Post-Ideology and its Discontents: Three Variations (3)

  1. Bowie et Boulez sont Morts

None of this, of course, is to deny the deep, personalized affinity we have for the music we love and those who make it.   Rather, the point is to note that love for music doesn’t need to be blind-in fact, there is nothing inconsistent about being enthralled with a composer or a piece while being aware of his (personal) or its (musical) flaws. And that goes not only for music of the past, but for the present, as was apparent a couple of weeks back following the deaths of two musicians both of whom raised this question though they were the icon of European high modernism Pierre Boulez, and the glam rock icon David Bowie.

With respect to Boulez, uncritical adulation was never an option either in celebrating his life or still less in memorializing his death. Boulez’s eulogy for Arnold Schoenberg, after all, was a furious denunciation and it was based on this, and much else, that Alex Ross observed that “it would be antithetical to Boulez’s spirit . . . to offer nothing but banal praise at his passing”. Ross’s retrospective did issue some mild criticism of Boulez’s oeuvre noting that “Certain of the large-scale pieces—the ‘Livre’ for string quartet; ‘Dérive 2,’ for eleven instruments—seem uncertain in their structure: the music fascinatingly streams along, but it lacks narrative direction.”

But it would have been appropriate for Ross to have mentioned that some of Boulez’s critics would go farther: according to one, Boulez was among the “maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everybody write this crazy, creepy music.” Or, as the criticism was rigorously formulated in Fred Lerdahl’s seminal essay, “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems”, the inherent structure of Boulez’s works was “cognitively opaque”-that is, failing to register in the form of a “detailed mental representation” of a sort required for it to stay in our mind’s ear.

The fact that no one bothered to resuscitate these and other criticisms, Boulez’s defenders could claim, indicates the usual path from bomb-throwing radical to establishment icon. While a possible explanation, that seven decades of Boulez’s works have largely failed to find a secure place in the repertoire- raises questions as to whether this traditional trajectory can accommodate Boulez.  A more skeptical reading takes the absence of critical discussion on these or other controversial points of Boulez’s legacy as indicative of the late Ottoman empire state of decay of the kingdom of classical music, one which no longer commands much aesthetic, cultural, social and even political authority-as it once did. It follows from that that the reason why there was no dancing on Boulez’s grave was that real estate around it was no longer worth dancing on.

But if there was any doubt that music and musicians continue to wield significant influence in all of these spheres these were removed by the event which followed only a few days after Boulez was put to rest. The news at the death of David Bowie dominated of the news cycle with expressions of mourning, praise and condolences emanating from the Pope, to professional athletes, to obscure academics. This was understandable and altogether appropriate especially as Bowie, from almost all accounts, appeared to be an unusually, articulate, thoughtful, gracious and even humble artist, living his last two decades in New York, as chronicled in this New York Times commemoration with elegance, style and dignity.  Furthermore, unlike Boulez, David Bowie did not paint a target on his back inviting criticism.  So for both these reasons the normal decorum not to speak ill should apply to Bowie as it would to any other private citizen.

Rock and Rebellion

Among those remaining mostly silent was a small minority who have never developed an affinity for the kinds of mass stadium spectacles which have defined the rock experience since Woodstock, and which reached their apogee with second generation rock icons such as Bowie. And, paradoxically, it was Bowie himself who provided the most perceptive and trenchant basis for what it was that many of us find alienating about them when, in a now notorious Playboy interview Bowie named Adolf Hitler as “one of the first rock stars” and makes a convincing case:

Think about it. Look at some of his films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger. It’s astounding. And boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience. Good God! He was no politician. He was a media artist. He used politics and theatrics and created this thing that governed and controlled the show for 12 years. The world will never see his like again. He staged a country … he would march into a room to speak and music and lights would come on at strategic moments. It was rather like a rock ‘n roll concert. The kids would get very excited – girls got hot and sweaty and guys wished it was them up there. That, for me, is the rock ‘n roll experience.

Bowie is not the first to celebrate the power of a charismatic showman to induce crowds to fall under his spell. For classical musicians, rock stars are merely continuing the legacy of Liszt and Paganini, the swoons of women-a staple of 19th century novels- not in the least new. Furthermore, the trajectory from hyper Romanticism, particularly that on display in Wagnerian musical spectacles to Nuremburg rallies is one of the most discussed musicological topics as is the seminal role Wagnerian ideology performed for the third Reich. One of many lurid example recently provided by Alex Ross was the propaganda film Stukas in which a German fighter pilot has his will to massacre civilians refreshed by an evening communion with Wagner’s Gotterdamerung

At this point, it’s worth drawing a far flung albeit obvious comparison returning us to Boulez which is that however one wants to characterize the masterpieces of modernism championed by Boulez they did not, and could not serve an analogous function: Free tickets to Wozzeck or Bernard Alois Zimmerman’s die Soldaten or George Crumb’s Black Angels would not have been made available to bomber pilots trying to escape nightmares caused by their devastation of South East Asia, East Timor or Gaza. And, along related lines, no girl will ever “get sweaty” from listening to Marteau sans maître (though more than a few have gotten sweaty playing it!).

These are not bugs rather they are features of a style which conspicuously and self -consciously privileges the stoic contemplation of the underlying form above active engagement with it. Furthermore, this form would, as Lerdahl shows, always remain outside of the listeners grasp. The details of the underlying structure of the music remaining elusive, their unknowability will hold listeners at a distance, preventing the experience of deep affinity which is a prerequisite for music functioning as the opiate to intoxify the masses and release their passions. All this was well understood by Boulez’s generation who were attempting to construct “year zero” musical foundation in the rubble of postwar Europe one which specifically repudiated the potential of music to function in inducing states of mass hysteria which were inseparable from fascist ideology.

The Dark Side

A few decades later, these lessons were forgotten or at least ignored by a new left which, in defining itself as the Woodstock Nation, was eager to capitalize on the potential offered by mass spectacles to unleash the power of a mass movement. The potency of the alliance was recognized by the political establishment, as we now know from the tapes of the Nixon administration, who saw rock and roll and the peace movement as virtually synonymous, both equally treasonous and terrifying in their capacity to galvanize a mass movement.

But after reaching a high water mark in the huge antiwar mobilizations of the early 70s, rock quickly lost its political edge with a second generation increasingly divorcing itself from political commitment. Among these was David Bowie who described himself as apolitical. Bowie did, however, make known his contempt for “hippies” and by extension, as critic Ken Tucker has noted, the “hippy era’s sincerity, intimacy and generosity against which Bowie presented irony, distance and self-absorption. ” These would be watchwords for the me decade which would soon follow, as would hard edged social Darwinist attitudes celebrating the strong and ridiculing the weak, having uncomfortable connections with the man Bowie lionized as the first rock star.

Reflecting the prevailing zeitgeist, the official uniform replacing earth tones and cottons, would be polished steel and Stormtrooper black leather. Bowie’s near exact contemporary Lemmy Kilmister, having predeceased him by only a few days would adopt the Iron Cross as de rigeur concert attire. Within the fashion industry which claimed Bowie as one of its own, icons such as Karl Lagerfeld would establish the look and its accompanying unsmiling, sullen affect as hipster mainstream, with one, John Galliano of Yves St. Laurent, going beyond winks and nods expressing his repugnance for one woman’s “Dirty Jewish face” proclaiming that (along with her having “boots” and “thighs of the lowest quality”) she “should be dead.” Another trendsetter of the day, Andy Warhol, would be ruthlessly skewered by left journalist Alexander Cockburn in the Village Voice in the form of a Hitler interview with former chancellor now “found tanned and rested” “over lunch at Mortimer’s” becoming “a fixture on the New York social scene, after some decades of seclusion in Asundôn and Palm Springs.” Another case is the Warhol Factory product Velvet Underground singer Nico described as having “a definite Nordic Aryan streak, [the belief] that she was physically, spiritually and creatively superior” one which expressed itself in episodes of anti-semitism and violent racist attacks.

All these are a few of many indications that Bowie’s remarks were not drug addled free association, as he would later claim, but arose in a context of many others pushing the edge in exactly the same direction.

In fairness, for even those most in thrall to what was then called Nazi chic their underlying political sympathies would remain conventional- situated somewhere on the spectrum between apolitical and a vague liberalism largely based on social issues such as gender equity, celebrating “diversity” and LGBT rights. But for a significant minority, this was dog whistle politics: the dark, affectless, passivity expressing a cynicism about human motivations and human potential which has provided the emotional and philosophical foundation for reactionary governance, either when it is explicitly fascist or when in its “soft” variety as the attacks on New York City’s exploding homeless population effected by Mayor Rudolf Giuliani known as Adolph to foes and even, affectionately, to some friends. The reactionary drift, it shouldn’t be forgotten, was bipartisan: Bowie’s contempt for hippies would be realized as hippie punching under the Obama administration by chief of staff Rahm Emanuel while press secretary Robert Gibbs made patent his contempt the “professional left” he viewed as “on drugs”, though Bowie’s cohort would likely regard the problem as the wrong kinds of drugs-cannabis and hallucinogens having been displaced by heroin and cocaine as the drug of choice as the me decade tightened its grip.

Epilogue: The Music We Deserve

Before I conclude I will bring this line of discussion to a screeching halt by noting that I reacted to Bowie’s death the same way everyone else did by going on a listening binge of nearly four decades of Bowie’s music. This was an inescapable backdrop to the circles I moved in but didn’t really feel I belonged to. Now, re-encountering in less fraught late middle aged circumstances, I discovered and re-discovered not only some wonderful tunes but also a lovely off-centeredness and jump-cutting stylistic pastiche which I hadn’t noticed in even some of the most familiar hits. All this was knit together by Bowie’s voice which was a bit of a marvel-ranging from the operatically emotive to the flattest deadpan-all in service of an indefinable though altogether compelling musical and dramatic persona.  While I didn’t love everything, there was left little doubt why he became a touchstone for a generation imperceptibly sliding down the razor blade of the 70s and 80s as the promise of the sixties evaporated into nothingness.

But just as it can’t be denied that his music spoke to a generation, it also can’t be denied that it embodied, reflected and even functioned on the cutting edge of a lot of what we should regret about it. And so the question comes up for some of us how can one combine admiration for how something was being said by with contempt for what it was?

Squaring that circle returns us again to familiar controversies in classical music, Wagner, obviously, but even before, to the 16th century Council of Trent where the church, recognizing the threat music posed in serving as a delivery vehicle for “lascivious” and “profane” sentiments, imposed on it an austerity regime dictating that “singing . . . should be calculated not to afford vain delight to the ear but so that others may be filled with devotion and called to religion.”

The fatwas didn’t work then and they wouldn’t have worked in the 1980s: The power of Bowie’s artistic persona-and that of his cohorts at the time would have overwhelmed any attempt to repress the music and, more importantly, their underlying sensibility. By now it seems merely churlish to bring up.

But that doesn’t mean that we can make ourselves aware of the contradictions implicated in our musical preferences. Insofar as music reflects who we were and are, our often disgraceful history and fairly odious present, it’s pretty much inevitable we’re not going to like everything we see.

That’s my view at least-a darker one than Kyle would be likely to endorse. Where we would agree is not on where we need to end up, but on the necessity to be moving forward on a path and be willing to ask the questions which are necessary to tell us where we are.

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