Saturday, June 30, 2007

Is This Love?

It’s not often that I go to clubs, for a cornucopia of reasons – disgusting music, overpriced drinks, fashion bitching, drunk teenagers, my own small-to-non-existent self-confidence – but I still like ‘dance’ music. The reason for the scare quotes is that I’ll dance to almost anything (The Fall, Scratch Acid, Gang Of Four, Etta James, Delta 5, The Birthday Party, minimal techno) except what other people dance to (very bad big beat/house/electro/nu-rave/etc.-whatever-you call-it-these-days). The fact is that I’m fascinated by the idea of the dancefloor, but disappointed by the reality, full of wankers as it is. Which is why the Italo-disco revival seems so attractive – seemingly brought into being by the same Optimo-and-thousands-of-beardy-hipsters axis that made ‘blog house’ the next big ding, it’s the complete inverse of that exercise in compression and eardrum-kicking: cool and propulsive where the other is just dumb and thrashing. It is also interesting that Italo came out of the same time period as post-punk/Industrial/No Wave – indeed, the two shared antecedents. But more on that later.
The most obvious work, looking at Italo, and, indeed, disco in general, is Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ – this bizarre meeting between this avatar of glamour and Giorgio Moroder, possibly the single most faceless man in music, supplying the endlessly-replicating motorik soundtrack, distorting and lengthening the voice on the obviously-orgasmic choruses. It seems like the soundtrack to a poptimist’s wet dream, a distillation of pure synthetic pleasure. In fact, if you look at it, disco seems like the perfect example of "consumption without expenditure", of pure pointless excess, the pleasure existing simply for the sake of existing. You could even go further: if Throbbing Gristle were the perfect embodiment of industrial capitalism – the death-drive made into sound – then disco is the embodiment of consumer capitalism. In consumer capitalism, the entire perpetuation of the system rests in ‘excess value’, in taking the worker into the system by making him/her a consumer; where before the bourgeoisie consumed the ‘surplus value’, now the entire economic system is geared toward production of this excess, consumption, production, etc. But whereas in normal consumer capitalism the consumer is prevented from pursuing pleasure too much by the economic imperatives of ‘survival’, with the excess being a nice treat they are encouraged to work to procure more of, ‘disco culture’ (Studio 54, the gay subculture of New York, etc.) takes this principle of the excess, the "accursed share" that Bataille wrote of, and ran with it, making it the "sovereign" purpose of life.


It seems kind of silly to simply describe people as if they were only functions of their economic system, but I’ve never quite been able to grasp the hedonist mindset. And in the case of modern-day hedonism, but especially that of the disco era, I find it difficult to see it any other way: in ancient cultures, hedonism was the function of a philosophic/religious imperative (Dionysian/Bacchanalian rituals, the Greek philosophers who pursued hedonism as a choice); now (and, indeed, in the late ‘70s), there is no God to give prerogatives; pleasure is now pleasure for the sake of pleasure. Which makes me wonder – why the problem? If disco culture is the end result of consumer capitalism, then why was it attacked?
In the late ‘70s, as we well know, the ‘disco sucks’ campaign attacked disco culture in a way that did little to hide its homophobic/racist basis. But importantly, it was also attacked for not fitting in to the existing culture – the pursuit of pleasure, after all, is defined by the fact that it is unproductive; the principle animating disco, and, indeed, as Simon Reynolds among others has suggested, all pop music, is essentially anti-social (disco merely takes the idea of ‘excess value’ to its logical conclusion.) Disco is almost like consumer capitalism’s bastard child, the fruit of its filthy ways it prefers not to acknowledge, the skeleton in its closet.
Actually, to a certain extent, the two reasons for its pariah status are entwined: disco culture would make a fine subject for a book of queer theory. Note that it was the rockist establishment – major-label, heterosexual, male, sporting Lynyrd Skynyrd moustaches and Stratocasters – that attacked disco in the first place; the future Reaganites listening to mainstream rockist radio would later nod sagely as he declared AIDS ‘God’s plague on gays’. It was the same rockist establishment that punk would attempt to destroy in 1976/77, and it’s interesting to note how intertwined the punk and gay subcultures were, especially in places like San Francisco and LA. OK then, so we see some similarities: both passive nihilist cultures, both pariahs cultures, both hedonist cultures.
We may well claim that this idea falls down at the fact that punks hated disco. Vehemently. In an article from Mojo magazine by John Savage (which I read when I first began listening to post-punk), he says that

"Where punk was in the world, engaged in the revolution of everyday life, disco was literally out of this world – remember all those space songs? If punk was aggressively straight, disco was hyper-gay. If punk was content-led, disco lyrics ranged from functional to non-existent. If punk was puritan, viewing sex as a bestial spasm, disco was hedonistic in milieu, sound and attitude."

But ultimately, the two have more in common than either would acknowledge. Of course, it took post-punk to reconcile the differences – Joy Division’s almost Italo propulsion on tracks like ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and ‘These Days’, the disco syn-drums on ‘Insight’; Cabaret Voltaire, The Normal (whose ‘Warm Leatherette’ was later covered by Grace Jones), and, indeed, Throbbing Gristle (on ‘United’); PIL (on ‘Swan Lake’ and numerous others); Essential Logic (‘Born In Flames’). There are loads of others you could add: Suicide, with their minimalist throb (though they were pre-punk, they did haunt the same NY art milieu as 99 Records, artists like Keith Haring, Basquiat, Kim Gordon); James Chance, who recorded a disco album under the name of James White And The Blacks; everyone on ZE Records such as Liquid Liquid and Was (Not Was); Arthur Russell; The Human League, Thomas Leer, Fad Gadget, etc., etc. Although they all had personal reasons, the main attraction of disco for post-punkers seems to have been its status as an anti-rockist music, but also the sense of joy it brought; as ‘77 drifted into ’78, and the Sex Pistols burnt out at the Winterland, punk had become too regimented, too white, a music of possibility turned into a music of stereotype; disco, along with dub, funk, jazz, androgynous Glam, and Krautrock (well, Can had a Japanese singer, and you can’t say Tago Mago isn’t just as rhythmic as disco), brought a touch of the Black Atlantic back to it; but equally, they seem to have understood that disco was a kindred music, an ally. Which leaves us with a bit of a problem.


In 1987, Mark Stewart, released Mark Stewart; the final track was called ‘Fatal Attraction’, and was, in the words of John Eden "an absolutely shocking mash-up of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, featuring deranged ranting from Mark, an outrageous version of the original bass-line, and some breathy female vocals." The refrain "contagious" links in to the paranoia of the beginning of the AIDS crisis. It seems like punk and disco have come full circle. The music of Kapital feeds into anti-capitalist protest. But is Stewart’s music thus tainted? I’m not so sure myself. (You can always justify it by the principle of détournement, but I’m not sure that’s entirely right in this case. Interesting, though.)
If capitalism runs on the mechanics of desire, then theoretically anti-capitalist music should critique that same mechanism; so, Joy Division, with their exhausted repetition and depressive negation-of-the-will, make one of the greatest cases against capitalism. But it’s a bizarre paradox that Pop should be used to produce its opposite; it’s tempting to see it as an unconscious choice Stewart wasn’t aware of, but I expect he was all too aware, just as Joy Division were aware that the syn-drums on ‘Insight’ came from novelty hits like Anita Ward’s ‘Ring My Bell’. There’s something else interesting here, though.
The history of gay culture seems to based on this one stereotype of the hedonist, the Bacchanalian adventurer; when Christianity represses homosexuality, it takes on a new quality, as an adventurer in forbidden love (so forbidden, in fact, there was no word for it until the nineteenth century, literally the ‘love that dare not speak its name’). It appears again and again – Wilde, Genet, Tennessee Williams (am I the only one who felt Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire was a closet case, especially in the Marlon Brando portrayal, tight white t-shirt and all?), and especially Kenneth Anger (who Simon Reynolds cites, again, as a prime example of a celebration of unearned pleasure); the entire romantic idea seems to suffuse the more debauched end of the disco era. Then, as disco peters out, Reaganism, crack and hip-hop setting in, there is a perceptible shift: as the Religious Right (supporting Reagan) declares AIDS a proper Biblical plague, it seems they were almost right. Strangely, this idea seems to me more interesting and appropriate than that of the Dionysian: that’s why I love Diamanda Galas’ Plague Mass and Biblical blues songs, why ‘Death Disco’ interests me more than disco. And this idea has popped up again recently, in Lee Edelman’s No Future (no, I haven’t read it yet – I had to quit my job a few months ago, so am in no position to buy books regularly) – the ‘queer’ as a lonely figure, condemned, squeezed out of society by disease, hatred and inability to conform to the ideal of love manufactured by the loci of power. Edelman maintains (according to my research) that due to the ‘queer’’s status as an outsider to the reproductive order of power, he/she is able to undermine it, to act as the greatest threat to it. This has only been furthered confirmed by the reaction to AIDS for the last twenty years from not only the Right but most of American and British society. Disco is the product of the mechanics of desire; the mechanics of desire bring forth poison and death. It’s there in the alienating noise that crowds Mark Stewart, the "deranged ranting" that covers ‘Fatal Attraction’. It’s here now in a generation drinking and fucking itself to death – the bastard children of Late Capitalism who’ve lost any will to understand what it is they’ve done and are doing. God help us.