Music

Pop Is Pop

Flume, Charli XCX & A.G. Cook on set of the music video for “Boys” (2017).

YOU MIGHT NOT BE SURPRISED to learn that there are only four degrees of separation between Jacques Derrida and Charli XCX. The father of deconstruction and the atomic pop songstress form the ends of a chain held together by A.G. Cook of PC Music and Green Gartside of Scritti Politti. Cook, who produced XCX’s late 2017 “mixtape” Pop 2, has hailed Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 as an example of pop music taken to its “extreme,” a limit toward which he himself aspires. As evinced by its title, Pop 2, like Cupid & Psyche 85 before it, is all about popular music. Curiously though, there is no Pop 1—XCX and Cook made a sequel seemingly without precedent, pop squared and thus exponentially multiplied. The “extremity” in Scritti Politti that Cook picked up and elaborated on is the missing antecedent, hidden in plain sight.

Sometime in the early 1980s Gartside began keeping a notebook to assist him in his search for “ways of going on.” He had recently experienced a mental break, moved from London back to his childhood home in Wales, and become disillusioned with Scritti’s DIY, rough-hewn approach to their early singles. (Fittingly, the independent label Rough Trade released these records, while mass-market Virgin would take over for Cupid.) Gartside needed to find, as he would later sing on “Lover to Fall,” “a new hermeneutic . . . a new paradigm.”

Like nearly every other white British musician before him, Gartside found inspiration in black pop music, observing in his notebook that it was “interesting how the ontology of function, utility, signification, and meaning was thrown into a minor crisis by rhythm. Its topical use as a jamming phenomenon is considerable.” Rhythm and blues as philosophically motivated strategy, a pawn in the game of deconstruction. Fittingly, on “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)” (1984), an exquisitely crafted chanson about the ontological possibility of succeeding as a pop star that masquerades as a straightforward love song, the narrator admits that “each time [he] goes to bed / [he] prays like Aretha Franklin.” Instead of praying to “the queen of soul,” he imitates her, miming everything that he is not—black, a woman, an American—in an attempt to fully exploit the power of pop as a “jamming phenomenon.” The narrator, calling himself a “would-be,” acknowledges through this strangely tensed construction that he is not, nor will he ever be, the real deal. Nevertheless, “there’s nothing [he] wouldn’t take / oh, even intravenous” to fully inhabit the role, believing so faithfully that, as he admitted to Mark Fisher in 2011, “pop music was on the other side” of “the stuff that accorded with the unsettling of truth and the decentering of the subject and all of the binary oppositions that Derrida talked about overturning.”

Gartside’s aphoristic scribblings are tea leaves portending twenty-first century Poptimism. When he writes that “in pop music, we are dealing with a history of production that has made the improper proper,” he could have been describing Cook’s rise to the mainstream; when he describes the semiotic function of pop as a “code which no one can explain but everyone understands,” he anticipates arguments, contra Adorno, about pop music’s populist appeal as its source of political usefulness. The realities of life as a pop star, however, transformed Gartside from a theory-addled pop optimist into a victim of, in his own words, “brain damage from pop.” Gartside stopped writing in his notebook and thinking about theory in the mid-’80s, right as Scritti Politti began to top American and British charts. He made one more pop record, 1988’s Provision, threw out his continental philosophy, and retreated to Wales, where he spent the next decade thinking about epistemology and listening to rap.

Scritti Politti.

The reference points for “extreme pop” have changed dramatically since 1985, but some themes remain the same. XCX sings over production reminiscent of Migos or Playboi Carti, proving once again (as if anyone needed convincing) that black music pushes omnivorous pop forward. Instead of Gartside as an aspirational Aretha, on Pop 2 we have XCX channeling Britney—see track three, “Lucky,” as well as Meaghan Garvey’s insightful Pitchfork review—yet the obsession with divas of lore remains. “Femmebot,” the album’s sixth song, screams “Cyborg Manifesto!” at anyone who will listen—I find myself wondering whether Gartside read Donna Haraway before going cold-turkey on theory. Unlikely, I guess, as he is more concerned with “the word girl” than with any particular female-identifying subject.

The late, great, Mark E. Smith said it best: “God damn the pedantic Welsh.” Gartside, suspicious of confessional songwriting and fascinated by sample-based electronic music’s potential for exacting perfection, wanted Cupid & Psyche 85 to be “completely devoid of edges to catch on to other people’s experiences or expectations.” Pop 2, as its mirror image, is all violent shards of sound, fragmented voices, and myriad perspectives. The best pop, I think, is the immanent kind.

Canada Choate is a writer based in New York.

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