Kurt Weill, Caetano Veloso, White Stripes
If it is art, it is not for everyone, and if it is for everyone, it is not art.—Arnold Schönberg1
Almost forty years after Theodor Adorno delivered what had seemed to be a death blow to some of Bertolt Brecht’s most attractive claims, Roberto Schwarz had the audacity to return to a very basic question: How does Brecht mean what he means?2 The problem is precisely that of autonomy, or rather its lack: in Adorno’s essay on the question, the problem of “commitment,” or art’s heteronomy to politics.3
As is well known, Brecht’s theater aims explicitly at autonomy from the market. Entertainment of course precedes the market: opera “was a means of pleasure long before it was a commodity.”4 But under present conditions, “art is a commodity” whose value derives, in the case of opera, from “the social function of the theater apparatus, namely to provide an evening’s entertainment.”5 In Mahagonny, this pleasure is artistically neutralized by framing it:
As for the content of [Mahagonny], its content is pleasure: fun not only as form, but as subject matter. Pleasure is at least to be the object of inquiry, even as the inquiry is to be an object of pleasure. Pleasure enters here in its present historical form: as a commodity.6
The two sides of the chiasmus are not symmetrical. The inquiry as an object of pleasure (Mahagonny) is a commodity; pleasure as an object of inquiry (Mahagonny) is not. Supported by the theater apparatus, epic theater is all the same within it a “foreign body.”7 But autonomy from the market is understood to be heteronomy to something else. The goal of epic theater is “to develop an object of instruction out of the means of enjoyment, and to convert certain institutions from places of entertainment to organs of publicity.”8 Even as the culinary is retained, in other words, Brecht turns the ancient defense of poetry—“delight and teach”—more fundamentally into a choice of priorities: “Vergnügungstheater oder Lehrtheater?”: theater for pleasure or theater for learning?9
Adorno raises an objection to this orientation that is in its essence very basic, and that returns to Hegel’s critique, in the introduction to his lectures on aesthetics, of the possibility of defending art by referring to its ends. From the most abstract perspective, the choice Brecht imposes is no choice at all: both theater for pleasure and theater for learning are theater “for” something; that is, both are to be judged by their effectiveness as a means to some external end. If the work of art is not to “have its end and its aim in itself,” but is rather to be valued as a means to some other end, then the appropriate focus of judgment shifts away from the work of art both to the end it claims to serve and to the efficacy of its status as a means.10 For Hegel’s critique, it matters not at all whether the purported ends are noble or base: Hegel’s offhand list includes “instruction, purification, improvement, financial gain, striving after fame and honor” (64). The point is rather that neither moment—neither that of the work of art’s status as a means (essential or arbitrary?), nor that of the status of the ends to which it is subordinated (desirable or not?)—is self-evident. This applies as well to today’s academic empathy-peddlers, amateur subjectivity-modelers, community do-gooders, and civic boosters as it does to yesterday’s radical theater.
In the early 1950s Adorno is, to say the least, suspicious of the ends to which Brecht is committed. More devastatingly, however, Adorno points to the implausibility of the work of art as a means. In order to do what it claims to do—namely, to “strike in images the being of capitalism” (416)—Brechtian theater has recourse to the technical means available to drama as a medium. But from the perspective of propositional truth, of the revolutionary doctrine the work of art is supposed to contain, these technical means are distortions. And here Adorno does not merely disagree with Brecht, but rather shows Brecht necessarily disagreeing with himself. In Saint Joan of the Stockyards, for example, Brecht legitimately requires a certain level of coincidence to condense an entire ensemble of contradictions onto the single figure of Joan. But “that a strike leadership backed by the Party should entrust a decisive task to a non-member is, even with the greatest latitude for poetic license, as unthinkable as the idea that through the failure of that individual the entire strike should fail” (417). The point here is not that Brecht should have written a treatise on revolutionary action rather than a play, but rather that a play cannot be at the same time a treatise on revolutionary action—or at least, not a good one. Indeed, the very requirement that Saint Joan be a play falsifies the treatise it also claims to be. The ostensible thesis of Saint Joan—that individual do-gooding is a compensatory substitute for collective action—is subverted by the fact that everything hinges—necessarily, since this is a play—on the success or failure of Joan’s individual do-gooding. Rather than, as might be expected, bluntly refuting Brecht’s claims, Adorno folds them delicately into what they seek to oppose, effectively aligning Brecht’s dramaturgy with formal aestheticism. For the next move is to insist that Brecht’s didacticism is in fact a formal principle rather than a political one. “Brecht’s technique of reduction would be legitimate only in the field of ‘art for art’s sake,’ which his version of commitment condemns as it does Lucullus” (419).
The brilliance of Schwarz’s late intervention is to see that this critique is devastating to Brecht’s claim to didactic effectiveness, but not to the play for which this claim is made. The loss is not as great as it might seem: after all, Schwarz reminds us, the Brechtian “lessons” are “of modest scope” and it is not obvious that they remain today ahead of historical developments (43). “Thus, against claims to the contrary, the truth of the plays would not lie in the lessons passed on, in the theorems concerning class conflict, but rather in the objective dynamic of the whole” (44). This is not to say that Brecht’s plays have no cognitive content or that they have no political potency, but rather that their content and their politics are mediated by the self-legislating nature of the autonomous work. As a corrolary, when the work falters as a work, as Mother Courage does in its third act, the ostensible contents and politics of the play scatter to the wind like so many good intentions.
Schwarz’s revelatory re-reading of Saint Joan, which indeed brings this objective dynamic forward, deserves careful attention on its own account, but one aspect is particularly important here. “Relying on his exceptional gift for pastiche, [Brecht] presented the vicissitudes of class conflict and the calculations of the canned-goods cartel… in verses imitative of Schiller, Hölderlin, Faust II, expressionist poetry, or Greek tragedies (perceived as German honoris causa).” In Hölderlin’s “Hyperion’s Song of Destiny,” for example, which Schwarz highlights as central to the play’s system of citation, human destiny is figured as heroic errancy: to wander without consolation, “Like water from crag / To crag hurled down.” In Saint Joan, it is rather falling stock prices that are “Thrown like water from crag to crag.”11
In its barest outline, specifically modernist pastiche as a reciprocal commentary between the heroic past and the prosaic present is hardly new with Brecht; in terms of conspicuous virtuosity, the “Oxen of the Sun” episode in Ulysses had already developed this mode much further than Brecht ever cared to. But the Brechtian difference is a profound one, which in Schwarz goes by the circumspect label “unity of process” (49), otherwise known as history, or what in yet more abstract terms is the Hegelian “identity of identity and difference.” In other words, the peculiarly Brechtian sting lies not in the difference between the classical source and the modern material, but rather in their identity, which is not only in the design of the artist. The petty brutality of the businessman is the endpoint of romantic striving rather than its negation: “something of Mauler already existed in Faust” (56).
But there is no lesson in this identity, no external end to which the dramatic image is subordinated; rather the two moments of Faust and Mauler are posited as an identity in the dramatic image. That is all. What is presented is not a doctrine but a figure: Faust-as-Mauler, a poetic idea. We learn nothing from this figure about the way capitalism works; rather, Brecht opens up a line of questioning by way of a sensuous configuration. The Brechtian idea is a matter of positing available contents in a particular way: a familiar action (say) as the product of alterable motives rather than human nature; or bourgeois ruthlessness as continuous with bourgeois revolution.
In a well-known series of lists, Brecht contrasts traditional (dramatische) and epic (epische) form.12 Some of the categories are primarily formal (is the sequence of events linear or in curves?), while others are more obviously ideological (are people unchangeable, or are they rather changeable and changing?). But the ideological commitments, which are indeed crucial, cannot be considered lessons. Even if the epic idea—say, “human nature is not given”—could be demonstrated to be correct, all that a play can demonstrate is its plausibility: an Aristotelian category rather than a particularly Brechtian one, and one which Brecht jealously preserves by framing his implausibilities as implausible. Saint Joan is successful precisely because it does not break fundamentally with the norms of art inherited from the early romantics. Doubtless, it critiques these norms, but it critiques them as poetry: indeed, it fulfills rather emphatically Schlegel’s demand that any critique of poetry be itself “poetry through and through and equally a living, vibrant work of art.”13
None of this, and this is the point to emphasize, blunts the materialist edge of Brecht’s critique. Meaning is produced through a poetic critique of poetry, but this does not mean that meaning is restricted to the realm of poetry. The meaning, that is, is deeply compatible with the set of extractable lessons that Brecht is prevented from presenting without crippling distortion by the limitations of the form. Brecht’s critique of Hölderlin and Goethe is along the lines of Marx’s critique of Hegel or indeed Adorno’s critique of Heidegger: by introducing concrete content back into abstract language, Brecht posits an identity between vulgar, everyday social content and sublime, abstract thought. The sublime existential risk of a world universally without guarantee becomes the risk of losing some money. (For others its endpoint, the “Unknown” in Hölderlin’s song, is simply unemployment). Brecht’s poetic idea—the petty manipulation of the stock market (petty in its motivations if not in the damage it wreaks) narrated in the language of human destiny—requires no particular accuracy in its depiction of the operations of the stock market, and is entirely produced by, rather than hindered by, dramatic condensation. When St. Joan is considered, perversely, as being about poetry rather than about capitalism (or about revolutionary organization), it loses none of its Marxist sting, because the ground that unites Faust and Mauler is the historical identity (Schwarz’s “unity of process”) of a class. “Unheroic as bourgeois society is, it nonetheless required heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and the subjugation of nations to bring it into being.”14 The bourgeoisie emerged in blood and glory, but soon enough had to subordinate its grand ideas, and anyone who still thought them, to the business of making money.
Pastiche—again, quite different from the pastiche that is practically standard modernist operating procedure, and also entirely different from the postmodern re-animation of dead forms—functions somewhat differently in The Threepenny Opera, where class-typical behavior is transposed across classes. The obvious example is bourgeois industry transposed to lumpens: Peachum’s begging industry and, climactically, Mac’s “What is the robbing of a bank against the founding of a bank?”15 But the example on which Brecht seems to have expended the most energy, at least following his “hints for actors,” is that of love—or, more accurately, the ideology of love, that discredited “damned ‘can-you-feel-my-heart-beating’ text” (239). When Mac, the notorious criminal, marries Polly, daughter of the begging-agent, his second concurrent wife, in a horse shed, catered by members of his gang, the elements are in place for broad parody. And indeed we get some of that: a bit about the distinction between Chippendale and Louis Quatorze (244), generally omitted from contemporary productions, is pure Marx-brothers buffoonery. But the irony is not as straightforward as it appears.
The actors should avoid representing these bandits as a gang of those pathetic individuals with red kerchiefs about their necks who lively up fairgrounds and with whom no respectable person would drink a glass of beer. They are naturally dignified men: some portly, but all (aside from their profession) sociable. (433)
The spectacle of criminals putting on a bourgeois wedding in a stable is absurd not because the criminals are buffoons but because they are, aside from their profession, bourgeois. (Mauler, the captain of industry in St. Joan, is equally—aside from his profession—sociable). Even the genuine buffoonery conforms to this pattern. The omitted laugh line mentioned above comes at the expense of “Captain” Macheath, the pretentious lumpen, who doesn’t know the difference between Chippendale and Quatorze but pretends he does. Here the buffoonery seems to operate in the expected direction. But his henchmen, who do know the difference, allow themselves to be corrected. So Mac’s ignorance is a luxury, not a deprivation: he isn’t an ignoramus, but a philistine.
So when Mac, in the midst of setting up house in a barn with a stolen Chippendale grandfather clock, intones, a few moments later, “Every beginning is hard,” he is not citing Goethe’s famous line from Hermann und Dorothea, but repeating the cliché it has become. Brecht, on the other hand, is citing Goethe. Goethe’s line continues: “Every beginning is hard; hardest is beginning a household”—this last word translating Wirtschaft, more commonly enterprise or business. This entire scene, with its semi-rustic setting in the middle of London, is a commentary on Hermann and Dorothea: disreputable Mac, in the position of the refugee Dorothea, is repeating the words of the respectable father (and indeed is making a practical match), while it is Polly, at the center of the conflict between the household as centrally an enterprise and the household as centrally a love match, who occupies the position of the son, and who indeed embodies the contradictory impulses embodied in Goethe’s “Wirtschaft”:
It is absolutely desirable that Polly Peachum should impress the audience as a virtuous and agreeable girl. If in the second scene she has demonstrated her entirely disinterested love, now she exhibits that practical outlook without which the first had been mere frivolity. (434)
The manifold overtones of this parody could be pleasurably pursued into the deepest nooks and crannies of the scene, but the import of this moment for now is that while the scene is clearly about class—specifically, the economic content of bourgeois sentiment—it is only about class by being first about poetry.
Of course, there is more to theater than poetry. “Epic theater is gestic,” wrote Benjamin. “To what extent it can be poetic in the traditional sense is a separate matter.”16 But what is the Brechtian Gest? For Benjamin, it is a matter of interruption, which is to say a question of framing. Benjamin draws the appropriate conclusion from this:
In short, the action [is] interrupted. We may go further here and consider that interruption is one of the fundamental procedures of all form-giving. It reaches far beyond the sphere of art. It is, to pick out just one aspect, the basis of quotation. Quoting a text implies breaking ties with its context. It makes sense, therefore, that epic theatre, which is based on interruption, is quotable in a specific sense. The quotability of its texts would be nothing extraordinary. That of the gestures it makes use of is another matter entirely.
“To make gestures quotable” is one of the essential accomplishments of epic theatre.17
But the issue of quotation, far from being “a separate matter” from that of Brecht’s traditional literariness, is the core of his traditional literariness. The quotation—the twisting and turning repetition of Hölderlin’s “crag to crag,” the ironic repetition of Goethe’s “Every beginning is difficult”—is precisely gestic; indeed, as we have seen, the latter poetic gesture is intimately bound up with an ensemble of other gestures: those of Polly, Mac, and Mac’s subordinates. “From where does epic theater take its gestures?” asks Benjamin. “The gestures are found in reality.”18 Surely correct, but not very helpful. From what order of reality does epic theater take its gestures? Brecht “makes gestures quotable” precisely by quoting them—which is to say they are already quotable. The order from which they are taken is textual. The “damned ‘can-you-feel-my-heart-beating’ text” (239) may refer to romantic Lieder, just as “Every beginning is difficult” refers to Goethe. But it belongs equally to the ways lovers act with each other, just as uttering platitudes belongs to the way people act at a wedding. These are two different kinds of text—the gesture proper may experience itself as spontaneous, while the literary gesture is part of a self-overcoming aesthetic field—but they are both texts nonetheles, or else they would not be quotable. When, in The Godfather, Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, fleetingly registers the fact that his own hands do not shake as he lights a cigarette during a life-or-death bluff, this is a powerfully effective actorly gesture. But since it belongs only to the narrative situation, it is not a social citation and therefore not a Brechtian gesture—a fact which does not preclude an esoteric citation of other filmic cigarrette-lightings. As the notes for actors make clear, narrowly gestic elements are a matter of embodied ideology, a social script: “Efforts not to slip on a slick surface become a social gest as soon as slipping would mean losing face.”19 The procedure followed in both Brechtian pastiche and gestic acting is the same, namely citation, or framing a preexisting text in order to create a unit of meaning.
With reference to music the question of gesture acquires a new density. In “On the Gestic Character of Music,” which precedes Brecht’s first published comments on gesture, Kurt Weill proclaimed that “today the composer may no longer approach his text from a position of sensual enjoyment.”20 Weill is contending here with the Brechtian problem of the entertainment-commodity. But what is proposed here is both more radical and less prudish than his statement suggests. The target of Weill’s criticism is the “theater of the past epoch,” which was “written for sensual enjoyment. It wanted to titillate, to irritate, to arouse, to upset [kitzeln, erregen, aufpeitschen, umwerfen] the spectator.”21 So “to irritate” and “to upset” are included under the heading of “sensual enjoyment.” Indeed what Weill forbids to what he calls “gestic music” is to provoke any kind of affective state in the spectator. This is not really a surprise, being very much in line with Brecht’s anathematization of such theatrical effects as “coerced empathy.”22
But surely the production of affective states in listeners is part and parcel of what music is: to take only the most basic element, any perceived musical beat is enough to organize the internal or external movements of a listener.23 In the first episode of the 1967 television series The Prisoner, the fact that the village is a totalitarian dystopia is established not by the video panopticon, which can in the end be evaded, but by the fact that the soothing music cannot be turned off. Hegel, no expert on music, did however understand this: while poetry expresses (ausspricht) an idea—which is then part of the meaning of the work—music can at most provoke one (den Anstoß geben)—an idea which is then merely “ours,” not part of the work itself.24 Weill seems to have painted himself into a corner: the thing music is forbidden to do is precisely the thing that distinguishes music from the other arts.
We will come to Weill’s solution in a moment. But we should take a minute to appreciate that any solution to Weill’s dilemma will also solve a dilemma for us. For what music does par excellence—provoke affective states in listeners—absolutely forecloses, under current conditions, the possibility of its being a medium for artworks. For any provoked effect is, under current conditions, always already a commodity—as Schwarz puts it elsewhere, “In a capitalist regime, any form of utility suffices to make anything or anyone ‘an official member of the world of commodities’ (Marx, Das Kapital II, 20.8).”25 If “in a capitalist society, production for the market permeates the social order as a whole, then concrete forms of activity cease to have their justifications in themselves. Their end is external, their particular forms inessential.”26 In other words, no commodity can plausibly produce a meaning—whose end is by definition essential—and no musical subjective effect is, under current conditions, not a commodity.27 This has the unhappy consequence that the music one likes is, insofar as its ends are bound up with effects for which one likes it, excluded from the category of art. So the question of how to produce music whose aim is not to produce effects is an urgent one.
The paradigmatic modernist solution—the purely music-immanent exploration of music as a medium—is, however, precisely what Weill seeks to overcome:
The recent development of music has been predominantly aesthetic: emancipation from the nineteenth century, struggle against extra-musical influences (program music, symbolism, realism), return to absolute music. […] Today we are a step further. A clear separation is taking place between those musicians who… as if in a private club, work on the solution to aesthetic problems, and others who will undertake to engage any audience whatever.28
Even as the moment of music-immanent development is seen as a forward step, two contrary imperatives are suggested at once: to engage an audience beyond the specialized restricted field of musicians and experts, and to produce meanings beyond those that only the restricted audience cares about, which is to say meanings that are not purely music-immanent. These two imperatives seem to be aligned, and they have a certain populism in common. In fact, as Weill is well aware, they are deeply in conflict. In a market society, the first imperative can be satisfied only by risking the market—“any audience whatever.” But the second imperative, to produce political meanings of the kind Weill is after, is one that the market is indifferent to; one which, in fact, is unmarketable, since meanings that can be sold—that is, meanings for which there is a demand—are not meanings at all, but commodities. A political meaning that satisfies a demand is not a meaning, but a purchasable point of social identification.
What is Weill’s solution? His own commentary in “On the Gestic Character of Music” and elsewhere is not particularly helpful on this score. But his practice is quite clear. The “Cannon Song” from Threepenny Opera is a martial variant of a barroom singalong, what might be classified generically as a barrack-room ballad. Like all good singalongs, it may well move a listener familiar with the piece to want to sing along, and the reason that it has this power might be something brain science or some other discipline can one day explain. Then again, some listeners may not be so moved, and the failure to be moved is in principle susceptible to explanation. But for Weill, this effect or its lack is irrelevant. The “barrack-room ballad”—the phrase is Kipling’s—is in Weill’s hands a gest, which is to say, a citation. Cannon Song frames the gesture, and in so doing creates a meaning, which is to present military camaraderie as deeply creepy.
Brecht’s text is also a citation, a pastiche of Kipling’s martial ditties like “Screw Guns”:
For you all love the screw-guns—
the screw-guns they all love you!
So when we call round with a few guns,
o’ course you know what to do—hoo! hoo!
Jest send your Chief an’ surrender —
it’s worse if you fights or you runs:
You can go where you please,
you can skid up the trees,
but you don’t get away from the guns.29
In Brecht’s text, racism and genocide move from (barely) subtext to text in a way that is deliberately unsubtle. On the page it falls a bit flat, but in Weill’s rousing mess-hall setting it is quite spectacular:
The troops live under
The cannons’ thunder
From cape to Cooch Behar.
And if it rained one day,
And they had chanced to stray
Across a different race,
Brown or pale of face,
They made them, if they liked,
Into their beefsteak tartare.30
What is the source of “Cannon Song”’s creepiness? Like so many of the songs in Threepenny, the tempo marking is already a citation: “Foxtrot-Tempo.”31 The basic rhythm is indeed a foxtrot (foursquare rhythm with accents on the offbeats), and the introductory trumpet part develops a jazzy motif, culminating in the ragtime cliché of bar six. But the “swing” of the initial motif is written in as a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note, and meant to be played as written, so it jerks rather than swings. The antiphonal saxophone line recalls jazz call and response—except it arrives a beat early, interrupting and disrupting the trumpet line rather than repeating and endorsing it. The introductory bars do not lead to the tonality of the verse, but rather have no obvious tonal center or direction. The angular melodic line of the introduction—as becomes clear when, in the first repetition of the initial idea, the interval of a fifth is tightened up to an augmented fourth in bar three—is not about to subordinate itself to the business of dancing. Meanwhile, the instrumentation—in particular, the use of the lower brass—emphasizes the relationship between popular dance music and marching music, a connection which bears on the meaning of the song. When the song lands on a tonal center (bar seven), the underlying harmonic movement becomes conventional, tied to the cycle of fourths (see particularly bars 14-16), which can be intuited or arrived at analytically. But this structure is estranged by avoiding triads, and the movements they imply, almost entirely: the harmonic surface consists of paired sets of fifths juxtaposed on the on and off beats. The result is both estranging—the movements are conventional, but now robbed of any illusion of necessity—and vaguely orientalizing, which is emphasized by the largely pentatonic melody. The song finally becomes diatonic and tonally centered only with the martial refrain, which, in a series of descending half notes (“cape to Cooch Behar”), spells out a minor chord (F# minor) and lands on its dominant—the first conventionally outlined chord of the song. This is the music of the beer hall—or the recruiting station. But the middle voice, a teetotaler or a pacifist, already puts this tonality in doubt. The dominant lasts disorientingly long, tightening up into a diminished chord rather than resolving. Finally, at the height of the barbarism of the lyrics, arrives a cadence that centers on another fully spelled out dominant, which occurs in bar 34, at the climax of the song (the “beefsteak” before “tartare”). But the implied cadence is doubly false, both misleading about where it is going and where it is coming from. It ought to lead to A minor, but leads to D minor instead. And while the melody at “They made them, if they liked” (measure 32) suggests that we are still essentially in F# minor, measure 33 is already in D minor. So the false cadence is not only false, but rather than lead somewhere surprising, it leads exactly nowhere. The overall effect, if one cares to look at it this closely, is to remove all sense of naturalness from the underlying conventional structures. The song hews just close enough to conventional forms—foxtrot, march, barrack-room ballad; cycle of fourths, largely nachsingbare melody, climactic cadence—to borrow their effects, while at the same time denaturalizing them by formal means which are not effects except inasmuch as they aim at the variously translated Brechtian “disidentification effect,” which in the terms of the present study is not strictly an effect but rather a set of techniques for forestalling or framing effects and subordinating them to interpretations. All this is simply to read as immanent to the song what it is hard to imagine any listener denying, namely that the product of these formal distortions is deeply creepy.
“Today the composer may no longer approach his text from a position of sensual enjoyment.” If one imagines setting a war anthem in a state-sanctioned patriotic film, the first thing on the composer’s mind would be producing the singalong effect, an identificatory esprit de corps, in as many people as possible. If one imagines setting one in a commercial film, the first thing on the composer’s mind would be the same, but for a different reason: to appeal to as many people as possible who already want to experience identificatory esprit de corps. Brecht’s and Weill’s version functions entirely differently, since you need not feel the force of the singalong (though you do need to understand its system of references, if not with any specificity) to understand Weill’s meaning, which is to fuse the brutality of Brecht’s lyric with the social cohesion of military esprit de corps, not after all so different than that of the dance hall, and in doing so to impose an interpretation.
But chances are you will feel its force: “Cannon Song” remains, all this aside, a rousing air. This is irrelevant to “Cannon Song”’s meaning as a work of art, but it is far from irrelevant to “Cannon Song”’s success as a popular entertainment. As Brecht says, “Theater remains theater, even when it is didactic theater; and so long is it is good theater, it is entertaining.”32 If “Cannon Song” failed as a rousing air, that would not change its meaning; but nor would Threepenny have been, in the five years before the Nazis came to power, translated into eighteen languages and been performed more than 10,000 times, and nor would we be talking about it today.33 “Up to the stable scene the audience seemed cold and apathetic, as though convinced in advance that it had come to a certain flop. Then after the Kanonen song, an unbelievable roar went up, and from that point it was wonderfully, intoxicatingly clear that the public was with us.”34
“No opera here!” (245) demands Mac, in a work called an opera, a word intended as little ironically as the “threepenny” that precedes it.35 The gesture is echoed (but not cited) some twenty years later, in Rio de Janeiro, by Janet de Almeida and Haroldo Barbosa:
Why Argue with Madame?
Madame says the race won’t improve
That things are going downhill because of samba
Madame says samba brings sin
That samba should be put out of its misery
Madame says samba is nothing but race mixing
Color mixing and cachaça
Madame says that the democratic samba
Is cheap music with no value
Let’s be done with samba
Madame doesn’t like anyone to samba
All she can say is samba is shameful
Why argue with Madame?
Doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo
Next Carnaval, sure,
My block from up in the ‘hood will sing opera
On the street among the press of thousands
You’ll see us all singing a concerto
Madame has a screw loose,
She only talks poison, my God what a shrew
Samba, democratic, Brazilian
To the roots, that’s what has value.36
The cast of characters seems straightforward: Madame; the protagonist, who lives in a working class neighborhood, belongs to a samba school, and is presumably in Madame’s employ; and the samba school, a metonym for the “press of thousands” at Carnaval, itself a metonym for the Brazilian people. Digging a little deeper, one learns that “Madame” was a real person, the conservative cultural critic Magdala da Gama de Oliveira, otherwise known as “Maggy,” who occupied highly visible perches on radio and in the journal Diário de Notícias, and whom the journalist and composer Fernando Lobo had recently apostrophized in a critical essay as “Madame.”37 So from a historical perspective the position of the protagonist becomes more complicated: he is still working class, but the conflict between him and Madame is only metaphorically a class conflict, since the cultural conflict it centers on takes place entirely among journalists: not only “Maggy” and Lobo but also Almeida and Barbosa were journalists as well as, in the case of the latter three, composers.
As suggestive as it is, this historical meaning is essentially a private one. It is a professional spat, not without interest, that a little research allows us to eavesdrop on. It is symptomatic of a recognizable ideological field. But no attempt is made to inscribe this historical meaning in a normative field, and as far as the meaning of the song goes, we are pretty much back where we started.
Or we would be but for the little wordless interlude before the final stanza, which is a close paraphrase of measures 20-24 of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.38 Here the historical meaning of the song—the appropriation of the political subjectivity of the working class by the progressive bourgeoisie—is inscribed directly in the musical material. Not content to be more democratic and sensible than Madame (and presumably a better dancer), the protagonist must show himself to be more erudite as well: an advantage not available to the man from the hill neighborhoods. Without the interlude, “singing a concerto” is the approximate speech of one who doesn’t have any very precise idea of what a concerto is. After the interlude, “singing concertos” is a winking reference, in case we missed it, to what has just been accomplished. In other words, the lyrical voice identifies with the working class—but only when “Madame” is in the third person, that is when he addresses himself to the “people,” which is to say the lower orders plus the progressive bourgeoisie. But the borrowed passage from Tchaikovsky is, out of earshot from the hills, addressed only to Madame, to the bourgeoisie as such.
Much more can be said about this peculiar combination of popular identification and ironic distance, which has not disappeared from progressive Brazilian discourse, than is relevant to the argument at hand. What is important for the moment is that musical form only has meaning here as a citation, of which there are now two: the borrowing from Tchaikovsky, and what, in the light of the Tchaikovsky, appears as a borrowing of the samba form. But in neither case does musical form mean anything outside of its status as a citation: to the world of erudite music on one hand, and to the world of (idealized or real) communally organic musical form on the other. However, citation works here precisely the opposite of how it works in Brecht and Weill. In the earlier case, citation is a technique of disidentification, for freeing the dramatic work from the obligation of producing an empathic relation to the action and replacing it with a questioning one. In the later, it is a technique for producing a double identification: the first one public and universal (the identification of the lyrical voice with the people), the second private and particular (the identification of the lyrical voice with the cultural elite).
One is tempted to point out that the choice of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto is a particularly appropriate one, since there too a folk dance, in this case Ukrainian, is contrasted with a Romantic theme, or because its long introductory melody, from which Almeida’s and Barbosa’s quote is taken, is an easily digestible line that can be absorbed by the culture industry without difficulty.39 But in the above-cited interview, where Barbosa sings a bit of the interlude, there is nothing to suggest he regards the song as anything but a jeu d’esprit, an unframed gesture.40 The framed, Brechtian equivalent might involve one actor saying something quite reasonable to another while surreptitiously winking to the audience. But the unframed wink is not an idea about duplicity but rather duplicity itself.
It would have been convenient for the current discussion if João Gilberto, in rescuing the song from oblivion, had overcome this duplicity in Brechtian fashion. However, bossa nova is a resolutely anti-theatrical form (“Retrato em branco e preto,” which Gilberto performs immediately before “Pra que discutir com Madame” in a famous concert, begins with a cluster of small intervals that mimics—in Chico Buarque’s lyrics, in Tom Jobim’s composition, and in Gilberto’s interpretation—a man mumbling to himself) and has no interest in working through theatricality and coming out the other side.41 Rather, in Gilberto’s performance the social conflict that Almeida’s and Barbosa’s lyric embodies is turned—as is the case with bossa nova generally—into a problem that musical form attempts to supersede. Though both the approach and the politics are quite different, the problem invented and confronted by the bossa nova generation is Weill’s: “to create a music capable of satisfying the musical needs of broader strata of society, without giving up artistic substance.”42 In other words, the project of the bossa nova generation is to exploit fully the real advances made possible by class segmentation, while creating a music that in principle does not depend on that segmentation for its reception. Or, in yet other words, to produce an art music that is not an elite music, a music that is samba and Tchaikovsky at once.
Compared to the work of the bossa nova composers, “Pra que discutir com Madame” is, but for the interpellated Tchaikovsky, compositionally banal. It seems likely that it was revived by Gilberto for its thematic relevance to the bossa nova project rather than any particular formal interest. However, the basic innovations of bossa nova form are, in Gilberto’s performance, in place: the chord structure is highly textured with elaborations from the upper extensions; the guitar rhythm is complex, derived from samba: the thumb operating, on the pulse, independently from the other fingers, which structure the rhythm in syncopated variations that suggest (though this is an illusion) a complete improvisational freedom from repetition; the vocal line combines a vibrato- and glissando-free technique, an almost conversational vocal quality (essential to its fundamental anti-theatricality), extraordinarily precise intonation, and, most importantly, the constant suggestion of a completely unfettered relationship to both the pulse and the syncopated line. When these elements are all performed by one person, such that the relationship among the three central elements of pulse, chordal rhythm, and vocals is at every point intended, the result is a performance of exceptional musical density. An index of this density is that in concert Gilberto often repeats an entire form three or more times—and yet one never has a sense of repetitiveness, to the point of not recognizing the repeat when it comes. But bossa nova remains a popular art form: not only are the songs themselves, even when they are of substantial formal interest, accessible, but the individual elements are within the reach of anyone who wants to learn them.
Much more can be said about the aesthetic ideology of bossa nova, which is the musical exponent of a developmental populism whose central ideologeme, full of contradictory implications, is the development of productive forces unmediatedly in the interests of the entire national population. The point to emphasize at the moment, however, is that the eclipse of bossa nova is not an artistic endpoint but an historical one, as developmental populism is decisively displaced by military coup, dictatorship, and integration with North American capital. Bossa nova itself continues to evolve after its historical relevance has faded, reaching an artistic zenith in the early 1970s with Jobim’s “Águas de março.”43 But by the time “Águas de março” had been recorded (1972), a new movement, Tropicália, had already come and gone. Indeed, bossa nova had already become a subject for pastiche by the musicians of the Tropicália movement: Caetano Veloso’s “Coração vagabundo,” from 1967, is a superb bossa nova—but it is a master’s thesis on Tom Jobim’s compositional technique, not a development of it or out of it.44
After the coup, the drive to modernize the Brazilian economy continues, but now severed from the drive to develop the economy more or less evenly. The new music of the dictatorship period, Tropicália, brutally reorients the dialectic of the most ambitious Brazilian music. The elements to be drawn together musically are no longer high and low—between which no identity, real or ideal, is imagined—but modern and archaic elements, which are not to be synthesized but allowed to exist in patent contradiction. In the manifesto-song “Tropicália,” for example, the refrain sections are organized into paired opposites.45 But these are organized along the lines of temporal contradiction, not class contradiction: bossa nova versus straw huts, Ipanema versus Iracema—but never straw huts versus Ipanema.46 In another manifesto-song, “Panis et Circenses,” these contradictions become a matter of form.47 The melody is deliberately insipid—an awkward live performance from the period serves as well as a valiant effort by the great Marisa Monte to show how hard it is to make “Panis et Circenses” into a conventionally good song. This little melody, performed as flatfootedly as possible; a military fanfare; an anticlimactic perfect cadence followed by an awkward silence; a half-note accompaniment that kindergarteners could perform; all of these are buried under the weight of contemporary recording techniques, particularly tape montage—a decelerando performed by a thumb on the tape reel, desultory dinner conversation, the Blue Danube—under the direction of Rogério Duprat, who had trained with Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. As Roberto Schwarz says of this Tropicalist effect, which exposes tacky content to “the white light of the ultra-modern,” it is “like a family secret dragged into the street.”48
Tropicália, which has been glossed over far too quickly here, marks a pivotal moment. The brutality and rapidity of the transition from a proto-socialist to a right-wing society integrated with Northern capital having taken place practically overnight, Tropicália registers all the contradictions of what will come to be called postmodernism in a form that still marks them as monstrous. However, the mark it left on Brazilian music was probably less in the music itself, and more in the training it afforded a generation of Brazilian musicians. Indeed, already by Veloso’s 1969 “white album,” an entirely new project, developed from but distinct from that of Tropicália, had emerged in its full outlines.49 The first thing one notices about Veloso is the album’s diversity of covers: a traditional Bahian maritime song, a cynical tango from the 1930s, an overwrought ballad from the 1940s, and a recently recorded bossa nova. Then there are pure pastiches: a march in the style of the electic Carnaval bands, a Portuguese fado, and a stab each at brit-pop psychedelia and album rock.50 Only with the final two tracks on the album—one each by Veloso and by Gilberto Gil, his primary collaborator and guitarist on the album—do we approach recognizable tropicalist procedures. “Acrilírico”—a portmanteau word combining “acrylic” (new and synthetic) and “lyric” (ancient and organic) and producing “bitter” between them—is a spoken concrete poem including taped sound fragments. Gil’s “Alfômega,” perhaps the distillation of the gleeful antisociality of Trópicalia, cruelly builds concretist wordplay around the Portuguese word for illiteracy, and sets it within what is essentially a rock song, performed here in a way that can only be described as groovy—leaving the question open as to whether the setting is a specimen of advanced or peripherally derivative culture. But surely, in the light of what has gone before, these last two tracks are not to be understood any differently than the other ten: Tropicália is included in the miscellany, not the principle of the miscellany itself. From the standpoint of the 1969 album, the logic of Tropicália has already been superseded.
Except where to do so would deform the musical material beyond recognition, the album’s material is treated uniformly throughout, so “Chuvas de verão” (a samba-canção by Fernando Lobo, from the same period as “Pra que discutir com Madame”) can serve to illustrate the procedure followed in the album as a whole. The orchestral embellishments and interludes in Francisco Alves’s 1948 recording are dispensed with. (The flute line is alluded to in a brief whistled introduction which, unlike the original, does not deviate from the structure of the song itself). The entire rhythmic and harmonic structure—the former greatly diversified and loosened up, though aligned closely with the pulse and still, like the original, a samba-canção—are brought within Gil’s guitar line, whose virtuosity is entirely unobtrusive. The vocals are sung without vibrato or glissando, pitched very precisely, and recorded close to the microphone, such that the vocal quality is intimate: even when the vocals sweep upward (for example at the first vocal line and particularly at “trazer uma aflição”), the dynamic range is kept narrow, so that the dramatic effect of the wide interval emphasized in the original recording is minimalized and, as it were, internalized. (Even in “Atrás do trio elétrico,” the vocals are double-tracked rather than sung loudly). In other words, though the song is not a bossa nova, the procedures followed so far follow bossa nova sensibilities. The studio production is peculiarly noteworthy. Rogério Duprat adds an orchestral part that is, on its own, a fine and tasteful accompaniment, far better than the original to which it also occasionally alludes. But the aural qualities of the orchestral line are completely different from the guitar and vocal parts: it is as though the latter were recorded in a bedroom, the former in a cathedral. The overall effect is the opposite of most studio production. Instead of producing the illusion of a seamless performance, where “the process of fusion reaches out to the spectator, who is fused right in and now represents a passive (suffering) part of the total work of art,” the result is a “radical separation of the elements.”51 And this is for entirely Brechtian reasons. The orchestral line is far too high in the mix. Since the orchestral accompaniment is intermittent, this serves to separate it further from the guitar and vocal basis rather than drowning it out; but it also dramatizes the “great primal war” between structure and embellishment, which cannot be simply eliminated, as it is part of the popular form. Instead of being combined to produce an effect, the elements are separated to problematize a relationship.
In confirmation of all this, the orchestral parts are mixed down in just one channel, so that if one earphone is removed, or the balance is turned all the way to one side, they can be completely eliminated. (The guitar and vocal parts are mixed down in both channels, and so cannot be eliminated). The struggle between structure and embellishment is thus decided in favor of structure. This is far too easy. Like the last minute of The Hurt Locker, it answers the question it was supposed to be asking: totally obscured is the role embellishment plays in the structure itself. What is important to note at present, however, is that this procedure is quite different from the Tropicalist one. Whereas earlier Duprat and his collaborators had used the recording studio to ironize brutally the cultural raw materials that were brought into it, here the studio frames the musical material—which now appears as structure rather than as raw material—without assuming a position superior to it. There is, in other words, no irony in the new relation to the material.
The one possible exception makes an interesting case. The recording of Chico Buarque’s “Carolina” was received scandalously, as an ironic attack on Buarque. Without context, it is hard to see why. Buarque’s recording is dominated by an orchestral accompaniment that is by turns saccharine (strings) and tacky (muted horns), and with an embarrassingly—for a Brazilian recording, almost unbelievably—lame percussion line, played on hi-hat. Indeed the whole recording is not a bad approximation of a bad American approximation of bossa nova. Buarque himself does not do much with the vocal line except occasionally sing it out of tune. Not even Buarque himself much cared for “Carolina,” which comes out as a far more interesting piece of music in Veloso’s version.52 The song is stripped bare in precisely the same fashion as “Chuvas de verão” (the orchestral line does not even enter until the final fifteen seconds or so of the song), with Gil producing a marvelous distillation and revision of the rhythmic and harmonic structure on guitar, adding some color and complexity to the basically uniform pulse—a discreet rock shuffle is briefly introduced—and diatonic structure of the source material.
Nonetheless, it is hard to see Veloso’s “Carolina” as other than parodic. Buarque is at that moment a hero of the large and culturally hegemonic Left, which is friendly to Marxism even where the latter is not fully incorporated conceptually. Veloso, though he emerges from this Left—one of his first musical commissions was incidental music for a production of a Lehrstück of Brecht’s, The Exception and the Rule—is a figure for what looks in retrospect like an insurgent liberalism. Buarque is, meanwhile, a talented amateur but an amateur nonetheless. “Professionalism” is a privileged term in Veloso’s vocabulary as it was for Brazil’s first “cannibal” modernisms; it entails the market, without doubt, but it more immediately refers to the anti-imperialism of cultural import substitution, the development of a local culture industry sufficiently specialized to be able to compete with progressive first-world culture on the latter’s own terms. This is the aesthetic ideology of peripheral modernists from James Joyce to Oswald de Andrade to Chinua Achebe, and it relegates amateurism to “dilettantism” (according to Júlio Medaglia, a vanguard composer and tropicalist arranger) and putatively authentic culture to “macumba for tourists” (according to Oswald de Andrade, in a phrase the tropicalists were fond of citing). When Veloso sings “Carolina” with lazy intonation—seen nowhere else on the album and virtually nowhere else in his oeuvre—it is hard not to see the gesture as deliberate. Further, the lyrics—a reminiscence of a failed seduction—lend themselves easily to a political interpretation, the cold Carolina representing the bourgeoisie that turns its back on “a blooming rose, everybody dancing, a falling star,” the lyrical voice representing the revolutionary vanguard trying to show it all these things. Whether the song is taken to be purely romantic or as a political allegory, the lyrical voice paints himself in a too-flattering light. Veloso’s interpretation, sung barely above a whisper, provides just enough internal distance from the lyric to turn it into a dramatic monologue, the dashing revolutionary revealing himself as a lazy lothario whom Carolina may have been wise to ignore.
In an early account, Veloso claims that the inspiration for the recording was a girl, the “antimuse of Brazil” (“antimusical” being a key word in the bossa nova manifesto-song “Desafinado,” “Out of Tune”) singing “Carolina” on a televised amateur talent contest.53 This is scarcely credible. On the other hand, it confirms, precisely in its incredibility, everything said above. As much as the inflated sentiments of 1940s popular song, traditional maritime melodies, Carnaval marches, Portuguese fado, and so on, a robust sub-professional musical culture is a part of (a precondition of) the exceptional professional musical culture in Brazil. In other words, this account is an attempt to make “Carolina” consistent with the rest of the album, and if this is implausible, that marks a failure of “Carolina,” not a misunderstanding of the aims of the album. A later account is more plausible, and more interesting still. “When I recorded ‘Carolina’ in an estranging way [is the Brechtian adjective intentional?]… [i]t was not necessary to attack Chico to affirm our position. We were certain that Chico’s creation itself would benefit by its own relativization.” To “relativize” without “attacking,” indeed to turn into art by relativizing, to estrange: in other words, to frame. This is the mode of the album itself. And indeed, it is this account that finally fits the musical facts. The ambivalences of “Carolina” are highlighted, even as the musical distillation itself is nonjudgmental, even reverential.
On the procedure outlined here, and on the logic of the separation of elements it entails, all of the lyrical content of the album is radically relativized in the same way as that of “Carolina.” “Os Argonautas” may move you to a beautiful seafaring resignation (“To navigate is necessary; to live is not”); “Atrás do trio elétrico” may make you want to dance behind a massive Carnaval bandstand (“Behind the electric trio, only the dead don’t go”); “Alfômega” may fill you with a properly rock euphoria entirely inappropriate to its content. Because they are good songs, they probably will; and the affective jolt they provoke is their market raison d’être. But whether they do or not, they are unavoidably about these affective states, which is a raison d’être of a completely different order.
The approach to producing meaning is quite in line with that pursued by Weill and Brecht; the meaning produced is, of course, quite different. The post-Tropicália project is, as Veloso and Gil write in a song (from the 1993 album Tropicália 2) about Brazilian Cinema Novo, “conversas sobre jeitos do Brasil,” conversations about characteristic Brazilian ways and attitudes. What emerges from the album as a whole is a musical portrait of Brazil, elaborated from a certain standpoint, necessarily incomplete, and by no means excluding foreign influences.54 Indeed, this is the mode of Veloso’s career henceforth. Tropicália 2 is, from the standpoint of the current argument, misnamed: it is, practically track for track (though none of the songs are repeated) a sequel not to the original Tropicália but rather to Veloso’s 1969 “white album.”55 This mode has become in no small measure that of ambitious Brazilian music itself, from musicians as divergent in their tastes, approach, and level of seriousness as Lenine and Daniela Mercury.
The ideological limits of this project are obvious. In principle there is no reason these ways and attitudes cannot, as they are in Brecht and Weill, be class attitudes, professional attitudes, historical attitudes, and so on. But in that case the national frame would be relativized, and in practice the relevant categories tend to be regional, and historical in the very limited sense of being credited with having contributed to the Brazilian national character. The project sits entirely comfortably with Veloso’s liberalism (and with contemporary American, and increasingly globally hegemonic, cultural neoliberalism). A rather better son of the bourgeoisie than he imagined in 1964, Veloso’s world view is one of profound sympathy with the lower orders, who after all make most of Brazil’s music. But the sympathy does not extend to an inclination to share political or economic power with wider strata of society, and indeed Veloso’s attitude toward a real democratization of political and economic power can in the balance hardly be viewed as progressive.56
As may have been glimpsed here and there in the above account, this attitude has its own, particularly Brazilian trajectory. But it is not unique to Brazil. A profoundly egalitarian attitude combined with a high tolerance for material inequality emerges, in Schiller, virtually with the aesthetic itself:
In the aesthetic state everything—even the tool that serves—is a free citizen, having equal rights with the noblest. […] Here, in the realm of aesthetic appearance, the ideal of equality—which the political fanatic would fain see realized—will be fulfilled.57
Of course, the thing that, more than any other, reorganizes material, hierarchical relationships into mere differences—classes into niches—is the market. Roberto Schwarz summarizes the tropicalist position:
[The] reconciliation of the present with itself, in all its levels, without exclusions, was the—more satirical than complacent?—imitation of or subjective assimilation to the point of view of commercial cultural programming. Radio stations and TV also cover the gamut of the public’s interests, without regard to what is regressive or advanced, so long as they are profitable. A world full of differences and without antagonisms begins to look like an enormous market.58
Schwarz is speaking here of Tropicália; if it is correct that the post-Tropicália moment subtracts the irony from the tropicálist procedure, then the satirical option disappears, and one is left only with the complacent assimilation to the market. And indeed, Veloso embraces this interpretation. In concert, before singing a song in Spanish, Veloso launches into a digression about how singing in foreign languages grants a kind of privileged access to the Other. A beat, then: “It’s also good for market exposure.” Veloso means both statements sincerely, but the laugh line only works because of their asymmetry: the second puts the first in doubt, but not the reverse.
A cynical position is, however, preferable to a naïve one, and Veloso recognized early on that not recognizing market considerations—“many times the only decisive ones”—was no longer an option.59 “The important thing for us,” wrote Weill in a letter to the Musikblatter des Anbruchs in 1929, “is that here, for the first time, the breakthrough into a consumer industry has been achieved.”60 Both Weill and Veloso, in order to reach “broader strata of society,” skirt the edges of Gebrauchsmusik, music that fulfills a certain, in this case affective, need. Weill risks the market by choice. For Veloso, as we shall see, there is no choice to be made; after the dramatic foreclosure of the real possibility of a non-market society, he understands himself to be already contending with a situation in which it is unmediatedly the case that “any form of utility suffices to make anything or anyone ‘an official member of the world of commodities.’” In an 1974 interview, Veloso outlines with remarkable concision the overpowering of restricted fields by the culture industry: “On one hand, Music, violated by a new communicational process, is forced into both innovation and slavery; on the other hand, Music protected and impotent.”61 Cynicism and clear-headedness, both present, become difficult to discern.
We have arrived at least at an approximate sense of the ideological content of Veloso’s “conversation about Brazilian ways”: a liberal image of a country full of differences but without conflicts, an image that looks uncannily like the market. The practice of pastiche is directly implied by the real absorption of culture into the market, a process which Veloso both ambivalently celebrates and observes with stark clarity. The old meanings—modernist ones, bossa nova ones—are suddenly irrelevant, not because they have ceased to signify or evolve, but because the networks that found their significations and developments relevant have been overpowered by a market, which doesn’t. When bossa nova retreats into informal networks that no longer seem to have any relevance when confronted with the explosion of the Brazilian culture industry, a new set of possibilities, bound up with the relativization and appropriation of superseded styles, emerges. This relativization should be absolute; it should entail a properly postmodern irony, in which, due to the absence of meta-narrative sustained by non-market networks, the only principle of selection available is the whim of the artist, which is then necessarily placed in a position superior to the styles it subsumes. Indeed, this the case with Tropicália, with the advantage over paradigmatic postmodern culture that this shift is registered as intolerable: slavery or impotence. Veloso, however, overleaps this logic.
The inevitable issue from bossa nova is commercially stillborn and, culturally, insulating itself from the market, which it nonetheless needs to survive. We are trying to resume the lost trajectory.62
Astoundingly, Veloso conducts this autopsy in the name of continuity, rather than of a radical break. The new set of possibilities is seen in terms of a “lost trajectory,” which is none other than the “linha evolutiva” or evolutionary line that Veloso has done so much both to invent retrospectively and to introduce into Brazilian musical discourse as an unavoidable concept, but which cannot, if it is to function as a principle, be subordinated to his own taste.
It is with great difficulty that a few moments of organicity are achieved in our work; every once in a while something recognizable condenses, only to be lost in the confusion soon after; we make a samba without even thinking about it, it turns out to be so beautiful, we rejoice, believing we’ve realized something fine in the trajectory of this language—but there are so few musicians who are able to hear it, enrich it, understand what it can mean, learn from it or, in the course of history, re-teach it; and even those that there are have few opportunities to respond to each other.63
One wonders if, despite being central to Tropicália, Veloso was ever a tropicalist at all: the post-tropicalist project is already expressed here, full-blown, complete with liberal-nationalist overtones, in 1965. But the important thing to note here is that the market cares about an “evolutionary line” or a “lost trajectory” about as much as it cares about second-wave protest bossa nova. Veloso writes, as usual, with remarkable precision. What is at stake is not what music means, but what it “can mean” in terms of a national musical development when framed by someone who understands it. The entities who could plausibly care about such an evolutionary line are precisely two. First, the nation, the referent of “we” and “our”—but purely in the sense of an imagined community, not a national market, because the national market is none other than the “confusion” in which the evolutionary line gets “lost.” Second, the musicians who are able to discern in their practice a matter in hand to be developed, in other words a Bourdieusian restricted field of musicians “responding to each other”—but it is precisely the lack of this field that Veloso laments. Neither of the entities to which an “evolutionary line” could plausibly matter exist. The market, however, does exist. As we saw above, music “needs” it; there is no longer any other mode of distribution equal to the culture industry. But Veloso, despite everything, is not making music for the culture industry, which is, again, the confusion in which everything worth saving is lost.
In other words, Veloso’s musical practice entails a politics quite separate from his appeal to the market, which veers uneasily between realism and cynicism, and despite his liberal nationalist ideology, which veers uneasily between empathy and paternalism. He has discovered, in the market, a condition of possibility for a form of meaning that is, in principle and of necessity, autonomous from the market. One way of thinking about this is to say, a bit pathetically, that already in 1965 Veloso’s work is oriented toward producing meanings for an audience that is “to come”; and at least in this sense his work represents a certain resistance to the present, however feeble. Another way is to say that in a neoliberal moment, when the market as the horizon of all human endeavor is the strongest (but also practically the only) arrow in capital’s ideological quiver, and universal valorization practically its only (but also its most socially devastating) imperative, Veloso presents a valuable model.
The one genre which Veloso has proven unable to master, though undeniably a part of the Brazilian landscape, is rock. It is easy enough to see why: “I composed the songs [on his first of three rock albums, Cê] and planned out the album before I had even formed the band.”64 Veloso has produced some interesting covers of rock songs, perhaps most notably Nirvana’s “Come as You Are,” but they are interesting because, in separating the elements and tightening up their interrelations, he uncovers the songwriting behind the rock song.65 But as we shall see shortly, songwriting is not essential to rock—it may even be inimical to it—and it would be hard to make the case that his covers improve upon the originals. His two best rock songs, “Abraçaço” and “A bossa nova é foda,” from his most recent album, almost manage to abjure songwriting: “I let things flow as they wanted to, the songs, because the band was already together. I present an idea, they do it, everything works out.” Which is not to say that spontaneity is a musical value, but rather that spontaneity can be a useful constraint on songwriting, forcing other musical values to occupy more space.66
The White Stripes’ “Hello Operator” is about as far from songwriting as it is possible to get and still remain recognizably music.67 Though a suggestion of private meaning seeps through, the lyrics make as little public sense as the children’s rhyme “Miss Susie,” from which the first two lines are borrowed.68 They are not set to a melody, the pitch being determined by English speech patterns, as is the rhythm, which is regularized just enough to conform to a beat. The vocal quality is an assertive juvenile whine. The drum part under the lyrics consists entirely of quarter notes, on the beat, four to a measure, with the bare minimum—accented snare on beats 2 and 4—to qualify it as a rock beat. The guitar part is also minimal: two open chords, a fourth apart, each held for half a beat on the first beat of each measure. (The guitar will fill some of the empty space with simple blues lines; elsewhere, the drum part will add exactly one eighth note to the straight quarter note pattern). There is nothing in the basic structure of the verse that an able-bodied non-musician couldn’t learn to play—indeed nothing that a non-musician couldn’t come up with on her own—in a pair of afternoons.
The verse of “Hello Operator” is, in other words, the precise minimum organization of sound required to make a rock song—but not necessarily a rock song there would be any reason to listen to. Once the rock song has been stripped down to its minimal constituent parts, the question is what is the minimum necessary to make a compelling rock song. And the answer is stated, as clearly as a beethovenian symphonic theme, immediately following the verse, in the drum solo.69 The phrase “drum solo” in a rock context summons the wrong connotations, as this one is played entirely on the rim of a snare drum, is short (four bars and an introductory bar), is repeated twice, and consists in its second half entirely of quarter notes. It is also quiet, so quiet that the hum from a guitar pedal can be heard under it until the latter is muted at the beginning of the first full measure—an apparently non-musical sound that reads as accidental, but, since it could have been fixed in the studio, must be understood as intentional. The solo is, in other words, emphatically framed. It consists of two ideas. The first—two quarter notes comprising half a measure—barely counts as an idea. The second is a cliché about as old as recognizably American popular music: it is none other than the ragtime cliché from bar six of “Cannon Song,” the rhythm Debussy hammers to death in “Golliwog’s Cakewalk.”70 What “Hello Operator” is then about, what reverberates back to the beginning and culminates in the climax of the song, is the exploration of this idea, the relationship between an absolutely minimal musical phrase, two quarter notes, and a minimal syncopation with the same duration.
After the idea is presented by the drum, the guitar displays the pattern in a different light. Leading out of the drum solo, the guitar, transposing the syncopated pattern a half beat, changes its value and its musical function: rather than beginning on a downbeat, it ends on one. The initial statement of the idea on the snare drum is quiet and tentative, beginning from nothing, wavering from the pulse; the chordal guitar line, tightly aligned with the pulse, asserts the shifted pattern at volume, landing hard on a downbeat, and a new section develops the transformed idea. The relation between the two statements is that of premise and inference. And as the transformed pattern is repeated, the guitar introduces a new chord: the subdominant, whose introduction has the expected effect of confirming the other two chords as tonic and dominant, and produces the unexpected illusion of opening up the harmonic possibilities of the song: in Lou Reed’s immortal words, three chords and you’re into jazz.
(With regard to the question of the rhythmic relationship between the drums and the guitar, this may be the place to point out that in much of the White Stripes’ music, the guitar and drums switch their usual rock functions. Keith Richards can push or drag the beat, Charlie Watts’s job is to pull him back in; but in “Hello Operator” the guitar maintains the pulse, while the drum line is allowed to waiver. That this is possible is itself part of the meaning of the song: what is essential is an element strongly tied to the pulse and an element loosely tied to the pulse, not the traditional division of labor between drums and guitar. Why this is necessary is beyond the scope of this chapter, but it may suffice to point out that common to all the musical forms emerging from the blues is a conception of musical time as produced by musical events, rather than as a homogenous medium in which musical events occur. In the later evolution of the blues, for example, the tension between adhesion to and liberty from the pulse is, as it were, professionalized and brought within individual musicians’ roles. In a piano concerto, the failure of the soloist and the conductor to cohere rhythmically is fatal to the performance; in rock a degree of rhythmic incoherence is not only tolerable but constitutive.)71
The song is bookended by elaborations of the central idea. The first is a two-bar guitar introduction based on an impure fifth scalar tone. Since it precedes the first explicit statement of the idea, it initially reads as an improvisation. But in retrospect there can be no doubt that the introduction is composed. It sounds moderately complex, but it is assembled out of precisely four elements, which derive from the two simple ideas presented in the drum solo: straight quarter notes, the syncopated pattern (what we will first hear on its own as the drum version), the same pattern transposed half a beat (which we will first hear on its own as the chordal guitar version, but which has yet a third value here, landing on a backbeat instead of a downbeat), and straight eighth notes, a variation on the minimal straight quarter notes phrase. The break is repeated precisely halfway through the song, and also provides an ecstatic climax. What ought to be a guitar solo, essentially postponing the climax once all the ideas have been stated, is played on a heavily distorted harmonica. (As with the switch in rhythmic function between guitar and drums, the arrangement, though extremely basic, isolates musical elements in their function by changing the standard instrumentation.)72 To end the song, the single guitar line re-enters, in unison with the harmonica, with a third variation on the developed two-bar idea from the introduction. The unison is rough; again this could be accidental, but since another take or two would fix the problem, it must be regarded as intentional. After the rigorous separation of elements throughout the song, the climactic gesture of the convergence of guitar and harmonica is that of two lines of thought—the harmonica and guitar are mixed down into separate channels—simultaneously leading to the same conclusion. The affirmative value of these two bars is hard to exaggerate: it is a musical Q.E.D.
As if to confirm this, the name of the album on which the song appears is De Stijl, a movement which famously championed the abstraction, simplification, separation, exposed articulation, and balance of elements. The album title doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know already, but it is a useful reminder that the simplification involved in “Hello Operator” aims at abstraction rather than primitivism.73 As de Stijl’s foremost theoretical exponent put it: “Arms, legs, trees, and landscapes are not unequivocally painterly means. Painterly means are: colors, forms, lines, and planes.”74 The first thing one would want to say about the reading of “Hello Operator” undertaken above is that, unlike our earlier analyses of Weill and Veloso, the esoteric meaning of the song—it is about the musical potential of a rhythmic cliché, about what musical elements are necessary to rock, and why—has no obvious relationship to an exoteric meaning. The adolescent aggression of the vocal quality could almost qualify as a kind of social gesture. But the nonsense lyrics, and the fact that the development of the idea occurs only elsewhere than the verse, are designed to undercut this possibility, though they cannot foreclose it entirely. (We shall return to this issue later.) As one of the narrators in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad remarks, “the songs… have titles like ‘Pet Rock’ and ‘Do the Math,’ and ‘Pass Me the Kool-Aid,’ but when we holler them aloud in Scotty’s garage the lyrics might as well be: fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.”75 Aggressivity is, tautologically, social. But as much as possible aggressivity is here reduced to a timbral quality, a tenor whine. “Hello Operator” is, in this sense, abstract: its musical idea is developed in near-complete isolation from non-musical or referential content, to which it can therefore no longer be subordinated. Simplicity then becomes a gesture of attention rather than inattention. If a country song is, in the great songwriter Harlan Howard’s famous formulation, three chords and the truth, then the White Stripes’ definition of a rock song is three chords and an idea.
The well-nigh neo-plasticist songs like “Hello Operator” form one of the axes of the White Stripes’ project: to produce a theory of rock that is purely music-immanent. Even when these songs, as with the possibly even more successful “Fell in Love with a Girl,” do not state an explicit musical thesis, the challenge they set is the same.76 The aim is to produce a rock song to which nothing could be usefully added and from which nothing could be taken away without harm—songs that aim at producing a rock song with the minimum necessary elements, and which are therefore necessarily about what these minimum necessary elements are. “Fell in Love with a Girl” consists of three elements: a drum pattern (with no variations), a rhythmic-harmonic pattern (two variations) and a melodic pattern (three variations). Since the variations overlap, there are essentially three total variations: two make up what are structurally verse and a third makes up what is structurally chorus, though the same ideas underlie both. But since they don’t overlap perfectly—and because the first version of the rhythmic-harmonic pattern (which is repeated under the third variation of the melodic pattern that occupies the place of the chorus) implies the second—there must be a repeat. The repeat finishes and the song is over, at one minute and fifty seconds: there is nothing further the song can say. As Joss Stone’s cover demonstrates, the song can hold one’s interest—quite a different matter—for twice that time, at the cost of overpainting it with cherubs.77
The White Stripes’ project continues along another axis, however, one which will probably be more obvious. White Stripes albums are larded with historical references (the B-side of the “Hello Operator” single is a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”), and it is instructive to compare the function of these to Weill’s and Veloso’s.78 The most conspicuous example on De Stijl is a simplified but basically straight cover of Blind Willie McTell’s “Your Southern Can Is Mine.” An affirmative relationship to the material in Veloso’s vein would be hard not to read as claiming an identity with McTell that would be difficult to defend. A negative, disidentificatory one in Weill’s vein would be equally indefensible: from what perspective, exactly, would a Piedmont Blues song be ironized? The lyrical material—a song that, at least on the surface, celebrates domestic abuse—raises the stakes along the same ethical axis, but with the polarity reversed. At the level of musical form, identification is dishonest, disidentification unthinkable; at the level of lyric, identification is unthinkable, disidentification dishonest. The performance is infused with a mischievous glee (but McTell’s is infused with a similar glee) at raising the same sets of hackles for completely contradictory reasons.
The White Stripes give up the game in the last twenty seconds of the track, but we will return to that in a moment. The riddle to the presence of “Your Southern Can Is Mine” on De Stijl can be solved entirely immanently. The relationship to the social material behind “Your Southern Can Is Mine” is neither affirmative nor critical, but nonexistent; it is raised only in order to be refused. The relationship is, rather, purely musical. In both McTell’s original and the White Stripes’ cover, the guitar part is built out of two elements: a quarter note pattern, accented on the offbeats (in McTell’s version, the effect is like stride piano played on guitar) and a syncopated pattern of the same length: none other than the second, shifted statement from “Hello Operator” of the ragtime rhythm we first saw in bar six of “Cannon Song.”79 In other words, both “Your Southern Can Is Mine” and “Hello Operator” work on the same musical material. The relationship to the material is un-ironic in the sense that McTell’s music is taken absolutely seriously. But there is no identity asserted between the White Stripes and McTell, precisely because no identity is asserted of either one separately. The only identity asserted is between McTell’s musical material and the White Stripes’—a musical identity between ragtime guitar and rock—and that identity isn’t so much asserted as demonstrated.
The White Stripes simplify the song harmonically, stripping down to open fifths a couple of common turnarounds that form the harmonic bones of the song. An early rival is said to have complained of the White Stripes’ early performances that they sounded like they wanted to play the blues but didn’t know how. Of course this was meant as a critique. But “wanting to play the blues without knowing how” is not a bad description of a key moment in the historical development of rock. These relatively straight covers tend to strip adornment and abstract from the original, but leave the core of the song intact. Many of these are blues covers like “Your Southern Can is Mine,” but the cover of Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” would also fit in this category.80 These ask the same question of what elements are necessary—and it is a surprise to discover that Dylan’s original includes a number of unnecessary ones—but also open up a historical element that is, nonetheless, a purely musical history.
A non-musical clip appended to the end of “Your Southern Can is Mine”—and of the album De Stijl—confirms all this. Without context, the clip is mysterious. One man asks another if something is wrong, why is the other acting so uncomfortable. The second man responds that he was in a traffic accident the night before, but nobody got hurt. The clip sounds old; there is a difference of power and class between the two men, but the accents are hard to place. The staginess of the first voice suggests nothing so much as a 1940s film. In fact the first man is Alan Lomax, and the second is Blind Willie McTell himself.81 The moments that precede the included clip give the context. Mctell has just recorded some songs for Lomax, for inclusion in Lomax’s folk song archive for the Library of Congress, in Lomax’s hotel room in Atlanta. As Lomax apparently cannot tell, but is obvious to contemporary listeners, McTell is uncomfortable because Lomax has been trying to bully him into singing some “complainin’ songs.” By the time Lomax asks expressly for “Ain’t it Hard to be a Nigger, Nigger?” (McTell reponds, cautiously: “Well… that’s not… in our time”), a modern listener will be squirming almost as badly as McTell. The clip included on De Stijl begins “You keep moving around, like you’re uncomfortable.” Why include this clip? Because Lomax is asking McTell to do what we tend to want McTell to do, which is to connect his music to an historical experience, as the product of an historical identity. McTell refuses, for reasons that may be philosophical or may be pure cautiousness. But the clip isn’t about McTell, it’s about Lomax; his position is an unquestionably false one, requiring someone to assert an identity that is instead being forced upon him—“Ain’t it hard to be a nigger, nigger?”—but it’s also the position we are in, as long as we take the ethical bait of “Your Southern Can is Mine.”
The straight, geneaological covers are to be distinguished from another aspect which we will not spend much time on here, namely the deformative covers: covers that turn a country song (“Jolene”), a pop song (Burt Bachrach’s “I Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”) or a camp pseudo-bolero-cum-tango (Corky Robbins’s “Conquest,” a hit for Patti Page in 1952) into a rock song.82 There is nothing pure about any of these aspects: a swamp-rock cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” which takes a fleetingly brief (two-second or so) slide-guitar coda from Johnson’s recording and turns it into the principle of the new performance, is both deformative and geneological, and very far from merely domesticating like the Rolling Stones’ version.83 Nor is there, despite expectations, anything ironic about it, any position of superiority taken with regard to the material: despite the violence done to the appearance of the original, the idea at its core is preserved and taken seriously. It is not difficult to see that the idea of the deformative cover lines up with the pure rock constructions, asking the same question from a different angle: what makes some songs amenable to this treatment and not others? What constitutes, in other words, a rock musical idea?
This orientation also goes some way towards explaining the presence of a trifle like “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)” on the album. It doesn’t take a trained ear to recognize it as Richie Valens’s “La Bamba” dressed up as punk-pop. But of course it is already a mistake to call it “Richie Valens’s ‘La Bamba,’” because “La Bamba” is itself a rock version of a traditional son jarocho. In the other direction, there is a long history of rock songs that are “La Bamba” dressed as something else: “Twist and Shout” (The Isley Brothers, The Beatles), “Wild Thing,” (The Troggs), “Hang on Sloopy” (The McCoys), “Louie Louie” (The Kingsmen), “Good Lovin’” (The Rascals), “Get Off My Cloud” (The Rolling Stones), “Stand” (R.E.M.), “Closer to Free” (The Bodeans)… and these are only ones that have some plausible claim to substantiality: once you start finding it in the chorus to Abba’s “Name of the Game,” you realize there’s no end in sight. The I-IV-V7-I cadence of “La Bamba,” with its strong melodic implications, is part of the DNA of rock. That is, “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)” aligns the genealogical meaning of blues covers like “Your Southern Can Is Mine” with the formal meaning of songs like “Hello Operator.” Even though “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)” isn’t much of an accomplishment, it has a clarifying value for us because unlike the blues, “La Bamba” is a one-off. While there is no doubt a national, regional, or ethnic mythology built around son jarocho, that mythology is not even plausibly part of the history of rock. Only “La Bamba” is part of the history of rock: once the trail turns ethnographic, the White Stripes’ project has nothing to say about it. Valens’s own relation to “La Bamba” is purely musical: the song was in U.S. pop circulation before his version, and the song would not have been a part of the Anglophone rocker’s musical heritage in any meaningful sense.84 Indeed, it doesn’t matter if the genealogy suggested by “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)” is the right one: “Louie Louie,” a more obviously recent assemblage—an amalgam of ersatz Jamaican sentiment and a Cuban riff borrowed from René Touzet—precedes “La Bamba” as a rock recording. Whether the trail ends in Veracruz or the Caribbean, and whether either one is real or imagined, doesn’t really matter. But the facts that Keith Richards and Mick Jagger (As Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys) covered “La Bamba” before the Rolling Stones existed, that Jimmy Page famously borrowed from Valens and cites “La Bamba” as an early obsession, and that The Plugz recorded a pretty good punk version, tend to validate “La Bamba”s centrality to the musical history of rock.85
Spotting musical references, borrowings, and influences—real, imagined, and misunderstood—is as endemic to pop music criticism as purple ekphrasis, especially among journalists who have no vocabulary for analyzing a musical object. But the White Stripes make extensive use of pastiche proper—songs whose musical content is “This is what a Bob Dylan (Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jane’s Addiction) song sounds like.” These, together with the genre excercises—from blues shuffle to scottish reel—add up with the straight covers to a project remarkably like Veloso’s: a collection that assembles itself into an account, and in so doing produces a meaning behind the back of the market. But once the similarity is pointed out, the difference becomes immediately clear: the meaning is of an entirely different order. Veloso’s meaning is unavoidably a nationalist meaning, not in any very complex sense, though there are certainly complexities to be teased out, but in the bare sense that the unifying principle proposed by his post-Tropicália musical orientation can only be Brazil. Non-Brazilian elements are not shied away from, but they are understood as sources, and in that sense internal to Brazil after all. The unifying principle behind the White Stripes doesn’t immediately appear that different, as the elements are nearly all assembled from within the U.S. But the hallmark of Veloso’s nationalism, his generous musical catholicism—which has both positive and negative implications—is completely missing from the White Stripes. The genealogy they produce is a genealogy of rock, not of the United States. Music from outside the history of rock is only included if it can be reduced to an idea that can be the basis of a rock song. Non-rock music also descended from the blues—funk, R&B, soul, to say nothing of jazz—is completely excluded. As their cover of “Lord, Send Me an Angel” shows clearly enough, this has nothing to do with a fear of treading on racially sensitive territory.86 Once the paths that lead out of the blues diverge, the White Stripes have nothing to say about the ones that don’t lead to rock.87 Indeed, even the history of rock is, given the formal restrictions imposed by the imperative toward abstraction, a limited one: missing genres, particularly those that require more expansive musical elaboration or ornamentation, are relegated to later projects and different bands.88
Until now we have more or less ignored or derogated lyrical content, in keeping with the White Stripes’ practice, which tends to suppress the importance of lyrical content by restricting it to private obscurity, nonsense, or purely generic meanings. But lyrical content cannot be ignored entirely: it can be reduced to “fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” but not to “darn darn darn darn darn.” Adolescent agressivity is clearly an indispensable element. But adolescent aggressivity is framed or otherwise relativized rather than expressed. When Jack White says categorically, “I never write about myself. I’m not going to pretend like ‘Oh, I’m waitin’ on a train, and my baby’s comin’ back,’” he’s not saying anything that’s not already true of every lyricist, including many who are taken to be, or let themselves be taken to be, expressing some kind of train-taking or other authenticity.89 But the White Stripes are careful to internalize the literary frame, so that any imputation of expression is not only a categorical mistake but also a literary one. To take an almost arbitrary example, the bridge of “There’s No Home for You Here,” with its perfectly simple, perfectly direct hatred of bourgeois normalcy, is distilled rock sentiment:
Waking up for breakfast
So completely stupid
Just go away
Though in the bridge and the title the target might as easily be tourists, the song is generically a kiss-off song, so the hatred is aimed at a specific woman as well as at monogamy in general:
I’m only waiting for the proper time to tell you
That it’s impossible to get along with you
It’s hard to look you in the face when we are talking
So it helps to have a mirror in the room
I’ve not been merely looking forward to the performance
But there’s my cue and there’s a question on your face
Fortunately I have come across an answer
Which is go away and do not leave a trace
The situation is clear enough. But the speaker’s self-regard, apparent already in the self-understanding of breaking up as a performance, is literalized in the fact that he is looking not into the girl’s face but into a mirror as he delivers the coup de grace. So adolescent aggression is presented as inseparable from adolescent self-regard: hardly a novel thought, but one that serves its purpose, which is to relativize the content of generalized antisociality that is necessary to the song. The point is not to write great poetry—great poetry would not be a rock lyric—but to write a rock lyric that is minimally self-framing.
A second technique—and one which may also be at work in “There’s No Home for You Here,” with its hatred of soda drinkers and picture takers—is the substitution of a private meaning for the public one that ought to be the core of the song. “Ball and Biscuit,” in the song of that title, evidently refers to an illicit sexual practice, a drug recipe, or some kind of mindblowing combination of the two:
Let’s have a ball and a biscuit sugar
And take our sweet little time about it
The lyric, mostly spoken in a bullying drawl over a slow blues-rock, hovers—the vocal equivalent of Jim Morrison’s image on an album cover—between sexually threatening and ridiculous:
Right now you could care less about me
But soon enough you will care, by the time I’m done
Go read it in the newspaper
Ask your girlfriends and see if they know
That my strength is ten-fold girl
And I’ll let you see if you want to before you go
The drug-related possibility quickly loses plausibility as the song turns out to be, more than anything else, about the gestural content of guitar solos. There are three guitar solos in the song—an absurd number for anyone, much less the White Stripes who tend to avoid them or keep them short. All three are spectacular, and spectacularly hyperbolic, the middle one introduced by “I can think of one or two things to say about it”—“it” still having the same grammatical referent as “take our sweet little time about it,” namely “a ball and a biscuit”—and concluded by “Do you get the point now?” immediately before a third solo is launched into. The gestural equivalence of rock guitar solos and sexual swagger has never been lost on anyone, but again it is self-framing rather than profundity which is aimed at, and if ever a work of art managed to fuse fun as an object of inquiry and inquiry as an object of fun, this is it. However, it takes only a moment’s research to discover the literal referent of “it”: “ball and biscuit” is slang for an old omnidirectional microphone fomerly used by the BBC, one of which was hanging from the ceiling at the studio where the song was recorded.90 This doesn’t change the meaning of the song, which says nothing about microphones and still promises a “girl” a transcendent and dangerous sexual experience. But that experience, the lyrical core of the song, is nothing, just a suggestive piece of language: a fact which both evacuates the meaning of the lyric and heightens the meaning of the social gesture of the form itself, since the meaning insists without a literal signifier.
Why is this derogation or relativization of the lyrics necessary? To the degree that the function of a pop song (the reason there is a market for it) is to amplify, monumentalize, and universalize an experience which is of necessity (because appealing to a market) general, which is to say trivial, then these techniques are straighforwardly Brechtian disidentification techniques. They present the “fun,” or affective charge, of adolescent antisociality (or of swaggering male sexuality), but by making themselves about the affective charge of adolecent antisociality (or of swaggering male sexuality), they wrest their autonomy from the requirement to produce that effect, which would otherwise subsume it. But one has also to remember the peculiar place that music holds in Hegel’s system: either it is, after literature, the art form closest to philosophy (that is, to the idea as such), or it is not really art at all. But these two judgments refer to two different objects: music with lyrics, and music without. Hegel had no concept of music-immanent meaning, and so misunderstood instrumental music. But song as such is still illuminated by Hegel’s understanding, in that both of his judgments are real dangers to be avoided. As long as music accompanies lyrical content, it is liable to become a matter of giving bodily amplification to a meaning that is aimed at by the lyrics, which assume primacy. (If Schumann’s “Abends am Strand” gives some sense of the possibilities this fact opens up at an earlier moment in music history, a glance at any journalistic pop review will confirm the limits imposed by it for music that confronts normativity only as the market).91 In this case, music produces an effect, which the listener suffers, rather than a meaning. The song as such tends to the kind of synthetic mush that Weill despised.
But the second judgment must equally be avoided. In the last scene of the concert film Under Great White Northern Lights, Meg White sits next to Jack White on a piano bench while he sings and plays their song “White Moon.”92 About halfway through the song, Meg White begins weeping, which continues throughout the song. Surely, the song is provoking an affective state, one that music has been known to produce even in Brechtians. But what is “White Moon” about? At first glance it appears to be nonsense; on closer inspection, it centers on Rita Hayworth, or rather images of her, in various contexts but mainly as a pinup above an army bunk during World War II. Obscurities remain, but there is nothing particularly shattering about the lyrical content. If one feels that there ought to be, this is because the song is musically a dirge. So Meg White is crying not because of the words, but in spite of them: in other words, her reaction is provoked rather than mediated through something expressed. This musical motive force might seem to be a desirable thing. But, to continue paraphrasing Hegel, the reason she is crying therefore is “merely hers,” which is to say not part of the song at all. Perhaps she has a visceral reaction to this song, but if so it is idiosyncratic. (To insist that the song is about Ida Lupino would be incorrect; but it makes no sense to say it is incorrect not to cry when listening to it.) On the other hand the film has provided Meg White with ample reasons to cry: the stress of a punishing concert schedule, performing in a ridiculously exposed context in front of thousands of people, nights spent in hotels too wired to sleep but too tired to get off the couch, with an ex-husband who seems to spend precious down-time worrying about the next night’s tempos. Relief? Exhaustion? Fury? All possible, but even more obviously these reasons are “merely hers” rather than part of the song.
Music’s motive force is thematized within the song: “Oh Rita oh Rita, if you lived in Mesita, I would move you with the beat of a drum.” One is immediately suspicious, not that Jack White has deliberately set up this scene, which would be sadistic, but that the White Stripes, who seem to have had a hand in making the film—presumably the matching his-and-hers red and white propeller planes were neither a logistical necessity nor the filmmmaker’s idea—include this scene as an allegory of the paradox of music’s motive force. At any rate, the point is made. If the music is subordinate to the lyrics, then the song is a pop commodity. If one finds this line a little too direct, one can at best say that music is reduced to producing amplificatory effects. If, on the other hand, music circumvents lyrical content altogether, then it does not even pass through the illusion of meaning, instead directly producing effects that are not part of the song itself. The problem confronted is the same as that which led Weill to “approach his text from a position [other than] sensual enjoyment”: In Jack White’s terms, if “it’s just… trying to make us feel good, [you] could just as well be making drugs or a computer game.”93
Two kinds of meaning are aimed at by the White Stripes. First, purely music-immanent meaning, which is to say the exploration of musical ideas in the way neo-plasticism and other abstract pictorial movements explore painterly ideas. Second, a music-immanent theory of rock, which necessarily includes social content but which, also necessarily, abstracts from it as much as possible. For both kinds of meaning, lyrical content has to be retained, but neutralized, and the logic is straighforwardly Brechtian: fun—or whatever other effect—is to be included, but an internal distance from it is required if meaning is to be plausibly asserted.
Kurt Weill, Veloso, and the White Stripes produce music under substantially different historical conditions. Nonetheless, the family resemblance of their approaches is not coincidental. All three understand musical meaning in the same way—as either music-immanent or gestural-citational—and the obstacle to it posed by the market—which nonetheless cannot be avoided—in the same way. While all three recognize the horizon of purely music-immanent meaning, it is only the White Stripes who attempt to produce it within a market-transmitted form. This is apparently paradoxical, as The White Stripes are furthest from the possibility of a modernist, medium-immanent form of meaning sustained by a restricted field—a form of meaning which is rejected by Weill for political reasons, and by Veloso for historical ones. But perhaps there is no paradox; only when the old, non-market, classically modernist horizon is all but forgotten does the attempt to assert a medium-immanent meaning within a cultural field saturated by exchange value begin to seem necessary.
This return to the ambition of music-immanent meaning is, from the perspective of the current study, conceptually the most unexpected development among the three projects. But it comes at a cost. White Stripes concerts ended with a rock version of the variously-titled “Boll Weevil Song,” best known through a Lead Belly version recorded by Alan Lomax in 1934.94 There is a certain pedagogical force to the exercise itself, which is made explicit when the song is taught to the audience as a singalong. In a typically self-aware move, the act of teaching the song is (as it was in Lead Belly’s version) incorporated into the lyrics. But while the pedagogical element of the White Stripes’ project is not negligible, it has no ambitions beyond the purely music-immanent. Of course, if what has been said above is true, music-immanent pedagogy is the only kind of pedagogy music can be expected to accomplish. But there can be no mistaking the fact that the White Stripes’ project is, in terms of its political content, the least substantial of the three. Indeed, it is hard to imagine it having a politics at all. There is nothing that exempts political meanings from the logic of the White Stripes’ project, or indeed from the logic of the commodity form. Any political meaning must either be relativized—in which case it is a politics that is interesting only so far as it is a rock politics, and thus music-immanent after all—or immediately fall prey to a market logic where it becomes a consumable point of identification, no different than other pop identifications.
But it is the aim of the present study to show how, under present circumstances, the production of artistic meaning—that is, the production of the unvalorizable within a society that subordinates every activity to the production of value—is itself a politics. It is not merely a matter of producing a line of flight along which artists can, within a value-saturated cultural field, produce non-values, which is to say meanings—though artists may certainly experience it that way. Rather, in a neoliberal regime—whose essence is the demand that everything be valorized—the production of the unvalorizable lodges a “foreign body” at capitalism’s ideological weak point. The political effectivity of such an act is necessarily beyond the scope of this essay. We are concerned with the problem of securing meaning against the ideological horizon of a fully market-saturated society. Meanings circulate or fail to circulate, compel or fail to compel. Success in the former, which is easily quantifiable, does not guarantee success in the latter, which is not. Nonetheless, one would want to avoid repeating Schönberg’s dogmatic error that because Threepenny was popular, it must not have been understood.