“Au clair de la lune” (fragment) (Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville)

The earliest playable sound recording is this phonautogram of 9 April 1860–played back for the first time in 2008 through the miracle of the First Sounds collective. This trax consists of the first ten words of an eighteenth-century folk song (and sometime lullaby) intoned very slowly and as carefully as possible: “Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot, prête moi—” (“By the light of the moon, my friend Pierrot, lend me…”). If M. Scott had not run out of recording space, the commedia dell’arte trickster figure Harlequin would have gone on to tell his “friend” that he’s searching for a pen and a light, so that he might make a record of his thoughts. Pierrot rebuffs him and sends him to his neighbor. In the final verse, the search for implements transmutes into a discovery of the shaft (la plume indeed) and eros (le feu) with the aid of the girl next door, and the trickster beds down Pierrot’s beloved. Much as in the long version of Kenneth Anger’s film, Rabbit’s Moon (1972), Harlequin teaches Pierrot braided lessons on desire, deceit (double entendres), and inscription/reproduction (the apparatus). The song operates, then, as a metacritique regarding the mimetic and psychological limits to Scott’s labors. Relatedly, the trax ends with an open-ended “lend me,” implying, at minimum, some form of outside supplement to reproduction. An ear, perhaps?


Scott’s phonautograms can be heard at: http://www.firstsounds.org/sounds/scott.php

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“Ascension Day” (Alphaville)

While others develop, seek out, or endure for a future salvation, what posture should be assumed? The other kinds of engagement build living “nightmares,” ranging from colonization to self-monitoring to sexual quietism. In these “times of terror and pain,” this trax advocates giving in to “temptations” as long (as they last) and stepping on the necks of the “meek.” With so much focus on experience(s), it’s not too much of a stretch to think this will all end badly—with a libertarian bent and superior sneer. There are no border police here, though, and you can “send in” anyone you want to protect hegemony. Being with “fools” and “whores” an antidote to the “torture and fame” of sinning, fueling a life on provisional but indefinitely renewable “dreams.”


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“Yankee Dollar” (Lord Invader)

Henry C.K. Liu: “World trade is now a game in which the US produces dollars and the rest of the world produces things that dollars can buy.” Liu dates this to Nixon’s breaking of Bretton Woods, but Lord Invader forecasts the coming storm in 1946: the girls in Port-of-Spain “will tell you plainly/They love Yankee money.” Singer states this not as a rebuke of such impossible desires (after all, what is the simple alternative?), but when only the dollar matters, one might hear currency imperialism in action, in the flat notes (little green ones, which leave the Caribbean flat broke).


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“Brazil” (Esquivel)

Concrete/ambient tour of the city street, and of the many bar bands which each play a variant of the self-tropicalization standard, “Brazil.” This is, then, Esquivel’s take on the figure of the flâneur, or walker in the city. Baudelaire, for example: “His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.” Esquivel charts the stakes of this desire to fuse into community and registers its necessarily violence in the club fight which erupts at the end of the track. Which doesn’t have to amount to the retrograde Benajamian position on the crowd or the mob: “Brazil,” it’s clear, is each time different (musically multiple and variegated, “within” itself).


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“Old Age Pension Check” (Roy Acuff)

The invention of social security “turned this country upside down.” All forms of needless striving dissolve: “drug stores will go bankrupt,” because people will feel well, and women will no longer need “cosmetics” to lure a husband. The attempt, today, to privatize the system is premised on our interest to “own” our own future; concerning this, Bush Redux says: “we’ve got to understand the power of compounding interest, the importance of savings, and the beauty of ownership in the American society” (3/1/02). But Acuff had hoped for a “second childhood” in which responsibility wasn’t premised on possession.  Otherwise, we’re all just going back to work (on our leisure).

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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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“Summertime” (Lena Horne)

Porgy and Bess opens with this lullaby, in which Clara’s child is lulled to sleep with promises of ease and security. In the context of the opera, we know that none of this is true: the craps game is about to begin, Clara will die, and the baby will be passed on to Serena. It will become just another child leading a life of danger and contingency on Catfish Row, staged within Gershwin’s sociological imaginary. But cut off from the larger work, and sung as a stand-alone standard, we can hear something else in “Summertime,” and it’s slightly more comical: eutopian plenitude (cotton and catfish, and generalized wealth) cannot prevent the intrusive, raw desire of a bawling infant (and praise be that, someday, it will be off on its own). Life itself interdicts its own perfection.

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“When You Wish Upon a Star” (Cliff Edwards)

A talking cricket convinces a sentient puppet that he can become human. But that’s impossible, we immediately protest; that can only come true in the movies. The cricket persists: “If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme.” The cricket espouses an art of im-possible aspirations: it cannot happen, but he will continue to act as if it might. In such struggle are born yet other possibilities.

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