We are playing the machines, the machines play us, it is really the exchange and the friendship we have with the musical machines which make us build a new music.
Ralf Hütter, Kraftwerk
In his excellent biography of the bewilderingly under-appreciated British avant-garde joker, B.S. Johnson, Jonathan Coe makes the following assertion:
…Having thoroughly mastered, at
, the art of the sweeping, uninformed dismissal, I was more than ready to concur with B.S. Johnson’s theories about the modern novel. Of course there was no point in writing anything that didn’t follow straight on from Ulysses and The Unnameable…More recently, needless to say, this conviction has slipped out of my grasp, along with most of the other certainties of youth. If I think about it at all, I see the high modernism of Joyce and Beckett as a straightjacket the novel had to break out of – just as late twentieth century composers, if classical music was ever going to move forward again, had to make a decisive break with the twelve-tone system…In the three decades since Johnson’s death, the British novel has reinvigorated itself in other ways, ways which he did not foresee: not by ‘making it new’ with ever more radical attempts at formal innovation, but by recognising the multi-ethnicity of modern Britain and opening itself to influences from other cultures; by tapping into the energies of popular music, film and television; by turning its back on modernist elitism and rediscovering the pleasures of humour, storytelling, demotic and so on… Like A Fiery Elephant Cambridge
Indeed. I like this quotation, I’ve used it a lot – every time somebody like, I don’t know, Tom McCarthy starts banging on about the terrible price contemporary readers and writers pay for turning our backs on radical formal innovation, I find its simple truisms useful and optimistic. Having said that, the way Coe draws upon the example of post-Schoenberg classical composition here belies the complexity of the parallels (and lack thereof) between music and literature when it comes to post-modernism (literally in the after-modernism sense, rather than anything too conceptual) and contemporary forms. One strand of which is sort of my focus with this mixtape.
So a major example of the kind of composer Coe is pointing towards is Karlheinz Stockhausen, who embraced everything from pointist to formula composition in his efforts to move away from the twelve-tone system. Most of the results are pretty fucken formally weird, which is in itself a bit of a spanner in the workings of Coe’s analogy – insofar as it proves that a bunch of post-twelve tone classical composition represents precisely ‘ever more radical attempts at formal innovation.’ But placing that sort of pedanticism to one side for a moment, I mention Stockhausen because of the influence his work had on Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, the founding members of Kraftwerk. And Kraftwerk are the starting-point of an important example of why Coe’s kinda laid-back theory doesn’t work when it comes to pop music.
It could, potentially, be argued that Hütter and Schneider reframed Stockhausen in neo-modernistic terms. This is a moot point, but I mention it purely to steal the following exemplary paragraph from Chris Power’s Drowned in Sound review of the 2009 remastering of The Man-Machine:
On its release the artwork for The Man-Machine, depicting the band standing on a staircase wearing paramilitary-style red shirts and black ties, caused controversy. Inspired by the Russian constructivist El Lissitzky, it is arguably the most complex image in their carefully considered visual ouevre. It suggests a reaching out, as is true elsewhere in the band’s work, for the utopian dream of a modernist German aesthetic; one that hadn’t been made problematic, if not irrevocably perverted, by the Nazis. Yet at the same time it employs National Socialist colours, which in the late-Seventies were in the process of being ironically appropriated by German artists. Meanwhile the red shirts, the borrowings from constructivist art and the position of the band’s faces, gazing to the east, suggests an acknowledgement, if not exactly an engagement, with communism. Further, it is also an acknowledgement of the dark side of the marriage of man and machine implied by and ultimately surpassed by the title track, which rejects the Nietzschean conception of the Übermensch, hijacked by fascism, and instead celebrates the positive results of combining human warmth with machine precision in, as Hütter’s quote above has it, a spirit of 'exchange and...friendship'.
Actually, it’s not an entirely moot point because a part of what I want to prove, via this week’s Spotify tracklisting, is that the best of contemporary pop music nicks not just the basic tropes of Man-Machine-era Krafwerk, but also the same philosophical approach – has done, in fact, along a pop-culture chain that extends from Gary Numan and the Human League through to Jay-Z (who sampled The Man Machine). And if we can accept that there is something of the modernist about Kraftwerk’s oeuvre, which we surely can, then I guess that means that there is something of the modernist about contemporary pop music also. Which is to say that Coe’s assertion ignores the fact that contemporary music doesn’t necessarily have the same relationship with 'high modernism' as contemporary literature. Far from it.
Indeed whilst, say, the extraordinary commercial success of a grime artist like Tinie Tempah suggests that pop music has made itself new by recognising the multi-ethnicity of modern Britain, and whilst the actually rather good musical-cinematic efforts of Kanye and Gaga suggest the same, but in terms of the ‘energies’ of film, I would argue that a more defining feature of modern pop music is its inheritance from Kraftwerk. Namely, its friendship with musical machines. And that nowhere is this more apparent than on Britney Spears’ blistering Blackout.
Blackout gets a lot of mentions in the increasingly prevalent stream of music journalism that argues a lot of ‘pop’ is far more formally and, perhaps more crucially, electronically interesting than what a lot of the artists working within its ‘alternative’ cousin-genres manage to come up with. See also Girls Aloud, Robyn, Rihanna and so on. This, from the Guardian’s Tom Ewing:
On Blackout – released with minimum promotion in the middle of her shaven-headed, zombie-eyed, walking-tabloid period – Britney gave us the tightest, most inventive dance-pop record of the last 10 years. Everything that's happened in mainstream pop since – such as the routine electronic treatment of vocals, or the turn to European club beats and synths – happened on this album, only in a darker, braver and catchier fashion. From its title in, Blackout didn't try to gloss over the state its star was in – it embraced it. In particular, the vocal twisting, distorted, blurred and robotised Britney, giving the eerie impression of a record that had swallowed up its own singer.
It is a record that makes a mockery of the concept that autotune represents some sort of a corruption of ‘proper’ music, of the idea that artists using autotune or miming, even, when performing live, is somehow wrong – providing, of course, that the results are compelling in more interesting ways than Mariah-style, lookee lookee, she can sing seven octaves, oooooooooh. With Blackout, they certainly are that.
Ewing’s description of the record eating Britney’s only-ever-disappointing-when-left-alone vocal is spot on – Freakshow particularly turns it into something frighteningly mannish, a la Laurie Anderson. Even more compelling though is Britney’s very own Kling Klang studio, her ‘mutterschaft’ – Hütter’s words for Kraftwerk’s musical laboratory, which became integrated into their live performance during the Computer World tour – namely, the producers whose efforts make her own look somewhat pathetic by comparison. The Clutch, the Neptunes and, most dramatically, Bloodshy and Avant (also responsible for Toxic) who turn the magnificent Piece of Me into a shifting, bleeping, threatening tapestry of electronica into which Britney is assimilated via a sequence of extraordinary vocodered gymnastics.
The machines play Britney, just as the machines played Kraftwerk. And the results are far, far more compelling, far more friendly towards Britney than a song like I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman will ever be. As, indeed, Spotify itself puts it, ‘how responsible is Britney for her music, anyway?’ Viewed in this light, her ‘disastrous’ performance at the VMAs in 2007 suddenly begins to look like a work of performance art genius, on a level with Kraftwerk’s The Robots manikins, drawing elegant attention to the futility of human effort in the face of the perfection of machines. Compare the below:
1. The Robots – Kraftwerk
2. Gimme More – Britney Spears
3. Spacelab – Kraftwerk
4. Break The Ice – Britney Spears
5. Metropolis – Kraftwerk
6. Get Naked (I Got A Plan) – Britney Spears
7. The Model – Kraftwerk
8. Piece Of Me – Britney Spears
9. Neon Lights – Kraftwerk
10. Heaven On Earth – Britney Spears
11. The Man Machine – Kraftwerk
12. Radar – Britney Spears
Of course, the ultimate point of these tapes is to shed new light on an aspect of literature that wouldn’t necessarily have light shed on it otherwise. As I’ve gone on so extensively about musical side of this tape, though, I’ll simply mention a couple things that spring to mind when music is thought about in this way.
The first, literature and machines
Last week, Phil talked about Ross Sutherland’s experiments with poetry and internet translation machines, a man-machine collaboration that is surely in keeping with the quote of Hütter’s with which I began this piece. Here’s how Sutherland describes his approach:
I began to feed famous poems into the translator, bouncing them back and forth between the different languages, then back into English. With every translation, the program was forced to collapse the ambiguity of the original.
The fact that this relationship exists must mean other machine-literature relationships also exist, and I intend to find them.
The second, literature and editors
How useful is a comparison between musical producers and literary editors? It’s a question that requires an essay in its own right, I think, because of authors like Roald Dahl who make the writer-editor relationship look much more complicated than literary idealists might initially envision. As a review of Jeremy Treglown’s biography of Dahl on RoaldDahlFans.com puts it, Dahl
didn't by any means have perfect pitch: Dahl counted increasingly on his editors' help not simply with stylistic fine points but also with larger matters of structure and character. Stephen Roxburgh offered the most extensive help, tinkering with The BFG, reworking The Witches, proposing that Dahl try a memoir and then helping with research for both Boy and Going Solo. Though some earlier changes had arguably had a domesticating effect (removing a graphic passage about nose–blowing from The Twits, making the hero of Fantastic Mr. Fox a noble avenger rather than a shoplifter, and so on), the later revisions were not done to satisfy the ‘pseudo–liberal librarian mentality,’ as Mr. Roxburgh put it. They were to improve plots, rearrange and reconceive characters, tighten up the writing. Dahl was never coerced: this valuable writer was only expertly cajoled, and for the most part that was all it took. He responded to suggestions with mature flexibility, gratefully acknowledging problems and rewriting with flair.
I’m not saying Dahl is like Britney Spears. But I am saying that the
Neptunes get a hell of a lot more credit for their work than people like Stephen Roxburgh do, and I’m interested in why that is.