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.