“Batterram” (Toddy Tee)

The coverage of the Michael Brown and George Floyd protests were almost breathless. What’s new with this iteration of popular uproar? Is it the “bottoming out” that finally leads to racial progress? The further militarization of the police? Rather than seek out an event in today’s headlines, the contiguities are more sobering. Toddy Tee’s grudging 1985 homage to Daryl Gates’ police tank—“it’s coming”—could be taken as both a warning to crack dealers and a protest over police violence and the suspension of the fourth amendment in black and brown neighborhoods. And it would be just fine as that. But there’s also the mayor’s decision to “legalize something that works like that.” Operating during the early height of the War on Drugs, the Batterram was used to strike in indiscriminate discriminatory ways. The police are like “F Troop,” knocking on random doors trying to entrap residents. But these circumstances are a dime a dozen with law-and-order governors and police departments inheriting equipment used during recent wars. According to one protestor from Ferguson, Missouri, the city “could be any town in the world.” Absolutely true, but more often not. As the places add up—Dearborn Heights, Sanford, Los Angeles, etc.—the patience wears thin. Both the media’s hopeful exhaustion and a healthy dose of neighborhood utopianism.

 

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“Empower” (Downset)

“Empower” scream hemmed in by slabs of silence: the moment of Butlerian agency that occurs in a loophole/hitch, unanticipated by power. An attempt to “recheck the mind set”–not castigation–without recourse to affect (“can’t give up no love”) or investment in nationalisms (“what’s been dead”). Less a plan than a documentary moment: potential(ity) battles “slips,” faith in representation, and martyrdom.

 

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“The Bitter Withy” (A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl)

This English ballad, uncollected in the Child Ballads, presents a startlingly human picture of the youthful Jesus. He likes playing ball, he resents his mother’s punishments, and he’s quick to anger. He also drowns three rich boys who insult his lowly status, and he does it by conjuring a Moses-lite miracle: a sun bridge is projected across a body of water, and it collapses as soon as the rich boys try to cross over. So Jesus is both absolutely human, and he’s also ready to revolt: proto-politically, he aggressively takes the side of the poor. But he’s also absolutely terrifying, a possible bad seed, and definitely someone you don’t want to cross. As his final act here, while Mary is whacking him with a switch from a withy tree, he curses the tree (the whole species!) and makes it suffer a rotting death from the inside, from the “heart.” Some might call it overkill, but perhaps that’s human, too. A bit of a celebration, then, of a pleb who won’t take shit from no one and nothing.

 

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“From a Dry Camel” (Dust)

Something about man is best understood as a “machine,” but this is not cybernetics: the focus is not on the brain, but on something lower, between the legs. This simple lever needs tending, but beating off is not enough to “take care” of it. Importantly, however, one can easily suffice without a “maiden”; indeed, a “dry camel,” “one hump or two,” will work just as well, provided that you can get the camel to “lie down on its side” and give you time to rub one out on its back. (It may take you ten minutes, and you’ll have to keep shifting gears around a four-note, descending figure, from slow to medium to fast and back again, with only limited wankery.) This machine aspires to sovereign self-sufficiency: the goal is to “solve your own game” without oil or the lubrication of other persons. Indeed, from this perspective, everything outside the machine-self is merely a tool and therefore for me. “Marion,” the discarded, “dry” maiden, had to go because she tried to “incise” every man she met, cutting into, marking, or draining him. So she’s a tool, too—but just beyond his leverage.

 

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“Untitled” (Mauthausen Orchestra)

It’s the early 1980s, and industrialism is at its most obnoxious in terms of referencing Nazism and the Holocaust: William Bennett’s Come Organization already has released Buchenwald (1981), the collection Für Ilse Koch (1982), and the two controversially re-edited M.B. projects, Triumph of the Will (1981) and Weltanschauung (1982). And Maurizio Bianchi’s own Symphony for a Genocide (1981) belongs here, too. Pierpaolo Zoppo, a protégé of Bianchi, entered the mix in 1983 with Dedicated to Josef Goebbels, a cassette released on Andrea Cernotto’s Aquilifer Sodality label. There’s a bunch of trax, but no titles, so let’s listen to the opener, which runs about eight and three-quarter minutes. Zoppo is borrowing from M.B.’s early methods of appropriation and transformation; at the heart of the sound is some piece(s) of music, massively sped up and treated with shades of pink and white noise. It sounds like we’re within a sea of sonic data clogged inside a modem, churning and surging with no place to go. It’s an aural cocoon–a sound environment–but what does it signify? Though the trax has no name, the project’s title hyper-contextualizes our experience of it: first, given that Goebbels headed the Propaganda Ministry in Nazi Germany, and oversaw, among other things, the cleansing of atonal music from the Reich, one has to agree with the blogger at “Die or D.I.Y”: “Straight into the ‘Degenerate [A]rt’ exhibition it would have gone, and . . . Zoppo . . . would have been sent to a concentration camp, or just executed without trial.” One can imagine that the original, treated piece of music might be a Nazi march, a Strauss waltz, or even a recording of a tune played at the Mauthausen-Gusen labor camp by the original “Mauthausen Orchestra.” The whole tape, then, might well be a thumb in the eye (or ear). Relatedly, but more subtly, Zoppo certainly seems to be exploring the wide difference between the Nazi-approved arts and Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo’s earlier aspirations toward noises of violent, technological and social “renewal” in “The Art of Noises” (1913). In which case, we’re witnessing in this trax a fraught, high-stakes attempt to sever the historical link between such futurism and fascism, reclaiming the “infinite variety” of “thirty thousand different noises” as an unresolved challenge to governance.

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“Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” (Doris Day)

Corporate pop music’s 21st century message to young women is easy to parse: (1) you are great just the way you are (you are beautiful, no matter what they say!); and (2) you can achieve anything you desire (you are a firework!). You are an amazing being of unlimited potential–a perfect, undetermined sort capable of perfect choice. This is called “empowerment.” But only three score ago, in the mid-1950s, Doris Day was singing to her young daughter: I don’t know if you’ll be “pretty” or “rich.” Indeed, I know nothing about your future, which is absolutely sealed (both opaque and certain). You may wind up in the gutter, or you may die young. It’s possible that there won’t be a “rainbow” in the sky tomorrow, which tinges the trax with Cold War anxieties (the Soviets had tested their first H-bomb in 1953). The phrase, “que sera sera,” is polyglot, and finds first use in English as a sixteenth century heraldic motto, forecasting, at least, a certain shielded defensiveness.  In short, and “tenderly,” “what will be will be,” and you can’t fight the future. The (tauta)logic is unimpeachable: tomorrow, one can always claim that “what will be” was. At the joining of such faulty realism and our own fantasies of empowerment, however, there must remain fate and chance, entwined, each the condition of the other’s possibility.

 

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“Chances Are” (Johnny Mathis)

With(holding). Ominous, wide vibrato reinforces singer’s ability to control the appearance/timing of chance. The doubled governance (and omission)—”chances are your chances are awfully good”—holds the lover at bay. Suggestive hypnosis and (tepid) confirmation lyrical structure re-routes desire across smoothed out, gendered landscape: laying down some serious pavement.

 

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“Candy” (Morphine)

Nihilism has strange contents: assertion of material, spatial self and desire to dominate. Can be read as misogynist joke (candy land as sexual bait) and as warning (sex as desert that promotes solipsism.) Dirge-like swooning suggests the world stuck in this circuit.

 

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“Amen, Brother” (The Winstons)

Urgent, celebratory, and kinetic, this trax—the second most sampled in history—is trans-temporal, extending backwards and forwards. Most known as the vessel or container for the “Amen Break,” it’s also a participant in citation as well, incorporating musical figures from previous songs. This “groove robbing,” as Kodwo Eshun deems it, runs in a deeper, more sustained way than we’re led to expect, too. It goes back to “Amen!,” the gospel tune, which can possibly be traced back to The Presbyterian Hymnal. After that, things get murky. The key is whether we dutifully follow the tendency to work against the secularization of the song. After all, it is testimony. The Winstons’ addition, however, of “brother” in the title issues a challenge: must a profession of faith be directed infinitely outward or can it be shared, agreed upon, enjoyed while avoiding a consolidation into an aspirational grouping? Yes, but only if such an agreement eschews the power to confirm or elect.

 

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“Holy Ghost” (The Bar-Kays)

Staged as an alternative Pentecostal worship service, with the lover’s love (as language) containing the Holy Ghost. Perhaps it’s more a question of how such love can be transformative. It certainly has to do with voices/voicing, phrasing, and articulation–see the bass’ varied attacks and effects. It’s also about translation: a love that puts a “tremble” in the singer’s “talk.” (There’s no glossolalia or xenoglossy here. While we’re at it, there’s also no sense of baptism in the strict sense: there’s no “experience” of the lover/god, only their effects. And no trinity; only two multiplied by all potential listeners.) The lover “ought to be ashamed” of his/her power, but there’s no “in itself” here. Love/listening is between and referred, and nothing outside of this.

 

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