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Tuesday, March 16, 2004
I swear I hadn't read K-Punk's great MBV post when I wrote that kind of embarrassing Nirvana thing, but they both managed to mention Loveless and the relation between music and the working world. So I'll use the weird coincidence to go off on the former post and maybe expand a bit on the latter...

First off, I want to say "yar" to Luke's comment about how "if yu let yourself sink into lethargy and depression then thats like defeat and you might as well just sign up for real life." I always want to ask people making the sort of argument that Mark k-punk's making about Shields whether they've had any personal experience with mental illness, or rather with the particular form of mental illness under discussion; it just seems like such a weird thing to romanticize, like seeing the nobility in the flu or something. But it's not strictly germane, and since I imagine the answer is often "well yes I have you pompous ass" I'll just leave it there as a simple observation of the differing perspectives on mental illness, i.e. "organic" v. "biological."

What is germane is the argument being made about the difference between pop and, um, not-pop. (Ah, we're back to that problem again. Anyway.) He writes:

Now Pop is, above all, well-adjusted; it doesn't seek to transfigure the world, offers us no transports of ecstasy or escape. It's not for nothing that hip hop, with its banal ambitions and dreary aspirations, its ostensible ultrarealism, is king in Now Pop. Shields' version of Pop - aptly termed Dreampop, once, of course - dissents from this reality, not in the name of unreality or fantasy, but in the name of libido. Desire can never be persuaded to take the drab world of Work and Wealth at face value. For libido, that world is an unconvincing theatre populated by poorly animated puppets and grim effigies: an existential charade that everyone necessarily occupies only - as Jamelia's comments make clear - as impostors, as play actors. Dreampop has always robbed the World of Necessity of its claim to ontological precedence over the realm of Desire. Jamelia's observations show that Now Pop has reversed this prioritization; Pop is now a colony of the world of Work.

First off, I'm unclear how you can say necessity and desire are different; necessity is driven wholly by desire, ultimately, since you go to work not because something's forcing you but because you need the money to fulfill your desires. Shields is just lucky to have the talent and timing to be able to get most of what he wants without going to work. But maybe I'm just missing the point.

At any rate, I think the entry is clearly privileging Shield's perspective over Now Pop's, and that's what I'd like to discuss. Just as a threshold matter, it seems slightly kooky to say that Shields' work was somehow divorced from commerce--talk of money is all over that interview, and it seems like all he did for about five years was fight with record labels about money. Shields is more aware than anyone that it takes money to make music, usually other people's money, and before he got to the recluse stage I'm sure he had to deal with all the stuff starting bands deal with about finding money to tour, getting your cut from promoters, selling merch, finding money for food and gas, etc., etc. A lot of what being in a band is about before you attain self-sufficiency is money, and so if a musician has managed to convey that he is somehow divorced from that base world, it is simply an illusion. We want to privilege illusion here, but the fact is that pop's about money no more than dream-pop's about money, because even when it is about cash, cash itself is always about something else--desire, love, respect. Is hip-hop accountancy or braggadocio?

I just don't see there being much of a difference between Shield's attitude and Jamelia's. Jamelia is, like it or not, a musician; sure, for her backers and investors (second-hand or otherwise) selling more records is just about pure hard cash[1], but for musicians, the reason money matters, and the reason sales matter and tour attendance matters, is that this will allow you to continue making music. Jamelia wants to be a marketable product because then people will buy her albums and tickets, and by the rules of pop, that will then allow her to make another album. Shields is just lucky enough to be an almost universally-beloved figure in the indie world who people will invest in even without any reasonable hope of return, and arguably this is the result of the way he himself has presented his image.

Anyway, logic aside, let's talk aesthetics, bitches. I have to admit I'm sympathetic to how Mark's describing Jamelia's position and kind of annoyed by the stance being attributed to Shields, which is weird since, you know, I really like Loveless. Maybe in a way it's kind of like the debate between prose and poetry (although maybe this is just because I recently read the "Arcadia" story-arc in The Invisibles)--poets are dreamers, there to see the world as it could be, whereas other people simply see it as it is and report back. But I just don't think that's true--I think, rather, that it's a matter of specificity. Poets, like dream-pop with its intentionally indecipherable lyrics and muddled melodies, present not so much a plan of action as a general palette of emotions, a sort of set of feelings that can motivate you or, alternately, not.[2] It is intentionally unspecific, or deliberately contradictory, to allow the individual to craft their own images. But when faced with something more specific, it's presumed to be based in realism. Not so. Often (as I've said) the surest way to change something is to pretend like it's already changed. If the visions of poets and indie rockers represent a valid reality, then surely our perceptions of reality are just as valid an alternative.

And it's for this reason that the seemingly coldly specific Now Pop can be even more rapturous and ecstatic as something that seems beamed to us from some distant perspective. Sure, those vague emotions can work real well, because there's nothing to contest (really, what is there in MBV to get mad at? It's highly innocuous in its own way), but don't discount the force of familiarity and connection. Fountains of Wayne works for me, for instance, not just because of the melodies and rhythms, but in the way it very specifically evokes the NYC metro area in the summer. Why? Because I've spent a lot of time in Long Island. This is a riskier artistic strategy in a way, since you might not connect with the wide audience you'd want, but I think one of the amazing things about pop-I is in the way it manages to do this despite itself. I know banality is supposed to be bad, but I spend most of my time doing banal things, and a lot of them excite the hell out of me. (Come on, like you haven't really enjoyed using office supplies in the past?) This is rapture that is accessible, that is not a elite spiritual experience, but just something that happens to me all the time. And that's great--my life gets better and better the more of those I have. I don't want that to happen at a remove, I want that to happen right now, while I'm sitting in the office under the fluorescent lights and smelling the pickle in the trash can and feeling the out-of-position insert in my shoe. And that's one of the things that pop-I does for me.

But what does it do? That was one of the things I was trying to get at in my earlier post. Does music function like meth, as a sort of apologist/enabler/defense mechanism with the world of work? The problem with demonizing "work" is that it's not just the bad stuff--it's the good stuff, too. It's the banal stuff we have to do to get the big, transformative things done. The legwork, the phone calls, the slow transcriptions, the careful recordings. Meth, after all, has produced some pretty good music. This is what people want to ignore about creative geniuses, it seems: there's a lot of little boring things they have to do to get their vision or whaddayacallit out there. Loveless makes me not want to do office work, and maybe that's good, but it doesn't particularly make me want to work out drum parts, either. I enjoy listening to it, but it's just brain relaxation, a cleansing blast, not something that's really transformative. (Or, at any rate, no more transformative than Law and Order.) But this is different for everyone: I'm willing to accept that for some people, MBV makes them want to go out and change the world. But then, I think, that would also make them able to do mass mailings and flowcharts. Maybe I'm wrong.

But there is that bad side: it makes you accept work. Isn't that bad? Eh, I dunno. I know, I know, we're all supposed to imagine a world without work, and sure, I'd like to work less and get paid the big buxx like everyone else, but I also see a certain value in work.[3] It sort of forces you to deal with your shit, and I know a lot of people who could stand having their shit dealt with. Any setup I can envision that has eliminated work sounds either really boring or in immanent danger of robot rebellion. Again, I think a certain amount of work is good for you: it gives you the discipline to do all that busywork that being creative involves. Quite frankly, I don't quite trust musicians without day jobs (which day job can include "professional musician," i.e. songwriter-for-hire, engineer, studio musician), but that's just between you and me.

See, I like songs about work. I like them a lot. I especially like ones that try and take a more nuanced view of work, to not just use it to rail against something that they understandably dislike (but then, we used to feel the same way about homework) and against the perceived masses of people who "just accept it." Well, they don't; it's a bargain, like any other, and there are pressures and desires that make that bargain attractive. It's not a failure--just a choice. It's not pure, but pure things are boring anyway. Work limits you, but limits are good. Are we tired of this sentence construction yet?

So I dunno. I'm trying to make this argument in good faith and be honestly worried about Nirvana furthering my office work, but truth be told, I'm just not one of those people who gets concerned about art because it "placates the masses" or "fuels capitalism." If the masses are anything like me, the point where they need placating isn't a point that's going to produce any revolutionizin', and capitalism's sorta kinda OK. *duck* When managed correctly and in the context of a democracy and yes and so forth. So but OK of course this guy likes Now Pop, right? Well, I guess so. Aesthetics, bitches.

The contestation Dreampop effects has its costs, naturally. To refuse to take the world of Health and Efficiency seriously is to flirt with illness, anhedonia, agoraphobia, (living) death. The symptoms of Shields' 'condition' - getting up in the afternoon, if at all, vegetating in front of the box, doing as little as possible - are all too familiar. "I just didn't do what I didn't want to do. And I got away with it. When you keep on getting away with it year after year, you think you can just live like that. And you can. I wouldn't work. I wouldn't get up till late afternoon. I watched a lot of shit films."

I've always been mystified by the high critical valuation of mysteriousness, and I've been extremely mystified by the continued deification of people with talent and mental illness in this age of pretty down-to-earth explanations of why that shit happens. (And in most cases, you don't even need to crack the DSM-IV; a simple "they did too many goddamn drugs" will suffice.) They've got a chemical imbalance. They didn't get it because they refused to study accounting; they got it through bad wiring. Maybe they don't even want to have a chemical imbalance. Why does that make them special?

But maybe I'm being ungenerous. In thinking about this, I tried to consider it from the fan's perspective: here's this artist you feel like you have a personal relationship with who's gone off the deep end. The only problem is, you don't have a personal relationship with them, and so unlike their actual loved ones, you can't help them. You see what's going on but you can't do anything about it. And so maybe turning the negative into a positive is the best thing you can do about it.[4] You turn it into a negative attribute to deal with your own feelings of impotence about actually helping this person that you really, honestly (and not unjustly, I'm not criticizing this behavior) love.

Still, statements like Mark's kind of irk me, because as I say above, I don't think it's some mysterious connection between refusing to conform to reality and going mad; rather, it's the other way around, as Luka makes clear in the comments. You're crazy and so you're unable to do the basic, banal things that ordinary humans need to do to get through life, and would have to do no matter the setup.[5] It's absolutely tragic; my friends with mental illnesses that prevent them from holding down jobs are almost always the worst off. I honestly think it's kind of horrible to pretend like mental illness is evidence of a heroic choice; for one thing, I think that pervasive attitude is what prevents artists whose mental illness is seen as an asset, and consequently by aspiring artists who just assume their mental illness is an asset, from seeking treatment. This isn't even addressing the issue that mental illness doesn't just affect the person suffering from it, but those around them, and so in many ways a refusal to conform to reality is an extremely selfish act. And I guess artists have to be selfish, but I'm still not sure it's something we want to glorify.

At any rate, I'm almost certainly reading too much into Mark's post, so consider most of this an extension of mine, if you would be so kind.

[1] And even then not so much: like owning a sports team, investing in the music industry is usually more an act of ego than of sound financial instincts, about being "in the music industry" rather than actually making money, since you usually don't.
[2] Neither pop-I nor dream-pop is inherently transformative; that depends on the context. Certainly Shields' current condition doesn't speak well to the transformative, escapist functions of the genre he created.
[3] Which is not to say that people who don't work have no value, etc., etc., standard don't-want-to-sound-like-a-paleoconservative-here disclaimer.
[4] If I was being ungenerous I would posit that most mental illnesses look a lot more fun from a distance than they do up close, but I think in a way that's partially willed and understandable--again, a reaction to impotence.
[5] And, again, there's the defense mechanism argument--glorifying your own condition is a good way to feel OK about it.