is an entire channel devoted to cruel optimism. What’s interesting to me is how neatly its form of cruelty fits into a seemingly prescribed genre of American mythology about home-ownership and upward mobility. As these notions become increasingly fanciful for more and more Americans, the teary-eyed “reveal” of HGTV becomes increasingly uncanny.
What I would really like to do is trace the background music used during the “reveal” scenes in shows like Fixer-Upper. My suspicion is that their material histories correspond with the affective work that they do. The music is always generic, no doubt produced like a font, for any number of media contexts. This music, which is used to relay the sense of “having arrived” at one’s new house (new life) via capitalist miracle (akin in this sense to the dream of winning big on a game show), sounds the same as music that is also used to stitch together notions of the good life in other media contexts, particularly advertisements. Beyond sounding the same, what I mean by “material histories” is that–given its generic character–it seems likely that such music is actually produced in the same way, at the same handful of studios, or is stored in the same databases–in other words, that it comes from the same genre not just stylistically, but in terms of its production.
If that could be proven, the question then would be: what is the significance of the fact that the same type of tune (or the same tune, or a different tune by the same or similar producers) is used in a reality TV show and in a pharmaceutical ad? How does such distributed use connect affects together, and does this connection across contexts add up to some larger effect on American life?
Brief thought: most cultural studies scholars, perhaps excepting those coming from a more rigid, Frankfurt-school perspective, accept that the modernist distinction between high and low art has completely collapsed.
Question: is this collapse so forceful as to have inverted the equation?
Follow up: particularly with the question of radical politics, it now seems that the avant-garde is precisely the genre of music that is incapable of mounting any sustained critique. It is, by contrast, the successful commercial genres that articulate and mobilize social justice and even (at times) anti-capitalist positions. This would appear to be the mirror inversion of the outwardly stated political goals of the avant-garde and popular genres of the modernist period.
Alternative question: we can still identify, aurally, those musical genres that identify themselves as avant-garde. But what do these genres generally stand for in 2019?
Right now I’m thinking a lot about music that doesn’t reach many people.
For many music scholars, one of the key reasons that music is important to study is in how it contributes to the battle over hegemony or the contestation over meaning. Music articulates what we might call its “meanings” (but which are complex combinations of vibrational/culturally coded affects) in many ways simultaneously: historically, musically, formally, semiotically, stylistically, and so on. In the weird bundle of forces that constitutes a piece of music, a cultural articulation is sounded into a discourse, a field, or a space where others can be affected by it. In reaching people, in forming intimate publics 1 music creates a shared sense of the world among certain groups of listeners. That shared sense can become the precondition that leads to action (political, say) or not; it can create or disallow possibility, or neither.
But what happens when the music that we are talking about doesn’t reach a lot of people? It’s obvious, for example, that Beyoncé’s music is having an impact on society, an impact that we can analyze through various lenses (critical race, feminist, and so on) even as we track its political economy. But what about music that we might similarly read as feminist, but which not many people know about or hear? If it doesn’t contribute to the broader cultural landscape, what is the significance of this small music?
Ethnographers will document the impacts that music has on people’s everyday lives and the contributions it makes to people’s sense of their own subjectivity. But as a methodological question, does a music’s limited or non-existent impact (culturally, broadly) mean that we can’t read it in the affective/semiological way that we can read truly popular music? What if a group’s reach is too small to actually create an intimate public? Beyond individuals who may nevertheless listen to this small music and may indeed be affected by it, what can we say is significant about it on a cultural scale? Is there a certain threshold of popularity required for a cultural phenomenon to form an intimate public? Put another way: of course we can still read small music for its meanings and affects. But the question is, do these meanings and affects matter or function in the same way as music that can be considered widely popular? Is there value in popular music scholars studying music that isn’t all that popular? Or is music’s very popularity its main indication that it has something significant to say about how our culture(s) construct and reflect meaning, to others and to ourselves?
One reason that I’m thinking about this is because there seems to be a ton of excellent indie-rock happening right now, specifically indie rock with women at the center. I’m wondering if one of the very reasons that this music seems to be flourishing right now is because “rock” as a genre (the white male rock of rockism) is no longer the world’s dominant popular music. Is there something about the diffuse and localized scene that indie-rock has become that is allowing certain kinds of musical and social possibilities to emerge?
1. I am referencing here Lauren Berlant’s well-known elaboration of “intimate publics” as “affect worlds” in which “one senses that matters of survival are at stake and that collective mediation through narration and audition might provide some routes out of the impasse and the struggle of the present, or at least some sense that there would be recognition were the participants in the room together.” Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 226. What interests me here in particular is the way in which the notion of an intimate public is caught up in a certain level of visibility. Berlant writes, “You do not need to audition for membership in it. Minimally, you need just to perform audition, to listen and to be interested in the scene’s visceral impact.” [Ibid.] And again just later, “But [participants] do not have to do anything to belong. They can be passive and lurk, deciding when to appear and disappear, and consider the freedom to come and go the exercise of sovereign freedom.” [Berlant, 227.] My question about small music is this, fundamentally: because it is not broadly popular, does it require a different level of participation in order to create a shared sense of public-ness, however small? Can participants afford to be passive if their passivity results in the dissolution of the sphere itself? Or, on the other hand, if a given band/song/scene corresponds with a much broader genre space that exists independently of that given band/song/scene (e.g. “girl bands” or “feminist rock”), is the intimate public maintained in any case, so long as the genre exists? Can a participant still afford to be passive if the genre will maintain itself irrespective of any particularly performed acts of fandom and belonging? Can you access an intimate public through any number of entry points?↩
Yesterday I presented “Improvisation and Everyday Performance” at the Cultural Studies Association conference in New Orleans. Our panel was a part of the performance studies working group, so my main point was to try to understand how improvisation relates to questions of performance and performativity.
Briefly put, my argument is that improvisation studies is overdetermined by a view of improvisation as a “special” kind of activity, and that we need to pay more attention to the ways in which improvisation can be banal, repetitive, destructive, and ordinary. To that end, I discussed Michel de Certeau’s notion of an everyday practice and Sara Ahmed’s idea of an orientation to identify the contingencies involved in everyday activities. Following from my idea that improvisation is strictly co-extensive with contingency, I argued that–if perception itself is a practice that is improvised–then improvisation should be considered not only as profoundly ordinary, but also as foundational to our experience of the world.
What happens when improvisation moves away from a creative capacity proper to the acting subject and toward an constitutive feature of being in the world? What do we gain or lose by bringing improvisation into conversation with habitus, performance, practice, and other terms that try to think human agency in relation to memory, history, contingency, and power?
My friends and I have recorded some music for a new improvisation project called Common Things. The band is Joshua Bryant on bass, Alex Burgoyne on alto, myself on the drums, and Aaron Quinn on the guitar.
No other interval carries an equivalent ambivalence or affect. The major seventh simultaneously belongs to its tonic and nevertheless sounds a world apart. By comparison, the tritone belongs to the major scale only as a matter of technicality; its dissonance is total, so much so that it is caricatured. Far from this crass and cartoonish dissonance, the major seventh uses dissonance to achieve transcendence. Or: the major seventh is beautiful by and through its very dissonance, through its long distance from tonic that is also the shortest distance possible.