I had a dream last night that I was lecturing about a Busby Berkeley musical called Gold Diggers of 1933, which, it must be said, is a rather unimaginative dream, since I’m teaching a course on the American film musical.
Gold Diggers is the kind of movie for which the term “camp” was practically invented. It’s about a bunch of out-of-work chorines in the depths of the Depression trying to scratch up the money to put on a show. The scene I had a dream about was the opening, where the girls are rehearsing a big production number for “We’re In the Money”, celebrating the end of the Depression — just before the entire show is repossessed by creditors.
That’s Ginger Rogers, by the way. Anyway, I completely love this scene, and not just in some ironic so-bad-it’s-good way. It seems such a perfect, defining example of American pop culture: the fearless excess of spectacle, the acres of bare chorine flesh, the smart-ass, self-deflating humor as the whole escapist dream goes up in smoke. And, most of all, it has a certain inspired randomness. Why does Ginger start singing in pig latin? This episode is one those “huh?” moments for which Berkeley’s musicals are justly known.
Well, maybe on reflection it’s not random after all. Maybe the pig latin works because the resulting extra syllable on each word gives the song a swing lope and compels Rogers to slow down and sex it up a bit. (Love Ginger’s little eye rolls: so choice.) Or maybe Berkeley is undermining his own vulgar excess, taking the basic grammar of his big set pieces (repeat the 32-bar song form in various keys while the spectacle spins variations on top of it) and making it conspicuous and ridiculous with an especially unmotivated kind of variation. Or maybe both these interpretations are true. But still, there’s no logical necessity for the third strophe of the tune to be sung in pig latin. It’s not as if the seed for this moment is planted earlier in the film, and it’s also not as if this this moment has any later consequences. There’s no “development,” and no single temporal consciousness binding this moment to others before and after. It’s just a happy surprise.
Compare this to another moment of musical weirdness—the very first notes of the first movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 31 no. 1. This opening is a surprise and even a little joke, since it takes one of the paradigmatic pianist gestures—playing a chord in the left hand a little early to provide a cushion for the right hand’s cantabile melody—and inverts it. The high note that starts the right hand line is blurted out a split second before the obligatory left-hand chord. The chord cuts out immediately as the note above sustains, as if the pianist were embarrassed by a false start. It sounds as if the piano is swallowing its words. This odd little figure becomes the object of Beethoven‘s compositional attention, something for him to repeat, chop up, transpose, vary, and transform into something else. The surprise is retrospectively assimilated by development; the moment becomes part of the work’s internal history.
Each moment of weirdness—Berkeley’s and Beethoven’s—has its own sense of temporality. The one stays “in the moment,” the other harnesses the moment to a linear narrative. Is one better than the other? I ask because a recent post by Byron (of Byronotes) raises the possibility. Byron is reviewing a new book by Karol Berger that looks at Mozart’s music in terms of its linear temporailty, and Byron wants to ask what might be the cultural effects of an American’s steady diet of nonlinear pop culture: “If I choose to listen to ‘non-linear’ compositions,
or even to listen to linear compositions in a non-linear way, does that
mean I’m not invested in the idea of the human progress?”
Take pop music, a body of work that largely adopts
the cyclical perspective. Pop songs typically move back and forth between verses and choruses (or through verses alone in strophic forms). The lyrics might change–a notable difference from the circular Da Capo arias–but the music underneath doesn’t. In this sense, the three-minute pop song is just a peaking in on what could have been going on forever, and could continue to do so in its potentially endless repetition. Of course, much modern classical music might be said to do the same thing (though that would be a rather problematic statement, so I’ll choose not to make it).
What does it say about us middle-class Americans, to single out one group, that we consume these static pop songs to the near exclusion of music that takes linear forms. Does this mean that, correspondingly, we have no value for the idea of progress? Do we prefer to just simmer in the sensuous? It might be polemical of me, but I’d say that for my generation, the answer might be ‘yes’. Everyday we sit at our computers, stretching the limits of time and space through instant communication and access to information, while we expect the world handed to us by our baby-boomer parents. Since the beginning of the 20th-century, the world around us has been consumed by war and
corruption (both economic and political), and the present is no
exception. We’re cynical about the idea of progress and contented to spend our days sending text messages, writing on Facebook walls, and wondering what Paris Hilton is up to. In a world like this, who wants to bother decoding linearity in Beethoven?
This line of thought is akin to Adorno’s polemical writing on popular culture. The idea is that the temporality of pop culture, with its resistance to linear time, represents regressive flight from history into an atemporal “eversame.” We want (and the “culture industry” is eager to provide) a refuge from the burden of historical consciousness, so what we get are ersatz artworks that give us the same thing over and over, with only superficial variations thrown in to give us the illusion that one moment can be differentiated from the next. But down deep, everything is the same, just every day of a life in an administered modern society is an endless routine of wake up – go to work – come home – go to bed, each day differentiated from every other only by the date, each moment of each day differentiated from every other only by where the clock hand’s pointing. It is in the music of Mozart (say) that we can experience meaningful time, true historicity, if only as a model of what we don’t have in our own lives. Pop music, on the other hand, is vaguely totalitarian, because it seeks to engineer in us an acceptance of the rhythms of machine civilization.
That’s the argument, anyway. I don’t buy it, though. I could go on a great length about why I don’t, but for now I’ll just point out that you could just as easily argue that what’s totalitarian is the ideal of linear time, along with the Beethovenian compulsion to assimilate every musical event to the work’s overarching structure of internal history. (“You VILL OBEY the Logik of History!”) And you could also argue that pop culture’s experience of time — the experience of pleasant surprise it rigs up for us, its temporality of the unforeseen and unrepeated moment within a cyclical structure of repeated events — allows us a space to imagine a subjectivity unbounded by space, time, and identity. In fact, it is exactly this kind of liberation that film musicals are so exquisitely good at making you feel. As Richard Dyer has said, musical entertainment “presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized.”*
Actually, though, I hate it when people start accusing musical structures (of
all things) of being “totalitarian,” so no-one’s totalitarian, OK? But I do think that pop music, with its repetition and randomness, can reach its own lofty heights at times — can give us the transcendence we look for (and find) in the music of Mozart, even if it’s not the exact same kind of transcendence.
[An afterthought: I’ve been writing about different artistic forms — or, more abstractly, the conception of time that underwrites different artistic forms — offering utopian visions. But each conception of time offers a different utopia. The temporality of the “pleasant surprise,” the unmotivated moment, the instant in which anything is possible and nothing is ruled by history or fate, is an anarchist vision of utopia. The utopia of the moment assimilated into meaningful history is an archist utopia. And Americans are a famously anarchic bunch, aren’t they?]
*from “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Only Entertainment, 20.