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The Pretensions of Pop

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A look at the secret, defining force in a field largely comprised of autodidacts and bedroom enthusiasts.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/popstar-final-min.jpg
Illustration by Jason Arias.

Try describing a few of the most wildly successful pop albums of the twentieth century without mentioning the artist and title. A concept rock album about a fictional Edwardian military band, featuring musical styles borrowed from Indian classical music, vaudeville, and musique concrète, its sleeve design including images of Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Marilyn Monroe, Carl Gustav Jung, Sir Robert Peel, Marlene Dietrich, and Aleister Crowley? That’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, one of the biggest selling records of all time. How about a record exploring the perception of time, mental illness, and alterity? Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which has to date sold around 45 million copies worldwide. Ask any of those 45 million who bought a copy of The Dark Side of the Moon if they thought themselves pretentious for listening to an album described by one of the band members as “an expression of political, philosophical, humanitarian empathy,” and the answer would almost certainly be no. Queuing for the bag check at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I once overheard a young man complain bitterly to his girlfriend, “I hate modern art. I hate all that Picasso two eyes on the same side of a blue face shit.” “What do you like then?” asked the girlfriend. “I like putting on my headphones, turning out the lights, and listening to Pink Floyd.” Popularity ratifies cultural authenticity; if it’s popular, it surely can’t be pretentious.

Pop music has never asked anyone for permission to be pretentious. It has joyfully complicated the terms of pretension, which is built into pop’s DNA, even when it shouts loudest about its authenticity. Flashback to Brian Eno, who in his 1996 diary, published as A Year with Swollen Appendices, describes how he “decided to turn the word ‘pretentious’ into a compliment. The common assumption is that there are ‘real’ people and there are others pretending to be something they’re not. There is also an assumption that there is something morally wrong with pretending. My assumptions about culture as a place where you can take psychological risks without incurring physical penalties make me think that pretending is the most important thing we do. It’s the way we make our thought experiments, find out what it would be like to be otherwise.”

Eno can get away with pronouncements like this precisely because his career is a successful experiment in creating “thought experiments” in order to “find out what it would be like to be otherwise.” In the 1970s he practically invented the idea of the rock star as erudite polymath, cutting a deeply pretentious figure across the pop landscape. As keyboard player in the band Roxy Music—a band with an acute eye for collaging a wide range of American pop influences into their look and sound—he played the androgynous libertine, an alien sex fiend dressed in feather boa, makeup, and stack heels. His style enabled people to safely bracket him as eccentric; at the same time he occupied the role of intellectual studio boffin, happy to engage in conversation about John Cage or cybernetic theory. Eno gave his solo albums ambitious-sounding titles such as Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and Before and After Science and published the “Oblique Strategies,” a set of 115 cards—like a low-maintenance I-Ching—designed to suggest ways out of a creative block with instructions such as “Try faking it,” “Don’t be frightened of clichés,” and “Honor thy mistake as a hidden intention.”

You could imagine discussions here over cups of green tea about the Golden Section, a Sunday afternoon spent making watercolors while trying mentally to resolve a particularly complex synthesizer overdub in the studio.

On the cover of the 1973 album No Pussyfooting, he appears along with his collaborator, guitarist Robert Fripp, in a mirrored room that, with its books and esoteric paraphernalia, looks like the study of an interplanetary dandy academic. His clothing is all black—the uniform of artsy pretension—but the hair and makeup still speak of the rock’n’roll excess of his Roxy Music days. A few years later, in 1976, he appears in an evocative photograph with his friend, the artist Peter Schmidt: the two men, both in black and with short-cropped hair, sit at a table covered with a neat, crisp tablecloth. A small vase of flowers and a notebook sit on the table between them, and four prints by Schmidt—simple, haunting depictions of empty rooms—are pinned casually on the wall behind them. The room is bathed in lambent daylight and evokes a world of slow, scholarly meditation that couldn’t seem further from rock’s scuzzy glamour and dissolution. You could imagine discussions here over cups of green tea about the Golden Section, a Sunday afternoon spent making watercolors while trying mentally to resolve a particularly complex synthesizer overdub in the studio. It’s an image onto which—perhaps to the sound of tracks with titles such as “Events in Dense Fog” or “Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960”—you could project a model of pop stardom closer to that of academia or the amateur inventor than to sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.

The potential to construct yourself in the image of something you’re not has been one of the traditional promises of pop music. “Insufferably over-fashionable, lavishly over the top, dreadfully dilettantish, finely eclectic. Pop can be so many things,” wrote music critic Paul Morley in 1980. It has always been on its way to somewhere else: dub fused with punk, punk stole from funk, funk adopted rock, rock embraced gospel, gospel joined hands with soul, soul danced along with house. Pseudonyms and alter-egos crowd the pop field, from the names of dub reggae producers to black metal singers and rappers. You can identify pretension in the way 1970s psychedelic funk reimagined the black experience through pulp science fiction rather than through the militant lens of Black Power. You can see it in prog-rock’s charmingly overblown narrative follies—concept albums about the marriage problems of English monarchs (Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII) or fantastical creatures living underneath New York (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis). It is visible in punk’s demonstrative nihilism and post-punk’s self-conscious intellectualism. Observe it at work in the dressing-up boxes of the New Romantics; the commodity fetishism of hip-hop; the futurist rhetoric of techno; in the shape-shifting personas of Bowie, Grace Jones, Madonna, and Lady Gaga; and the Grand Guignol shadow worlds of goth and black metal.

Pretension is at the heart of pop music, but there still exists a divide between those who demand their music be a serious art form and those who crave the exact opposite, or think pop should only deliver trashy pleasures. Rock’s abiding obsession with bluesy authenticity, or the macho bravado found in rap, has always caused a tension between those who look to pop music for a representation of honest expression—three chords and a croaky voice that proves The Truth of your pain—and those who enjoy its artifice and caprice. Critics have for decades argued over whether pop is capable of comfortably accommodating so-called serious subjects or methods of production; for rock ideologues, any musicians “pretending to be something they’re not” were morally suspect. The term ‘rockism’ was coined in the 1980s by musician Pete Wylie to describe the belief that heart-on-sleeve rock’n’roll is more honest, or authentic, than other pop genres. In a 2004 article for The New York Times titled ‘The Rap Against Rockism,’ critic Kelefa Sanneh defines a rockist as “someone who reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.” The British comedy show The Mighty Boosh embodied these positions neatly in its lead characters Vince Noir and Howard Moon: Vince is obsessed with any music that’s glamorous, fashionable, and trashy, while Howard is the tortured, earnest jazz fan, longing for engagement with “serious” art and poetry.

Pop culture was built by amateurs and autodidacts. Its promiscuous history of influences consistently undermines assumptions about how so-called elitist art forms travel. Musicians framed as “authentic”—from working-class backgrounds or presumed, condescendingly, to be drawing from deep wells of emotion unfettered by formal musical education—often pulled from surprisingly erudite sources. Iggy Pop, the wild frontman for The Stooges who grew up in a trailer park, cites the ONCE Festival in his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, as a major influence. It was there that he came into contact with music by avant-garde composers such as Robert Ashley, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, and Edgard Varèse. Varèse, the French pioneer of high modernist orchestral music, lived in New York, where jazz musician Charlie Parker would trail him around the streets, trying to find the guts to speak to him. The Beatles also assimilated ideas from European avant-garde music, along with lessons from John Lennon’s partner, the Fluxus artist Yoko Ono, and Indian classical music. New York hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, and techno producers in 1990s Detroit were profoundly influenced by the sounds of Kraftwerk, a group that began life at a music conservatoire in 1970s Düsseldorf. In the 1990s, the most feverish innovations in electronic music—entirely new forms such as rave, techno, jungle, house, drum’n’bass, trip-hop—were produced not by trained musicians but by self-taught artists wrangling with consumer audio technology in suburban bedrooms.

Kraftwerk sang about machines, railways, technology, and the new-dawn hopes of Europe after the war. They looked like young intellectuals on their way to attend a political think-tank in Brussels or a scientific conference in Geneva. From the 1960s onward—despite the anti-intellectuals who maintained that rock music had to come stained with the truth of tears and whiskey, or that pop not worry its pretty head about anything other than having fun—musicians have been unembarrassed to reference feminism, literature, philosophy, politics. There are countless examples to choose from. Take, for instance, Joy Division’s album Closer, inspired by J. G. Ballard’s novel The Atrocity Exhibition and featuring on its cover a photograph by Bernard Pierre Wolff depicting a neoclassical mausoleum in Genoa. Or Kate Bush: her chart hit Wuthering Heights took Emily Brontë’s novel of sexual desire on the Yorkshire Moors as its subject, and her song Cloudbusting was about a rainmaking cannon built by the radical psychologist Wilhelm Reich. Bush was not producing obscure music: in 1970s and ’80s Britain, she was a huge star. (Wuthering Heights, for instance, reached number 1 in five different countries.) When in 2014 she announced her first live concerts since 1979, tickets for the twenty-two shows sold out within fifteen minutes. The popularity of her work undermines the position that it’s “pretentious” for musicians to play with ideas beyond the dreary bounds of songs about falling in love or feeling heartbroken, or that “people”—whoever that conveniently nebulous mass is—don’t have an appetite for complexity.

One need only look at Eno’s friend Bowie to see pretentiousness in action.

We could talk about why The Clash wrote music about the Spanish Civil War and Scritti Politti released a song about the philosopher Jacques Derrida, or how Laurie Anderson reached number 2 in the British charts in 1981 with O Superman, a song inspired by a Jules Massenet opera from 1885. We could analyze the impact of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, a conceptual song-cycle about environmental destruction, social inequality, and war, told from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran. We might ask why Talking Heads had such success with songs about animal consciousness and the collapse of civic life under wartime conditions, or we could argue until we’re blue in the face about why Led Zeppelin IV, heavy with opaque, quasi-occult symbolism and Tolkienesque allusions, became the third best-selling album of all time in the US. Yet it’s easy to over-egg the cerebral content of this music; its power also resides in emotional accessibility and a basic, visceral intensity.

Pop history is littered with pretentious follies, with ambitious projects overreaching themselves. In 1987, The Style Council—now there was a name—made a short film, scripted by Paolo “The Cappuccino Kid” Hewitt, entitled JerUSAlem, a road movie set in the English countryside and doubling as an oblique critique of British nationalism. A year later, the Pet Shop Boys—a band unafraid of writing a lyric such as “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”—produced their surreal musical feature film, It Couldn’t Happen Here, a meditation on the desuetude of the British landscape. The film, directed by Jack Bond, takes the Pet Shop Boys on a journey from run-down seaside towns to greasy spoon cafes populated by time-traveling WW1 fighter pilots and ventriloquist dummies holding forth on the philosophy of time. Both the Pet Shop Boys and The Style Council films were critical and commercial flops, but the willingness to risk creative overstretch that it represented was to be applauded. It Couldn’t Happen Here was an avant-garde folly with a synth pop soundtrack. It featured actors including Barbara Windsor, famous in Britain as part of the Carry On comedy film ensemble, and Gareth Hunt, known for his role in the sitcom Upstairs, Downstairs. The result was a peculiarly wistful music video, its visual metaphors often over-egged but occasionally achieving moments of beauty. It was as if experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman had made a musical with poet John Betjeman, half longing for hazy childhood memories of afternoon teas and saucy seaside entertainments and half damning them in the process too. Yet why can’t a musician try to make a cinematic “state of the nation” poem told through dream imagery and pop music? They may fail miserably or they may fluke a masterpiece, but at least they tried to push their creativity. As Howard Devoto, of the bands Buzzcocks and Magazine, put it: “Pretentiousness is interesting. At least you’re making an effort. Your ambition has to outstrip your ability at some point.”

One need only look at Eno’s friend Bowie to see pretentiousness in action. His was deliberate. “In my early stuff, I made it through on sheer pretension,” he said in a 1976 interview with Playboy. “Show someone something where intellectual analysis or analytical thought has been applied and people will yawn. But something that’s pretentious—that keeps you riveted.” Bowie borrowed from mime, kabuki, the Beats, Andy Warhol, science fiction, high fashion, modern European art, and theater. He created personae and atmospheres that served as a refuge in fantasy for misfit teenagers, temporary flights of imagination from life in some godforsaken 1970s new town. “Don’t fake it baby / Lay the real thing on me,” sang Bowie, but that “real thing” could take you from the boondocks to the moon and back, by way of London, Tokyo, and Berlin. It was wildly popular music that—in songs such as “Life on Mars” and “Rebel Rebel”—paradoxically provided solace to loners, outsiders, those who didn’t feel part of the crowd. Notes on the back of a Bowie sleeve could lead you to The Velvet Underground, its front cover to the German expressionists, and for those growing up in the high modern phase of pop—roughly from the late 1960s until the early ’90s—a form of cultural literacy was nurtured through references found on album artwork or in music videos. These were spaces that encouraged curiosity, gateways to art, literature, radical politics, and cinema.

All those books, films, images, and sounds out there: pop told its audiences that they belonged to them, too.

Paul Morley once said: “There was a time when the only art I had on my walls was by Peter Saville.” Band posters and record sleeves provided an art education everyone could afford. Saville’s artwork for the Manchester post-punk label Factory Records, for example, drew directly from neo-classicism, Italian futurism, and the Bauhaus, and from books he found in the library while studying graphic design at Manchester Polytechnic. Indeed, even just the name of a favorite band—a group pretense that musicians and fans take deeply seriously—might provide a key to cultural history. Bauhaus was a German art and design movement in the early twentieth century, but it was also a Goth band from Northampton. The Fall was a novel by Albert Camus, which also gave its name to Mark E. Smith’s group of working-class punks from Manchester whose music could take you from conversation in a Salford pub to a ballet about William of Orange made in collaboration with choreographer Michael Clark. An interest in American jazz—say, John Coltrane—could open a window onto Indian ragas and Eastern religion. Watch a pop video for The Smiths and you get to see work by Jarman. All those books, films, images, and sounds out there: pop told its audiences that they belonged to them, too. Go and take them, learn from them. You do not need permission from a higher authority.

“The history of rock, in Britain at least, is a history of image as well as sound,” wrote Simon Frith and Howard Horne in Art into Pop, “a history of cults and cultures defined by clothes as well as songs.” In British education, art and design institutions have historically functioned as incubators for pop culture. Following World War II, higher education colleges provided educational opportunities to students from a wide range of class backgrounds. Art schools in particular were places where young people, often from homes where the gallery and the concert hall were not part of the fabric of their lives, could be exposed to new ideas and lifestyles. Even an incomplete list of British rock and pop musicians with an art school education is long: John Mayall (The Bluesbreakers); John Lennon (The Beatles); Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts (The Faces, The Rolling Stones); Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin); Pete Townsend (The Who); Viv Stanshall (Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band); Brian Eno and Bryan Ferry (Roxy Music); Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd); Eric Clapton (Cream); Ray Davies (The Kinks); Freddie Mercury (Queen); Sade; Jarvis Cocker (Pulp); Graham Coxon (Blur); PJ Harvey; mia; Florence Welch (Florence and the Machine). Of the British punk and post-punk generations alone, some forty-five musicians—including members of The Clash, Ian Dury and The Blockheads, The Raincoats, Wire, Madness, Adam and the Ants, The Slits, The Specials, Soft Cell, Cabaret Voltaire, The Sex Pistols, Scritti Politti, and Gang of Four—all attended art school. Going to art school might have been pretentious, but it allowed you to create new aesthetic and intellectual opportunities for yourself.

Pretentiousness and authenticity did the twist at art school. Frith and Horne describe how, in the 1940s and ’50s, art students were jazz fans, attracted by its qualities of “seriousness” and modernity, and its refusal to be confused with commercial pop music. Jazz symbolized cool individualism pitted against mass culture, and learning about it was an independent way to develop one’s own intellectualism. When blues and rock’n’roll became popular in the 1960s, what art schools provided in terms of exposure to bohemian lifestyle choices was reflected by the rawness and perceived authenticity of these musical styles. “The Romantic ideology that floated round the art college cafeteria became part of the atmosphere of the blues clubs.” Bands such as Cream and Led Zeppelin defined rock music as “serious, progressive, truthful, and individual,” just like the 1960s art student.

With the influence of pop art in the late 1960s and into the ’70s came an interest in surface and collage as a way to comment on culture. Educated at art schools in London, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Reading, and Winchester, Roxy Music were the most famous embodiment of this shift to the postmodern, mingling, as Michael Bracewell has described, “science and artifice into a cabaret futura of decadent romance, playing with nostalgia as Bowie played with the future.” Ferry (from a coal-mining family in Newcastle) and Eno (son of a Suffolk postman) fashioned Roxy Music’s galaxy with nods to pop icons Humphrey Bogart and Eddie Cochran, to British pop artist Richard Hamilton and American experimental music. Artifice and authenticity worked in productive tension in the late 1970s with the first wave of punk, a movement that on the one hand encouraged vehement honesty and a do-it-yourself attitude, while proving deeply invested in questions of style and self-created identity.

This educational axis of art and pop—the one that provoked musicians to sing about French philosophers or nineteenth-century novels, the nurturing of identity through music subcultures—is to some degree now ancient history, especially to those born in the 1990s and after. Pop music does not throw the same cultural weight it once did; its ideas and challenges are no longer central to social movements. In the UK and US, ruinously expensive tuition fees and cuts to art education have narrowed the range of class backgrounds that art students are coming from. But the magpie cultural education that pop music provided has left a strong legacy. “Libraries gave us power,” as The Manic Street Preachers sang on “A Design for Life,” and so too did records and films and television programs. Postmodernism, and all its liquid games of reference, was not just an idea incubated by the art gallery, the academy, or the architecture studio; it came from pop’s intellectual permissiveness. The pretensions of individuals from all walks of life—their ambition, their curiosity, their desires to make the world around them a more interesting place—is cultural literacy in action.

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Excerpt is used with permission from Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Coffee House Press, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Dan Fox.

Dan Fox is a writer, editor and musician living in New York, USA. He is co-editor of frieze magazine, and his book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters will be published by Coffee House Press on 6 April.

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One comment for The Pretensions of Pop

  1. Comment by Catherine Atherton on April 14, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    I’m not sure about ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ being a sit-com, but I had to find something to quibble with, didn’t I, in such an excellent piece? Ah, and you forgot the Police: ‘He starts to shake and cough/Just like the old man in Nabokov’. Shame they pronounced the name wrong. Which brings me to the main point I’d like to bang on about, if you haven’t fallen asleep by now, which I grant is quite possible.

    Pretentiousness seems to be out of favour in popular music now, and I’d suggest that is probably a good thing. The sort of rich, eclectic brew you describe so well transforms from an alphabet-soup of a few names, pictures, titles of books, or bits of free jazz, into something more consistent and long-lasting—a more serious intellectualism, or at any rate deeper engagement with and appreciation of art, literature, other forms of music, etc.—only if there’s an appropriate environment to learn in and to test yourself against. It may be school, university, art-school, whatever, it may be just having the right kind of family to begin with, one that forced you to watch the original ‘Solaris’, say. (And read the book. In Polish). You may reject what you learn, but (leaving aside a few lonely geniuses) people need something to focus their interests and increase their grains of knowledge before they can rebel against it and regroup somewhere else. And, as you say, how are young people going to afford that nowadays? Or do you think the internet’s resources can make up for it?

    God, I was lucky. I didn’t pay a penny for my education, all 24 years of it.

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