Thursday, June 4, 2015

Infinite Sadness

On the latest Pop Unmuted podcast,  Robin James talks about her latest book Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, and Neoliberalism, which sounds like an incredibly interesting read.  James has been something of a mainstay in music criticism for over a decade with her It's Her Factory blog.   She discusses how EDM with its builds, drops, soars, et al., as well as lyrical themes, fits neatly into the familiar neoliberal narrative of resilience, the "Upworthy"/Lean-In notion of people overcoming challenges or adversity.  James notes how this often lets capitalism or patriarchy off the hook because it reframes the thesis of crisis stories to be about an individual thriving despite stacked odds rather than a system categorically failing large groups.  Thereby, the championing of progressive/feminist heroes actually assists the existing power structure.

It's the Horatio Alger story from a different vantage, the exception that somehow disproves the rule.  Each story provides structure- beginning, middle, end- and thus closure to struggle, despite the fact that these very struggles continue for every other woman in the same situation.  While the perseverance of Beyonce or Katy Perry (who my 5-year-old daughter is now in love with granting her songs quite a bit more earplay in my head recently than they might have) may be admirable, the hegemony that informs each of them remains invisible, the implication being that these hurdles are innate.  Per capitalist realism, realism now becomes leaning-in, every woman pushing tooth and nail against the brick wall of patriarchy on her own, rather than hegemonic institutions restructuring to put women on actual equal footing with men.

Resilience also provides a counterpoint of negative solidarity to be weaponized against women feeling trapped, defeated, or otherwise alone.  After all, all you have to do is believe in yourself and ignore/not internalize every pervasive message that tells you to be ashamed of yourself, hide yourself, watch yourself, set different expectations for yourself, and limit yourself to these finite available models of success.

The stories of  "resilience" in EDM arose a time in pop culture that was concurrent with an abundance of uplifting stories being shared on social media, which have so saturated the virtual landscape that there's practically a cottage industry devoted to providing balance to each depressing news item; survivors forgiving their victimizers, little black kids hugging cops, Palestinians and Israelis working together on a business venture, tales of acceptance from parents their kids were afraid to come out to, et al.

None of these are bad things, but their positivism does form a kind of erasure that allows those enjoying the privilege of not being affected by the daily toil of trauma, racism, sexism, conflict,or homophobia to wane their distress and depression over these issues.  We can rest on our laurels that, as Dan Savage's infamous campaign promises and as the End-of-History narrative always promises, "It gets better".  In this world, an awful status quo can remain as backdrop with our acceptance, tolerance, and consent as long as we can trade a few stories of triumph over the rotten core.

As an alternative to resilience narratives, James proposes what she terms "Melancholy", though the terms of this are far less clear. "Melancholy feels...more 'meh'...It's not good, it's not bad, it's just that there's not that energy behind it. It's more of a listlessness".  She goes on to cite Rihanna and what are definitely two of her more "meh" singles, "Stay" and "Diamonds".  James argues that ultimately through their denial of the pleasure of the lifts and climaxes of traditional EDM, they defy expectations and set new ones that are at best ambivalent about the existing order.

This made me think (likely because I read it immediately prior to listening to this podcast) of this re-(d)evaluation of Coldplay's X&Y at Pitchfork.  Coldplay, to me, are the ultimate merger of the two modes- resilient melancholy; a band struggling to stay sad and ambivalent despite being so well-inclined to be the benefactors of history. They are probably the band that most accurately represented the desolate decade of the naughts in all its resolved indifference (sure, they stood for causes, but they mostly stood in place, waving banners and mugging passively).  Their orderly and meted upward chord progressions have always poised like they were building towards the soar, much like EDM, but they always opted to stay at a comfortable, controlled mid-level, mid-tempo, MOR base.  As cultural critic Phil Knight once put it, "Chris Martin's role is particularly interesting because he represents the yearning soul repressed by the bureaucratic machinery. He doesn't actively rebel against it. How could he? All he can do is plaintively wish it away. But even this mild struggle leaves him feeling ennervated and wan".

Of course, there's mountains of difference between a white British guy and a black immigrant American woman expressing these same levels of discomfort and dissatisfaction, but is this brand of mild unease really a viable alternative to resilience?  Is an admission of powerlessness or being generally nonplussed an actual form of resistance?  I'm thinking I'm probably misconstruing her thesis here, but I feel the creep of a thousand bad memories from the previous decade in any motive that doesn't just outwardly dismiss the reigns of a control template. We're still trying to dig ourselves out of that decade when the general consensus reaction to the shit-spiral of pop culture and the political landscape was "Yeah, sucks, doesn't it?"  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.