Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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October 28, 1993

This is a self-interview I conducted while in the process of trying to write a big "statement" piece about the study of popular music for the Bad Subjects "Music" issue that I was then in the process of editing:
Q: What's the basic point I'd like to convey in my piece?

A: The fact that the vast majority of popular music thinks of itself as being outside of a degraded mainstream. In other words, even the seemingly most 'mainstream' music (to alternative sensibilities) has its own ways of defining its artisitc expression as genuine, authentic, or culturally worthwhile. Often these depend more on the *context* of the music's production or reception. Madonna's music may be mainstream, but the apparatus that surrounds its marketing and performance strives hard for an alternative effect. A band like Bon Jovi thinks that it matters to its fans because it establishes rapport with them. Pet Shop Boys music sounds very mainstream, but its reception within gay/queer culture marks it as doing something else.

Q: So the real point is that popular music almost always distances itself from the supposedly democratic mainstream of 'popular culture' because it recognizes that 'democracy' has become synonymous with capitalism?

A: Maybe. That reading would suggest a 'moment of critique' within almost all popular music that I would feel inclined to deconstruct. I mean, isn't it the illusion that popular music provides something alternative to what the free-market in general provides a large part of what makes it sell so well? This would introduce Jameson's reading of the Utopian dimension to mass-cultural forms.

Q: Alright. I thought you wanted to talk about popular music as a 'means of distinction'?

A: I do.

Q: Well, how does it tie-in with the fact that almost all popular music distinguishes itself from a degraded mainstream?

A: I realize that there are two separate lines of thought in y argument. On the one hand, I want to talk about distinctions *within* popular music--'taste-preferences'--, on the other hand, I want to talk about the way in which individual taste-preferences within popular music define other taste preferences *as* the mainstream in order to make themselves 'alternative'. Popular music is a medium for the expression of 'negative identity', identity fashioned at the expense of others.

Q: What about 'cross-identification' and the cultural capital questions raised by the Bourdieu stuff? Are you going to throw them to the wayside? It seemed as if you were building up to an interesting point analogous to Annalee's point about trans-gender people and drag (of course, her point was based on economics--but it occurs to me right now that poorer people, particularly ethnicities, spend a lot of their money dressing in 'drag', i.e. as someone better off than they are--think of Darnell at Vallejo High who needed money for clothes). Do you want to evacuate the class issue?

A: No, I *do* want to note how an interesting combination of economic and cultural capital allows better-off people to musically 'trans-gender' themselves. It's harder to sustain collections in four genres than one. It occurs to me right now that music critics tend to promote diverse genres because they tend to get albums for free!--the music business gives them albums for review...I don't know, I'm getting lost here.

Q: Eat some pizza!

A: I did.

Q: Let's try this again: what do you want to say?

A: I want to suggest ways in which popular music differs from other mass-cultural media like mainstream film and T.V. by showing how it functions as a 'means of distinction', a way to separate oneself and one's subculture from a mainstream figured by other people's identities, taste-preferences, subcultures. By way of explanation I want to take alternative rock and rap as an extreme example of this. It occurs to me even more strongly now that both alternative rock and rap try to capture their alternativeness *within* the text more than supposedly more 'mainstream' acts like Van Halen or Madonna do. Maybe that's too fine a distinction to make. It *is* clear that alternative musics strive to interrupt pleasure with what is painful (white noise_), jarring (violent, sexual, or Joycean lyrical content), or otherwise demanding interpretation.

Q: So are you going to find a 'safe' way of explaining how alternative musics take the inherent anti-mainstreamness of popular music to its logical extreme?

A: I guess.

Q: What about the generational thing?

A: I do want to raise the issue of generational distinctions. It seems to me that music of a given generation has always tended to define itself against an older mainstream: the mainstream is the world of stable, secure, grown-up, self-satisfied fathers (and mothers). I think there's some blurring between such generational distinctions and the distinctions made within a generation between 'alternative' and mainstream youth for example: somehow the mainstream kids get coded as being like their parents. I think I might also want to bring up the hatred older artists like Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton arouse in younger generations.

Q: And where does Bourdieu fit in to all of this?

A: As far as generational distinction goes, clearly younger generations have a 'temporary class consciousness' as the not-yet and possibly never empowered lackeys and toys of the older generations in power. Whether this makes any sense within Bourdieu's schematics is a mystery. It occurs to me that his definition of taste is extraordinarily static and not particularly receptive to the notion of generational distinctions *within*, say, the working class.

Q: How about cross-identification and drag?

A: There would appear to me both generational cross-identification or 'generational drag' (me liking the 60's) and generational *identification* through the mixing of disparate musical genres *within* a particular generation's music (rock and rap co-mingling).

Q: Is this drag emancipatory a la Butler's *Gender Trouble*?

A: Not inherently. Maybe I should address the non-fixity of cross-id, the fact that temporary alliances form (90's rock and rap) for one situation (hating older folks), and are then replaced by other temporary alliances (60's psychadelic rock and alternative rock of today) for another situation (bonding with/or having nostalgia for Boomer music and time).

Q: So how does this tangent tie-in to your basic point about popular music as a means of distinction?

A: Maybe I just want to say that popular music is a particularly potent means of forging identifications and thus constructing an identity (however temporary a particular identity might be!) and that we must consider it not as a unified mass-cultural form so much as a potent aesthetic means of dividing the whole into subgroupings and individual.

Q: Would that just be a bad thing?

A: I think I'd like to isolate the capacity to make distinctions itself as a potentially useful political tool honed to sophistication by popular music. The trick would be to transfer the moment of distinction from the aesthetic realm (sucks/doesn't suck) to the socio-political realm (sucks/doesn't suck), *then* use it to distinguish between passivity and praxis, cynicism and commitment.
The issue turned out nicely, with pieces that continue to impress me. And my editor's column, composed in a matter of minutes, provides the most succinct summary anywhere of my take on the politics of taste. But the essay itself went down in flames. I'd tried -- and not for the firs time -- to do too much, to do more than I needed to do. And what I ended up with was the difference between my aspirations and my capacity to realize them. Still, the remainder lives on, reflecting scattered light onto the potentially breathtaking but always already benighted shapes that rise from the vast steppes of the counter-factual.

Although I haven't even looked at what I wrote for this abortive essay since October, 1993, I can see now, rereading this self-interview and a number of other fragments from the same period, that I ended up making many of the points I'd intended to make back then in the conference presentation I delivered at the UCLA DisChord conference on May 8th, 1997, a piece I later revised for publication in Bad Subjects as "Autobiography in Music Criticism." Even though all the sentences in that one were composed from scratch, a good number are eerily similar to ones that I had written for the "Music" issue and then filed away in the crawl space of trauma. "Autobiography in Music Criticism," incidentally, continues to be the essay of which I am proudest.
Tags: autobiography, bad subjects, cultural studies, fragment, music, taste, theory

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  • Weekend Update

    I frequently feel like writing something longer and sometimes writing it here. Unfortunately, my windows of opportunity these days are five minutes…

  • Hammer Time

    It is hard to be here. As I much as part of me wants to return, I clearly exhaust my will in other ways. But I can at least muster up the energy to…

  • Marlowe