Friday, July 5, 2013

Spring Breakers



SPRING BREAKERS
Sight & Sound, May 2013

by Simon Reynolds


An American tradition that dates back to shortly after World War 2,  Spring Break today involves hordes of college students descending on Florida beach towns for week-long bacchanals of binge drinking and bare flesh.  Taking place in the gap between the second and third terms of the academic year, Spring Break is essentially an amplified version of what goes on every weekend at frat houses across America, especially at those “party schools” where higher learning is not necessarily a priority for the students. The only difference is the duration of the debauch, and the fact that the revelers wear bikinis and thongs and trunks.

 “Break” echoes the idea of break time in the school day, when the children dash out of the classroom and play free. Confusingly Americans use the word “school” where the British refer to university.  But that does effectively capture the way that college, for most American middle class kids, is merely an extension of high school – marginally more autonomous, but still a time of grafting for grades and extra credit, all of which are entered into a ledger whose final tally determines what kind of career you’ll have.

The first scenes in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers had me flashing on Chuck Berry’s single “School Days”. This 1957 rock’n’roll classic juxtaposes the dragging time of the classroom with the ecstatic release of the jukebox joint:  “Soon as three o'clock rolls around/You finally lay your burden down... All day long you been wanting to dance”.   In the lecture hall, a professor drones earnestly on about Jim Crow laws and the black struggle for civil rights.  Bored and restless, two female students--Brit and Candy, played by Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens—amuse themselves by drawing an erection plus the slogan “I Love Penis” on a sheet of paper and miming fellatio.

The salacious duo and their marginally less wicked friend Cotty (Rachel Korine) are desperate to escape the college grind and get away to Spring Break.  So is their new friend Faith (Selena Gomez), a virginal, goody-two-shoes type who’s in a Christian youth group (“are you jacked up on Jesus?” asks the pastor) but who’s being seduced off the path of righteousness by the charismatic Candy and Brit.  Only hitch is that, after pooling all their cash, the four girls discover they don’t have nearly enough to get to Florida.

Desire confronts a limit. But in the first sign that Spring Breakers is set to ascend through stages of implausibility into sheer fantasy, desire wills itself through.  The girls blindly grope their way past the impasse, almost seeming to stumble on the solution: crime. The script, here and at other critical moments, has an incantatory quality, phrases repeat and accumulate, like a magic spell.  .  Bitching about their plight (“so tired of seeing the same things every single day....”)  the girls seemingly hypnotize  themselves into a volitional state (“I’m not going to sit in the same classroom.. .  we’ve been stuck here...  we’re getting out of here”). Stealing their poor old professor’s car, Britt and Candy and Cotty rob a fast food diner and its working class customers.  Given their slight physiques and girlish voices, pulling this stunt off requires whipping themselves into a thuggish frenzy. “We can do this...  just fucking pretend like it’s a videogame ... act like you’re in a movie or something.”  The girls need to believe their own make-believe. To make it to Spring Break, they break the law but also break with Reality.

Because I’ve more in common with the professor than with these tearaways, watching Spring Breakers I immediately thought of the Situationists: their slogan “take your desires for reality,”  the pamphlet diatribe On the Poverty of Student Life,  the notion of “the politics of boredom”. Above all, I thought of that widely daubed graffiti of Paris 1968:  “under the pavement lies the beach”.  “Pavement” (flat functional surfaces guiding the citizen-consumer to  the workplace or to the shops) representing  mundanity, business as usual, “the poverty of everyday life”.  “Beach”   (a sandy, sunkissed playpen for kids and adults  temporarily reverting to childhood) representing the utopia of  life as permanent vacation. Paradise regained.

I’m afraid I also thought of Bakhtin: the notion of the carnival, which has been defined as “an event in which all rules, inhibitions, restrictions and regulations which determine  the course of everyday life are suspended”. A Medieval ritual in which the world is turned upside down in a potlatch of pleasure, profanity and insubordination. 

As it happens, “carnival” is a word that has new currency in American pop culture through the massive success of Electric Daisy Carnival, the brand-leader of the new breed of  festivals for EDM (electronic dance music). These massive weekend-long dance parties combine the drugginess of Nineties raves with the non-hipster appeal of Spring Break. But they also weave in aspects of fancy dress and fantasia derived from  Mardi Gras and Cirque Du Soleil.  The clothing worn by devotees of Electric Daisy Carnival and similar festivals mixes super-sexed-up (many of the girl-ravers are clad in lingerie, are barely more dressed than the female cast of Spring Breakers) with kitschy-surreal accoutrements like fairy wings.

Spring Breakers latches onto the EDM boom with its soundtrack, partly the work of Skrillex, whose audio-visual spectaculars have made him king of the new dance festival circuit in America. His tracks deftly merge dubstep’s blaring bass-blasts with the hands-in-the-air builds and climaxes of trance. But the overall effect betrays his past in the emo-punk band First To Last: an electronic, digital-maximalist update of the moshing catharsis offered by arena rock styles like nu-metal. EDM buzz phrases like “rage hard” and the popular acronym-slogan YOLO ( “you only live once”) express a spirit of embattled hedonism and lets-get-wrecked recklessness.  My own term for this carpe diem attitude is NOW!-ism. It has a formal corollary in the music and the videos, which offer a barrage of sensational effects and non-sequential intensities: pop videos involving costume changes and location shifts every five seconds, sampled phrases or rapped lyrics that freeze-frame moments of  triumph, glory, excess, disdain,  euphoria.    

Even more than its EDM tie-in, Spring Breakers  references the mainstream radio sounds of dance pop and gangsta rap.  There are several overt nods to Britney Spears, including the deliberate echo of Brit’s name and a scene where the girls sing Spears’s breakthrough smash “... Baby One More Time”.   The arrival of drug dealer and aspiring rapper Alien (James Franco) shifts the movie away from EDM’s artificial elation and pseudo-communality and into hip hop’s fantasy world of regal splendor and paranoia.  Wearing corn-rows and a grill of gold teeth, Alien takes the girls under his wing. Even though he never learns about their foray into armed robbery, this self-described “gangsta with a golden heart” recognizes them instinctively as “motherfuckin’ soul-mates.” 

Some of the key scenes involving Alien appear to have been made expressly with the intention of being DVD-rewind favorites, to be endlessly quoted and karaoke-performed by fans, just like the “say goodnight to the bad guy” and “Say hello to my little friend!” scenes in Scarface.  One of these sequences has Alien showing off to the girls, repeatedly exulting  “look at my shit” as he points to the deluxe bed  (“that not a bed, it’s an art piece”)  and  brandishes a bounteous array of assault weapons.
Even before The Sopranos, it was a cliché that gangsters like to watch gangster movies and are  influenced by them: a feedback Moebius loop of simulacrum shaping reality shaping simulacrum shaping...   And sure enough, Alien points to his flatscreen TV and says “I got Scarface on repeat!” Close on the heels of this scene comes another would-be-classic candidate:  Brit and Candy grab some guns and turn the tables on their host. When they orally “rape” him with the weapons, Alien responds like a true sport and ardently sucks off the barrels.  It’s an echo of an earlier scene where one girl fills a water pistol with liquor and ejaculates it into her own mouth.    

Franco apparently based his character on a real-life white rapper called Dangeruss.  But why Franco even needed a template is unclear, given that the white appropriation of the Staggerlee archetype is one of the longest-running stories in popular culture, from the Rolling Stones to Eminem.  Staggerlee is at once a historical legend and a recurring social fact: the fantasy, realised at severe cost both to those who pursue it and to the community they inhabit, of criminality as a life without limits.  The gangster is a sovereign individual in a world of peons and bureaucrats, someone whose existence is both regal (swathed in luxury and prestige) and primal (a warrior’s life, shedding blood for territory, vengeance and honor).  Alien embroils the girls in his struggle with rival gangster  Archie, played by  cult rapper Gucci Mane. On the surface, the emnity is explained as a mixture of friendship betrayed and turf war (Alien threatening Archie’s ability to put food on his family’s table). But at a subliminal level the dispute is about symbolic capital: Alien’s appropriation  of what belongs to the black gangster, his stylization of rapacity, the lore and lingo he invented. 

As Archie, Gucci Mane gets to utter the movie’s most memorable line, when he praises the giver of a blow job with “you’re playing Mozart on my dick, baby.”   But for a movie whose function is partly to give an adult edge to the careers of  former teen-TV stars like Gomez and Hudgens, there is a surprising deficit of actual carnality.  Mostly what Spring Breakers is about is sexual display. So there’s lots of  bump ‘n’ grind dancing in the semi-nude, guys and girls sniffing coke off the flat abdomens of girls and guys, and  raunchy talk: “the smell of money” makes  a girl wet,   a coquettish and wasted Cotty taunting a guy that he’ll never get the pussy.   But apart from Archie’s blowjob threesome, there’s just one actual sex act. (Gomez, notably, has exited the storyline by this point. Clearly she was only prepared to go so far in an R-Rated direction: she’s not involved in the robbery, is never shown taking drugs or having sex, and doesn’t even swear much).

As depicted in Spring Breakers, the participants in Spring Break act out an idea of unbridled freedom and lascivious irresponsibility that’s as convention-bound and repetitive as the regular, regulated everyday  life of which it’s a carnivalesque inversion.  Is that the message of Korine’s movie? It’s hard to say: the director steadfastly refrains from anything that might resemble judgement. As with his script-writing debut Kids, you can take Spring Breakers as an indictment of youth today,  a comment on how pop culture’s anti-social fantasies contaminate real life. Or you can enjoy it as a (pretty softcore) wank-fantasy. 

There’s a smidgeon of a hint of authorial irony in the juxtaposition of squalor (a passed out girl in a vomit-spattered toilet) with  voice-overs from the girls phoning their mothers to reassure them that they’re having a great time, they’ve met so many wonderful people, “next year I want to come here with you”.  What’s disquieting about these phone calls, which recur at various points and have that same incantatory repetitiousness, is that you’re not sure if the girls are simply spinning a line of bullshit (a thought to give jitters to anyone in the audience who’s actually a parent). Could it be that they actually believe what they’re saying, when waxing lyrical about how “it’s like paradise here...  so magical... I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve been...   It’s way more than just having a good time”?

One of the voice-over lines crystallises the movie’s theme: “it’s so nice to get a break from reality”.  The point of carnival is that it’s temporary.  Faith wistfully beseechs “if we could just freeze time, this is the way it’s going be forever, this moment”. But she acquiesces to the school bell call of reality and like everybody else heads back to college. The two really bad girls, Brit and Candy, don’t.  They stay with Alien, who boasts “I live at the beach all year around” and whose chanted “Spring Break, forever” is a recurrent refrain.  To actually live full time without limits is psychosis.  By the movie’s end, the girls finally become videogame characters, indestructible. Toting AK-47s, clad in pink balaclavas and yellow bikinis, they take down a small army of seasoned street warriors. 

Unlike with the earlier youth-gone-bad moves in which nonentities take retaliation for the fate of boredom and anonymity that their environment promises them—Bonnie & Clyde, Badlands, even  ludicrous ram-raiding exploitation vehicle Shopping—there is no comeuppance for these renegades from reality.  The movie, which started out gritty and naturalistic, ends up an oneiric art-movie dilation of the gangsta rap video, a porno tone poem.  

While watching Spring Breakers play out to its morally unsatisfactory (in)conclusion, I thought finally of Marcuse’s concept of “repressive desublimation.” Way back in the 1960s, the Frankfurt School associate grasped that capitalism had an interest in creating wanton consumers,  insatiable and impulsive.  External constraints on  our appetites for sex and destruction still exist (police, law, social services, etc), but they are contradicted and undermined by a consumer capitalism that erodes internal restraints like guilt and inhibition, the ability to defer gratification, even the capacity for linear thought.  Stimulating desire and narcissism, the economy’s interests collide with those of other political structures like church, education, and family, all of which aim to channel energy into long-term projects (“heaven” being the longest-term of them all). Capitalism, advertising, and their bedfellow,  pop culture have  harnessed Romanticism not for repressive ends (unrepression is precisely the modus operandi) but for the dissipation of energy and the displacement of anger from any kind of political articulation. 
  
When a pop star as bland as Katy Perry can sing, in her #1 hit “T.G.I.F”, about binge-drinking past oblivion (“it’s a blackout blur, but I’m pretty sure, it ruled”) and ménage-a-trois romps, it seems pretty clear that excess is normative and “breaking loose” just another set of  chains. Likewise, of Spring Break and Spring Breakers, I found myself wondering: if this is the beach underneath the pavement, what if anything lies beyond the beach?   Pop culture in its present state has exhausted it point:  its incitements to poor impulse control and attention-deficit-disorder no longer threaten anything. 

If desublimation is regressive on both the individual psychological level and in terms of its political consequences, can one talk perhaps of  a “progressive resublimation”?  What seems likely to be valued in the future is the ability to wrench oneself out of the state of distraction, damp down the desirousness stimulated by consumer-capitalism.  Discipline, focus, rigour: everything that cuts through the non-linearity of post-MTV, post-Internet pop culture. (Using the word “linear” as a pejorative is so 20th Century, don’t you think?).  The artistic corollary of such a shift might be a director who actually dared to pass judgement, who was unafraid to risk being didactic.  To be more like the lecturer in the hall, in other words, and less like a lecher ogling  babes on the dancefloor.   

13 comments:

X said...

This kind of thoughts were in my mind too. Have you read Slavoj Žižek? In my opinion he is one of the thinkers that analyzes better the culture of late capitalism, in which we are ordered to enjoy endlessly.

X said...

This kind of thoughts were in my mind too. Have you read Slavoj Žižek? In my opinion he is one of the thinkers that analyzes better the culture of late capitalism, in which we are ordered to enjoy endlessly.

Amor_Fati said...

Excellent piece, glad you re-posted it here.
When you ask, "Can one talk of progressive resublimation?", I immediately thought of "The Closing Of The American Mind" by Allan Bloom. Heresy, I know; but Bloom's book, which the Left always derides as a reactionary "get off my lawn" screed, contains among other things a useful account of sublimation and why it's not necessarily a good idea to construct a society in which everyone gets what he wants all the time. Bloom briefly deals with Marcuse, going further into the history of the idea back through Nietzsche to Rousseau. It's a different, but equally illuminating path to some of the same ideas you touch on in this essay.

As a fan of your music criticism, perhaps it would make for an interesting think-piece to revisit-- keeping your final ideas in this essay in mind-- the special case of The Smiths. Unless I'm mistaken, you and others who got started writing in the Eighties have long been somewhat vexed by the fact that one of the best bands of that decade also sparked a regressive turn in indie rock. For all of Morrissey & Marr's progressive stances, the band somehow moved a large section of the indie audience away from the freedom and inclusiveness of post-punk back to narrow-minded, colorless, male-dominated rock (and were probably an early flowering of retro, to boot).

It always seemed to me that The Smiths, to the extent they could rightly be labeled 'conservative', attempted to re-introduce limits into the culture. People associate Morrissey with vegetarianism, but at one point he was also advertising his celibacy, too. (Consider how pointedly unyielding he was, later on, to the druggy allure of Madchester.) More generally there was a stubborn streak of "No!" in The Smiths which many people found very attractive. It wasn't the reactionary tendency alone, it was the way it was jumbled up with the best liberal traditions of rock and roll. The message was that one had to avoid ideology, one needed to think, and specifically to think through, against, and around limits. They stood with the left against all the usual targets of the pestilential Reagan-Thatcher years, but also the mindless hedonism and pointless permissiveness of the "left" itself. I think this partly explains the frustration of many who perceived them as "progressive" and "counter-revolutionary" at the same time.

Anyway, my point is that it might be interesting to go back and reconsider The Smiths in a different light. I would be the first to admit the highly, highly problematic character of many of Morrissey's pronouncements, and yet he was saying No, and asking others to say No, at a time when many of his peers were celebrating the destruction of all limits, a period of time during which, we now understand, the invisible "vampire squid" of neoliberal capitalism began extending and tightening its grip.

It would be a treat to read your thoughts about the group today, bearing in mind what has happened to pop culture since their demise in 1987. Perhaps the things that made The Smiths a problem in the Eighties could now be seen as distant early warnings of the plight we're in now. Or maybe it's just a double quality, an ambiguity without resolution-- in "The Queen Is Dead", for example, the lyrics can be taken as a reactionary wish to return to a long-lost "pure" Britain and/or a dire prophecy about England falling victim to capitalism's catastrophic corrosiveness; perhaps the story of The Smiths is precisely in the "and/or".

Sorry for the ramble. Keep up the great work.

SIMON REYNOLDS said...

hi X, hi Amor Fati

Slavoj Zizek - no, not really read him, although familiar with his assertion that there is nothing intrinsically emancipatory about pleasure. (Or was that Bourdieu?) (Either way got it second-hand via K-punk!).

Yeah I should read the Allan Bloom book, sometimes those conservative thinkers have things worth reading. Another one in this vein would be Christopher Lasche with the Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self, a sort of set of twins book wise, although probably all his relate to this politics, which is sort of conservative leftism, very much into the idea of strong ego, self-restraint, the family, value of sports, self-reliance. View that American democracy and civic culture in decline.

Re. Morrissey, the precusor to all that writing for MM in the late Eighties on Smiths was this piece in Monitor, 'Against Health and Efficiency', from early 1986 which i just posted and you can check for yourself the vein of ascetism and belief that hedonistic youth culture was now a Foucault-style disciplinary regime. Pleasure and self-fulfilment as form of potential-harvesting.

The difference between then and now is that EDM/Spring Breakers isn't about 'health and efficiency' but about a kind of normative excess, sensation-al overload through noise and drugs and bingeing. Getting wasted rather than investing life-energy and maximising its potential. Robin James at It's Her Factory persuasively analyses this culture of maxing out and burning up in terms of privilege.

SIMON REYNOLDS said...

but yeah i might be 'revisiting' the Smiths, although it probably won't see the light of day for a while

been listening to them a lot this week as it happens!

Amor_Fati said...

Thanks for the reply, Simon.

In a way, I think it bolsters the case for circling back to the topic of The Smiths, or at least the 'anti-health' position, as it were. After all, you ended the piece with "Let us see". We have seen, I think. The question of whether or not the dissenting attitudes of The Smiths et al did strengthen indie culture can be succinctly answered in three words-- "Belle and Sebastian"-- but in any case you asked an open-ended question which would be interesting to reconsider in light of all your fantastic work on the impact of the internet, the rise of retro culture, and so forth. The question asked in the Monitor piece is even more relevant today: how can we resist the 'apparatus of normalisation' which has become even more powerful in the digital era? Though your point about the difference between then and now is well taken, the 'apparatus', if it can be isolated, is more or less the same. And then, too, any steps toward resistance (e.g. "progressive resublimation") would begin from a similar spirit of withdrawal, self-limitation, negativity.

I suppose I'm interested in this question, specifically in relation to The Smiths, because I've always found your thoughts on that group among the smartest and most perceptive out there. There isn’t enough of it, sadly; I assume this is because your high hopes for them had been dashed somewhat as they began to stray from their initial surge (and Morrissey began his long, slow disappearance up his own backside). Certainly there were far more compelling developments elsewhere. Yet, as the Monitor piece shows, there was something about The Smiths which still resonates now, a quarter-century later, when we're faced with a lot of difficult questions about what has gone awry with a culture that produces stuff like EDM/"Spring Breakers".

I look forward to any future writing about The Smiths, if/when it emerges; sorry to sound like an annoying drunk bugging a DJ to play a favorite tune-- I also pestered you about them in '08, heh-- I just think The Smiths occupy a unique place in the larger narrative covering the last thirty-odd years. Maybe, put in terms of your bibliography, it's the gap between "Rip It Up" and "Energy Flash"? To me The Smiths are interesting because they can now be seen as major artists who emerged in an interstitial period. One could probably view a few others in the late Eighties, like Public Enemy or R.E.M., in the same light. It seems as if they were peaks of indie/hip-hop who tried, even as they stood against “the mainstream”, to introduce checks or restraints on the smaller cultures that produced them. Maybe their failures would be instructive to analyze should anyone wish to formulate a resistance to what’s happening now. I realize “Spring Breakers” draws from something very specific, but it’s easy to see the behavior in the film, and the film itself, as the crest of a larger wave.

Amor_Fati said...

To elaborate on a comment I made, above: when I said the culture has “gone awry”, I’m getting ahead of myself. Bad idea to namecheck Allan Bloom and then serve up sweepingly pejorative dismissals.

I don’t find EDM or the hedonistic culture of spring break awful in themselves. The problem is that no one seems to want to try and open up a space for critique in which they can be judged. One of the reasons I really liked the piece on “Spring Breakers” is that you lamented Harmony Korine’s lack of critical engagement with the people and behaviors he was depicting as well as the fact that “pop culture in its present state has exhausted its point: its incitements to poor impulse control and attention-deficit-disorder no longer threaten anything.” It seems your essay was striking at a particular target which, in my mind, I connected to some of the larger themes I’ve gotten from your writing, especially “Retromania”. My interpretation of one of these themes, which may or may not be accurate, is the difficulty, or even outright impossibility, of the practice of self-critique among both artists and audience in today's clearly exhausted youth culture.

I went back to the Afterword in “Rip It Up And Start Again” and found a small but important observation about R.E.M. and The Smiths. You called them “the two most important alt-rock bands of the day” but also noted they were “eighties bands only in the sense of being against the eighties”. One possible way to re-state this is to point out how R.E.M. and The Smiths were, in their own ways, critical of the indie culture which produced them. As they pushed against some aspects of post-punk, even as they carried forward others, they ultimately helped halt its momentum. Hence they were, at the same time, the highest peaks of post-punk as well as the harbingers of its roll-back. It was actually quite sad to reach the end of your brilliant, inspiring book and find that my favorite band, The Smiths, had helped slam the door on the previous seven years! Of course you were absolutely correct.

So, my leap here is simply to connect the “flat”, affectless, non-threatening youth culture of today, and its apparent lack of self-critique, with a brief time period in which some attempt was made to question where things were going. The Smiths were hardly the only ones, but perhaps, as you said, they were the ones who dealt with it “most acutely”. And they came at a time when the forward advancement of youth culture, in post-punk certainly, had slowed to a crawl. The only things left were the nineties’ “rave explosion”, which you note was a revival of “the lost future of the early eighties”, and rap, which had some of its best years after the eighties but has since stalled like just about every other genre. When I say “awry”, I mean that I’m troubled by the lack of voices, like The Smiths, offering questions and posing alternatives to contemporary “youth culture”, whatever it may mean today. And I was provoked to comment on the article because you seemed to be voicing some much-needed—- well, I was going to say "dissent", but I think your primary intent was to take a few first steps toward a critical evaluation which asks “What is this for?”

SIMON REYNOLDS said...

send me an email Amor, i've got a relatively recent txt on Morrissey that might go some way towards...

SIMON REYNOLDS said...

the e-dress is at the top of the blog, or should be - if not it's at blissblog

SIMON REYNOLDS said...

re Smiths and postpunk, in some ways they were the continuation of one direction out of it (Postcard, Orange Juice's "worldliness keep away from me"), in some ways reversion to punk (Patti Smith, NY Dolls, Buzzcocks), in other ways

but from about 1984 onwards postpunk and particularly New Pop seemed exhausted. in the late eighties 'new pop' was even a pejorative concept for me, as much as still loved e.g Associates. the idea of abstention and a new underground and aloofness from mainstream seemed "the way to go".

then again Smiths totally wanted to be pop, they were obsessed with releasing non-album singles and trying to penetrate the upper reaches of the Top 30, finally making the top ten with their shittest tune ever 'girlfriend in a coma'! so they were paradoxical in that respect, at once antipop and obsessed with their own idea of what pop should be. i guess it was punk idea of the Public No, the visible gesture of refual -- although the music was much softer and tenderer than punk (except for the Buzzcocks, another group whose singles never placed as high as their fans thought they should have, the original 'perfect pop' / 'pure pop' group that incongruent with what was actually market-decreed pop at that time).

SIMON REYNOLDS said...

visible gesture of REFUSAL, that should be!

i think there's a thread connecting Morrissey, Trainspotting's junkie ethic of "I choose not to choose life", and queer theory's (well Lee Edelman, Leo Bersani anyway) celebration of dark jouissance and sterility

refusing happiness, productivity, maximisation of one's potential for growth

"Still Ill" is the anthem, 'i decree today that life is simply taking and not giving'

but it relates also to things like Huysman's A Rebours, both translations of it as 'against the grain' (perversity, devoto's negative drive) and 'against nature' (refusal of health, fertility, breeder-ism, etc)

so the refusal of the future (contributing to society, reproduction) is congruent with a musical refusal of futurism etc

Amor_Fati said...

Again, thank you for taking the time to reply. I know you've got better things to do.

Regarding your points on The Smiths, first, I think you’re spot on to say Morrissey & Marr were both anti-pop and obsessed with unleashing their own “purer” form of pop. I'd drag that duality over to your suggestion about the Public No, the gesture of refusal: Janus-like, The Smiths often said No to the dominant mainstream culture, yes, but frequently frowned on the indie cradle from which they'd emerged. If hearing aids and tattered Levi’s on Top of the Pops were a way of flaunting “illness” in the face of the British public, remember that smuggling flowers onstage at the Hacienda in ’83 was a way of dumping “health” in the laps of the supremely detached coolness of the indie set. There was always ambivalence in the group about “indie” and everything that came with it, neatly embodied in their constant clashes with Rough Trade.

This leads me to your second point about “refusing happiness, productivity, maximisation of one's potential for growth”. Connecting the dots between Morrissey, the junkie ethic, and queer theory is very interesting (I’ll have to look into that), and at first blush I’d agree with you. Impossible to deny, really. I would only add that I think it’s more relevant to Morrissey’s solo work (e.g. “Maladjusted”) than to The Smiths. With The Smiths, I think you had it right in the Monitor piece: it was music for people who knew what they didn’t want, which, broad formulation though it is, I take as a narrower, more specific refusal rather than a general No. More like a No to this or that, not necessarily a No to everything, a Bartleby No.

In my view, as I said above, in The Smiths there existed a duality in the band’s relationship to health and happiness. The “against nature” strain was apparent even in the beginning, but the group also attempted a kind of return-to-nature idealism, too. The gladioli, Morrissey’s refusal of all sexual categories (“people just have needs”), Marr insisting the songs were for “normal” kids too, “Nature is a language, can’t you read”, etc. It's not that Morrissey didn't have a streak of perversion/refusal. He did. To my ears, though, The Smiths imbued their songs with equal parts health and illness, humor and despair, gregariousness and aloofness, pop and anti-pop, straight and gay, “Left” and “Right” and so forth.

(snip)

Amor_Fati said...

The tension from all this resulted in the band’s self-contradictory beauty, and nowhere more strikingly than in the deep eroticism in the music. Here I think sublimation comes in. At the risk of misusing the word in my layman-speak, The Smiths weren’t sexless or withdrawn so much as bursting with desire that had nowhere to go: isn’t that sublimation, basically? (Isn't a bummer like "How Soon Is Now" super-charged with crushed sexual appetites?) If so, it may be possible to reassess the group as one example of what it might look like to attempt a reversal of “repressive desublimation” on both the individual and political levels (n.b. these are interchangeable in Morrissey’s lyrics); in short, The Smiths offer a glimpse of what it might look like when a major artist encourages an audience to eschew “NOW-ism” and “stretch out and wait” instead.

My aim here is not to vindicate The Smiths or hold them up as a beacon of inspiration (although, hey...), I just think they could be an interesting starting point for further inquiry into the ideas you touched on in the “Spring Breakers” piece. The Smiths were always a thorny conundrum for their progressive-minded fans-- how to reconcile their hatred of Thatcher with, say, Morrissey’s indefensible comments about reggae-- and yet on balance they were mostly accepted as "left". Or "left-ish". Okay: spitting-distance of left, maybe. I think there’s an important clue there. A progressive solution to the problem you lay out in your review will likely involve something drawn from the well of conservative thought, as well (e.g. Alain Badiou on Saint Paul). It might reject the pavement/beach metaphor entirely and seek to draw its power from the dynamic, understood for centuries, of energy drawn from the tension between desire and its limits.

And it would result in a power, I think, the kind of power wielded by The Smiths at their peak, not the impotence of today’s indie scene or the pointless death-drive joy-rages of EDM. But here one would immediately have to confront at least two serious objections, namely, it is doubtful as to how limits might be re-introduced, or even what they’d be in the first place; and it is highly implausible that any artist in today’s digital environment would be capable of a Clash-like power to “matter” within the rapidly-dissolving sphere of public consciousness.