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Resisting Songs: Negative Dialectics in Pop

Author(s): Terry Bloomfield


Source: Popular Music, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jan., 1993), pp. 13-31
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/931256 .
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PopularMusic (1993) Volume 12/1.Copyright(

1993 CambridgeUniversityPress

Resistingsongs: negative
dialecticsin pop
TERRY BLOOMFIELD

... whenI'm gettingoffon an Al Greenrecord,there'sAl, there'sme, and there'svery


probablyan absentwomanI'm havinga love fantasyabout.(Roberts1991)
But there isn't Al. If Al werethere he would be giving a private performanceto
Chris Roberts as patron: an odd conception in the present-dayworld. In factAl
Green sings in a domain thatis public although the musical commodityof the disc
or tape turnsit into a potentiallysolitaryexperience. In his commentRobertshas
been captured by the Romantic understanding of the song: that its essence is
made exterior.He is not alone in his fantasyofaccess to the pop
(artistic)interiority
singer.It constitutesthe prevailing,ifunformulated,view - a considerableironyin
the postmodernworld of late capitalism.The past few decades have witnessed the
industry whose cultural objects
development of a global light-entertainment
partake in an increasinglyclosed circle of significationthroughpop videos, television advertising,soap operas and the tabloids.' This (hyper)realitycoexiststoday
with the pursuitof the ever more soulfulvocal, as ifin a doomed attemptto crack
open the reifiedcommodity,by dint of the singer's passion to forcesomething
human across the gulfbetween exchange value and use value.
Theodor Adorno and his associates in the FrankfurtSchool believed that
already by the 1940s the mechanical reproductionof records had degraded the
reception of music irretrievably(Adorno 1978, 1941).2 For them, the depths of
degeneratelisteningwere to the 'hitsong',the audience forwhich had regressedto
the point where only familiarityand instant intelligibilitycould serve in the
(illusory)satisfactionof need. How much more would Adorno have dismissed the
pop songs of the 1980s and 1990s, under the total dominion of marketingfor a
world of lifestyleand leisure. But I believe his view of mass cultureto have been
both superficialand partial,and, moreover,thatcriticaltheoryitselfcan supply the
tools for a more sympatheticunderstandingof the pop song. In what follows I
want to scrutinisethose processes evoked in Chris Roberts' fantasyaccess to Al
Green and theirassociated ideology of authenticity.These I believe do nothingto
resistthe commodificationof the song, being a partofthe problem
of reification,not
the solutionto it. Further,I shall tryto show in a surveyof pop fromthe 1980s and
1990s that,in Adorno's own terms,thereare modes of resistanceto reificationin
pop that insert negativityinto the very formsthey inhabit. There is no call for
despair: objects in mass-culturalformscan and do functionin the present day as
'determinatenegations' of commodityculture. There are many recordingsthat in
one way or another 'live' the contradictionsof the culturalobject in late capitalist
productionprocesses.
13

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14

TerryBloomfield

The song in modernity


Adorno (1976) suggests that the firstsignificantmoves towards the formationsof
productionand consumption3that we know today were made in the eighteenth
century,in the era ofMozart and Haydn. The musical activitiesof these composers
- like Handel's a generationbeforein England - shiftedfromwritingto orderfora
patron to composing music and arranging performances of it for a paying
audience. But such autonomous art (Adorno's term)had a briefand contradictory
from
life because the processes that began by freeingthe composer/performer
aristocraticwhim ended in his 'proletarianisation'.Justa centurylater,with a few
exceptions,composers were unable to sustain an existencewithoutprivatemeans
or, again, some formof patronage.
One resultof those precariousfreedomsof the earlynineteenthcenturywas
the great floweringof the lieder of Schubert and Schumann. Now, in a sense
people have always sung songs, or, better,have always made music with the
human voice. The kinds of studies in ethnomusicologydiscussed by Shepherd et
al. (1977) ought to make us wary of deducing musical universals from surface
similarities,forthereis plentyto suggest thatwhat we regardthe song as quintessentiallyfor- namely the expression of emotion - is in fact specificto Western
as a movement (and by
modernity.As Ernst Fischer has argued, Romanticism
out of the deep transof
musical
as
a
the
lied
it)
grew
product
prime
implication
formationof capitalist social relations in the expansion and consolidation of
capital's class, the bourgeoisie. The subjective upheaval of social and political
change was immense:
aloneand incomplete
... was thatoftheindividualemerging
One ofthebasicexperiences
and theconsequentfragmendivisionoflabourand specialisation
fromtheever-increasing
in his
tationof life.Underthe old order,a man's rankhad been a kindof intermediary
relationswithothermen and withsocietyat large.In the capitalistworldtheindividual
as a single'I'
as a stranger
facedsocietyalone,withoutan intermediary,
amongstrangers,
and
self-awareness
stimulated
situation
This
immense
'not-I'.
the
to
powerful
opposed
and abandon.(Fischer1963,p. 54)
butalso a sense ofbewilderment
proudsubjectivism,
So at the outset of the 'unfinished' project of modernity,4the bourgeois subject
came into existenceand with it essentiallyour currentunderstandingof the song.
It is significant,I think,thatthe primalmythof Adorno's aesthetics- an aesthetics
keyed into the foundingexperiencesof the project- has song as its primeelement:
the song of the Sirens. (This is set out in the section called 'Odysseus or Mythand
Enlightenment'in Adorno 1979). He takes the story fromBook Twelve of the
Odysseyin which our hero outwits the sistersby pouring wax into his oarsmen's
ears afterbidding themto row at fullstrength.Odysseus himselfcan hear the song
but is bound to the mast of the boat so thathe cannot act upon his overmastering
impulses nor do his men act upon his pleas forrelease since theycan hear themno
more than they can hear the Sirens' voices. (They are deaf to the song's beauty,
though they know of its dangers - which neatly encapsulates the class-bound
nature of art in bourgeois society.) Adorno's appropriation of the tale of the
oarsmen is a parable of the creationof art in its severing frompraxis. Odysseus'
enforcedpassive contemplationof the song is the model foran artthatwill serve to
console the inner lifeof the new subject.
According to the Romantic view, lieder were the vehicles by which the
human spirit,oftenseen as mirroredin 'Nature', was laid bare to the sympathetic

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Resistingsongs:negativedialecticsin pop

15

bourgeois ear. But it ought to have been obvious then that there was no simple
'soul' to be uncovered, forthe renderingof the lied to an audience requiredat least
three preconditionsto be met: the text, often fromone of the (minor) German
Romanticpoets, the musical version fromthe composer, and the voice and piano
keyboardwhich 'realised' this hybridbeforethe listeners.So whose was the interiorityexteriorisedin a lieder recital? To that question there can be no simple
answer. The song of that period was a complex constructwhose threeenmeshed
layersrequireda fourthforits actualisationin performance:the activeparticipation
of the listenerin its formsand conventions.
But in a sense it is the composer of the classic lied whose creativitywas
paramount: without him the sentimentsof the poet did not often reach similar
heights of expression. The question of the role of the singer is a differentone.
Clearlyin some sense a particularsong - and we are speaking of the 'artsong' here
- is the same song regardlessof who sings it, even though the divergencebetween
a greatand an indifferent
performancemay be immense. But thereis a sense too in
which the singercarriesthe weight in his or her reading of a vocal part. Even 100
years beforethe emergenceof the musical commodityas we know it singerswere
beginningto acquire some of the characteristicsof the star.Criticalassessment of a
recitalfocused on the singer's giftof interpretation,
his or her abilityto convey the
heightened sensibilityof the best examples of the form.
In the centuryand a halfsince the dawn of the Romanticpreoccupationwith
self-consciousnessand subjectivity,the triumphof individualismin late capitalist
and selfsocietyhas extended and consolidated the development of self-identity
awareness as a near-universalconcern,across class boundaries. And the complexities of the early modern song I have referredto were removed at a strokeby an
explosion in production and consumption of the products of that creationof the
1960s: the singer/songwriter.
Artistslike Bob Dylan and JoniMitchellcompressed the
multi-layeredlied into the body of a single star. They wrote the words and the
music of the song, sang it and played any musical accompanimentrequired. So
what is now to stand in the way of the listener'sAl Green fantasybeing realised?
Do not the culturalobjects made by the singer/songwriter
in actualityopen up the
interiorworld of the artistforour own individual gratification?

Commodity fetishismand identification


In the past ten years or so, products like those of the singer/songwriter
have
become one staple unitof a global light-entertainment
to
service
industrydesigned
the individual(ised) subject's world of leisure and lifestyle.Now these songs, in
their formon vinyl, tape or compact disc, are capitalist commodities subject to
what Marx called 'commodityfetishism'(Marx 1973). The nub ofhis analysis is that
the relations among people that have produced an object are mystifiedunder
capitalism to become a propertythat inheres in the object itself- its 'exchange
value' (Geras 1972). Adorno saw this as especially the case with culturalproducts
where the illusion thattheirexchange value as commoditiesis an actual 'use value'
(somethingthat satisfiesa real need) is very strong.Ironically,this is a particular
development in societies where the class relations that once stood out with a
degree of clarityin the work place have become less and less patent in the 'postfordist'era that Adorno did not live to see. As Gillian Rose puts it:
fetishism
does not onlyimplythatpeople misunderstand
the socialrelations
Commodity

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16

TerryBloomfield

but that the social relationsappearintelligible


because value
underlyingcommodities,
seem
ofthecommodity.
Thusthesocialrelations
ofconsumption
appearstobe theproperty
and transparent.
immediate
(Rose 1978,p. 136)
In Marxisttheorycommoditiesare objectifiedlabour, so thatto consume is to have
an indirectrelationshipwith those involved in the productionof that object. This
real (but complex) relation is obscured for commodities in general, which are
reifiedand so appear as things, objectifiedover against the human beings who
exchange them. But culturalobjects in capitalism, as I have detailed, are doubly
mystified.
theideas, feelings
Theyappearas exceptionsto thispatternbecausetheyseem to contain
to theconsumer.
available
and values oftheproducerin sucha way thattheseare directly
human,not'reified',appearsto be on sale. (Bradley1980,pp. 31-2)
Something
In the mass consumptionof music, pop songs at theirmost effectiveprovide the
listenerwith the illusion of enteringinto a direct and immediate (unmediated)
relation with a human producer that is capable of gratifyingthe listener's
individual need, that speaks directlyfromone subjectivityto another.5I want to
call what happens here an imaginaryidentification,
collapsing two separate but
related senses into the single phrase. The firstsuggests thatthe listener'saccess to
the singerin a recordedperformanceis not actual: as with Chris Roberts'access to
Al Green it is fantasyon the level of the (acknowledged) fantasyof the absent
woman he refersto. But there is a sense of (Freudian) phantasytoo: the specular
identificationtakes place in a Lacanian realm of the Imaginary,in a pre- or otherthan-Symbolicorderin which unconscious processes supercede those ofthe rational(isable) social order.6
Such identificationsare powerfulprocesses, not easy to resist. That we are
not normally aware of the psychological forces involved may be because our
modern view of the essenceof the song formmakes it natural to identifywith the
But in other musical genres entirelysomething
persona of a singer/songwriter.
- a formationof production/consumpsimilartakes place. Productsof the dancefloor
tion of the stillburgeoningHouse music of the early 1990s - are patentlycrucially
dependent on the skillsof technicians,whetherlive or in the studio. There may be
many people involved, such as the flexibleteam that produces Soul II Soul's
records,or essentiallyone supertalentsuch as Inner City's Kevin Saunderson. But
include in the mix a human, especially female,voice and what we know rationally
to be the case drops out of the picture:Soul II Soul (at one time)was the persona of
black BritishsingerCaron Wheeler (now pursuing a 'solo' career) while Inner City
disappears into the formof Chicago chanteuse Paris Grey. Somethingprofoundis
at work here. In the classical Freudian view personal relationshipsare essentially
doomed: at best they are an uneasy truce between powerful solitary fantasy
systems (Malcolm 1982). In the real daily strugglefor emotional interactionwe
grope through a thicketof absent others. Perhaps, in blessed escape fromthat
reality,the fantasyof identificationand communion with the singer of the song
constitutesan imaginaryand hence magical resolution,unsullied by the blood that
the thornyentanglementwith an actual subject draws so readily.

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Resistingsongs:negativedialecticsin pop

17

Negating the authentic


The illusion of the availabilityof the singer as artistis spelt out - when it is
It is a discourse that takes over
acknowledged at all - as an ideologyofauthenticity.
key elements of Romanticismto structurethe listener's common sense into a
(naive-)realist(proto)theoryof song productionand consumption.To list its main
components:
on personalexperiencethatresonateswithemotion,
(1) thesingerreflects
in a musico-narrative
form,
(2) embodiestheresultsofthatreflection
of (2) whichservesto bringout fullyits (inner)meaning.The
(3) deliversa performance
processis completewhen
his or herpersonalexperienceto
(4) thelistenerreadsthisemotionalmeaningbybringing
bearon theperformance.
That somethinglike thisis mundanely taken forgrantedcan be seen in notionsof
'what a song is about'- a commonplace of pop interviews;or again in the idea that
ofpriorexperience
strongemotionevinced in performancetestifiesto the extremity
on which both song and performanceare based. (Why else would it be assumed
thatthe blues is so especiallyauthentic,except forthe historyof oppression of and
discriminationagainst black Americans?) And then there is the long-standing
phenomenon of BBC Radio One's 'Our Tune', with its audience each weekday of
more than 9 million,being hung directlyon the peg of the naive-realistview that
songs can speak with strong emotion to the situated experiences of individuals.
These all indicate the extentof the illusion that, indeed, in the song 'something
human . . . is on sale'.
It was in the 1960s thatthe idea of authenticitybecame especiallyelaborated.
In Britainthe rhythm'n'bluesclubs withtheirart-schoolethos - Romanticismagain
- fosteredthe pursuitof the originsand roots of rock'n'rollback into what was to
become the paradigm of genuineness: the blues. But as Frithand Horne stressin
theiraccount of the role of the artschool in pop, the authenticcame to be seen not
just as the genuine, that is some kind of 'real' 'folk' art, but also as raw, direct
emotion that would somehow break through'the trappingsof showbiz' (1987, p.
88) - or, as I would preferto put it, the commodityin the capitalist mode of
production. While Britonsplayed the blues, American folk-rockand the counterculture- with artistslike the early Dylan, Joan Baez, JudyCollins, the Jefferson
Airplane - broadened and embellished the cult of authenticity.In theirhands it
swelled up to embraceemotionalhonestyand sincerity,autobiographicaltruthand
political correctness(Bloomfield1991). But there is a dire paradox in such grand
musical ambitions.I have alreadyargued thatthese ideals ofartisticexpressionrun
fulltiltinto the constraintsof the capitalistcommodity:to accept themas realisable
we mustfirstreifyexchangevalue thenimagineitas use value - a double mystification. As Mary Harron points out, the directconsequence is that the idea of the
counterculture'smusic as artisticfreedomwas simply false:
Rockmusic,no matterhow weirdit mightbe in San Francisco,was stillpartof a massmarketculture.Itdefineditselfthrough
things- records,posters,clothes,drugs- thatwere
fromcapitalism
was alwayslargelyillusory,
and indeedthe
boughtand sold. Itsliberation
mostsurprising
in 1967is how quicklythe new hippy
thingto be learnedfromBillboard
culturefittedintotheexistingcommercial
structure.
Far fromabandoninghype,thenew
counter-culture
forsellingsincerity.
simplyfounddifferent
(Harron1990,p. 180)
strategies
Or authenticity.In what begins to appear as a fundamentalaporia of modernity,

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18

TerryBloomfield

just as the (self-)denialof bourgeois expression paradoxicallygave birthto an art


aimingto speak to the interiorsubject, so giant steps towards the totalcommodification of music were taken under the banner of an authenticexpression that was
newly available forconsumption.
So ifthe route to the rescue of the commodityis blocked, what is to be done?
How can artistsmake songs in the late capitalistworld? I believe thatAdorno had a
key to the problem when he wrote:
A successfulwork... is not one whichresolvesobjectivecontradictions
in a spurious
harmony,but one whichexpressesthe idea of harmonynegativelyby embodyingthe
in itsinnermost
structure.
contradictions,
(Adorno1967,p. 274)
pureand uncompromised,
And as othercommentatorshave it:
Criticalart... is critical
notdespite,butprecisely
by virtueof,itsrefusalto frameitselfas
articulate
or as coherentconceptualcommunication
ofanysort.
communication,
agitational
(Slater1977,p. 129)
... theworktakesa critical
posturetowardssocialreality
bymeansofitsstylewhichformsa
modeofsubjectivity,
notby itscontentor viewoftheworld.(Rose 1978,p. 124)
Takingon board a discourse ofauthenticityintothe contentof a song is no solution
to the problem of the commodity.Far fromit: it is a partoftheproblemitself.The
pursuit of the authenticcannot immunise pop songs against reificationsince its
functionis preciselyto lend unconscious support to an imaginaryand immediate
identification
of listenerwith performer.Reificationcritiquemust turnits attention
to formnot content:to the structureof the culturalobject and the formaldevices
thatsupportit ratherthan to what it appears - however 'honestly'or 'expressively'
- to contain.
It is timeforsome examples. In 1988 a remarkabledebut album was released.
At a first,if inattentive,playing it mightjust have been thoughtto belong with
that emerged in the second half of
other recordingsof female singer/songwriters
the 1980s. Figures like Michelle Shocked or Suzanne Vega epitomised the human
accessibilityin factbelied by theiractual position in capitalistcommodityproduction. But Mary Margaret O'Hara's Miss Americareveals itselfas something else
entirely.Unlike the somewhat earnest effortsof most of her contemporaries,here
the voice stutters,hesitates,consonants disappear and vowel sounds are distorted;
thenit slides, swoops and soars; words break apartutterlyand the dynamicsofthe
vocal line cancel the meaning of the verbal text.These performancesdefydescription, and as anyone who has seen Mary Margaret live will testifythey are no
studio-dependentphenomena: early criticssometimes feared that her act would
break down completely.Her best songs range fromthe violent 'Not Be Alright'
through'Body's in Trouble' to the subtlerdisorientationsof 'Dear Darling' and the
closing 'You Will Be Loved Again'. In essence O'Hara createsa vocal stylethatsits
athwart the 'authentic' verbal message: it does not deny content, but places a
contradictioninto the heart of the song form. She forges style into a mode of
subjectivityto fashion a critique of the autonomous-subject-who-addresses-thelistener,a critiquethatattacksat its rootthe illusionofthe use value of the song-ascommodity.These products are criticalculturalobjectsin the sense that Adorno
intended.
What they achieve can be brought out furtherby comparison with another
firstalbum that appeared at the same time. The self-titledMelissa Etheridgeand

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Resistingsongs:negativedialecticsin pop

19

associated live performanceswere hailed as the strikingdebut of a new singer/


songwriter:her strongly-deliveredvocals of sexual jealousy and despair were
received as compelling,as emotionallyflayedin theirraw expressiveness. But the
contrastwith what O'Hara does could not be sharper. While Etheridgeenacts a
mimeticsof anguish within a vocal narrative,O'Hara undermines the narrative
itself.On the one hand articulationis dramatised,on the otherit is fractured.Now
of course Melissa Etheridge renders emotion-in-performance
in a way utterly
the
the
resources
of
other
of
the
time
beyond
many
singers
wholly conventional
WhitneyHouston, forinstance - but she does so only througha reifiedform.To
heightenthe naturalisticillusion of strongfeelingis to embed deeper into a structure that is doubly mystified.Only by breaking the mould can emotion be conjured, and it appears preciselyas the conventions of its expression are rendered
problematic.
In his account of Adorno's aesthetics,FredricJamesondescribes
... theform,takenin theaestheticrealm,ofwhatAdornoelsewherecallsthe'determinate
negation',the only authenticformof criticalthinkingin our time- in otherwords,a
consciousnessofcontradiction
whichresiststhelatter'ssolution,itsdissolutionintosatiric
and cynicalempiricism
on theone hand,or intoutopianpositivity
on theother.
positivism
1990,p. 131)
(Jameson
Adorno means here an act of thought
by which contradictionsare held in mind. But
I
believe
we
can
use
his
by extension,
concept to characterisethe culturalobjects
that are Mary MargaretO'Hara's songs. They constitutedeterminatenegations of
the pop song, and the formalcontradictionstheycontainserve at once to represent
and to criticisethe contradictionsof capitalistsocial relations.

Destabilising the singer


Miss Americais a rare album. If negations in pop were dependent on work of that
quality then commodificationwould hold the near-totaldominion that Adorno
believed to be the case with popular music of the 1930s and 1940s. But there are
some strategies,albeitless ambitious,in song productionof the past fewyears that
in one way or anotherkickagainst the song formor serve to bracketand therefore
(partially)suspend its conventions.The best examples, though, do not come from
as such (perhaps most are too capturedby theirown ideology of
singer/songwriters
To
trawl
for negations in present-daysong needs a differentnet
expressivity).
whose mesh captureswhat will fitthe Romanticframe:productsof (mostly)female
singers,who may or may not writetheirwords or theirvocal music, and who are
is the rightword since
generallyaccompanied by other players. And accompanied
the voice and its texthold centrestage in the listeningconsciousness.
One obvious place to begin is the much-lauded work of the Toronto-based
band Cowboy Junkies,widely regarded as having takenthe song to new heightsof
emotional expression. Not of course crass 'soulful' expression- fashionablecritics
deride the emptiness of currentsoul - fortheirvocalist Margo Timminssings in a
beautifulhusky whisper, veryclose to the microphone.The tone of much of what
they do is established in The TrinitySession from 1987, which attracteda cult
followingby being recordedon a single mikein the downtown churchnamed in its
title. There are only five original compositions on it, one clever inclusion of the
Rodgers and Hart number in 'Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)' and cover
versions ofHank Williams' 'I'm So Lonesome', 'Sweet Jane'fromthe Velvet Under-

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20

TerryBloomfield

ground and Patsy Cline's 'Walking AfterMidnight'. This indicates the terrainthe
Junkiesset out to conquer: the sentimentalsong awash with feeling(not 'Sweet
Jane',but thatis anotherstory).The problemwiththe originalsand othercovers of
themwas seen as theirobvious sentimentality,
so gross as to cause most listenersto
wince ratherthan identify.Now Margo Timmins' singingis oftenexquisite,often
desolate, almostabsentin its tone, but all thisis only to travelfartheralong the road
of greaterauthenticity,
a road to nowhere. Her brothersand the othermusicians in
the band make no secretof the musical ethos theywant to establish:backings are
often cluttered with swooning guitars and a blues harmonica is thrown in
wheneverthereis space. We are back to the tiredold clichesofthe blues, used once
again as ready-madesignifiersof real 'raw feeling'.
The next LP The CautionHorsesboasted a new 'dirtyrealism' of daily life in
songs like 'Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning'and 'Cause Cheap Is How I Feel',
both lyricsnicely evoking the tawdrymundanities of love lost and betrayed. But
saturatedas theyare withbluesy instrumentation,
theyno more succeed in resistdid
their
than
the
commodified
predecessors. One track- 'Witches' song
ing
shows how breathtakingMargo Timmins' barely-pitchednear whisper can be
when sparely accompanied by an acoustic guitar. There are more covers on this
album too, a routinesong by Neil Young, and the finaltrackwhich I want to save
fordiscussion later.
We must look elsewhere formoves to destabilise or undermine the formal
stereotypesof singingthan this much-praisedband (now signed to and promoted
by RCA). Four other recent debuts show a few things that can be done. Firsta
group called Area - threeperformersfromthe US mid-Westwho have a collection
of twelve numbers fromthe past few years available in Britainon Agate Lines.
voice by Margo Timmins' standards,but
Singer Lynn Canfield has a veryordinary
the way thatit is used and the materialthataccompanies it makes some moves in
the rightdirection.The lyricsto all the songs are profoundlyunfocused. There are
no narrativeshere: only phrases or sentences thatevoke emotionalmanoeuvres in
relationships (perhaps sinking at the occasional weak moment into near
psychobabble). 'Filled' - 'the unfinished part has been filled with fury',with a
shockingand unique intensityon the last word - has a solo piano withit,but most
numbersreiterateshortguitarlines amongstlongerfloatingmelodic sequences, all
intertwinedwith the voice. There are not even many 'tunes' as such: the tracksare
mostlycirclingmeditativeloops of words and music that at theirbest escape the
banalities of emotional expression while spinning haunted webs of sound and
imagery.
With a shiftof perspectivethe issue of authenticexpression transmutesinto
the question of the representation
ofdesire.For Etheridgeits signifieris oftenfullthroatedattack,while Timminsexploitsmore subtle conventionsof sexual expressivity. Betteryet, in Canfield's vocals encircled in undulating sounds, desire is
turnedinward, back on itself(except forthe strikingmomentnoted above). In the
album SheHangs Brightly
Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval sings with a weird blankedout sensualitythatseems almost to leak round the edges of her flatvocal dynamic
which descends at timesinto a sullen monotone. This is a true negationof the soul
renderingof sexualitywhere desire is thrusting,ecstatic,ornateas ifattemptingto
break the bonds of the commodityit is snared in. Her performancesare not the
oppositeof soulfulas Margo Timmins'are at theirnuanced best (forhersingingand
a soul renditionare surely the two faces of the same reifiedcoinage). It is in the

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Resistingsongs:negativedialecticsin pop

21

verytextureofHope Sandoval's drawled tones thatdesire seems defeated,trapped


in itself.The words are oftendesolate, but theyreceive no heighteningof articulation and David Roback's studio productionsounds fuzzy and stifled.The closing
track'BeforeI Sleep' has a spare guitarstrumand violin chords to these words:
It is thetruth
That'sall I know
I lookforyou
And justsay no
The lifethatwas
Is now thelast
I'll go foryou
BeforeI sleep
I hearyou say
You say
I stayneartheedge
And wastemytime
Justwastemytime.
My last two cases are perhaps more self-consciouslyavant-gardein approach.
Firstthe A C Marias album One ofOur Girls(Has GoneMissing)which came out in
1989 aftertwo singles released at intervalsof a couple of years. It contains a few
tracks that refuse to be songs by refusingwords, as in 'JustTalk' (a percussive
jangle with no discerniblelyricalthough words are sung in places) and 'There's a
Scent of Rain in the Air'. In the lattera deep slow beat acquires chatteringnoises
over which Angela Conway's voice rises like an incantationthatis at times wordless and throughoutincomprehensible.It builds into a massive breadth of sound
that is overwhelming.But for my purposes more to the point are numbers like
'Trilby'sCouch'. Witha veryclose up, breathyclarinetsolo over an electronicpulse
the voice outlinesa surrealscene in which a person in a trancefloatsintothe air. It
is pitched in a hypnotic tone, and the ends of the verses are drawn out, selfconsciouslyattenuated.Far fromthe usual contactprofferedto the listenerthisis a
dis-engagedsubjectivity,lost in a tranceitself.The titletrackhas quite a jauntybass
and drum beat with the keyboard carryingthe tune: 'One of our girls has gone
missing/... She's lost her colour and faded away/ . . . into thin air/. . . She's
gone!', the finalword lefthanging, echoing into the sudden silence. These lines
give some indicationof the musical effect.The oftencompellinglybeautifulvocal
and instrumentalsounds are like sonic mandalas. They close on themselves,refusing the listener'sdemand forthe exposure of artisticinwardness.
Perhaps the most strikingof the clutchof explorationsof the song-that-is-nota-song are on an LP called Livoniaby His Name Is Alive. Unpromisinglytitledafter
the small staid townin Michiganwhere WarrenDeFever and principalsingerKarin
Oliver live, the originaltapes were sent to Ivo Watts-Russellof 4AD recordsafter
DeFever had repeatedlyfailedto mixthemto his own satisfaction.Withthe help of
JohnFryer(who has also worked withA C Marias) Ivo did thejob himself.His own
directmusical interventionshave been the making of threealbums by This Mortal
Coil, notable collections of songs featuringthe voices of Elizabeth Fraser, Lisa
Gerrard, Deirdre and Louise Rutkowski, Alison Limerick and, most recently,
Caroline Crawley of Shellyan Orphan. Now these renderingsare conventionalif
immaculately'beautiful'songs and run into the problems I have dwelt on so far.7
However, the recordthatwas pressed throughthe intersectionof Ivo's production

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22

TerryBloomfield

style with His Name Is Alive's tapes is pure diamond, if a rough one. The two
voices on it are hyperreal:
Karin sings like a chorister,and both voices are, so to
speak, This-Mortal-Coil-ed;thatis, highlightedin the fullglareof echoing sibilants.
This blinding clarityof vocalities is offsetby a repertoryof weird noises, strange
samples and outburstsof drumming.The glorious voices engender expectations
only to shatterthemagainst bizarrephrasingwhere musical beat and verbal metre
are at odds. And the music repeatedly slides away from'the big tune' the vocal
stylesseem to demand, so thatthe singerssound, paradoxically,ever at the point
of reallyburstinginto song.
A second LP Home is in Your Head (1991), again mixed by Ivo, goes even
furtherwith twenty-threenumbers in which instrumental cacophony rubs
shoulders with 'angelic' fragmentsof song. On the opening trackKarin's unaccompanied voice asks 'Are you coming down this weekend?' three times over,
then 'Are you coming down at all?', in effectcontainingits own answer: the tale of
an affairin decline sketched in just seventeen seconds. In these two albums the
voices and guitars have an hallucinatoryheightened reality. It is as if we are
of the singer
gripped in a ghastlynightmarethat parodies just the fantasy-reality
that conventionalsongs presuppose.
Let us now returnto the final cover version on the Cowboy Junkies' The
CautionHorses. It is of fellow-TorontonianMary MargaretO'Hara's 'You Will Be
of its
Loved Again': a desolate song that, in the end, reaches forthe affirmation
title. Margo Timmins uses the techniques we are familiarwith fromher other
recordings.Her finevoice is a drained monotone, near speech at times (the line
'When you're so broken') but she is plagued by a syrupyguitarand, I am afraidto
say, a blues-harmonicainstrumentalin the middle. Mary Margaret's original is
utterlyspare: the sole accompanimentis an acoustic bass which outlines hesitant,
descending figurations.Her (also beautiful,it should be said) voice is vulnerability
incarnate,in constantdanger of collapse: breathingand vibratoseem out of control
and the voicing itselfis at timesbarelysustained. It makes the hairs on the back of
the neck stand on end. In contrast,Margo Timmins sounds like a professional
singerusing all the tricksof her trade to the desired end.
These distinctionsmay be fine,and the intrinsicinadequacy of words about
music does not help. Nevertheless,I believe thatwe are here close to the heartof
the matter of what counts as a criticalcultural object. As the pop song has
burgeoned over the past thirtyyears, therehave developed sets of vocal conventions fordifferent
genres: forlove songs, basic rock'n'roll,in 'dance' voices and so
has its own signifiersof emotion. But underlyingall these, as a
of
which
each
on,
of the song in Westernmodernityis what we mightcall - for
kind of deepstructure"
want of an existingterm- a phonology
of vocalities.It is this system that governs
vocal productionas suchand thus underpins the illusorypresence of the singerin
the song. While a Timminsmay stretcha particularcode of emotional expression
(this is what we mean when we say a performanceis subtle or nuanced, for
instance) the form itself and its underlying assumptions are safe. It takes an
O'Hara, heart-stoppingly
teeteringat the edge of feasiblevocalisation,to threaten
the fundamentalphonology itself.

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23

Dissolving the song


In the quest forthe radical song we need once more to broaden the scope of the
survey: to look at what rock'n'rollbands are doing today. The recordingsI have
discussed so farfeaturethe singerin frontof a backingband (where thereis a band
at all). In rock music we have mostlya singer-in-a-band,where the voice does not
necessarilydominate the proceedings. I am not interestedhere in making some
basic distinctionbetween rockand pop. That, I have argued elsewhere (Bloomfield
1991, p. 74), was largelyan inventionof the 1960s where rock triedto inflateinto
'art' and so needed the Other of pop forits self-definition
by exclusion. For our
a
is
still
a
and
most
bands
purposes, singer-in-a-band
singer
play what theyregard
as songs.
As I writethereis a whole brood of new Britishbands in or close to the UK
40
who are the offspring(more or less directly)of the rock'n'rollband My
Top
Valentine.
This group are stillverymuch the apex ofthe pyramidtheyhave
Bloody
engendered, having burstinto the spotlightin the late 1980s with the EP You Made
Me Realiseand the LP Isn't Anything.There are two featuresthat have made their
recordssuch powerfulmodels foraspiringnewcomers. Most strikingly,
theirguitar
sound is enveloped in what is at timesa haze, or thena roar,or a shriekingwind of
feedbackand distortion.The only adequate termcomes fromliterarytheory:these
are guitars that are deconstructed.9
The sound is taken apart and reassembled
against the grain of the instrument.As the band put it themselves, they aim to
make their guitars 'sound as though they are not really there'. The vocals are
submerged in the maelstrom,but where they are heard they are either Bilinda
Butcher's- who sings in a kind ofvacant ecstasy,as thoughsheis not reallythereor Kevin Shields' androgynous daze. In the contextof the 'classic rock' so heavily
marketed on compact disc the music they make is radical indeed. My Bloody
Valentine's ofteneroticdin obliteratesat a strokethe phallic sexualityof 'cock rock'
struttingor the predatory(male) soul voice trackingdown its mate. Their sound
has excised the fake blues/soul fromrock, so deleting the spurious 'blackness'
thoughtnecessary to authenticaterock's mainstream.
The Valentines enjoy a special position as Britain's premier 'indie' band,
widely respected by criticsand fellowmusicians alike. While they are not exactly
charttoppers - Lovelessreached number fifteenin the album chartsin November
1991 - theirrecords sell and make money forthe independent label Creation. In
Britain,the punk explosion of 1976-77 cleared spaces in which an indiescenecould
come to exist in its present form. Such a scene is best understood in terms of
specificformationsof productionand receptionof music. The small (even home)
studio, made feasiblethroughthe technologyof MIDI systemsand sequencers, for
instance, togetherwith the independent record label constitutethe production
side. While independent labels have existed for decades - rock'n'rollwould not
have eruptedin the USA in 1955-56withoutthem- itis the formationsofreception
thatmarkoffthe currentBritishscene. The weekly music press is one such formation: while its journalists featurethe activitiesof superstars, they devote a disproportionatespace to reviews of indie bands' recordsand live performances,and
to interviewswith theirmembers. Out of fourweeklies a decade ago only Melody
Makerand the New Musical Expresssurvive, but there are two new independent
monthliesLimeLizardand Siren- both independent alike in publisher and bands

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24

TerryBloomfield

featured.Anothercrucial formationof receptionis the gig (not the concert)where


indie bands play live in small venues (not pubs nor concerthalls).10
In the currentscene, most bands under the Valentines' sway have plumped
for a curt monosyllable of a name: Bleach, Blur, Curve, Lush, Ride and Swirl,
joined by the less terse Chapterhouse, Charlottes and Slowdive (see Discography)."1Most clearly chart groups, Blur and Ride are the poppiest and the
lightest.Theirwords are oftenaudible (and male) and thereis even a catchytune or
two suspended in the haze of guitars.The longest standingband is Lush, whose
LP Spookyreached the Top 10 of the album chartsin February1992. They are a fourpiece group that showcases the voices and guitars of Miki Berenyi and Emma
Anderson. Their records are now produced by Robin Guthrie (of the Cocteau
Twins), and they have lost some of theiredge in the dense, polished textureshe
has overlaid theirsongs with. From the rawer early days of 1989, 'Baby Talk' is a
song whose topic appears to be the problemsof expressingthe innerself. In it the
vocal is attackedby a sonic holocaust of guitarsounds a la Valentinesand reaches a
shriekingclimaxworthyof Isn't Anything.Derivative,certainly,but exactlyto the
point: the dialectic of Miki's fragilevocal and the deconstructedguitarsconverts
the theme of the lyric- communicationbreakdown - into the actualityof the
recorded number.
More corrosivestillare Bleach. FromtheirfirstEP the song 'Decadance' (sic) is
a mesmerisingguitarroararound Salli Carson's mostlyswamped daze: just audible
are the occasional 'you don't need me' and 'you don't rememberme'. On their
second release, throughthe guitarmist, 'Dipping' is benign, almost Blondie-like,
and heightensthe impactof the dark closingtrack.At the opening of 'Burn' a vocal
shriekpierces the heavy beat and dense textureof sound, then the guitarsclimb
slowly into a dizzy frenzywhich just allows the gist of the song to emerge. 'I'm
gonna make you burn,burn,burn' formsa kind ofrefrainto what is clearlya tirade
of invective,though few coherentlyricsemerge. It shudders to a halt in a single
mightydetonation.In a similarvein, Chapterhouse's 'Freefall'co-optsa dance beat
to produce not so much a fusionof guitarband with house trackas a meltdown.
Curve's BlindfoldEP is the most fearsome of all: these four trackshold the
listeneras in a vice. A relentlesshammerbeatopens 'Ten LittleGirls', fallingback
just enough to allow us to hear the sensual moan ofa melodic fragmentthatis Toni
Halliday's vocal. At last it stops dead, leaving a fewwhimpersof feedbackhanging
in the air. The excoriatingguitarsare a unique combinationof a dense Valentines
haze with a high-pitchedwailing. In the dramatic final track 'No Escape From
Heaven' the sound recedes abruptlyto leave the urgent cry 'hold me, hold me,
hold me like you used to' raw and exposed as the music fades rightout.
Slowdive's Slowdivetakes us to a differentkind of terminus.In a swooning
roar of guitars, chords slowly rise, fade and modulate, while the exquisite
harmonies of Rachel Goswell's voice are now and then heard describinga slow,
slow fall through the sky. Of its kind - and it is a one-off,no development is
possible here - this is perfection.The instrumentsare all pulse yet stasis: they
achieve trajectorywithoutmotion,theyinstantiatewhat the words say. The song is
transcended;words and music are one and the listener'ssubjectivityis enveloped
in the music drama without action that unfolds. The illusorysubjectivityof the
singerdissolves.
Slowdive's move against the stereotypicalsong-as-commodityleads to the
totalabsorptionof the vocal into the ebb and flow of the musical pulse. A related

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25

strategyis to shuffleoffverbal meaning into a wordless vocalise, or a sung lyricof


which no words can be detected: we have met this in A C Marias. Since the early
1980s, the Cocteau Twins' LPs have had Elizabeth Fraser's voice swooping and
swirlingincomprehensiblyover dense texturesof guitars and keyboards. In the
most recentHeavenorLas Vegaswhole phrases can sometimesbe made out through
the music while the voice swoons as wonderfullyas ever, but in one of the more
remarkableearliertracks,when Liz Fraser sings 'Throughoutthe Dark Months of
she utterlytranscendsnarrative.Here an
Apriland May' (fromthe LP Victorialand)
aching loss seems to minglewith ritualacceptance in a way thatno lyric,no mere
words could accomplish.
Finally, fora journey to the outer limitsof vocal de(con)structionKathleen
Lynch's storyis instructive.Once a naked dancer with a US rock band, she was
then also mute. Asked by one of the band why she did not speak, she wrote 'It's
hard to say' (!). One day she walked out to formher own band, leaving behind a
message recordedon tape. Now with her own group Beme Seed her performances
push beyond the limitof a possible terrainforthe female voice. She generates a
multitude of sounds, words half-formed,some supplicating or pleading while
others strainhoarsely, coarsely to formthemselves. These shatteringvocals, as if
tornapart in the birththroesof speech itself,sound as thoughenunciationis being
made possible forthe firsttime.

Living the contradictions


Breaking up vocalisation (almost) entirelyis problematic: few singers could or
would want to give such extremeperformancesand fewer listenersare able or
willingto follow. To obliteratethe song may functionas a shock tacticat first,but
the end resultis to lose the listeneraltogether.Similarly,the (near) abolitionof the
song by some disciples of My Bloody Valentine can hardly be described as a
of the form.More subtle strategiesneed to be explored.
problematisation
Two US bands provide some examples of what can be done. While obviously
not part of the UK indie scene they share its small labels (one is on Britishlabel
4AD) and its venues when playing gigs in the UK. So they are in the same
constituency.First,Hugo Largo's oeuvrefeaturesMimi Goese's extraordinarysliding vocals (at one point she sings about 'earpiercing sounds' precisely as she
while it is put to
produces them). Her singingis somethingakin to Sprechstimme,
work in what are indisputablysongs (even one by Ray Davies of the Kinks). As a
rock band they stood out too: playing with no drums, two bass guitars and an
electricviolin. The vocal styleis the issue here, and this is taken to its extremein
the concluding fragmentof Drum, 'One of my Favourite People'. The voice is
breathy,even hoarse, rightinto the mike and straininglyhigh-pitchedand it is
accompanied by what sounds like a one-fingerpiano exercise forbeginners. This
kind of thinghas been done before- notablyin the Velvet Underground's use of
Mo Tucker's untrained voice on 'AfterHours' and 'I'm StickingWith You' (the
and VU respectively)- but nowhere to
closing trackson The VelvetUnderground
effect.
We
are back to a nodal point of recorded song - our phonology of
greater
vocalities - or more broadly to the musicianshipvital to the process of illusion
productionthatlies at the heartof the music industry.To floutthe conventionsof
the trainedvoice (or the holding of steady pitch) and the trainedmusician brings
the consumer of the commodityup short.The easy leap of identificationwith the

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26

TerryBloomfield

persona that has been constructedis blocked and the voice stands back withinits
own subjectivity,Other and unavailable forour needs.
The vocal performanceson the earlyrecordsby New England band Throwing
Muses were rivetting:KristinHersh's repertoireof vocal mannerisms and her
bitingintensitycut throughany mainstreamconventionsof how to sing. The song
'Fear' fromThrowingMuses - theirfirstLP - shows the band at theirdevastating
best ('I Hate My Way' is close behind). 'Fear' begins withthe sound ofhootingand
wailing horns over a hard, franticbeat, and Kristinenters enunciatingthe lyrics
with a sullen, emphatic growl which now and then breaks into an hysterical
vocalise: 'Fear ah-ah ah-ah ah-ah ah-ah looks like me. Nothing ever works ...
This is a state of shock'. Later, on a sudden shiftto a slow pounding bass, Tanya
Donelly comes in, all breathyintimacy:'Up to your face, up to your cheeks, up
throughyour eyes -' at thispointpushed under by KristinHersh's incantation,the
edge of the voice growing razor sharp: 'Give me what I want and all that I can
thinkabout is losing it/I'mlosing it. I hurt. Look at me run away. You hurtme/
Dry-y-y-y-y-y!' This last raised to screaming pitch, the song cuts off dead.
The track is astonishinglyraw, totally beyond stereotypes of the song-aboutextreme-experience.
Most Muses' songs featureabrupt contrastsbetween a driving,pounding
anxietyand quasi-lyricalepisodes. Dream images abound in this music and the
words formno sequential narrative;instrumentalqualities stand out - a distinctive
quasi-militarydrum sound, a loping yet pounding bass line and the sharp angular
guitar playing of the two vocalists. But what ignites the blue touch paper - and
thereis no safe distance to retireto - is Kristin'svocalising: her whoops, swoops,
cries, shrieks, shakes, stuttersand gurgles; a display of spasms and tics that do
constant battle with the voice's tendency towards a lyricismthat is alternately
sharp-edgedand plangent. It is out of all thisthatis conjured the pall of dread that
hangs over theirfirstLP.
Laterwork fallsback fromthe emotionalpeaks reached in 1986-87,thoughin
The Real Ramonafrom1991 there is a welcome returnto (a somewhat changed)
vocal
form.Things are less raucous, less riotous, but Kristin'sever-idiosyncratic
the
run-of-the-mill
of
song. The
mongering
style stilldefies the fantasy/phantasy
is
what
of
is
aware
(not) going on in the
(somewhat incoherently)
singer herself
her
of
consumption
songs:
to do with.It seems
thatanyoneshouldhave anything
I certainly
don'trepresent
anything
to be, if I say thatthishappenedto me, and these are the realisationsthatI came to
- you careaboutmyemotionsinvolvedin thissituation- and that'suseless,
understand
that'sbullshit!The song ... takesyou to thoseplaces byyourself,
you know.(Hersh1991;
emphasisadded)
To end this explorationof recent songs that kick against standard formsI
returnto the UK indie scene, to a much-respectedlive band thatattacksthe musical
commodityon both levels of sung words and the instrumentalsthat surround
them. Half the strengthof A C Temple - a band based in Sheffield- lies in their
detunedguitars.Initiatedby foundermemberNoel Kilbride,theyare guitarstuned
album the actual tunotherwisethan to the standard EADGBE. On the Blowtorch
ings are given forthe two guitarsused: forexample in the arresting'I Dream of
Fraud' one is tuned to DDEEBA and the otherto DADF$ F$. In the staticpoise of
the slow introductionto the song, guitar motifswind around Jane Bromley's

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27

declamation,beforethe tempo shiftsand the entryof the drumsbringsin the main


section of the song. Some of these tunings are discordant when the stringsare
played open, others are not (DAD F? is a D major chord). The most prominent
featureof A C Temple's tunings, though, is shown in the examples AAAGBA,
EEEFBE or EAEEBB. A number of stringssound the same note which produces a
powerfuldroningeffect.
In 'I DreamofFraud' Jane's vocal is a half-buriedsemi-rant.On the next LP
Sourpusssome trackshave moved towards a more lyricalsong, one where words
are more important.Take 'Miss Sky', forinstance. Janglingand bitingguitarslead
into an urgentpounding on bass and drums, then the voice bestrides the pulse,
tellingof 'her new time ... warmingup green flesh,up on a tall roof.. .'. Or take
'Mother Tongue', which begins with downward spirals of guitar only to end
brilliantlyon a series ofascending guitarriffs.Like earlyMuses' tracks,these songs
are not aboutanything:thereis no narrativenor is therea set of referentsthatyield
to linear decoding. Again, like 'Soul Soldier' (fromThrowingMuses) or 'Finished'
(fromChainsChanged),thereare frequentand abrupt changes of tempo thatcreate
several episodes withina single song.
But it is on the currentalbum BelindaBackwardsthatwe findthe finestof A C
The vocals are of a piece: the images
Temple's songs-to-undermine-the-song.
thereinevoke imminentor ongoing disaster that is always at the edge of vision,
never explained or seen close-up. 'Half-Angel'is a fineexample of the band's gift
for welding opaque, evocative vocals onto instrumental attack: 'I've been
everywhere twice/And I'm tired but I'm fine/It's the same story every time/
Holding back the cry/Missing my strideand missing my line and missing my -'
truncatedby a mountingstormof detuned guitars. Mixed by Kramerof ShimmyDisc records, the LP contains many incisive destabilisationsof pop conventions.
Jane Bromley'sbright,powerfulvoice sings words throughoutthat hover at the
very edge of understandingwhile the now fierce,now plangent guitarsspill their
shiny tones in all directions, burying the rockist cliches that have bedevilled
popular music for so long. This is pop with a postpunk streetcred that boldly
terrainof the late-capitalistculturalobject.
occupies the contradictory

Conclusion
It is time to draw togethersome threads. This articlehas taken as its focus the
outcome of the insertionof the song forminto the formationsof productionand
consumptionin late capitalism.The present-daypreoccupationwith marketingfor
'lifestyle'- much analysed by theoristsof the postmodern- claims to provide a
range of goods through which the consumer can satisfyhis or her particular
individual needs. Shoppingbecomes the activitythroughwhich personal identities
are constructedand maintained. There is good reason to thinkthatthe song as we
generallyview it - as a vehicle forpersonal emotionalexpression- is by no means
universal but rather a special development in Western modernity. So for late
capitalismthe recorded song has been the perfectcommodity:it conceals its own
realityby seeming,inherently,to carryaccess to the artist'ssubjectivity,the promise of intimacywithanotherhuman personality.At the core of the music industry,
then,is a manufacture
ofillusion:a masquerade ofauthenticitywhose main elements
are drawn fromthe Romanticconceptionof art.
Direct political action against capitalism has failed. For a time in the early

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TerryBloomfield

decades of this centuryit seemed possible to many that the system could be
overthrownand indeed when it was, in the creationof the Soviet Union, massive
artisticexperimentationflourishedfora time. Now, with the dismantlingof the
communistregimesin (what was) Eastern Europe and the break up of the Soviet
Union itself,the position of a world capitalist system seems secure. On a very
limited scale, attemptshave been made to wrest the control over music out of
capitalistformations.The great punk outburstin the UK of 1976-77 was spearheaded by the Sex Pistols who had a complex relationshipto that bastion of the
music industry,EMI, but many offshootsfora timedeveloped alternativemodes of
production(see Savage 1991). In the UK new small recordlabels were established
in the wake of punk, some of which have lasted, where the maximising of
exchange value - that is, the production of hits - did not always supercede the
pursuitof musical values. For a briefperiod in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, an
underground culture flourishedwhere the cult of professionalismwas despised
and the distinction between author-reader and performer-audiencelargely
abolished (see James1988). It was inevitablyshort-lived;its radical practicessoon
'recuperated'as more permanentbands emerged,untilthe fatalsigningto a major
label took place. The punk band X, forexample, emergedout ofthe scene to sign to
Elektraand promptlylose theirintransigence.
Economicallytriumphant,the capitalistmode of productionsoon co-opts the
autonomous enclave intended to oppose it. So the enduring struggleis on the
terrainof culture itself. The 'high art' of the bourgeoisie was essentially classbound in its development,though late capitalistmarketingprocesses have broken
down the distinctionsto some extent (the audience for opera, for instance, has
broadened considerablyin the past decade or so). In class-riddenBritainthe subculturalrevoltsof youth since the 1950s have been directednot only against 'official' popular culture but against 'approved' lifestylesas a whole: the broader
meaning the term'culture'must properlyhave.12 In the presentstudy I have tried
to show that within what may be loose subculturalmilieux with a commonlyshared lifestyleoppositionalitythereare sites of alternativeformationsof productionand receptionwhere culturalobjects circulatethatactivelychallenge the forms
of the pop song as commodity,even to the point where the processes of vocalisationitselfare jeopardised. Some of the techniquesinvolved will be familiarto those
aware of the musical avant-gardein the twentiethcentury.For instance, the performanceof vocalist Roy Hart in Hans WernerHenze's Essay on Pigs could teach
Kathleen Lyncha thingor two, and perhaps the audience foreithermay be equally
small, equally marginal.However, the subversions of singingand playinginstrumentsthatstillallow (in some sense) a song to be made - what I have called 'living
the contradictions'- can impingeon substantialnumbersofpeople. Sinead O'Connor, forexample, can only be described as a superstarwho fillslarge concerthalls
and tops the charts.While her popularityderives fromsongs like her Number One
hit'NothingCompares to U' (fromI Do Not WantWhatI Have NotGot),amongsther
work are radical trackslike 'Troy' (fromher debut album TheLionand theCobra)or
the single 'Jumpin the River' that have been heard by millions. Our onlyoptions
are to be found withinlate capitalistsocial relations:the full-blowntechniques of
the modernistavant-gardelead merelyinto a cul-de-sac,a culturalghetto.13But the
essential modernistinsightthat Adorno had stands, I believe, as the pointer to
what is to be done: the songs thatbest resistcommodificationin late capitalismare
those thatresist,in one way or another,the formof the song itself.

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29

Endnotes
1 The main texts by Baudrillard, Lyotard, etc.
are too familiarto requirea readinglist. For an
informativeromp around the territory,see
Hebdige (1988).
2 I am not alone in wantingto press Adorno into
service in the analysis of cultural objects he
would have detested; see James (1988) and
Gendron (1986).
3 Raymond Williamshas always insisted on the
need foran analysis of specificmodes of production and consumption within the overall
capitalist mode of production; see Williams
(1989).
4 JiirgenHabermas mounts a stout defence of
the continuingrelevance of the termsof posttraditionalsocietyin Habermas (1985). See also
Dews (1987).
5 For an examinationof this process in relation
to rock music since the 1950s, see Bloomfield
(1991).
6 Jacques Lacan circles around the definitionof
thisconcept in Lacan (1977). See also entriesin
Laplanche and Pontalis (1973).
7 There are exceptions, notably the version by
Liz Fraser (of the Cocteau Twins) of 'Song to a
Siren', on It'll End in Tears,with its unearthly
grace notes. (For the Cocteau Twins see the
Discography.) On many tracksby This Mortal
Coil, too, the 'unreal' clarityof the voices, the
sharply-focusedguitar solos and the grave
lines forviolin and cello have littlein common
with the yuppie wallpaper of, say, a Sade.
8 In the Chomskian sense of a systemthatgener-

ates the phenomena thatreach our senses (see


Chomsky 1957).
9 The term was developed in connection with
reading a text(see Norris1982).
10 Anotherformationof receptionthat(partially)
eludes the music industryis the dancefloor.
Especially in the early years of acid house
partiesand the burgeoningclub scene, a track
which daytime radio disc jockeys had never
heard of, let alone promoted,could shoot into
the upper reaches of the charts.
11 It is commonly assumed in the music press
that independent-labelbands can more easily
penetratethe mainstreamchartssince the sales
of the single have dropped markedly:whereas
the Beatles had to sell 800,000 records to get a
Number 1 hit, it can be done today on
45-60,000.
12 I examine the sub- and counter-cultural
momentsof the 1960s in Bloomfield(1991).
13 As characterised by Andreas Huyssen, the
modernist work of art has repeatedly
canonised itself into a blind alley: 'Only by
its boundaries, by maintaining its
fortifying
purity and autonomy, and by avoiding any
contaminationwith mass cultureand with the
signifyingsystemsof everydaylifecan the art
work maintainits adversarystance: adversary
to the bourgeois cultureofeverydaylifeas well
as adversary to mass culture and entertainment which are seen as the primaryformsof
bourgeois culturalarticulation'(1986, p. 197).

References
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and SocialScience,9, pp. 17-48
1967. Prisms(London)
1976. Introduction
to theSociologyofMusic (New York)
1978. 'On the fetishcharacterin music and the regressionof listening',in TheEssential
School
Frankfurt
Reader,ed. A. Arato and E. Gebhart(New York)
1979. DialecticofEnlightenment
(London)
Bloomfield,Terry.1991. 'It's sooner than you think,or where are we in the historyofrockmusic?', New
LeftReview,190, pp. 59-81
Bradley, Dick. 1980. 'The cultural study of music: a theoreticaland methodological introduction',
StencilledOccasional Paper, BirminghamCentre forContemporaryCulturalStudies
Chomsky,Noam. 1957. SyntacticStructures
(The Hague)
Dews, Peter. 1987. LogicsofDisintegration
(London)
Fischer,Ernst. 1963. TheNecessityofArt:A MarxistApproach(Harmondsworth)
Frith,Simon and Horne, Howard. 1987. ArtIntoPop (London)
Gendron, Bernard. 1986. 'Theodor Adorno meets the Cadillacs', in Studiesin Entertainment:
Critical
toMass Culture,ed. Tania Modelski (Bloomington)
Approaches
Geras, Norman. 1972. 'Marx and the critiqueof politicaleconomy', in Ideologyin SocialScience,ed. Robin
Blackburn(London), pp. 284-305
Habermas, Jirgen. 1985. ThePhilosophical
DiscourseofModernity
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30

TerryBloomfield

Harron, Mary. 1990. 'McRock: pop as a commodity',in FacingtheMusic: Essayson Pop, Rockand Culture,
ed. Simon Frith(London), pp. 173-220
Hebdige, Dick. 1988. Hidingin theLight(London)
Hersh, Kristin.1991. (Interview).LimeLizard,May, p. 50
Huyssen, Andreas. 1986. 'Mass culture as woman: modernism's Other', in Studiesin Entertainment:
CriticalApproaches
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some recent writingin LA', in Postmodernism
and Its
James,David E. 1988. 'Poetry/punk/production:
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Jameson,Fredric.1990. LateMarxism:Adorno,or thePersistance
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Lacan, Jacques. 1977. Ecrits:A Selection(London)
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TheImpossible
Malcolm, Janet.1982. Psychoanalysis:
(London)
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Marx, Karl. 1973. Grundrisse
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Norris,Christopher.1982. Deconstruction:
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Roberts,Chris. 1991. MelodyMaker,2 March, p. 44
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Rose, Gillian. 1978. TheMelancholyScience:An Introduction
Savage, Jon.1991. England'sDreaming:Sex Pistolsand PunkRock(London)
Shepherd, John, Virden, P., Vulliamy, G. & Wishart,T. 1977. Who'sMusic? A Sociologyof Musical
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Williams,Raymond. 1989. ThePoliticsofModernism
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Discography
A C Marias, One Of Our GirlsHas GoneMissing.Mute STUMM 68, 1989
A C Temple, Blowtorch.
Blast FirstFU 6. 1988
Sourpuss.Blast FirstBFFP 45. 1989
BelindaBackwards.Blast First.1991
Area, AgateLines.ThirdMind TMLP 59. 1990
Blast FirstBFFP 50. 1989
Beme Seed, TheFutureis Attacking.
LightsUnfold.Blast First.1991
Bleach, Eclipse.Way Cool Records Way 8. 1990
Snag. Way Cool Records Way 10T. 1991
Blur,'There's no otherway'. EMI FOOD 29. 1991
Dedicated DEDLP 001. 1991
Chapterhouse, Whirlpool.
Cocteau Twins, Garlands.4AD CAD 211. 1982
Head OverHeels. 4AD CAD 313. 1983
Victorialand.
4AD CAD 602. 1986
Blue BellKnoll.4AD CAD 807. 1988
HeavenOr Las Vegas.4AD CAD 0012. 1990
Cowboy Junkies,TheTrinitySession.Cooking Vinyl011. 1987
TheCautionHorses.RCA PL 90450. 1990
Anxious ANX T. 1991a
Curve, Blindfold.
Frozen.Anxious ANX T 30. 1991b
Cherry.Anxious ANX T 35. 1991c
'Fait accompli'. Anxious ANX T 36. 1992
Melissa Etheridge,Melissa Etheridge.
Island 9879. 1988
Hans WernerHenze, VersuchfiberSchweine.DGG 139 456. 1970
His Name Is Alive, Livonia.4AD CAD 0008. 1990
HomeIs In YourHead. 4AD CAD 1013. 1991
Hugo Largo, Drum.Relativity88561-8167-1. 1987
Mettle.Land 005. 1989
Lush, Scar. 4AD JAD 911. 1989
Mad Love.4AD BAD 0003. 1990
Sweetnessand Light.4AD AD 0013. 1991a
BlackSpring.4AD BAD 1016, 1991b
Spooky.4AD CAD 2002. 1992
Rough Trade 158. 1990
Mazzy Star, SheHangs Brightly.

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Resistingsongs:negativedialecticsin pop
Creation CRELP 040. 1988a
My Bloody Valentine,Isn't Anything.
You Made Me Realise.Creation CRE 055. 188b
Glider.CreationCRE 73. 1990
Tremolo.CreationCRE 085. 1991
Loveless.CreationCRELP 060. 1992
Sinead O'Connor, TheLionand theCobra.Ensign CHEN 7. 1987
'Jumpin the river'.Ensign ENY 618. 1988
I Do Not WantWhatI Have Not Got. Ensign CHEN 14. 1990
Mary MargaretO'Hara, Miss America.Virgin2559. 1988
Slowdive, Slowdive.CreationCRE 093t. 1990
JustFora Day. Creation CRELP 094. 1991
Swirl,Fall. PlaytimeAMUSE 009T. 1990
This MortalCoil, It'll End in Tears.4AD CAD 411. 1984
Filigreeand Shadow.4AD DAD 609. 1986
Blood.4AD DAD 1005. 1991
Muses. 4AD CAD 607. 1986
ThrowingMuses, Throwing
TheFat Skier.4AD CAD 706. 1987
ChainsChangedEP. 4AD BAD 701. 1987
TheReal Ramona.4AD CAD 1002. 1991
Velvet Underground,TheVelvetUnderground.
PolydorSPELP 20. 1969
VU. PolydorPOLD 5167. 1985

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31