Žižek’s Gamble, and Ours



I have little patience for Žižek. To some he might be a critical provocateur, but he is really more of a philosophy-themed stand-up comic (whose verborrhea overflows into the writing of too many books). It is to be expected that the mainstream press, when they pick up on him, write silly things. It is also to be expected that more learned readers will respond with subtler interpretations. None of this really matters to most anarchists; it certainly matters very little to me. But, considering a recent piece of his and its repercussions, I was afforded an insight, a new way to say what some of us already know…


In a 2012 article in The Los Angeles Review of Books Adam Kotsko described Žižek’s interventions (at least the more visible ones such as the one I am about to discuss) as strategic overidentifications:

One of Žižek’s primary tactics for shifting the frame of reference is overidentification. This strategy grows out of his experience under the Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Observing his country’s political life, Žižek came to a paradoxical realization: the fact that no one “really” bought into the official socialist ideology was not an obstacle for the rulers — cynical distance was part of their strategy for maintaining control. In this situation, Žižek proposed, the best way to resist was to take the ruling ideology at its word, naïvely demanding that the leaders fulfill the promise of their ideals.

Kotsko recently invoked this overidentification strategy as a counter to the claim that Žižek is a fascist. This claim has surely surfaced many times (along with more predictable ones such as Stalinist, crypto-conservative, etc.), but it did so most recently in connection with a recent piece in The New Statesman (which Wikipedia describes as a center-left publication) about Margaret Thatcher. In the article, Žižek claims that the Left needs a Thatcher. That is, a Master:

…after the specialists (economic and military analysts, psychologists, meteorologists) propose their analysis, somebody must assume the simple and for that very reason most difficult act of transposing this complex multitude into a simple “Yes” or “No”. We shall attack, we continue to wait… This gesture, which can never be fully grounded in reasons, is that of a Master. It is for the experts to present the situation in its complexity, and it is for the Master to simplify it into a point of decision. The Master is needed especially in situations of deep crisis. The function of a Master is to enact an authentic division – a division between those who want to drag on within the old parameters and those who are aware of the necessary change. Such a division, not the opportunistic compromises, is the only path to true unity.

I won’t go into the argument as to why Thatcher was a great leader, a Master. I imagine it concerns you as little as it concerns me. But I will cite Žižek one more time and at some length, here concerning democracy and decision-making. Žižek has been discussing leftist objections to economic policies under Thatcher. He then adds:

The other aspect of Thatcher’s legacy targeted by her leftist critics was her “authoritarian” form of leadership, her lack of the sense for democratic coordination. Here, however, things are more complex than it may appear. The ongoing popular protests around Europe converge in a series of demands which, in their very spontaneity and obviousness, form a kind of “epistemological obstacle” to the proper confrontation with the ongoing crisis of our political system. These effectively read as a popularised version of Deleuzian politics: people know what they want, they are able to discover and formulate this, but only through their own continuous engagement and activity. So we need active participatory democracy, not just representative democracy with its electoral ritual which every four years interrupts the voters’ passivity; we need the self-organisation of the multitude, not a centralised Leninist Party with the Leader, et cetera. It is this myth of non-representative direct self-organisation which is the last trap, the deepest illusion that should fall, that is most difficult to renounce. Yes, there are in every revolutionary process ecstatic moments of group solidarity when thousands, hundreds of thousands, together occupy a public place, like on Tahrir square two years ago. Yes, there are moments of intense collective participation where local communities debate and decide, when people live in a kind of permanent emergency state, taking things into their own hands, with no Leader guiding them. But such states don’t last, and “tiredness” is here not a simple psychological fact, it is a category of social ontology. The large majority – me included – wants to be passive and rely on an efficient state apparatus to guarantee the smooth running of the entire social edifice, so that I can pursue my work in peace.

Obviously anarchists will object to what I have just cited. But we will do so in more than one way. Leftist, pro-democracy, pro-consensus anarchists will simply rehearse their arguments in favor of direct democracy and whatever our version is of “the self-organization of the multitude” (some may agree with Hardt and Negri enough not to require their own version). Those of us who are not leftists and do not fight for democracy, however, will have a different objection, and have perhaps more to gain than the leftists when we engage with an argument such as the one presented here by Žižek.

The self-appointed activist leaders of the Left gesture towards consensus and collectivities, but in more or less public meetings they decide just as the military master decides in Žižek’s example (which comes from Winston Churchill). On the other hand, though I hardly agree that “people know what they want, they are able to discover and formulate this,” the truly damaging effects of ignorance and self-deception happen when they are integrated into massive political units. This is why it is so vital for us to sever our anarchy from the political project of democracy. And we accept the risk of incoherence in the eyes of many when we express ourselves along these lines. Consider the apparent contradiction in our response to a view such as Žižek’s: with the leftists, we are against the Master, against her authority. But, though we are sometimes very excited about group solidarity, sometimes we are incredibly suspicious of it. Then we are with Žižek against “the myth of non-representative self-organization,”if that is identified with a generic faith in the virtues of the Mass, grassroots populism, or democracy.

But even in this partial agreement, are we really with Žižek? It is easy enough to call Žižek a fascist given the tone of his call for strong leadership and true unity. But it is also simplistic, and Kotsko is probably right: any piece as mainstream as this one is more about the critique it makes possible than the apparent position it defends. In any case, that is Žižek’s gamble. Or if not, it is at least his job, which, as he writes, he wants to pursue in peace.

Given that Žižek’s strategy combines the negativity of critique with a psychological tactic, it might also be called propaganda. I don’t write that to dismiss it, but to be clear. And I also know that I can only be clear in this way here because I have some sense of who will read me, and am addressing myself to them. I know I am not with Žižek because he does not speak for me, and there is nothing I would publish in The New Statesman instead… our tactic has to be different.



What is the anarchist gamble? If Žižek’s tactic is overidentification, ours is obviously non-identification. If the specific risk that Žižek runs is that his joking Stalinism, fascistic posturing, etc. becomes more than a routine, then our specific risk is that we do not differentiate our positions and practices sufficiently from what Kotsko calls “cynical distance.” Our position might be lost in irrelevance or incommunicability—even incoherence.

I can describe the difference we need to communicate easily enough. Reading through Žižek’s article, it is expected and transparent that what is under discussion are forms of government. Shall the government be strong and authoritarian?  Shall it be participatory and democratic? What is the right form, and what is the right path to that form? And so on. Žižek aptly suggests, at the end of the last bit I quoted, that most people want to be left in peace (he includes himself to avoid accusations of elitism). Indeed. But why call this passivity? Why determine that the fatigue most feel after too much participation in deliberation and meetings is a justification for the authority of a government that works on its own? The true anarchist response, it seems to me, is that such fatigue is a healthy reaction to meetings and expected or required participation of any sort. For someone who continues to assume the necessity of government, the experience of such fatigue points either to the need to offload decision-making onto a Decider, or to the need for More Hard Work, more self-sacrifice, and so on. But for those of us detached from such a necessity, fatigue is one of many symptoms indicating that we should be considering our lives on other terms. To whatever degree we can act on this idea and communicate it, we are differentiating ourselves from “cynical distance” without falling into the mania for activism and participation that always eventually reintegrates us into governmental forms.

From there, I can move to describe the anarchist position that emerges in response to Žižek as follows. First, the Right-Left continuum as it is usually discussed:

—Right: authoritarian traditions
—Left: participatory/popular traditions
Then, on a perpendicular axis, another continuum, from government to non-government: On one extreme we get a kind of absolute politics:
—State communism, fascism, whatever Žižek seems to want.
On the other extreme, we get anti-politics:
—Non-government: communism, anarchy.

Interestingly, the absolute politics extreme might be described as containing the most exaggerated hybrids of the Left and Right traditions. It would be the monstrous composite of the historical trajectories of the political tradition as such. The anti-political position begins when the historical content of the Left as well as the Right is abandoned. This is true in the realm of ideas as well as the realm of action.

How do we communicate our abandonment, our abandon? Let me repeat Žižek: “The ongoing popular protests around Europe converge in a series of demands which, in their very spontaneity and obviousness, form a kind of ‘epistemological obstacle’ to the proper confrontation with the ongoing crisis of our political system.” While I am not entirely sure what counts for him as a protest, what he considers to be a demand, and especially what he means by an epistemological obstacle in this context, I will simply note that abandoning the terrain of politics as we knew it must mean ceasing to be concerned with the “proper confrontation” with the crisis of politics (of states, of their economic systems, of their official cultural forms, etc.). For us, demands in the traditional sense are useless, and usually contradictory to our very ways of life. In practice this might mean one or more of the following: no demands, impossible demands, ridiculous demands, and vague, useless demands.[1] Indeed, any of these other sorts of demands or non-demands can and should form something like an “epistemological obstacle” from the point of view of the State and statist politics. The only confrontation we will participate in is one that the State (and States in waiting) will judge improper.

Whether any of us knows how to live out our position without succumbing to incoherence or irrelevance in the long term is another matter. That the position is currently weak is only an argument against it in terms of conventional politics. It is our gamble to exit those terms.

An afterthought:  provisionally, in terms of our current situation, it occurs to me that the only way to approach the mainstream press would not be to place propaganda there (be it of the traditional or clownish Žižekian sort), but simply to fill any space we can occupy with detourned text and images. Beyond that, supposing increasing autonomy and momentum, we can either aim to withdraw completely from the medium, or to neutralize it, doing whatever it takes to remove it completely from our sphere.

[1] Such as the ones from Tiananmen Square Agamben refers to in the final section of The Coming Community: “what was most striking about the demonstrations of the Chinese May was the relative absence of determinate contents in their demands.”

Rock & Roll

The subject of my sermon today will be Motörhead, and, as may be deduced from my title, herein I will also be concerned with the topic of genre. When Motörhead began putting out records, there was often a bit of confusion as to whether they should be shelved as punk or heavy metal, but the general consensus ever since, to the best of my knowledge, is that Motörhead is basically a heavy metal band. This, however, is a consensus that, to the extent that the label as I understand it has any real implications besides a certain similarity in sound to other similarly labeled bands, I would prefer to dissent from, preferring to categorize Motörhead simply as—you guessed it—rock & roll. In doing so, I will be in good company, since Lemmy himself—to the woefully uninformed reader, that’s Ian Kilmister, the bass player, singer, and chief songwriter of the outfit—in scores of songs and interviews has never referred to his style of music in any other way, as far as I know.

First, heavy metal. There is no doubt that Motörhead has had an immense influence on the development of the genre; their 1979 song, “Overkill,” with its pounding double bass drum, repetitive riffing, and gruff vocals, probably single-handedly pioneered speed and thrash metal, although that’s admittedly not the informed opinion of a metal connoisseur, so I may be wrong. In any case, “Overkill” provided, both lyrically and sonically, the template for a good many self-referential metal anthems to come, among the more successful of which may be counted “Whiplash,” “Hammerhead,” “Battery,” “Heavy Metal Daze,” “Rattlehead,” and “Bonded By Blood.” But the first thing I want to mark is the difference, and a comparison of some of the lyrics of “Overkill” with those of Metallica’s typically turgid knock-off “Whiplash” seems like a good place to start.

“Overkill” starts simply enough, as if Lemmy is trying to avoid really saying anything, but of course the song has to be heard and not merely read:

Only way to feel the noise is when it’s good and loud
So good, I can’t believe it, screaming with the crowd
Don’t sweat it—get it back to you.

The emphasis here is on joy and release, which is exactly what the music provides. On the other hand, James Hetfield sings in almost the exact same cadence:

Bang your head against the stage like you never did before
Make it ring, make it bleed, make it really sore

Aside from the clumsy, apparently unintentional hilarity of “make it really sore,” the thing to be noted here is that the lyrics identify a fundamental problem with the music—it’s not intended to make you feel good, just to send you into a pointless frenzy. Whereas Lemmy wants to make you move, Hetfield sends you to the ER with a really embarrassing story.

What I want to identify here—and I do not intend to confine my argument to lyrics, it’s just that it’s all conveniently laid out there—is a fundamental aesthetic difference. And it’s not just a question of style, but also of attitude—heavy metal lyrics are rife with ridiculous posturing, whereas the best Motörhead songs manage to create a little distance between the singer and the posture, a moment of humanity for which most heavy metal lacks the courage. Again, here is “Whiplash”:

Now’s the time to let it rip, to let it fuckin’ loose
We’re gathered here to maim and kill ‘cause this is what we choose

Really? Next, another verse of “Overkill.” Note that, in terms of meter and length of line, these songs could trade lyrics:

On your feet you feel the beat it goes straight to your spine
Shake your head, you must be dead if it don’t make you fly
Don’t sweat it—get it back to you.

Lemmy wants to make you fly, whereas Hetfield wants to send you to jail, the hospital, or the morgue. Or rather, anyone capable of taking Hetfield’s lyrics seriously would say that, which pretty much rules out anybody over the age of 17. Lemmy, by comparison, only asks the listener to have fun, and the song immediately delivers on what he asks. The music performs what the lyrics are talking about, whereas “Whiplash” is pure, inarticulate fantasy, and not very much fun to boot (unless you’re pretty drunk, anyway).

Indeed, the posturing of most heavy metal lyrics, which complements the wooden feel of the music, shows up poorly in contrast to the irony, humor, love, sympathy and joy that pervade the words and music of Motörhead. A case in point is “Shoot You In The Back,” off 1980’s Ace of Spades. The song tries to impart a lesson about life by identifying the singer with a western outlaw. But the key moment comes at both the beginning and end of the song, when Lemmy announces that this is all happening “in the Western movie.” Rather than blustering about how deadly he is, Lemmy brings the song home by reminding us it’s about a common experience, not an invincible rock star. He acknowledges that he is no more a Western outlaw than his listener, which may disappoint the teenage metal fan but is a welcome caveat for those of us who would prefer a little maturity from a 35-year-old man.

In fact, heavy metal seems to be so much about posturing that it would hardly be the genre that it is without it, an especially ironic fact for those variants wont to fulminating about “posers.” It’s a poor copout when Slayer, for instance, sings about Joseph Mengele, all the while claiming to be reporting on something without endorsing it—the imagery of “Angel of Death” is of the essence of heavy metal, and it little matters who is evil, deadly, or badass, as long as somebody is, and that somebody can be sung about. Overblown phrases like “Monarch of the kingdom of the dead” don’t require a clear referent, because the posture is what the music is aiming for.

On the other hand, when Lemmy sings “Shoot You In The Back,” there is no bravado or chest-thumping; it’s not clear who we are meant to identify with, and anyway, it’s all in a movie:

The riders ride
Into the night
Into the west
To see whose gun’s the best
Got to realize
Before he dies
The rider wearing black
Always gonna shoot you in the back

The lesson here is that ethics and principles only take you so far in this world, and the lesson holds no matter what color hat we’re wearing. A basic human dynamic is tersely sketched in terms explicitly borrowed from the cinema, and no attempt is made to intimidate or bully anyone. Just don’t turn your back on the guy in the black hat, whomever that may be.

And what heavy metal band could have written or performed “I’ll Be Your Sister”? Although the title seems to indicate irony or camp, Lemmy plays it straight (in a manner of speaking!):

I’ll be your sister
I’ll be your lover
I’ll be your mother
If you need somebody

Is it possible to imagine Tom G. Warrior making such an offer? If he did, is it possible to imagine being tempted to accept it? From the introductory bass riff, the song kicks in with a fuzzed-out heaviness that anticipates ’80s heavy metal, but it moves in such a way that heavy metal never did; it’s pure rock & roll.

And whereas rock & roll is about need, longing, loss and recovery, how many heavy metal singers admit to needing anything? To being tired or lonely?

If you need me, feeling tired
Need someone to set your heart on fire
It’s so lonely hanging on the wire

Or how about being afraid? Here’s “Lawman”:

Every time you speak to me
Makes it clear that you don’t see
What’s really happening here
You just confuse respect with fear

Or, in one of his many regular-guy rants against record company suits and all they represent, when Lemmy insists:

You know that you can rob me
But you can’t stop me

what an abyss separates this from the empty bravado of “We’ll never quit, we’ll never stop, ‘cause we’re Metallica”!
But I don’t mean to spend the entirety of my time here beating up on heavy metal. Anyway, what I want to talk about is not really heavy metal, but rock & roll, and even if heavy metal is a subgenre of rock & roll, it is still absurd to tag Motörhead as a heavy metal band. Indeed the passion for rock & roll music, inexplicable or even inexcusable to some, is a constant theme for Lemmy, something holy and all-encompassing, not simply a label or an indicator of genre, but a fundamental position, a way of life:

Don’t you listen to a single word
Against rock & roll
The new religion, the electric church
The only way to go

Or, again:

I’ve got rock & roll
To satisfy my soul
And if that’s all there is
It’s not so bad

Or, most simply and classically:

If you want to feel good
If you want to feel alright
If you want to shake your stuff
Get some rock & roll tonight

(This last comes from a song called “Dance.” Is there any dancing in heavy metal?)

The point I’m trying to make is that there is humility, joy, passion, sorrow, love and hate, empathy and despair, in other words a full array of feeling, an undeniable humanity in Motörhead’s music. It would be tempting to say that there is a generosity of spirit there, and if I hesitate to do so, it is not simply because the phrase is such a cliché. More than that, if the name spirit has always designated the domain of ethics, reflexive reason, and the coming to self-awareness of the concept, would it not be inaccurate to speak of a generosity of the spirit? In that case, wouldn’t generosity instead be an effusion of the body? Indeed, wouldn’t spirit itself be a generous gift of the body? And, to arrive at my thesis at last, isn’t this what great rock & roll has always been about?

A view such as Guy Debord’s, which sees the role of art as self-negation, abasement before it’s own commodification and the autonomy of an aesthetic and cultural sphere divorced from life, could not be more at odds with a form that seems to allow the body to speak, which is what I am claiming for Motörhead particularly, and rock & roll generally. Lemmy seems to recognize this when he insists, “Rock & roll is not art. Rock & roll is about celebration…” This is not to say that rock & roll is not commodified, that it doesn’t sell soap, or cars, or itself. And this is not to say it manages to transcend its role as a commodity. There is no transcendence here. But what rock & roll so clearly enunciates is the body of meaning that does not itself mean anything, without which there is no meaning, or that which means without being meant. It is the body setting itself to work, rather than being set to work—not the bloody, sore body of the headbanger but the moving, living body of the bloody, sore headbanger, which makes all the difference here. If that isn’t clear enough, it’s because I’m trying to say something in the wrong medium, to enunciate in language what can’t really be brought to language. But that isn’t to say it can’t be expressed; it is expressed all the time, in the best rock & roll music. Heavy metal is for the most part a pale shadow of real rock & roll, and that’s what Motörhead is—real rock & roll.

Jewel’s Perfect Teeth

I just finished dancing around my room listening to the 1995 album, Pieces of You, by Jewel, and I feel exhilirated. It was just a year ago that I was finally forced to admit my appreciation of pop music, and less than eleven months since I finally knowingly listened to a Lady Gaga song. Lately I’ve recovered an awe of how great the music was in the ’90s, and it’s on this ground that I’ve been able to return to an old guilty love affair of mine, the debut album of the pop star from Alaska with the crooked teeth who would soon become a flash in the pan.

Pieces of You is the quintessence of its genre, and as perfection would imply, offers absolutely nothing new to the form it renders so well.

Listening to it again, I’m struck to rediscover what made me play this album over and over again my first year of highschool. It’s not the musical clarity or the romantic earnestness, though both are necessary accompaniments. It is, in fact, the unformed, idealistic, but nonetheless radical rebellious critique that lies at the heart of its better songs. The message is prepolitical, underdeveloped, but clear and undiluted, and that’s exactly what spoke to the part of me that would become, that already was, an anarchist.

People living their lives for you on TV

they say they’re better than you and you agree


Another day another dollar another war

another tower went up where the homeless had their homes

[“Who Will Save Your Soul”]

In a rudimentary but unmistakeable way, Jewel excoriates the world we inhabit for its spiritual poverty, while at the same time rejecting religion (“so afraid that God will take his toll that we forget to begin”). In a song that criticizes morality, the police, work, leisure, the media, it may not be an exaggeration to interpret the line “Who will save your soul, if you won’t save your own?” as analytically equivalent to the anarchist slogan of a hundred years ago, “The liberation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves.”

Other songs on the album speak out against beauty standards, homophobia, sexism—the song “Little Sister” draws a connection between drug addiction, consumerism, and alienation—but Jewel’s perfect childishness steers her clear of the propagandist pamphleteering and directionless sarcasm that defeated the majority of the punk music of that decade.

I remember hearing from my closest friend at the time how Jewel had horribly crooked teeth and she refused to get them straightened, like the record label wanted. It was obvious to us that this was her dearest feature.

But I soon forgot about Jewel. Her place in my heart was taken by Ani DiFranco, and then by musicians I’m not ashamed of. Ani DiFranco makes an interesting contrast. She is recognizably political, her feminism is more intelligent, and this many years later she remains committed to the positions that first made her famous. But at the same time, those recognizable politics were always there, of her own making, to mediate any rebellion she might have sparked; Ani DiFranco never ventured into more rebellious territory than that of G.I. Jane, so it’s laughably perfect that she ends up in bed with her polar opposite, Eminem, using her music to get out the vote against conservative politicians in the 2008 elections.

Jewel, on the other hand, much less sophisticated, is intuitively right on. Lacking any recognizable political position, her unadulterated rebelliousness senses just what’s wrong with the world, and she points it out. She doesn’t have complex language to describe it, and no real suggestions for what to do about it, but she is unable to replace one mask with another. In my fantasy world, Jewel is unable to recuperate herself; she can only destroy herself.

Once I see her face on a huge sign outside Tower Records, advertising her next album, all glitzed up, she is dead to me. I imagine the personality evident in Pieces of You steadily becoming disenchanted with itself, its straightened teeth and carefully managed appearance abhorrent, its life’s work meaningless. I imagine her dropping out and disappearing after just one more album.

There’s something beautiful about that trajectory, some similarity to the story of King Midas, but with a reluctant lover of his as the protagonist. In the war of cultural production, the victims are much more beautiful than the traitors or the reformers. The so-called true artists are too delicate for the meat-grinder of the culture industry, and after they fall to pieces capitalism has to search about for the next raw material.

I’m thoroughly disappointed to find out, years later, that Jewel only disappeared from my world, and not from the world stage. That in the end, she was tough, and innovative, and compromising. Capitalism’s capacity for redemption is almost limitless—this is in fact one of its points of conflict with the State structures it relies on. In exchange for her participation in the commercialism and official rituals she condemns in her debut (she would go on to sell millions more records and sing the national anthem for the Super Bowl) she is offered a pseudo-community among the creative class, and opportunities, via her newfound wealth, to do right by founding an NGO and generating money to fight breast cancer and help poor communities around the world get access to water. Critics claim her music shows stylistic development, and it pampers consumer expectations enough to go platinum, but it lacks that naïve spark of honesty that shone out in her first songs.

I’m reminded of Against Me!, who had the grace to start sucking once they sold out. As a band they just can’t fake it: after Reinventing Axel Rose they spent two albums working through an existential crisis—their sense of guilt and meaninglessness—and now they’ve come full circle as punk grandfathers, dribbling out some senile admonition about “When I was yer age…” and yelling at us whippersnappers to come back and listen to the end of their inane story. The next time someone writes a comprehensive history of punk rock, Against Me! should constitute the final chapter. Moving beyond the frozen, eternalized commercial posture of the Sex Pistols, they represent evolution, the end of the dialectic, coming of age.

It’s heartening, actually, to see how everything capitalism touches turns to shit. AK Thompson, writing in the last issue of Upping the Anti, argues that in fact capitalism’s ability to co-opt countercultural expression is limited. I would agree and strike off in a different direction to say that cultural creation is fundamentally at odds with cultural production, and that we as rebels sit right next to the mouth of that cornucopia, that fountain of youth that capitalism always seeks and can never find. Those who do find it come towards us. Yet somehow, we almost never meet. Instead, they fill up their cup, fail to notice us or stay and chat a while, and then they trot back to the Market, where what they have is quickly spent on a system parched and desperate for vitality.

Creation is a fundamentally rebellious act. There will always be new artists who call attention, in the simplest of terms, to the poverty of existence within this system. And nearly all of them will sell out, because that is what artists do. The very best will be crushed by the culture industry. They will lose faith in their life’s work, they will burn out, and if they have any fortitude, get a job in a restaurant or a garage; if what they have instead is honesty, they’ll kill themselves.

I have to admit I don’t fully understand what this means for an anarchist struggle. My mind keeps straying from the more serious questions of co-optation, of cultural defection, of the contingencies that determine the resonance of radical messages, of the possible centrality of bravery and cowardice in explaining the actions of the millions who buy a record but would never be consequential, would never be true, to their own passions.

I keep turning back to a childish fantasy that would overtake me, all those years back, when I’d listen to that album, of—I know, I know, this is trite—meeting Jewel, telling her I understood, and letting her know her crooked teeth were beautiful. But isn’t it the very promise of meeting that keeps the culture industry running, that hooks the artist as much as the consumers, guaranteeing the one an audience and the others the words they lack? How much of a sucker am I to feel sorry for someone like Jewel, trapped in an industry that makes the meeting, the overcoming of alienation, which she evidently also yearned once, impossible?

There are plenty of musicians who come from within our circles and play just for us to the very end, but that doesn’t at all address what is lacking here. What’s more interesting, in relation to the topic at hand, is how instinctual desires bring many artists in the direction of social rebels (the true artists searching, the careerists faking), but the Market deflects them just as they get close. They’re offered a larger audience, and we reject them for completing the role we already expected of them. Selling out is a narrative whose realization is encouraged by capitalism and by anarchist purism alike. But if what we want is not a world full of anarchists, if anarchy is distinct from the generalization of anarchism, then why can’t we accept those with superficial politics, if they’re good musicians and some of what they say expresses our own feelings? The truth is, we live in a world of crooked teeth, and there is something worthwhile in seeing our existence reflected in broader society, especially given a climate of isolation.

First, the Spectacle ignores what threatens it, and if this ceases to function, it recuperates it. But too often, anarchists have a victimistic approach towards recuperation. I have never seen a convincing argument that recuperation can function without the participation of that which is recuperated. Unless I’m wrong, that would mean that no musician with a superficial analysis could recuperate anarchist politics. If they popularized their version of rebellion, they would just make us look stupid, but that would only be a concern to us if we weren’t doing anything else to counter such an image.

In other words, pop musicians should not be measured by their proximity to an anarchist ideal but by their distance from the mindnumbing standard in pop music. Therefore, when Radiohead (brilliant fucking musicians) speaks out against intellectual property and releases an album of theirs for free, we have every reason to be excited. When Chumbawumba sings, “give the anarchist a cigarette,” or brings a fugitive from the law up on stage, that, in fact, is pretty effing sweet. And when Broken Social Scene donates the money from a concert to anarchists facing trial, they’re being reasonably down.

To suggest they be held to different standards than, say, Chomsky (who presents himself as a theorist) when judging the superficiality or profundity of their analysis, is tantamount to validating specialization in human vocations, though I think even a primitivist would choose not to hear Noam Chomsky sing or Thom Yorke deliver a speech on capitalism. The main problem with the critique of specialization is that it fabricates human societies in which no specialization existed, and fails to make a distinction between specialization and professionalization, but that’s the topic for another essay.

The point that we’re come to in the consideration of this business with the musicians is whether popular musicians present a danger (I argue that they do not, because we would have to participate in a recuperatory process and we’re all too smart for that) and whether there is a benefit in them expressing radical sentiments at a simple or superficial level (I argue that there is, both because it feels good to exist outside our political enclosures, and because it beneficially alters the context in which we elaborate our discourses, creating more common reference points and a sort of protoplasm for a rebellious ethos).

If this line of argument is not tragically flawed, then is there a possibility for encouraging defections within the culture industry, a possibility for meeting those who come to this unruly fountain of life for their inspiration, before they are diverted, offered their fake audiences and their marionette NGOs?

What would such a meeting look like and in what circumstances would it become possible? What kind of strength do we need to build up in order to encourage cultural defection, to offer something that the promise of a career couldn’t shine a light to? If we could hold a street party all day long, or occupy a huge concert hall, could we get the ghosts of Jewel and Against Me! to come sing to us?

My thirteen-year-old heart is beating like a bird in its cage.

I was thinking that it might do some good

if we robbed the cynics and took all their food

that way what they believe will have taken place

and we’ll give it to everybody who has some faith

[“I’m Sensitive”]

Love You Too Much

Hope the rising black smoke carries me far away and I never come back to this town again

The gnostic priests of Capital, who wish to see in everything only their imperfect, evil God, can nail down the torrential force of romantic love within their flat cosmology by referring it to the nuclear family, which exists only to reproduce labor power, and thus will disappoint the desires that justify it; or they can claim, and not without evidence, that love has been commoditized, and the consumption of a commodity extinguishes its value and produces, again, disappointment. But they are as inadequate as their nemeses, the priests of the Market, who assure that every ill will be worked out by an Invisible Hand. Capitalism’s effect on the emotions is nearly always dulling. The anticlimax of Christmas, that most condensed gifting and extinguishing of commodities, does not lead to bloodbaths, but to boredom. The violence born of love does not climax in the formation of the family, as it would if its cause were the inability of a labor-power factory to satisfy human emotion, but accompanies it every step of the way. To understand the wrath that hides behind the mask of that most tender sentiment, we need to seek out older, more jealous gods.

Perhaps it is the way pop music conditions our expectations that kept me from realizing, at first, that Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” (featuring Rihanna) is not a macho glorification of domestic violence but rather one of the few honest love songs to ever top the charts.

It’s an easy song to hate or to fear, because it protagonizes someone who beats his partner, and climaxes with the following lines:

Next time I’m pissed
I’ll aim my fist
At the dry wall
Next time
There will be no next time
I apologize
Even though I know it’s lies
I’m tired of the games
I just want her back
I know I’m a liar
If she ever tries to fucking leave again
I’mma tie her to the bed
And set the house on fire

Rihanna, singing the chorus, responds periodically with:

Just gonna stand there
And watch me burn
But that’s alright
Because I like
The way it hurts
Just gonna stand there
And hear me cry
But that’s alright
Because I love
The way you lie
I love the way you lie

The song follows a moral compass that unequivocably signals domestic violence as wrong. But it also presents such violence as an inevitable tragedy, which the beater as much as the person beaten reproduces. The song itself explains their love as an irrational, overpowering addiction.

I can’t tell you what it really is
I can only tell you what it feels like
And right now there’s a steel knife
In my windpipe
I can’t breathe
But I still fight
While I can fight
As long as the wrong feels right
It’s like I’m in flight
High off a love
Drunk from the hate
It’s like I’m huffing paint
And I love it the more that I suffer
I suffocate
And right before I’m about to drown
She resuscitates me
She fucking hates me
And I love it
Where you going
I’m leaving you
No you ain’t
Come back
We’re running right back
Here we go again
It’s so insane

I can’t remember if it was the comparison to addiction or the line “I love you too much” that forced me to recognize this song had more validity than my fears wanted me to admit. It’s a commonplace that songs on the radio pine “I can’t live without you,” “I never want to leave your side,” and other statements of absolute codependency that decorate the elaborate myth of romantic love, in which two people complete each other in a static and unending congruity. How many of these songs are honest enough to mention the abuse that logically accompanies this kind of love?

It was the look in his eyes as he beat her. As though his dearest illusion had shattered, and he had snapped with it. She wasn’t his, she never had been, and she never would be. Up until now, she had chosen to accompany him, and after today, clearly, she would not. “Whatever happened to ‘Until death do us part’?” he muttered confusedly, on one of the few occasions he ever talked about it with me. He didn’t understand the kind of love that changed, the kind that was contingent on choice.

I continued to love them both, not with the propietary love of a husband or a mother, but with the love of a child who wants everyone to be okay. By loving them I learned a number of things. I learned that she was strong, that we may not get to choose if we get beaten, but we can choose whether we become victims, or whether we walk out. She never hated him, either, but unlike Rihanna’s character in the Eminem song, her sympathy was not a weakness, not a resignation to being abused. I also learned from her that abuser and survivor are flexible categories, that one is very likely to become the other, and therefore neither of these can define someone. Someone who has been hurt very often wants to hurt others, or to turn them into protective appendages. The patriarchy I grew up in never taught me that my gender entitled me to abuse without being abused. What I was taught is that you gotta pay your dues.

And what I learned from him is that his story was also important. He was not evil, but hurt. What happened in that cold family he never talked about? He was clearly scarred. Now I was too. I was sure that I would be much better than him. I wasn’t entirely correct. The story that’s never spoken is sure to be repeated. Hate it, fear it, ban it from the radio. It’s going to come back around.

A singleminded critique of capitalism cannot possibly explain the vehemence of love, and must neglect love’s central role in perpetuating the harm we do to ourselves. Love is something more than desire and its misplaced satisfaction in commodity form. But the traditional understanding of patriarchy, as a hierarchical system with men dominating women, is also inadequate, because love is also something different than hierarchy. Love does not end in the domination of the other but in the mutual destruction of self and other. Its most uncensored expression is the murder-suicide.

N was starting to lose it. S became the object of his obsessions. They had been comrades and lovers. Once it got undeniably unhealthy, she ended it. But he couldn’t walk away. He became unhinged, but she refused to call the police, because she cared about him, and hated the state. The rest of us couldn’t provide the support they both needed, neither the friendship that would have given him the strength to heal, nor the accompaniment that would have saved her. I lived in a different town: that was my excuse.

One night he killed her, walked up the hill to watch her house burn down, opened his wrists, and spilled his guts out on the ground in front of him.

I understood those who hated him for it. But I couldn’t find it in myself. He already hated himself enough, and that was the part that finally triumphed.

In our society, love is the perfect mask for self-hatred. I don’t believe that self-hatred is a product of capitalism, but an inevitable companion to the anguish of living. However, work, politics, colonialism, deforestation, and the patriarchal family give us many more reasons to hate ourselves. And they deprive us of means to heal ourselves. Strength is collective property. No one is alone. The illusion of individuality, where it succeeds, leaves us constantly bleeding. All the nodes on our body that connected us with the world—my hand that gripped yours, my lips that kissed his, my feet that held up the earth, my lungs that traded secrets with the leaves in the trees, my belly that was a furnace transmuting one living thing into another—become open wounds.

By promising us one intimate relation with another being, they in fact take away all those other relations, and they produce a silence that exiles us into one another, often destroying the affection of the couple by demanding the world of it. When the opium must also be food and water and shelter, the user destroys, ultimately, her love affair with the opium as well.

Patriarchy doesn’t reproduce itself as a hierarchy, but as a network. What will be most hard to accept, and most easily dismissed as a dangerously sexist idea, is that it is a fully participatory enterprise.

Some patriarchal societies have practically imprisoned women. Others, such as ours, offer mobility. What contradicts the theory of a hierarchical patriarchy is that whether or not a society offers this mobility, most people still don’t walk out. Regardless of whether a woman would get stoned for leaving her husband, or whether she’d be able to get a job and an apartment, the abusive relationships don’t end. Because they are not predicated on enforcement. The content of the gender roles differ wildly from one patriarchy to the next, and although a duality and some kind of privileging of the male half are features common to all of them, the means of enforcement, and even the availability of centralized coercion to enforce these roles, are inconsistent. The universal feature that could guarantee the reproduction of these roles with or without enforcement is their complementality.

You’re the same as me
But when it comes to love
You’re just as blinded

Patriarchy would either have aborted capitalism or been abolished by it long ago if its functioning required that any power or autonomy remain in the hands of its male half. Capitalism can brook no independence. No radical feminist can deny this. Yet a misunderstanding of privilege has done everyone a disservice, by painting women as too weak to break out of this system if they actually wanted to, and men as the monsters who keep the whole thing going. Privilege means, among other things, that male perspectives and experiences are the default, but this could only be possible within an oppressive system if it were impossible for men to live within their own prescribed experiences. In other words, male perspectives are the default, but they do not belong to or serve the interests of those categorized as male.

And this is exactly how it works. As an oppressive network system that supplements structurally enforced hierarchies (such as capitalism and the State), patriarchy functions like an addiction, by fostering dependency, casting incomplete parts to seek completion in an impossible way, and in so doing to articulate a web of mutual theft or destruction of value. It is, if you will, a scarcity machine, in which people keep the treadmills running by stealing from those closest to them to fill their own holes, like four people in a bed with a blanket big enough for two. Love is this machine’s dynamo. Its violence arises when people can’t live without exactly what is destroying them, when one thinks he is completing another and actually he is filling up his hole by eviscerating the other.

You ever love somebody so much
You can barely breathe
When you’re with them

I told her from the beginning that I didn’t think monogamy was healthy in a romantic relationship, at least for me. She considered this an unhealthy, selfish attitude. Consequently, she was always right, or at least excused, when she looked through my address book, read my old love letters, searched the files on my computer, screamed at me, in order to discover my infidelities. And when she broke the rules she herself had laid down, it was only an error caused by the stress of loving a selfish bastard. Our own imperfections are always easy to understand.

How long it took me to discover that healthy love is only possible when we take responsibility for our own emotions—expropriate them from these networks of codependency, as it were. And in fact I can be most grateful to the lovers who treated me like shit, for teaching me this. They took good care of themselves. Beyond that: “If we meet, it’s marvelous. If not, that’s alright.” I could either choose to take care of myself, and not demand anything of others but what they gave as a gift, or I could choose to be a victim. I chose the former, and our love existed where we coincided. When we stopped coinciding, we went our separate ways, each stronger and wiser.

We love in order to destroy ourselves, and build ourselves back up again, a heartbroken friend tells me in a moment of hope.

Despite her more herculean vocals, Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” is tawdry next to Dolly Parton’s original. This may in fact be a result of Houston’s earthshaking glottal vibrations actually drowning out the quieter sentiments that make this song so beautiful. Parton’s romantic love is perhaps the only kind that truly can live forever, because it is the love of a memory, the love for a person who is totally independent, totally safe from that love, because they have already left.

Once the affair is over, we’re free, until the end of our days, to think about the person we loved, to care about them, to wish them well, to wonder what part of ourselves must be broken that it turned out this way, to malign the nature of our love that it became a weapon against our lover; where it should have completed, it only hurt and controlled, and we will never be able to make it right, nor reconcile the sincerity of the concern we feel for that person with the damage we caused in the intensity of our passion. Perhaps the best way to go on loving them is to love the next person better.

Both the idea of romantic love and many of the radical responses to its inevitable abuses are implicitly predicated on the idea of human fragility.

Love runs perpetually from a fear of loneliness, but only by embracing this loneliness and—not conquering it; it will never be conquered—make our peace with it, can we love not as a parasite but as one creating a joyous project among companions. Accountability, meanwhile, often unknowingly fosters moral and judicial frameworks of blame. In this paradigm, pointing out that patriarchy is participatory will be interpreted not as the first step towards a strategy of liberation, but as blaming the victim.

This defensiveness is perfectly understandable, given how judicial processes impose themselves on us, and in these processes the person with less social privilege usually takes the blame for whatever disorder has interrupted the illusion of social peace.

But if what we are setting up is not a courthouse but a commune, a conspiracy among friends, the embodiment of our dreams, we have to permit ourselves to talk about things that could never be said in a society in which “everything you say will be used against you.”

One of these unmentionables is that sometimes we choose to be abused. Sometimes it feels good. Sometimes we “like the way it hurts.”

As we move from a world of imposed desires and addictive relationships to one in which relationships express our paradoxical agency and independence as subjects of the world and interlaced hubs in a network of mutual aid, play can be as important a tool as destruction.

Patriarchy is a game that solidified and forgot its own rules. Queer theory and some of the libertarian psychologists who preceded it have taught us that suppressing what troubles us only perpetuates it. By playing with power dynamics, playing with pain, even playing with torture, we make them our own, and we can make them harmless to us.

We are not so fragile that by having our partner tie us up and having her whip us or choke us with a dildo we lose something to her, we become dominated.

A consensual scenario is a world apart from an abusive relationship, but the hidden connection between the two, and the one thing that would allow us to move from the latter to the former, is that in both situations we have agency, whether we recognize it or not, and that our own desires may well be contradictory and frightening.

Compare the Eminem song to “Kiss with a Fist” by Florence and the Machine. Though the singer croons that “A kiss with a fist is better than none,” and, just like Eminem, promises to set her lover’s bed on fire, only a dogmatic second-waver could claim “Kiss With a Fist” is a fucked up song that apologizes for abuse or victimization.

I broke your jaw once before

I spread your blood upon the floor

you broke my leg in return

so I sit back and watch the bed burn

love sticks, sweat drips,

break the lock if it don’t fit

[“Kiss With a Fist”]

The Eminem song frightens us because it protagonizes the batterer, and to a lesser extent also the survivor who chooses to remain. It refers to emotions all of us have felt, and thus forces us either to reject it as incorrect, or to acknowledge our own capacity to abuse or to choose to be abused, without judgment.

By suspending judgment, or at least mixing it with sympathy, the song creates the possibility of learning from a seemingly incurable situation. Judgment makes learning impossible. The judge is the greatest fool in the statist pantheon, because one cannot learn from those one condemns.

The picture painted in “Love the Way You Lie” reveals the violence of love not as a hierarchy but as a cycle. Perhaps what is needed to change this cycle is the recognition that abuse is a function of dependency and nowadays dependency is perfectly normal, but it is also an expression of our individual agency; what we need is no less than to be exceptional.

I’m Very Happy for You, and I’ma Let You “Runaway,” but…

reflections on Kanye West, fame, marketing, and modern racism

This world is full of niche markets, of areas both physical and social that exist alongside each other, with little to no overlap. People go their whole lives in their own trajectory (or trajectories), never knowing, much less reflecting on, that a very different experience is being had by someone even just next door. There are a few things, like school or work, that can cross at least some of those barriers and there is fame. Fame of the rampant type that is lived by a Lady Gaga or a Kanye West can remind outsiders that there is something going on over there.

Some people will not need an introduction to West. For those who have not being paying that kind of attention, West is famous for a number of things: initially as a producer for a hip-hop record label and various big name hip-hop, soul, and pop artists, then for his own multi-award-winning albums (The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, 808 & Heartbreak). In those circles he is known to be outspoken (some would say tantrum-throwing) about not being given his proper due. But even for people who have never heard any of his music, unless one pays no attention to the media at all, West will be familiar as the charity television commentator during the Katrina hurricane (2005), who ended his commentary (since the cameras cut away from him immediately) by stating baldly, “[then president] George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”* And again in 2009, for interrupting an acceptance speech at a music video award ceremony, when he went onstage to say that someone else should have won (creating the internet meme “i’m very happy for you and i’ma let you finish, but…”).

West’s fame is leavened by wide-spread acceptance that while he can rap and produce, he cannot sing, and this film is an indication that he cannot act. But perhaps those lacks give him more of an every-man feel, which adds to his popularity rather than detracts from it. Especially when we consider the livin’-large schtick that many different people seem to be compelled by. His anecdotes of his Good Life (chillin’ with big names in big places) remind me of nothing so much as the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” television show of the 80s and 90s, that seemed to get its popularity from its audience’s lack of imagination of what to do with a lot of money.

West’s newest album is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—an album notorious before it even came out (for having its original cover banned for obscenity). “Runaway” is one song on that album (one that has been touted as his response to his actions at the award ceremony, since it speaks to being a douche and an asshole; only some of the many names he was called afterwards). “Runaway” is also a 35 minute film that includes multiple songs from the album. West says that clips from Runaway will be used as music videos for the songs in question, and that he’d love to see the entire film on the big screen in movie theaters. Not surprising for West, who is infamous for linking his own significance with cultural icons of all genres, the filmmakers claim an impressive pedigree for this film—which West describes as being based on his professional life and on his dreams—including inspiration by Prince’s Purple Rain, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, painters Picasso and Matisse, directors Fellini and Kubrick, and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.

The multiplicity of “Runaway” (that is, the fact that it is many music videos in one) fits both its stated purpose, which was to address West’s internal processes—recovering still from his mother’s death and from a traumatic car crash, and the drama of the video award grandstandingand a utilitarian one, since creating a multi-purpose video for almost all of the songs on the album is both unusual (useful for marketing), and probably cheaper than doing something remarkable for all of the songs separately. This combination of internal process and marketing savvy seems like a tagline for West, whose protestations of child-like honesty and up-front sincerity do not negate the attention-grabbing aspect of his actions. That is, he can both say “I took that stand that way because I really felt it in my heart” and reap the rewards of getting his name in front of his audience again. As we all know, marketing doesn’t recognize a difference between negative and positive attention.

The different segments of the video don’t hang together particularly well, despite the main story line (which comes and goes) about a woman-shaped phoenix who crashes into West’s car. He rescues her, teaches her to dance, falls in love with her, takes her to dinner with a bunch of strangers, and loses her to her destiny. This is hugely reminiscent of the plotline of The Fifth Element, or any other film with an innocent beautiful woman/alien who doesn’t or can’t talk much and (therefore?) is completely compelling to the male lead who falls in love with her forthwith. (This has been known to happen occasionally with genders reversed too, as in the 1970s television series Man from Atlantis.*)

The viewer knows that West falls in love with her because that is what has to happen, and plus he says so in the interview later, but his incredibly stone-faced non-acting makes one wonder what exactly is going on, as West looks on while his alien gambols with deer and lambs or drinks from an upside down teacup. The sense of emotional engagement (or lack thereof) is not helped by the fact that West’s lack of expression frequently doesn’t just look non-committal, but sad or, frequently, disapproving.

Luckily, calling something “dreamlike” covers a multitude of issues.

Other components of the video that make multiple and/or significant appearances are people in red hoods (he says the hoods represent social control over imagination); a child with a torch (the torch is supposed to represent individuality and inspiration); a huge puppet-head of Michael Jackson carried by a parade amid fireworks; deer and sheep; a dance sequence by light-skinned ballet dancers dressed in black, performing for an estranged party of dark-skinned diners dressed in white…

When asked about the dining/dance scene, which is the clip for the song “Runaway”, West laughes and says that it has nothing to do with race, that is about color as a design element, and that it was the idea of the art director for the film (a white woman). While racial iconography is present (the hoods reference the KKK, the all black diners are served, and entertained, by white women), it is only enough to allude to something bigger, not enough to be a stand for anything, or to make any kind of coherent statement. The film therefore approaches the topic of race or racism tangentially at most, which is perhaps the most useful way (for a pop star anyway) in a world in which racial conversations are so loaded.

While obviously Michael Jackson is a household name in a way that West has not attained, there are some evocative similarities. Both are/were moneyed, creative, very popular, and multi-talented. Both focused on visuals (although in different ways), and both had/have some thing going on with childhood. West talks about his own “child-like creativity, purity and honesty”*, and wears kid’s jewelry; Jackson’s attraction to, and preoccupation with, children being infamous. (As a perhaps only curious aside, Tracy Jordan, the character from 30 Rock, a popular comedian, is also child-like in his non sequitors and random comments, even perhaps in his benign selfishness.) Is there something about being a popular Black man in the u.s. that is made easier if seen through the lens of childhood? Or is it that the u.s. is more likely to find more acceptable popular Black men who speak through childhood metaphors? (Black male extremely popular cultural figures tend to be either dangerous—Tupac in music, O.J. Simpson in sports, just two examples off the top of my head—or clowny, like will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas, Prince in his own way, etc.)

How do West’s protestations of child-like sincerity relate (for white people, anyway) to the civil war-era stereotype of black people as child-like and incompetent, refuting the modern stereotypes of black people as aggressive and dangerous? Is West’s persona negotiating a line between take-no-bullshit (for some audiences) and simplicity (for other audiences), and if so, how much is walking that line what allows him to be so popular?

To some, West’s notorious linking of himself with cultural megastars is merely him being explicit about what is normally a tacit practice of big achievers. To others it is the latest example of a hiphop practice, where stars talk themselves up (vs white people, who are supposed to speak of themselves in a protestant, under-stated, arguably hypocritical way). To still others it is him demonstrating narcissism, or megalomania. And of course there is nothing to keep it from being all of the above.

West is not a sophisticated thinker, but that doesn’t mean that his works, including his own persona, are simple or shallow. He is both a visual and a sonic artist, and his pieces encourage other people to find meanings that he wouldn’t.

*from the lyrics of Power, by West.

GaGa, Bowie, Hitler

The mythology is all wrong. Prometheus did not bring fire to the humans. This is what happened. Prometheus stole fire from the old, conservative gods and ate it. With this fire in his belly, he descended to the human world, jumped onto a stage, and told them, “I have brought you fire!” None of them grew warm because of the fire inside the rebel god—they only though they did.


Well you can bump and grind,
It is good for your mind,
Well you can twist and shout, let it all hang out
But you won’t fool the children of the revolution

-Marc Bolan, 1972


The mythology is all wrong. Prometheus did not bring fire to the humans.

This is what happened.

Prometheus stole fire from the old, conservative gods and ate it. With this fire in his belly, he descended to the human world, jumped onto a stage, and told them, “I have brought you fire!” None of them grew warm because of the fire inside the rebel god—they only though they did. Mesmerized by his dancing flames, they crowded around Prometheus and confused the shared heat of their bodies for that of his own. In their ignorance, they truly believed that Prometheus had brought them fire. In truth, all Prometheus ever did with the fire in his belly was dance.

For his crime, the old gods punished Prometheus by chaining him to his stage. There, tied to the stage on which he once danced, an eagle devoured his insides. At night, when the world slept, when everyone forgot, Prometheus healed from his wounds. In the day light, the eagle returned and ravaged him once again. The eagle haunted Prometheus forever.


In 1913, in the German city of Munich, a young man successfully avoided military service. This young man was an artist who could not thrive in the art world. He had been rejected from art schools and told by the old conservative world that he could never do what he wanted to do. When the first world war began in 1914, he eagerly sought to join the same military service he had once avoided. In 1914 he was shipped off to the Western Front. Despite being wounded in 1917, he found war to be the greatest experience of his life. When the war ended 1918, and his world of heroes and battles was over, he had nowhere else to go. And so, on the streets of Munich, Adolf Hitler happened upon the German Worker’s Party.


He entered this group just as he entered the art world and the military: looking for a world on which he could leave his mark. By 1921, Hitler had risen to become a minor party leader. They called him Fuhrer. In 1921, Hitler and 600 armed men surrounded the speech of their political opponent. From there they attempted to take over the Munich city hall. Eventually the Nazis were crushed and Hitler was sent to prison, but the attempted coup catapulted the Nazis into fame. A starving nation found comfort in the boldness of this political party. While in jail, Hitler wrote a book called My Struggle. His words were to find resonance in the desperate population of Germany. Finally, the artist had found his medium. All of Germany would soon be looking in his direction and before long, so would the rest of the world.


In 1962, in the suburbs of London, a young man just out of art school declared to his parents that he was going to be a pop star. They did not want him to become a pop star. Despite this discouragement, the young man moved from band to band, hoping to find the one that would catapult him into stardom. He wrote songs for money over the years and drifted through London, living his life as if it was a long, theatrical conquest. When his dream band arrived one day, he made them “Ziggy’s band.” He told the world that in the end he would become “sucked up into his mind” after having “made it too far.” Ziggy Stardust jumped onto the stage and immediately started to disintegrate. The fame he sought began to leave marks on his face: strange, sparkling lightning bolts that he displayed to the starving world around him.


The world from which David Bowie emerged was tumultuous and riddled with disorder. His album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was released in the summer of 1972, the same summer that the Angry Brigade was on trial. They were anarchists accused of firing a rifle at an embassy, sending bombs to members of British Parliament, and writing incendiary communiques, among other things. In one of these communiques, the Angry Brigade stated that “life is so boring there is nothing to do except spend all our wages on the latest skirt or shirt.” They once asked a question: “Sit in the drugstore, look distant, empty, bored, drinking some tasteless coffee? Or perhaps BLOW IT UP OR BURN IT DOWN.”

Bowie preferred to dance in front of everyone, watching as his face turned up on the latest shirts for people to spend all of their wages on. He proceeded to fulfill his own ambition until it consumed him. As Ziggy Stardust began to disintegrate, David Bowie started to unravel. He could not escape the stardom he had once craved. He could not escape his personality, his exoskeleton. He could not tell the difference between himself and his own image. Much like Adolf Hitler, David Bowie chased his projection into the future until it reached its wretched conclusion. Ziggy was to become an empty, desperate shell.

In his 1974 album Diamond Dogs, David Bowie declares that what he is doing is “not rock and roll. This is…genocide.” The dazzling luminary became rather dour. There was no more glitter, there was only a man with slicked-back blonde hair called the Thin White Duke. In 1976, his album Station To Station was released. During that same year Francisco Franco, the fascist leader of Spain, finally died. Rather than allow news of the dictator’s death to broadcast via satellite, Bowie chose to have his interview broadcast instead. Francisco Franco led a fascist army that, aided by Adolf Hitler’s army, wiped out and eradicated the anarchists struggling in Spain. The Thin White Duke spoke to England on the day that Franco died, but said nothing of the dictator’s passing. The same year, David Bowie told a reporter that “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader.” Bowie later blamed this comment on drugs and stress. Also in 1976, he also said that “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.”

Ziggy Stardust ended up as the Thin White Duke. His persona had eaten him. He retreated to Berlin, the city where Adolf Hitler killed himself. There he made records influenced by German electronic music. Millions of people had flocked to see David Bowie while he was Ziggy Stardust. Millions continued to see him after Ziggy was dead. His albums continued to sell, his face continued to be on the latest shirts, his words continued to be broadcast everywhere. In 1977, just as the insurrections in the Italian cities were starting, just as the struggle against work and the factory was intensifying, David Bowie said these words to the world: “I’m the perfect example of the victim of technology. I think it’s disastrous.”



In 2003, in New York City, a young girl began to sing in clubs. She had left art school, dissatisfied with the people in her classes, and started to make music. The young girl knew it was her “destiny” to become a star. Soon she was singing in night clubs in a leopard-print thong. This disturbed her father, a wealthy man who did not understand what his well-educated daughter was doing. By 2008, the young girl had crafted her first album and projected herself into the future, much like Bowie, much like Hitler. The Fame, released in the summer of 2008, was Stephani Joanne Angelina Germanotta’s assault upon the world of pop-culture. She created an album, a persona, and an image that encouraged people to come to her and be themselves. Her album champions living like a spectacular movie star.

“This idea of The Fame runs through and through,” Stephani said. “Basically, if you have nothing, no money, no fame, you can still feel beautiful and dirty rich. The music is intended to inspire people to feel a certain way about themselves, so they’ll be able to encompass, in their own lives, a sense of inner fame that they can project to the world.”

Stephani, who had since given herself the name “Lady Gaga,” toured the United States promoting her new album. With The Fame, she began to develop a cult following that spread quickly through the electronic networks of the contemporary United States. Her image metastasized. Lady Gaga often expressed her love of David Bowie and wore a lightning bolt on her face in homage. As heiress to his tradition, Lady Gaga disseminated her songs of glamor, decay, and ecstasy. Her face appeared on the latest shirts and skirts.

Since the 1970’s, the aspirations of people like the Angry Brigade had been systematically crushed. There were fewer people attacking commodity society and they received less support than the anarchists of the seventies. By the fall of 2009, when Lady Gaga’s second album was released, the anarchists of the world had finally found a new power ever since the Greek Insurrection in 2008, an event which mobilized and inspired thousands of anarchists. Unfortunately, in 2009, commodity society was still more powerful, thanks to people like Lady Gaga.

With her follow-up album, The Fame Monster, Lady Gaga decided to dub her followers “little monsters.” Each song on her album was meant to be a monster that she found in herself. Lady Gaga, no longer calling herself Stephani in public, had become an exorcist for people who found comfort in her words and imagery. In interview after interview, Lady Gaga extolled her followers to purge their inner monsters from themselves at her concerts and through her music. Unlike David Bowie, Lady Gaga created an army and an empire for herself with her persona, an empire she sustained with constant touring and publicity stunts. In her music video for the song “Alejandro,” Lady Gaga is depicted as the leader of a hyper-sexual fascist army. With each stop in her Monster’s Ball Tour, Lady Gaga amassed more fans, swelling the ranks of her “little monsters.”

Like Adolf Hitler, Lady Gaga channeled the suppressed energy of her audience into herself. In the Germany of the 1920’s, Hitler told everyone that he was just like them, that he could feel their pain, and that, above all, he knew how to get rid of that pain. At the time, the population of Germany was poor, hungry, and starving for a common direction. In the United States of 2008-2010, the population was poor, losing their houses, and desperate for answers. Lady Gaga, a self-professed “freak,” told her fans she was just like them. Her fan base was composed of people with a reason to hate the current order. She spoke down to the freaks, excluded, the oppressed, trying to lift them up to salvation and inner fame. In the end, Lady Gaga did not liberate anyone, she only reinforced commodity society. Hitler used his fame to reinforce the fascist state. Lady Gaga used her fame to reinforce the capitalist state.

Costuming herself in a false benevolence, Lady Gaga told Oprah Winfrey, “All the things that I do, in terms of The Fame and in terms of The Fame Monster, it’s meant to sort of make it a bit easier to swallow this kind of horrific media world we live in.”



Lady Gaga is currently doing nothing new. David Bowie did it before her. Kiss, the Grateful Dead, and Jay-Z all did the same thing. Every shimmering star is a distraction from physical reality. Every star mobilizes their fans in order to profit off them monetarily. Every star crafts webs of fantasy, delusion, imagery, and sound in order to keep their fans coming to their shows and buying their albums. Every star accumulates capital. Every star is a star unto themselves, a fire-bringer that never really shares the fire.

For every Adolf Hitler, there is a Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who created The Triumph Of The Will. As an artist, she felt no qualms about making a film for the Nazis. Her evocative film exaggerates and aggrandizes the Nazi leadership. It also depicts thousands of loyal fans giving the Roman salute to Hitler. Although Riefenstahl helped promote the Nazis in their ascent, she continued her life as an artist after the end of the second world war. Other artists would later find inspiration in her film techniques. She pioneered the art of displaying a star to a world. Since her 1934 film was released to the German public, cinema has mutated into the internet-centric media world of the present day. There are no longer lone Hitlers to keep people in line. There is a multitude of Hitlers out there, dancing on the screen, keeping the public in line.


Auschwitz was never completed. Its construction continues to this day. Auschwitz is everywhere. Everyone must work in order to buy a Lady Gaga album. Everyone had to work to buy a David Bowie album in the seventies. Everyone had to work in Auschwitz. Before being removed from the ghetto of Warsaw and taken to the camps, Jewish prisoners fought an armed insurgency against the Nazis. In the end, Hitler told Germany that the insurrection was crushed. During the 1970’s in England, an anarchist guerrilla group called the Angry Brigade blew up train tracks, shot prison guards, burnt politicians’ offices, destroyed banks, bombed the media, and torched army recruiting offices. In the end, the sound of David Bowie drowned out their actions.

On the first of May, 1971, the Angry Brigade said this after bombing an upscale boutique: “We have sat quietly and suffered the violence of the system for too long. We are being attacked daily. Violence does not only exist in the army, the police and the prisons. It exists in the shoddy alienating culture pushed out by TV films and magazines, it exists in the ugly sterility of urban life. It exists in the daily exploitation of our Labor, which gives big Bosses the power to control our lives and run the system for their own ends.”


The three artists in question, Gaga, Bowie, Hitler, are like all artists. But they have far more power than the others. Every artist who makes a film in Nazi Germany, every band who plays for money, and every singer who soothes the minds of her troubled “monsters” is a professional who keeps people in line. Hitler worked for the Nazi capitalist machine. Gaga works for the international capitalist machine. She gives it money. She keeps them entertained at home. In this world, art is used by capitalism to perpetuate itself. It uses the stars to stay alive and in return gives the stars what they ask for. For Lady Gaga, it was fame. For David Bowie, it was fame. For Adolf Hitler, it was fame.

In conclusion, the author of this article would like to make a simple request. Every artist reading should tattoo this phrase on their wrist: Art is Auschwitz.

Negation + Electro = Negatetro

Un-ideological Insurrection in Romain Gavras’ and Justice’s “Stress.”

A few months ago, amidst all the hype and talk about politico-hipster M.I.A.’s new music video “Born Free” directed by Romain Gavras making news, I stumbled upon some of the French director’s earlier work. While I’ve been a fan (whatever) of the French electro duo, Justice, for some time now, I hadn’t come across their video for their song “Stress” and was pleasantly surprised to see the depth that Romain Gavras brought to the project. His video for M.I.A., aside from being an example of remarkable cinematography, is extremely vapid in that its projected “political” polemics are explicit and operate entirely along the surface. The ginger-haired “othering” lends itself to a certain passive recognition of how such ethno-cultural differentiation is/can be supported by state-sanctioned violence. It requires nothing of the viewer except a passive acceptance that this IS (emphatic and totalizing agreement) how difference is codified and supported. Such inherently simplistic visual conventions and politicized contrivance makes the viewer tune out after the first twenty seconds or so, when shock is merely replaced with redundancy. Everything after the initial recognition that conventional ethno-cultural “othering” has been flipped upside down simply becomes superfluous and eventually beats the viewer over the head with brutal repetition of clichéd images. This pedanticism is strange, because what Gavras gets wrong with M.I.A.’s “Born Free” (2010) he had already mastered brilliantly with Justice’s “Stress” (2008).

Un-ideological Insurrection in Romain Gavras’ and Justice’s “Stress.”

A few months ago, amidst all the hype and talk about politico-hipster M.I.A.’s new music video “Born Free” directed by Romain Gavras making news, I stumbled upon some of the French director’s earlier work. While I’ve been a fan (whatever) of the French electro duo, Justice, for some time now, I hadn’t come across their video for their song “Stress” and was pleasantly surprised to see the depth that Romain Gavras brought to the project. His video for M.I.A., aside from being an example of remarkable cinematography, is extremely vapid in that its projected “political” polemics are explicit and operate entirely along the surface. The ginger-haired “othering” lends itself to a certain passive recognition of how such ethno-cultural differentiation is/can be supported by state-sanctioned violence. It requires nothing of the viewer except a passive acceptance that this IS (emphatic and totalizing agreement) how difference is codified and supported. Such inherently simplistic visual conventions and politicized contrivance makes the viewer tune out after the first twenty seconds or so, when shock is merely replaced with redundancy. Everything after the initial recognition that conventional ethno-cultural “othering” has been flipped upside down simply becomes superfluous and eventually beats the viewer over the head with brutal repetition of clichéd images. This pedanticism is strange, because what Gavras gets wrong with M.I.A.’s “Born Free” (2010) he had already mastered brilliantly with Justice’s “Stress” (2008).

Justice’s song “Stress” is itself frenetic in pace and has a distinctive synthed-out warble, heavily filtered and gated, that undulates throughout the entire track creating the impression of increasing tension through dissonance – the threat of violence being evoked through the possibility and inevitability that this tension cannot sustain itself, and as such whatever connection is being approximated through its existence is, and will, be broken. It’s a fucking banger of a track! What Romain Gavras has been able to do is fully synthesize the tension (“stress” shall we say?!) that the song evokes, and translate it into a visual medium which is at once both beautiful and frightening – political and apolitical. One cannot watch Gavras’ video without contextualizing it against the still recent (the video was made in 2008) civil unrest in France both in 2005 (Clichy-sous-Bois) and 2007 (Villiers-le-Bel). In addition, one cannot help but acknowledge the parallels, both in content and style, to Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film “La Haine” (Hatred). Both works deal in explicit ways, with the construction and representation of “new” French identities – specifically Maghreb, North African, and Beur identities.

What I find most impressive about the music video, is the implicit critiques of both representation and ideology (through the apparent lack of qualification in regards to violence) – and subsequently the rest of this essay will focus on these two notions.

The (active) violence within Gavras’ music video exists as unideological bouts of insurrectionary rupture, in the sense that inferring only from the totality of the music video as text, there seems to be a complete lack (thankfully!) of moralizing or ethical impetus of what boring-ass orthodox Marxists would identify as class-consciousness. The youth portrayed as the collective protagonist (antagonist may be more appropriate in this context) engage in subversion which is inherently illicit and criminal (or illegalism for all the IA nerds) within the context of both capitalist mores and, more importantly, “revolutionary” mores as well. The overt sexism seen in the physical harassment of the woman in the train station (0:58) and the senseless beating of the man who comes to her aid (1:10), are indicative of the ways that, already within the first minute of the piece, the localized becoming of social rupture presented here is without “revolutionary” consciousness; which in and of itself lays claim to the ways (i.e. representation) in which insurrection is “appropriate” and justifiable. This is not to condone the totality of the actions depicted in Gavras’ piece, rather this analysis is attempting to point to the ways in which what is depicted is a violence which is at once indicative of the Freudian “return of the repressed” and outside of the attempts to qualify violence according to either capitalist or “revolutionary” signifiers.

In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord writes: “Although the struggles between different powers for control of the same socio-economic system are officially presented as irreconcilable antagonism, they actually reflect that system’s fundamental unity, both internationally and within each nation.” Thus categorically condemning the systemic violence of capitalism is the expected inverse of its very existence. Conversely, the violence argued for by proponents of alternatives to capitalist relations, possesses within its very articulation its own negation – and thus, paradoxically, reflects the “fundamental unity” of the totalizing system of capitalism. This is all a long winded way of arguing that the violence depicted in Gavras’ piece, is indicative of unideological insurrectionary social rupture – one which exists in an approximation of purity (Bloomness…kids…bloomness), simultaneously a product of capitalist relations while at once existing outside of the capitalist/anti-capitalist dual schema. It is a violence without predication upon ideology. It is a violence which is merely a manifestation of the adolescent group’s own collectivized desire; how nefarious and fucked up said desire is, is irrelevant to this argument. Again a boring-ass orthodox Marxist would argue that such violence is merely reactionary; sins committed against some glorious revolutionary movement by the ignorant lumpenproletariat. Such a reductive reading would most likely find its basis in the fact that much of the violence depicted is not directed (superficially at least) at legitimate targets. For example the youth attack several people who do not appear to be ethnically of European descent, and whom ostensibly are at the train station which the youth board as well (signifying shared socio-cultural parallels) upon leaving their squalid housing projects in the outskirts of Paris towards the interior of the city (a movement itself fraught with meaning in that the return of the repressed ontologically moves into the space which it finds itself most alienated from, at once destroying and supplanting spatial ordering).

At approximately 1:46 Gavras layers the act of representation as ontology by having the youth pause for a brief respite from their rampage to gaze upon a gray Paris from steps of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Their gaze from the cathedral overlooking Paris from its position of Foucauldian panopticon-ness, is indicative of the reappropriation of “space-being” as the return of the repressed charts a course which starts from the outskirts of the city, through the arteries of “le Metro,” quite literally to the Sacred Heart (Sacré-Cœur) of Paris. Representation at the heart of the city exists as a commodified relationship to space for everyone except the youth, as the viewer can infer from Gavras’ images that the Sacré-Cœur Basilica exists primarily to be consumed by tourists. This fact plays on the othering of the youth in that they occupy a position in the duality of otherness, which is anathema to the tourists around them. The tourists are explicit representations of an “other” which is tolerated and even welcomed to the heart of the city – in so much as they 1. consume 2. do not try to stay (literally inhabit France, and by extension have the audacity to redefine what being French actually constitutes) 3. do not subvert the social order of the space (political and ontological) they are guests in. The inverse to this duality of “the other” is the youth. 1. They do not passively consume, they antagonize. 2. They are indeed the nouveau francais. 3. They supersede social order in its absolute irrelevance. At approximately 1:53 the youth literally destroy both the means to consume the experience at the metaphorical heart of Paris (by smashing a tourist’s camera) and the means to construct the inauthenticity of such spectacle (the hippies with the bongo and guitar – on a side note, smashing guitars is trite, but bongos? That’s some raw shit!). Thus, violence turns onto the act of representation and the commodification of experience itself.

More wanton destruction and assaults occur, and the youth then arrive at the bar (3:01). With Justice’s music playing over their voices, and this Anglophone’s admittedly limited command of the French language it is difficult to hear what one of the youth says before masking up, extending the billy-club, and entering the café. It sounds like something along the lines of “film vérité” (or truthful film, real film, etc). If my ears do indeed deceive me, this line of argumentation is not diminished as the point I want to emphasize here is that the youth looks directly into the camera as if to make positively sure that the destruction that ensues will in fact by seen. Thus it is a violence which not only cedes to, but explicitly demands an audience, and in so doing establishes the parameters of its own consumption. It also may be worth reiterating that the space that the return of the repressed manifests itself in this scene is a bar, and one cannot help but contextualize this destruction and spatial appropriation within the perspective of Islamic Sharia prohibitions on alcohol and the youth being of (most likely) North African, Maghreb, or Beur descent – all while wearing the emblazoned jackets of the holy cross. While indeed the “Cross” is Justice’s symbolic go-to and the name of their first album (in a weird Prince-like symbol-only name), and as such on the surface it is an explicit nod to the creators of the music – the irony of a group of North African Mahgrebi youth marauding through Paris wearing the symbol of Christendom is not lost.

The confrontation with the police which begins at 3:17 can be read as the progressive relationship of conflict and insurrection in that all of the youth’s encounters before this are situated within the realm of the social, and only upon unchecked escalation and an inability to stem said action does the inherent tension between social rupture and social order directly move into the realm of the political. Thus, metaphorically, the police become manifestations of the last attempt to authoritatively establish psychosocial normalcy upon the return of the repressed – from this point, only two theoretical options exist as logical outcomes: either the repressed recedes back into its role as the unconscious cause of implicit social paranoia, or social rupture occurs and the schizophrenic nature of capitalism rises to the surface. The youth are able to evade the police, and in so doing, social rupture occurs at the localized level of the youth’s own collective ontology – and thus, appropriating words from Italian anarchist Alfredo M. Bonanno’s essay “From the Centre to the Periphery,” the youth in Gavras’ piece come closer to an existential-becoming, within “a reality where rebellion no longer necessarily starts off from situations of necessity.” Thus at 4:26 when the youth emerge from the depths of the city center, into the bright light on the surface streets it is an existence-becoming, a moment of social rupture in which the repressed has finally returned, no longer dwelling in the schizophrenic bowels of the collective unconscious, unspectaclized and laid bare before society to come face to face with their “other” in a synthesis of the totality of the dialectics of capitalist relations. The appropriation of the car at 4:40 is also indicative of this new existence-becoming, in that to move from the “periphery” to the “centre” both in the social and geospatial contexts, the youth have up until this point depended on modes of “public” transportation – predetermined means (both literally and metaphorically) to move or be within the heart of the city. Now commandeering their own vehicle, they are essentially appropriating their own subjectivity and authorship of self. While admittedly this is a stretch, to literally become the driver can translate here as the youth now possessing the authority to self-define.

Why I’ve chosen to qualify this music video as indicative of insurrectionary violence, and not violence within a larger schema or context of a more explicitly “revolutionary” nature has precisely to do with how Gavras constructs the conclusion to his piece – and in so doing does not allow for the existence-becoming to be appropriated by a meaningless “revolutionary” program. The destruction of the stolen car at 5:17, within this argument’s larger metaphorical frame of reference, becomes the destruction of the main conduit to authorship and self-definition. To simply end the piece with the triumphant appropriation of the vehicle points toward recuperation of systemic structuring within a capitalist framework, in that capitalism allows for such minor appropriations and transgressions within its totalizing stability. The act of reclaiming one’s authorship from the grips of capital, is merely ameliorative and still within the constructs of capitalist relations. No this is not merely enough. To exist outside of this totality, the author must destroy their very role – it is only through the regaining of the power to self-define, and once repossessing it, subsequently destroying it that a purity of negation can exist. Destroying and burning the car at the end of Gavras’ piece is this dissolution of the authorial role, yet Gavras’ is not content to stop at the destruction of the author but expands his scope to include the destruction of the audience as well in that the final attack on the “camera-person” is ostensibly the complete destruction of representation. The viewer no longer has a means, or entrance, into the spectacle and is subsequently confronted with a black screen of nothingness. Thus whatever is happening (because becoming is always happening), while the camera no longer records, exists in a space where representation no longer occurs as a totalizing ontology and as such the simultaneous destruction/construction of the self in its pure veracity is born where we cannot see it.

View the music video for “Stress” here: http://vimeo.com/9518258

Climbing to the Sun on a Cobweb Made of Tinker Toys

One way or another, I guess I’ve spent the past two years of my life trying to figure out what Cloud Cult is.

On the face of it, this appears to be a simple question with fairly predictable answers: Cloud Cult is an experimental rock group from Minneapolis, the brainchild of front man Craig Minowa, with ten studio albums and somewhere in the range of eight musicians. With Light Chasers – their latest polished effort – having been made available for Internet download in late June and set to hit stores in mid September, one might reasonably expect the focus of this review to be on that particular work. The truth, however, is that even though I have listened to the album in its entirety close to 40 times by now, I do not consider myself to have digested it sufficiently to give any other reaction aside from, “Wow”. More importantly, for me this band really cannot be reviewed simply in terms of individual albums, and deserves to be considered for the unprecedented and truly unique experience that it brings to the table – beyond most people’s ordinary interpretations of what music is.

[Perhaps I should mention that the first time I ever listened to Cloud Cult, I was balls-deep in five hits of some rather magnificent LSD.]

One way or another, I guess I’ve spent the past two years of my life trying to figure out what Cloud Cult is.

On the face of it, this appears to be a simple question with fairly predictable answers: Cloud Cult is an experimental rock group from Minneapolis, the brainchild of front man Craig Minowa, with ten studio albums and somewhere in the range of eight musicians. With Light Chasers – their latest polished effort – having been made available for Internet download in late June and set to hit stores in mid September, one might reasonably expect the focus of this review to be on that particular work. The truth, however, is that even though I have listened to the album in its entirety close to 40 times by now, I do not consider myself to have digested it sufficiently to give any other reaction aside from, “Wow”. More importantly, for me this band really cannot be reviewed simply in terms of individual albums, and deserves to be considered for the unprecedented and truly unique experience that it brings to the table – beyond most people’s ordinary interpretations of what music is.

[Perhaps I should mention that the first time I ever listened to Cloud Cult, I was balls-deep in five hits of some rather magnificent LSD.]

It’s hardly a secret that waves of innovation in pop music are often drug-fueled, and more recently perhaps even entirely directed by the quest to make colored lights flash behind the eyes of the hipster multitudes freed from the concerns of any coherent world view save blasé nihilism, rolling their asses off in sweaty clubs and open-air festivals. Anyone with an open mind and the will to do a little research (whether academic or experiential) will have noticed that the human brain reacts subtly to different auditory tones and frequencies, and that skillful composition of such may result in the manipulation or even onset of altered states of consciousness.

It goes without saying that the heavy-handed stutterbeat of a contemporary club-banger is a piss-poor substitute for the shamanic rattle, but we can at least kind of see how they’re connected. Freed from any cultural imperative to understand the full spiritual implications of messing around with the worlds on the other side of the pineal gland, pop and psychedelic musicians have for some time now been stumbling around in the dark, experimenting with any sound that seemed like it might lead somewhere (John C. Reilly’s character screaming, “an army of didgeridoos!” in the film Walk Hard comes to mind). It’s really something quite like watching two-year-olds finger paint; the process itself might be joyous, and almost certainly there will be pretty colors splashed around, but it will surely never achieve the depth of narrative provided by the measured strokes of a master painter.

Minowa himself has noted that the power of psychedelic substances is actually insignificant when compared to the perennial quasi-religious quest to unlock those channels in our consciousness without those substances, and as far as I can tell it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that the man has accomplished just that. The precision of Cloud Cult’s music, the consistency of their message, and the refreshing nature of the overall experience cannot reasonably be put up to the fruits of experimentation… and really, we lack any standard by which to measure whether any of us can even truly be considered to understand the significance of this qualitative achievement. The proof is simply in the fact that Cloud Cult – even if pigeonholed as “psychedelic music” – isn’t here to provide you with a kaleidoscopic rumbling hullabaloo that exists outside of time, but an actual cathartic wisdom of sorts. They have no need for the clumsy flickering of random images because they have mastered the deliberate and steady presentation of a stable panorama.

If I were a professional reviewer or even knew anything about music to begin with, I might try to explain the pan-dimensionality of Cloud Cult’s sound through the use of technical terms I don’t really understand, such as “subsonic”, “binaural beats”, or “counterpoint melodies” (those who have been classically trained may recognize the latter and gain a respectful insight into just how precise and deliberate these compositions truly are, particularly as compared to other modern music). Alas, I am burdened with the clunky vocabulary of someone who used the metaphysical equivalent of a sledgehammer to burst into God’s presence and was left grasping at straws while still desperately trying to make it sound like I comprehended any of it at all.

I’ve listened to my fair share of music while curled up in a little ball with my teeth and eyes clenched shut, muscles firing in joyful paroxysms; I’ve melted under the pounding bass of dubstep, clung to the edges of trip-hop, marveled at the expansive architecture of ambient black metal, indulged in the frivolity of electro-pop and yes, even yawned my way through some indie walls of garbled sound. But Cloud Cult? I need a mouth guard for this shit. This is something different. So different, in fact, that we must return to my original question: what is Cloud Cult? Because it’s almost certainly not just “music”.

How does one describe the indescribable? The difference between Cloud Cult and other acts is quite as noticeable as the divergence between a hand-held sparkler and a multimillion dollar fireworks display. Though I no longer use entheogens to augment my enjoyment of the experience, every hair on the back of my neck is still tuned to the subtleties of vibration; the shudders down my spine are involuntary. To make a statement that perhaps reaches far beyond even your suspended disbelief at my presuppositions so far, I’d like to tell you that Cloud Cult has achieved nothing less than the pan-dimensional holographic projection of narrative into the human consciousness.

Under Minowa’s spell, you are simply along for the ride and forced to accept what is administered, so frozen and awed are you by the sheer magnitude of its presentation. It’s like trying to stop and focus on a single point while watching something on an IMAX screen – eventually you will just dilate and sink back from it. Perhaps he has figured out a way to climb into our brains and hit all the little levers and switches at precisely the right time? He materializes right next to your ear, whispering timeless secrets that jolt you with homophones and double entendres through vocalizations that ebb seamlessly in and out of instrumental harmonies that from any other musician would have been considered wholly separate aspects of the song. Not everything you will see is pleasant; beautiful courtesans will wave to you from the doorway of a bordello behind the façade of which decompose the countless bodies of those who too embraced the admonition that it was “better to burn out than to fade away” (My My, Hey Hey). And yet… nothing is quite as it seems, for are not aging, death, and putrefaction simply part of the natural order?

The song “When Water Comes To Life” from their 2008 album Feel-Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes) suggests to us that “all you need to know is you are made of water”,

and when they burn your body
all thats left is sand crystals
two tiny handfuls
all the rest is water, water, water

Just as you begin to recognize the truth of these words, the implication that through water we have all been and will all be the same as every other living being, a guitar riff comes in that cannot but have been designed to effervesce every drop of moisture your being, paralyzing you with the full sensory implication of the song’s message and removing any lingering doubt as to the actual depth of what has just been presented.

The journey undertaken by Cloud Cult, and in turn offered to each of us through this music, is one full of love and redemption. It is a powerful tool capable of awakening anyone to the objective reality that there is more going on in the universe than we could possibly be aware of, and that the gnosis of this mystery might just be what sustains us.

We want it all – a review of Fever Ray

This will never end, ’cause I want more
More, give me more, give me more

Media saturation makes simple things hard. Not simple things like digging a ditch, or putting on boots, but things like understanding what our neighbors are doing & thinking. What is happening outside of our own head. The information that I need to understand what is happening outside of my day-to-day experience is edited by active agents. Agents with motivations that are layered: selfish, paid for, and built over time and generations. Social and geological. I don’t stand a chance.

Counter-culture, perfected in the late 60’s, has been our only protection from this frontal assault and, naturally, has become the agent of co-option. Most of us have passed through counter-culture and it has passed through us. Counter culture shaped me into a usable form against the people who raised me and into the shape of the new kind of consumer.

This will never end, ’cause I want more
More, give me more, give me more

Media saturation makes simple things hard. Not simple things like digging a ditch, or putting on boots, but things like understanding what our neighbors are doing & thinking. What is happening outside of our own head. The information that I need to understand what is happening outside of my day-to-day experience is edited by active agents. Agents with motivations that are layered: selfish, paid for, and built over time and generations. Social and geological. I don’t stand a chance.

Counter-culture, perfected in the late 60’s, has been our only protection from this frontal assault and, naturally, has become the agent of co-option. Most of us have passed through counter-culture and it has passed through us. Counter culture shaped me into a usable form against the people who raised me and into the shape of the new kind of consumer.

As a young person I liked, preferred, angry music. Anthemic music about something better than the situation I found myself in. I wanted more but didn’t know any way to find it other than through anger and more, more and more.

Fever Ray is the solo act (which is more-or-less meaningless in the digital age of music production) that has spun off from the brother sister act The Knife. The siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer produce electro pop which is dance music (but probably not club music unless it is remixed) with implicit lyrical density. Fever Ray has a softer sound than The Knife but much of the instrumentation and loops are familiar.

We set fire in the snow
It ain’t over, I’m not done

I remember the black skirt the most. It reached to mid calf, was form fitting. Matched with a leather jacket and the striking red hair it remains my most vivid memory of her. As it turns out that memory is the best of what we had together and years later when I saw her again nothing remained but nostalgia. She hadn’t moved and I was miles away. I could barely communicate my good bye.

But it seemed real at the time, and that was enough. Still is, in sad fact, and those partial fragments, the skips between our disappointed experiences with reality and our expectations of what could be are still something I get out of music.

It isn’t a true love kind of relationship anymore as thousands of heartbreaks have finally scarred me to a certain kind of numbness but it’s close enough for this life.

The video for “When I grow up” is one of these moments. Mostly it is about the journey that all nervous brilliant people have when they travel from the known (in this case terra firma) to the unknown (an obscured body of water) but for me, who learned to swim at a late age and have never been a strong swimmer, the imagery was particularly dreadful. I am afraid of water and strongly identify with the transitional character from the video loaded with a kind of arcing energy. I experience it in my social life, in the moments where I succeed and fail, and near water.

It goes from white to red, a little voice in my head says oh, oh, oh

Clearly there is a renaissance happening in the visual arts in Northern Europe that has not crossed over to the techno-blast explosions of American pop music. Attention is being paid to details, visually and against the formalism of counter-culture, that can only speak to the transition of plastic artists to the visual medium. This kind of patience is endangered. Fleeting.

As I listen to the Fever Ray album I am reminded of the beauty and horror of post-modernism. As solitary musicians grab chunks of sound from every culture on the globe and transmogrify them into their own logic, into a dance-able paste of moaning and structured contentlessness, where digital steel drums, clicks and beeps replace rocks and sticks in our subconscious shared moment. I am frightened. This is not the same as what we have lost, of what has come before, but I relate to it.

My relationship to this cybernetic pastiche is a statement of my own bleak position as a consummate Western consumer of the latest craze of bohemian counter-culture. The siblings are famous for not being photographed and wearing masks during their public performances. They are an act and removed from the act. Just like me.

The Earl Brothers: An Appreciation

“You’ve got to keep the bluegrass music pure.” Thus spake Bill Monroe, or words to that effect. It was late in his career when he said this, no doubt; late enough that bluegrass was already considered a more or less distinct genre of music, and Monroe had become known as its “father”; late enough that he’d finished fiddling with electric guitars and pianos on some of his recordings, so that the style had become codified as string band music played by guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle, and Monroe’s instrument, mandolin (although some bands would include dobro, an instrument Monroe hated, but which became more or less the semi-official sixth bluegrass instrument thanks mostly to Flatt and Scruggs, whom Monroe for a long time also hated). The message was clear: bluegrass was, and is, a fundamentally conservative style of music. Unlike Jazz, where innovation is often privileged, bluegrass is a genre that must be maintained as it is, and innovation is often tantamount to corruption. Never mind the aforementioned guitars and pianos (and, once, even seagulls); even though most of the first generation of bluegrass musicians even recorded with drums once in a while, today they are banned from the stage of most bluegrass festivals. Not just frowned on—literally banned.

“You’ve got to keep the bluegrass music pure.” Thus spake Bill Monroe, or words to that effect. It was late in his career when he said this, no doubt; late enough that bluegrass was already considered a more or less distinct genre of music, and Monroe had become known as its “father”; late enough that he’d finished fiddling with electric guitars and pianos on some of his recordings, so that the style had become codified as string band music played by guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle, and Monroe’s instrument, mandolin (although some bands would include dobro, an instrument Monroe hated, but which became more or less the semi-official sixth bluegrass instrument thanks mostly to Flatt and Scruggs, whom Monroe for a long time also hated). The message was clear: bluegrass was, and is, a fundamentally conservative style of music. Unlike Jazz, where innovation is often privileged, bluegrass is a genre that must be maintained as it is, and innovation is often tantamount to corruption. Never mind the aforementioned guitars and pianos (and, once, even seagulls); even though most of the first generation of bluegrass musicians even recorded with drums once in a while, today they are banned from the stage of most bluegrass festivals. Not just frowned on—literally banned.

When Monroe started playing the music that became known as bluegrass, of course, there was in fact a whole lot of innovation going on. In 1945, Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, consisted of Lester Flatt on guitar and vocals, Chubby Wise on fiddle, Cedric Rainwater on bass, and the man usually recognized as the first bluegrass banjo player, Earl Scruggs. The sound that band created became retrospectively known, probably some time in the 1950s, as “bluegrass music.” Bluegrass incorporated elements of jazz, blues, pop, and even, according to Monroe, Schottisch (a slower variant of Polka) in a repertoire consisting of old mountain ballads, covers of then-contemporary Country songs, and lots of original songs about home, mother, death and lost love.

In fact, about the only conservative thing about early bluegrass was the lyrics; almost every single song expressed some kind of nostalgia, probably because when Monroe started writing them he was an urban factory worker lamenting the loss of his rural mountain home life. The music was fast and exciting, due at least partly to its birth in the city; the conservatism of the lyrics, far from contradicting the freshness of the music, also conveyed the mood of city life, albeit indirectly through a melancholy reflection on another life that was lost. Bluegrass music is about the experience of being uprooted, cast out, left, and lost; in that sense, the lyrics and the often frenetic tempos are of a piece. Bluegrass is not the music of slow-talking, slow-moving and slow-thinking hayseeds, a stereotype Monroe resisted by insisting that his bands wear well-pressed suits. No overalls were seen on bluegrass album covers until the 1960s, when the stereotype began to sell, and even then they were rare.

In light of all this, it may seem that, as many have pointed out, Monroe was a hypocrite in insisting that bluegrass be kept pure, and I suppose, in some way, he was. But he was also right, at least if the aesthetic history of bluegrass is any indication. The electric guitar was mostly a mistake, the piano isn’t worth mentioning, and drums, mostly, do not work. But it’s not just the instrumentation that resists tinkering—bluegrass has proven the bane of many a songwriter, and for that matter many an adapter of other people’s songs, who has tried to put his (mostly “his”) own stamp on the genre. In the 65-year history of bluegrass, after the first few bands put their twist on Monroe’s sound and helped develop it into a genre, most innovative approaches to bluegrass have somewhat diluted the feel of the music, which is often to swallow for someone enraptured by the original blast of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

And that is because, whether this has been good or bad for the subsequent life of the genre, Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Reno and Smiley, Mac Martin, Jim and Jesse, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers and others considered bluegrass’ first generation made music that was, in fact, perfect. Traditional bluegrass music is soulful, exciting, and intensely moving, and allows for far more variety in mood, tempo, and tone than most people not steeped in the genre seem to realize. But when something is perfect it can often lose something when it’s tinkered with. This is not to say that later bluegrass artists didn’t put their own stamp on the genre, but they mostly did so by maintaining a certain recognizable fidelity to the energy, mood, and tropes that had already been established by the first generation. Larry Sparks sings with more blues inflections than most first generation artists, and his lead guitar playing doesn’t sound like anything else in bluegrass. Dave Evans writes songs influenced by soul music and ‘70s rock and roll, songs that don’t sound like anything else in bluegrass. Dan Paisley’s vocals madly swoop, dive, and hover around a melody in a way that doesn’t sound like anything else in bluegrass, or in any other style of music, for that matter. The Vern Williams Band and Red Allen both made bluegrass that was so hardcore that it almost went beyond anything done by the first generation. These artists were indeed innovative, but in the manner of variations on an established theme.

To further complicate matters, the outside influences that do make their way into bluegrass often make a pretty bad fit. The worst aesthetic postures of post-1960s mainstream country, a pretty (and increasingly) dismal scene in its own right, seem to continually seep into bluegrass, with largely unpleasant effects. While bluegrass rarely notices rock and roll music that was made after the 1950s, when it does, the results are dismaying (Dave Evans being an interesting exception, which makes it all the more amusing that I once heard him jokingly apologize for playing a rock and roll song at a bluegrass festival before singing “Johnny B. Goode”). And the influence of hippies on the genre has in many ways been unfortunate, since for some reason bluegrass is to this day considered hippie music by many casual fans (and also by haters). “Jamgrass” at its most musically adventurous is often music made by musicians for other musicians, and at worst sloppy nonsense; concision has always been one of the cardinal virtues of a traditional bluegrass solo (to the point where the musicians often split the already short breaks), and those who color outside the lines often seem to lose in impact what they gain in expressive range.

It all seems obvious now, though. In order to revivify the genre and produce strikingly original yet viscerally affecting bluegrass music, all it takes is to be more innovative and more conservative than the competition. If this seems obvious, it is because the Earl Brothers came along in 2004 and did what nobody since the Stanley Brothers had been able to do: play music that is unmistakably a milestone in its inimitable singularity and freshness, but at the same time largely circumscribed by conventions not of their own making.

When my roommate handed me the first album by the Earl Brothers some time in 2004, I was quite skeptical about what I was about to hear. First of all, the album is called Whiskey, Women & Death, which sounds more like hipster alt-country than the title of a proper bluegrass album. And indeed the album is not a proper bluegrass album, which, as I’ve explained above, is often not a good sign.

The Earl Brothers sound like nothing else, but they are, unmistakably, a bluegrass band. That the music they are playing is bluegrass is evident from the first notes of the banjo on the opening number on WW&D, a slow and dirty roll that is unmistakably bluegrass banjo, even though it does not sound like any other bluegrass banjo. Robert Earl Davis (who has no brothers in the band, and presumably his real brothers don’t have the same middle name, but anyway) plays an archtop banjo, just as Ralph Stanley does. But his banjo doesn’t sound like Ralph’s does. Most archtop players, Ralph included, tighten the drum head on their banjo almost to the breaking point, producing a distinctly bright tone that is in marked contrast to the darker sound of the adherents of the style of Earl Scruggs, the other, first, and by far most influential progenitor of bluegrass banjo. Davis keeps the head of his banjo loose, which produces a dark but concentrated tone that is instantly recognizable. His style on the instrument is very basic, almost primitive, which is a fair description of the Earl Brothers’ sound in general. And for anyone familiar with the band’s music, after only a few notes it is impossible to think that you’re listening to any other banjo player.

After the banjo intro, the vocals come in, and they are also highly distinctive. In a high, raspy voice that is somewhat reminiscent of Bob Dylan, John McKelvy sings:

Turned up the radio so I could clear my head

Pulled into a corner store, picked up a bottle of red

Lost it all in ’94…

I been sittin’ here drinking, gonna drink a little more

It’s not that bluegrass songs don’t talk about drinking, but the attitude here is all wrong for bluegrass. If the drinking songs the Earl Brothers write often disguise themselves as cautionary tales, it’s never quite believable for some reason; even when the song is called “Don’t Drink From A Whiskey Bottle,” the music is more likely to make you want to drink, if you have a taste for the stuff.

Unlike most bluegrass music, which is usually a highly concentrated dose of energy even on the slow songs, the Earl Brothers sound is slinky and trancelike. Although the banjo and mandolin are recognizably lead instruments playing in the bluegrass idiom, there’s nothing on an Earl Brothers album that I would feel comfortable calling a solo. On “Been Sittin’ Here Drinking” the mandolin slides in on top of the banjo at the end of each break, playing basically the same thing every time through, creating a texture and a mood rather than expressing musical variations on a theme. This approach allows the Earl Brothers to employ the highly effective device of inserting a musical break between the verse and chorus of many of their songs. Whereas a full-blown solo would break the mood of the song, an Earl Brothers break heightens the tension that runs through most of their songs and creates an atmosphere that increases the impact of the chorus when it comes in.

In some ways this makes the music sound more like what is sometimes rather vaguely called “old-time” than bluegrass. A player or singer never asserts his ego; as unique as the playing and singing is, like the lyrics, it all seems to come from a certain distance. The band doesn’t relate thoughts, emotions and experiences to the listener so much as it brings the listener into a world that is at once very familiar and strikingly original. In fact, the Earl Brothers’ remarkable originality doesn’t consist in presenting something entirely new, but in making the old new through recombination and reinterpretation. The lyrics owe a lot to tradition, although at times it isn’t the bluegrass tradition that is invoked so much as the blues and mountain folk traditions. As I’ve said, the Earl Brothers aren’t the first bluegrass band to sing about drinking, but they don’t sing about it the way a bluegrass band generally does. Floating verses are imported from old songs, hackneyed bluegrass lyrics are pasted in, and familiar musical idioms are employed, but all in a way that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard.

The second song on Whiskey, Women and Death is an instrumental, and like all Earl Brothers instrumentals the intent seems to be to present the sound and feel of the band more than to express any new musical ideas. What is so astounding about the originality of the band is that they never sound like they’re trying to be original; they are never afraid to recycle ideas, both other people’s and their own. “Mountain Rumpus” does manage to raise a bit of a rumpus, although the band sounds hypnotic even on their (relatively) fast songs. A reworking of the traditional “Cluck Ol’ Hen” follows, and it’s the only non-original the band has ever recorded, although even this is rearranged and lyrically supplemented to such an extent that the band probably could have claimed a songwriting credit. The banjo oozes out a slow and repetitive mantra and the bass swoops in at the beginning of each bar, creating a dark and chilling feel that sets off the absurd, non sequitor lyrics:

My old hen, she cackles a lot

She cackles when it’s cold, she cackles when it’s hot

McKelvy could be singing about the end of the world, and the effect would scarcely be more creepy.

McKelvy’s “Broken Motor,” the only song on the album besides “Cluck Ol’ Hen” for which Davis doesn’t receive a writing credit, introduces a brighter feel, and probably would have made a perfect album opener if there were anywhere else to put “Been Sittin’ Here Drinking.” “Broken Motor” is also the best song on the album to this point; it’s one of those songs that is simple and catchy without being cloying. The lyrics to the chorus are almost moronically simple, and sit flat and lifeless on the page:

In the morning and late in the night

Everything’ll be all right, everything’ll be all right

As sung, however, the chorus is an irresistible climax, and this is a typical characteristic of the band’s lyrics—nobody is going to anthologize them in a volume of poetry, but more often than not they come off just exactly right for the song.

On the next song, Robert Earl Davis’ lead vocals sneak onto the album, five songs in. Although his voice is less immediately striking than McKelvy’s, his singing is just as unique and memorable. Whereas McKelvy’s piercing voice rides on top of the music, Davis’ baritone whine settles right down in with the band, just as insistent and trancelike as the music, and just as mesmerizing. And like Davis’ voice, “Good Thing Gone Wrong” eases in and eases out, not announcing itself loudly but rather saying a few simple things exactly as they should be said. It’s such an unassuming song, in fact, that it takes a few listens to sink in, not because there’s so much to it, but because there is so little. “Good Thing Gone Wrong” sounds like an attempt to write a song that does not do one single thing it doesn’t need to do, either musically or lyrically. As a songwriter, Robert Earl Davis never says more then he needs to, and he never comes up with a new lyric or a new lick when an old one will do. It’s a dangerous way to make music, because the risk is always there that the songs will become tiresome or redundant, but remarkably, after four albums they haven’t yet.

Each song on the album, to this point, seems to reveal a little more of what the Earl Brothers can do than the last, while at the same time maintaining a certain stylistic univocity. It’s as if they are all parts of the same machine, viewed one at a time. The next song, “Bender,” exploits the trance-like side of the band to its fullest, with a circular, winding structure and a repeated mandolin and banjo tandem inserted each time between the verse and the chorus.

Play me a song, cool and tender

Strum on that old Fender

Pour me a drink, boys

Let’s all have us a bender.

A ” Fender” in a bluegrass song? Monroe banished them long ago, but here one shows up in the lyrics, if not in the flesh. Very strange.

“Bender” is the most unique song on the album; unlike most other Earl Brothers songs, it presents something both original and not immediately recognizable. It’s hard to say what the musical antecedents of “Bender” are, beyond the way the instruments are picked; it comes out of the blue, while at the same time fitting in with the rest of the material comfortably. But the real strength of the Earl Brothers is to play music that is constructed out of familiar idioms and yet sounds cohesive and original, and if “Bender” is the most interesting song on the album, it’s probably the least likeable. Davis, who took his time getting in front of the microphone, sings half of the remaining songs, and with repeated listenings, the material on the tail end of the album proves to be the strongest. In listening to WW&D a second or third time, Davis’ songs begin to stand out as the foundation of the Earl Brothers’ sound, providing a sort of anchor that also makes McKelvy’s songs sound better, although this becomes apparent only gradually because of the way the album is programmed.

Many of the lyrics on the album are an odd blend of the old and the outlandish, or anyway, outlandish for bluegrass. On “Bad Road of Regret,” the opening lines are a floating verse that has appeared, in similar or identical form, in a constellation of closely-related, similar, or identical songs under titles like “I’ve Always Been a Rambler,” “The Girl I Left Behind,” “My Parents Treated Me Tenderly,” and a myriad other names:

I’ve always been a rambler, my life has been quite hard

I’ve always chased the women, drank whiskey, and played cards

It’s not hard to imagine Ralph Stanley, Mac Martin, or Ron Thomason singing these lines—or at least it shouldn’t be hard, because all of them have. But it’s downright impossible to picture any of them singing the chorus:

Get out your razor
blades, get out your guns

Come on boys let’s have a little fun

Running fast and playing hard

Where’ll you be when they deal your card

It’s not that bluegrassers don’t sing about toting guns and razors—they do, sometimes, although most often when they’re covering the older, less sentimental mountain songs, the sort of material that provides the opening lines of “Bad Road of Regret.” But they don’t sound so pleased about it.

More typical is the note of warning sounded in “Don’t Drink From a Whiskey Bottle”:

Come on, boys, gather ‘round if whiskey rules your life

Stay out of bars and old pool halls, marry you a wife

“Come on, boys” is a recognizable “come all ye”-type folk beginning, kind of like ancient poets invoking the muse. With words like these, the audience is drawn in and made to understand they are about to hear a cautionary tale; often the invocation is gendered, so that we know we’re about to be warned about the other gender (and it goes either way) in the old songs, but here it’s whiskey that we’re going to be warned about. And “marry you a wife” is likewise a typical admonition; you’re supposed to live the other way; it’s too late for me, but maybe not for you. But “Don’t Drink” is not likely to send anyone scurrying to the altar, or to Alcoholics Anonymous, for that matter. It’s the form of a cautionary song that we’re supposed to appreciate here; the song rings some old changes in a new way and its recognizability, rather than its sincerity, is what makes it so effective .

On the other hand, this shouldn’t imply that the Earl Brothers sound particularly self-conscious or insincere. Like the best material by the Ramones, an Earl Brothers song is as much a comment on the style of music it invokes as an iteration of that style. And also like the Ramones,this isn’t so much an artifice as a perfectly realized statement of the way the artist thinks music should sound. If the comparison with the Ramones seems to be out of the blue, it is perhaps worth noting that the Earl Brothers list two influences on their Myspace page: the Stanley Brothers and the Ramones. The first-named requires little comment. But while the Earl Brothers sound nothing like the Ramones, their approach to music is in many ways similar; each of these bands, at times, takes a genre and breaks it down into modular units, discards the unnecessary or extravagant material, rearranges what’s left, and produces a distilled version of the music that manages, in being less than its antecedents, to also be somewhat more. Indeed, the Earl Brothers’ blend of conservatism and innovation is arguably a fair description of punk in general, and the Ramones in particular.

Whiskey, Women and Death is not less than an astonishing album, and deserves to be heard more widely, but it’s hard to say who the wider audience would be. The Earl Brothers occupy a small niche in a genre, and a subculture, that they’re not really made for; they have little historical heft because they don’t really fit into any recognizable history, which saps their music of some of the impact it might otherwise have. It’s hard to imagine anyone not steeped in bluegrass fully understanding them, but it’s also hard to imagine any great plurality of bluegrass fans fully appreciating them, either. For one thing, even though bluegrass music is part of a larger musical tradition that includes rural folk music and what is today usually called old-time, bluegrass listeners often neglect old-time music, and old-time fans and musicians are often downright hostile to bluegrass. For another thing, as we’ve seen, the Earl Brothers’ sound, lyrics and attitude are rather dissonant with their genre.

Indeed, the Earl Brothers did finally come to the attention of Bluegrass Unlimited in 2008, only to have their third album, Moonshine, panned by a reviewer who did not merely dislike the album, but was clearly annoyed by it:

The first sharp notes of the banjo indicate an inflexible approach to a highly nuanced music. That they don’t get it is obvious in the lack of depth in the vocals. Lyrics such as Billy was found by the side of the road/He wasn’t looking too good/Legs all bent from a bad accident/No one to call him there [sic] own or I was a rounder/That’s all I’ll ever be/You know that I will be lucky if I make 23… fill the songs that sound like something you’ve heard before, but upon close listening are nothing like what you may have heard before. Parodies? No. Rip-offs? Maybe. They plagiarize older songs and themes in deadpan vocals that catch the sound without the soul of old-time mountain singing. "Hell On The Highway" is a direct lift of Ralph Stanley’s "Kitten And The Cat" down to lyric cadence and banjo break.

The specific claim about “Hell on the Highway” should probably be addressed; it’s simply inaccurate. The banjo break on “Kitten and the Cat” repeats over a I-IV-V sequence, whereas “Hell on the Highway” goes I-V-I, although the chords of the chorus (but not the verse) are the same. And while the melody is similar, the lyric cadence is in fact quite different. But more importantly, the feel of the song is completely different; while Davis does break out his most Stanley-esque forward roll—indeed, the song is one of the most straightahead bluegrass numbers the Earls have recorded—in a genre where 90% of the chord changes are a variant of I-IV-V, a slightly different feel can equal a world of difference. The chorus doesmention a cat, though.

But bluegrass musicians have never been shy about recycling their own, and other people’s, chord changes, melodies, and even lyrics. The Earl Brothers are certainly no exception; “Whiskey Bound” from the first album is musically identical to the Stanleys’ “Stone Walls and Steel Bars,” and Davis even recycles “Hell on the Highway” with different lyrics and one different chord in the chorus on the Earls’ next album. And the reviewer even seems to recognize that the Earl Brothers are working in a broader tradition than bluegrass. In light of that, it’s astounding that he invokes old-time mountain singing and plagiarism in the same review; it imposes a modern standard of authorship on a tradition that has long thrived on borrowing, repetition, and thematic reiteration.

In fact, there is something impersonal about Davis’ lyrics and delivery that should not be mistaken for lack of soul. In the best folk tradition, when Davis sings there is a distance between the singer and the song that invokes universality rather than detachment. It’s not that you get the sense that he doesn’t feel what he’s singing; rather, he feels it no more and no less than you do, and you feel it. The lyrics themselves often function in same way. Consider “Heartbreak Game,” the second song on Moonshine:

I know I can’t win

Hurting again

Troubles inside

Our love has died

I know that I drank

Whiskey and wine

Can’t remember your name

We’ve lost it this time

Hurting so blue

Thinking about you

Can’t remember your name

It’s a heartbreak game

Thinking of you

I’m hurting inside

Lonely and blue

I know we both tried

Time has moved on

Don’t feel the same

Say our goodbyes

It’s a heartbreak game

On the face of it, these aren’t so much lyrics as a string of clichés. But the song exploits the power of cliché; it could even be said that it’s a song about the power of cliché.

The song is, in fact, about a game, as the title suggests, although not in the sense of anything trivial or frivolous. A game has rules, and a standard, prearranged set of actions that get set into motion according to a recognizable pattern. But that doesn’t mean that those who play the game don’t stake their happiness and their peace of mind on it. The song is about recognizable feelings and intentions that everyone can identify. Even the quirkiness of the plot—he recalls a lot of drinking, but not the name of the woman—serves to create a distance between the song and the singer that reduces the distance between the song and the listener; features that identify the song as being about the personal experiences of one Robert Earl Davis are downplayed, and as a result the lyrics round themselves into a whole that encompasses an entire sphere of experience.

After 2006’s Troubles to Blame, the Earls’ weirdest, and relatively weakest, album (emphasis on relatively—you should still buy it immediately), John McKelvy left the band and Davis took over as sole (pretty much) lead singer. The ensuing album, Moonshine, was the most bluegrassy album to date, and the changes seemed to leave the Earls in fine shape. McKelvy’s tenor vocals were as central to the Earl Brothers as his leads, but his replacement, Danny Morris, managed to recreate his distinctive harmonies, and the overall feel of the band changed little. But there were subtle changes, aside from the change in personnel; the music became a bit less sinuous and more driving, while retaining the elements of trance music that made the first two albums so hypnotic.

One new element on Moonshine does stand out, however; the last track, a one-chord drone with lyrics called “Life of Trouble,” features a fiddle player. This didn’t fail to escape the notice of Bluegrass Unlimited’s reviewer, who weighed in with the following: “The last cut is a clear lift of ‘Wild Bill Jones’ for ‘regional color’ one might guess. There is fiddle added to this track that is technically correct, but it’s not what mountain fiddling is all about.” This time, the specific claim is even more off-base than the last; “Life of Trouble” sounds nothing like any version of “Wild Bill Jones” I’ve ever heard, which makes it not so clear that it’s a lift.

More importantly, however, what the reviewer fails to appreciate, but no Earl Brothers fan could miss, is that the fiddle fits in perfectly with the band’s sound. It brings out a shuffle that was always there, and seems to have always suggested a fiddle, although it had never been felt as a lack. Indeed, years before Moonshine was recorded I heard members of the band express skepticism about adding a fiddle to the mix, but after three albums, it was time for the Earl Brothers to tinker with the sound. So for the next album, they brought fiddler Tom Lucas on board and became, at least on paper, a classic bluegrass five-piece.

I will doubtless be accused of hyperbole, but nevertheless I will insist that the resulting album, 2010’s The Earl Brothers, is nothing short of a masterpiece. This is not least, but also not solely, due to Tom Lucas’ fiddling. He has a bluesy scrape and shuffle reminiscent of the greatest bluegrass fiddler of them all, Curly Ray Cline, although with more of an old-time feel, including slightly inaccurate intonation that helps give this album a much rawer sound than the previous three. Lucas is the perfect fiddler for the Earl Brothers; he helps make The Earl Brothers even more of a classically bluegrass album than Moonshine, but, not being a typical bluegrass fiddler, simultaneously takes the band in a more old-time direction.

The Earl Brothers, as our Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer will perhaps notice, certainly do not get bluegrass right on this album; instead, they do something even better. If many of Davis’ earlier songs present mountain folk themes—complete with floating verses, well-worn tropes, and repetitive droning on the instruments—through a bluegrass lens, The Earl Brothers sets bluegrass itself back into the tradition, taking bluegrass lyrics and melodies as the building blocks and creating a more monolithic, impersonal, and epic musical statement that feels like its actually older than the original material it reframes. On their previous albums, the Earls were playing bluegrass while looking back through it at the sources from which it sprang (and at some it tried to overlook); this time, they turn squarely and face bluegrass, sweeping it up and taking it back into the mythical past, seemingly forgetting that the genre’s inception was as recent as 1945. Mother, the old home place, and even Jesus make their appearance on The Earl Brothers, not as particularly pressing concerns so much as inevitable touchstones that contribute to a brilliant meditation on the genre that has always been the Earl Brothers’ home, however uncomfortable a fit it may be.

The initial blast of off-key fiddle and banjo that kicks off the album is all wrong; it sounds more like a parking lot jam than a polished bluegrass performance. And the choice of opening number is just as odd and seemingly off the cuff; a ¾ time variation on the most hackneyed bluegrass theme imaginable, leaving mother back home in the mountains to go wander the wide wicked world. Musically and lyrically, there is absolutely nothing new going on in “Going Back Home”; I even had to check the label for the title before typing it, it’s so generic.

The song is reminiscent of so many bluegrass songs that it would be impossible to think of them all; for both melody and lyrics, “Mother’s Not Dead” immediately springs to mind:

Well I left my old home way back in the mountains
For mother and father had both passed away
We followed our mother up to the graveyard
For mother was called to heaven that day

Or another classic three-quarter time lament, “The Fields Have Turned Brown”:

I left my old home to ramble this country
No thoughts of the day when I would return
Now as I go home, to find no one waiting
The price I have paid to live and to learn
Son, don’t go astray” was what they both told me
Remember that love for God can be found”
But now they’re both gone this letter just told me
For years they’ve been dead, the fields have turned brown

To a melody that is similar to both of these songs, and to many others, Robert Earl Davis sings:

Many years have gone by since I left my old home place
I have no one left that remembers my name
I left my old home way back in Virginia
I left my dear mother, I left her to roam
Now I can’t go back to my home in the mountains
She’s no longer there I’m left all alone
I said my goodbyes when I left my dear mother
I never came back, I left my good home
I’m going back to my home in the mountains
Some little place that I can call home
They’re calling me back where mother is resting
If I can get back I’ll never more roam

The lyrics are a rearrangement of familiar themes, and they even begin to rearrange themselves after a while, as though Davis thinks that they are so good that adding new elements would just upset the balance.

Here, contradictions are no problem: I can’t go back, but I’m going back if I can get back, I’m going to go back home so I can call it home–whatever. Repetition is no problem. Cliché is no problem. In fact, there is no problem, because the song, like all good bluegrass, is perfect. A waltz-time mother song does not usually kick off an album; generally a crunchy 4/4 number or a barnburner is placed first for impact. But this song, whatever the hell it’s called—”I Miss My Home”? “My Old Home”? “Cabin Home On the Hill in the Pines”?—has plenty of impact. It serves as a manifesto for the album, a manifesto that basically just says “this is the Earl Brothers with a fiddle player, and we’re ready to play bluegrass!” Musically, the song is a raw, bleeding slice of bluegrass; if it’s not entirely traditional in its execution, I will say, at the risk of sounding hokey, that it is entirely hardcore. And for that reason, it’s the perfect opening number.

If the lineup is now fully in line with bluegrass protocol, the Earls are too primitivist to exploit it to the fullest; as if they’re embarrassed at the extravagance of a five-piece, often only three or four instruments can be heard on any given song. Davis kicks off “Cold and Lonesome” and takes the first break; the fiddle finally gets to have its say, but Larry Hughes’ mandolin stays in the background, even though there was an open slot for a break. But in the Earl Brothers, nobody takes a break unless they have a reason to. The mandolin would have sounded fine, of course, but the band plays it close to the vest.

So it is that “Won’t Be Around Anymore” features a guitar, bass, and banjo, and the fiddle and mandolin are absent. Davis does so little with his banjo breaks that it’s almost like he didn’t trust the other players to keep it reined in. The song has a bouncy melody that seems to cry out for melodic breaks to hammer the point home. Instead, Davis’ kickoff is droning and non-melodic. In fact, he ignores the melody almost entirely, not because he’s embellishing so much, but because he’s doing so little, just playing through the changes. It’s almost like the song is played as it was written; it’s possible to imagine that Davis sketched out the chords before hitting on the vocal melody, which is somewhat like an upbeat, major-chord rendition of “Little Sadie” with stiff, straight eighths. With melodic picking and some mandolin breaks, the song would have burst off the album with a catchy, bouncing leap; instead, as spare as the arrangement is, it envelops the song in a trance-mad undertow.

The banjo kicks off with a chiming, slightly retarded insistence, then repeats itself before the vocals unexpectedly come in as a variation on the understated theme established in the intro. When Morris tops Davis on the chorus, his tenor is so keening and mournful that it seems to corroborate the restrained argument of the arrangement; nobody should feel too happy about this song, it seems to say, certainly not happy enough to want to hear a mandolin break. After the chorus, Davis’ banjo repeats the exact same line as the intro, and then another verse and chorus, then the same banjo break again, another verse and chorus, and the same banjo break twice again—six times through in all with the same banjo line, the only small variation coming with the increased presence of the bass notes on the guitar that begin to rumble up from below the last time or two through the chords.

The lyrics are typically unconcerned about making a consistent point; like the banjo, they are more about a setting than a meaningful series of propositions:

Hard women and whiskey now I don’t regret

Remember the day that we first met

I don’t mind all the trouble I’m in

Let’s go out and do it again

If I had my life to live over again

Wouldn’t go back to that wild place of sin

Might stick around if you left this town

Won’t be around anymore

Let’s do it again, and I wish I could start my life over so I didn’t have to do it again, but I have no regrets, and so on. But expressions of regret are never entirely believable with the Earl Brothers; it’s not that the singer doesn’t regret it, it’s just that he doesn’t regret regretting it. Regret, pain, and hardship are not to be regretted, nor are they to be celebrated; they are to be sung about so we can all feel the range of suffering that comes with wicked pleasures, and if the thoughts are inconsistent, they are too common not to be true; if the words are too common to be consistent, they are too true to be trite.

As minimalist as the music is, it’s also amazingly rich. The last thing I want to do is give the impression that the Earl Brothers are more to be admired than enjoyed; in fact, they are one of the most riveting bands bluegrass has ever known. Even when the ideas themselves are spare, the effect is a paring away of potential distractions to leave what is most engaging about the music to come through with clarity and power. “When the Loving’s All Over,” like “Don’t Bring Trouble Home” on Whiskey, Women and Death, pushes itself so far toward the minimum ingredients of a bluegrass song that it reaches the commonplace and comes out the other side. A very typical bluegrass structure, in ¾ time, supports a melody that simply states what the chords are doing below, moving with the kicks to the IV and V, but otherwise staying put. When the chorus comes and the expected tenor vocal fails to materialize, the song suddenly gains depth from the omission; the payoff line, “Say our goodbyes, we’re drifting away,” having escaped being swamped by a harmony vocal, gathers the song together and releases it, transfigured, toward the verse. Any deviation from the song’s simplicity would only have reduced it.

Another standout track is “Thinking of You.” Like the first Earl Brothers song with a fiddle, Moonshine’s “Life of Trouble,” “Thinking of You” is basically a vocal number written over a fiddle groove. But whereas on “Life of Trouble” the lyrics almost felt like an excuse for spending three minutes with the shuffling fiddle, here music and vocals come together perfectly; when the tenor vocal belatedly swoops in on the final line of the chorus, and then the fiddle swells up into the break, the sheer perfection of the thing can’t help but make you smile.

If after three albums the Earl Brothers’ style seemed to be closing in a bit, The Earl Brothers sounds like it has opened up a range of future possibilities for the band. For one thing, they could make a far more conventional album and not sound like they’re getting tired; bluegrassier arrangements with a little more room for the mandolin may not be necessary, but they wouldn’t hurt anything either. Not least, that is because Larry Hughes makes use of his opportunities here to make you wonder what more he has to say on his instrument now that the band is not merely playing bluegrass, but actually thinking about it, too. His tremolo introduction to “Walk in the Light” is a case in point; Hughes brings to mind Curley Lambert’s work with the Stanley Brothers on songs like “Angel Band” and “Hills of Roan County,” and I can’t recall thinking that about a mandolin player before. But this is just another example of how bluegrass-literate the album is, so to speak; any reviewer who again accuses the Earl Brothers of trying to play like the Stanley Brothers and failing would not be listening to the album closely enough.

In fact, there seems to be very little room between what the Earl Brothers want to do and what they can do. That’s not because they can do anything; you should buy a Bela Fleck album if that’s what you want, I suppose. It’s just that the Earl Brothers want to, and can, do the right things, even as they themselves, with every album, are setting the standard for what the right things, for them, are. Their music manages to be as good as the best bluegrass because, like the best bluegrass, it achieves a kind of perfection. Even where their limits show—Davis’ weird swoop into a falsetto on “Troubles,” the repetitiveness of the instrumental breaks, Lucas’ intonation—the effect fits the music; the Earl Brothers are a perfect illustration of the oft-repeated point that one’s limitations define one’s style.

To return to the Bluegrass Unlimited review of Moonshine, a reader sent a letter to the editor defending the Earl Brothers which stated, in part: “The Earl Brothers are certainly not the Stanley Brothers of the third millennium, but neither are they musicians ‘who don’t get it.’” My point, however, is precisely that the Earl Brothers are the Stanley Brothers of the third millennium. Like the Stanley Brothers, they are the state of the art of a genre that they did not create, but that they are helping to define. But unlike the Stanley Brothers, the prospects for the Earl Brothers getting widespread recognition, even within the bluegrass genre, are slim; in the end, they may not have any influence or historical significance in bluegrass or acoustic music in general, and their albums may be out of print and impossible to find in ten years’ time. Only someone with a deep knowledge and appreciation of bluegrass music is likely to understand the Earl Brothers’ music, and that is already a small pool of potential fans. And bluegrass afficianadoes have not been flocking to the band. Their music, as engaging, soulful, and thought-provoking as it is, nevertheless, due to the circumstantial quirks of history and genre, is strangely obscure. But it will always be a rare treasure for those who know how to find it.