Popular Music, Gender, and Postmodernism: Anger is an Energy
Publication Year: 1997
Popular Music, Gender, and Postmodernism begins by tracing the migration of cynical academic ideas about postmodernism into music journalism. The result has been a widespread fatalism over the presumed ability of the music industry to absorb any expression of defiance in hiphop and rock. Commercial “incorporation” supposedly makes a charade of musical outrage, somehow disconnecting anger in music from any meaning or significance. Author Neil Nehring documents the considerable damage done by the journalistic employment of this tenet of postmodern theory, particularly in the case of the late Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, whose emotional intensity was repeatedly belittled for its purported incoherence. As a rebuttal to academic postmodernism and its exploitation by the mass media, Popular Music, Gender, and Postmodernism emphasizes that emotion and reason ...
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
Part 1: Part 1
- Chapter 1: No Respect for Suffering: An Introduction to Postmodernism
- Chapter 2: The Vicious History of Aesthetics: Romanticism, Modernism, and Postmodernism on Mass Culture and Ressentiment
- Chapter 3: Collaborating with the Oppressors: Postmodern Academics on Music
- Chapter 4: Kurt Cobain Died for Your Sins: Postmodernism in Music Journalism
Part 2: Part 2
Copyright © 1997 by Sage Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nehring, Neil, 1957-
Popular music, gender, and postmodernism: Anger is an energy / Neil Nehring.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-7619-0835-8 (cloth). — ISBN 0-7619-0836-6 (pbk.)
1. Punk rock music—History and criticism. 2. Feminism and music. 3. Anger in music. 4. Postmodernism. I. Title.
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
97 98 99 00 01 02 03 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
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This book is for my daughter Julia, who was born shortly after I came home from a Babes in Toyland/My Bloody Valentine show. After hearing her first musical composition, “I Want a Blue Guitar” (the only line), I'm confident she'll grow up to be a Riot Grrrl.
I owe a great deal to many of my students over the years, who have not only kept me up to date but also supplied crucial insights into all the issues in this book. I want to thank Chidsey Dickson, in particular, for his generosity in sharing useful material and for his general encouragement. The many bright young people I have known possess a decency—an honesty and hopefulness—sorely lacking in many older intellectuals. My conviction on this account animates the entirety of the book: It's why I'm angry, if you have to ask.
Further confirmation of my outrage appeared just as the book went to press, when the postmodern cynicism that I document went through still another recycling with regard to alternative rock: see Thomas (Tom) Frank's more-fatalistic-than-thou response (“Authenticity Crisis, Baby,” Nation, 3 February 1997, p. 10) to Jon Pareles (“Alternatives to Alternative: What's Next?,” New York Times, 15 September 1996, sec. H, p. 34).[Page viii]
Parts of this book have been published in another version, which the author gratefully acknowledges permission to reprint: “Rock Around the Academy,” American Literary History 5 (1993). Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.
My favorite new song in 1992 was Bikini Kill's “Carnival.” Among the first Riot Grrrl groups, BK delivers a visceral feminism through punk rock. At the time I was a 35-year-old SWM (straight white male) English professor, married and a new parent, and fortunate enough to live in the musical hotbed of Austin, Texas. The only changes since then are that I'm older, of course, have another child, and go out less than ever.
By the standard that “difference” in identity from SWMs determines authenticity, it may seem like sexploitation on my part to offer a testimonial to Riot Grrrls and to what feminism has to teach us about the political importance of anger. My previous work admittedly doesn't bode well for such a project. I've featured too many white males and expressed too confident a faith that humanity can cope with the “postmodern” world. That easy sort of generalization about humanity, in particular, is something I have since regretted. As black and feminist scholars have pointed out about invoking humanity in general, a white male speaking confidently for everyone else ignores the privilege that allows him to be so secure, so untroubled by the ambiguities and contradictions of individual and collective identity. In the worst instances, it's often implicit that only white males actually count. The chief culprit in either case, historically, has [Page x]been the vision bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment of a society united through the free exercise of reason. That faith in reason developed over the century spanning John Locke's Two Treatises on Government (1690) and Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (1776). After or “post-” to the modern world's long, seemingly futile quest since the eighteenth century for a reasonable society, many postmodern theorists, including some feminists, would discard any conception of humanity as a whole.
But a number of feminists have argued that we can still express hope for something like the Enlightenment ideal as long as we are careful to stipulate that everyone must “participate in defining the terms of interaction.”1 I wish I'd taken greater care in the past to note that I was aware of all this. Thus I want to make it clear at the outset that along with my faith in people and hope for change, directed against theorists of postmodernism, I recognize the pitfalls in arriving at a truly just, egalitarian society. Among the potential pitfalls is being an SWM telling others, including non-SWMs, about the matter. This is especially true at a time when the “angry white male,” even after an extreme case committed mass murder, enjoys a legitimacy denied other groups. I will certainly take pains to counteract this development by distinguishing his violent, reactionary anger in defense of the status quo from a humane anger at injustice.
I would have profited even more crucially, however, from investigating feminist philosophy focused on emotion, which offers the strongest possible support of my main purpose in earlier work, to validate and promote negation. The term negation refers to challenging conformist common sense about not only how to think but also how to feel. The anarchist Michael Bakunin took the concept from the philosopher Georg Hegel (who only had in mind the exercise of reason) in the middle of the nineteenth century. In close proximity to anarchism, the avant-garde subsequently pursued negation in art, most notably in Lautréamont's Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) and Poésies (1870), and the concept has been a constant in radical art right up through the Situationist International and its devotees in punk rock.
This new book about anger, the emotion at the heart of negation, atones for my neglect of feminism—but not out of guilt or servility, and not just because I missed some useful stuff. I want to atone especially because I made a crucial discovery, that feminism provides an antidote to a postmodern thesis I have been watching spread from purportedly radical academic work into the mass media. That thesis, the subject of Part 1, holds that any expression of rebellion in contemporary culture is inauthentic, merely a pose. It is supposedly impossible for any emotional appeal in a commercial medium like popular music to be anything but a prostituted imposture, whether Kurt Cobain's vitriol or Michael [Page xi]Bolton's treacle. There are actually two closely related ideas here: All expression, even the most rebellious forms, is tamed and made completely inauthentic by its “incorporation” (sometimes “recuperation”) into multinational corporate capitalism; and, more specifically, emotion is somehow detached from any meaning or significance in the process. Any performer's emotional commitment, as a result, is either transparently phony (like Bolton) or simply inarticulate and incoherent (like Cobain), making it impossible for anyone to take that emotion seriously and to make any commitment in return. This dual thesis is applied to alternative rock, hip-hop, and Riot Grrrls, and was most extensively and harrowingly employed to ridicule Cobain's group, Nirvana.
The ideas above aren't really postmodern at all, however. Since the eighteenth century and the birth of aesthetics (or the philosophy of art), academics and other intellectuals have held that meaningless emotional appeals are characteristic of the low or popular arts produced by the marketplace. The word aesthetics, ironically, derives from Greek terms, such as aisthesis, that refer to feelings. But Immanuel Kant, in his formative, highly influential treatise on aesthetics, Critique of Judgment (1790), announced that the taste for emotion fed by “mercenary” or commercial art is “always barbaric.”2 This loathing of emotion follows the general philosophical belief (until very recently) that emotion belongs to the body, and thus is no guide whatsoever to understanding. Emotion is inferior to reason, from this view, which is not to say that the passions are without power, for they presumably always threaten to overcome the mind. This fear of the disruptive power of emotion is as much political as philosophical, always bearing at some level a concern over subordinate groups getting out of control. The fields of aesthetics and philosophy have traditionally been self-contradictory in this regard, seeking to control the real danger posed by emotion by deriding it for its supposed weakness—often in terms of feminine weakness. (This is another good reason why some feminists aren't too wild about the legacy of the eighteenth century and its priority on reason.) The more specific argument that has come down to us, couched in terms of postmodernism, is that the mindlessness of emotional types means they can never adequately articulate the causes of their emotions, whether in art or in life. The ways in which an audience responds to the expression of anger and resentment in a form like popular music are supposedly always inarticulate, too, leading only to apathy and passivity.
Applying the traditional negative view of emotion to popular songs, recent postmodern critics find the expression of anger and resentment crippled by commercialization. Part 1 of this book details how academics and journalists, out of a variety of motives, have tried to will a hopeless postmodern condition [Page xii]into being. The result, says Andrew Goodwin, is “one of the most bizarre developments in the brief history of media and cultural studies, in which abstruse French theory has ‘trickled down’ into the popular consciousness,… so that the word ‘postmodern’ reached record stores, magazines and television programmes just a few years after it entered the academy.” Postmodernists, he adds, “will no doubt feel that this phenomenon is itself hugely postmodern.”3 That the mass media have exploited academic postmodernism hardly reflects the accuracy of its insights, however, but instead indicates their usefulness in denying the authenticity of expressions of anger and discontent.
Knowing the historical context for this contempt is vital. As Peter Stearns argues in his history of intensifying instruction in emotional restraint, American Cool (1994), emotional standards have a long life, requiring that the study of “shorter-term variations” in them be presented in a “larger synthesis.”4 Seen in the larger context of traditional intellectual loathing for emotional appeals in popular art, recent judgments on angry music actually undercut rather than confirm claims for an unusually desperate, even apocalyptic postmodern age. And the specific thesis on emotion that passes for postmodern is hardly new, either. The “discovery” that rebellious anger, in particular, has lost any connection with commitment and action only reproduces a specific form the philosophical abuse of emotion has taken in the century since Friedrich Nietzsche: the demonizing of radical politics as disabling resentment, or ressentiment—an emotion of the weak, never acted upon. Nietzsche denigrated ressentiment for its supposed limitation to rationalized morality, first Christian and then socialist, which the powerless substituted for real action; postmodern critics actually go him one better by arguing that anger and defiance have become entirely disconnected from reason. In discounting resentful persons for lack of insight and action, theorists of postmodernism, even on the Left, consider them ill equipped by mass culture; establishment journalism seizes on this view to conclude that the resentful are simply unfit by nature.
My essential concern is with these forces at work above and beyond music, which at times work fairly directly on it. That direct work occurs not just when the press sufficiently alarms authority about contemporary music but especially when academics and journalists convince young people themselves that their efforts are inevitably futile, precisely what authority wants the young to believe. If young people often account for their anger as inarticulate or nihilistic, it is no wonder they do so, with so much instruction to that effect not only by the dominant culture but by “progressive” teachers as well. Even students with social consciences, as a result, repeatedly tell me that “you can't change anything.” Broadcasting the postmodern belief in the futility and aimlessness of [Page xiii]angry music, therefore, is far more insidious than the merely laughable denunciations of “aggressive and hostile rebellion”—lumped together with drug abuse and sexual perversion—by transparent idiots like the infamous Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC).5 Fortunately, much of the anger of young people is directed precisely against the establishment's discourse about youth, such as the marketing of futility in the form of Generation X, a label spawned by the proliferation of academic postmodernism into mass culture. Anger at the status quo has found the right shape when it brings “a renaissance of hope,” as the editors of Angry Women put it, “stuck as we are in the midst of [a] culture of cynicism which has helped implant a widespread attitude of passivity.”6
In terms of preserving the possibility of a rebirth of hope, perhaps the most successful radical politics at present are found in the angriest forms of popular music. With political institutions closed to all but the wealthy, that acerbic music has been the most conspicuous public voice of protest, almost singlehandedly keeping visions of humane social change alive in the mass media, where fissures in corporate dominance still exist. I do not mean that progressive change is going to grow directly out of the music but that the music has the potential to reawaken efforts in other areas, by offering instruction in the possibility of dissent at a time when it seems futile with respect to conventional politics.
I would question, though, whether apologies for attributing an important political function to popular music are really in order. Innumerable commentators have pointed out that no boundary exists any longer between entertainment and politics, especially after Ronald Reagan's presidency. Increasingly expensive, substanceless spectacles, posing as politics, have effectively disenfranchised the majority of the citizenry. And when the authoritarians have aestheticized and shut down politics, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin's conclusion to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” dissidents out of necessity resort to politicizing the arts, where some access remains open.
Many on the Left, unfortunately, have failed to see “the popular and democratic elements in daily life because of the forms in which they are presently packaged,” says Stuart Hall. A distaste for the products of mass culture creates a blind spot regarding the progressive “attitudes” that persist in many of the popular uses of those products. This is one reason why the Left has been so isolated, for no “popular political force” can emerge without being “a force in the popular cultures,” a point the Right has long grasped and always been in a better financial position to exploit.7 It's not that intellectuals and politicos on the Left don't know that any successful collective politics must have a basis in collective feeling; the problem is their contempt for less articulate or less explicitly political forms of anger.[Page xiv]
A typically dismissive view of youth culture appears in the complaint of historian and political scientist Adolph Reed that the field of cultural studies “willfully inflates … youth fads … into the status of political movements,” or even considers “youth culture's strategic importance… more vital than political work focused on government and public policy.” The result, in his view, is a “don't worry, be-angry politics of posture,” a label I can imagine being stuck on my book. But I fully agree with Reed, in fact, that “anger and self-definition are potential precursors to political action, but they don't constitute political action in themselves.” The problem is his lack of interest in that anger, based on his belief that youthful alienation “is by definition resignation and quiescence,”8 a quite traditional association of emotion with intellectual passivity. Bereft of interest in the emotional “precursors” to political action, Reed sets aside the problem of just how young people are supposed to become radicalized in an authoritarian world—and to be as untroubled as he is over the origins of political action is just as facile as the position he attacks. (If my side's motto is “Don't worry, be angry,” Reed's seems to be “Just do it!”)
To approve only of those youths who somehow manage to become registered lobbyists denies the obvious fact that young people, as Simon Frith observed some time ago, necessarily “focus their politics on leisure … because they lack power” or any sort of access to political institutions. In the authoritarian climate of the 1990s, Henry Giroux points out, their situation has worsened considerably: “Once lauded as a symbol of hope for the future, youth are now scorned as a threat to the existing social order,” particularly in exaggerations of the extent of violent crime committed by the young. As is the case for other groups without power, the victims get “blamed for the problems they experience in a society marked by escalating poverty, unemployment, and diminished opportunities.” At the same time, though, indictments of the young take a self-contradictory, trivializing form, as in the condescending postmodern view that “coming-of-age rebellion” on the part of young people at every level of society is merely a “pathology or stylized narcissism” preyed upon by the marketplace. But considering that the young “get the lowest pay, have fewer rights, and suffer more structural regulation than anyone” not in prison, Donna Gaines argues, those problems necessarily have to be “examined and resisted through cultural processes, expressed in cultural products—music, style, dance.” I see no reason why young people would want to enlist in traditional activism, moreover, when a politico like Reed considers them twerps for feeling strongly about their leisure pastimes. Gaines, in contrast, rejects the assumption “that youth culture is prefabricated and mass, that kids consume and participate in garbage culture without a critical eye.”9[Page xv]
Perhaps the most relentless promoter of that assumption has been Tom Frank, editor of a much vaunted popularizer of postmodern ideas called The Baffler. Much like Reed, indicating the critical mass building up among “serious” intellectuals, he chides more positive academic work on popular culture for “its fetishization of the angry, alienated subaltern.” Such celebration presumably serves only to acquaint “the children of the well-to-do with their proper roles [as] ‘good’ fans and consumers, [finding] pleasure in the masscult text and ourselves in our subcultures. The most revolutionary thing we can do, it seems, is to lie back and enjoy it.” The Baffler, by the way, is funded by a noted cultural conservative, the novelist and literary scholar Saul Bellow, who is understandably happy to sponsor divisiveness on the left over academic attention to mass and popular culture (or to producers and consumers, respectively).
Frank's views accord more specifically with an increasingly frequent attack on “cultural populism,” a vice attributed to cultural studies by scholars concerned with political economy. To use Frank's terms, political economy concerns “the operations of the advertising, film, or broadcasting industries” at the production end of culture, as well as those of governmental policy (Reed's concern), which are presumably “not a valid subject of study” as far as the populists are concerned.10 Uncritical populists in academia are actually few and far between (leaving John Fiske the usual suspect for several years now); the real target of political economy is any and all scholarship focused on popular artists and their audiences, as if the entirety of aesthetic and sociological work had somehow ceased to hold any utility. With repetition, therefore, the accusation of populism has started to seem like a stalking horse for a pessimistic repudiation of continuing creative possibilities in mass culture. Virtually everyone is aware that mass communication is dominated by corporate conglomerates—daily news reports celebrate each new merger within the media monopoly—and to insist that we focus on that fact alone is merely in keeping with more fatalistic versions of postmodernism, with which political economy must now be considered synonymous.
Cultural studies, moreover, has always considered work on production essential to its efforts to construct a fuller, more adequate picture of the dynamics of mass and popular culture. By conjuring up cultural populism and divorcing themselves from cultural studies, political-economy types have actually been the ones openly expressing the belief that only their work holds any validity. Their positivist insistence that only empirical science is serious, coupled with postmodern pessimism, leads Jim McGuigan to assert with complete confidence in Cultural Populism (1992) that the “youthful consumer is a … construct of consumer capitalism” whose power is overstated in cultural studies. Cultural [Page xvi]populists supposedly rely on little more than sheer assertion to the contrary. But the political-economy perspective, as expressed by the otherwise estimable Herbert Schiller, offers only elitist counterassertion emboldened simply by its longer tradition, which dates to romantic disdain for the arts of the marketplace (a history I elaborate in Chapter 2). Cultural studies, he claims, is misbegotten because the various audiences for mass culture “are all subject to the rule of market forces and the domination of capital,” and thus their capacities are routinely “overwhelmed [by] the commanders of the social order.”11 The obvious objection to this view is that political economy does not stand like a colossus over completely helpless individuals and groups but has its products subjected to a variety of idiosyncratic, sometimes even iconoclastic interpretations and uses.
The best work in cultural studies is not a simple populist reversal of an older misanthropic aloofness, however, but instead makes a virtue of the often ridiculed distance of scholars from popular life. If not overly detached, that distance provides a vantage point from which to observe larger patterns not evident to those heavily involved in a particular subculture. As Raymond Williams puts it, “It is with the discovery of patterns … that any useful cultural analysis begins.” The goal of reconstructing a pattern should be to “reveal unexpected identities and correspondences in hitherto separately considered activities,” such as the ostensibly distinct activities of journalists and scholarly theorists. Dick Hebdige, a well-known sociologist of youth subcultures, adds that “by pursuing a limited number of themes … across a fairly wide range of discourses it may be possible … to modify the received wisdom”12—such as the fatalism fostered by the cynical strains of postmodernism.
The primary “theme” I pursue is the dismissal of angry music and its audience by postmodernists on the Left, due in particular to their blind spot regarding emotion, and by journalists exploiting academic ideas. When I see music I love dismissed this way—and knowing from my own experience that there's nothing inarticulate or irrational about the music or many of its fans—I want to help fight back, and the best ally I have found in this cause is feminism. Feminist arguments in defense of emotions like anger usefully support music, like that of the Riot Grrrls, that in turn embodies and verifies those intellectual propositions. The synthesis of those two subjects in Part 2 serves to refute the establishment journalists and postmodern academics drawn together in Part 1 and their pattern of contempt for angry music. Part 1 is my indictment, Part 2 my advocacy; Part 1, not coincidentally, largely concerns men, whereas Part 2 features women.[Page xvii]
Among those women, feminist philosophers, in particular, have extended the case of “cognitivism” (in philosophy) and “social constructionism” (in psychology) for the interdependence of emotion and reason. These scholars argue persuasively that emotion always results from appraising or judging a social situation and thus contributes significantly to reason. The further argument of feminist philosophy is that emotions are indivisibly a matter of the body and the mind, of physical responses and articulated judgment. Male cognitivists and social constructionists may take emotion seriously, but they leave rationality supreme in construing emotion as a matter purely of judgment, distinct from its manifestation in physical feelings.
The causes of emotion do eventually need to be fairly fully articulated or rationalized, I should stress, although such evaluation should always be considered an intrinsic part of emotional experience, not a means to some therapeutic removal of ostensibly negative feelings. Especially at a time when “unchecked greed runs rampant and the distance between the haves and the have-nots becomes wider,” says Andrea Juno, “anger can be a sane, creative” force, but only if it becomes “conscious enough.”13 Otherwise, emotions like anger can wind up directed at the wrong objects, as is the case when the perfectly reasonable resentment of less privileged white males, after the ravages of the class war being waged by corporate capitalism, is channeled into hatred of government—not entirely without reason, considering the dominance of public institutions by hirelings of big business.
In accounting for the whole person, as opposed to various cognitivist schemes dividing terms like affect, emotion, feeling, and passion between reason and the body, feminist work on emotion also provides an antidote to the explosion of postmodern work on the body. The abstraction and gloom of postmodern theory leads it to treat the body as either an inarticulate instrument of power or, at best, a potentially unruly “desiring machine.” When the subject of emotion does come up in postmodern theory, another division in terminology occurs: Affect designates the range of emotional possibilities organized by power—as part of its orchestration of bodily desire—and presumably dictates any particular emotion as subjects of power experience, leaving emotion of little interest. A proper understanding of emotion offers a way out of the trap posed by the choices aesthetics has given us for 200 years now, culminating in postmodernism, between either the mind alone or its polar opposite, a purely sensory body, essentially mindless and even emotionless, however disorderly it may be. Part 2 is intended not only as a counterargument to postmodern theory but also as an indication of how this dichotomy might be surmounted in thinking [Page xviii]and writing about popular music, by understanding emotion as a mediator between the body and the mind, and biology and society.
Given the inherent rationality of emotions, there's nothing odd at all about a book called Anger Is an Energy beginning with reference to the Enlightenment and hope for a more just, reasonable world. Anger is in fact precisely what needs to be factored into that quest, says Ellen Willis: “The problem with the Enlightenment … was not its belief in understanding, but its failure to understand a culture whose civilized veneer concealed mass … frustration and rage.”14 The mean-spirited plutocracy in which we now live makes little pretense of being civilized, apart from vapid talk about “values,” but that simply makes the importance of anger to political change all the more apparent. Political ideas and programs alone, that is, will be powerless to effect change unless they have an unmistakable basis in anger at injustice. That indignation must be equally as strong as the anger that demagogues—who are quite attuned to the politics of emotion—encourage in defenders of the status quo like the angry white male. At a time when politicians and media hucksters “have no commitment to what intellectuals recognize as legitimate and rational exchange,” as Michael Bérubé observes, some blunt response in kind is necessary. (Again, the Left knows this but too often has a very limited conception of what kind of responses count.)
But “neither can we simply abandon discursive models of social contestation,” Bérubé points out,15 or we will indeed sink in the morass of anger that mainstream media already construct out of the Left and Right alike, as they like to put it. Their distortions typically require turning all the way back to the 1960s and the Weathermen to suggest that everyone on the Left is a potential bomber, a scenario supposedly confirmed by the Unabomber, or that the counterculture in general spawned a somehow identical antigovernment stance in the current right-wing militia movement, although the latter has no interest in democracy. Thus one important “discursive” task is to distinguish insubordinate anger from reactionary anger, defensive of the status quo. Such a distinction would counteract not only establishment journalists who denounce all anger but also their opponents who celebrate “anger's potential for aggression as anti-social” or antiauthoritarian, a view that overlooks anger's “conservative possibilities,” notes Peter Lyman. Anger often takes the form, for example, of the “moral outrage by which society defends its mores and sacred values.” Anger at injustice argues from moral grounds, too, but its difference from conformist “moral outrage” is clear: the latter “is trained, not learned; and is intolerant, not flexible.”16
Reactionary anger is particularly widespread and approved at present, as is evident in the behavior of the mass media: At the same time they demonize and ridicule anger on the part of subordinate groups, reactionary anger, in contrast, [Page xix]is tolerated if not actively encouraged because it reinforces existing conditions. Anger defensive of privilege, like Rush Limbaugh's, is broadcast to a far greater extent and with little or no similar instruction about its dementia. There are few large commercial sponsors, unsurprisingly, for someone on the Left who would challenge Limbaugh's orgy of hate and lies. (With organized labor prohibited from advertising, Jim Hightower's radio show was cancelled in 1995 for lack of business sponsorship—although not, the public was assured, because the ABC radio network had just been taken over by the conservative Disney conglomerate.) The Right, as a result, has been more successful in exploiting resentment in the recent past, to the extent that anger became synonymous with the white male after the 1994 elections. This is unfortunate, and one reason I want to emphasize feminist arguments for the importance of anger articulated by other groups (including the many white males who aren't “Limbaughnazis”).
The anger of both progressives and reactionaries, however, may actually result from a similar cause: namely, the current widespread social and economic anxiety. Resentments with essentially the same origin, in other words, can find very different, more and less accurate directions to take in choosing objects on which to fixate. What continuing interest there is in Max Scheler's Ressentiment (1915), for example, is due to his apparent diagnosis of the roots of fascism, yet Scheler himself assumed he was dissecting its complete opposite, socialism. The choices we ought to prefer in judging the direction a person's or group's anger takes are those that reflect concern, empathy, and tolerance for the greatest number of people as well as a sense of humor directed at oneself and at one's targets (so much for Limbaugh on every count). This pluralism, however, is precisely what the mouthpieces of the ruling class, following Friedrich Nietzsche, wish to denigrate as the weak-minded humanitarianism produced by resentment of injustice.
However differently people focus their anger—on the powerful or on the powerless—it shares something else besides the same fundamental basis in economic anxiety: Virtually everyone agrees that anger in the face of injustice is not only justifiable but imperative. But here again, what should be our common cause is split by the corporate and political sponsorship of a divisive anger pitting those with some power against those with less—the anger of men against women and of whites against nonwhites. Usually, the anger of privileged groups needs some self-justification, and because anger at injustice is generally felt to be justifiable, the privileged habitually claim to be victimized by the underprivileged. Thus we have the spectacle of the relatively affluent claiming that the country is being bled dry by welfare recipients, who are popularly [Page xx]believed to consist entirely of unmarried black teenage mothers also posing a threat to the nation's morality (and in more extreme arguments, to its gene pool); of whites battling affirmative action as reverse discrimination; of male-dominated antiabortion groups out to end reproductive choice in the guise of saving fetuses from their mothers; of the men's movement trying to preserve the family by restoring women to domestic roles; and of popular entertainment about women sexually harassing men. When those with at least some power or social advantage express anger at supposed injustice against themselves, committed by those challenging that advantage, anger serves to maintain the status quo. Nietzsche and all of his successors who denigrate resentment are themselves full of resentment toward those perceived as threats.
When the motive is the preservation of privilege, moreover, we typically find the most violent anger, such as that directed by white heterosexual males toward gays, minorities, and women. Given the actual physical violence that men commit against women and the injustice that the criminal justice system commits against blacks and Latinos, the pose of victimization by white males is a pretty thin veneer. More naked assertions of power, therefore, especially by “respectable” individuals such as corporate CEOs and politicians, are justified in terms of another kind of anger widely deemed appropriate and valid: not anger “involved with a sense of injustice or unfairness in an abstract or [social] sense, but in a more personal sense of having one's own rights, property, or authority challenged or limited in some way.”17
The recent “property rights” movement, for example, has been crafted by big farming, mining, and real estate interests to appeal to this sense of appropriate outrage at personal deprivation, in this case the supposed injustice against private property committed by governmental efforts to protect the common good, particularly the environment. The property-rights types, revealingly, often employ a rhetoric of violence that reflects their actual privilege—a wealthy, macho-ridden real estate developer in my hometown publicly threatens environmentalists with beatings. Consistent with the blaming of victims noted earlier, our culture applauds these bullies in business. With the exception of the brief-lived attention to corporate downsizing prompted by Pat Buchanan's ersatz populist presidential campaign, the news media chortle over CEOs vituperating nuns, of all people, for daring to write letters protesting corporate policies, while mass entertainment, as many critics have noted, celebrates violence committed by the agents of property in law enforcement.
The primary reason why feminism has defended anger, despite the misbegotten forms it has taken, actually involves the one exception to the traditional association of women with emotionality. In both academia and the culture at [Page xxi]large, anger has been the only emotion approved of in men and “exempted in everyday discourse from the expectation that women feel and express more emotion than men.”18 Anxiety is certainly expressed over the need for men to control their anger (except in approved outlets such as sports, as Stearns indicates in American Cool), but in women, anger is simply considered an abnormality that must be suppressed. Casting anger as incoherent “rage” has thus been a staple in efforts to reverse the gains of the women's movement, with the result evident in young women who say “I'm not a feminist, but…” and proceed to express a perfectly feminist position. They issue the opening disclaimer because they have learned that feminists are angry fanatics as well as bitter unattractive women. Condemning anger has also become, more recently, a means of indicting young people disenchanted with a society in which opportunity continually diminishes for everyone outside the small minority in the ruling class.
No matter how socially inclusive my work becomes, though, by catching up with feminist advocacy of insubordinate emotion, as an SWM I am still stuck with the most banal of identities, considering the unprecedented exploration of ethnicity, gender, race, and sexuality going on in popular music. A direct correspondence between taste and identity, however, has hardly been characteristic of the reception (or use) of popular music. A large part of the audience for popular music gets left out, as a result, in any argument claiming that only a direct equivalence between lived experience and a particular musical genre allows a correct understanding of the music. The distinction of insiders and outsiders doesn't hold up when some affluent white kids enjoy hardcore rap for relatively genuine, legitimate reasons, such as sharing the performers’ anger at injustice, and nearly middle-aged college professors enjoy feminist punk groups for similar reasons. Hip-hop artists and Riot Grrrl bands, among many others, certainly operate from conscious identity politics, but the people who consume their music are quite diverse, and thus the meanings made of any particular music are, too. Of course, that diversity includes such regrettable cases as the “fratboys” at a Rage Against the Machine show described by Valerie Agnew of 7 Year Bitch, who “were just singing along with rebellion” and “did not get the message at all.”19
The most interesting thing about popular music, in fact, is precisely “its blurring of insider/outsider boundaries.” The “best studies of popular music,” says Simon Frith, recognize the blurring and “don't try to pin down sounds according to existing social maps, but rather allow the music to make its own political argument.”20 In keeping with this admonition, I will simply stress the legitimacy of the anger shared by contemporary forms of music made by men and women of different races, especially in light of the effort of establishment [Page xxii]media to demonize that anger, which makes the political import of those musics quite evident.
I have more to say about gender in music, though, especially in Chapters 6 and 7, than I do about hip-hop and race, which appear throughout but are less extensively developed. I hope it's obvious that I concentrate on the Riot Grrrls and other women in rock because the crux of this book, advancing a better understanding of emotion, derives from feminist philosophy. To transfer its work on anger too far within the context of hip-hop would pose a serious contradiction, moreover, as the anger of many male hip-hop artists is directed precisely at women, to the extent that a number of female critics have indicted the genre for misogyny. Whatever the merits of that view, I couldn't add much in any case to Tricia Rose's well-known Black Noise (1994), which has already surveyed not only the more and less sensible objects of “rage” in hip-hop but also the considerable number of female performers. Comparable critical studies of the Riot Grrrls and their aftermath, on the other hand, have yet to appear—the most extensive surveys have been the collections of interviews in Andrea Juno's Angry Women in Rock (1996) and Amy Raphael's Grrrls: Viva Rock Divas (1995)—so I feel more confident that I have something to contribute in that area.
Another concern with respect to identity involves the feminist point that because the personal is part of the political I need to be explicit about the link between the areas I have chosen to study and my own identity, or my personal experience, interests, and tastes. Because I am not at first glance, as an SWM, a poster boy for identity politics resisting the new fascism, I want to emphasize that loving punk in 1977 required a genuine bent for difference, if difference largely among white male voices. After a very young infatuation with the Rolling Stones when they still seemed to epitomize rebellion and decadence, with the beginning of their endless decline in 1973 I really cut my teeth on sexually ambiguous glitter rockers like David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Lou Reed (formerly of the Velvet Underground), and Roxy Music, some of whom dressed in drag. I remember using Halloween as an excuse for dressing up as a New York Doll and being laughed at in school just for wearing a piece of paste jewelry on a string around my neck, a la Bowie, although a Stones pendant based on their tongue logo had been much admired. (Years later I was startled to learn that David Johansen of the Dolls had wondered in an interview if the group would reach a “kid in Kansas”—yes, David, you did.) The sexual implications were easily sloughed off; at a time well before homophobia arose to fill the vacuum left by the demise of Communism, when Alice Cooper and Elton John could easily take glitter mainstream, simply being bored with the state of rock music was an acceptable explanation for liking “fruity” performers like Bryan “The” [Page xxiii]Ferry (as one Dan Fogelberg fan put it without too much rancor). Only with punk did the Velvet Underground's influence on everything deviant in the 1970s become fully apparent to me and, much later still, thanks to other aging academic music fans, the influence through the Velvets of gay culture, specifically the 1960s camp of Andy Warhol's Factory.
I still remember the subsequent emergence of punk rock around 1976–1977, the prehistory of Bikini Kill, as the most exciting time in my life. I visited the record store every day, always finding something new to fuel my complete disgust at the insanely unjust, plutocratic world we live in. Raving nihilism, as I heard it at the time, punk stoked my alienation; particularly appealing to my personal unhappiness was the loathing of romance by punks (not of women, mind you, except in cases like the Stranglers). Yet at the same time the music made me feel less alone by confirming that sane people did indeed still exist. As Greil Marcus says of the Mekons (who began their long, glorious career in the first punk era), “In a world ruled by a language one refuses to speak, they are a reminder there are still people one might want to meet.” Although I only met a few of the performers (including, years later, the Mekons, and they were indeed fun to talk to), I met plenty of others in their audience who felt the same way I did, all of us, near and far, real and imagined, linked by knowing we were not alone in our outrage and refusal to conform and accept the status quo. Gina Birch of the Raincoats describes a feeling “so intense” in the late 1970s “that I really thought something profound was going to happen. Not only in music but in the world.”21
I continue to this day to get emotional sustenance from music conveying both discontent and a concern with renewing common feeling. Coupling anger at authorities and conformists with goodwill toward everyone who resists them, that solidarity includes empathy for those who are suffering, however distant one's own experience. Contrary to postmodern ideas about affective dysfunction, says Hebdige, there remains a widespread belief that there is indeed “a reality ‘out there,’ that something real and something terrible … is happening somewhere else and that … all the rest of us” share responsibility for it.22 Negation has a positive outcome, in other words, in keeping with its origin in Hegel's dialectical thought (which speaks of a negation of the real negation represented by conformity), here recast as a matter of emotion as well as logic. But I should also add that a few years after punk I arrived at full ideological as well as emotional deviance, embracing leftist politics. I will not let postmodern scoffers deny my experience and that of many others: I am here to attest that it is possible to be steered fairly directly, by popular music, toward fully conscious radicalization.[Page xxiv]
This is not to say that an avant-garde working in the popular arts should somehow fuel revolutionary change but, to reiterate, that its critical function is simply to hold open the possibility of refusing to go along, always a potential first step toward political renewal. As one eulogy for Kurt Cobain put it, “he believed in the communicative powers of popular music, [and] showed what was possible, even in this ugly and demoralized culture.”23 I am angry at postmodernists writing on rock music, academics and journalists alike, for claiming that we all should have moved beyond such an unhip expectation of music.
I cannot end my account of my enthusiasms with that impassioned climax, unfortunately, because now that I've relived the glory days, I need to address how personal taste affects my coverage of contemporary music. Apart from the considerations mentioned earlier regarding feminism and the state of current scholarship, the primary reason why I haven't written more on hip-hop involves the unpredictability of taste: As much as I like bitter punk and continue to gratuitously condemn hippies just as I did twenty years ago, my favorite hip-hop groups are ones that hardcore rap has derided precisely as laid-back hippies, such as De La Soul and P.M. Dawn. The hip-hop I listen to most, in other words, doesn't represent the part of the genre that suits a book on anger.
The best explanation I can offer for this anomaly occurred to me in reading Tricia Rose's description of a combination of flow, layering, and rupture in all the practices of hip-hop culture: breakdancing and graffiti as well as music. In music, rupture involves break beats, or the sort of abrupt rhythmic changes pioneered by James Brown. Punk, in contrast, is all flow, sometimes densely layered, depending on the recording budget, but seldom if ever marked by rupture—a song like Bikini Kill's “Carnival” is unvarying in its forward momentum. My taste isn't subtle, in other words, and has something to do with being uncomfortable about dancing: I like repetition of a few melodic hooks, a pop taste due no doubt to my age. Especially when combined with some punk speed, that's what gets me riled up to the bursting point and thus where I locate my musical politics. This is true even in the case of some less politicized and hyperaccelerated but equally unyielding songs such as the Fall's “Kurious Oranj” and My Bloody Valentine's “I Only Said.” If that taste seems narrow, I would point out that my favorite recording of 1995 was Cornershop's Woman's Gotta Have It, on which self-styled “Western Orientals” cross the raga with the Velvet Underground.
I have different expectations of the break beats in hip-hop, which are just as visceral and often support voices just as strident as those in punk but are nonetheless something of a luxury or relief given the unrelenting music I like [Page xxv]best. (Even in James Brown's case, in keeping with my taste for unbroken flow, my favorite song is one of his most stripped down and unvarying, “Brother Rapp.”) If I want that luxury of “merely” enjoying music, the harder strains of Dr. Dre actually suit me as much as De La Soul—why would gangsta rap threaten me in my living room?—but if I can't have constant forward movement, due to hip-hop's characteristic rhythmic rupture, I admittedly find in De La Soul more of the repetition of melodic hooks that suits the pop side of my taste. (There are worse forms of old-fogeyism, I should think, such as the unexamined complaint that hip-hop as a whole is all beats and lacks melody, which often serves up racism in the guise of aesthetics.) The one thing I will concede, with respect to identity and taste, is that the difference between music that supplies motivation and music that is enjoyed with less fervor does have something to do with tastes one developed while coming of age. But if the music of my youth, such as glam-rock and punk, still influences the core of my tastes, the way new tastes keep accreting to it has been one of the pleasant surprises of growing older.
The final personal point I want to emphasize is that whatever you think of this book, don't think it's some calculated effort to “get with” identity politics via feminism. Don't think I don't, in the immortal words of Johnny Rotten in 1977, mean it, maaan—and grrrl. (Although the line signals the irony in “God Save the Queen,” it also resonates more broadly as a declaration of seriousness.) My first book took its title from a line he wrote while in the Sex Pistols (“We're the flowers in the dustbin”); as John Lydon in Public Image Limited, he wrote the line that supplies this book's subtitle (in the 1986 song “Rise”). It's not that I admire him all that much, although both are good lines (assuming that he wrote them). It's just one way of keeping faith with the promise of 1977, now routinely dismissed by academic postmodernists and journalists alike—and redeemed by women, from feminist philosophers to Riot Grrrls. The voices from “the first year of punk,” says Greil Marcus, have “hardly been answered, let alone superseded.”24
After the late 1970s, conformist common sense only moved further away from punk negation, when to “feel good” or be “positive” became watchwords of the hysterical authoritarianism that prevailed after Reagan came to power. In retrospect, punk clearly sensed what was coming, especially in Britain just prior to Thatcher. It's also worth remembering that Jimmy Carter was at the same time setting into motion many policies now associated with Reagan (just as Bill Clinton scarcely differs from a Republican), such as the military buildup and the assault on organized labor; Iggy Pop's satiric “I'm a Conservative,” an exhilarating tune backed by an all-star band of punk musicians, appeared just before Reagan's election in 1980. Thus my fixation on 1977 is hardly sheer nostalgia: [Page xxvi]Latter-day punks such as the Riot Grrrls still battle with that authoritarianism, now a virtual fascism bashing any choices besides domesticity for women (whether Hillary Rodham Clinton or pregnant teenagers), any resistance against big business (whether environmentalism or organized labor), every nonwhite person guilty of poverty (whether black or Latino), and any trace of deviance (whether in ideology or sexual orientation). The various cultural conflicts of the 1990s might be summed up under one “general heading: the culture of self-satisfaction versus the culture of the dissatisfied.”25
From the postmodern view, however, punk was the last hurrah for any faith that popular music could have a genuinely radical impact on even a small portion of its audience. In essence, presumably, postmodernism fully arrived in rock and roll when punk lost its momentum around 1981, with the advent of New Pop posers (e.g., “haircut bands” such as Duran Duran) and a new cable channel reliant on their videos, MTV. If punk achieved mass popularity a decade later, it did so under very different circumstances, when “alternative” music was well incorporated into the music industry. The second coming of punk could only amount to a trivial shift in poses for those with more outrageous tastes. Someone like me (or Greil Marcus or Jon Savage) who continues to dwell on the possibilities I felt in 1977, therefore, is guilty of bringing “pop history [to] a halt” and ducking the demise of “authenticity” in music in the 1980s, claims Steve Redhead. (As Dominic Strinati points out, though, musical authenticity has never really existed, except in mythologies about past innocence and in marketing strategies exploiting that nostalgia.26) The terms rebellion and resistance have supposedly become irrelevant since punk's heyday, making postpunk synonymous with postmodern (the view of a number of the academics discussed in Chapter 3).
But the long life of punk, I argue, simply reflects the fact that punk has been the persistent nemesis of the authoritarianism that emerged in the 1970s and expanded and intensified throughout the 1980s and 1990s. (That the authoritarians still bash around the 1960s, while the 1970s are popularly associated with The Brady Bunch, indicates how long they've held the upper hand.) The large amount of angry music at present reflects the steadily worsening situation since the original moment of punk, which followed shortly on the beginning of Western capitalism's all-out assault on its domestic adversaries in 1973, with the shock of the Arab oil embargo and the realization that the postwar economic expansion would not go on forever. David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity (1989) provides a good summary account of the transition in 1973 to the insecure world of “flexible accumulation,” in which the financial system has become increasingly detached from real production (and his point is to give a [Page xxvii]more concrete explanation of recent cultural and social changes than talismanic invocation of postmodernism). With the deliberate contraction of economic opportunity on the part of the plutocratic class—resulting in such lunatic viciousness as the Federal Reserve Board keeping at least eight million people unemployed at all times while politicians seek to starve them for not working—there has understandably been an expansion of anger in the music of the increasingly large number of economically obsolete young people. Although I argue that they can be overly preoccupied with the commercial incorporation of their music, the many fans who express outrage at corporate power in the music business are quite conscious of the association of conglomeration in the mass media with the direction of the economy in general, as any issue of Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll will attest.
Along with hip-hop (christened the “new punk” when it first exploded), punk antagonism is the most widespread cultural form concertedly repudiating the combination of feel-good banality and blame-the-victims meanness—think Ronald Reagan—promoted by the plutocrats and their mass media. This has been true of much of hip-hop and punk even when they have worked within those media, the result being the continuing furor over the inability of business to keep a lid on the market for youth music. Even from the view that ideology refers strictly to express meaning (setting aside emotion), perhaps the most exciting explicitly political rock songs ever recorded, such as the Clash's “This is England” and the Minutemen's “The Price of Paradise,” were produced smack in the middle of the 1980s, when cynics claimed the music scene was “like punk never happened” (the subtitle of a book on Culture Club). The best-selling punk groups in the 1990s, Green Day and Offspring, clearly belie this notion in building on Bad Religion, a group that emerged precisely when punk was written off—and thus critics have been anxious to write off those newer groups as well. The view that there were no mid-decade outbreaks in rock music like Elvis in the 1950s, the Beatles in the 1960s, or punk in the 1970s, moreover, depends on trivializing hip-hop music's breakthrough in the 1980s as just another postmodern corporate fraud. In fact, hip-hop's origin dates to the late 1970s, too, and the concerns it shares with punk have been acknowledged in a number of forms, including another great political song of the mid-1980s, Time Zone's “World Destruction,” recorded by Afrika Bambaataa and John Lydon.
As opposed to the view that some hopeless postmodern condition has taken hold of music—the eternal rule of multinational corporations—the fact is that punk has matched its authoritarian nemesis in persistence. Punk circa 1977 left a continuing legacy that has broken out again with Nirvana and the Riot Grrrls. It may be the case that “the very notion of a cultural politics implies a unity of [Page xxviii]focus and a direction which it is difficult to find in youth culture.” But especially from a feminist point of view stressing the importance of feelings in themselves, “perhaps [politics] is not what we should be looking for in any case.” What it may be more realistic to look for, suggests Angela McRobbie, “are cultural forms and expressions which seem to suggest new or emergent ‘structures of feeling,’ “especially among young women. In exploring “a greater degree of fluidity about what femininity means,”27 the Riot Grrrls, for example, are significant for trying to change how feeling itself is valued, especially anger—no longer something to be ashamed of and repressed but to celebrate.
If punk at its origins was still primarily for males, straight or not, Riot Grrrls do punk in the 1990s because that genre was also opening up rock music to strong female voices, though they only fully arrived fifteen years after Patti Smith, Deborah Harry, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, Siouxsee and the Banshees, and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, to cite the usual list of the original punk women. At the same time the Riot Grrrls appeared in 1991, punk finally broke for a mass audience, of course, with Nirvana. Nirvana's album Nevermind “forced the pop world to accommodate the long-resisted punk aesthetic at both its harshest and smartest and did so at a time when many pundits had declared that rock & roll was effectively finished.”28
Yet as soon as possible, after a year of fairly dreary music in 1995, music journalism ranging from my local paper to The Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll was quick to announce once again the death throes of rock, in every instance invoking postmodernism. One critic held in 1996 that “rock really is dead” because it “lacks a temperament or sensibility” like that of earlier “unique and individual geniuses” such as John Lennon, offering instead only “manufactured pathologies.”29 This seems fairly damning evidence of the continuity between romanticism—extolling the individual artistic genius while loathing the manufactured—and postmodern diagnoses of a widespread dysfunctional (or pathological) sensibility. Although postmodern theorists often tell us that the possibility of artistic distance (or autonomy) has now been eliminated by mass culture, the romantic aversion to commerce persists within mass culture, absorbed (sans the theorists’ nostalgia) by many music fans.
In my own case, in contrast, I've been delighted by the commercial breakthrough of punk. For one thing, obviously, my musical tastes formed two decades ago remain current. For another, the mass popularity of punk in the mid-1990s ought to put in question the incessant, ostensibly populist concern, dating to 1977, about alternative groups on independent (or “indie”) record labels selling out to corporate (or “major”) labels. I don't mean that since punk has irreversibly become a commercial success, such concerns are unfounded or [Page xxix]irrelevant. I fully agree that the more the media promote punk, the greater the need for suspicion, and that “there is no sadder sight than [a] thirty-something ex-Punk” who has come to consider quantity of sales evidence of quality, as in some cases of cultural populism. I would never insist on “uncritical acceptance of an agenda set by market forces.”30 Followers of alternative music do need to realize, though, the influence that postmodern ideas have had on their anxiety that their favorite groups either have sold out or will sell out.
The refusal of some fans and journalists to consider if worthwhile music might actually be getting released, when someone such as Nirvana or Green Day emerges, is in fact residual romanticism, not populism, a residue quite prominent in postmodernism, as we have already seen. After two centuries, we are still plagued by the reflexive, absolutist division drawn by romanticism and, later, modernism, between art and the marketplace, or creativity and commerce—or, put in more formal terms discussed in Chapter 3, authenticity (or spontaneity) and reflexivity (or self-conscious calculation). An astonishing number of people still consider starving in a lonely garret a sign of artistic legitimacy.
The division between art and the market doesn't hold up, though, when independent record labels continue to serve up provocative, scurrilous, yet often surprisingly profitable music, even if most now depend on distribution by major labels. Deserving performers have been ruined, admittedly, and a lot of dreck has resulted from indies evolving into subsidiaries of major labels. Nonetheless, I argue that the terms alternative and independent ought to be distinguished: Significant musical alternatives do manage to emerge from the current regime; the achievement and preservation of economic independence is a whole other issue. We need a more flexible view, in any case, than the conventional one pitting corporate rock, “fundamentally about the open and blunt exercise of power,” as a Spin writer constructs matters, against “indie rockers [who] have always favored exclusivity and an aesthete's sense of reserve.” This romantic (not to mention elitist) division is a dead end, a permanent stasis of the sort that defines postmodernism for many analysts. But the “whole martyr thing”—staying “chaste, poor, and suffering”—is “a bunch of bullshit,” as Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill puts it, because the romantic idea that “the only way you can create authentic art is if you're suffering [just] helps people stay in the same place.”31 That paralysis hardly confirms postmodern theorists, I would add, because it only reflects the circulation of their own ideas about commercial incorporation, to the extent that Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll takes essentially the same editorial stance that the New York Times does (as Chapter 4 indicates).
One of the main purposes of this book is to document this perverse closed loop or circularity in academic and journalistic postmodernism, in which the [Page xxx]common wisdom—a willful fatalism—takes its own repetition as proof of its claims. That circulation dates from the mid-1980s and the work of academics such as Fredric Jameson and Lawrence Grossberg and music critics such as Simon Reynolds. A large amount of postmodern academic work on rock music was written just before the pivotal year of 1991, in fact, and much of Part 1 focuses on the perverse result: Just as that outpouring of academic cynicism was immediately debunked and rendered obsolete by Nirvana, the Riot Grrrls, and others, its postmodern themes were seized on and widely broadcast by hostile journalistic responses to that reemergence of punk.
It's important to see the sheer repetitiveness of postmodern theory so as to understand that postmodern academics and journalists never offer any justification for their claims. Instead, like other ideologues, they expect familiarity and fashionability, or the repetition itself, to legitimate their ideas. Part 1 may seem lengthy, but perhaps the most effective way to put paid to the wrongheadedness of postmodernism lies in documenting the sheer absurdity of its repetitiveness (including its reproduction of earlier romantic and modernist travesties) as it circulates back and forth through academia and the mass media. The endless recycling of postmodern theory, moreover, as Dana Polan observes, seems the only actual embodiment of the predicament assigned to the rest of the culture: “These writings cannot say anything non-repetitive. The postmodernist effect [is] a kind of mechanistic combinatoire in which everything is given in advance, in which there can be no practice but the endless recombination of fixed pieces from the generative machine.” What seems an “inflationary spiral of contemporary critical theorizing,” marking in itself the onset of some new condition or crisis, is in reality more like “stagflation,” in John Clarke's view.32
When any ideology proliferates to the extent that postmodernism has, reaching the consensus we will see, it can certainly seem to correspond to reality regardless of its validity. Theorists of postmodernism have done so much to underwrite perceptions of the current situation, however, that the actual existence of an apocalyptic postmodern era remains highly questionable. The intellectual's millenarianism, academic postmodernism has offered little besides sophistry, or a smokescreen of seemingly subtle argument, typically involving a few dizzying theoretical abstractions leavened with a smidgen of highly selective evidence. This myopia is especially evident in theorists of postmodernism issuing judgments on affect in mass culture, who have clearly read nothing written about emotion by other scholars.
In trying to translate and make lucid what those theorists are saying, or “to imagine nonacademic readers who ask only that the languages of academic criticism be translated into their languages,”33 there is never any guarantee, of [Page xxxi]course, that the best intentions in writing will make any difference. But I know a lot of smart young people who won't find what follows all that difficult. This book is for them; I'm thoroughly disgusted with academics after writing it. In seeing postmodernism fully at work, hopefully, younger, nonacademic readers will develop a bullshit detector for it. Then we can return to the business of history, which many postmodernists insist is over. With more self-consciousness than the original Enlightenment about including everyone in the process, we can renew our faith that liberty and justice for all is not an embarrassing piety nor hopelessly and forever out of reach.[Page xxxii]
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