Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Last Night a DJ Saved my Life

Here's an oldy-maybe-goody. I found this while I was poking around for something else. I recently mentioned the pivotal role of the VCR in our shift from the kind of capitalism that Marx wrote about to the spectacular economy (spectaclism) that Guy Debord wrote about. Girl Talk's Night Ripper, while certainly not the announcement of this shift, has been the best example of this shift.

That album continues to be an inspiration. Some dance albums date themselves, get tossed out, then reappropriated by the kids twenty years later (please, please, please: not all of you hipsters should be wearing skinny acid wash jeans, this is the lesson that your twenties will instill in you). But some dance albums tap into something...more. Now, a few years earlier there had been the Avalanches' Since I Left You, which is also an amazing album, and also chock-full of samples. But having a bunch of samples, that's not so unique. De La Soul was having problems with this when I was a kid.

In his book, Rhythm Science, Paul D. Miller (you might also know him as DJ Spooky) states, “Rhythm Science uses an endless recontextualizing as a core compositional strategy….” A very significant distinction is made here by Miller about the nature of virtue. The DJ is the music presented and in so being is able to bypass “the notion of ‘critic’ as an ‘authority’ who controls narrative, and to create a new role that’s resonant….”

This is a call for a re-sounding (in the nautical sense, plumbing the depths) of the individual-as-performer, very much a Deleuzean rhizomatic self, where the constant unraveling of the layers of who we think we are reveals no core self, no kernel of me-ness, only a constellation of relations. If this attempt at bypassing control (or creation) of the narrative others experience is going to work Miller’s rhythm science requires the understanding that, “Music like hip-hop and electronica is theatre – it’s about how people live the sounds they hear.” This is the distinction between being an authority and being authoritative and it is this distinction which forced the American Congress to discuss just what to do about Girl Talk and how to control culture by extension.

What was really amazing about Night Ripper was that it collapsed all of the music of my life, Boston from when I was a kid, Nirvana from my adolescence, and all the snap and crunk from when I was working in a restaurant kitchen. Everything all together all at once. It was so intoxicating. It was around this time that I saw Graham Parkes present his video essay on Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project. This was my introduction to the flâneur.

Benjamin didn't originate the flâneur, he appropriated it form Baudelaire. I like that word, appropriate. Baudelaire's world wasn't Benjamin's world, and so Benjamin had to make flâneur appropriate to his context. Where Baudelaire's flâneur was beginning to sense that art had yet to understand the city, Benjamin's flâneur was much more like how we see the revolutionary avant-garde of the 20th century: his flâneur was not simply a botanist of the city sidewalk, Benjamin's flâneur was stirring the stew - very actively critiquing and experimenting with the aesthetic experience.

Baudelaire described the perfect flâneur as one “[who] is like a mirror as vast as the crowd itself, or a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness, which with each one of its movements represents the multiplicity of life and the dynamic grace of all life’s elements.” As such, we experience through his film overlap and superimposition of all that has happened in this place, all at once. The effect is a delirium of being human in humanity. This is precisely the effect produced by Girl Talk’s album. Where the success of Benjamin's Arcades lies in its investigation of place-ness, Girl Talk’s album is successful by its investigation of time. Being a DJ, a rhythm scientist, is all about time-ing.

Nietzsche in his preface to The Birth of Tragedy, “This book should have sung.” This is what a good DJ is about – reading the crowd for the right tune to play next, the right context in which to insert another influence, and this is what a good philosopher does. The self-overcoming of nihilism may make the most sense in DJ culture, because a good DJ understands that playing the same track over and again, or simply going through what has been deemed au courant is equally as crushing to the party.

The DJ, to be the proper rhythm scientist, must be an authoritative performer rather than the authority figure. What kind of fun is the party if the person running the show is a cop? The DJ must learn something about overcoming the nihilism that comes with being 24 hour party people - to quote a recent Chemical Brothers song, "the pills won't save you now." Night Ripper is such a danceable album for the same reason that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra must dance: the self-overcoming of nihilism is best expressed in the affirmatory act of dance; that is, to will something eternally is to affirm all that has lead to this point, not simply to repeat ad infinitum. To successfully DJ one must note that distinction. The endless repetition of the same is the history of authoritarianism; the collapse of the history as only passing (the opening of today to those that are to come) is the way of the authoritative performer. Music is the ideal manner in which to transmit this truth.

The performance of this music is not only the performance of notes on a scale, but an opening to a discussion of what is worth transmitting in culture and this is made manifest by the virtuoso’s act (a virtuous action). Music performance bears a significant truth by being true to those that have come before and this musical truth continues to be truth-full if it is performed in a manner that can be trusted by those to come. This musical truth is the same truth of culture. The real absurdity of the current entertainment regime is their insistence that culture can be, like wind in a bag, controlled by their agents.

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