I have never been to America, and I can’t tell you which are my favourite standardised musical goods
- debbie ding
Things are still so new that I can count them in terms of weeks. This is Week 6 of my PhD Studies!
What has been on my mind this week? Well, besides attempting to do my own literature review for my own PhD, as part of the coursework I spent the first month of my PhD reading a whole lot of general theorectical texts: largely older American cultural studies on art, experience, culture and society – some of which might be useful in an academic “build on the research of others, cite an old white person’s definition before I tell you my own readings of it” point-of-view. Dewey, Lippmann, Carey, Cooley, etc.
I get the sense that this systematic survey we have embarked on is basically kinda like a taster of the US PhD system in the arts and humanities (definitely a reflection of our prof’s lived experience in the US) – very orderly and systematic study – contrasted with the European PhD system in the arts and humanities which takes a more laid back and more associative approach to forming these connections.
So although it was a real schlep to be asked to take notes on every reading I was doing at first, these were quite useful to refer back to as compared to my incomprehensible annotations on PDFs. And I mean, I enjoy getting to make notes – I’m in school again! I am grateful for the luxury at my age to be allowed to spend all this time studying!
In terms of the coursework, we’re also turning the corner into slightly more familiar territory for me – european critical theory. I also have to acknowledge the fact that somehow I have lived my life rather merilly unaware of the American perspective: there are different flavours to “westernisation”, and my world-view has been (selectively?) euro-centric.
If you were in Singapore studying English Literature then this would mean that you specifically studied a lot of BRITISH literature between 1700 to 1900s and postcolonial literature (still somehow tinged or coloured by that worldview). Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe this was the design of the curriculum. Then for some bizarre reason I decided to do my undergrad research on Bataille (who yes, originally wrote in French). I did residencies in Paris and Berlin, travelled to Venice and around Europe, spent quite some time living in London… the US has somehow slipped through my fingers…
So… I’m sorry America, I don’t know very much about you firsthand except from TV shows (Seinfeld? Orange is the New Black?) and movies (which admittedly, I can’t even really say I watch that much of), and so my understanding of the US is like someone trying to play a beautiful orchestral symphony on a trumpet, but really loudly and badly distorted.
I wonder how I can correct this blindspot of mine…
To speak of music, something that I quite enjoyed reading this week was the Adorno’s writing on the fetish character of music.
When I started this blog, I thought to myself that maybe I should also write a few music reviews on the side, to enrich my so-called “writing diet” by forcing myself to write about more things. But despite my many musical interests, I seem to have a complicated problem with music and I felt that flexing my so-called “musical tastes” today would be nothing more than an exercise in futility, not creativity.
Adorno describes it as “standardised musical goods“. When you listen to music on the radio, you do not get to discover new music there, only more standardised units of music being served to you by the music industry. The problem is that when we bond over being fans of an album, we are not bonding over the music, we are bonding over the imagined intellectual or social status that comes with liking that music. If I were to trace back, I think I first became aware of this when I read Kelvin Tan’s coming of age novel, “All Broken Up and Dancing” (1992) when I was in secondary school – I must have bought it from the second hand bookstore in Marine Parade after school.
I don’t have the book with me now to verify the storyline but the way I remembered the novel was that it was also set in a Singaporean secondary school where the character struggles with not fitting in with his peers – the main character had a ridiculous western name (which many people have here anyway, something like Brinsley or Maximillius or Adonysius) and also had very Specific Musical Tastes, something like Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, Fiona Apple and Red House Painters or something along those lines, everyone made cruel fun of him speaking in the way that he did (“why do you have an ‘accent’ if you have never left the country?”), and liking these specific bands (“why not xinyao? is that too plebian for you??”), his teenage problem of thinking of himself as special and wanting to be free, and wanting to get out of Singapore (“but you’ll never escape your identity as a boring pretentious Singaporean. Nooooooooo!”)
[I should stress that I do not have the book with me but this is what little impression I still have of reading it back then. Perhaps I am projecting…]
It was funny because I knew people from school who liked these exact same bands – Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, etc. Somewhere in my teen years I decided I had a mission to listen to every genre of music from the heaviest music to the most minimal of music. I would refer to different music genre visualisation maps online and soon I realised I could look at the visual map of bands in Last.fm and use that to predict what bands someone else would like based on what they said they like.
If someone told you they liked Nick Drake, you could quite reliably tell that they would like Jeff Buckley. If someone said they liked Boards of Canada, they probably liked Aphex Twin too. This had nothing to do with music. It was as if we were all so predictable, and musical taste was ultimately nothing about individual tastes or even interest in music. It was simply that we consumed the same old units of popular contemporary music that were made commonly available to a young person like ourselves (anyone remember Tower Records at Pacific Plaza? Or Gramophone?), and wanted to find a community of other young people gathering around those units of music…
The result? Many years down the line? Now I am reduced to a state in which I cannot listen to any music seriously.
Now I can only listen to parodies of pop music which is already self-aware of its total artificiality. Now if you ask me what is my favourite musician or music genre, I probably have to leave the building. And as I go, I’ll be shouting, “ENJOY YOUR SUPERVISED ROUTINES, SUCKERS! Our so-called collective “enjoyment” of contemporary music is the ultimate in fetishistic interpassivity!”
[Despite my conflicted feelings towards music, I obviously still hold much optimism in the possibility of making real art and culture and ultimately music as well. But how do we reconcile the possiblity of creative practice with the fetishisation of art and technology?… More in the next week’s post, I guess?]