Pop Music Where? Part 1

Semiotics in the Flesh

published in Virgin Press No.20, Melbourne, 1982

In August this year, Sydney played host to the 2SM Rock'N’Roll Eisteddfod. According to the dictionary, an Eisteddfod was a public session of Welsh bards (minstrels) held in Wales. It's one of those words that you never really find out the meaning of though you come to recognize what its current useage refers to. The 1982 Rock'N'Roll Eisteddfod was something like a surreal combination of a school sports carnival and Countdown. To every school kid involved in the Eisteddfod, the relevance to Welsh bard sessions would no doubt be lost in history. Indeed, such a connection remains lost to me.

My initial encounter with these Eisteddfods happened in August this year when through strange circumstances I came to replace Lynda Nutter of the Dugites on the judging panel of Heat 3 as she fell ill on her night of judging, The judging panel consisted of David White (music programming director of radio 2SM); Ralph Kerle (associate director from the Sydney Theatre Company, which was offering a six month "scholarship" to the most promising and theatrically inclined individual from over the four heats); and two guest celebrity judges.

Needless to say, the 2SM Rock'N’Roll Eisteddfods are public events that sail assuredly on the cultural mainstream. Needless to say, also, that I (by comparison lurking around in subcultural backwaters) was confronted with aspects of the effectuation and generation of popular culture that 1 have theorized about, but had never encountered in such force.

In fact, my writing about the Rock'N’Roll Eisteddfod (and other peculiar social events, instances and conventions in forthcoming issues) is based upon the notion (the belief) that "critical distance" is a limp tool for theoretical practice if is without the reinforcement gained from exposing its vulnerability (its nature as a problematic) to a social reality comprised of a multiple of cultural contexts. Let us look at two polarized examples from the Eisteddfod that give rise to what has come to represent and consolidate (at this time) two major ways of dealing with (consuming, digesting, regurgitating, excreting) what 1 would term the "language" of Popular Culture. And it is upon this very idea of "Language" (what does popular culture mean, say, cause, relay, imply, effect, etc.) that polarization hinges.

Consider two figures from the history of Pop music used in the Eisteddfod: Elton John and the Human League. Two medleys: “Funeral For A Friend"/"Candle In The Wind" and five or six songs from the "Dare" album. Almost instantly, the mind can spew forth an endless list of differences between the two – a list that is generally silent in form, only given a voice through deliberate (forced) analysis. Differences that are numb from an unforgiving complexity and dumb to hierarchical organization. Some of the primary differences determined essentially by this current point in time and history would be: 70's/'80's; pre-Punk/post-Punk, old product/new product; analog/digital, then/now; old audience/ new audience; etc. Of course, it is the "now" that is the condition of dependence for these differences, but it is also the "now" that forms an eternally evaporating foundation for such a process of differentiation. In other words, Elton John is only "old" because of (things like) the Human League, and the Human League are "new” because of (things like) Elton John.

On a more complex level, there are differences at work that are not to do with simply delineating a present context for terms of differentiation. Other differences and oppositions are derived from the nature of quotation employed in the songs themselves. The central` songs to each of the medleys- – "Candle In The Wind” and "Don't You Want Mc" – are involved in radically opposed methods and ideas as to (i) how a Pop song can refer to a preceding history of popular culture, and (ii) how a Pop song as a text (a constructed body of meanings) and a product (an economic commodity) can relate to the notion of popular culture as a language. The fundamental split between "Candle" and "Want" is centred on the mythological level that their content is derived from, and the consequent position that the songs take in relation to the interpretation and composition (the "reading" and “writing) of popular culture. Basically, both songs deal with what could be called the reality of mythology. “Candle" perceives this reality to be part of the greater philosophical notion of "Reality" while "Want” acknowledges that the reality of,mythology is in fact just another myth. Time for some hearty dissection.

Elton John purports to (romantically) lay bare the myth of Marilyn Monroe, piercing it with the melancholy and tragic reality of "the girl behind Marilyn Monroe – Norma Jean". The fact is that such a song is part of a historical tradition ideologically manufactured within the realm of Hollywood's awesome dream factory – the myth of the tragic figure of the ‘real persona' behind the manufactured star. The '70s solidified Marilyn Monroe into the crystalline example of this particular myth. Elton John joins the long queue (that extends into the '80s) of a continual re-writing and re-fictionalizing of the Marilyn Monroe mythology

It is important to realise, though, that what all those in this queue have in common is a pretence or allusion to a revelation of reality (not fiction) through a self-effacing mode of writing, where the present of the writing invokes ignorance to its own mythologization. “Candle” works on a desire to make us ponder upon what is ultimately an imaginable reality that is underpinned by the Marilyn Monroe myth. It is intended that we almost pass through the song, beyond it's writing, into the realm of its semantic communication. A realm where we 'find out what the song's all about'.

The Human League do not even recognise the phenomenal nature of a myth. Their source of myth in “Want” is in fact an object (a text) of myth: a constructed piece of writing that, by virtue of it being a named object, is a specific and particular part of an existing mythological chain. “Don't you want me” is simply (though nevertheless complexly) a re-writing of “A Star Is Born”, with perhaps more references (stylistically) being accorded to the Garland/Mason version than, either the Streisand/Kristofferson or Gaynor/March versions. Here too is another Hollywood myth: that of the torment and pressure behind the scenes in an entertainment industry.

However, the Human League has no desire to expose, express or tell of the 'reality’ of that myth. Instead they 'quote' (in the most fundamental sense of the word) a pre-existing cultural component. One textual product begets another. Another queue is formed but Elton John is not in this one. This queue is made up of voices that do not say or speak things in such a direct way. The Human League do not really say anything that was not already said in one way or another by or in “A Star is Born”.

In this sense, the content of "Want" stretches backwards into infinity – back to the hypothetical instance of when what is said in "Want” was first ever said. Elton John, on the other hand, "speaks" in his song. He (the writer, the voice of the song, its author) speaks of this exposition of myth, of the reality constituted by the song and defined through poetic justice. The short and long of it is that Elton John says something through denying everything; the Human League says nothing through admitting everything. These are the current two major ways (in a generalized form) of dealing with the language of popular culture.

But-the complication of matters does not end here. The further irony is that these songs and figures within the context of the Rock'n'Roll Eisteddfod exhibited their conflicting natures through their theatrical presentations. The school who put on the Elton John medley staged their production in the manner and mode of Elton John's writing, and the same applied to the other school in relation to the Human League. The former involved a very theatricalized presentation, complete with overtones and shades of Shakespearean tragedy, while the latter incorporated a multimedia presentation and fractured narrative that was ten times more exciting than seeing the actual Human League perform their own songs at the Palais Theatre!

The nature of the approach to writing utilized by "Candle” is historically validated – it stems from a tradition of literature and poetry, where notions (problems) of authorship, expression, craft and talent are all knotted into such an incredibly thick and tight knot that there appears to be a solid foundation for critical evaluation and broad interpretation. The whole idea of quotation as used (whether deliberately or not) in “Want" is of a more complex and perplexing nature that is not (yet) historically validated (assessed, justified and sanctioned) and that will prove to be problematic for some time to come. Subsequently, the theatrical representations of these two two medleys bore out the absence (Elton John) and the presence (Human League) of problematics in the way in which theatre (in its historically determined state of being in the Present) deals with the language of popular culture. The Elton John presentation involved a very basic translation of literary craft into stagecraft. The Human League presentation involved an (effectively) confused translation of cultural quotation into a play with images. A manipulation of meaning (Elton John) as opposed to a manipulation by meaning (Human League). The latter involves the loss of artistic control and authorised power, the former deludes us with such things. Here arises what is generally recognized as the difference between “speaking” and "being spoken": not a linguistic paradox but a cultural criterion. The point is that the Elton John production was a dense jumble of gesture and narrative that managed to construct a thin veneer of intended or supposed meaning on top of a mythological cess pool. Its communication, then, was determined by a surface reading directed at and derived from an almost religious adherence to the principle of gleaning meaning through authorship. The Human League production, conversely, was crystal clear in its muddy and inaccessible multiplicity. Where it celebrated the polysemic nature of its mythology (of stage, song, fiction and image), the Elton John production suppressed it. Understandably enough, too, the Elton John production got much higher marks (in fact, it won its heat) than the Human League production, in what was really a conventional and impotent judging panel. Even the actual marking categories (creativity, presentation, originality, song choice, etc.) prescribed a value system and criteria for judgment, one that would inevitably place Elton John, his songs and relative productions "above" (more historically valid than) the Human League, their songs and relative productions.

The Rock 'M Roll Eisteddfod itself seemed to deny its very place within society – i.e. the convening of a wild spectrum of cultural, technological and media contexts. (Perhaps this is the connection with Welsh bard sessions that has been last in history?) Such an event is concrete proof of the multiple nature of history, in that the interpretation and composition of images within the productions were resultant from a consumption through assault from all aspects of media: radio, television, magazines, album covers, newspapers, statistics, records, posters, advertisements, biographies, interviews, photographs, film clips, products, etc. etc. etc. Some of the productions were straight stagings of the narrative images from film clips. Other productions were original theatrical scripts to songs for which there had been no film clips. Still other productions used conventions and tactics from television (as opposed to theatre) to write a presentation for a particular song. And, of course other productions were no more than boring theatrical stage presentations. In my estimation it was usually fairly obvious which productions were directed by teachers and which productions were suggested by the students themselves.

The most incredible thing is that, generally, any school kid's input to such productions would be based upon an almost total lack of conscious knowledge of traditional and professional theatre craft and theory. Through such a state of affairs, the Rock’n’Roll Eisteddfod provided (unwittingly and without recognition) what could most probably represent an avant-garde of theatre practice, i.e. an approach based not on a history of (specifically and solely) theatre, but an approach based upon a position of being lost in the cultural void of now. A void where a single field (such as theatre) holds no hierarchical power. A void that generates disembodied meaning.

The Eisteddfod productions were living constructions of dense quotations from all aspects of popular culture – media, history, ideology, etc. An important thing to note, though, is that these productions. these networks of quotated meanings, were organized in a way that defies traditional interpretation and reading. They simply vomit back culture the same way culture vomits itself onto us every moment of everyday. The whole artifice of artistic creativity and construction (ideologically prescribed requirements for "good art, "accessible entertainment” and “worthwhile productivity”) is drowned out by the noise of culture. Productions of songs like "Hotel California", "Bad Girls", "At the Copa Cabana", “Another One Bites The Dust”, “The Model”. "Jail Break” – instantly conjured up babbling histories of image and meaning. Politics, social codes, sexuality and morality performed a frenzied, mutated dance. The audience went wild – high on ignorance, oblivious to the currents and charges of meaning that gave energy to the semantic and narrative core to each production. Such is the nature of the language of popular culture: it remains unspoken yet the power of its voice is awesome.

All I can hope is that the Rock'N'Roll Eisteddfods will come to Melbourne so that more people are able to get in touch with what could be described as a Carnival of Now. It is such a place that we can realize and encounter a heart of social conditioning, the playground of ideological determination, the black hole of culture. It must be remembered that meaning is a form of energy: it cannot be destroyed, only transformed. Quotation, in this light, is part of the whole process of energy transference of cultural flow. Inasmuch as energy came/comes from nowhere/everywhere, so does each and every aspect of the communicative base of our everyday transactions, the language of our existence.

Events like the Rock'N'Roll Eisteddfods afford us the reality of mythological representation as opposed to the illusion of artistic statement. To me, their penultimate description would be "semiology in the flesh" – the presence of culture is so strong you could almost touch it. Unlike things like “New Faces" or “Young Talent Time", the Rock'N'Roll Eisteddfod presented “raw"(unmediated by media controls and prerequisites) examples of the effect of popular culture upon itself. The Eisteddfod productions were sloppy, confused, incoherent, overloaded, amateur – but they were living, breathing specimens of how culture constructs and conveys meaning.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.