What if He Meant Every Word?

The critical establishment’s dogmatic popism eliminates any consideration of the philosophy surrounding the creative and commercial genesis of music and elevates the aesthetic, so whatever sounds best must be best, and now somehow independent music has wound up in a place where Beyoncé is on the same purely aesthetic playing field that Sharon Van Etten is, because it makes you powerfully, stinkingly uncool to point out that Beyoncé is a meticulously calculated, choreographed, and focus group-approved product of the same system that Sharon Van Etten’s forebears in independent music rose up as a direct response to. Suddenly Sharon Van Etten sounds a little thin without the help of a billion-dollar machine.

Since I first encountered the above quote from David Shapiro (courtesy of the Village Voice‘s Pass & Jop ‘Personals,’ via fourth time around), his words have come to mind anytime I’ve listened to Psychic TV‘s “Godstar”–and lately I’ve been listening to “Godstar” an awful lot.

I’m sympathetic to Shapiro’s complaint, despite basically believing that the aesthetic does trump all other variables in the evaluation of a song. But more than that, occasionally a preoccupation with (and maybe illusions about) the “creative genesis” of a pop song will overwhelm every other consideration for me, which I’m not convinced is a good thing, and which is a problem that rarely extends to Shapiro’s targets anyway.

Taking as given that pop music is performative; that by the 2000th time Elvis Costello plays “Alison,” the feelings that stirred him to pen the song have been refracted beyond recognition; there’s still something uniquely chilling about the song that begs us to ask, ‘What if he/she means it?’

In the case of “Godstar,” that ‘it’ is Genesis P-Orridge’s elegy for Brian Jones, which in its hurt-sounding weirdness, in the occasional crudeness of its poetry, marks itself as a product of no guile or calculation. (Who is this song even for?) This is the territory of the self-styled artist, the cult act, and aesthetic grounds on which the “focus-group approved” artists Shapiro refers to cannot compete. At least I find it very easy to think that way in practice. It’s maybe a form of self deception, but although I often quite enjoy Beyoncé songs (“meticulously crafted,” sure, but so successfully–!), I’m not compelled to wonder with her music –as I am with Psychic TV– just what could have prompted a song into existence.

“Godstar,” incidentally, sounds lousy on laptop speakers (the version on YouTube, but particularly the file that plays on my iTunes), which no doubt lends to it an added aura of authenticity in some confused place in my mind–the fidelity issues making it sound closer to buried treasure, found, rusted over, and irreplaceable.

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