(this essay is my final for my Lit Theory Class, but knowing most of my readers, I though you would find it interesting. Enjoy- AMI)
Postmodernism: The Musical
“The concept of postmodernism is not widely accepted or even understood today” (201). Fredric Jameson opened his article Postmodernism and Consumer Society with this statement in 1983. In many ways this statement still rings true in 2009. Unfamiliarity with the elements and criteria of postmodernism fosters this misunderstanding and lack of acceptance. However, if one looks to the contemporary music industry, they would be able to identify several areas in which music has become postmodern by Jameson’s standards. Though music is an exceptionally broad topic, there are instances in which artists or performers exemplify certain areas of Jameson’s postmodern criteria. Modern music is almost entirely pastiche, according to Jameson’s definition. In several ways, modern musicians create, intentionally or unintentionally, music that adheres to Jameson’s postmodern ideals of rebellion, rejection, nostalgia, and pastiche.
Through its use of covers and sampling, the modern music industry has made the pastiche an intricate part of its structure. The ultimate form of the pastiche in modern music is the existence of the cover song. A cover is when one group takes the song of an older group and redoes it, with little or no changes to the lyrics or sound. The cover is an example of Jameson’s pastiche: “Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, […] but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter” (204).
Pastiche can be further extended to the practice of sampling and the existence of the mashup. Sampling involves taking pieces of existing songs- melody lines, guitar riffs, or lyrics (etc.) and using them in entirely new songs. Similarly, the mashup takes existing songs and layers them over one another to create an entirely new song. The mashup sometimes utilizes the practice of sampling to make a new song that is, in effect, a patchwork quilt of other songs sewn together.
Girl Talk (stage name of Pittsburgh DJ Gregg Gillis) has become famous for creating entire albums of mashups. In the fourteen tracks of his most recent album “Feed The Animals,” there is not one single original piece of music created by Gillis himself. The songs are composed entirely of pieces of existing songs. The first track of the album alone, entitled “Play Your Part,” contains parts from 25 songs from varied artists from Roy Orbison to Jay-Z to Sinead O’Connor. Musically, Girl Talk accomplishes what Jameson details as the achievements of postmodern authors: “They no longer ‘quote’ such ‘texts’ as a Joyce might have done, or a Mahler; they incorporate them, to the point where the line between high art and commercial forms seems increasingly difficult to draw” (202). Postmodern music, like literature, assimilates and includes other forms. Girl Talk blurs the line between old and new music and fuses them into an entirely new piece of simultaneously original and completely borrowed music.
Many groups reflect the “nostalgic mode” that Jameson describes in his article. The best definition that he gives is that the nostalgic mode is a “retrospective styling” (206). There are thousands of artists working in revivals of old modes and there are some genres which have been resurrected in their entirety. The Motown sound is one that comes to mind. Raphael Saadiq takes the Motown style and completely recreates its sounds and themes in his music. In concert, Saadiq goes so far as to costume himself in the fashions of Motown greats like the Temptations: tight fitting and brightly colored suits with stovepipe pant legs and shiny patent leather boots. The choreography of his back-up dancers is nearly identical to that of groups like The Supremes. His music and performance fit the nostalgic modes that Jameson describes in film movements. In this way, Saadiq satisfies what Jameson calls our “desire to return to that older period and to live its strange old aesthetic artifacts through once again” (206).
Similarly, the psychedelic folk style pulls a sound from the past and alters or updates it slightly. Artists like Devendra Banhart and The OhSees take the original folk sounds- found in bands like The Carpenters and further back with artists like Woodie Guthrie and even further back to the roots of American folk music- and create new sounds within those older models. This form fits Jameson’s extended definition of nostalgia, the same way that Star Wars fits his definition of nostalgic film in the article. Though the psychedelic folk movement does not recreate folk music exactly as it originally stood, it recreates the feel of the folk movement: “[…] it does not reinvent a picture of the past in its lived totality; rather, by reinventing the feel and shape of characteristic art objects of an older period […], it seeks to reawaken a sense of the past associated with those objects” (206).
Much contemporary music can be considered postmodern in the ways that it usurps and perverts elements of traditional or existing music. Electronica emerges as an interesting figurehead for the usurping of traditional sound. Many electronic artists use drum pads and sound boards to electronically recreate true instrumental sounds. However, the use of electronic instruments has done more than mimic existing sounds; it has created entirely new sounds. Incorporation of purely electronic sounds started as early as the Beach Boys and their revolutionary use of the Theremin on the “Pet Sounds” album. This has continued throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries with instruments and tools like synthesizers, drum pads, sound boards, and loop stations. Distortion pedals take existing sounds and bend them into new, sometimes un-reproducible sounds. The spontaneity of live performances and the original one-time nature of genres like noise and scream music add to their postmodern lack of composition. These pieces are entirely original and frequently exist as isolated musical incidents.
In some cases the postmodern can be defined as that which blurs the lines between music and spoken word. It is that which makes you question your standing definition of music. What is normal music? Many would say: the original modes of melody and chords, based on a universal system of notes that function on a recognizable set of scales. Many artists reject these original modes, or refuse to use them as the only mode in which they can create sound.
Artists like Prefuse 73 (born when mainstream rap producer Scott Herren locked himself in a studio alone for two weeks) combine elements of spoken word and electronica to create new forms of music. Two tracks from his album “One Word Extinguisher” come to mind. “Southerners (Interlude)” combines generic voice tracks from an old grammar lesson on American dialects with modern rapping to create an entirely original mashup. In another track, entitled “Esta,” Herren chops and screws several of the messages left on his answering machine (presumably the people who could not get a hold of him while he was locked in the studio cutting the album). These two tracks are representative of an entire cross-section of music in which the spoken word plays an interesting part in blurring the existing definition of music. To further their qualifications as postmodern, these are words borrowed from other sources, taken and manipulated by Herren, not created by him.
The inclusion of cross-cultural sounds and themes becomes another important part of postmodern music. Artists like Beirut (a project of musician Zach Condon) usurp the sounds of other cultures. The album “The Flying Club Cup” is inspired greatly by French music, film and culture. While the latest album “March of the Zapotec,” is inspired greatly by the mariachi sounds of Mexican music, incorporating also the modes of electronica.
Further incorporations of the cross cultural can be found with bilingual and international artists. Yael Naïm, an Israeli singer-songwriter, sings in English (which is certainly not her native language). Similarly, Nelly Furtado included Portuguese songs on her October 2000, mainly-English album entitled “Whoa, Nelly!” In their ability to blend cultural languages and stylings, these artists transcend the traditional boundaries of nationalism and break into the postmodern. Compilation albums like “B Music Cross Continental Record Raid Road Trip” (compiled by electronic musician Andy Votel) juxtaposes tracks from all over the world. Dusty Groove America praises the album with the tagline: “18 Mind-Blowing Vintage Vinyl Discoveries from Around the Psychedelic Globe.” In this way, Votel compiles music that is not his own, combines different cultural influences, and resurrects the old mode of the psychedelic to create something entirely postmodern.
Though Jameson does not really address music in his article, choosing instead to focus on the subjects of literature, film, and architecture, his principals and observations apply seamlessly to modern music. In so many ways, modern musical artists make use of the nostalgic and the pastiche. Through the blurring of spoken word and song, the mimicry of traditional sounds, the recreation of old performances, and the invention of entirely new electronic sounds, many musicians can be classified as postmodern. Whether Raphael Saadiq recreates the Motown phenomenon in its sounds, colors, and movements, or Girl Talk makes a Frankenstein’s-monster-style song using only pieces of other old songs, they fit the postmodern criteria that Fredric Jameson outlines in his 1983 article Postmodernism and Consumer Society. In many ways they leave us wondering, what else can be done? And what will the next revolution in sound possibly be like?