Kazakhstan is apparently not the easiest place to get CDs printed. Physical copies exist of Aiyptama and Qarangy Zharyq; the latter actually had an ambitious packaging complete with small comic books. But since then Ninety One has stuck to digital releases only, and occasionally had to change plans on the fly, possibly partly in response to Kazakhstan’s steadily worsening economy. Dopamine, the EP released in the spring of 2018, was apparently supposed to be a two-part project, and in its leadup the members talked vaguely of exploring the relationships between love, self, and brain chemistry.
Part 2 of Dopamine has yet to emerge, and Part 1 was not exactly an epic concept album. We’ve already seen “All I Need,” the self-castigating sex jam, and “Why’m,” the simultaneously expressive and fearful call for creativity. In between those two was “Boyman,” whose preoccupation is less love and more an ambivalence about growing up and stepping beyond childhood innocence. “Mama, I still want to believe in miracles!” is the refrain. (And because Ninety One is an idol-pop group, Juz Entertainment made sure there was at least one performance during the Dopamine tour where the guys hugged their actual moms onstage, and made sure that performance made it to YouTube.) But the leadoff single, the one that actually is about the connection between love and brain chemistry, is “E.Yeah,” all candy and pastel and undemanding beat:
“E.Yeah” isn’t quite as vapid as it looks. The title is another bilingual pun, à la “All I Need”: the word is actually ие, “owner.” It’s got personal touches—AZ’s jab-and-dodge rap, as discussed in the last essay, and ZaQ would compare an unsatisfying love to an animé without drawings. The group recorded a decoding video to explain the thinking behind the lyrics, which will largely serve to make you sad that Ace will likely never have the time to actually study neuropsychology.1 But mainly “E.Yeah” is just a pretty, boppy, unambitious little song, apparently fun to perform live. It is more representative of idol pop as a whole than many of Ninety One’s more soul-searching works. That the set design (and the hair) could have been put forward by one of the mid-tier Seoul-based idol companies is not a coincidence.
So the possible trouble with “E.Yeah” is the trouble with shallow, entertaining, catchy, undemanding pop in general, including most idol pop: namely, that it’s shallow, entertaining, catchy, and undemanding. It doesn’t do anything. It leaves the world more or less as it found it. Its aim is to provide some background for bopping around, and maybe hook new fans so that they stick around for the rest of the EP. It’s an advertisement.
I told you way back at the beginning of this series that a good half of Ninety One’s discography is preoccupied with matters other than love and sex, and that’s a high ratio for an idol-pop group. But that still leaves the half: there’s “E.Yeah,” and the piano-heavy glamorous self-pitying run of “Kaytadan,” and the prom song “Koilek,” and most of the album tracks on Qarangy Zharyq. Some of these are deliberately vocal-heavy ballads, some are cute dance tracks, and all of them are here to entertain and that’s it.
Is that such a problem, though? The Del-Vikings’ “Come Go With Me” is shallow, entertaining pop, and the world would be much poorer now if it had never been released. A shallow, entertaining pop song, done right, can liven up a party or a long car ride or a late afternoon alone in your room. The shallow, entertaining pop song may never be as much fun to analyze as a more nuanced or allusive song, but it can make any number of people feel lighter for a three-minute span. Why decry it?
In truth, the decrying goes back quite a while. I don’t mean criticism of pop from Christian or traditionalist sources, since (for better or worse) those have been fairly thoroughly driven out of present-day conversations about pop music. But a good many people who love music, who respect music, who do a great deal of thinking and writing about music (and who would be horrified to be compared to the likes of Allan Bloom), nevertheless are willing to make the argument that pop music can do harm. For those critics, who believe—and may well personally themselves live out—that music has the power to change people’s behavior, then idol pop, with its goal of selling shallow, entertaining records, doesn’t merely squander that power: it takes what power it has and puts it to the task of keeping the world worse.
The history of writing at length about pop music is fairly short. Scholarly histories tend to date its full start to the 1950s in Britain, with the creation of the magazines Melody Maker and NME, and to the 1960s in the United States, with the rise of such publications as Rolling Stone, Creem, and Crawdaddy, plus space given to music criticism in such publications as the Village Voice.2 But I would argue that the most influential music critic of all was one who died in 1969, and who, for that matter, hated pop music: the critical theorist (and general pessimist) Theodor Adorno.
In 1941 Adorno published an essay, “On Popular Music.” He was not quite forty, and had already been through a lot. He had spent his twenties studying composing (under Alban Berg) and philosophy; eventually he became a lecturer at the Institute for Social Research in his hometown of Frankfurt, and thus one of a group of philosophers and critics who would collectively become known as the “Frankfurt School.” Many of the Frankfurt School thinkers, including Adorno, were Jewish or of Jewish origins; none of them were particularly sympathetic to Hitler; almost all of them ended up in exile. By the end of 1941, Adorno had settled in Los Angeles, having already been bounced from Frankfurt to Oxford to New York. His fellow Frankfurt School theorist, intellectual sparring partner, and good friend, Walter Benjamin, had committed suicide for fear of getting trapped in occupied France the year before. Adorno and his wife had been working to help bring Benjamin to the States; Adorno was devastated by the loss.3 In modern parlance we’d call “On Popular Music” colored by trauma.
To say Adorno is unimpressed by the popular music he hears is putting things very, very mildly. His chief complaint is that popular music is “standardized”:
Standardization extends from the most general features to the most specific ones. Best known is the rule that the chorus consists of thirty-two bars and that the range is limited to one octave and one note. The general types of hits are also standardized: not only the dance types, the rigidity of whose pattern is understood, but also the “characters” such as mother songs, home songs, nonsense or “novelty” songs, pseudo-nursery rhymes, laments for a lost girl. Most important of all, the harmonic cornerstones of each hit—the beginning and end of each part—must beat out the standard scheme…. This inexorable device guarantees that regardless of what aberrations occur, the hit will lead back to the same familiar experience, and nothing fundamentally novel will be introduced.4
To some degree Adorno’s complaints are reflective of the music he would have heard on the radio at the time. And if he had stopped there, it wouldn’t be worth our time to bring him into a discussion of idol pop. But what Adorno does next is to contemplate the consequences of listening to such standardized music. Popular music, he suggests, looks “handcrafted”: the popular song is still made by this group and not that group; the devoted listener can tell the difference between Benny Goodman’s orchestra and Guy Lombardo’s. But the “handcrafted” veneer obscures how popular music remains rigid and predictable in its structure. It promotes what he calls “pseudo-individualization”: “endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market on the basis of standardization itself.” For him Benny Goodman versus Guy Lombardo is a distinction without a difference. But the structure of pop music encourages the listener to make the choice, and having made, regard it as a choice worth making.
And then what happens?
Individuals of the rhythmically obedient type are mainly found among the youth–the so-called radio generation. They are most susceptible to a process of masochistic adjustment to authoritarian collectivism….
Emotional music has become the image of the mother who says, “Come and weep, my child.” It is catharsis for the masses, but catharsis which keeps them all the more firmly in line. One who weeps does not resist any more than one who marches. Music that permits its listeners the confession of their unhappiness reconciles them, by means of this “release,” to their social dependence.
Did I mention Adorno was a Marxist? So was the rest of the Frankfurt School: the Institute for Social Research was in fact funded by a grain-business heir who wanted to advance Marxist conversations. The Marxists Internet Archive has an entire section devoted to the Frankfurt School. If my understanding is correct (and you should know that by both inclination and training I am a piss-poor Marxist) the main contribution of the Frankfurt School to Marxist thought seems to have been a focus on social relations, popular cultures, and art through the lens of “false consciousness”—a term Marx himself never used, for what it’s worth; the idea was developed by Georg Lukács in the early 20th century.5 The general gist of the idea is that that capitalism, while extracting surplus value from the worker, creates an environment in which workers are encouraged to act against their own interests and believe that the current capitalist system is the best and most fulfilling one. Hence, to be cheered or thrilled or comforted by popular music is to be temporarily reconciled with capitalism.
Adorno’s position wasn’t universally shared by the other Frankfurt School writers. Benjamin saw more liberating possibility in accessible popular culture: reproduced art, he thought, would lose its “aura,” its position of authority, and the worker/viewer would be able to approach art less as a supplicant and with more of a critical eye. Benjamin was also more impressed with artists who tried to use popular arts to introduce skeptical or radical points of view, in particular Bertolt Brecht and Charlie Chaplin, than Adorno was. Nothing Adorno saw in the United States, after Benjamin’s death, changed his mind. In 1944 he wrote (with Max Horkheimer, the former leader of the Institute for Social Research):“Every monster close-up of a star is an advertisement for her name, and every hit song a plug for its tune. Advertising and the culture industry merge technically as well as economically.”
By the early 1950s Adorno had returned to West Germany, where he became, to use an anachronistic term, a public intellectual. While he’d been at the Institute for Social Research he’d written opera and music criticism on the side; now he appeared regularly on German radio. (Reaching popular audiences never bothered him as much as what reached them.) In one radio interview he mused about the possibility of saving kids from the reach of false-consciousness-raising popular culture:
I could imagine that in the upper classes of high schools, but also probably in primary schools, commercial films could be viewed together and the pupils simply shown what a swindle it is, how mendacious it is…. Or that they once would read together an illustrated weekly and be shown how they are run roughshod over by the exploitation of their own instinctual needs. Or that a music teacher, who for once doesn’t come from the musical Youth Movement, would analyze hits and show them why a hit song is so incomparably worse than a movement of a quartet by Mozart or Beethoven or a really authentic work of modern music…. 6
Speaking from personal experience: the more you read Adorno, the more you like him. The man had standards, and held on to them through over a decade of exile, the inevitable surveillance of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and late-in-life disputes with the German students of 1968. (They found him stodgy.) Moreover, his was not the kind of Marxism that implied starry eyes about the Communism of the Soviet Union, before or after its extension into eastern Germany. He seems to have genuinely enjoyed appearing on radio and teaching, but his were not positions taken for popularity’s sake.
Which makes it a little strange that I’m claiming he was so influential. That was not the line on Adorno for a long time. “The immediate reasons as to why his views on popular music are difficult to accept are obvious enough,” wrote Max Paddison in the journal Popular Music in 1982, “and it must be admitted that the usual criticisms—that Adorno is prejudiced, arrogant and uninformed in this field—contain more than a grain of truth.”7 Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin are almost apologetic about including “On Popular Music” in their edited compilation, On Record. Stuart Jeffries, promoting his 2016 book on the Frankfurt School, The Grand Hotel Abyss, had to start from the unenviable position of explaining why his subjects became irrelevant. But only some of Adorno’s disdainful views towards pop music were dismissed. The idea that pop music could in itself promote false consciousness stayed.
What happened next, for our purposes, is the rise of a field of academia and criticism known as “cultural studies.” If you look at, say, the members of the current program committee for the Museum of Pop Culture’s most recent PopCon, one of the biggest annual conferences for pop music critics in the United States8, there are four professors, and none of them teach music: one is in sociology, one in LGBTQ studies, one in English and American studies, and one in English and feminist theory.9 All four teach courses on ethnicity studies, and three additionally specialize in gender and sexuality studies. You can think of all of those categories together as an incomplete but representative sample of cultural studies. “Cultural studies is not one arm of the humanities,” wrote the New Yorker critic Hua Hsu, “so much as an attempt to use all of those arms at once.”
Hsu wrote that in a profile of Stuart Hall, the Jamaican scholar, in part to argue that Hall could be considered a founding father of the field. Hall was the second director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Great Britain, and a prolific writer and mentor. Hall and his fellow “Birmingham School” thinkers were also Marxists, drawing from the Frankfurt School’s work and also Antonio Gramsci’s idea that popular culture forms a “hegemony” that helps the ruling class solidify its power and reinforce working-class subjugation. But Hall’s analysis of popular culture and its consumption took him in a different reaction. He didn’t necessarily disagree with Adorno’s and Gramsci’s contentions that popular culture was used to suppress or disarm the masses, but he wasn’t sure the masses were so easily suppressed or disarmed.
Hall’s analysis derived, in part, from his experiences as a Black immigrant in 1960s Great Britain, and experiences of other Black artists whom he mentored. (He is credited with having done a lot to encourage the British Black Arts Movement of the 1980s.)10 The relationship between those who felt the sting of official discrimination, and the pop-culture products produced by the larger society that shaped and was shaped by that discrimination, was never going to be so straightforward as Adorno had it. Allow me to quote Hall at length:
Now one of the main reactions against the politics of racism in Britain was what I would call “Identity Politics One,” the first form of identity politics. It had to do with the constitution of some defensive collective identity against the practices of racist society. It had to do with the fact that people were being blocked out of and refused an identity and identification within the majority nation, having to find some other roots on which to stand. Because people have to find some ground, some place, some position on which to stand. Blocked out of any access to an English or British identity, people had to try to discover who they were…. The histories that have never been told about ourselves that we could not learn in schools, that were not in any books, and that we had to recover.
This is an enormous act of what I want to call imaginary political re-identification, re-territorialization and re-identification, without which a counter-politics could not have been constructed. I do not know an example of any group or category of the people of the margins, of the locals, who have been able to mobilize themselves, socially, culturally, economically, politically in the last twenty or twenty-five years who have not gone through some such series of moments in order to resist their exclusion, their marginalization. That is how and where the margins begin to speak. The margins begin to contest, the locals begin to come to representation.11
Hall and Adorno’s writings suggest a marked difference in temperament, Hall seemingly as open-minded as Adorno was stern.12 But there was another crucial difference between them. Unlike Adorno, with his composer background, Hall was always a critic and theorist, rather than an aspiring artist. He came to his critiques without any particular aesthetic skin in the game. I can’t claim to have read all or even a good chunk of his work, but from what I have read he seems to have written about popular culture relatively broadly, without a personal equivalent of Adorno’s contempt for thirty-two-bar choruses. This makes some sense: for the purposes of his analysis, insisting too strongly on aesthetic judgments runs the risk of getting ahead of his subjects: he can’t figure out which pop-culture tropes strike a chord if he’s rushing to condemn them.
So Hall’s advancement of cultural studies, while still grounded in Marxism, offered a path away from Adorno’s condemnation of popular music, in three ways: it removed Adorno’s emphasis on a particular set of aesthetic standards; it added a dimension of collective identity (and experience of discrimination) to the question of how minority groups interact with broader popular culture; and it focuses on the question of how the listener responds to the song, as opposed to simply assuming that the listener falls in line. Without these three elements, it’s hard to imagine the dominant mode of writing about pop music now: poptimism.
There’s not really a good consensus on when poptimism started. One touchstone is Kelefa Sanneh’s 2004 New York Times essay, “The Rap Against Rockism,” although a fair number of critics will fairly claim that they were carefully considering pop acts well before 2004. Chuck Eddy, in his compilation Rock And Roll Never Forgets, reports that Ken Tucker was covering the likes of Quarterflash and Loverboy for the Village Voice in 1982; Eddy himself and fellow Voice writer Frank Kogan were including Exposé, Debbie Deb, and Teena Marie on their best-of year-end lists by 1987.13 The term “rockism” itself dates to 1981. So poptimist critics have been attempting to slay the rockist beast for a long time.
But wait: what is the rockist beast, and the poptimist slayer? To summarize crudely, rockism is the subscription to a series of hierarchies: popular music with guitars is better than popular music with synthesizers; popular music performed by a band that plays their own instruments is better than popular music performed by dancers to a backing track; popular music written by the singer is better than popular music written by a producer, or a committee of producers; and popular music performed for a live audience is better than popular music that’s meant to be digested by radio, or SoundCloud, or music video. Poptimism argues against all of these hierarchies. “Anti-rockism was always violently pro-pop,” wrote Paul Morley (somewhat nostalgically) for the Guardian in 2006, “largely because we original campaigning anti-rockists had been given such a tough time at school for liking Bowie and Bolan and not ELP and Led Zep.”
Things get complicated here, since the label “poptimism” now covers a multitude of stances, which have “don’t automatically dismiss popular music just because it doesn’t have guitars” as a starting point but diverge from there. Tom Ewing of FreakyTrigger once came up with 27 different potential approaches under the “poptimist” umbrella, ranging from the idea that the commercially successful must be worthy of interest, to a focus on the business of popular music that stands sideways to actual quality judgments, to intensely personal reactions (including Morley’s, but also the stories often featured in One Week One Band)14.
I would argue, though, that the most-disseminated and best-compensated (which is almost never well compensated at all, by the way) poptimist writing being published today takes one of those particular approaches.15 Ewing calls it “Return of the Repressed”: I’m going to call it “collectivist poptimism.” Because these poptimists are very much Marxists following in Adorno’s, and Hall’s, footsteps; but their general critical stance, while influenced by both Adorno and Hall, doesn’t quite match with either. Or with idol pop, for that matter.
Here’s how I would describe the outlook that animates collectivist poptimism, which has been described elsewhere, not sympathetically, as “woke Marxism”.16 There is a deep unfairness that pervades the world, in which a very small capital-owning class is able to manipulate matters to keep themselves on top and everyone else at the bottom. But the experiences of the “everyone else” are shaped not just by their experiences lacking power due to their economic insecurity but by their experiences of ethnic identification, of racism and colorism, of sex and sexuality, of gender identity, of disability or neuroatypicality, and of body identity and body-shaming. (The number of potential dimensions upon which oppression can differ isn’t limited to those categories, but those are the most prominent at the moment.) Organizing as a collective is vital to reclaiming power from the ruling class. (One of the tricks the ruling class pulls, in order to hold on to power, is to discourage collectivism and emphasize individualism. Therefore, although the ruling class is largely white and male, it’s not sufficient to make sure that members of marginalized groups attain economic power, as there is always the risk that the newly empowered member will abandon the collective.) But organizing as a collective solely along class lines, as was the approach of traditional Marxist politics, runs the risk of perpetuating hierarchies within the disempowered classes and failing to recognize the unique experiences of marginalized groups—the kinds of experiences Hall wanted to make sure could get expressed in British popular culture.
If you’re wondering what this has to do with pop music, the answer is disco. Those rockist hierarchies I described earlier are widely assumed to have concealed some broader, uglier preferences: for the male over the female (or gender-bending), for the white over the black, and for the straight over the queer. (If you detected a homophobic edge to the grief Paul Morley remembered getting, you’re almost certainly not wrong.) If poptimism can be said to have a starting incident, it might well have been Disco Demolition Night, when a crowd of almost exclusively white Chicago White Sox fans happily participated in a disco-record-breaking orgy — and apparently made sure to rub it in the faces of the few Black people in attendance.17 The anti-disco backlash has also been characterized as not just racist but homophobic, and a reaction to the potential feminization of men in popular culture, in a way that should sound familiar to those of you who read Part 5. For example, a critic writing in the Washington Post in 1978 about Saturday Night Fever described John Travolta as “sinful, feminine, working class, and unashamed.”18
Disco also inspired what may have been one of the first openly poptimist essays. “All my life I’ve liked the wrong music,” wrote Richard Dyer in 1979, opening an essay titled “In Defense of Disco” for the British magazine Gay Left. “And since I became a socialist, I’ve often felt virtually terrorised by the prestige of rock and folk on the left… I recovered my nerve partially when I came to see show biz type music as a key part of gay culture, which, whatever its limitations, was a culture to defend.” Crucially, Dyer is not defending disco to the Comiskey Park rabble, but to his fellow socialists. “Much of the hostility to disco stems from the equation of it with capitalism,” he admits, and then presents the counter-argument:
I am not now about to launch into a defence of disco music as some great subversive art form…. this mode of cultural production has produced a commodity, disco, that has been taken up by gays in ways that may well not have been intended by its producers. The anarchy of capitalism throws up commodities that an oppressed group can take up and use to cobble together its own culture. In this respect, disco is very much like another profoundly ambiguous aspect of male gay culture, camp. It is a “contrary” use of what the dominant culture provides, it is important in forming a gay identity, and it has subversive potential as well as reactionary implications.
That is a nice little one-paragraph summary of where the poptimists followed Hall’s lead and parted company with Adorno. Whatever disco’s value as an “art form” might be, its value lies not in the musicological rules it reinforces, but the way a marginalized group responds to it. Richard Dyer, by the way, would go on to write for Marxism Today19, a journal for whom Hall was an influential writer, and eventually to write the introduction to a new edition of The Popular Arts, which Hall co-wrote with Paddy Whannel.
One more recent example of collectivist poptimism is an essay Soraya Roberts wrote for Longreads’s music series about a year ago, wherein she draws a contrast between the rock stars (and, presumably, the rockists who loved them) of yesteryear and the more collectively minded pop stars of the present day. “Where is the revolution when the primacy of the self is inseparable from commerce?” she asks, and answers it by pointing to Harry Styles (for saying things like “I’m just trying to make people feel included and seen”), Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish (for “mak[ing] us feel like we deserve to take up space the way we are, while everything around us is telling us we shouldn’t”), and Lizzo (for saying to the MTV Video Music Awards audience, “It’s so hard trying to love yourself in a world that doesn’t love you back, am I right?”). Another example would be the Singles Jukebox’s 2017 reviews of MUNA’s “I Know a Place,” in which A. J. Cohn talks about crying while listening, Nellie Gayle describes the song as “a rallying cry for anyone whose hurt has calloused them against the world,” and Alfred Soto comments, “Queer artists understand the politics of dancing.” The pop heroes of the collectivist poptimist not only allow marginalized audiences to find comfort and recognition in their work but openly encourage it.
There’s a problem, though, anticipated in Dyer’s reference to “revolutionary tendencies.” The collectivist poptimists tend not to employ anything like Adorno’s strict aesthetic criteria, in part because many of them (like Hall, and myself, for that matter) got their training in the social sciences rather than musicology, in part because many of them also regard such strictness of criteria as a veil for classism and racism.20 Adorno didn’t help his posthumous reputation in this regard by objecting to jazz without employing any Hall-esque curiosity about where jazz had come from and what purpose it served to the people who developed it. But the poptimists haven’t entirely thrown Adorno overboard. They’re still Marxists, after all, some by training (think of all those cultural studies professors) and some because the paying market for pop music criticism has never been very large, and in the last three decades has shrunk to the point of being basically nonexistent—and when you tell a bunch of people that the odds of being paid for doing what they love to do will never get much above zero, you can’t be surprised if many of them go on to reject the concept of a free market altogether.
Meanwhile these Marxist poptimists, tenured or not, are writing about pop music. In fact, to make the analysis they want to make, the music has to be popular to some degree: you can’t talk about the audience response to a group with no discernable audience. Which means that the more likely a poptimist is to be talking about a particular group, the more likely it is that that group is making decent money in a fully, unrepentantly, irredeemably capitalist system. The stink of hegemonic corruption is everywhere.
Thus collectivist poptimism veers between cheering on pop music and suspecting it. Beyond a certain level of success, after all, a pop singer must be attracting consumers beyond her initial fanbase, and the bigger the star gets, the more likely those consumers include the white individualists at the top of the supremacist hierarchy. Loving that successful pop singer then runs the risk of playing into the hands of that hierarchy. Hence we get, for example, Isabelia Herrera using a retrospective Pitchfork review of Shakira’s album Laundry Service to accuse Shakira of whitening herself for a mainstream audience: “her identity as a white, blonde Latina facilitated her explosive entry into the English-language market…. furthering her ascent to the upper echelons of pop, where black and brown Latinas were denied access.” Or another Pitchfork writer, Alex Niven, criticizing Radiohead for not being left-wing enough: “Making a few pointed public statements and upping ticket prices to account for the lack of sponsors hardly amounts to a meaningful revolutionary praxis.” Or Carl Wilson, whose much-praised poptimist 33 1/3 book on Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love included the line, “You can love a song… for representing a place a community, even an ideology, in the brokenhearted way I love ‘The Internationale,’” writing for Slate’s 2019 Music Club, “Getting your paws dirty with culture under capitalism means successes are always going to be half-defeats.”21 Or longtime independent music writer Jeff Weiss, writing for the Washington Post, combining his distaste for Post Malone’s lyrics with his distaste for Post Malone’s wealth: “His songs completely lack volatility and swing, leaving him as a little boy trying on oversized sequin suits and Versace loafers alternately trying to be a fake musty Elvis, a swaggering baller, a redneck backcountry rebel, but flailing somewhere in the doughy middle…. He knows he won the lottery but doesn’t understand that it was rigged in his favor.”22
This means that idol pop, as nakedly commercial and politically mainstream as it is, poses a problem for collectivist poptimists. Increasingly it can’t be dismissed as nakedly commercial and politically mainstream (or shallow and dumb) because its fans include a lot of members of marginalized groups, including young women, people who don’t claim conventional sexual or gender identities, and ethnic minorities.23 This may help explain why, when Korean idol-pop fans in the United States raised money for Black Lives Matter and reportedly messed with the ticketing for a Donald Trump campaign rally, they got an impressive amount of sympathetic media coverage, including multiple New York Times articles. Casting idol-pop fans as left-leaning activists allowed writers to talk about idol pop without fearing they were feeding the capitalist hegemonic beast. “Enormous fan collectives like the BTS Army are built on activist tendencies, which, when engaged, make them effective creators of change,” wrote Emma Madden for The Ringer.
So maybe the answer to the question I’ve already spent seven thousand words on—is enjoying idol pop just complicity in an unfair system—is a simple “no.” BTS, after all, has songs just as fluffy and colorful and audience-pleasing as “E. Yeah” and yet seems to inspire some portion of its fans to left-wing activism anyway. Still, we can’t prove that under the influence of, say, a Fugazi those fans would have been even more inspired to left-wing activism. And we also have to deal with the possibility that applying a Marxist emphasis on hegemonic complicity to pop music is a fool’s errand in the first place.
Let’s get back to Ninety One, or at least two-fifths of Ninety One. In 2015 Kazakhstan got a homegrown equivalent of MTV, called Gakku TV, and in 2016 Gakku TV staged a concert featuring many of its best-known acts, including Orda, Ninety One, and Zhanar Dugalova, a former member of the long-standing female group KeshYou who had broken off to start her own solo career.24 Dugalova performed her single “Aita Bersin,” and invited ZaQ and AZ to contribute a new rap break midway through.
So here we have Zhanar Dugalova performing in a beret and a red armband, for a group of backup dancers similarly arrayed in drab clothes and berets and red armbands, on a set decorated with posters seemingly inspired by the famous Alberto Korda portrait of Che Guevara. The choreography features a great deal of coordinated marching and raising of fists into the air. Midway through the group stops, to chant in unison, until two anonymous young men emerge in hoodies and balaclavas… which they immediately shrug off, and, being AZ and ZaQ, proceed to rap.
Aita bersin, by the way, translates as “Let them talk,” and the original music video is basically a paean to individual self-expression, featuring a drummer determined to practice despite the neighbor pounding on his door, an aspiring MMA fighter who does not conform in the slightest to Kazakhstani standards of female adornment, and an artist working to recover his painting after his teacher nastily slashes through it.
Now, “Aita Bersin” is a bop, and hopefully you have enjoyed it alongside ZaQ’s shy onstage smile and Alem being the proud dad recording from the audience. But this is just wacky. This is a concert being put on with the blessing of the Kazakhstani state, after all, which not a quarter-century earlier had been the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. And yet we not only have a rollicking performance of a song all about individualism—and of course AZ starts the rap break by shouting, “AZ! Z-A-Q!”—but the chosen staging is essentially a grab-bag of socialist iconography. Was someone trying to argue that socialist iconography and individualist rapping were mutually complementary? Or was this one giant jape? If so, why does the audience seem more entertained than amused or threatened? Does any of this have any meaning at all?
I imagine the collectivist poptimists would be split: some would frame it as a reclaiming of Kazakhstan’s Soviet past on Kazakhstani terms, and some would decry it for reducing political movements and the expression of collective power to set dressings for a bop. (Adorno would not be split: Adorno would be instantly, unambiguously contemptuous.) I’m not sure myself; I’m reluctant to pass judgment in the absence of any translated commentary from Zhanar Dugalova or her set designers. So let me bring in a third line of analysis, admittedly not nearly as well-known as Adorno’s or Hall’s.
The Triumph of Vulgarity is a 1987 book about pop music by Robert Pattison. Like Adorno and Hall, Pattison has made his career in academia; unlike them, he teaches English, and tends not to write about music very often.25 If Adorno focused on music and Hall on audience response, Pattison focuses mainly on the words of pop music, the lyrics and interviews. Not surprisingly, being an English professor analyzing words, he places pop music in a literary context: specifically, the eighteenth-century Romantic tradition, which lauded emotion and intensity of feeling in the face of a seemingly overlogical, industrialized, hard-hearted world. Pattison quotes Walt Whitman: “The vulgar and the refined, what you call sin and what you call goodness, to think how wide a difference / To think the difference will still continue to others, yet we lie beyond the difference.”
Pop music, argues Pattison, has inherited Whitman’s vulgarity, which is to say his refusal to concern himself with the difference between sin and goodness, and Whitman’s pantheism, which is to say the ability to see God everywhere and in everything. Above all pop music is about feeling: places feeling supreme above all.
And by doing so, it comes into conflict with Marxism:
In Marxist thought, consciousness is the highest value, and consciousness must have subject and object…. Consciousness is always a collective quality, and its object is not individual experience, but the interplay of man with man and man with nature. The legitimate object of class consciousness is not self but history. In time, says the Marxist, the subject, which is the proletariat, realizes that it is its own object, that history is nothing but class consciousness coming to awareness.
The rocker repudiates these assertions about collective consciousness and its object, history, because they are inimical to the primacy of instinct. The rocker’s goal is pure feeling, not pure consciousness. The subject of his feeling is his individual self, not his social class, and the object of his feeling is not history but the universe as it is right now. The present moment alone is valid, and the historical class problems that are the essential matter of Marxist speculation become for the rocker momentary fantasies.
If Pattison is right, then to try to make sense of Zhanar Dugalova and her dancers stomping around in gray berets and red armbands is to miss the point. In the service of “pure feeling,” socialist iconography can be neutered, rendered kitsch.
Zhanar Dugalova isn’t exactly a rebel, by the way. The year after the Gakku Melodies concert she was chosen as one of three Kazakhstani celebrity ambassadors to present the EXPO, an expensive World’s-Fair-style convention staged in part to sell foreign visitors on Kazakhstan as an investment destination. The EXPO hosting was borne of the same economic-policy approach that has seen Kazakhstan gradually climb the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings. The Kazakhstani government has been at pains to paint the country as a modern, attractive, market economy, and not draw much attention to rising inequality or the creation of a new urban underclass that lives in shoddy and unsafe housing.26 So it makes perfect sense that a state-approved music channel would air a performance in which a well-liked singer turns collectivism into kitsch and champions individual passion. Zhanar Dugalova is offering the same stultifying fake release as the big-band tunes that depressed Adorno; she’s just being a little less subtle about it.
At this point feel free to throw up your hands. There’s no revolutionary praxis in “Aita Bersin,” or in idol pop as a whole. If Pattison’s analysis is right, then pop music’s use of symbolism is narcissistic: the only thing that matters about a given set of symbols is how much it enhances or detracts from the feeling; beyond the feeling it has no value. Zhanar Dugalova could have just as easily dressed AZ and ZaQ as SS guards. She’d have been in good company: plenty of past pop groups, including idol-pop groups, have flirted with Nazi imagery.
So Adorno is right, and the collectivist poptimists, despite their best efforts, are putting lipstick on the hegemonic capitalist pig, and pop music is at best a waste of time and at worst a reactionary buy-in, a complicit declaration of willful ignorance—
—if you agree with the premise of false consciousness.
A premise is all false consciousness is, after all. Unverified, and unverifiable. It fails the test of falsifiability: how would you ever tell that your consciousness wasn’t false? (Stuart Hall once said wryly: “I wonder how it is that all the people I know are absolutely convinced they are not in false consciousness, but can tell at the drop of a hat that everybody else is.”27) The idea of people taking joy (and therefore being lulled into false consciousness) by consumption of such shallow, entertaining goods as pop music may not even be all that Marxist: the historian Ishay Landa has argued that Marx himself, rather than decrying consumerism as his Frankfurt School successors did, saw mass consumerism as fundamentally a challenge to capitalism: “If Marx is anyone to go by, capitalist consumption variously nurtures the seeds of its own metamorphosis by way of a democratisation and expansion of needs, destabilisation of past boundaries and hierarchies, and by creating an ardent thirst among people all around the world for a life of plenty and well-being which it cannot truly quench.”28
But false consciousness is also so depressingly reductionist, so simple. One is either fully revolutionary, or tainted by reactionary tendencies; the music is either at the level of a Beethoven or a Schoenberg, or it’s a degrading muck. This reduces cultural consumption to a series of levers, and the consumers to a series of lemmings. It’s not possible to listen to or read or view a work distantly, or appreciate some of its qualities and reject others, or interpret it in a way that would horrify the author. It’s the same problem we confronted in the last essay, where to listen to a song by an accused abuser was tantamount to endorsing the abuse. To consume the counterrevolutionary (or the racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic) is to be contaminated by it; the actual person doing the consuming is a marionette.
Such an approach suits well those whose primary goal is the gaining or consolidating of power over others.29 But it doesn’t actually do much to explain human behavior, especially in the realm of people’s responses to cultural products. Under the theory of false consciousness, there are no surprises, no discoveries of unexpected resources. You could probably come up with a dozen examples off the top of your own head, but if you need some prompts: a biracial Latina writer who loves Morrissey; a black teenager in Richmond, Virginia, who falls in love with Irish step dancing; a black teenager in south Atlanta who listens to Kate Bush alongside his uncle; another teenage boy, this time in Miami, who hero-worships Martina Navratilova; or an unhappy Singaporean teenager who finds refuge in Throwing Muses and the Pixies, and who grows up to teach literature in Hong Kong and surprise herself by crushing on a Korean idol.
For all idol pop’s emphasis on groups, and idol-pop fans going around brandishing the badges of their chosen fanclub names, idol pop is deeply individualist in its appeal to fans. It takes the “anarchy of capitalism” Dyer identified as helping make disco and builds an entire industry based on the unpredictable, ungovernable question: what do you like? And there’s nothing set or collective about the response. The idea of all Eaglez sporting some sort of group consciousness is silly enough to make the whole idea of group consciousness worth a raise of an eyebrow. The leap of connection between idol and fan occurs independent of political affiliation, social identification, and common sense. One can cry “false consciousness” to condemn this affection, but one can’t explain it that way.
We simply cannot predict, at the individual level, what kind of ripples a piece of art (including pop songs, including shallow pop songs) will make when it lands. We’re not there yet, in our understanding of the mysterious human heart. To claim that you can (and therefore must) predict the effects of a cultural product, and brand it and the people who like it accordingly, should be recognized as substituting certainty for curiosity and superiority for humility.
That is not to say that there is no such thing as bad art; I’ve thrown too many books across the room to try and venture that argument. “E.Yeah” is just not as good or interesting a song as others in Ninety One’s discography. But judge art as bad on its own terms, rather than trying to predict its effects on its audience.
So where does that leave us? Adorno’s argument can’t exactly be disproved, either; we can’t go back and run the simulation of a world without standardized pop music.30 But I still think Hall and Pattison are closer to the mark than Adorno. We shape pop music, not the other way round. We bring our histories and needs to the song, and the better the song the more room it offers for us to find what we need, but even a shallow song (or a genuinely bad one) has something for us to fill in. If we’re not doing enough to revolutionize the world31 it could be for any number of reasons (up to and including revolutionizing the world being a much worse idea than it seems at first glance), but it’s not pop’s fault.
So we could say that pop music does not have the power to make us cruel or self-absorbed or stupid. Except, when talking about idol pop in particular, we immediately run into a problem: that idol-pop fans do cruel, self-absorbed, stupid things all the time, and do them in a context inseparable from idol pop—do cruel, self-absorbed, stupid things to the idols themselves. So as long as we’re talking about the potential destructive power of idol pop, we need to talk next about that particular type of destruction; and while we’re at it, what Ninety One has in common with the Bay City Rollers.
There are actually a bunch of decoding videos, which I haven’t really referenced in writing this series, partly because most of them have no English translation, but also because ZaQ said in a 2018 radio interview that Ninety One came to thoroughly dislike the decoding videos and wanted to let their lyrics stand on their own.↩︎
For more on the history of pop-music criticism, for example, Kembrew McCloud, “One and a Half Stars: A Critique of Rock Criticism in North America,” Popular Music, Vol. 20, No. 1 (2001), and Thomas Conner and Steve Jones, “Art to Commerce: The Trajectory of Popular Music Criticism,” Journal of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2014).↩︎
My copy of “On Popular Music” is from Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin, eds. On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word (Routledge, 1990).↩︎
For a fuller explanation comparing Lukács, the Frankfurt School, and Antonio Gramsci on how false consciousness works, see Ron Eyerman, “False Consciousness and Ideology in Marxist Theory,” Acta Sociologica, Volume 24, Nos. 1-2, 1981.↩︎
The quote is from Henry W. Pickford, “The Dialectic of Theory and Praxis,” in Nigel Gibson and Andrew Rubin, eds., Adorno: A Critical Reader (Blackwell Publishers, 2002). Pickford says that the interview hadn’t been translated prior to his essay; he got the quote from Erziehung zur Mündigkeit: Vorträge und Gespräche mit Hellmut Becker 1959 bis 1969 (Education towards Maturity: Lectures and Conversations with Hellmut Becker, 1959-69).↩︎
Max Paddison, “The Critique Critiqued: Adorno and Popular Music,” Popular Music, Volume 2 (1982), pp. 201-218. A lot of the anti-Adorno sentiment, by the way, comes as a reaction to Adorno’s anti-jazz sentiment; though I’ve seen critics defend him by saying that he was reacting to watered-down jazz, like judging Little Richard’s music by listening to Pat Boone.↩︎
In 2017 Tom Ewing of Freaky Trigger described PopCon in grateful terms: “The critic’s life, these days, is often grim and precarious—Pop Conference overturns that, offering an opportunity to celebrate and indulge everything you might want it to be.” I personally have never been to PopCon, but a number of fellow Singles Jukebox writers who have presented there in the past: Jukeboxers who took part in the 2020 version of PopCon were Steacy Easton, Josh Langhoff, and Alfred Soto.↩︎
In reverse alphabetical order, Oliver Wang teaches sociology at California State University, Long Beach; Karen Tongson teaches English and American studies at the University of Southern California; Iván Ramos teaches LBGTQ studies within the Women’s Studies department at the University of Maryland; and Summer Kim Lee teaches English with an emphasis on feminist theory and Asian American studies at UCLA.↩︎
See the Tate’s explanation of the Black Arts Movement; also Jean Fisher, “Stuart Hall: the artist who inspired Britain’s black intellectuals,” The Guardian, May 20, 2014.↩︎
From Stuart Hall, “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities,” in Anthony D. King, ed., Culture, Globalization and the World System (University of Minnesota Press, 1997).↩︎
Full disclosure: both Eddy and Kogan are longtime Singles Jukebox contributors; I don’t know Eddy personally but count Kogan as a friend.↩︎
I’ve mentioned OWOB already (and also written for it a few times), but to give you some examples of exceptionally good personal approaches to writing about a pop group: Jacqui Deighton on Green Day; the pseudonymous K on Kraftwerk; Megan Harrington on The 1975; Russ Marshalek on Tori Amos.↩︎
This description is specific to music writing, which, let me go ahead and acknowledge, is a pretty blinkered approach to talking about music criticism right now. There are a lot of people who make money as music critics on YouTube, and I just do not watch enough video to be able to say with any authority what critical approaches they take.↩︎
Henry Allen, “The New Narcissism; ‘The Male Narcissist: He Walks in Beauty… And His Face Is His Fortune,’” Washington Post, June 10, 1978, quoted in Gillian Flynn, “Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash Against Disco,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, May 2007.↩︎
For more on Marxism Today, see John Harris, “Marxism Today: the forgotten visionaries whose ideas could save Labour,” The Guardian, September 29, 2015.↩︎
There’s a branch of poptimism that’s fascinated by the most potentially off-putting or off-kilter music: see Irwin Chusid’s book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious World of Outsider Music (A Cappella, 2000), or (fellow Singles Jukebox writer) David Cooper Moore’s fascination with Farrah Abraham’s My Teenage Dream Ended.↩︎
In that same Music Club conversation Jack Hamilton sniped, “Lizzo has vastly more power and money and influence than a music critic,” and, y’all, I try to keep my own sniping to a minimum, but Lizzo is a black woman at the start of her career in an industry with a very long history of both short careers and black women getting screwed out of their money, and Jack Hamilton has tenure at the University of Virginia.↩︎
More recently Weiss wrote a long feature recasting Vanilla Ice as an unfairly pilloried hard worker who respected black culture (for the Ringer), so you can’t claim that he’s simply mad about white guys rapping. Interestingly enough, Weiss acknowledges early on that Vanilla Ice is also both wealthy and prone to gaudy extravagance, but he casts Ice’s wealth as earned: “…it was more than just privilege and luck that led him to stardom…. The work ethic, self-belief, and sense of humor that allowed him to survive the withering backlash were there from the start.” So maybe Weiss is more meritocratic than collectivist in his outlook.↩︎
A rare example of writing that focuses explicitly on sexual-identity variation among Korean idol-pop fans is Biju Belinky, “The Complexity and Fun of Being a Queer, Femme K-Pop Fan,” Noisey, February 6, 2019.↩︎
In 2014 Zhanar Dugalova won the Turkvision Song Contest, a Turkey-hosted version of Eurovision for countries and regions with large Turkic populations. (She composed the music for “Izin kórem” herself, but in a further example of the Kazakhstani popular music industry being tiny, her co-lyricist was Rinat Zaitov, one of Ninety One’s future harsh critics.) Orda placed second in 2015, meaning that for the short lifespan of Turkvision—the contest only ran three years—Kazakhstan was undisputably its most successful participant.↩︎
Pattison’s most recent book appears to be The Child Figure in English Literature (University of Georgia Press, 2008). To give you an idea of how off the beaten music-criticism path this is when compared to poptimism (collectivist or otherwise), I found The Triumph of Vulgarity not through any other music writer but via Jonah Goldberg’s The Suicide of the West (Random House, 2018).↩︎
The Astana Times regularly covers the Doing Business reports and Kazakhstan’s standing within them; see, for example, Nazira Kozhanova, “Kazakhstan jumps three spots to 25th in World Bank Doing Business Report,” October 25, 2019. For more on the disparities between urban investment in Almaty and Astana and the living conditions of people moving to those cities for work, see Paul Stronski, “Perspectives: Tragic fire highlights Kazakhstan’s social problems,” Eurasianet.org, February 8, 2019.↩︎
Ishay Landa, “The Negation of Abnegation: Marx on Consumption,” Historical Materialism, Volume 26, No. 1 (2018), reprinted with an introduction by Ralph Leonard on Medium under the headline “A Marxist Defense of Consumerism,” August 18, 2019. Leonard’s introduction is even more forceful: “The broader point is people’s very normal and natural want to live a more comfortable existence and have nice things should not be pathologised as a borderline mental illness…. we should declare that it is not the working class that needs to be liberated from consumerism, or in other words their own material desires, but that consumerism should be liberated from capitalism.”↩︎
Adorno’s work and that of the late Sir Roger Scruton have a fair bit in common, despite their opposite stances on Marxism. (Scruton wrote sympathetically about Adorno’s arguments several times: see “Soul Music”, from the American Enterprise Institute, February 27, 2010, and this undated essay on Scruton’s official website.) One such commonality is the belief that repeated exposure to pop music weakens the listener’s critical faculties to the point that she can no longer be trusted to distinguish good from bad music. Such an argument is hard to counter: the more you try, the more you just end up proving your own inability to think deeply about music. When I wrote about Ninety One for One Week One Band in 2017, I spent some time considering “Kaytadan” (which is also not one of Ninety One’s best, though I’d put it above “E.Yeah”) and how Scruton might have objected to it.↩︎