PRINT December 1985


Beyond the grave, rock critic Theodor Adorno meets the Mekons.

IN MINIMA MORALIA (1951), which may be the gloomiest book ever written, Theodor Adorno described social totality as a system that “would suffer nothing to remain outside it,” and then went on to prove that nothing did—save perhaps the hopelessly feeble impulse to remain outside. All people, he insisted, generals and civilians alike, had become objects of history. There was no chance left to be a subject of history—to subjectively make it. Philosophy, once “the teaching of the good life,” had turned into pure method; there was no longer any good life to be taught, only production to be increased and repression to be managed. Facing the new postwar world, Adorno wrote as a bitter sentimentalist:

He who wishes to know the truth about life in its immediacy must scrutinize its estranged form. . . . To speak immediately of the immediate is to behave much as those novelists who drape their marionettes in imitated bygone passions like cheap jewelry, and make people who are no more than component parts of machinery act as if they still had the capacity to act as subjects, and as if something depended on their actions.

Thus Adorno set about his book of aphorisms: “If today the subject is vanishing, aphorisms take upon themselves the duty ‘to consider the evanescent itself as essential.’ ”

In the pop milieu today, the blinding illumination of rock megastars makes the evanescent not only inessential, but almost invisible. The network of communication that is the pop mainstream has expanded to the point where everyone feels he or she must occupy a place in it; in everyday terms, that means he or she must contrive a response to whatever megastar is currently the object of the network’s organization. The replaceable megastar, the replaceable number one, dissolves all other numbers. You sit watching a merry-go-round spin, and each time your eyes light on a single wooden horse, you believe with all your heart and soul that that horse is the only horse in creation: “All horses are white.” “All horses are black.” “All horses are zebras.” “All horses are frogs.” As an all-encompassing logical absurdity, it makes perfect social sense.

In the mainstream rock ’n’ roll of the mid ’60s you could hear an eagerness to reach other people. In present-day mainstream pop music you can hear a confidence that people will be reached. But reached with what? With a proof that people can be easily reached. The all-star jamboree of USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” was a structuralist’s dream, because its true content was structure itself: order. It brought new order to the pop world: quickly, one knew who counted and who didn’t. But it brought an even stricter order to the world at large. Bypassing its putative objects, the starving Africans, the performance completed a circuit that erased all differences between performers and spectators, objectifying both in the face of objective good. Through the simple act of buying the record, you, too, could become part of the world.

Of all the totalistic pop centers of the past two years—Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, “We Are the World”—Bruce Springsteen has worked hardest to resist the mechanism. If many of his songs are about people who have been turned into objects of history, the songs were written to remind a listener that those people could have been, should still be, subjects. Yet just as every record made today that is not patently aimed at the mainstream is a “novelty”—i.e., an aphorism, a sterile oddity—Springsteen’s music, like Madonna’s or Michael Jackson’s or “We Are the World,” is, among other things, a vast, grand, utterly coherent world-historical thesis: the thesis of the popular mechanics of domination. This is not the thesis Springsteen plays, but the thesis he plays out: what he says is subsumed into a celebration of his ability to say it.

When Springsteen plays in a coliseum filled with 60,000 people, what is at issue is not the size of the audience, but the intensity of its desire to be confirmed as an audience. When he sings about dispossession in contemporary America, when he violates the ruling political fantasies of the nation, there are many in the audience who do not believe a word he says, and many more who will never, not even in their most private thoughts, live out a word he sings. Yet not a single person says no. When, between songs, Springsteen speaks even more eloquently (and, without the comforts and supports of music, far more riskily) about dispossession in contemporary America, there is respectful silence. That silence—the absorption of a pop moment that is also a deflection of its content—is the enemy: the silence is an affirmation that the structure of the event has contained, has swallowed, its content.

Sitting in the midst of 60,000 people, thrilled by Springsteen’s “I’m Goin’ Down” and “Cadillac Ranch,” I wondered what would have happened, what could have happened, if he had exchanged his pointed metaphors for denunciation. What would have happened if he had said what I like to imagine he believes: that those who currently rule the country are evil people, with evil motives, doing evil things? Most likely Springsteen does not believe that—does not, at least, believe in that kind of speech. But I don’t think he was saying all that he believes. I think he was saying all he thought he could get across. What would have happened, though, if Springsteen had said no with rage instead of forgiveness, tried to blow away the empowerment of stardom and stood on the stage as a crank? I can’t help wondering if the solipsistic hysteria surrounding Springsteen’s show—a process that turns the star even more than the fan into an object, that robs his every subjective word of its particular meaning—could have been breached.

The Mekons’ new Fear and Whiskey (Sin, UK) was made in that breach—which is to say that the record is a novelty, a sterile oddity, an aphorism as opposed to a thesis, an insistence that the evanescent is the essential. To bring it back to life you have to drape it in old jewelry. It was made by cranks: formed in 1977 as the first punk band in Leeds, the Mekons quickly blew their first and only chance to sell out to a major label. Wending ever deeper into the pop wilderness, enduring countless splits and death notices, they have persisted ever since.

If Fear and Whiskey can only be heard as an aphorism, what evanescence does it consider essential? A bitter sentimentality. This is the music of a small group of people who, in a pop moment now almost a decade gone, once thought all things were possible, and who now live in a society where nothing they want is possible as more than an evanescence. They still wear the old jewelry of the punk ideology of 1976: No Future, which was somehow turned into an adventure, which got the Mekons a major-label contract. If anything, their music today is stronger than it ever was, but against the confidence of mainstream music, it carries an unmistakable undertone of self-mockery, of humiliation, of shame, because it cannot count. Fear and Whiskey is just fear and whiskey, nervousness and oblivion; it is the music of people who are sure that the world they cannot change will never find a place for them, that what they have to say will never be heard.

Still, there is no objectification in the Mekons’ music. One hears a small group of people talking to each other; one enters a conversation. Its content is bitterness; sentimentality, the severed wish for a good life, is what keeps it going. These people are waiting, not for the world to change, but for their lives to end. In the meantime, they will talk. Their talk is like anyone’s talk: What’s new? Not much. Come on, it’s been months since I’ve seen you. Well . . .

Greil Marcus is the editor of Stranded. His music column appears monthly in Artforum.