As you've likely recognised, this blog seems to be morphing into a bit of a place where I dump cursory, exploratory ideas about the nature of popular music, in some ways like a kind of archive of (attempted) theorisation, a sort of pile of scribbled (and scribbly) thoughts. I'd like to continue doing the whole journalistic, aesthetic rock-crit (pop-crit?) thing, alongside the occasional recommendation, but I can see this whole theory thing becoming a big part of (con)temporary. Following this...

After seeing Britney's "performance" at the MTV VMAs, I was struck with a question, one that had suggested itself before, but not as obviously as this: why do we need to critique popular culture when it regularly, constantly, critiques (or eats) itself? Further, can critical discussion only parrot what pop shows us and itself anyway? Are we simply describing pop's own critique? Is there a place for intervention?

This set of questions is obviously a significant one, one worthy of a lengthy, involved discussion, one that I can see taking place over this blog to some degree. Of course debate has been underway in academia for some time, and recently discussion, complex and sophisticated, is exploding in the blogging community. I mention this simply to stress that I'm not claiming that I am miraculously the first one to stumble across these issues - if anything I'm only replaying debates that have occured, there's probably a great number of spaces in this post that could be filled in with quotations - rather, I'm just offering my own thought on these issues.

As an initial response to these questions, my answer would probably be yes, we do still need to critique pop, whilst recognising that it is pop's nature to cannibalise itself. The challenge then, might not be to simply bring up examples of this tendency but to actually analyse this very dynamic, its parameters, politics and consequences. Of course this opens up a huge debate over the value of resistance from inside popular culture, questions of popular politics, and even the (im)possibility of theorising musical development. Whether you look at it with regards to a single case study (which many believe is the only viable way of approaching cultural phenomena and movement) or across a longer dynamic, historically or paradigmatically, is also a difficult choice.

Taking Britney's performance, we might analyse the nature of its 'failure' rather than just simply laughing at it (which is fun to do, anyway). There's heaps of things worth discussing here, two might be:

The way in which seeing this performance somehow retrospectively refracts all of Britney's past performances: it's as if by seeing this we realise that everything she's done before is just as 'inauthentic' (or 'staged') as this, but that it was just covered up slightly better. Like go back an watch any of her other videos and just try not be haunted by that image of her restlessly flicking her hair every ten seconds at the VMAs, an almost unequivocal signification of her complete unenthusiasm. Same goes for the lip-syncing thing (which we've seen many-a-time before).

Secondly, the way in which MTV utilised Britney's 'comeback' to generate hype around the VMAs; and conversely, the implicit use of the subsequently crap performance in differentiating ascendant pop stars. This bit here is crucial I think: pop often eats itself, playing on this discourse of authenticity vs inauthenticity, in order to constantly rewrite (and re-legitimate) the boundaries of what is 'authentic' (or even more generally, 'good'). This is implicit in the video of the performance which regularly flicks to developing, more image-controlled celebrities (Kanye and Rihanna - maybe not 50, we'll get to him soon...) with a bemused look of "this is crap" written across their faces. Arguably the whole 'function' (I'm aware using this word is problematic in relation to what could be an accident, nevertheless it seems like a manufactured one) of Britney's performance was simply to make these new versions look better, more in control.

It should be clear here that I'm suggesting there is gain (profit) to be made by the media industries in this (forced?) dynamic of pop eating itself, and if the Britney example isn't convincing enough, the very same event at which this occured offers another one for you - the highly contrived stoush between Kanye and 50 Cent over record sales. It's almost as if 50's 'gangsta' value is recognisably exhausted (which it is - just looking at that worried, furrowed brow on the cover of Curtis, says it all), and so this sinking ship is redeployed in order to boost record sales for Kanye. Sure this shit is fairly obvious, but it's worth thinking about nonetheless.

Up until now I've avoided questions of whether pop's critique of itself is valuable, and its definitely not something I want to (ever?) conclude on, but just as a cursory comment I'd say there are certainly things to suggest it is. If we consider Beverly Best's argument that resistance "existing in clear-cut contradistinction from the dominant culture [is] no longer relevant" (regardless of whether you fully agree with such a contentious position), then we do need to consider the 'progressive' aspects of popular culture's engagement with itself. What I'm suggesting here, is that, broadly speaking, even though the cannibalising dynamic which has arguably operated across the entire span of twentieth and twentyfirst-century music is often a strategy for profit, it also propels and provokes a constant aesthetic rewriting which itself can be broadly seen to push the limits of culture in general, and music specifically. Calabrese does a great job of theorising something resembling this dynamic in his conception of the space of culture as a sphere, the limits (borders) of which are pushed and/or exceeded by various cultural phenomena. There's an argument to be made that, by maintaining such self-referentiality and self-critique, pop continually expands the cultural sphere of possibilities of expression.

As for an aesthetic evaluation of this process, that's a whole other issue, which inevitably brings in notions of kitsch, history, serialisation, reproducibility, originality, and dozens of other concepts that I'm not going to even bother trying to consider for now. All I'll say with on that part, though, is watch this, and tell me that internal critique and something artistically valuable can't merge:

And that will do for the meta discussion, congratulations to those still reading.

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