.


Ghosts of Futures Past

This post mostly gathers together links and videos that Simon Reynolds mentions in his chapter “Ghosts of Futures Past: Sampling, Hauntology and Mash-ups.”

He begins the chapter with more on the strangeness of sampling, citing specifically a track on Belbury Poly‘s 2005 LP The Willows that dramatically reworks and transforms a track from 1908:

As Reynolds’ writes, Jim Jupp (who records as Belbury Poly) “made a dead man sing a brand-new song” (312). The key sequence begins at the 1.55 mark and continues until about the 3.20 mark.

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Who is Jacques Rancière?

Here’s a quick, and somewhat irreverent, primer to the work of Jacques Rancière. Included on the premise that it is a) helpful and b) explains at least a portion of Rancière’s work via a reference to N.W.A.

The image above comes from the Global Demix site. It’s a screen capture of a Rancière enthusiast who managed to communicate his/her excitement for his ideas on NBC’s Today show in 2009.

Is Pop Too Posh?

1. The Observer featured a conversation about pop and poshness this week in its Comment is Free feature. We’ve had better discussions in class, not least because one of two people involved in the dialogue here is a total bonehead. Read it for Dorian Lynskey’s contributions to the exchange and look to Rob Fitzpatrick’s responses only as a guide on how not to argue: he’s belligerent, he doesn’t listen, and his counter-arguments, if you can even call them that, amount to pointing out a single exception and claiming that it is universal.

2. There was a weird article on Taylor Swift’s appeal to hipsters that also appeared in the Guardian this week as well. There’s an interesting point at the heart of the article, that despite the general satire to which Swift has subjected the hipster, she nevertheless seems to appeal to them and has become part of a larger poptimist shift in various subcultural nooks and crannies.

The article is odd because it frames it all in terms of teenage flirtation, infantilizing Swift and making hipsters seem altogether pervy in their appreciation of Swift’s new LP. And if we are tracking the rise and significance of the word “adorkable,” the article subheader provides an interesting use.

3. Finally, we’ve talked a little this year about pop and place, not least a few weeks ago in thinking how the woods and isolated mountain communities of the Appalachians generate the mythology of the old, weird America. Following up on that, there’s a fascinating art project that pins rhymes to blocks by Jay Shells. John Metcalfe writes about the project on the The Atlantic Cities page, which features this video as well, which follows Shells as he visits iconic blocks and corners:

There’s a whole set of questions to ask here about space, place, memory, memorialization, and everyday life in the modern city.


From the Fleet Foxes to the Politics of Precarity

Another post this week that looks back then forward, picking up on some loose threads before trying to grasp the significance of the concept of precarity as it has circulated recently.

1. The Fleet Foxes took a bit of a beating in seminar last week, but I think we all agreed that they were bearing the unfair burden of exemplarity. There’s nothing too, too pernicious about them, and what they seem to represent, but there is something deeply problematic about it. Lest we think we are alone in such thoughts, such feelings of uncertainty about the Fleet Foxes, here’s an interesting blogpost that echoes many of the reservations that we expressed in class. This is an instance where reading the comments pays off: one reader of the post claims that what irritates most about the Fleet Foxes is that they are insufficiently weird, representative of a new America with the weird sadly absent. Many thanks to Neil for passing along the link.

I did actually see the Fleet Foxes play in Vancouver in 2011. Not that this picture quite captures it, but it was, admittedly, all beards and corduroy. You can see, however, that lead singer Robin Pecknold is very Dylanesque in his poor posture, which acoustic guitars and harmonies seem to invite.

Finally, others out there too are thinking about the semiotics of beardedness. Some of you may have spotted this story in the Metro about two Winnipeg filmmakers producing a documentary on the subject. You can see the trailer for the documentary, which is still seeking completion funds, here.

2. The Lauren Berlant article can be fiendishly difficult in places, especially torn from its context in the book of the same title, but I do hope that, as you are reading it, you begin to see the connections to the discussions we have been having this year about periodization and precarity, even connecting it, in a not entirely oblique way, to the politics of young artisanality.

If you want to get a more general overview of Berlant’s book, do read this interview with her in Xtra! But also see this dossier on the book at the site for the journal Social Text, which includes a piece on Berlant’s concept by Sianne Ngai.

3. We mentioned the politics of temporality in our rather digressive discussion of the new, weird America, specifically the emergence of “slow” forms of cultural practices. There’s an official website for the Slow Food movement here that provides an obviously partisan account of the movement’s history and aims. See also this 2009 Guardian article based on an interview with the movement’s founder.

Jonathan Romney perhaps provides the best short description of “slow cinema”, calling it “varied strain of austere minimalist cinema.” For more on the movement, do read Sukhdev Sandhu’s “‘Slow cinema’ fights back against Bourne’s supremacy”, which was written as a preview to a slow cinema festival held in the UK in 2011. Sandhu identifies Hungarian director Béla Tarr as the central figure in the movement, but also points to Carlos Reygados, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Pedro Costa, Jia Zhangke, and to the importance of Chantal Akerman, whose 1975 Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a landmark.

For more on slow cinema, see Dan Fox’s “Slow, Fast, and Inbetween” at the Frieze magazine blog as well as Steven Shaviro’s blogpost “Slow Cinema vs. Fast Films.” Both of these take up the controversy that ensued when Sight and Sound‘s Nick James published a critique of slow cinema’s elevation to top spot in critical orthodoxy.

4. Finally, if you are interested in reading a little more about precarity, do check out this exchange between Mark Fisher and Franco “Bifo” Berardi on the “slow cancellation of the future” over at the Frieze site.



The Old, Weird America

Readings for this week focus on America, not just in the sense of simple geopolitical reality of the nation-state or the collected cultural output of a national culture industry, but in terms of the fantasies and mythologies of nation. The key figure in this regard is Greil Marcus, whose writings have long investigated the “secret histories” to which some contemporary rock and pop belong. Dylan is central to his work and to his formulation of an “Invisible Republic”, a shadow national history that circulates alongside more official, more polite, and less weird histories of America. The key phrase to have emerged here is “the old, weird America”, which Marcus borrows from poet Kenneth Rexroth to describe the history of the blues and of folk music, murder ballads and backwoods tales, that are, in a way, far more representative of the American experience than those artefacts of official culture that are better known and consecrated.

Sadly, Marcus’s tremendous book, The Old, Weird America, was a bit too long to assign for the end of March rush, so I’ve opted for a long interview that Simon Reynolds conducted with Marcus. I hope it provides an overview not simply of Marcus’s critical preoccupations, but also some sense of how they emerge out of specific historical and political conjunctures. We’ll get to talk about America in the 60s and 70s and the emergence of “rock criticism” as a practice and form, but also about a different kind of historical method, one that seeks out the connections across space and time that do not conform to the usual cause and consequence format of much historical narration.

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Loose Ends and Stray Bits

Just a few notes following on from our discussions over the past few weeks and looking forward to those we will be having in the next few weeks:

1. For those interested in pursuing the question and the category of the cute further, I do highly recommend Sianne Ngai’s book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, which was published by Harvard UP in the Fall of 2012.

Her earlier work, Ugly Feelings (2007), will be of interest as well to those thinking about affect and the body, or about alternate ways to think our relation and reaction to aesthetic objects and everyday life.

There’s a great, and lengthy, interview with Ngai in the Fall 2011 issue of Cabinet, a US-based arts magazine.

Finally, Hua Hsu reviews Our Aesthetic Categories online at Slate. Even though we read Ngai on cute, her comments on the interesting would have complemented our discussions on the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility. As Hsu argues:

To deem something “interesting” is to promise to return to it. It’s a judgment that doesn’t really say anything, beyond forestalling that judgment, like a (per Ngai) “sticky note” amid an endless wash of data. At its most thoughtful, calling something “interesting” might be an expression of indeterminacy, a placeholder for a future conversation. But more often than not, it’s just conversational filler, something dropped in when you don’t feel like judging at all.

Interesting (sorry to use this term) here is the function of “interesting” in a culture swamped with things all soliciting your attention and demanding your assessment. “Interesting” becomes a means of managing this torrent. In this way, perhaps, the ubiquity of the “interesting” might be an variation on the “blasé attitude” that Georg Simmel saw at the heart of modern life in the metropolis and in a money economy. It’s a kind of coping mechanism for the shocks, the repeated demands, of (post)modernity. For those interested in Simmel, Blackwell has a pdf of his immensely important “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903) freely available.

2. We didn’t dwell on Ngai’s use of Takashi Murakami too much, so if you are unfamiliar with his work, do check out his page at the Gagosian Gallery. Murakami, of course, is also known for his collaborations with Kanye West, having designed the cover for West’s LP Graduation (2007) and directed the video for “Good Morning”:

Fitting with his investigations of commodity culture via his superflat aesthetic, Murakami also designed and directed this promotional film (“Superflat Monogram”) for Louis Vuitton, which features music from Fantastic Plastic Machine, who is, to connect everything up, part of the Shibuya-kei scene that Reynolds discusses in the “Turning Japanese” chapter of Retromania:

3. Looking ahead to our discussion of pop and precarity, you might find Lauren Martin’s piece on the importance of Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner (2003) helpful, not simply in thinking through the social and economic conditions that give rise to grime and how it functioned symbolically during the London riots, but also in how the genre has been popularised.

Also of interest is “Resisting Resilience” by Mark Neocleous, which appears in the March/April 2013 issue of Radical Philosophy and is available in full online. Neocleous argues that “‘Resilience’ has in the last decade become one of the key political categories of our time” and links its rise not only to a culture of emergency and recuperation (from any kind of shock whatsoever), but also to neoliberal economic reorganization.

The ideal subject nowadays is always ready to bounce back, to sustain and absorb the hits of an unfair economic system. As Neocleous points out, resilience is not resistance, but is instead capitulation and acquiescence to a system that demands that individual subjects work to be happy and stay strong, affective labour that facilitates general labour (there’s also an echo here, parenthetically, of Adorno’s observation that leisure is another form of work in the way that it makes the latter possible and more productive). Neocleous not only questions the purpose and function of contemporary culture’s celebration of resilience, but calls for resistance to it and a rejection of it:

Against such an option, then, this Commentary is intended as a pre-emptive strike, and thereby in a roundabout way a strike against the whole resilience agenda: against the demand that we work on how to improve the resilience of state and capital, and against the colonization of the political imagination. Against resilience.

Do take a look also at this post at it’s her factory, in which Robin James, whose “Robo-Diva R&B” we read a few weeks back, examines the gender politics of the ethical imperative to “stay strong.” Women are the absolute targets of this neoliberal injunction, made over into the ideal subjects of neoliberal entrepreneurialism:

The therapy here is not disciplinary control, but entrepreneurial overcoming—i.e., resilience. Ideally feminine subjects must turn their gendered damage into human capital (whose surplus value is exploitable by them, but ultimately by “us,” by hegemony).

For those of you who took my Intro Critical Theory class last year, you might find that this argument resonates with that of Nina Power’s in One Dimensional Woman. In any case, we’ll take some time in our discussions of pop and precarity to think about the unequal gendered distribution of precarity as well as the ways in which the injunction for women especially to be resilient fits with their elevation to the ideal, and thoroughly exploitable, subjects of flexible neoliberal capitalism.

K-pop Primers

As you might imagine, as K-Pop has emerged as a global cultural force in the past couple of years, there have been any number of efforts to decode and explain the conventions of the form to listeners outside Korea who have been taken by, but somehow feel they don’t fully understand, the songs and the spectacle. I’ve assembled a few of the more interesting ones here, some written by early adopters and outside enthusiasts who want to share their love for the genre, others compiled in a colder, more analytical way that identify K-Pop as something the cognoscenti need to have some grasp of and on.

First up is a piece by Jennifer Rousse-Marquet titled “K-pop : the story of the well-oiled industry of standardized catchy tunes”, which appears on the French media and cultural affairs site, The piece includes a generous number of YouTube clips that will give you a sense of the forms onus on visuality, but also includes great details such as that “the average size of a K-pop band is of 4.47 members for boys and 4.21 for girls“, a statistic she draws from the Wall Street Journal.

Next up is the commentary piece in the WSJ from which Rousse-Marquet draws that statistic: Jeff Yang’s “Can Girls’ Generation Break Through in America?” As you might expect given the anticipated audience for the article, Yang’s piece focuses on the business elements at play in the K-pop efflorescence, but, if we’ve learned anything from our reading of Jameson it’s that in postmodernity, culture and economics can no longer be prised apart in any meaningful way. Yang raises the popularity of 90s Scandi-pop as a possible point of comparison for the more recent success of K-pop and it might be instructive to return to Joshua Clover’s analysis of Roxette to compare and contrast the particularity of these instances of pop’s internationalism. Also, do take a look at the K-pop infographic Yang links to. It reveals corporate concentration, but also tracks conventions of naming and the sheer speculative growth of the industry.

The New Yorker gave itself over to K-pop throughout the fall of 2012, publishing several articles on the phenomenon. On October 3, John Seabrook’s “Uncle Pervy’s K-pop Playlist” appeared online to accompany his article “Factory Girls” that appeared in the October 8th edition of the magazine. Jiayang Fan’s review of a Big Bang concert in New Jersey appeared a month later. Finally, another article, on Psy’s ubiquitous “Gangnam Style” makes reference to the Eurovision Song Contest and the “joy of incomprehension” that comes with listening to pop in another language.


Reynolds. “Turning Japanese: The Empire of Retro and the Hipster International.”

Japan has often been a source of fascination for critical theorists and Reynolds’ title, which riffs on Roland Barthes’ The Empire of Signs (1970), self-reflexively acknowledges this fact. Japan in theory is a curious construction and Reynolds representation of it in Retromania echoes the mix of admiration and astonishment that characterizes Barthes’.

On one hand, there is an admiration for the dedicated curatorialism of Japanese fans who, somehow representative of their nation as a whole, are able “to assimilate and reprocess Western popular culture” (163). On the other hand, this very process of classification, categorization, curation, preservation, and dissection of cultural materials, is understood as somewhat alien to western theorists, for whom far greater onus is placed on (a perhaps fantasized) intuition and natural feeling rather than on details and the display of knowledge. In the best case scenario, this stereotype of the avid Japanese fan becomes a means by which those elsewhere can estrange themselves from their own fandom, and understand that their “ways of listening” or “modes of appreciation” are no less culturally specific and bound. This effort of estrangement is, I think, what Reynolds aims for and largely accomplishes in this chapter. But also his task is to understand how the Japanese fan’s curatorial impulse has become universalized in a particular way, that it now forms the basis of a more global way of listening to and making music.

I’ll leave the rest for our discussion in seminar tomorrow, but for now, do take a look at the site Reynolds mentions, Néojaponisme, and enjoy the selection of videos below compiled from the references in the chapter.

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“The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde”

In anticipation of her presentation this week’s on Sianne Ngai’s “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde”, Rotem has very helpfully sent along a few listening suggestions. Our collective task will be to think of how the argument Ngai makes about cute as an aesthetic category might be helpful in thinking about cuteness as it manifests itself in different forms of pop music.

1. Shonen Knife. “Riding on the Rocket.” 1992.

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