David Richter

Bouncing into Graceland: The Coordinates of Musical Expression


ISSUE 10 | OCCUPATIONS | NOV 2011

Authenticity and the Middle Class

The question of authenticity is more relevant to music than to any other art form. This is because in music the representational dimension of a work is invariably subservient to its participatory dimension. To enjoy music is not to study it abstractly but to be directly absorbed in its rhythms, to occupy with one’s entire being the emotional life of the work, to identify oneself fully with its sentiments.

Certainly it is possible and legitimate to understand, appreciate or criticize music that does not produce such an absorption. However, we can understand or appreciate it to the extent that we can understand or appreciate how such an absorption might be possible and we criticize it to the extent that we find such an absorption unthinkable or distasteful. We can talk about the authentication of musical experience much more than the authentication of looking at a painting or reading a book because the authentic enjoyment of music registers itself in concrete forms of physical participation—in the form of unbroken rapt absorption or of a rhythmic tapping of the feet, of singing or of dancing, of knowing lyrics by heart or of only knowing some of them but still screaming along with every word. While this identification is sustained first and foremost by the force of the music itself, the importance of lyrics should not be underestimated. After all, the maximal authentication of a song consists not only in finding its tune catchy or its beat danceable, but finding its sentiments (as expressed by the vocal line) so true and perfectly expressed that one cannot help but follow along with them, feeling with every word the fullness of their meaning.

Music’s uniqueness in this regard might be questioned on two grounds: first, on the ground that full absorption is the necessary requirement for truly experiencing any work of art whatsoever, and, second, on the ground that with any work of art there are cultural conventions specifying the form that this absorption ought to take and that raise (as with music) the question of authenticity. However, the point here is not that such discourses of authenticity cannot be applied to other cultural practices, but rather that it is uniquely with regards to music we have a unified way of talking about authenticity, since our enjoyment of it is most verifiably felt within the human body. And while we can certainly talk about culturally inappropriate ways to express our authentic enjoyment of music (clapping after a solo during the symphony, for example), the fact of enjoyment remains absolute.

For the reasons above, I take the application of the concept of authenticity to musical enjoyment to be absolutely legitimate. However, it is clear that this concept of authenticity needs further elaboration. On what basis, after all, is the enjoyment of music sustained? On the one hand, there is something totally unmediated about our enjoyment of music—we immediately feel our hearts beating with its rhythm. On the other hand, the enjoyment of particular music isn’t simply an innate physical response since we all enjoy specific types of music, while other music leaves us cold, or even generates irritation or anxiety. Neither is it enough to attribute enjoyment to physiological habituation. Of course, on some purely physiological level, habituation is an adequate explanation for why people enjoy one kind of music rather than other. However, on a phenomenological level, this enjoyment can be interpreted in various specific ways: It can be Bacchic or Apollonian, heroic or melancholic, etc. And these phenomenological forms are what is actually significant about musical history, since they are expressions of what we take to be our specific ethical, political, and historical possibilities.

For this reason, the authentic enjoyment of music tends to find itself confronted with limits that are both spatial and temporal. Spatially, we are bound by culture, nationality and class. To speak of spatiality in these terms is highly metaphorical, but the metaphor is apt, since these differences constitute boundaries between various cultural worlds that are as real and difficult to bridge as anything physical. As Americans, we might identify with, say, a Chinese song that is nostalgic for China, but this identification cannot be taken literally. Our birth and upbringing outside of China forces us either to awkwardly project onto the song more familiar emotional reference points—nostalgia for California, for example—or else we might appreciate the song with an irony takes either the song’s exoticism or else the symbolic resonances of “Chineseness” to be the emotional content itself.

Temporally, our enjoyment is limited for two reasons: First because musical form is itself historically determined. For example, certain chords used to sound dissonant and contain certain resonances that we have become desensitized to. And second, because the affective content that these forms generate may be blocked by our incapacity to authentically feel various sentiments or embody various attitudes. In this case our appreciation will depend on the determinate way in which we aestheticize history—in the resonances the aesthetic forms of the past take in the present moment.

We must also acknowledge, however, the deeply physical resonance of music and its capacity to transport the imagination into a different time or even into another body. This experience, as when a long-forgotten song may call up an entire world of latent memories, may be identified with the experience of Proust’s madeleines. But it is also the experience of Herderian Einfühlung (“feeling in”)—the methodological basis of Herderian hermeneutics, whereby we are able to understand people of the past or of foreign cultures through a process of affective identification. It is for Herderian reasons, I suppose, that people speak of music as a universal language that bridges spatial as well as temporal distances.

Einfühlung takes a number of striking forms in the contemporary world, mostly notably the adoption of hip-hop attitudes by people of all races and classes—a massive cultural movement that has ranged in its affect from utter earnestness to extreme irony. Of course, before hip-hop, there was the proliferation of various forms of roots music—both white and black—within the middle class. And indeed, pop music, as we know—even in its most resolutely middle-class forms—is based on the appropriation of lower-class or folk styles by the music industry. It is precisely in these cases that the question of authenticity has been most dramatically raised. Whether we like it or not, there is a real difference between, on the one hand, singing along with a song because it corresponds to one’s actual life or to some fairly plausible racial or cultural identification (for example, someone who has a tractor singing along to “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”), and, on the other hand, singing along vigorously to a song despite or even because of a much greater cultural or racial gap. To draw attention to this phenomenon is not to affirm the absolute status of racial and cultural distinctions but to raise the question of why such seemingly inauthentic identifications function so powerfully.

To be sure, a great deal of cultural innovation has been accomplished within the music industry itself, with its producers, technicians, established musicians, and tastemakers in a process that has combined the incorporation of “raw” folk material, influences within the western art music tradition, and technological innovations that create new types of sound and new ways of mixing or altering recorded material. We might be tempted to call this ideal-typical technically and musically sophisticated product “authentically middle-class”—Steely Dan falls most famously into this category, insofar as their multilayered production and extreme perfectionism virtually efface the influences incorporated into their work as “raw material.” However, it is also characteristic of middle-class discontent and self-loathing to find such “organic” middle class expressions “inauthentic.” This is an attitude that implicitly links the authentic with the poor or nonwhite.

The question therefore for middle-class music has been how to channel erotic and creative energies into some authentic form of creative expression. These energies, however, are not free-floating, as they might theoretically be in some future utopian society. This is because as long as there is poverty and class oppression in the world, the fact of poverty and oppression must be dealt with, accounted for, or repressed. In other words, the affect generated by music must account not only for what it expresses positively, but also for what it does not express, what it is incapable of expressing. To be sure, there are properly erotic drives that find expression in properly erotic songwriting, with its seemingly erotic (rather than political) forms of repression. However, as we shall see in our examination of David Bowie and the Smiths below, the more articulated an erotic stance is, the more its implicit politics become visible.

So within the middle-class musical tradition we find a wide array of responses to this problem, four of which I will address in the sections below. First there is a broadly universalist approach—something like eastern spiritualism—which attempts to subsume within a single cosmological vision all of the joy and suffering of the world. Second, there is an extreme individualism that finds through alienated personal affect a utopian transcendence of the world. Third, there is the evocation of a national or racial mythology, which both represses and underpins racial and class differences. And finally there is Graceland. The examples I have chosen are somewhat arbitrary and are not an exhaustive survey of middle-class music, especially in its more contemporary forms. However, they do express fundamentally divergent solutions to the political problems that determine the coordinates of musical expression.

1. The King of Pain and The Road to Nowhere

The Police’s album Synchronicity was written under the influence of Carl Jung’s concept of “Synchronicity,” which posits the existence of metaphysical links between events in discontinuous regions of the space-time continuum. As such the album’s subject matter ranges across a vast number of epochs and locations from the age of the dinosaurs (“Walking in Your Footsteps”) to the fictional world of a Paul Bowles novel (“Tea in the Sahara”) to Soviet Russia (“Miss Gradenko”). And within specific songs there is a connection made between seemingly disparate phenomena—“another industrial ugly morning” and the Loch Ness Monster emerging from a Scottish lake; and the King of Pain, who, like some Hindu god, exists in a number of avatars: the little black spot on the sun, the butterfly caught in a spider’s web, Oedipus Rex (a king on the throne with his eyes torn out), and a variety of other phenomena of all shapes and sizes.

Synchronicity is remarkably successful at evoking the vastness and multifactedness of the world. The irony of such an album is that as it ages, its reflexive temporal universality is increasingly belied by the datedness of its musical style. While Synchronicity remains a good album, it is marked both by a New Age-y concept of the universal, inspired by drugs and Eastern mysticism, and by the unabated use of primitive synthesizers. Can we attribute this problem to a problem with temporal universality itself—i.e. is it a reproach to Eastern mysticism?—or is it merely indicative of the difficulty of representing mysticism in popular music? Must it necessarily take more primitive forms that forego any attempts at representation? Or is representation the only means that mysticism has of getting a handle on the complexity of the modern world?

The Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” has a similarly Jungian mystical approach that is mediated by futuristic video-game imagery. The premise of the album is the reemergence of primitive archetypes (specifically, the battle between good and evil) on some new dematerialized plane—the titular battle could take place in the future, in a video game, or in the imagination. “Do you realize,” we are asked, “you have the most beautiful face? Do you realize . . . you are floating in space? Do you realize, someday, everyone you know will die?” This is not a fantasy world (it is our world insofar as these propositions hold true) but it is deprived of the spatial and temporal coordinates that we are familiar with, since the stakes of Yoshimi’s battle with the “evil robots” (unlike the stakes of Neo’s battle against the robots of the Matrix—avatars of soulless capitalist parasitism) are unelaborated.

What the Police and the Flaming Lips have in common in these two examples is a representational strategy that denies the importance of perspective in narrative. Perspective has two valences—it concerns first of all the positioning of an individual subject in space and time that makes possible determinate political or ethical commitments; second, it concerns a higher position that immediate problems or interests in terms of a more absolute measure of importance. Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political illustrates the tension between these two senses. Schmitt polemicizes against the universalization of politics (in for example, the discourse of “human rights” or “international norms”), insofar as this universalization denies the true basis of politics in the self-preservation of a people and its way of life against external forces that threaten to destroy it. So for Schmitt, there is an inherent limit to how high a perspective one can take, since even a humanistic liberal world order finds itself posed against internal forces that threaten its existence and which must therefore be ceaselessly sought out and extirpated in the name of a fake universalism.

The basic appeal made by both the Police and the Flaming Lips is to an elimination of the self—that is to say a abandonment of a narrower personal perspective in favor of an entry into a cosmic stream of consciousness, in which we may be reincarnated in any place or time— either as a Japanese robot-fighter of the future or as a prehistoric dinosaur.

This same stream is evoked in a much more temporal context by the Talking Heads in “Once in a Lifetime” as “the water flowing underground” and also in “Road to Nowhere” as the Road to Nowhere itself. At the moments in which we have awareness of our subjective and somatic particularity it appears in an alien and uncanny form—“What is this beautiful house? Who is this beautiful wife? Where does this highway lead to?” The stream/highway metaphor of the lyrics is a perfect description of the musical propulsiveness of these two songs. However, this metaphor and musical form also makes us suspect that all of these universalisms are not so much attempts to rework a lost mysticism in terms of modern content, but rather reflections of the pace of modern life itself, and that the renunciation of the self might turn out ultimately to be a resignation of political agency in an autonomized material world, to which human subjects seem increasingly to be mere appendages.

Here the much more general question is raised whether the historical condition of postmodernity initiates us into some new age of liberated cosmic consciousness, or whether it is instead merely a new stage of capitalism.

2. Sinking in the Quicksand

Paradoxically, David Bowie’s work, despite his futuristic spaceman persona, is diametrically opposed to the aforementioned cases, since he is not interested in archetypes or temporal universals but in the New, the Homo Superior, the rock star, whose fetishized body (Ziggy Stardust’s “god-given ass,” for example) serves as eucharist for the society of the spectacle. Yet many of his lyrics are filled with the sort of British vernacular we find in The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society or the Beatles’ “Penny Lane.” In this aesthetic, most prominent on “Life on Mars?” the British “girl with the mousy hair” is “hooked to the silver screen”—to the repetitive but magnetic cliches of the American culture industry. She is bored, isolated, has forsaken her family. But unlike the daughter of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” Bowie’s protagonist has not been seduced by a young man and dreams of leaving home, but instead by a much more violent rejection of material reality, that sees the world of the present as nothing but repetition, a world of cavemen in which life has no worth except as a boring spectacle or freak-show.

Walter Benjamin characterized fascism as the aestheticization of the political, and in many ways Bowie’s work is an introjection of this process, an attempt to relocate the forces of creative destruction within the subject itself. Instead of attempting a harmonious unity with the external world, Bowie’s music affirms the most geologically disruptive forces within the present moment, seeing in these forces a redemption from the banality of the modern age. Yet these songs also raise the doubt as to whether these violent subjective impulses have any truly transformative power, or whether they are “tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien,” condemned to “sink into the quicksand.”

A more concrete form of this fantasy can be found in the music of the Smiths, which in some ways is more powerful than Bowie’s because it derives its imagery from a more collective working class experience and its emotional impulse from a sense of isolation and desire for a collective form of fulfillment. The ambiguity with which Morissey deals with homosexuality (“you’re a girl and I’m a boy/ I’m a girl and you’re a boy,” “if there’s something you’d like to try, ask me, I won’t say no, how could I?”) allows it to stand in for an infinite variety of repressed and thwarted erotic impulses. And Morissey’s lyrics attack the oppressiveness not only of social mores, but of wage labor itself, which “pays my way and corrodes my soul.” Morissey’s objectives—artistic creation, the pursuit of celebrity and sexual fulfillment—are not posed as stations in man’s evolution to a higher post-human form, but rather components of a new lifestyle, a space of autonomy and happiness that is seized or demanded as if it is a human right: “I am human and I need to be loved. . . just like everybody else does.”

Here, the question of the authenticity arises with regard to the status that we grant individual subjective pathos. For on the one hand, it reacts to a condition—the banalization of mass culture and the tediousness and humiliation of wage labor—which is undeniably dismal, but on the other hand it magnifies individual emotional suffering to grotesque proportions, in what Jameson, following Sartre, describes as “an inner, psychological identification between self-justification and special [class] privileges.”

3. Dixie

In contrast to this British individualism, the genre known as Americana affirms pathos insofar as it is experienced collectively, not simply with Americans of today, but as part of a continuous tradition extending back to the Civil War or farther. Thus we have songs like the Band’s “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down”, and “King Harvest,” Bob Dylan’s (fictional) “John Wesley Harding,” and Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” and “Pocahontas,” which dredge up the racial and class violence of the past as raw material for some new mythology.

Particularly interesting in this context is the tragic image projected onto the South, which we see reemerging over and over again, for example in the Silver Jews’ “Rebel Jew”:

Sometimes I dream of Texas
Yeah, it’s the biggest part of me
And the plains look like the sea at night
Oh, she wants to be so free

She is a rebel state
She is a rebel state
And it’s not too late for her to break
From a sick sick union
An unhealed wound and separate. . .

There are a number of transgressive elements of this song—first the characterization of Jesus as a “rebel Jew,” but second, and more importantly, the glorification of the South’s fight for independence, which goes much farther than the maudlin sentimentality we see in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Though it may be wrong to claim that the Civil War was “only about slavery,” it is unquestionably significant, given the powerful association of the biblical slavery of the Jews in Egypt with the slavery of blacks in the United States, that David Berman is so drawn to the mythology of the slaveholding South.

I would even argue that these sorts of identifications are a way of absorbing contemporary racial and class divisions, since—so the logic goes—if one has been oppressed in the past one cannot possibly be an oppressor in the present. This logic lies at the heart of Americana, and consequently, the question of authenticity ceaselessly poses itself like a return of the repressed—that is to say, America’s repressed history of racial and class violence and the persistence of inequality in the present.

4. Graceland

Within this tradition, Paul Simon occupies an especially interesting position. Consider first, the wonderful opening scene of the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty, in which the Geoffrey Rush character drives home in his sports car singing along to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” (“I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told,” the song begins) only to find his wife in bed with the pool cleaner. Paul Simon, like Bob Dylan and David Berman, is Jewish-American, and as such comes from an immigrant population mostly assimilated into the white middle class. While the secret of Dylan’s coolness was his complete disavowal of these roots (Berman on the other hand, accepts them ironically, while simultaneously adopting wholesale the Americana aesthetic), Simon never conceals them. His work pioneered a distinctively middle class sentimental realism in songwriting that finds few parallels in the music of his time. His songs lack the utopian experimentalism of the Beatles or the hard-edged sexual aggression of the Rolling Stones, but focus instead on the search for America, the isolation of living in the city, etc. This inability to transcend a middle-class sensibility is both Simon’s weakness as a songwriter (in contrast to Dylan’s uncanny ventriloquism of the working class), but also what makes his best work so good, in particular 1986’s Graceland.

As an album, Graceland is a strange mixture: a few songs are more purely Americana (for example, “That Was Your Mother,” which was recorded with zydeco musicians). But the most interesting tracks on Graceland are recorded with South African musicians and attempt to reimagine the place of America and the American middle class in terms of much larger dimensions of experience.

“Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” plays on an initial uncertainty about the location of the song. At first it seems as if we might be dealing with a poor African boy and a rich African girl—living in a world sheltered from the West, where diamonds signify a type of wealth that can’t be judged by American standards for the precise reason that diamonds come from Africa—within this context they are a local luxury. However, as the song plays out, we realize that it is “really” about two Americans—the scale of wealth we are dealing with is both larger but also less metaphorical, since Africa as an object of representation can, in the context of an American pop album, only be a shadowy mirror to a more vivid America of “the bodegas and the lights on upper Broadway.”

Similarly “You can Call me Al” vacillates between a properly Western perspective—the midlife crisis, a type of existential desperation springing from a life of material abundance (“soft in the middle” is the term Simon here uses to describe himself)—and another more foreign and violent “third world” of “cattle in the marketplace” where people exchange physical protection (“you can be my bodyguard”) for a pretense of friendship. Note that the offer is not to “be your pal,” but to “be your long lost pal.” So not only is this an exchange, but a tacit pact of deception. Again, we’ve exchanged Simon’s more properly American imagery and pathos for something implicitly foreign.

“Graceland” similarly employs a typically American narrative paradigm—the road. We have as predecessors the Thunder Road of Bruce Springsteen, but also the Road to Nowhere of the Talking Heads and the road of Paul Simon’s own “America”—though in this case, the pilgrimage is not to New York City, but to Graceland, the cradle of the Civil War—a quest not for America as melting pot, but for an American essence that is eminently ethnic in nature and evokes the deep racial divisions within American history, from the Civil War itself to the charge, however seriously we take it, that Elvis stole rock and roll from black musicians. When Simon sings that “for reasons I cannot explain / There's some part of me wants to see Graceland,” his uncertainty expresses precisely the ambivalent nature of Americana discussed above, in particular a discomfort with and unwillingness to face up to the origins of the southern fantasy.

For all this, and even because of all this, Graceland is a mecca, a place where, the narrator has “reason to believe, we all will be received,” with the Christian Grace that is implicit in the place’s name. The song is folksy Americana, but also employs many of the same African rhythms and stylistic flourishes that appear on the rest of the album. And what makes the appeal of Graceland so ecumenical is that a pilgrimage must be made to get there—that the neither the Jewish-American singer nor the South-African musicians have roots in “the cradle of the Civil War.” Though Graceland is iconically American it is also a bit alien, and in invoking it, Paul Simon might as well be invoking the “weird America” of the Basement Tapes. So his pilgrimage to America must drag along with it all sorts of other musical influences that are not properly American, as if it is only through this process that the feeling of dynamism inherent to the American myth of the road can be reconstituted, as if the true dimensions of America and the American road experience could only be invoked by an appeal to more distant cultural reference points, as if the drive to Graceland would lead us all the way to Africa or further.

And in fact the American road trip of “Graceland” is the most limited form of spatialization attempted on the album. “You Can Call Me Al,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and “Under African Skies” evoke even more strongly a transatlantic and even global dimension. In “The Boy in the Bubble” the reference points go into orbit, as “staccato signals of constant information, a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires,” and into outer space when Simon sings of “a distant constellation that is dying in the corner of the sky.” The song “Graceland” with its appeal to the metaphor of the road, is subsumed from the opening salvo of “The Boy in the Bubble” into a much more complex global vision: “It was a hot day and the sun was beating on the soldiers at the side of the road. There was a bright light, a shattering of shop windows, the bomb in the baby carriage was wired to a radio.” In terms of the breadth of its imagery and spiritual dimensions, this song has a great deal in common with the Police’s Synchronicity, but unlike Synchronicity, the links that bind our world into a whole are technological and historical. Only with Simon’s evocation of the distant constellation (echoes of Benjamin?) does our own fate as a species find a spiritual, inhuman counterpart (political theology?).

The world Simon portrays in this song is both utopian and dystopian—both apocalyptic and messianic. “These are the days of miracles and wonder,” he sings. “And don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.” Is this meant as a genuine sign of hope, or as an act of comfort mitigating a fear that the progress of history and technology has finally surpassed the power of human agency over our collective destiny?

Graceland, by treating our own “first world” experience as a strange foreign object, avoids the simple trap of liberal guilt or narcissism. Yet we cannot simply treat the music’s perspective as African, since the singer-songwriter all along is the confused but earnest Paul Simon, navigating the materialistic world of Manhattan but also looking outside—to both Graceland and South Africa—for answers.

And we must necessarily wonder if Graceland could mean the same thing 25 years later, now that “world music” has been fully incorporated into the culture industry—now that the “staccato signals” virtually emanate from our bodies.

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