Wednesday, April 09, 2008

NonPop with Scott Unrein

What does nonpop mean? Is it some kind of value judgment, like the term 'high art'? Wikipedia's tiny entry calls it a meta-genre, whose classification originated in 2001.

Its originators, Dennis Bathory-Kitsz and David Gunn, likened the term to the fiction/nonfiction duality. In doing so, they're calling nonpop everything that is not pop, in the same way that nonfiction is everything that is not fiction. In thinking about it, it seems to make sense to classify text the other way around, giving 'the real' one term, and the fictitious its negative. Regardless of which way you frame it, this brings up all kinds of questions as to what is real, to which Baudrillard, Hal Foster, and many others would have compelling theories. Most grade school English classes don't get too deep into these types of questions, when they probably should. The nonpop term is problematic because of its enforced binary between pop and everything else; in affirming this duality, it undermines its original intent to describe a meta-genre that may or may not find influence in popular music. In the end, I don't think nonpop constitutes a value judgment but is a transitional term meant to describe the utter genre synthesis happening today. Perhaps in the future a better term will come about, an earlier term will be reawakened (fusion), or (in the best case, I think) the need for such a term will dissolve.

Scott Unrein hosts a great podcast/blog called NonPop. Its name is thought provoking, as is its music, and is thus appropriate.


pH said...

1) congrats on getting your music picked up on a new music podcast, your piece is awesome.

2) Maybe we should look at the question of the terms fiction/nonfiction differently: the not-real must be MARKED as fictions whereas the real speaks for itself, needs no marking; just a thought. But as Lacan says, the truth has the structure of a fiction within a fiction. Go figure.

3) I don’t know, I kind of take issue with the notion that nonpop doesn’t imply a value judgment. Of course you know I am hip to the genre hybridity in the art music scene—shit like you are doing, icebreaker, bang on a can, etc. (I am reminded of evan ziporyn’s excellent article “who listens if you care” on this topic). however, is nonpop really the best way to characterize it? It seems like an attempt to recover a space of aesthetic (and commercial) autonomy for music that sets out to elevate itself above the aesthetic banality and deleterious ideological effects (Adorno would consider these to be one and the same, right?) of pop music. This name seems to cancel out the seeming aesthetic egalitarianism (no high/low art distinction, it sounds good to more than just stuffy old people) of hybrid music. Frankly, I’d rather stick to ‘new music’, but this too seems like an inadequate and even paradoxical appellation—is not postmodern historicist pastiche one of the central characteristics of much so-called NEW music?

4) This brings me to a point about the concept of the avantgarde in contemporary music that I would love to hear your thoughts on, you having much more knowledge in the discipline than I. I read an article in The Drama Review (the major publication, I guess, for American language theatre scholarship) the other day about the ‘death of the avantgarde’ in theatre with the Wooster Group, the closest thing American theatre has had to an avantgarde. The basic points were two: first, WG did not have the political commitments of most of the 20th century avantgardes (in a word, they were not anti-bourgeois enough), and second, WG’s aesthetic of postmodern pastiche abandons the chief aesthetic concerns of 20thcentury avant-gardes to (re)present the Real through genuinely New forms of (re)presentational practice. When I think of 20th century of music history, I really see three quintessential Events (in Badiou’s sense of the term) or avantgarde movements: Schoenberg and atonalism, which invented a completely new approach to the linguistic structures of Western music; jazz (ranging from its early inception to fusion) for rethinking the urgency of live musical performance an improvisation; Cage, for rethinking entirely the material basis of music (sound, live and recorded, intentional and aleatory) and (like jazz) thinking through liveness and aleatory aspects of its performance. Jazz has been all but museumified, losing even its political efficacy in the black American political scene since the 70’s; Schoenberg and Cage are now portable styles that can be inserted into any contemporary musical pastiche. What do you think of the question of the avantgarde in contemporary music? Can the matter of genre hybridization be the basis of an authentic avantgarde, if it ditches the ideology that produces terms like ‘nonpop’ that re-inscribe such radical gestures back into fundamentally conservative aesthetic/ideological matrixes (the reinscription of the high/low distinction being my main beef with nonpop).

pH said...

oh yeah bitch one more thing check ou my blog fool, i blame you and whit for encouraging this bad habit I JUST WANT TO BE LIKE THE COOL KIDS

Mr. Bacon said...

Thanks for the lengthy and super interesting commentary, pH. In the period between when I wrote this and now, I have read a little Lacan (exactly what you refer to, the Real vs. the Symbolic, and how the Real cannot exist in the Symbolic, and how, therefore, the Real is an impossibility because we live in our world defined by language and its Symbolic) and have come around to two terms better than nonpop (and even more vague): a) post-genre (in the recent post on Eric Bünger that you've read) and, gasp, b) music. I sometimes just call myself a musician, rather than a composer, or a performer, or the coveted 'composer/performer,' because the labels are misleading and reductionist. Musician is way to broad. But I'd rather be too general than too specific. So if one is forced to define post-pastiche (how's that one?) music further than simply 'music,' maybe post-genre is the way to go. Of course then, post-genre is yet another dualistic reinscription, highlighting the different between genre and nongenre. This discussion does give poststructuralists more stock in my mind, as so much of our collective consciousness is based on terminology and what it may or may not signify. Ever read Katherine Hayles' update on the floating signifier, the 'flickering signifier'?

Another problem with terms that begin with 'post...' is their dependence on linear time, and coherent history, but that's another story. For instance, Lyotard's assertion that postmodernism had to exist in order for modernism to happen, makes me think twice about this unquestioned temporal linearity, and about linguistics (maybe it was postmodernism that set off modernism, but at the time, it wasn't and couldn't be called postmodernism, so what was it, and how was it different that the postmodernism of the mid/late 20th century? etc etc etc)

Anyway, I also had a long affair with the pomo pastiche thing and dear Fred J. this year. As far as the avant-garde, Mr. Bernard would say more intelligent things, but I can say that I think that true avant-garde today is physically destructive: urinating in Duchamp's fountain; throwing pies; spray painting your own outdoor exhibition on Irael's wall in the West Bank (Banksy); etc. Pastiche is still relevant but by now it's well-trodden ground, and pastiche for pastiche's sake alone isn't enough--in the same way that serialism just for the sake of rejecting a long tradition of tonality became insufficient to justify itself. Some classical composers are getting all kinds of acclaim right now because they're combining all kinds of stuff - when hip hop and electronica (to name two of many examples) have been doing this for decades, and in fact could only exist (or at least have originated) by the nature of pastiche.

So yes, I think not a rejection but a refusal to acknowledge any past standards (including, among many others, the Adorno/Horkheimer/Marcuse etc. need to 'transcend' society) is the first step towards an avant-garde. But perhaps rejecting the entire concept of avant-garde is the best way - going back to Lacan, the only way the Real can exist is without the presence/absence debate, and in not acknowledging the avant garde at all, maybe it can actually function as such.