“sacred cows make the best hamburgers” // notes on poptimism

So I thought this item was up on Sunday, but apparently not. It’s been a great week for me, with esteemed kudos for Stealing All Transmissions coming from unexpected places (here and here), which has left me nearly speechless. I did want to offer a few words, though, and pick up the theme of poptimism/rockism (see here, pt. 1 and here).

I am happy for the most part with the poptimistic turn of music criticism, and I’m fine with the attack on specious hierarchies–good stuff. Still, with the “everything-is-awesome” ethos of poptimism (okay, I know it’s not quite fair, but bear with me), we don’t have the type of rockist criticism that created the sacred cows of the rock pantheon, including Elvis, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. The kind of sacred cows that Abbie Hoffman once noted, make the best hamburgers.

Now, the best practitioners of punk passed their O(edipus) levels, and set their sights on more trenchant issues, but even Sleater-Kinney, on their fifth LP, were taking the piss out of Led Zeppelin IV’s best-known track (“You always play the same old song / play another song”).

(And, if you want a less pitchy version, here ya go.)

There’s also Talking Heads’ “Heaven,” which takes on the Zep tune, for it “plays all night long.” And my hometown favorites, Pavement (Stockton in the house!), who find the “elegant bastards” of The Stone Temple Pilots to be stone-deaf and tedious.

Ah, the good old days … have a delightful holiday from work, lovely readers, especially if it’s the equivalent of a paid holiday!

Theses on Sleater-Kinney, pt. 2

Happy Sunday, poptimists and rockists alike! As I noted on Wednesday, in celebration of the Sleater-Kinney box set release (yes!), including full color vinyl, and next January’s new album (woo-hoo!), here’s the second part of what we used to call “experimental writing” in 2003.

SK

As I noted earlier, there’s a rough correspondence here to Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), as I found All Hands on the Bad One to be distinctive in its aesthetic effectiveness, its political effectiveness, and the ways in which the songs implicated the singer and the fans in different moments in the circuits of production and consumption.

7

Previous affirmations of grrl power have offered pliant interrogations of masculinity. Gender is merely girls, and the boys are written out, not fully problematized, nor fully implicated—nor theorized as irreducibly sexual and redeemable. For Sleater-Kinney, desire and the desiring apparatus are not deferred but opened, and expanded into new structural arrangements.

And as she split in two
Was she coming straight for you
And do you have a camera for a face?
Was she your TV show
Was she your video

“Was It a Lie?”

And the gaze of the male listener, with CD booklet in hand, finds Carrie, Corin, and Janet glamorous and demure, absolutely fashionable—wielding guitars, sticks, and picks, plugging in, turning on. A woman size 8, lovely with and without her technology. The politic? Problematize your voyeurism, and pass me my lipstick, s’il vous plait.

8

All post-punk musical life is essentially practical. All singer-song-music problematics find the solutions to heteronomy in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.

And will there always be concerts
where women are raped?
Watch me make up my mind
instead of my face
The Number One Must Have
is that we are safe

“#1 Must Have”

9

In their cover of “Fortunate Son,” a song I sang in my own incipient days of white-collar, working class consciousness, Sleater-Kinney re-casts the terms—neither son nor fortunate, other to Other—in radical amplification. On the live version, you hear female screams from the audience, and its almost the same voices, same pathos, when I see Sleater-Kinney two years after, in the basement of Oberlin College’s “Sco,” and there emerges an elusive quality: no matter how exhilarating I find this tune, this sound, there is a glass ceiling of gender present, keeping men a notch below on the hierarchy of practical, joyful autonomy.

10

The standpoint of the old cultural revolution was civil society (“C’mon people, now, smile on your brother …”). The standpoint of the new is autonomy and responsibility, an ecology of joyful noise and pleasurable decency.

Go back and tear the pictures from the page …
History will have to find a different face
And if you’re ready for more
I just might be what you’re looking for

“Male Model”

11

Previously, the heroines of post-punk have only criticized the world of rock; the point, however, is to seize it critically and joyously, and to liberate it.

# # #

I also name-check Sleater-Kinney and a host of other righteous folks in an interview this week regarding Stealing All Transmissions, which is now out in fine US bookstores. Have a rockin’ good week!

Theses on Sleater-Kinney, pt. 1

In celebration of the Sleater-Kinney box set release (yes!), including full color vinyl, and next January’s new album (woo-hoo!), I’m sharing in today’s post an experimental writingsk-box-set-records piece of mine from 2003, which appeared in Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies. Late in summer 2000, in a basement club at Oberlin College, I saw Sleater-Kinney for the first time. They put on amazing, amazing show (The White Stripes opened!), and repeated listenings to All Hands on the Bad One (2000) inspired me to subject the inspiration to prose, and to try the format of a set of theses.

As I note below, my ideas below have some correspondence to Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), as I found Bad One to be distinctive in its aesthetic effectiveness, its political effectiveness, and the ways in which the songs implicated the singer and the fans in different moments in the circuits of production and consumption.

This piece long precedes, of course, the current debates about rockism and poptimism, and reflects my own becoming as a thinker. Below I’ve included six of eleven theses, and I’ll post the remaining five on Sunday. Enjoy—or let my younger self have it, via the comments below.

Theses on Sleater-Kinney (2003)

Abstract: Marx wrote the “Theses on Feuerbach” in 1845 in preparation of The German Ideology, which he co-authored with Friedrich Engels. Engels only discovered the “Theses” after Marx’s death, and he regarded them to be “the brilliant germ of the new world outlook.” In postmodernity, our outlooks are certainly less sweeping, and here I offer a set of cultural materialist theses on the sound of the all-female rock trio Sleater-Kinney, in a dialogue often faithful to Marx’s original work.

1

The chief defect of much previous post-punk (Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, and Pavement, to begin) is that the materiality and responsibility of subjective, everyday life is conceived from standpoints of the abstract subject—urban dweller, riot grrl, or suburban malcontent. The preservation of the dialogic force of rock, in which the singer-song-music—the text, if you will—is phantasmatic extrapolation, refraction, a fiction, into which the lyric-music listener can situate herself comfortably: think Cibo Matto’s “Working for Vacation,” or nearly every song by every singer, in which love/disappointment/anger is ideal, idealized, preserved perfectly for negotiated readings. One size fits nearly all.

In the opening verse from All Hands on the Bad One (2000), Sleater-Kinney in word and sound collapse the parallel planes of the dialogical imagination to implicate and position both singer and lyric-music listener in a new, practical-critical location.

Eye cream and thigh cream, how ‘bout a get
high cream?
Nothing I do smoothes out the feelings
of being used

“The Ballad of a Ladyman”

2

In the rock canon, the question of objective truth is not new: think Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” John Lennon’s “God”—“Yoko and me, that’s reality”—or Public Enemy’s “Prophets of Rage.” In S-K’s “The Ballad of a Ladyman,” in the narrative, the straight male listener is on the outside, de-scribed from the responsible, practical activity of the narrator or object of desire, situated anew, in a condition naked, objective, and distant.

I could be demure
like girls who are soft
for boys who are FEARFUL
of getting AN EARFUL
but I GOTTA ROCK!

But the sound’s a bit different, one relatively autonomous from Patti Smith’s androgynous confrontation, or PJ Harvey’s banshee blues. This sound undermines the text, invites him in, to stand where she stands, with crimson lips, dacron skirt, and polyester blouse. It’s the affirmation of desire, as singular and social. Pop as political once again becomes urgently personal, generating material effects.

3

Amid a crunch of vocal chords and drums and wires, Sleater-Kinney’s “show us your riffs” doctrine displaces the ironic detachment of postmodern affect, affirming the integral nature of self-change and revolutionary practice—i.e., strumming, picking, singing, and pogo-ing, be it onstage, on the club floor, or in the bedroom.

You don’t own the conversation, honey
You don’t own the stage
We’re here to JOIN THE CONVERSATION
and we’re here to RAISE THE STAKES
Now do … you … hear that sound
as the Model bre-hey-hey-eaks
TAKE THE STAGE!

“Male Model”

The shift in voice is from narrowly autobiographical to openly dialogical, for the stage is actual and metaphorical, always already multiple, and there for the taking.

4

Forerunner as foil: Liz Phair on Exile, for example, for contemporary suburban boy listeners, starts out from the fact of private self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into the private and public spheres. Her work reifies the personal in the realm of intimacy, discrete from the social, secular world. The former must, therefore, be understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice. Certainly, Phair’s voice, lyrics, and sound disrupt old notions of gender, power, and sexuality, and in concert she invites audience members to breach the footlight divide, to join her onstage, among props comprising house beautiful. Her invitation into her home, however, reproduces the private-public problematic. In this moment, sensuous affirmation by a different mode of practical, human activity is deferred, rather than affirmed in the negative.

5

In contrast, in concert, in Sleater-Kinney’s forceful ushering of belligerent men from the center to the edges of the floor, the band problematizes the gender privilege of height, creates space for grrl power in practice, and fosters practical, egalitarian power as possibility in the rock formation.

6

The ideological gap between art and commodity often bemoaned so clumsily is tarried here with sharp eloquence. Rather than deny the ubiquity of the circuits of production, Sleater-Kinney cast themselves in each moment of that circuit, as raw material, commodity form, and consumer.

But they took our ides to their marketing stars
and now I’m spending all my days at girlpower.com
trying to buy back a little piece of me

“#1 Must Have”

But this condition is merely the raw material for new songs, new affirmations, the soundtrack for sensuous, creative activity.

And for all the ladies out there I wish
We could write more than the next
marketing bid
Culture is what we make it Yes it is
Now is the time, Now is the time, Now is the time
To invent, invent, invent,
INVENT, INVEN-HEN-HEN-ENT, invent

“#1 Must Have”

 # # #

DJ Aphasia, 18 Sept set

Happy Wednesday readers! After close to eight years away, I got back in the DJ booth last week at WOBC, our local college and community radio station, for an hour of “The Spirit of ’77.” I’m rusty, and It’s a mixed bag, of course, with great tracks from ’77 and after, some of the tracks that inspired all that gorgeous noise in ’77, and a few foils, too, just to remind us what that joyous ruckus was about.

 

Do get past the first 45 seconds certainly, which is a non-punk prelude, and then you’ll encounter a host of fun items without DJ patter this time, including The Au Pairs, the Dolls, Costello, The Clash, Scritti Politti, Pixies, Public Image Ltd., Patti Smith, Lorde (yes Lorde!–outside of hip hop, she’s best we’ve got today on social class), Television, Sleater-Kinney, and Gang of Four. Send me a note if you need info on any particular track. I’d post them in order, but that prevents a bit of serendipity, yes?

And here’s a link to a show that just went up in NYC, with great images of the Beasties, Madonna, and others, as just kids. And some of The Clash in various iterations, too.

BAD --
image by Josh Cheuse, used without permission.

Thanks for tuning in. I’m back on the air Thursday, 5-6pm, EDT, at wobc.org, and 91.5 FM in Northeast Ohio. Thanks for checking in!