by Marcus Breen
© all rights reserved
Will I ever again be able to live with pure passion
when I know our history is over?
Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Ashes of Gramsci
A flurry of bodies, flesh and sweat animated in apparently concentric circles of anxiety swirled across the television screen. In the dim glow cast by MTV’s wallpaper buzz, Nirvana’s video for ‘Smells like teen spirit’ expressed a poignant moment in pop music’s ungainly progress. It’s physicality renewed a sense of forward momentum towards a renewed rendering of purpose that pop seemed unsure of in the years immediately prior to Nirvana’s arrival on the global pop scene. This was rock that mattered. How poorly then were we prepared by this sort of teleology of emotional hope when, just over two years later in April 1994, the sad demise of lead singer Kurt Cobain at his own hand, came screeching down the news service wires.
The operation of optimistic progression within popular music as evidenced by Nirvana’s eruption on to the global pop music scene, has been the sort of activity Lawrence Grossberg has theorised using the concept ‘affective alliances’. 1 He has argued that the affect, or the emotional resonances that find a location in audiences are key signifiers in determining how music is valued. In what he termed the ‘rock and roll apparatus’, he saw a deep investment by fans in the music and its associated social meanings, which were constructed out of a peculiarly American experience of post-World War Two popular celebration of US capitalism and affluence. Popular music, Grossberg argued, was constructed along a linear path of empowered pleasure.
Significantly for cultural studies, Grossberg has argued for a reading of progressive empowerment within popular music that was seriously challenged in the late 1980s. His contribution to the field of popular music studies and more recently cultural studies is that he has refined some of the generalisations surrounding popular music that have been part of the musicological and historical baggage of popular cultural studies. He has done this by using an eclectic approach to the theory of articulation, then taking his own pleasured fandom in rock and roll as the point of engagement. 2
The term ‘affective alliance’ is indicative of a cultural reading that relies overly on pleasured fandom. It can frequently be misread to suggest a positive, singular association between the musical product and its emotional constructs, or perhaps, a binary interpretation of a positive or negative capability. Pop has operated on the basis of the positive side of the commitment ledger, where the sensibilities at work have a taken-for-granted trajectory. Pop music theory, such as it is, has joined that same pleasurable trajectory.
A reworking of this singular view of pop music seems necessary in the light of Quentin Tarantino’s film Reservoir Dogs. With this film, the association of emotional and personal experiential pleasure with popular music is problematised in such a way that it is not possible to consistently sustain an affective alliance with the music when watching the film. Pop music is reconstituted as unequivocally complicit in the barbarity that this film presented.
Pop is complicit with barbarity in a way that has rarely been suggested. Certainly the example of US troops playing loud music at General Noreiga’s headquarters in Panama, when they waited to capture the general is a real life example of popular music put to other use. The reports that French and Belgian troops turned up the music in their army vehicles as the carnage raged around them in Rwanda in April 1994, is further evidence of the pop music’s complicity in everyday barbarity. The latter example is more chilling than the former, in that it suggests an appropriation of music as a vehicle for emotional pacification. The former example suggests that music was used as a means of direct engagement by the Bush administration in reconstituting music as a force for right wing action. Surely pop music was never meant to be this sort of tool? At least this is what a singularly engaged view of pop has maintained.
In Reservoir Dogs pop music mediates the emotional text of the film and yet I am not aware of it being referred to in reviews. The ‘heist’ movie and its history as a genre seemed to excite some critics and rightly so, but with no mention of the way in which the director used music to ‘heist’ the audience’s own affective alliances. Tarantino himself was more competent in his analysis:
“It is a gritty story but it is also very funny. Actually Reservoir Dogs is the pulp novel I always wanted to write. Although the story is very much present day, it has a ’50s feel but I used music from the ’70s. In one scene, the audience learns that a local radio station is hosting a Super 70’s weekend and that’s why I am using and referencing the bubblegum music that was popular during that period. I found that the music was a terrific counterpoint to the action on screen”. (Press kit, pp 5-6)
Interestingly, it was at the precise point mentioned above by Tarantino that pop music runs as a counter signature to the narrative flow, pulling, stopping the avalanche of hurt, demanding a repositioning of the audience. Until that point there had been no threat to the expectations of the filmic experience as the music moved along its linear path, secure in its purposive task as a crutch for known emotions. In my own case this expectation had been reinforced by the anticipatory engagement with the soundtrack, so that when waiting for the film to begin in the semi-darkened theatre, the film soundtrack was playing. I chuckled at the memories of the 1970’s songs: cornball weirdness, disposable notations of life that marked off certain landmark events. When ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ appeared in the film ‘heisting’ the audience, it was impossible to chuckle, or position oneself in relation to any nostalgic rethinking.
The scene appears well into the film, when Mr Blonde begins his vicious destruction of a police officer, to the accompaniment of ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ by Stealers Wheel. As the bloodied and battered policeman sits tied and immobilised in the centre of the warehouse where most of the action takes place, Mr Blonde dances in a mock celebration of 1970s pop engagement. Curling the open razor through the air, slowly, methodically he encroaches on the hapless police officer. As he does so, the 1970s plays itself out in the song. When he cuts off the police officer’s ear, it is more than the symbolic violence of the criminal imagination at work. It is a ritual severing of the ear of pleasure.
For some members of the audience the song is easily recognised as an icon of pop banality. At one point entirely meaningless and a means of achieving a state of disengaged, luxurious pleasure, the song, and its genre fits the phantasmic pleasurings of pop described so eloquently by writers like Adrian Martin . 3 It seems that every 30-something person remembers that song ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’; it contained the 1970s banality with almost perfect memorability.
Stuck in the middle with you
And I don’t know what it is I could do
Clowns to the left of me jokers to the right
Here I am
Stuck in the middle with you.
With its semi-sexual allusions, and popish disposability, it accomplished what pop needs to accomplish: an inextricable chronicle of feelings 4. It filled in and defined the cracks in our everyday lives. Pop is like a stick of chewing gum, you take it out and chew on it when you need it. The cost is low, yet the benefits are substantial. The rewards are immeasurable, intangible — which is precisely why pop is such a good commodity. Pop is the sales counter of capitalism, where gratification rolls, as Randy Newman put it “with the punches”. Its use-value is as gratification theory suggests, appropriated at multiple sites with maximum interpretative licence. The joke, of course, is that as ‘pop’, everybody tends to read it as an endorsement of the lived present, which is increasingly dominated by exchange value concerns.
The assumptions of pop are that it is operating on the most conspicuous level of consumption. It mediates what we could call ‘the greater consumption’; that is, it provides a pathway down which societies sensory preferences are directed. It has been built into the maps of cultural life. The Rolling Stones riff behind a motor car add, Lou Reed selling beer, Daddy Cool selling jeans, the Olympic Games ‘soaring’ around the world, propelled by Sarah Brightman and Jose Carerras, or the final of the 1994 World Cup Soccer final linked to the (repeat of 1990) performance of opera ‘blokes’ -Three Tenors – Carerras, Pavorotti and Domingo. Anything and everything is ‘in the system’, rooted into a weedscape and soon to be a smash hit near you. Is it any wonder, hits are now so predictable?
Deleuze’s concept of music as a rhizome is so evocative of pop. 5 Pop is the ultimate weed, whose roots maintain an osmotic relationship with the soil of society. It absorbs and flourishes on the nutrients or content of the soil, which it extracts, while simultaneously it returns to the soil products which serve to enhance the prospects for future weeds, which may grow up to strangle the preceding ones. And yet, as Andrew Goodwin has said, we do not have an adequate theory of pop music. 6 The answer is in the range of meanings that encumber pop. 7
There is a dramatic need to question some of the assumptions of popular culture, as expressed by pop music’s primary engagement with the social landscape. Certainly Reservoir Dogs raises this issue by its heist of the pop sensibility and raises questions about pop music which suggests that our enthusiasm should be more measured. The mainstream reading of pop is permeated by joyful emotion but the prominence of such optimistic readings should not detract from a theory of pop that can take into consideration the ‘heisting’ of meaning from these sorts of claims which have been essential to pop music’s mandate. Instead, it may be necessary to re-theorise pop and its complicity with the anti-social sensibilities which cultural studies has been reluctant to recognise.
Such an approach may be less optimistic. Yet it will be capable of recognising the emerging formations that desperately need to be identified and critiqued alongside those formations of a positive and resistive nature which cultural studies champions. Our preparation for and engagement in political action may indeed be capable of locating itself at telling points for intervention if theories of pop moved more dynamically. At least we may have been better equipped to address the waste of Kurt Cobain’s death, rather than remorsefully recognising the point of its negation and admitting to some complicity in his public destruction.
Surely the social engagement which has been part of the ‘critical practice’ of cultural studies would not sit on its hands in self doubt at such a time, but rise up to the challenge presented by the images of pop that permeate our everyday lives. 8 As Attali noted, music is produced with more precise speed than any other art form, giving it a cogency and prophetic role that is often overlooked by critics working in other forms of cultural expression, such as film and theatre. 9 A theory of pop music will surely want to include a pre-emptive clause about the heists to meaning that are constantly under way. And when and if that is all done, the contemporary cultural studies project could well turn out to be a discourse about the theory of pop and our place in its movement.
Marcus Breen left Australia to teach Cultural Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He specialises in the political economy of music and multimedia industries in which he also works as a consultant.
2. Grossberg, L (1992) We gotta get out of this place: popular conservatism and postmodern culture, New York, Routledge; (1994) Is Anybody Listening? Does Anybody Care?: On Talking about ‘The State of Rock’, Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture, (eds) Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose, New York, Routledge: 41-58.