This piece derives from years of simmering misgivings about how some music critics have been writing about the mass-market, Top 40 pop music which, we are told, has experienced a renaissance in the last decade, what could be called, and will be here, “manufactured pop music.” It is more specifically a response to “Pop Utopianism: A Manifesto,” written by Trevor Link (@loosejoints) and posted on the Occupied Territories tumblr, where it accompanies an MP3 and video mixtape called “We Need To Talk About K-Pop.” I’ll try to provide a brief summary of what I think “Pop Utopianism” is about, but the following will still make more sense if you read that first; it should be said that is of some length. This work is shorter, but, mercifully, it contains no references to Freud, which should count in its favor.
“Pop Utopianism” is an impassioned explanation of why Link finds K-Pop enthralling, placed in the context of wider plea for what he refers to pop music. The four foundational points of Pop Utopianism are, in brief:
(1): Pop music is at its most utopian when rooted in our experience of pleasure. This is because pleasure confronts us with an inescapable sensation of how we would like life to be like, a glimpse of utopia.
(2): Pleasure in itself is hardly controversial, but in order for this pleasure to be truly utopian or transformative, it must be ecstatic pleasure without imposed limits.
(3): Pop’s unrestrained sense of pleasure strongly aligns it with play, as well as fantasy.
(4): Perhaps more than most forms of music, pop music (including disco) is not only rooted in the body but is also embodied.
Link connects his argument to past debates about whether Disco was reactionary, Capitalist, inauthentic when compared to folk and rock music (this was preceded by debates about folk vs. rock, a “body music” in its time, to be sure) and to the concept of “rockism” in which music critics treat other genres as fundamentally unserious. The arguments, both borrowed and original, are convincing enough, however I don’t think they are convincing when used to make the arguments Link does about modern pop music. Debates about folk vs. pop (the distinction being entirely artificial, pop music simply being folk music written after the introduction of recording and mass media) rock vs. hip-hop and pop vs. the academy should be long buried by now. We all, or at least anyone remotely interested in discussions such as these, accept Pop in its many forms. Link, however, wishes to actually narrow what can be considered pop to the Top 40, its direct stylistic forebears and its transglobal cousins, such as K-Pop. “Sophisticated” music which “strives for the pleasureableness of pop music but which intellectualizes this pleasure and subdues it” is disqualified as providing only “safe, intellectually satisfying half-pleasures, “clever, yet ultimately tepid.” Link goes on to say that those who enjoy this “sophisticated” put themselves ‘above’ pop music “because it cannot serve their fascistic, anti-social, and narcissistic (not to mention non-pleasureable) aims.” Well, now that the F-word is out of the box, there’s no point in resisting it:
We need to talk about the intrinsic fascism of manufactured pop.
Now, I can’t stress enough that I’m not suggesting that Trevor Link is a fascist or that his passionate enjoyment of K-Pop is fascistic. It’s telling, though, how his manifesto and mixtape are sprinkled with fascistic language. We’ve already seen the denunciation of sophisticated intellectuals and their devitalizing intellecualization. In writing about K-Pop, the songs are described with words like ‘undeniable,’ the performers as ‘commanding,’ Link often asks in bewilderment how anyone could not like a particular song, and what might possibly be wrong with someone who doesn’t. Pop music defined in this manner is that music which speaks directly to a some pure, untainted and authentic human nature, presumed to be shared by the mass of society. Those who lack this nature or would turn against the spirit of purely pleasurable music are perverted intellectuals. This music is in turn performed by pop singers who “are constructs pulling together material from a kind of collective unconscious, the actualization of social desire,” which would also function as a concise description of the theory behind the Führerprinzip.
If the pop music Link is talking about encompasses certain pleasurable musics but not others (the ‘tepid’ ones) then we need to find a good way to distinguish what exactly the pop under discussion in the Pop Manifesto is; it will also serve as a good definition of ‘manufactured pop.’
I suggest that manufactured pop music is characterized by a central concern to maximize two attributes: ‘hookiness’ and forcefulness. Forcefulness commands the body to join in certain physical rituals; hookiness commands the mind to return again and again to certain sets of tunes. The myriad hooks in any particular manufactured pop track serve a second purpose of making it even more indistinct: not sticking with any single element for long enough to distinguish the song, the entire body of contemporary manufactured pop becomes an inseparable set of hooks and commands.
I label it “manufactured” not because it is made with computers or other machines It is manufactured because it is made in an assembly-line process to function as an interchangeable commercial commodity. The use of machines only determines its manufactured quality to the extent that technology is used a) to increase efficiency and b) to increase the power of command. Synthetic sounds can be given an overwhelming power; new production methods attempt to subdue the listener, keeping ahead of its audience as the public ear becomes accustomed to an ever wider range of sounds. Motown could be seen another assembly-line system for creating pop music, and should be seen as a historical predecessor of modern systems of pop music manufacture, of studio systems in both Korea and the US. An important difference for the listener is that Motown’s sound was finely-tuned decades before the loudness wars, so while the songs may have been created purely to illicit the most direct forms of pleasure, the forcefulness of the music was not overloaded, and it was not yet necessary to have four ‘hooks’ per song. This is a quantitative difference which I think becomes a qualitative difference: Motown and other pop-music factories of the past may have been making manufactured pop music, but it was different in kind from the music we are increasingly being asked by critics to openly embrace.
This recent contestation that we should all be listening to manufactured pop music because it efficiently delivers certain narrow forms of pleasure, that if we refuse there is something wrong with us – this is a distinctly fascist impulse. That is not to say that I believe that manufactured pop music creates fascists, or that Trevor Link is consciously or unconsciously acting as a fascist, or even that I have no interest in K-Pop or any song to be found on American charts. I find K-Pop fascinating enough as a specific instance of manufactured pop music that each time I discover a K-Pop song I can actually listen to, I’m filled with a particular delight. Any pop music that we discover anywhere can be included in our personal or social utopic visions and used along the path to them. If you like a song, that’s fine. If you like an entire genre, good for you. We can listen to pleasurable, worthwhile music from production centers in Motown or the Brill Building in decades past or a new hit pumped out of YG Entertainment last month. However, privileging a particular form of pleasurable popular music as the only legitimate form of Pop (Link executes a simple reversal of rockism by implying that the inauthenticity and artifice of pop music is actually what makes it authentic) denies listeners the choice of which qualities in music, in which combinations, are important to them: the hookiness and forcefulness of the music is instead held aloft as the supreme values for pop music, the songs with the most force and the strongest hooks are judged better than other songs in an imagined competitive arena (and performers can literally be judged in competitive arenas which are then broadcast on television.) This is an attempt to strangle the wonderful, messy heterodoxy that has emerged with the Internet. At the time that Richard Dyer wrote his “In Defence of Disco” (it’s the article that comes right after two defences of paedophilia in the summer 1979 edition of Gay Left) it would have made sense to simply appropriate the pop music that was widely available for purposes of pleasure, spontaneous community creation, identity play, and the like. There is no reason to accept this state of affairs today. We have as both listeners and producers of music an unmatched power to create a thriving ecology of pleasurable music on local and global scales.
So, there: I’m bothered by being told that I should be listening to more Top 40 pop, and that if I don’t enjoy it, I’m stuck up, over-intellectual, and just plain wrong. “Pop Utopianism: A Manifesto” and this piece and Link’s are both the results of immediate reactions: Link would never think to write such a lengthy exposition on K-pop if he did not find the direct experience of K-Pop to be exceedingly pleasurable, and I would find no need to label manufactured pop ‘intrinsically fascist’ if I didn’t find the experience of listening to much of it to be viscerally unpleasant. Again, if those K-Pop songs do bring Link pleasure, and that pleasure holds up to later scrutiny, as it seems to have done, then good for him, and plentiful thanks for creating an annotated mixtape that serves as a nice introduction to the genre for outsiders – a number of these songs I hadn’t heard before, and a few of them I can even tolerate or enjoy (if you’re curious, “Nu ABO,” which is toned down just enough to be listenable, and “Lucifer,” which sounds like it comes from an alternate universe.)
That being said, while the enjoyment of manufactured pop is defensible, I don’t think the idea that it can serves as a utopian model withstands scrutiny. The utopian model of manufactured pop is false because it is based on a ‘limitless pleasure’ which is only poorly simulated by maximizing and overloading a few narrow pathways of pleasure, just as the huge amounts of high-fructose corn syrup in a soda assaults our receptors of sweetness, and a fast-food hamburger latches on to our umami receptors while overloading our senses with a bevy of added chemicals. In both manufactured food and manufactured pop, we see a product designed to be a commodity which will impel its consumers to return again and again. This sort of utopianism based on the illusion of limitless pleasure fails because any inspiration to think of a better future is rerouted to a media that invites us to the false, shallow utopia it has constructed in the present day. The actual products that Coca-Cola and McDonald’s sell may do work on the body to prepare us, but it’s the advertisement that they and other corporations broadcast that really insist that these commodities function as a direct link to utopia. In K-Pop this link to images and in turn to the broader consumer society are very clear: K-Pop videos are even more overloaded than the songs that accompany them, and most of them are little more than a hyperactive succession of the alluring limitless number of colorful, shiny, and novel material objects that a commodity-producing world economy promises us; the experience of watching could only be replicated by candy-flipping in a haute shopping center.
Deflecting criticism of manufactured pop music by making dated claims that such critics are over-intellectual elitists who hate or misunderstand pleasure and the body is akin to branding a critic of fast food a health nut or giving the label of teetotaler to anyone who points out that methamphetamine is too powerful a stimulant. The idea that consumer goods, pop music among them, are appropriated by consumers in creative ways was an important one when it was introduced many decades ago, but since then we have seen that these activities have their limits. A commodity system cannot be defeated by the many small actions of consumers integrating products into their lives and personal narratives in ways unintended by producers. Capitalism is entirely capable of adapting to such.
Manufactured pop music cannot serve as a utopian model because it is already part and microcosm of the dystopian economic model of the present.
It may also fail as a model for utopia, but I’d like to briefly present another musical form that has existed for some time now but is only very recently receiving broad attention and increased critical appraisal, and which I think is intrinsically more transgressive.
Juke, even more than K-Pop, is centered around a dance culture. Unlike the dancing that one encounters in a K-Pop video or the dismal setting of a typical American club playing manufactured pop, where dancing is routinized, directly or indirectly choreographed, the “footwork” dance culture surrounding juke involves explosive, unbounded bodily self-expression (point number two in the manifesto) in a social setting. With its unconventional rhythms, abrasive textures, and counter-intuitive structures, it demands little but attention to the ways in which it subverts expectations. The lyrics of manufactured pop are generally agreed to be fairly meaningless (not a problem in itself) the words instead functioning as “vocalized beat” which add to the hookiness of each song. Juke, built upon unceasing repetition of words, phrases, or vocal noises, brings this pop logic to the fore, and plays with it in productive ways. Some Juke tracks are built around words or phrases that could easily be seen as violent, casually misogynist, or as objectifying women. The most interesting work done by Juke occurs when words and phrases are repeated so many times, in such rapid succession, that not only do they cease to hold any meaning, they actually begin to sound like other words and phrases. The function of the voice in manufactured pop music is taken to such an extreme that the music travels through meaninglessness and discovers a new territory of possible meanings. These are possible meanings, and are very much undetermined, as the new meanings will be decided upon by the brain of each listener as it begins to test different interpretations of the vocal sounds being heard. (“When I came?” “When I gave?” “When I cave?” “Spinn?” “Spit?” “Spill?” “Rashad?” “Ur-sher?” “Watch out?”) This is an crucial part of Juke’s transgression and even perhaps its utopian potential.
Whereas manufactured pop presents its listener with a centrally produced object of narrow, superficial perfection, Juke takes rough, imperfect elements from the world around it, combines them in an initially jarring manner, and in the process creates transcendent, ecstatic moments which are legitimately surprising. Absolutely nothing is surprising about the feelings which manufactured pop music is supposed to instill in you as a listener and a body; each element of the music is engineered to sickly extremes in an attempt to elicit specific, expected reactions, inviting you into a false contemporary paradise. Juke invites listeners to join in an unfolding process of creating utopian situations. It suggests that utopia is not something that that will be sold to us, but that utopia is something we can find, something we can construct from elements of the world around us, even if they may be ugly and mundane.