Saturday, June 27, 2009


Michael Jackson
1958 - 2009

That Michael Jackson's fame penetrated the most remote corners of the planet is testament to an astounding, precocious talent.

Like all great performers he made the impossible seem effortless. His success was due to a preternatural gift for song and dance but also because he surrounded himself with visionary collaborators - producer Quincy Jones and British songwriter Rod Temperton among them.

It's true that Jackson brought soul into the mainstream and later masterminded a business-savvy amalgamation of black music and rock. But artists like Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Ike and Tina Turner, Earth, Wind & Fire and Funkadelic had paved the way before the explosion of Off the Wall's jazz-soul-rock fusion.

Jackson's late 70s/early 80s peak probably represents the last time black pop was truly exciting, and the artistry of I Want You BackThe Love You SaveI'll Be ThereShake Your BodyRock With YouDon't Stop Till You Get EnoughI Just Can't Stop Loving You was nothing short of dazzling. He was the first African-American artist to appear on MTV and took the pop video into new areas, though the triumph ultimately became one of marketing over culture.

Jackson's supposed popularization of soul ironically came about at the expense of his own blackness. His bizarre quest for physical transformation represented a blurring of his racial identity and pointed to troubling dysfunction in his family background.

His age and gender also seemed open to interpretation. Even as he grabbed his crotch and breathed "Don't stop till you get enough," he seemed curiously asexual.

As Jackson's stardom ran away from his control, his performances descended into megalomania and hollow self-mythology. They showed a personality shut off from reality, surrounded by sycophants and 'enablers.'

That these issues ever assumed a philosophical importance to Jackson's adoring fanbase seems unlikely when one observes the self-indulgent, Diana-like dimension of their grief. It leaves one wondering exactly what message - if any - Jackson communicated to his fans.

Beyond the platitudes of We Are the World and Black or White, to them Jackson was above all an entertainer and a desexualized superhero who never grew up. His neuroses reflected the identity crises of American society and the mutually predatory love/hate relationship we share with our stars.

In the mid-eighties stories abounded of Jackson's kindness toward underprivileged children. But his obsession with Disney, Peter Pan and his own lost childhood seemed plain weird and hinted there might be a shadow side to his philanthropy. The cynically cultivated image of innocent messiah was creepy and distasteful.

When the curtain finally came down on the freak show, the story sounded depressingly familiar: a major talent in free fall, drugs, hangers-on, litigation, seclusion, a Greek tragedy hurtling unstoppably toward a predictable, bathetic finale.

But the universe is never-ending, and our vampiric lust for heroes and tarnished angels knows no bounds. Hiding behind our fears, we'll continue to live through them - the Jacksons, the Presleys, the Cobains - and have them feel for us as we pretend to know them. We'll love them, hate them, envy and pity them, demand they be stars today, tomorrow, all the way.

Even to the final, bitter end.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iddy Pop

Freud and Rock Music


Sigmund Freud's position as the father of psychoanalysis remains largely unassailable. But what does he have to say about music?

Curiously for someone living in late nineteenth century Vienna, Freud never wrote specifically about music. He hardly refers to it in his work and seems to have been less interested in music than any of the arts.

Naturally this hasn't prevented his ubiquitous theories from permeating musical culture, just as they have influenced film, fine art and literature.

Among classical composers, Mahler underwent analysis with Freud and Rachmaninov famously used therapy to overcome a crippling three-year writer's block.

Then there's the mission of jazz - to confer freedom from inhibition through communication and improvisation. Couldn't that be described as a direct corollary to the free association of psychoanalysis?

And in the pop world, Eddie Cochran, The Count Five, Neil Young, Kevin Coyne and John Lennon are just a few of the artists who have undergone or sung about therapy.

Far-fetched Freudian fancies

Though he became marginalized as the twentieth century drew to a close, Freud's ideas have enjoyed something of a resurgence, and looking at pop music through a Freudian lens can be quite illuminating.

The main criticism of Freudian theories is that they are untested and supported by unsubstantiated beliefs. Social scientists have not exactly been falling over themselves to carry out empirical studies of the more far-fetched Freudian fancies, mainly because there's not the faintest reason to think they might hold water.

They include the hilarious notion that toilet training and breast feeding can affect your personality in deep and disturbing ways for the rest of your life.

Then there's the 'Freudian slip', with its barmy insistence that no slips of the tongue come from random processes. Surely it's more sensible to imagine these so-called 'slips' as grammar or syntactical errors to which we disproportionally assign meaning.

Chief among Freud's untested theories is the neurotic cultural myth of The Oedipus Complex. It's dominated by the dubious assertion that Oedipal impulses represent the "nuclear complex" of every neurosis. Thus boys fear castration then conspire to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers.

Though I don't entirely hold with Oedipal theory, its dramatic possibilities are realized to remarkable effect in Jim Morrison and The Doors' celebrated opus The End. The singer enacts a drama straight out of Sophocles and there's that famous "Father?" "Yes, son?" "I want to kill you" exchange.

Morrison's second-hand Oedipal rant shouldn't be taken literally. It's partly a diatribe against his authoritarian dad, but more accurately a cry for the destruction of repressive hierarchy and restriction in one's inner and outer life.

Cigars and Guitars

But Freud believed that society could only function if man repressed his base instincts. He illustrated this by devising the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle. The former describes our wish to satisfy our animal desires, whereas the latter - preferred by Freud - opposes immediate gratification and calls for us to satisfy our needs in more socially 'appropriate' ways.

Rock ‘n’ roll stood in direct opposition to that. To paraphrase Jim Morrison, it wanted the world and it wanted it NOW.

Thus hedonistic wild men like Jerry Lee Lewis and Iggy Pop seek the self-gratification of the id and satisfaction through the Pleasure Principle.

I doubt they'd agree with Freud that the repression of man's base instincts is essential to civilization. They're more likely to embrace Reich's call for greater sexual freedom as a way of dealing with neurosis.

Icons like The Beatles, Mick Jagger and David Bowie represent a feminized male alternative to dominant or hostile father figures. But the sexual licence they indulge reveals they are also partial to the Power Principle.

After all, everyone knows that guys join bands to get girls, and at its extremes rock is custom-designed to unleash dionysian impulses. A cigar is usually just a cigar, but since pop is always about context, oftentimes a guitar is definitely a phallus.

Inner lives

I must admit that as a confirmed Jungian I've acquired a grudging respect for Freud. Though some of of his theories remain unsubstantiated, when it comes to libido, drives, and the unconscious, Uncle Sigmund seems to have anticipated the inner lives of the rockers he never knew.

His theories foreshadowed their erotic obsessions, psychedelic explorations, and even - since Freud was a user of cocaine - their experimentation with drugs.

Clearly rock and psychoanalysis share far more than a preoccupation with sex.

At their worst they are capable of encouraging self-indulgence and preening self-obsession.

But at their best both represent attempts to liberate our desires and impulses from the cultural and psychological chains which threaten to imprison us and at any moment deny our authentic self-realization.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Fever Ray (Electro)
LP: Fever Ray (Mute, 2009)

It's 3 AM. You're exhausted. Sleep evades you. You toss and turn, cursing the darkness. Finally you decide to take a walk.

There's no one around. Everything is quiet and perfect. The world belongs to you.

On this sublime recording Fever Ray's Karin Dreijer Andersson transforms such isolation into art of the highest order.

Fever Ray sets a different tone to Dreijer Andersson's previous outing - as half of The Knife, the best Swedish band since ABBA. Silent Shout (2006 ), their meditation on evil dread, is an electro-pop milestone.

This time around, with a muted palette and fewer rhythmic gradations, they again breathe life into the genre by means of an artful pop minimalism.

It's a perfect example - like landmark recordings by Boards of Canada and Burial - of how electro-based music can communicate a haunting sense of isolation and claustrophobia.

Opener If I Had a Heart - a tale of obsession - has a compelling, churning riff and a spooky whispered vocal - Dreijer Andersson's pitchshifted downward - which will appeal to doom-laden romantics everywhere.

The sublime Now's the Only Time I Know celebrates the perfection of the moment, the sad reality of that which is forsaken and proclaims that all the gods and all the devils exist within us.

At first I wasn't entirely sure what Concrete Wall was about - a serial killer or life in a tower block? - but it scared the hell out of me with it's plunging keyboard lines and ominous lyric: "I live between concrete walls/When I took her up she was so warm/Eyes are open and mouth cries/Haven't slept since summer/Oh how I try/I leave the TV on/And the radio."

It turns out the song refers to Dreijer Andersson's relationship with her new born baby. The velvety S and M tone is actually the sound of a woman coming to terms with the private terror of new parenthood.

In Keep the Streets Empty For Me there is further isolation, but it's never complete and the agony gives way to hope: "I will never disappear/Forever, I'll be here."

It's somnambulistic, to be sure, but I dig it.

The ghost of Japan stalks this record sonically and subject-wise as Dreijer Andersson explores similar terrain to David Sylvian's art-pop: connection, disconnection, recollection. Again that dreamlike feeling as the world sleeps and the poets dream of angels.

In the superb Seven the profound is to be discovered as we sleep, as we speak, in the remains of the day. Seen in cold black and white, the words - "We talk about love, we talk about dishwasher tablets, illness/And we dream about heaven" - come over as trite, but in the context of the album they seem revelatory.

Fever Ray is one of those records which seems so perfect, so definitive and pure, that it effortlessly sweeps away the mundane, canceling out time and dissolving whatever boundaries exist between truth and art.

Unique and emotionally true, it's magnetic, ambitious and often profound.

Video: When I Grow Up

Friday, June 5, 2009

Wacky Wiccans

Movie: Mamma Mia (2008)
Director: Phyllida Lloyd

If Jean Francois Lyotard was right in asserting that the 'grand narratives' of history - reason, progress, socialism - are finished, and semiotics has dissolved into purely libidinal 'energetics', then the nostalgic, uninvolving kitsch of Mamma Mia is a case in point.

The movie confirms what pseuds like me have long known - that ABBA have now truly crossed over from the modern to the postmodern.

More accurately Mamma Mia is unintentionally postmodern, since it's the structure rather than the 'work' which fascinates. The movie cobbles together its creaky 'narrative' by kookily recontextualizing ABBA's legendary oeuvre.

Describing a universe parallel to the one described in the group's deceptively complex late-70s divorce epics, the main plot - a bride-to-be unsure which of her mother's former lovers is her real father - would not long ago have been considered taboo.

But it's been morphed here into a wonky relativist fable acceptable to a knowing, postmodern audience. Wacky wiccans will lap up its farcical female bonding while the rest of us gape at the barf-inducing romance and baffling homoerotic twists.

The movie delights in presenting established stars waaay out of their comfort zone. Pierce Brosnan is brilliantly wooden, Colin Firth perplexingly epicene. You've never seen Meryl Streep like this before - she is truly sensational.

Mamma Mia manages to have its cake and eat it not only by simultaneously celebrating and taking the piss out of cheesy Hollywood musicals, but by doing so both consciously and unconsciously.

True to the postmodern creed, the movie offers no answers, denies the existence of absolute truths and leads the viewer toward a vaguely relativistic concept of 'tolerance'.

For the most part it's corny, embarrassing, tasteless trash.

And I loved every minute of it.