“Nomads” (The High Llamas)

Superstar satire, with character comparing his life to the nomadic wanderers of old. Tribal identity secures internalized, romantic-anthropological slumming that occludes political economy, actual stateless persons, and the whole bother of encounter. Brass band and banjo pump up the (oxy)moronic, T.J. Jackson Lears factor: elite antimodernist jetsetting.

 

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“Different Trains” (Kronos Quartet)

Steve Reich’s setting of three groups of voices (“America—Before the War,” “Europe—During the War,” and “After the War”) amid repeated figures representing “different” trains implies a certain technocratic base: triumphally major and mobile in “America” as the trains race between the oceans and unite the land; clashing and discordant in “Europe,” as the Holocaust comes into view. “We” are superstructural/epiphenomenal, it appears, cut into (musical) phrases as the State-machines track our similarities and differences. So why are the genders made instrument-specific (woman = viola; man = cello)? Where do these particular differences emanate from, if not a certain technics? The error in (any form of) social constructionism is, of course, that it leaves no room for a true and legitimate point of view, even though it insists it has one. Here, it’s smuggled in, manwise.

 

 

 

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“King of the Zulus” (Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five)

For some, a scandalous and unfortunate moment in Hot Five history, in which Armstrong explores his thematic relationship to blackface minstrelsy, “Zulus,” and other primitives. But before trying to judge this trax, there is so much to be said: the African American members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, celebrated here, hailed from Armstrong’s neighborhood as a child—“Perdido and Liberty – Franklin Streets,” as Armstrong himself wrote to reporter Betty Jane Holder in 1952. And the Zulu Club was (and is) a mutual aid society of the type often promoted today by scholars of immigration, transnationalism, and anarchism. Armstrong also remembered the Zulus as primarily “teamsters” who “taught me the ropes” in terms of operating a street cart. By the time Armstrong was eighteen, the Teamsters were using “Equal Pay for All” as a slogan, and the organization’s New Orleans Executive Board had been integrated for more than a decade. So “Zulu” means both uplift and integration to Armstrong, and it’s important to remember this when tracking Armstrong’s appropriation of primitivism (Gene H. Anderson detects it in the trax’s “minor mode” and “dominant and tonic harmonies throughout”). Also important in judging the trax’s potentially political purposes is the fact that the reigning 1920s paradigm for jazz appreciation involved seeing the jazz performer as an “avant-garde primitivist aesthete,” to borrow John Gennari’s phrase (Blowin’ Hot and Cold 32). Just as the Zulu Club’s blackface parade, complete with floats, began in 1915 as a kind of parody or counter-Mardi Gras, so too is Armstrong’s appropriation potentially smothered in irony. Meanwhile, John Cowley’s research on this trax convincingly situates the skit at the center of the track as promoting racial solidarity between the Jamaican “country man” (a Garveyite, perhaps) and the citified Hot Five through successful soloing. This black immigrant bumpkin is as clear a type as the “Zulu,” and it’s as if the Jamaican character is reaching out to ask Armstrong, “How might I continue to make music when I am thus demeaned?” Armstrong’s response is simple: blow.

 

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“You Can Have the World” (Cameo)

The Booker T. Washingtonian vision to complement Reaganesque politics: hygiene, positive thinking, and the elision of the social become keys to Black success. Status (being “new”) ablates the spatial (“hell”/ghettoes) and is mirrored by clean, tight, concise funk: shimmering synths and ultra-high crescendos. The “positive tip” loves subjugation.

 

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“The Logical Song” (Supertramp)

An attempt to reclaim “simple” status in response to institutions that produce logical, intellectual, and clinical subjectivities. Desperately seeking a content as last wish: “please tell me who I am.” Acutely aware of state coercion (“watch what you say”), but this is just a cover; reclamation and self-making inherently disciplinary. Thinking the birds are “playfully watching me” is wishful: sun logic.

 

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“Dreams” (The Allman Brothers Band)

Could The Allman Brothers Band be the harbingers of the fertile ground that postmodernism gives to anti-utopian thinking (Moylan, Scraps of the Untainted Sky 140)? Keep in mind that one year after “Dreams” (1969), they release “Revival” (a track now performed in churches, it seems). Unlike the latter’s politically debilitating profession of collective love and its uses, the trax in question finds us at the precipice of social collapse. Dystopias, according to Jameson, require a character/subject, and singer’s “blues” (which he “had to wake up with”) are founded on the “dreams I’ll never see” (The Seeds of Time 56).  But unlike an anti-utopia’s attempt to proclaim imperfection in the name of greater (achievable) perfection, the singer can only turn to the lover who will witness the singer’s “end of me.” Dystopian praxis: the sharing of a plural “hunger”/impulse and an “us” out of join(t).

 

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“That’s The Story of My Life” (The Velvet Underground)

Lou Reed has only a pair of observations to make, and then repeats. First: “the story of my life” has been a moral one through and through, and its guiding thread is “the difference between wrong and right.” On the other hand, Billy Name (a key participant in La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music and Andy Warhol’s Factory scene) has clearly told Lou: “both those words are dead.” The world is now beyond right and wrong, or good and evil, as Nietzsche might say, and Billy and Lou are exploring superabundant life and the will to power in New York’s gay bars and with the help of methedrine. And that, too: “that’s the story of my life.” In short, the singer finds himself between two worlds, in two distinct historical contexts, and each acts as both a break with and an ongoing dialectical critique of the other. Relaxedly gliding between these moments in the ongoing history of nihilism, Reed’s vector points two ways and suggests that metaphysics has been weakened (but still has a part to play).

 

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“Master Race Rock” (The Dictators)

American version of “All the Young Dudes,” strafed with irony, in which 60s rock activism is replaced by anal-obsessive cleanliness, sports, sleep (“gasoline shortages” make no difference if you’re napping), and a generalized affirmation of childishness (“we’re scared of growing old!”). This is, then, the sound of the Nixon’s “silent majority” achieving youthquake. The “master race” retains its position by mere rocking back and forth, without movement, so that the final call to arms (“let’s go!”) is represented by a quick, anticlimactic guitar fade-out. The smug violence of inaction.

 

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