Real Existing Pop Dystopia

13 Apr

Continuing dialogue in a case like this might be of limited productivity – there’s much talking at cross purposes, for many different reasons, but I’m still very pleased that Trevor Link took the time to write a considered response to my broadside (all one really can ask) as a means of clarifying his own position, even if most of my points were either not understood or flatly rejected. I’ll take the opportunity to also write a second rejoinder in which I can strive for further clarity, even if most of his points I will not understand or flatly reject.


While I believe there are some irreducible differences in opinion here, much of the misunderstanding or disagreement may stem from very different definitions and usage of language. This was probably inevitable when the word most central to the discussion was “pop,” a word that has been stretched near the point of illegibility. One of my the two main motivations for writing “We Need To Talk About (The Intrinsic Fascism Of) Manufactured Pop Music” was to try to work out exactly what Link meant when he used the word “pop” in talking about music. His pop utopia doesn’t include the music that those fascistic rockists might enjoy (how odd is that he says “How many sophisticated consumers of music wouldn’t be caught dead listening to, say, the Beach Boys” when, have you ever heard of Pet Sounds, one of history’s most critically fawned-over albums? Or does “The Beach Boys” here mean “Surfin’ USA” and “Kokomo?”), and the “sophisticated” music “which strives for the pleasureableness of pop music but which intellectualizes this pleasure and subdues it.” This could not be the world of pop I recognized, that gloriously multivarious constellation of all those musics that come from outside the academy and the court and don’t aim at abstract extremes (Serialism, Noise, and certain other explicitly experimental genres – not that they don’t have their merits, but they could quite reasonably denied the label ‘pop’) that I derived great pleasure from. The pop that Link discusses must be something different, something narrower, and there must be some attributes that delineate it from the greater body. From what I could tell, what set the ‘pop’ he was discussing apart was that it did not have any ‘limits’ – that it took its focus on ‘pleasure’ to extremes. This was something that seemed familiar – this described as a category so many of the unpleasant songs that I had been made to listen to by radio stations, bars, clubs, and those friends and acquaintances who will justify the worth of any song with the phrase “it’s so catchy!” or “I miss the 90’s!” ‘Manufactured Pop,’ then, to describe this subset of pop music which passes the test of being ‘unintellectual’ enough to be authentic and truly pleasurable. (And may I note how bemusingly surreal it is be called over-intellectual for my response to a 7600+ word essay on pop utopianism that cites Deleuze. DELEUZE.)

 To mirror the numbered list of replies in “’Pop Utopianism’ And Its Discontents” at times perhaps being indulgently glib, before making a final attempt at clarity:

1. Link writes:

If I do focus on chart-based pop, it’s precisely because there is a tacit assumption in, at the very least, North American culture that it’s okay to dismiss and ignore this type of music. Until that changes, I’ll continue to champion it, though wholly out of love and never out of mere contrarianism.

First of all, this ignores a distinct shift in “alternative” and “mainstream” music criticism in the last decade towards an embrace of more and more chart-based pop music in the last decade – simply find search for Pitchfork Media’s reviews from the 90’s, then compared those to their list of Top 20 albums of 2000 and then to their track and album best-ofs for the last few years. If you’re feeling a bit masochistic, you could even subject yourself to the writing of Sasha-Frere Jones. The image of the snooty music journalist dismissive of “pop” is outdated, at least among the under-60 crowd. That’s only focusing on critics and those who actively seek out their advice – on a broader view, it’s simply absurd to say about “chart-based pop” that in North American culture “it’s okay to dismiss and ignore this type of music” – exactly the music that more than any other (except perhaps a few classical pieces which have been given particular social functions) is impossible to dismiss and ignore because there are commercial and social structures which deliver it to as many physical and social spaces as possible.
2. I failed to engage with the ideas about the politics and taste of music “i.e. how rock can be linked to authoritarian ideologies” because it was easily the weakest part of “Pop Utopianism.” Rock music (entirely ignoring Rock’s root identity as, and frequent return to, hip-swiveling R&B) is, via Dyer, assigned “thrusting and phallic qualities…which in turn suggests a verticality, an “up-and-down”-ness, that is very potentially authoritarian and hierarchical at root (hence the elitism so prevalent in rock music cultures.)” This is garbage pseudo-Freudianism which doesn’t hold up to any interrogation. (Is the up-and-down-ness in the bodily movement that accompanies some rock subgenres and subcultures? Are mosh pits authoritarian? Are the screaming teenage girls at a Beatles concert jumping up and down all trying to assert their dominance over the lowly subordinate screaming teenage girls who are merely clapping and swaying? Are they subliminally embodying the hierarchical patriarchy that flows through that Liverpudlian White Male Rock & Roll? Is the up-and-down-ness sexual? Is all male sexuality authoritarian? Is the ghost of Andrea Dworkin haunting this space? All of this would hardly, in any case, seem consistent with the pleasure-above-all mentality of “Pop Utopianism.”)

More importantly, this attempt to brand rock snobs authoritarian drastically misconstrues the nature of authoritarianism, particular its fascist strands. No fascist movement I’m familiar with has ever been about cultural distinction, sophistication, or intellectual purity. They instead focus on the right and necessity for certain groups to have power over others due to tradition, strength or notions of purity – inherent qualities which put them at the apex of a natural order. The qualities of those chosen groups cannot be reasoned with or denied, just as we are asked not to reason with or deny “pure” pop music and the pure, uncomplicated feelings they engender. My reference to Führerprinzip was in no way facetious; the Führer is supposed to function as the conduit and amplifier for the collective desires of the volk (excluding those nasty degenerate intellectuals who spoil all the fun) in a similar way the pop mega-star functions as the conduit for the collective desires of the modern consumer-citizen. Fortunately, the pop mega-star does not have the same evil role, but the logic is analogous.

It’s a bit hard for me to understand how one criticizes the hierarchical nature of rockism and then turns around to credit the church with a function of “actualizing social desire” similar to the dance floor (is David Guetta Cardinal Ratzinger?) but that is a small point that doesn’t go much of anywhere, except to Lady Gaga, who, again, is a chart-pop figure we have been told to take very seriously by many critical voices in quite a number of publications, and again, I find largely but not entirely unlistenable, due in large part due to awful, overloaded production.

The accusation of ethnocentricity is quite easy to laugh off: I’m accused of displaying “no real knowledge of what K-pop means in the Korean context or what makes K-pop different from other forms of pop music.” But “Pop Utopianism” / We Need To Talk About K-Pop is centered around the idea that K-Pop exemplifies the positive qualities found in manufactured pop universally, so I’m not even sure what I’m being accused of. Yes, K-Pop as a phenomenon is portrayed by Link as superior – especially in its sincerity – to American strains of global manufactured pop, and I would agree that the pop mixtures being made now in Korea are distinctive. If it’s agreed that both strains are, fundamentally, Link’s Pop, what I label manufactured pop, then it’s irrelevant to the argument what exactly the smaller differences are. In regards to Link’s “formative academic period in life…spent researching indigenous cultures and religions” which makes my supposed “suspicio[n] of anything that overturns individuality” he finds in my writing to be “somewhat offensive,” I find the implied flattening of difference between “indigenous” socialities and the socialities of industrialized, specialized, mass-media connected cultures to be deeply puzzling coming from what is portrayed as an anthropological perspective.

3. Link dismisses my “reductive,” “simplistic,” ‘endlessly repeated’ use of the phrase “manufactured pop music,” which, again, is a term summoned to deal with the narrowing, reductive definition of pop used in the Manifesto. One of his reasons for casting doubt on the phrase is its power to invoke critiques of the classical Hollywood system. I actually think this is a productive analogy: both genres produced many works of worth and diverse qualities, and many works of questionable worth, but the system in which all these works are produced and distributing has problematic, ideologically destructive and dystopic elements; there’s a reason why Godard could love Hollywood films and so hate Hollywood.

Link casts the assembly-line metaphor as denigrating the care, attention and artistry put into the actual creation of pop tracks:

Teddy Park can be a hit-maker for YG Entertainment, but he’s also purely an artist as well, no different from any other artist throughout history. (And if you ask me, he’s a really good one too.) The author’s description of “a new hit pumped out of YG Entertainment” strikes me as crude, a degrading way to describe what is a highly creative process.

But each pop song can be both – the specific creation of an individual and the interchangeable new hit pumped out of YG Entertainment – there’s nothing contradictory about this. Stargate and Ester Dean can care greatly about the music they make, but ultimately most of their material will also be input for a system seeking revenue and market share.

The maximization of hookiness and forcefulness in manufactured pop music is also responsible for how tiringly formulaic it can be if the system calls for a musical product that can reliably command the widest possible spectrum of listeners, then the music will tend to use a narrow set of elements and structures, in a more limiting way than the sense in which any music of an identifiable genre must use some common and therefore predictable elements. That Nickelback is both singularly horrid and hugely successful is tied to the fact that you can play two of their hits over each other. Certainly artists can innovate at the same time they aim for the common denominator, and there are plenty of good to great songs that can be found within the system of manufactured pop. (I invoked Motown in a clumsy attempt to preempt questions of well-pop-has-always-been-manufactured-what’s-different now? I certainly have no desire to valorize any period as a golden age of pop music – plenty of the material released on Motown and contemporary labels is rather forgettable, no less than in any era, but a particular production aesthetic renders that forgettable material less actively unpleasant as bad or mediocre pop music from other pop eras. While I do delight in connecting with a well-written pop song, my listening is broadly more driven by considerations of timbre and overall sonic texture. There’s no reason to deny that production sounds change withtechnology and fashion, and that along with new creative opportunities come misuses and new chances to bludgeon listeners.)

4. Link contests that as my rebuttal gets closer to speaking directly about K-Pop, it gets worse. I “express surprise” (actually, I don’t, but thanks anyway) that I actually find “a couple” of K-Pop songs I can enjoy (in the We Have To Talk About K-Pop mix, I have heard K-Pop before and they number more than two) and my implication that “K-pop as a whole is largely unlistenable” is “rather offensive…mostly because it assumes that there might be some objective grounds on which he can write off and condescend to an entire nation’s pop industry.” For Link,

personally, I could never imagine making such statements about any country’s musical output, even if I had little interest in it, because what I value as a music listener is the idea that there’s good music everywhere.

On the other hand, its easy for me to imagine making such statements about any country’s musical output because I would make that statement about ALL countries with pop music, and I would do so precisely because I deeply believe in the idea that’s there good music everywhere. That belief has lead me to spend enough time searching for good music from anywhere and everywhere that I have encountered very large volumes of bad or painfully mediocre music from all around the globe. For each sublime tune or intoxicating eddy in the global pop flows, there are many blandly derivative copies of commercial forms and schmaltzy traditional performances. Music is amazing and there’s a terrible lot of it that’s not very good. Bad music, however, can not only vary in how good or bad – how pleasurable or unpleasant – it is judged to be from the perspectives of different listeners, it can take on new qualities in different times and different places and when it is taken as inspiration or reappropriated for sampling – small moments in otherwise unremarkable bodies of work can become the nutrient matter for rich, lively new forms.

The one statement to which I actually do take offense comes when Link says he “hate hate hate[s]” the “facile comparison of pop music to junk food” because it’s “silly and ungrounded, and again, it betrays another kind of class prejudice.” Here, the accusation of class prejudice actually bristles: if you (this is the generic ‘you’) can’t accept that any serious opposition to the system of industrial agriculture, which has fast food as its quintessential distributional form, includes a fundamental insistence to the right of all people to the healthy food denied them by the socio-economic system of which agro-industrial production is a central part, and instead fall back on lazy stereotypes of privileged Whole Foods Liberals (and, by the way: fuck them) then you’re a slimy reactionary who has no right to speak of utopias.

The analogy holds. Preparing sweet or fatty foods is not evil, just as making saccharine pop songs is not evil. Some of the end results may be transcendently delicious, many will be basically satisfying in expected ways, some will be unpleasantly overwhelming in their over-use of certain ingredients, and this reaction will be determined to a great degree by the predilections and sensitivities of the recipient. None of the results is unethical. However, the system of fast food and industrial agriculture that commoditizes and distributes sweet or fatty foods on a massive scale is harmful in very real ways that are much more than a matter of aesthetic snobbishness.

This is the second and much more important reason I had for writing “We Need To Talk About (The Intrinsic Fascism Of) Manufactured Pop Music” – the conception of “Pop Utopianism” needs to be problematized and interrogated because it ignores the ways in which manufactured pop is embedded in the real existing dystopia of the contemporary global economic system, which functions by presenting us with a continual supply of commodities which provide certain narrow, easy forms of pleasure, and it asks us to not think further about or reassess this initial pleasurable reaction, instead continuing to acquire similar commodities (perhaps with some added superficial novelty) which will elicit similar pleasurable reactions. This is precisely what the Manifesto asks of us – don’t over-intellectualize, simply be happy with a product so wonderfully tuned to illicit pleasurable reactions in your brain-body interface.

Pleasure is vital to any true utopian vision, because it is vital to human experience and any true utopian vision has a deep consideration for human wellness and flourishing (but it can’t just be one person being “really really happy,” unless you’re arguing from a solipsistic or peculiarly monist perspective.) Yet we can see that the simple vision of unreflective pleasure presented in “Pop Utopianism” cannot serve as a utopian model because it is already the model of the still far more dystopian economic model that rules the world around us. The effects of production, distribution and consumption for manufactured pop music are innocuous compared to most of the tangible commodities we consume – some artists are taken advantage of, some music industry executives get too much money they don’t deserve, some snobs like me have to repeatedly hear a set of songs they don’t like (one can also consider the socially corrosive settings that manufactured pop is often experienced in – the “dismal clubs of forced-fun music” that Gavin Mueller dubbed “utopias of date rape;” I wouldn’t emphasize this aspect as much, first due to the troubles of proving causation, and second because the manufactured pop form Link is specifically celebrating may not have the same correlation.) The point is that the uncritical relationship to superficial pleasures is much the same. Moving beyond our real existing dystopia will involve reflecting deeply on the pleasures presented to us, their richness or shallowness, their quickness or longevity, and their wider implications. As rhetorically or personally abrasive as I may have been at times in this essay, I am sorry that Trevor Link experiences clinical depression, and (I think) I can understand how that could make intense pleasures all that more important, but it must be recognized that pleasures can be qualitatively different from each other, that they can be deep or fleeting, healing or destructive.

We inch closer to utopia by both celebrating and critiquing our pleasures; by constructing truly wild, diverse, changing, decentralized, heterodox ecologies of music, which will include ABBA, Juke, K-Pop, and all the “over-intellectualized” “half-pleasures” that “Pop Utopianism” maligns.

If we can imagine evolving beyond capitalism and the other dystopias we struggle with, we can imagine moving beyond pop music and non-pop music.

We can keep the music.


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