Friday, September 01, 2006

Simon Reynolds - 'Blissed Out'

Compare The Smiths with Throwing Muses. Both Morrissey and Kristin Hersh work within the flux of adolescence - the vacillation between agoraphobia and claustrophobia, possibility and constraint; the feeling that one’s body, and the cultural meanings attached to it, are a cage.

Morrissey represents that flux, turns it into couplets, quips, aphorisms, insights, a wisdom we can draw comfort from. Hersh reproduces that flux, her voice is flux. [...] The difference is between commentary and embodying. It’s the reason why The Smiths are more powerful as a pop institution, and why Throwing Muses are more powerful as art. (p. 32)

Flicking through Blissed Out, this is the passage which stood out, which sold it for me. It’s at once exactly right, and not the kind of thing you expect to read, given the commercial disproportion between Throwing Muses and The Smiths. The latter are fixed in the pop canon, will be available 100 years hence in a ‘20th Century Classics’ series of mp3s, or aacs, or whichever new and unimaginable format rules the day. The Muses have their place in the American alt. rock canon, of course, and are fondly remembered by many. But it’s a different order of magnitude. Money was the reason they called it quits in 1997, a sobering thought for those who loved them.

Blissed Out isn’t your average book of rock criticism. It isn’t interested in saying simply: ‘These records are brilliant, listen to them’, nor even ‘These records grew out of such and such a historical tradition’. Instead it tries to apply to rock arguments of cultural theory more commonly associated with literature. I never had much time for cultural theory: it always seemed so obsessed with undermining its objects that it forgot to mine the objects themselves. So you could say that Blissed Out isn’t my sort of book, though it does deal with the music which more or less formed me (the Muses, The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine), and its author wrote for Melody Maker, my Bible for the first half of the 1990s. A few days after finishing it, I tried to work out what it is that Simon actually says. I boiled it down to the following.

  • That noise annoys.
  • That rock feeds on this transgression, absorbing it back into itself. Aside from the odd moment of genuine danger, mostly the transgression is aesthetic, unreal. Rock and roll hasn’t been the taboo-busting wild man for decades. If it makes horrible noises now, they will only be heard by the few who seek it out.
  • That noise is beyond language, which makes it ideal for breaking down the boundaries in our own heads. This is its primary function, now that it can no longer break down cultural boundaries.
  • That the whole shebang is dependent upon the loosening up of society in the 1960s.
  • That ’80s pop is retrogressive, overly reverent towards ’60s soul.
  • That this doesn’t include Prince, because he doesn’t know what a boundary is, and splurges across dikes like a sticky purple tidal wave.
  • That the desired state of being, boundaries gone, colours ultra-vivid, is like a temporary excursion into the hyper-reality of schizophrenia. This ‘temporary’ part is important, because obviously actual schizophrenia is unbearable.
  • That chaos always emerges from and always returns to order: this is the only way it can make sense. Society provides cultural boundaries, bound up in language, and rock / noise’s function is to allow people to escape these for a while, but not to bring them down.
Here’s Simon on noise:

If music is like a language, if it communicates some kind of emotional or spiritual message, then noise is best defined as interference, something which blocks transmission, jams the code, prevents sense being made. [...] Noise [...] occurs when language breaks down. Noise is a wordless state in which the very constitution of ourselves is in jeopardy. The pleasure of noise lies in the fact that the obliteration of meaning and identity is ecstasy (literally, being out-of-oneself). [...] The problem is that, to speak of noise, to give it attributes, to claim things for it, is immediately to shackle it with meaning again, to make it part of culture. (pp. 57-8)
I have several problems with this, though the idea is seductive (and flattering for anyone who listens to anything a bit noisy). Isn’t noise in rock ‘shackled with meaning’ just by being created? It’s deliberate, it’s there to express something. Why separate ‘music’ and ‘noise’? Music can incorporate noise perfectly well. If one were to accept the separation, then it’s still a bit odd that, having established that writing about noise harms our enjoyment of it, Reynolds persists in doing so. But again, I think this is doing the music itself a disservice: it becomes part of culture when people listen to it, not when critics pin it down (reviews have an impact of course, but an imprecise one).

Written in 1990, Blissed Out grapples with the state of contemporary indie rock, seeing it as a reaction to the horrid slick soul of mainstream ’80s pop. He doesn’t mention the concurrent C86 bands, from which the burgeoning of 1987 - 90 grew, probably because he doesn’t much like them (nonetheless, the mature MBV are recognisable in their earlier, twee-er records, which are C86 to a ‘t’). The slick soul is lambasted, again quite rightly, as being a bloodless throwback to the ’60s, Aretha and Stax, a short cut to authenticity. Given that no-one in the world listens to The Christians today, and that music itself has changed to the detriment of the monolithic (Stock, Aitken and Waterman couldn’t happen now, because the singles chart no longer means anything), this seems quaint and overcooked. How could anything bad have occupied his attention so much? Why didn’t he go and listen to something else? Are the 21st century responses to this.

The reasons Blissed Out irritates me are the same reasons Melody Maker enthralled me when I came in as a reader at the tail end of this, in about 1991. It was so righteous. Far from the death of the author, its own authors told you what to think, in no uncertain terms. My Bloody Valentine, The Smiths, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Throwing Muses, Thin White Rope, Sebadoh, Loop, A. R. Kane, Mary Margaret O’Hara. And on and on. It was a great time for music, and MM wrote about it with a passion and a scrappy seriousness which I loved, and which I still miss. In isolation though, the prose of Blissed Out simply isn’t very readable, however interesting the whole may be as a time capsule. By the time of Rip it up and Start Again, 15 years later, Reynolds had left the dryness of theory behind, and had the sense to write his post punk history from the deep wells of his own enthusiasm, forming a fractured narrative far more involving than the discussion of rock’s fractured narrative found here. Stories win in the end. This is the storm before the harvest.

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