August 24, 2005



I luv most manythings that have to do with Jessica Hopper and feminism, and as long as it doesn't commit me to passing within hearing range of the irrepressible-yet-hideously-awful Smoosh, I superheart Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls — East Coast, West Coast, what have you.

So about this question I want to ask: I am totally sincere in asking you to suspend yr expectation that I am being sarcastic, sardonic, ironic, or "snarky" (as those who'd rather not make the fine distinctions say, theses days). It's something I am actually curious about, so much so that I am throwing open the dread Comments Box on this one, against my usual oh, just go start yr own blog policy.

My question regards this passage, the conclusion of the recent article on the Willie Mae Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in the paper of records:
When a group of counselors performed a garage-punk cover of Britney Spears' hit "Toxic," complete with a cello screeching the queasy hook, a guitarist, Maria Cincotta, asked: "Do you think Britney Spears wrote that? I doubt it." She continued: "See, now you've already written your own songs. You're already better than Britney Spears!"

Before my main question, I have what you might call a study question: does this mean that the girls are already as good as Cathy Dennis, who wrote "Toxic" (and "Can't Get You Out Of Mu Head," and "Too Many Walls," which she sang)? And, in general, when folks are toting out their kit bag of tar to smear it on folks who don't write their own songs, why do they so rarely pause over the folks who wrote these songs that they generally admire but need, at the same time, to discredit? (and by the way, if that contradictory impulse isn't a perfectly useful description of the false consciousness of the bourgeoisie in consumer capitalism...doesn't matter, skip ahead).

Okay, that was a little sardonic. But I repeat: this question is sincere, and I am curious, and it poses an interesting problem for my own analysis of pop music. So, to the point: Is the identity politics ideology of "self-empowerment" co-extensive with "rockism"? Does the celebration of doing it yourself — the faith that assuming authorship of your own life is a political necessity — guarantee an aesthetic commitment to authority, originality, personal expressivity that defines the music of the white male Boomer, the one identity group that doesn't need a politics? Is this ironic? What might be some ways out of this trap?

Posted by jane at August 24, 2005 05:00 PM | TrackBack

Is the identity politics ideology of "self-empowerment" co-extensive with "rockism"?

Well, at first, I might take issue with the notion that “rockism” is not culturally inscribed itself. While in the US rock has generally been associated with the outside and has affirmed “self-expression” as its driving aesthetic, in other cultures (I’ll choose Brazil as an example because I have some familarity) there is not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence with popular music [Musica Popular Brasilieira (MPB)] and self-expression. Performers, such as Gilberto Gil and Chico Buarque, were exiled due to their pointedly political songs that addressed military rule in the 60’s. One could argue that this might be construed as MPBism, not rockism, but that would be splitting hairs. We have never had a cultural moment in the US in the last century where the “individual rebel” had so much at stake. Not even Dylan had to deal with the political reality of censorship or banishment. In the US, castigation takes the form of becoming a “market outcast.” If a tree in an unoccupied forest does not make a sound, then a rock band without a market does not make music.

To address your question more straightforwardly, I think there is a great deal of irony in your formulation. The impulse to originality is a self-indulgent one. I suppose the antidote to such a thing would be to join a drum circle and become entrained with the corps, joined at the hip with the moment [Note: this is an experience which, as of yet, has not become commodified, nor has it been commodified in drum-happy Brazil]. Perhaps this is the way out of the trap you posit.

Of course, like poetry (and the previous quote by Mallarme you have offered, “. . . me, the Poet, because I alone create a product that society does not want, in exchange for which society does not give me enough to live on”), another way out of the trap is to produce that which nobody wants. For one, I envision entire bands comprised of energetic souls banging on pots and pans—the primal roots of rock and roll—and as long as the cacophany were unified and orchestrated, one need not champion this as an act of self-expression either.

Or perhaps an ensemble of polyrhythmic masturbators! The ways out of this trap are countless!

I am intrigued about why such a putatively “white male Boomer aesthetic” is so objectionable. [In fact, I’m not even sure that I would give ownership of such a concept to white male boomers.] Like you, I see a great deal of deep and scary conformity in the US today. If embracing self-expression can waken this country from that nightmare, then let us all commit ourselves to endless, suffocating, guitar and drum solos. It seems to me that there is a historical precedent for valorizing the worth of the individual in times of punitive groupthink (though I must recognize that perhaps this notion of mine was granted to me by a Spielberg film or some pathetic TV drama). Perhaps the myth of an individual’s impact is a cliché, but it is one that I hope we do not forget very soon.

Also, I am curious about why the question of pop music is such a burning issue for you. Admittedly, my “not getting it” is probably a product of, as Zimpleman says, being inured to the cliches. I’m befuddled why anyone would grant agency to pop music that they wouldn’t grant to another form of cultural production. Then are all forms of cultural production egomaniacal? Is pop music the only kind of cultural production that serves as “a place in which the pleasures of the real world are magnified”? Perhaps the cloying sameness you speak of in pop music is mirrored in other kinds of artistic production as well. Poems that reaffirm a common emotional ground seem to accomplish the same sort of thing. They give solace to those who habitually indulge in the rides at the sense-o-rama.

Perhaps another way of asking the question you pose above is: can rock be possible while one erases the self? As much as I am in favor of the dismantling and dissociation of self (as I presume you are by virtue of, like me, using a pseudonym), I can hardly deny that the longstanding tradition of the psychologically integrated self is going to part ways with human civilization. I suspect, as does Paul Ehrlich in Human Natures, that there are deep-seated, even genetic, reasons for this. The symbolic acts of such a psychologically integrated creature are bound to reflect the specific domain of a singular human being’s perspective rather than a nebulous and multifarious one. I guess we just have to grin and bear it that such singularities dovetail nicely with an overreaching capitalism.

Of course, the fastest way to passionately become nobody is to sing in the shower above the chorus of the water spilling down the drain.

Your friend in mischief and other lost arts,

Victor Schnickelfritz

Posted by: Victor Schnickelfritz at August 24, 2005 10:38 PM

>What might be some ways out of this trap?

Uh, Hip-hop Camp for Girls, maybe?
I'm sure the Bomb Squad, MC Lyte, at least one of the various Roxannes, and Marley Marl are all free.

Posted by: joe Gross at August 25, 2005 07:53 AM

Authorship of your own life is a political impossibility. In more ways than those physiological (i.e., you weren't born out of your own vagina), one's life is contingent upon, dependent upon, and largely created by others. In authoring, literally and figuratively, one must still answer to, speak to, or deny the voice of other authors. Take just for a little example a quotation from Sinagra's article: "The halls of the New York Society for Ethical Culture on 64th Street and Central Park West are hung with stern-looking portraits of the 129-year-old institution's liberal intellectual luminaries, almost exclusively men." The slipped-in-so-hopefully-you-don't-notice-it third word from the period means, translated literally, "men and women," or, to be fair, "more men than women." The author of the article, in this case, is overemphasizing the presence of male founders, pretty much hoping you'll read that there are zero women founders, and in any event reporting something more or less factual (the number and gender of the sitters for the portraits on the wall) in a more or less nonfactual way. Reporting what she sees not so that you can see it too, but so that you will see it *her way*. Not a crime, but still a problem. And in any event lending much more weight and heft to the founders of the NYSCE that happened to be born with penises than to those born with gashes.

But questioning the question isn't what you're after here. I don't know the answer to the question asked. I don't understand it. I have tried to bend it into numerous shapes in order to comprehend what it wants, and I have failed. "Do the politics of self-empowerment exist within the same temporal bounds as the music of the white male Boomer?" Obviously they are coextensive, no?

The girls at Willie Mae are not already as good as Cathy Dennis; they are already as good as Britney Spears ... and her arrangers and producers, *maybe*. Or perhaps they are simply as good as their camp counselors.

It seemed -- as a side note here -- that Jack Black (as actor and character alike) was much more "self-empowered" in "High Fidelity" than he was in "School of Rock," which fact itself opens up all sorts of fun talk. He was much more a compelling character when he was a base and crude jackass-turned-feeling-chanteuse -- i.e., when he was seemingly unaware of his place in history -- than he was as a lazy-cum-inspired bringer-of-the-light-through-rock-'n'-roll, which implies a dramatically gradual and ever-so-poignant realization of his role in history (i.e., his part in the development of human minds, which minds will, when grown, go on to do all sorts of things in the world, empowered by their pubescent rocking and attendant rebellious field trips).

It seems to me that there is a pit on either side of this drawing board. (Give me a moment: I am relishing my mixed metaphor.) In being "unaware" (JB in "HF"), one contributes precious little by way of "personal growth" (and resultant contagious self-authoring abilities) to those one bumps into. In being "aware," then, a lot of what one has to contribute is a sort of dismantling of the framework (the "cultural captivity," say) that had created the person before he or she had become thus aware. Which is all well and good -- hard work, difficult, fairly solitary, materially unrewarding. One might even say lonely. Because to disenfranchise yourself, you must become disenfranchised. And talk all sorts of smack about the HNsIC -- as well as not buckle under the invisible and silent pressures of said HNsIC -- in order to consistently convince and reconvince yourself that you are on the right path, the road to self-authorship and originality. In other words, "those people" command a considerable portion of your time, energy, and thought still. If not more, even, since it is harder to fight a battle than to have a vague knowledge that while you're in Tampa you have an enemy somewhere in Surrey.

As with most revolutions, and most revolutionaries, there is a long dry spell, a period of desolation ... and many times when one feels "all alone" and that "it's not worth the effort, because nobody cares." Or, to put it another way, you can empower yourself through rocking, but you might have but 5 people in the audience (and, as Dieselhed says, "they were all here for the bar").

You can't do anything yourself. If you're not always talking to the dead -- which you are, if you are engaged in internal, self-dismantling/self-creating conversation -- then you are at least eating soup out of a can made of aluminum, which you didn't mine.

The closest you can get to doing anything yourself is -- at first, at least -- doing most things alone, and then eventually coming to understand that if you have no listeners, then you have no listeners. There are still ears, and they're bound to pick up the sound waves as they walk past your door. What they do with them is their business and beyond your control.

This doesn't come anywhere close to answering your question, does it?

Posted by: Bon at August 25, 2005 01:57 PM

"Rockism" defines hierarchies based on degrees of perceived self-invention. Self-empowerment can opt out of the hierarchies, at least "in theory." The camp counselor chose to buy into the rockist hierarchies, but hers ain't the only way. In the argot of camp counselors, "it doesn't matter what all the other kids think." Or, one can work toward creating an ethos where it doesn't matter. Or, perhaps, one can happily find oneself there, or imagine oneself there.

"Free marketeers" brag about the free market. To someone not into competing, the market feels enforced, not free. Rockism invests its energy in market-competition thinking. Self-empowerment doesn't have to.

Posted by: John S. at August 25, 2005 02:18 PM

Amiri Baraka once commented that the biggest difference between being white in America and being black in America is that in being white one can make oneself up, whereas in being black, one's identity is always being prescribed by the group.

To the extent that this is true, it is probably most true in America. Playing in American culture means allowing the self to move between the signifiers, unpacking them as you go.

Of course as Bon points out, the self is signifier too, and dismantling the self involves a kind of meta-parsing. Bon's description of how the dismantling of self is integral to the process of authoring the self is an intriguing one. It suggests a kind of Sisyphus-like effort. Ususally one cannot "bail" fast enough with all the mediatized information arriving in discrete packets. The self gets peeled in that scenario and fractures due to the plethora of ultrasonic waves.

But do rock and rollers need to be aware of this process in order to really rock out in a way that doesn't reinforce the dominant strategy of authorship? I doubt it. Such hand-wringing is probably better left for other forms of artistic expression; then again, I don't expect that much from rock and roll. If a rocker's efforts to reinvent the self, like Madonna or Presley, are not made totally self-consciously, then so be it. I have no problem with many recording artists being the "flavor of the day." I'd almost prefer it because it would allow everyone their William Hung moment to project their soul onto the airwaves. [I suppose I am in the minority of people who would like to see the recording industry return to their hunter-gatherer roots, see someone release a disc of campfire songs.]

As I understand it, too, the nature of the industry has changed a great deal as well. I was listening to someone speak about Rickie Lee Jones. Back when her first, self-titled, solo album was released, Warner Brothers had a notion of cultivating artists, giving them time and space to develop their craft. Nothing like that is undertaken by the industry anymore. It is understood that to be signed is to be self-promoters to such a degree that you have to show that you may not even need label support. Indeed, many performers are peeling off from that kind of system. The end result is, though, that the DIY ethic prevails.

I think you could extend this scenario to all forms of cultural production that is commodified. One needs to illustrate that you got market (it used to be that you had to have game) before you can plug into the mass market machine.

Such a development is a real drag for those who aspire to be the creative types. The playing field gets warped because the best self-promoters, the best schmoozers, are the ones who get the golden handshake. It also means that those who are best positioned to take advantage of the machinery are going to get there first. This begs the question of whether those best positioned are the same "white males" whose predominance brought this whole subject into relief.

I guess what Jane Dark is calling for is a kind of rocker's co-op willing to promote all members' work just by virtue of being members. Perhaps, unofficially, this is what is actually the case when one goes to any club to listen to the local scene—one has entered into the rockers' co-op.

Posted by: Gutschlecht at September 1, 2005 09:47 AM

in response to my favorite part of your question, which i'll paraphrase as *is there a way out?* i'll go with my first, best thought, which comes from your own post and points at itself with both thumbs: *oh, just go start yr own blog.* maybe that's a way in, but it's always in one place from out another.
ray gonne

Posted by: ray gonne at September 5, 2005 02:11 PM

Did Aretha Franklin and other women performers(especially pre-1963 when via the Beatles and Dylan the rockism concept that you had to write your own songs began to come into vogue) have identity issues, and why aren't the camp instructors making it clear to the girls that they don't have to write their own material necessarily...

Posted by: steve at September 6, 2005 08:09 AM

Thank you for the info!

Posted by: Donny at September 16, 2005 01:11 AM

I can't believe it, my co-worker just bought a car for $77708. Isn't that crazy!

Posted by: Betsy Markum at March 7, 2006 12:41 AM
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