Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Why Ben's Wrong, or, How I Learned To Love St Etienne

I was chatting to Benjamin and @Pangalactic this morning about summery music: he's listening to Dodgy, the kind of wet hippy hack music he normally teases me for liking. So I suggested St Etienne instead. Big mistake:
St. Etienne are in my top ten worst bands. Soulless, joyless, dinner table dance by numbers.
So naturally I responded by reaching for critical theory and adding New Order to the list. Because I'm kind of pompous that way.
I've always seen them as a meta-critique of soulless dance. Hence their cover of Only Love Can Break Your Heart. 
Like New Order. Using the techniques of those cultures to both critique and improve on them.

Again, a red rag to a bull.
I hate New Order too. No soul. No joy. You react intellectually to music, I react emotionally.
and from @pangalactic:
unfortunately their meta-critique of soulless dance produced the same utter rubbish
(That bit's wrong: I react emotionally and intellectually to music). So we had a discussion about whether being boring is ever intellectually or artistically justified. I pointed out that Henry James is deliberately boring quite a lot: very long sentences which leave the reader struggling for comprehension and a break, as a way of reproducing the ways we really think and speak, rather than in beautifully-constructed aperçus.

All in all, a very enjoyable morning's teasing. But I've thought about this before, and I'm right (surprisingly). As far as I understand them, St Etienne's musical style communicates a deadpan detachment from emotional commitment. It's not accidental: I think it's a critique of a society predicated on surface and simulation, as Baudrillard puts it. I think you have to get hold of this, and then realise that there is symbolic exchange (i.e. meaningful emotional content) in their songs, but it's harder to detect because their core subject is the alienation inherent in urban consumerist capitalist culture. Which is why one of their earliest songs was a cover of Neil Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart', which is either a satire of hippy solipsism or a lament for the damaging effects of narcissism.

St Etienne's dance-oriented cover updates these sentiments for the E generation, in which a starter drug provided emotional experiences otherwise denied a generation atomised by capitalism.

They're not alone. The genius of bands like the Stereolab (Franco-British marxist dance), Pet Shop Boys (particularly focussed on gay culture and suburban isolation), Kraftwerk (post-war German techno-fascism and the new state as a 'machine for living in') and New Order is that, like St. Etienne, they reproduce the limitations of postmodernist alienation while suggesting that hidden within it are the seeds of emotional and artistic recovery.

They've all learned from the minimalist classical composers that authenticity and organic art is no longer possible, but also no longer important: symbolic exchange is still available, but in the gaps, if you listen hard enough - just like in real life, and unlike the production-line pop which wears its heart on its sleeve without the slightest trace of sincerity. They're having it both ways: using the tools of shiny postmodern pop both to critique and reconstitute it aesthetically.


Benjamin Judge said...

OK. So take the Pet Shop Boys. All of their music does what you are talking about, but only some of their music is good. It follows, does it not, that critiquing consumerist culture does not, in itself, make something good.

Your argument is basically that if you are clever enough, "if you listen hard enough" you can see what St. Etienne are doing. (and, in return, if you are moved by production line pop you have in some way been duped, because authenticity is "no longer possible" - therefore your emotional response is fake.)

This is quite a neo-religious reaction to music. If there is no god then any reaction to music is authentic beause it is a chemical process free from any spiritual aspect. Far from nothing being authentic, everything is authentic. To search for meaning in a godless society is nonsense, but so is to claim hierarchies of exchange. All emotion is equally valid.

Oh, and St. Etienne are like well bollocks innit.

The Plashing Vole said...

I don't think I was making a binding argument applicable to all music, or even all music by every band.

And obviously it's true that music by people of whose politics I approve can be bad music. Hello, Blaggers ITA.

I don't think emotional responses to cynical music are fake - I just think the listener's been short-changed and conditioned when they are capable of getting greater emotional fulfilment from better music. I know this is very Frankfurt School, but that's how I roll.

Phil said...

Nah - Ben's right. St. Etienne really are awful. And Dodgy are ace. Sorry mate.

...Although you were spot on about Spiritualized, if that's any consolation.

Jim said...

Vole, this reminds me of the time you printed off the entire UN Declaration of Human Rights in an attempt to win an argument that had finished...

However, "Staying out for the Summer" rivals Cast's "Finetime" and anything by Reef as the shittest song most likely to ruin your indie night 1995.

The Plashing Vole said...

Jim: right on all points.

Phil: you recommended the Dodgy singer's solo gig. I should have disembowelled you for that. Posh bloke with new synthesiser = hours of hell.

Anus Horribilus said...