Monday, January 29, 2018

seeds of S+A - #1 of ????

Blissblog post from June 20th 2003, in which I explore some glam thematics (in response to a Mark Fisher k-punk post on Japan with the fabulous title of "The Barthes of Parties")

The escape artist. Mark’s mini-essay on Japan is so immaculate and exquisite, it seems almost churlish to say that, actually, I find “Ghosts” rather a moving song. I’m not alone either--there’s the missus (possibly America’s #1 Japan fan-- a lonely breed), and there's Goldie (he sampled it on Rufige Cru’s neglected classic “Ghosts of My Life”, a masterpiece of svelte darkcore), and Tricky ("Aftermath" has a sample from "Ghosts", right, or a lyric-quote?), and maybe even Dizzee Rascal (judging by the the Sylvian-Sakomoto vibe on ‘Sittin’ here’ and “Do It”, the two melancholy songs that bookend Boy In Da Corner). Carrying on previous trains of thought, I suppose my question is: would it actually diminish the song to believe it had some source or emotional referent in David Sylvian’s real life? To take it as both haunting and haunted. He’s very stylized as singers go but it seems like “beautiful sadness” is something that runs through a lot of his work (along with the quest for serenity) and you could see him as having less to do with a mannequin like Steve Strange and more with Scott Walker, or Nick Drake, or even Frank Sinatra (melancholy given poise, pain contained through elegance). Or Ian Curtis--“Ghosts” in some ways seems like a sister song to “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. 

Whenever I see someone who has pulled off a really drastic form of self-reinvention, gone all the way with artifice and masquerade--be it Strange, Numan, Leigh Bowery, Marilyn Manson--I always wonder: what are they running away from? It takes so much energy to do that and to maintain it. (I can barely muster the strength to look halfway presentable to the world). 

With Sylvian, perhaps the word “Catford” is explanation enough. No slight to that town but if it’s like 95 percent of the UK or anywhere else for that matter, then you can imagine why the sparkle-starved, culture-famished David would want to dedicate his life to exquisiteness, alien glamour, forbidden colours, to turn himself into a perfect surface, to get away and never go back. But there’s something more, I suspect: thinking of him performing "Ghosts" on TOTP, the excessive poise and stillness, the statuesque quality of his vocals (a frieze of emotion, almost), the perfectly made-up blank white expressionless facade, to me it all screams internal struggle, damage in the depths. Real ghosts in his real life. 

“Lines of flight” always carry with them traces of what’s left behind. Can we even conceive of escape or reinvention of the self without registering what's being escaped from, or acknowledging the raw, base matter that is remoulded into a human art object? 

I think you could work up another reading of Sylvian, not opposed but supplementary to Mark’s. 
It might cue off Penman’s riff about class and Bryan Ferry’s voice, how its alien-ness was produced by the struggle of a Geordie trying to sound debonair --and how that slightly grotesque quality disappeared when he perfected the po(i)se and shed the last traces of Tyneside. (Joy says one of her Japan fan acquaintances had managed to find a very early radio interview with Sylvian where he's talking with a thick Catford accent--again the struggle, the effort that goes into changing one's voice). 

It might then proceed to examine Bowie/Roxy and the glam end of artrock, its motor fantasy of stepping outside the lowly world of production into a sovereign realm of pure unfettered expression and sensuous indulgence, an imaginary and fictitious notion of aristocracy (more Huysmans than real lords who have to do humdrum things like manage their estates, juggle their investments, do a bit of arms dealing). 

It might pause to consider briefly the disillusionment of actually achieving the supermonied aristo life--Ferry, condemned to mooch jaded forever through art openings, fashion shows, all tomorrow’s parties (that old tis better to journey than arrive line). 

It might also look at the history of Orientalism and its relationship with dandyism. The Far East and its codes of etiquette, the extreme stylization of emotion in its art; grace and symmetry. (Didn’t Barthes write a whole book about Japan--the country, not the group!--called something like Empire of Signs, one of its ideas being Japanese culture as a realm of surfaces, where the depth model is abolished--he had this idea that the Japanese don’t think eyes are windows to the soul, they see them as attractive but flat planes). There must be some connection between art-rock’s ruling-class fantasies and ideas of China or Japan as extremely well ordered, disciplined, hierarchical societies. There’s a bit of totalitarianism chic going on--Mao, the Emperor, Mishima etc--that parallels Bowie’s “what this country needs is a really strong leader” flirting with fascism phase, or Iggy with his “visions of swastikas” and plans for world domination (and those are lyrics from “”China Girl” come to think of it). As reheated by the New Romantics: Spandau Ballet’s Journeys To Glory with its noble torso statuary on the cover and Robert Elms’s faintly fascistic sleevenote, the whole idea of a Club for Heroes. 

Glam's tendency (through its shifting of emphasis toward the visual rather than sonic, spectacle rather than the swarm-logic of noise and crowds) towards the Classical as opposed to Romantic. 

Glam as anti-Dionysian. The Dionysian being essentially democratic, vulgar, levelling, abolishing rank; about creating crowds, turbulence, a rude commotion, a rowdy communion. Glam being about monumentalism, turning yourself into a statue, a stone idol. 


[follow up post from later that day]

bit more on Sylvian... 

“Ghosts” is one of only two things by Sylvian I paid money for, so maybe Mark is right about it being exceptional in the Japan canon for its overt emotion; other stuff, like “Art of Parties”, sounds great but was a bit disengaged for me. But per Mark’s reading, maybe that’s what great about it, the slink of the surfaces. 

The other thing was “Bamboo Music/Bamboo Houses” by Sylvian-Sakomoto: amazing drum programming. (Still haven’t heard “Riot In Lagos”--somebody help me out here!). 

The China/Japan totalitarian chic thing doesn’t run deep, sure… it’s appropriately shallow, flirtation with decontextualized signifiers in true glam style. Still I notice that there’s a song called ‘Communist China’ on the first album, while on the Teutonic tip there’s “Suburban Berlin” and “Nightporter” which I assume is inspired by the Dirk Bogarde as Nazi-in-hiding movie. They also have a tune called “Rhodesia” bizarrely enough---surely the only rock song about this white-power pariah of the world community state, although i daresay there's a roots reggae tune of the same title. 

That bio Mark links doesn’t mention “class”’ as such (maybe press releases should come with sociological data). But I’d hazard a guess re Sylvian: he’s from that upper W/C, lower M/C indeterminate greyzone whence so much great UK pop stems. 

The later stuff’s not as barren as Mark makes out (although I once dismissed Sylvian solo as “jet-set mysticism”, while Jonh Wilde’s description of his voice as sounding like hair lacquer struck me as uncomfortably apt). But the “Gone To Earth” instrumentals are lovely in a Durutti/Budd/John Abercrombie sort of way, while things like “Orpheus” and “Waiting For the Agony To Stop” have a certain Scott Walker-goes-ECM grandeur. But I would swap his entire solo career for “Adolescent Sex” the title track of the first Japan album. It’s like disco-metal or something, its sashaying glitterball raunch and cokane dazzle suggesting a whole lost future or parallel pop universe. It’s like Guns N’Roses “Welcome To the Jungle” produced by Daft Punk circa “Digital Love” or something. This totally plasticized, artificial rock music that still rocks. (The only thing I’ve heard like it is some tracks made by Last Few Days, a second-tier industrial group who circa ’89 totally reinvented themselves as this glammed avant-raunch outfit and got a major label deal. Then they unwisely went house and that was that). 

It’s interesting how Japan (and Foxx-era Ultravox too come to think of it) had so many of the same inputs and reference points as Siouxsie & the Banshees---Roxy, Velvets (Japan covered ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’), Dolls, Eno, Bowie, similar movies and books too I’ll bet, similar flirtations (that decadence/fascism/S&M/voyeurism) and shtick (ice queen, don’t touch me, regal remoteness, I am a machine, metal will rule in my master scheme). And yet the Banshees were deemed "punk" and all through this period Japan and Ultravox were jeered at as glam johnny-come-latelys, throwbacks. If you reconfigured glam as the true 70s revolution/upheaval in 70s UK pop, and made punk into its aftershock, you might get some interesting results. 

Mark quotes Penman on the later Ferry stranded in an “autumn swirl of shrivelled or dying signs (that once were lustrous: 'dance' - 'drug' - 'love'), making solemn play of an immensely empty escape in the facades of an eternal tone - windswept, misty, limpidly sensual, banal.” The comeback Roxy is something I’d probably have mostly disregarded at the time, except in an idle radio enjoyment way--not sure I’d even heard the original Roxy then, so had no disappointment or betrayal to bring to the table. But I always really liked the glint-swirl synths of “Same Old Scene” and in retrospect this wanly elegant later Roxy/Ferry--“More Than This”, “Avalon” even--has a certain narcotic allure. Weirdly, it’s like Ferry’s arrived at his own wispy aristocratic version of ambient music. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

glam / anti-glam quotes (6 of ???)

“It is not a fashion parade. It is not a gentleman’s club. It is not a bankers’ institute. It is a place where the people are represented" - Jeremy Corbyn, after being described as a "Labour scruff" by a Tory MP, 1984

notes from an unfinished project

... Corbyn is not a throwback to 1980s militant left wing, but a throwback even further in time - to the English Civil War of the 17th Century – He’s a Puritan –  famous for his drab clothing, his frugality (he had the lowest expenses claim of any member of parliament, just 9 Euros in one year for a single printer ribbon) -  he rides a bicycle, grows vegetables, he’s a vegetarian and  doesn’t drink  - like the original Puritans of the 17th Century he is also anti-royalist, a republican who refused to  kneel to the Queen

More than a Puritan he is in temperament if not actual beliefs a Quaker - absolutely committed to pacificism.

Alongside their belief in plain dress and plain speech, their lack of interest in appearance and commitment to sincerity, one other thing about the Puritans is they hated the theatre, they regarded it as a corrupting influence, stirring up ungodly emotions and desires - acting itself was sinful because it  involved pretending to be something you’re not -  during Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary republic of the 1640s, the Puritans actually closed down the playhouses - theatre went underground, actors performed only in private houses

One defining thing about Jeremy Corbyn is his distaste for political theater – he has said that he would like to remove the theatricality from Parliamentary business – during one Prime Minister’s Question Time, which is usually a scripted spectacle of politicians making fun of each other, Corbyn said to Cameron “I invite the prime minister to leave the theatre and return to reality”

Now one of the striking things about Corbyn mania – and much the same applies to Bernie Sanders in the USA – is the huge cult following among young people for these old men who  wholly lack charisma in the sense of looking good on television or being able to deliver inspiring oratory -  there is a disdain for image, for presentational slickness. that is virtually heretical in this day and age –  that’s why the entire political class of smooth talking politicians – the Blair era Labour, the Cameron school of new Conservativism (Cameron having worked in PR before joining politics) –  that’s  why that class of professional politician finds Corbyn both ludicrous and disturbing – but for Corbyn believers, his very ineptness at media, his indifference to how things look, is what gives him authenticity.

I referred to this being heresy – and I would argue that it is akin to religious dissent of the 17th Century, a radical break with conformity and the accepted way things are done. I think Corbynmania expresses along with economic frustration and anxiety about the future, a disgust with politics as usual – there is a revolt against the culture of the public image,  optics, spin, photo opportunities and staging – what Daniel Boorstin in his book The Image called pseudo-events

All substance and policy, Corbyn is the opposite of Blair and Cameron – but he is also the opposite of Trump – the politician as entertainer, as huckster.  Trump is all theatre.

One of the reasons the Puritans feared theatre was that it connected for them with the buried paganism within Roman Catholicism – the ceremony, the spectacle, the splendor, all this  bypassed the faculties of reason –  when the liturgy was in Latin, there was never a question of common people understanding Christianity as doctrine or credo, it was all on the level of visuals, the nonverbal seduction of image and gesture – which is why Protestantism’s demand was for the Bible and religious ceremony to be translated into everyday language that could be understood by common people, so that you read Scripture and  reasoned  out what God wanted-

Often compared to Mussolini, who was decried in his day for being a mere actor, Trump is infamous for the fact that his public speech is at the level of an eight year old’s language level – in terms of vocabulary or conceptual complexity – Trump  achieves his effect through bypassing rational comprehension, through the projection of authority or power by image, gesture, and also repetition of simple assertions and vows about making America great again. Again working on the level of the child’s magical wish-speech: I will it to be so. 

Trump’s forte is what in old English was called Trumpery –from the French word tromper, to trick – as in trompe l’eoil. In English,  trumpery means “practices that are superficially or visually appealing but have little real value or worth”. Trumpery is empty display, vacant bluster – and that’s Trump: a showman, someone in showbusiness. 

So if you were to create a graph that illustrated the spectrum running from fascist-irrationalism through image-manipulative slickness to straight-talking adult honesty, Trump is at one end.... most modern politicians like Obama, Cameron, etc,  are in the middle, mixing persuasion through intelligent discourse with theatrical elements involving oratory and optics -  and  Corbyn is at the other extreme from Trump: with that Puritan disdain for appearances as illusion. “I invite the Prime Minister to leave the theatre and return to reality” – the reality of facts, figures, policy.

Being a modern day Puritan, Corbyn - like many on the Left has an unconscious sympathy for radical Islamic critiques of the West as decadent, sexually permissive, narcissistic – radical Islam’s contempt for a culture that produced pornography, cosmetic surgery, reality TV,  is mirrored by the self-disgust of many in the West. In that worldview, the vanity and venom and empty bombast of Trump is like a boil on the backside of Western culture, poison seeking an outlet.

... In the process of writing Shock and Awe – and exploring the suspicion directed towards glam theatricality as embodied by Bowie and Alice Cooper amongst others - I came to the conclusion that pop culture has gone through cycles of glam and antiglam.  Anti-glam phases would include the folk revival of the Fifites; the counterculture, where the values were those of Rousseau – nature, primitivism, childhood, purity, authenticity; then punk and postpunk- also anti-glam: hedonism was distrusted and despised, there an emphasis on the didactic, on content over form. The eighties of synthpop and hair metal are very glam, very narcissistic and image oriented. But then you have another anti-glam wave: grunge and gangsta rap. The values of the 90s are underground, they’re not to do with glamor or fame.  But that changes in the 2000s and I think we are now in the longest glam cycle I can recall  - from the bling of rap through to  Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj - we are  long overdue a switch back to antiglam, to underground values and a rejection of the idea of music as simply showbiz, simply entertainment

Rooted in a painful feeling of urgency in the face of global problems, the earnestness of the idealistic youth energy behind Corbyn in the UK, or Sanders in America, is essentially a movement against decadence. Decadence was a big Glam buzzword, the idea was that we’re all doomed, the world is going to end, so nothing is forbidden and lets revel in every kind of selfish sensual excess – glam drew influence from Weimar Berlin via the movie Cabaret, from Oscar Wilde, by every era was people gave up on the idea of self-sacrifice for the future – I think current pop is essentially decadent, figures like Drake or Kanye West in particular.

What I imagine  is a coming cultural wave that combines the urgent sense of duty for the future that you get in Green politics with the self-sacrificing militancy of socialism -  that may find its focus in a political figure who turns anti-decadence into a new kind of spectacle – I can imagine the emergence of a modern Savonarola  - Savonarola, the 15th Century priest who led a movement to renew the Church – imagine a new Savonarola who possesses a compelling anti-charisma, which gathers up behind him, or her, all the rejected and excluded – and creates  21st Century equivalent of  the bonfires of the vanities – into the flames go not just mirrors and make-up that Savonarola and his followers  burned in the 15th Century -  but in go selfie sticks and smartphones and breast implants and  virtual reality helmets – everything that relates to vanity and vice, delusion and illusion.
In that apocalyptic scenario, a lot of what pop culture today consists – which is essentially the same as rock culture in the 70s and after – values like freedom, wildness, living for the moment, impulsive excess – all that would start to seem like it was and always had been retrogressive.

From this new Puritan perspective, in which self-control, discipline and altruism were the virtues, the entire rock era would seem as though it had always been on the side of capitalism and ecocide, the mania and greed that literally consumed the world.

Friday, January 5, 2018

the fame monster (slight return)

"He neither particularly listened to what was said to him nor particularly considered what he said in response. He demanded you pay him attention, then decided you were weak for groveling. In a sense, he was like an instinctive, pampered, and hugely successful actor. Everybody was either a lackey who did his bidding or a high-ranking film functionary trying to coax out his performance — without making him angry or petulant."

"The conundrum was that conservative media saw Trump as its creature, while Trump saw himself as a star, a vaunted and valued product of all media, one climbing ever higher. It was a cult of personality and he was the personality. He was the most famous man in the world. Everybody loved him – or ought to....  He was looking for media love everywhere. In this, Trump quite profoundly seemed unable to distinguish between his political advantage and his personal needs – he thought emotionally, not strategically....The great value of being president, in his view, was that you’re the most famous man in the world, and fame is always venerated and adored by the media. Isn’t it? But, confusingly, Trump was president in large part because of his particular talent, conscious or reflexive, to alienate the media, which then turned him into a figure reviled by the media. This was not a dialectical space that was comfortable for an insecure man."

- from that book

"The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, told a White House pool reporter the president tweeted [about Fire and Fury] to get around the filter of the media. Trump had “not at all” seemed angry on Friday night or Saturday, Kelly said, adding that the president had watched the Hugh Jackman movie The Greatest Showman – about the hoaxer and politician PT Barnum – with lawmakers and others."

from Guardian piece on Trump versus Wolff (and Bannon).


  ... or at least, if not endorsing / encouraging, then at least accepting the existence and inevitability of theatricality as a social mech...