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