What is The Devil’s Traxionary?
This is not a website about the way that music is consumed, but instead about how it might be, with ease. It’s a website of invective (but never personal). It’s a map (to territories found on no charts). It’s a website of aphorisms (which no one has yet adopted).
It is an attempt to reinvigorate the question of popular musics and the political, a question that runs through the writing about music, in journals and books, during the entire second half of the twentieth century. (And even a bit earlier, as the existence of Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues (1946) attests.) There’s a lifetime of reading on this topic (see note below), and our intervention here is based on a general dissatisfaction with what passes for the political in such discussions.
In short, this is A Devil’s Dictionary, which is perhaps only half as smart as Bierce at unworking the world as it exists, but which at least attempts to do so in the shape of a Traxionary. Here, you’ll eventually find more than 1,000 entries on more than 1,000 different trax from more than 1,000 different artists.
(Note: We’ll list an alphabetical roll call of some writers we’ve encountered whose work implicitly trespasses onto the terrain of the political: Jacques Attali, Michael Azerrad, Derek Bailey, Lester Bangs, Julie Burchill, John Cage, Jimmy Cauty, Samuel Charters, Nik Cohn, Julian Cope, John Corbett, Angela Y. Davis, Bill Drummond, Michael Eric Dyson, Ego Trip, Jonathan Eisen, Kodwo Eshun, Mick Farren, Simon Ford, Simon Frith, Nelson George, Lawrence Grossman, Dick Hebdige, Ajay Heble, Stewart Home, LeRoi Jones, Ekkehard Jost, Andrea Juno, Chuck Klosterman, Philippe Lacou-Labarthe, George Lipsitz, John Litweiler, Greil Marcus, Mike Marqusee, George Melly, Richard Meltzer, Paul Morley, Michael Nyman, Tony Parsons, Ian Penman, Ulf Poschardt, Edwin Prevost, Simon Reynolds, Andrew Ross, Tricia Rose, John Strausbaugh, John F. Szwed, Cecilia Tichi, David Toop, Nick Tosches, V. Vale, Ted Vincent, Ben Watson, Ellen Willis, Valerie Wilmer, William Upski Wimsatt, Achim Wollscheid..)
How do we use this? How is The Devil’s Traxionary useful?
Our minimal recommendations for reading the Traxionary would be the following: page through it or use the indices; search for titles and artists that ring a bell or two; read and entry two or three times in order to maximize annoyance; download the track using your favorite file-sharing technology, check it out on a streaming video site, or borrow it from a friend—but, please, don’t just buy more stuff—and compare your results to ours. Then go find someone with whom you might start an argument. Note your least favorite entries and use the comment feature to make your own. Steal some of our entries as the beginning of your own multi-authored, multi-user Traxionary. Or, after due consideration, forget this website and start from scratch. C.L.R. James wrote that “every cook can govern,” and everyone, certainly, can write (and is already writing) a Traxionary.
[C.L.R. James, Every Cook Can Govern. Second ed. (Detroit: Bewick, 1992).]
Why this? Why now?
We are tired of taking musical artists at their word, and giving them the benefit of the doubt. We are tired of particular, individual contexts (as if the meaning of a Stranglers song could be determined by a personal anecdote). We are tired of “real life” fragments passing for political significance (Elvis or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the Pistols tour of America, you get the idea. . . . . ). We are tired of determinate historical contexts: we remain unconvinced that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries need to be broken up into strong/hard epistemes, and we know that, in reverse, there always are infinitely more contexts than historians let on. We therefore are tired of relating musical developments to imaginary historical/artistic periods, such as modernism and postmodernism. We are tired of postmodernist shortcuts to liberation that prefer to forget the ontic’s fundamental “strange-relatedness” to the ontologic (the performative, preeminently, but also the Deluezian rhizomic, the Lyotardian local, etc.). We are tired of simplistic valuations of complication, contradiction, and confusion. We are tired of acceptance of the general idea that, in Ellen Willis’ words, “blasting rock-and-roll” out of your radio “is not unconnected to the impulse to fuck outside marriage, get high, stand up to men or write people or bosses, join dissident movements.” We are tired of eccentric behavior masquerading as rebellion. We are tired of the meager results from musicology and ethnomusicology when it comes to the political. We are tired of romantic assumptions about the primal and the raw (Robert Palmerisms, for example, as in Rock & Roll: An Unruly History ). We are tired of liberal assumptions about musical individuals bucking the system, and progressively achieving their own voice. We are tired of related liberal assumptions concerning a too-easily-won freedom of expression. We are tired of genres–all of them, really–and arguments regarding their proper comportment (see Simon Reynolds, Generation Ecstasy (1998), or the million witless things written about “ real rock” versus pomp or pop). We are tired of the presumption that popular, underground, or dominated musics are inherently or even typically resistant and subversive. We are tired of the chains and borders of academic sociology and culturalism. We are tired of musical “vitality.” We are tired of “keeping it real,” because it sounds, to us, like a death sentence. We are tired of “long live rock,” and for several larger reasons than, “it’s only rock and roll, but I like it” (but that’ll do, for a start). We are tired of hearing what passes for music “news,” because it’s all more of less stock market public relations. But we are not tired of carrying it.
Far from it. From our perspective, writing about the political in relation to musics is only just beginning, or has yet to begin. To the extent that we draw on the strategies of our forebears, we might signal just a few: Richard Meltzer and, later, Kodwo Eshun taught us to relentlessly philosophizing the artifacts of the popular to the limit of a certain irresponsibility or madness. Paul Morley taught us about puns, homonyms, and other meaning(ful) explosions. Jacques Attali taught us that instrumental musics are always socially coded. Ego Trip taught us cheek. Ben Watson taught us, by negative example, that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing (so we learned a few more things). Greil Marcus taught us, again by negative example, that a faithful devotion to historical context results in nearly nothing at all.
[Ellen Willis, “Introduction.” Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade (New York: Knopf, 1981), xvi.]
What’s the point?
The Devil’s Traxionary is committed, first of all, to practices of close reading of lyrics and sonic relations. But close reading does not exist in a vacuum, and we make many judgments in the pages that follow. The standards of these judgments are, we believe, obvious but not (yet) common. Our sense of the political includes investigation into questions of the state and nation, the social (race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality, of course), the communitarian, the economic, the technologic, the legal, the ethical, and intersubjective. Trax are very fertile ground for these investigations, but likely no less so than photographs, poems, jokes, movie plots, “reality” television. But rather than siding with, say, John Fiske, regarding the question of audiences always already liberating themselves through watching episodes of The Dating Game, we might suggest that such things can happen and do happen everyday, but that they more often or just as often do not, or not in interesting ways, and without a sense of the responsibility of judgment.
Obviously, there is absolutely no point in producing a website like The Devil’s Traxionary unless one believed that our present predicaments might be diagnosed in this manner, with the result that a future, undetermined by the past, can be released through hinting, through aphoristic reduction, through gnomic utterance, through a bit of comedy. The website is an experiment in phrasing arguments, in shorthanding, in summarizing. In phrasing an argument with the world as it is. In articulating the relationship between readings of sound, lyrics, titles, genre, and such, and political possibility. We hold the 1,001 trax to a seemingly impossible standard of absolute non-exclusivity–of radical equalitarianism in some of its possibilities. (Risking cliche, we side with the Marx who wrote about a “ruthless criticism of everything existing.”)
It is in this sense that we have written a Black Book of Trax, toting up a list of crimes which might have been averted, or might still be.) And we hold these trax to the standard of what Jean-Luc Nancy calls the “compearance” of ‘singularities,” which would be the sharing of “différance” (which is shared already), and which would be “community” without exclusivity. (See Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community. Ed. Peter Connor. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).) The book is committed to an always already sociability and cosmopolitanism and to a standard for future citizenship as one of mere “being there,” at ease. And it advocates a standard for praxis, following Marx through Scott Shershow, of “calculation to end calculation.” In short, it continues to stand for Revolutions of many and varied sorts.
[Karl Marx, “For a Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing,” The Marx-Engels Reader (second edition). Ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 13.; Scott Cutler Shershow, “Of Sinking: Marxism and the ‘General’ Economy.” Critical Inquiry 27 (Spring 2001): 491.
Why don’t you include “Track X”? What about “Group Y”?
The Devil’s Traxionary, of course, has musical biases. We completely recognize that our list of trax is not comprehensive (it’s laughably and intentionally incomplete, just scratching the surface of recorded musics in this century) and not the “best” tracks on offer (because we would not know, and no one would know, how to measure that). The list of pieces is as idiosyncratic as our listening habits, and any other group of persons might well draw up a very different list of trax. We know where our listening habits are thick and where they are thin. We know that our choices in the domains of jazz or experimental musics come from a back-reading of these traditions as they relate to rock, r’n’b, rap, techno. We know we have particular strengths when it comes to locating tracks in domains such as glam, punk, prog, and techno. We know lots of people who know more details than we about reggae, about 50s rock and roll, about jam bands, about emo, about blues, about blaxploitation musics, about heavy metal, death metal, hardcore and grindcore.
And, really, so what? Write your own entries. We recommend it and look forward to the results.
We do wonder, however, whether we might have developed the first website to consider both Jennifer and Francisco Lopez; both the Ohio Express and the Ohio Players; Faron, La Monte, and Neil Young; Barry White, Bukka White, and Whitehouse.