June, 1968. Allen Ginsberg visits Ezra Pound at his Venice home. Pound is old and will not speak; Ginsberg is younger, full of beard, garrulous, enveloped in marijuana smoke. Provoked by silence, or perhaps out of sheer playfulness, Ginsberg plays Pound a series of records by Bob Dylan, Donovan, The Beatles. Pound remains silent, but occasionally taps his cane along with the music. On hearing the lyric no one was saved in Eleanor Rigby, he seems to smile, but otherwise maintains total silence.
Nobody knows what this means.
At about the same time, the critic Theodor Adorno writes: “It is uncertain whether art is still possible; whether, with its complete emancipation, it did not sever its own preconditions”.
Later, in the eighties, another German critic said: “If one wanted to refute Adorno’s approach, one would have to start with his social analysis and prove its results to be inexact by, for example, discussing historico-politically and philosophically another social agency he overlooked; one that would permit progress (and political engagement) to be conceived of”.
What an intriguing thought.
Here is a picture of James Joyce:
Joyce’s taste was for popular songs. His wife Nora always thought he should have become a singer instead of a writer of very erudite books. Joyce’s final work, Finnegans Wake, was a book inspired by a popular song.
In the second half of the twentieth century, pop music became the dominant art form of the modernist avant-garde, which had earlier focused its attentions largely on poetry, sculpture, painting, collage, orchestral music, dance, and the novel. .
This development had been an incredibly long time coming.
For example, in the late-nineteenth century, Walter Pater inserted a powerful aphorism into The Renaissance: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”. Glossing this notion later in the same study, Pater wrote the following brilliant sentence: “A sudden light transfigures a trivial thing, a weather-vane, a windmill, a winnowing flail, the dust in the barn door: a moment—and the thing has vanished, because it was pure effect; but it leaves a relish behind it, a longing that the accident may happen again.”
In the same book, Pater also wrote: “… we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve … we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among ‘the children of this world’, in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time … art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”
Even earlier, in a 1795 essay called “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry”, Friedrich Schiller had somewhat pre-empted Pater by saying, “only thus does genius identify itself … by triumphing over the complications of art by simplicity. It proceeds not by the accepted principles, but by flashes of insight and feeling …”
Following Pater’s crystallization of Romantic theory, most artists in the European tradition fell over themselves for about a hundred years in attempting to establish an art that was predicated on sudden, pulsating magic moments.
The aesthetes and symbolists had a go:
Stravinsky had a go:
Matisse had a go:
The modernist poets definitely had a go:
Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always -
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.
(T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton)
“The ‘magic moment’ or moment of metamorphosis, bust through from quotidian into ‘divine or permanent world.’ Gods, etc.”
(Ezra Pound, letter to his father about the scheme of The Cantos).
But ultimately, despite continual strenuous attempts, no one really succeeded in lighting on a suitable form for embodying and containing these magic moments.
Having realized early on that the beauty of art is “a brief gasp between one cliché and another”, Pound then misguidedly set about looking for huge, oceanic structures that would provide a setting for his brief gasps.
That way lay madness.
Similarly, Joyce’s youthful obsession with the epiphany resulted in some of his greatest literary achievements; but he too finally succumbed to a kind of silence with Finnegans Wake, that vast symphony of sublimely inaudible notes.
How was the “bust through from quotidian” to be achieved, if not by way of massive, semi-incomprehensible artistic schemes? How to find an effective, workable vehicle for the magic moment?
In the end, it happened quite unexpectedly.
In 1938 Adorno wrote of pop music (specifically jazz) that “[the tunes] are transformed into a conglomeration of irruptions which are impressed on the listeners by climax and repetition, while the organization of the whole makes no impression whatsoever … All that is realized is what the spotlight falls on – striking melodic intervals, unsettling modulations, intentional or unintentional mistakes, or whatever condenses itself into a formula by an especially intimate merging of melody and text”.
Climax and repetition; unsettling modulations; a conglomeration of irruptions:
Adorno might be describing The Waste Land!
Like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot was fond of popular music. In the post-World War Two era, Eliot was in the habit of singing music hall numbers every morning, while his young wife Valerie shaved his beard.
Despite this, he probably wouldn’t have understood what was so good about “Jimmy Mack” by Martha and the Vandellas, released in 1967 (just two years after Eliot died):
Yet miraculously, the magic moment has found its ideal home here. Sudden in a shaft of sunlight … there rises the hidden laughter of children in the foliage. The lyric moment—the “hook”—is stated, varied, repeated, bathed in angelic harmony, and then put to bed, all in the space of a perfectly condensed three-minute interval.
A moment—and the thing has vanished, because it was pure effect; but it leaves a relish behind it, a longing that the accident may happen again.
Other notable examples of the magic moment at work (chosen at random) include: “Independent Woman Pt. 1” by Destinys Child (2000), “You’ve Got Everything Now” by The Smiths (1984), “Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang” by Dr Dre (1993), “Don’t You Want Me” by Human League (1981), “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush (1979), “Otis” by The Durutti Column (1989), “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (1975), “Time’s Up” by OC (1994), “That’s What You Get” by Paramore (2007), “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds (1965), “Heard it All Before” by Sunshine Anderson (2000), “Two Months Off” by Underworld (2002), “Suspect Device by Stiff Little Fingers” (1978), “And Your Bird Can Sing” by The Beatles (1966), “Babies” by Pulp (1992), “Hang With Me” by Robyn (2010), “I Second That Emotion” by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (1967), “There’s a Moon Out Tonight” by The Capris (1958), “Live Forever” by Oasis (1994), “One Thing” by Amerie (2005), and “Stillness is the Move” by Dirty Projectors (2009).
I’ve never liked “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones (1978), but I feel certain that this was the most sacred magic moment known to the BBC disc jockey John Peel, and that this was why he wept whenever he heard it.
Perhaps Adorno was wrong. Like the majority of his coevals, he couldn’t recognize that pop music was not, or not merely, a capitalistic diminution of the modernist project. In fact, it now seems scarcely disputable that the pop music of the late-twentieth century was the ultimate popular realization of the modernist avant-garde.
What do we mean by “modernist avant-garde”?
In concentrating on the magic moment we have highlighted the formalist aspect of pop. This was necessary to show that, far from being a phenomenon characterized by banality and dystopia, the pop song is in fact a sophisticated culmination of the entire history of Western civilization. That is to say, it is by far the greatest art form we have.
But form is never enough.
We now know this, because, while it is still possible to find countless magic moments scattered across the culture, it is much more difficult to locate even small-scale tendencies dedicated to the organization of human beings behind these utopian fragments.
In other words, we have an aesthetic, but no ethos.
There has in fact been a large amount of debate about the terms “modernist” and “avant-garde”. In the eighties, Peter Bürger pointed out (probably rightly) that “modernism” should really denote a straight continuation of late-nineteenth century romanticism and aestheticism. Meanwhile, the term “avant-garde” should be used to denote a specific twentieth century tendency dedicated to praxis and engagement with the quotidian (eg. Dada, situationism, etc).
As another critic summarizes Bürger’s argument, in modernist art experience is “reduced to a mere idiosyncratic feeling of emotional intensity”, one in which the particular “materializes momentarily and is never tied to anything”. In contrast, in avant-garde art, “the aesthetic fragment functions very differently than the organic whole of romantic artwork, for it challenges its recipient to make it an integrated part of his or her reality and to relate it to sensuous material experience.”
Bürger says: avant-garde artists do not isolate themselves, but “reintegrate their art into life”.
Pop music, which sent the magic moment into every home in the world, and frequently snuck a countercultural ethos into the admixture, was a synthesis of the two strands. Pop music was formally brilliant, but it was also wildly successful on an organizational level, with its cabalistic movements (psychedelia, post-punk, hip-hop, acid house), its situationist spectacles (the gig/happening, the rave, the music video), its default culture of anti-conservative political radicalism, and its exploitation of the Gesamtkunstwerk potential inherent in late-capitalist consumerist artifacts.
Late-twentieth century pop music had the magic moment, but crucially, it was also underwritten by a democratic, subversive, integrationist ethos.
We can say with confidence, therefore, that while “modernist avant-garde” may have been loosely and erroneously applied in other contexts, it is certainly a fitting appellation for late-twentieth century pop music.
In 1953 the French Lettrist/Situationist Ivan Chtcheglov wrote Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau.
In it, he argued that Old World majesty and the assurances of organic order are unattainable in the modern world:
And you, forgotten, your memories ravaged by all the consternations of two hemispheres, stranded in the Red Cellars of Pali-Kao, without music and without geography, no longer setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. That’s all over. You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist.
Chtcheglov argues that we will never again see the idyll embodied in the trope of the Spanish conquistador estate, the Hacienda. As a result, Chtcheglov argues, we must seek out utopia for ourselves through praxis and collective endeavour. As Chtcheglov puts it: “The Hacienda must be built”.
In 1982, the idealistic independent pop music label Factory Records actually built a nightclub called The Haçienda, in Manchester. By the late eighties, it had become one of the major epicentres of a great flourishing of electronic dance music and rave culture.
It has since been turned into a luxury apartment building.
Adorno was wrong then. But perhaps latterly he has been proved right.
In organizational terms, pop music is drastically unwell. The worthwhile modernist avant-garde stuff currently being produced (and there remains much of this) lacks the sort of collective architecture previously provided by countercultural institutions like John Peel, the intelligent music press, a vigorous dance music culture, the independent record label movement.
In short, it is now difficult to speak of pop music having a discernible common culture, to borrow a favourite phrase of Raymond Williams.
As Greil Marcus commented on the situation in 1975:
We fight our way through the massed and levelled collective taste of the Top 40, just looking for a little something we can call our own. But when we find it and jam the radio to hear it again it isn’t just ours – it is a link to thousands of others who are sharing it with us. As a matter of a single song this might mean very little; as culture, as a way of life, you can’t beat it.
But sadly, in an age of internet atomism, this kind of shared experience is no longer possible.
What is perhaps worse, the remnants of the pop avant-garde have been diluted and travestied by a cult of retroism which appropriates their face values in the service of consumer fetishism. Pastiche-worship and blithe cynicism abound. The oppositional energies of a potentially alternative culture are tempered and nullified by irony and economic rationalism. The Carling Academy is established as an outpost of corporate assimilation in every town. What now passes for “independent” music in contemporary Britain is in fact its diametric opposite: a professionalized leisure industry for the moneyed upper-middle classes.
In the sixties, Adorno said:
An organization is forced into independence by self-preservation; at the same time this establishment of independence leads to alienation from its purposes and from the people of whom it is composed. Finally – in order to be able to pursue its goals appropriately – it enters into a contradiction with them.
What an accurate summary.
Wherever there are children, anything is possible.
It is tempting to merely take Adorno’s wrongness about the death of art in the mid-twentieth century as a sign that we ourselves are merely blinded by pessimism, unable to see the ground shifting under our feet.
Undoubtedly, there are scattered forms of modernism out there already flourishing or in the early stages of development, waiting to be shaped into humane, progressive formulations.
But the avant-garde teaches us that we must actively make it so. We have our beautiful fragments. But right now we are in dire need of social structures to contain them. Art will only remain possible in the future if we come together collectively, to build the alternative cathedrals that will provide a concrete place in the quotidian for pop’s earth-upending epiphanies.
“I agree”, said Ezra Pound, tapping his cane.