Wednesday, March 26, 2014

(contribution to a set of responses to the World Trade Center attacks by musicians and critics)
The Wire, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

In the aftermath of  9/11/2001, commentators in every field of art and entertainment joined the culture-wide consensus-chorus that "nothing will ever be the same again". Many argued that a new spirit of civic commitment and self-sacrifice would inevitably spill over to culture, with artists becoming more engaged and tackling more profound themes, and the public craving deeper, more demanding work. There were hasty announcements of  "the end of  irony", predictions that a new seriousness would wipe away the vapid, trivial pop culture of the last decade or so. 

The precedent that everyone seems to be reaching back for is WW2 and the reconstruction that followed: the moral (and morale) uplift created by a stark Good Versus Evil struggle, and the sheer energy and can-do spirit generated by the mobilisation of entire populations and economies, led to hopes of rebuilding a better world. But the "WTC-as-Pearl-Harbor/Bush & Blair as Roosevelt & Churchill" parallel doesn't really hold;at best, this is a choice between lesser evils. For most of us non-combatants, the "war against terror" will be passive and ultimately enervating, as we watch the professionals rain death (and food parcels) down on remote populations, while the home front will entail the emergence of an Israel-style security state, with a constant and debilitating sense of being both under siege and under surveillance.  It's hard to imagine either a massive project of social renewal like the Welfare State, or a great era of artistic creativity, coming out of this.

It's not at all clear how the repercussions of 9/11/2001 will play out in pop culture, let alone its  semi-popular and marginal adjuncts. With a few exceptions (hip hop, most notably), music had seemed like it was ever more compartmentalized and sealed-off from "the real world", developing according to its own self-reflexive trajectory.  But maybe History will impact pop music and  recreate the conditions that prevailed in the postpunk era. When I was a lad, bands rarely mentioned music in interviews, political issues were so much more urgent; it was a context in which a song like UB40's "The Earth Dies Screaming" getting on Top of the Pops seemed like a crucial intervention. The recent spate of rock bands like Radiohead and U2 speaking out against globalisation, Third World debt, etc. already suggested a return to activism, altruism, and earnestness. Actually, having chafed against the irony culture for a long while, I already feel a slight pang for that cosy, harmless decadence. Indeed, it seems likely that a certain sort of acerbic, bitter irony is going to be an essential weapon in these days of bizarre reversals--like the way Bush, the President dedicated to narrowing the gap between church and state, has suddenly been recast as global defender of  secular liberalism against theocratic absolutism.

Where the WTC horror might  have at least a temporary dampening effect is on musics based on  the aesthetics of devastation: extreme noise terror, aural bombardments, apocalyptic soundscapes, traumaturgy, ambient fear. From DJ Scud's "Total Destruction" and Techno Animal's Brotherhood of the Bomb to the death metal covered by Terrorizer magazine, it all starts to seem, if not questionable then at least.... superfluous, surpassed by reality. Like, remind me why  this was supposed to be a good thing to be doing in the first place?

The alibi, I guess, is that it's not about vicarious delight in wanton destruction (as with small boys who love blowing stuff up,  Hollywood disaster movies), but  about waking people from cultural slumber, confronting them with the worst that can happen.  In times of numbness, ersatz emergency gets those atrophied adrenal glands pumping. But when everyday life is sufficiently raw-nerved, thank you very much, who wants to experience simulated armageddon as entertainment? Stuff that soothes,  or helps the tears flow, seems more suitable--Harold Budd, Sandy Denny. 

Of course, terrible things have been going on for, like, ever--massacres, massive bombings,
cumulative collateral death tolls that are way bigger. But as they say, it makes a difference when it's close-to-home.  That's literal in my case: I live about one and a half miles from the site, and even now,  a month later, the air is sometimes fouled by the wind-born vapors from what is essentially a gigantic slow-burning crematorium. 9/11 has fatally interfered with  my appetite for "destruction" (meaning cultural/sonic images thereof).  Even something like Tricky's "Aftermath," one of my favorite pieces of music ever,  might be a tough listen in the future, the  lines about going "looking for people" having a new resonance.  And maybe my sharing in our 2 year old son's delight as he points at a glistening airplane in the wonderfully blue skies over Manhattan will from now onwards always be accompanied by a shudder, a twinge of anxiety.

Some of the more daring commentators have broached the whole question of  the carnographic sublime, writing honestly about the appalling splendor of  blazing fusilages piercing the sundazzled glass, the sheer spectacle of the  towers crumbling. Even dotty old Stockhausen, who got in such trouble for his ill-phrased remark about the  WTC attack as "the greatest work of art in history," was clumsily reaching towards something worth addressing: the extent to which apocalypse, carnage and cataclysm are embedded in the "libidinal economy" of  the avant-garde. From Hendrix's aural pyromania to Einsturzende Neubauten's End Times scenarios, from underground hip hop producer El-P titling his solo album Fantastic Damage to kid606 ally Electric Company using a picture of a collapsing building on the front of his latest release for Tigerbeat 6, imagery of waste and warfare seem to offer figures for absolute desire, excess, too-muchness; it's the 20th Century sublime, man-made (where the 18th Century's sublime was rampaging Nature)  but inhumane and anti-humanist.  Underground dance  music of all kinds is full of this kind of imagery, from drum'n'bass to gabba. For some years now dancehall reggae has been dominated by fire imagery, whether it's gangsta gunfire or the Rasta vision of Babylon being destroyed  by the cleansing flames of  Jah's righteous wrath (the fantasy is essentially the smiting of infidels, something that appeals in postcolonial vassal state Jamaica for precisely the same anti-globalisation, anti-American reasons it does to Islamic fundamentalists).

The events of the last few weeks have made me question my own pleasure in this kind of imagery. I've also had pause to consider the way a crusading rhetoric, a messianic, rallying mode of address, has tripped off my critical tongue at various points over the years-- something that is paralleled by the way underground musics like drum & bass envision themselves in paramilitary terms, as guerrillas, renegades, armies of underground resistance,  even terrorists. Then again, as silly and trivial as it seems when the real thing flares up all around, maybe "culture" is the safest, most harmless place for this kind of soldier talk. Music and the discourse around it can sublimate desires for mission, insurgency, single-minded purpose, our will to believe and our craving for the absolute

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