Sunday, 28 October 2012

Lethem, J. (2012) Fear of Music, London: Continuum

(This review is in Metapsychology Online here.)

Fear of Music’ is the name of the third album by the US post punk, funk band Talking Heads and it is also the name of the American novelist Jonathan Lethem’s book about it, which sits in the Continuum series on pop music: 33 1/3.

What should we expect from writing about pop music? Is it as misguided a venture as is implied by analogy (attributed to Frank Zappa) ‘dancing about architecture’ cited here [Lethem 2012: 33]. How can writing, or analysis, relate to the simple joy and potency of cheap music?

One approach is to tell us something about how the music was put together, the instruments used, and perhaps the cultural influences or sources buried beneath the lyrics but nevertheless imprinted in the song writer’s intentions. Such an approach might aim at a kind of explanation of the music. It would also require a particular kind of authority over the facts from the author: an authority which the reader, ignorant of those hidden facts, may be in no position to challenge and has to take on trust. That is not what Lethem aims at here.

Instead, his account is a ‘reading’ of the music, concentrating mainly on the words but not ignoring the score and instrumentation, which stands or falls by its appeal to the reader. The truth or correctness aimed at lies in the account of the surface of the music (deep though that can be as the expression of human emotion can be both visible in the surface of human behaviour whilst still having depth) not the hidden background of pop music technology, or pop political shenanigans. Lethem offers a way of attending to the songs which makes a more or less coherent account of everything, including some of the difficulty of the album achieving coherence and hence the difficulty for Lethem’s account itself succeeding in joining all the dots.

Such an approach, though, may not appeal to all and a couple of representative disappointed reader reviews of the book on the Amazon website seem to me to be almost exactly right about it except that they want, I want to say, the wrong thing.

‘This book is not a story of the making of the rather superb Fear of Music album. Rather it is the author’s love affair with that album and relating his boy in the bedroom experiences... throughout. Each song is de-constructed chapter at a time...There is no research into the making of the record really. No illuminating insights into the process. Just a 140 page essay on the albums effect and impact on the listener.’

‘One of the worst in the series. No insight into the making of the music. Simply the author’s masturbatory ramblings and self-satisfying hyperbole. It would have been nice to include a few quotes from the band on the actual making of the record. Skip this one altogether. A total waste of a read.’

There is indeed no research into the making of the record, if but only if that necessitates historical inquiry and quotations from the band members on the actual making of the record. But there is painstaking research into the record if that involves, as the same reader admits, a deconstruction of it song by song. All depends on what research should be taken to involve. But what it should be so taken is not, it seems to me, easily settled by the nature of research, punkt. It is a matter of context. Nor does not mean that research understood as itself contextually invariant merely has to take account of the context of what is researched. What counts as the proper aims and methods of research of a discipline is a matter for local debate. Lethem’s short account of Fear of Music makes a good case for his model to be the right one for works like this for one over-arching reason. Reading the text makes one want to re-engage with the music.

Writing about music need not be like dancing about architecture if the latter is supposed to illustrate a kind of incoherent interaction of forms. (It would be rash, however, to stipulate that dancing about architecture must fail to resonate or even to fail to resonate to precisely architectural forms. Such stipulation would fail to take account of the insight of the resolute reading of the later Wittgenstein. But I assume that the aim of the metaphor, at least, is clear.) Lethem’s book is not a substitute for the music but neither is it entirely parasitic on it (as a dry account of the instruments used on each track and their electrical or financial properties would be). Rather, it presents an account that aims at a synoptic presentation whilst inevitably failing to address some aspects of the character of the whole.

To give the plot away, the key idea is that Fear of Music presents its many titular nouns from the songs – including some starkly single examples such as ‘mind’, ‘cities’, ‘air’, ‘heaven', ‘drugs’ – as objects of scrutiny. ‘Like a high school social studies teacher chalking a heading on a blackboard, the song titles function as “topics for discussion”. [ibid: 8] In each case, however, the songs highlight a kind of disaffected state of underlying anxiety, or fear, that the singer or listener does, or should, feel. Though named ‘fear of music’, the fear is all pervasive. ‘Like Mister Spock freshly landed on a strange new planet, we can use Fear of Music like a tricorder, to dissect the novelty and danger residing in things we take for granted , but shouldn’t’ [ibid: 16]

One song, however, resists this interpretation: the first song, ‘I Zimbra’. But this, Lethem suggests, does not undermine the general thrust of the album. Rather, through its nonsensical lyrics drawn from a Dadaist poet (Hugo Ball), it suggests modesty, caution, or even fear itself as the ‘method’ elsewhere: the rational discussion of the topics to come. This song finds even the assumptions of access to meaning and authorial presence made elsewhere in the album doubtful.

Does Lethem succeed in offering a coherent reading of the entire album? Perhaps. I need to listen again. He even offers a breathless phrase per song which offers a flavour of how the thesis is unpacked song by song.

But wait, wait, what does “Drugs” mean? We’re so near the end, let me try shuffling this tarot deck once more: “I Zimbra” (no-mind, non-sense), “Mind” (not a working number), “Paper” (old methods doubtful), “Cities” (flea, dance), “Life During Wartime” (quit dancing, find barricades), “Memories Can’t Wait” (party and war are in your mind), “Air” (no release on earth), “Heaven” (release from mind only in death), “Animals” (no dignity in bodily release), “Electric Guitar” (doubt rock) - so, does “Drugs” counsel a mixed state of happy impurity and ecstatic surrender on temporary organic terms? Conclusion: Fuck up the mind. [ibid: 134]

Without the slow build up to this overview, I risk, in quoting it, alienating potential readers. And I should further report that not everything in the book is successful. The reference to the author’s younger self (which permits a distinction between what the author now knows and what he first thought and enthusiastically experienced) palls and sometimes the writing itself is just too mannered. But, at the very least, the readings take one back to the music, to the interplay of lyrics and guitar work. I have not enjoyed Fear of Music as much, either when listening to it, or merely through its contemplation as an idea, so much in years.