PRINT October 1991


Platonic Rock

The damming of the stream of real life, the moment when its flow comes to a standstill, makes itself felt as reflux: this reflux is astonishment.

—Walter Benjamin

PUNK CLAIMED, OR THREATENED, that anyone could be extraordinary, and that even the crudest musical performance might be extraordinary for those who witnessed it. As punk itself becomes history and burden (and genre, for those who enjoy dressing up in the costumes of the time), these claims seem to have been reduced to the premises that you don’t have to be exceptional to participate in rock and that a musical experience doesn’t have to be exceptional to be worth witnessing. Today’s college-radio rock underground includes many bands whose justification would seem to follow this argument, bands careful to avoid appearing one centimeter larger than life, bands demanding nothing of their audience but the acceptance of the ordinary. Some offenders: Galaxie 500, Yo La Tengo, Sebadoh, Superchunk, Love Child, Fly Ashtray. Carefully limned emotion is acceptable, passion is not; vulnerability is idealized, and taken to mean the acceptance of limitations. The performers generally eschew dressing or acting in any way that might signify that they occupy a special role, and may even play sitting down, once again to avoid distinguishing themselves, and because it signifies their high seriousness. They take the stage as though they are going to work at an office. And while you are watching them nothing more extreme than what is acceptable at an office will happen to you. To these performers and their admirers, rock is the gleanings of a hip record collection rearranged to illustrate their thoughtfulness, subtlety, and good taste.

This is, shall we say, all fucked up. While thoughtfulness, subtlety, and good taste are fine qualities, and even qualities that play a role in rock, the heart of the matter is elsewhere. Rock is about creating experiences that feel like life experiences, like the things that just happen to you and hit hard: Neil Young suddenly starts singing about a woman after describing the harsh pre-Columbian paradise of “Cortez the Killer,” and it’s like the physical shock when you learn that you’ve been doing one thing and meaning another, and crippling yourself thereby; one of the bass players in an angry New York industrial/noise band, Cop Shoot Cop, destroys his instrument after playing only one song, and delivers the rush you get sacrificing what you most wanted; an even angrier underground band from Ann Arbor, Laughing Hyenas, plays almost its whole set at a breakneck intensity that wipes every thought from the mind, evoking nothing but the gasping astonishment of great sex. These ore the characteristic peak experiences of the genre, offered by bands of every stripe, and not the reflection of the particular abilities of the performers just mentioned—who do not, of course, rise to this peak on every occasion. These are the moments when existence itself is mimicked, when art pretends not to describe but to replace life, when you con only say, if you are able to say anything at all, “This is just the way I feel when. . .” In a parade of mediocrity and fraudulence, these are the rare moments that make me spend a lot of time watching bands.

They are also the fulfillment of an ambition so old as to have been analyzed by Plato—or invented by him. But the view of art as mimesis, which Plato articulates in Book X of the Republic, seems to miss the point of most art and especially of the art he knew. Charging poets and painters as “imitators” who create simulacra of action without understanding it, Plato appears to be creating a straw man he can demolish with one version of the theory of forms. Taken less literally, his art theory starts with the same perceptions Michael Fried, for example, brings to the discussion of certain artworks of the ’60s. But where Fried finds that a Morris Louis stands before us as a spiritual counterpart of nature, enjoining us to an equivalent moral seriousness, Plato thinks that Homer attempts to create a world that mimics the real world and that this is inherently corrupt. Plato never explicitly says so, but his critique depends on the premise that Homer’s unarticulated goal was to make us feel before his work as if we stood facing the whole world.

The ambition Plato finds behind art is, in fact, there—it’s just not as literal as he thought it to be. What is at issue is subjective rather than objective representation—emotional plenitude, not descriptive realism. (Whether this, too, is disreputable is another matter.) This goal emerges very clearly in rock simply because there’s less other stuff there to obscure it. Relatively brief, formally simple, deliberately imprecise, rock songs offer themselves not as realistic slices of life but as reminders of our subjective reactions to such slices. The music is only a vehicle for the delivery of these peak experiences, which are made manifest as gestures. Sometimes the gesture is, in fact, musical, a matter of a sudden key change, a trill, a drumbeat, a singer’s pause. Or it may be entirely extramusical, like smashing the bass. It can extend for several songs, as with the Laughing Hyenas show, or performances by Slayer and by the Ramones. (Three bands, in ascending order of historical importance, whose excellence lies in making a gesture of a style, playing whole sets that go by as a single gesture.)

However it appears, the gesture is experienced as poignant. It is moving because it represents life itself in relation to death—brief, refulgent, isolated. There’s vast pleasure in gestures because of their fragility: they’re ephemeral, fading before we can exhaust their fascination, and imprecisely evocative, leaving us freedom to find personal meaning in them. And this poignance is as basic to rock as violence. It is even, sometimes, the same thing. The glory of punk was not its attempt, or the critics’ forcing upon it the attempt, to bring history to an end, but its success in stripping rock bare to the gesture. And violence adhered to punk not because it was somehow inherent in the short, simple melodic phrases—it is surely more associated with dissonance, density, speed—but because violence is essentially gestural, punctuational.

Without, in most cases, a performer/audience distinction based on craft mastery or stardom, underground rock opens its audience to the charge of voyeurism—obtaining a thrill from watching something that in many cases you could just as well be doing. Watching a band of this genre feels different from watching a jazz group or a string quartet, on the one hand, or an arena rock bond, on the other. When you watch Madonna or Axl Rose, your voyeurism is erased by their stardom. Their exhibitionism is of such a scale as to bury your voyeurism. Of course you want to see them—who isn’t attracted by narcissism on a heroic scale?

The more “underground” the band—which means among other things, the more their art is the demonstration of a concept—the closer rock is pushed to life, the closer the audience is pushed to the performers, the more clearly the voyeurism (and exhibitionism) emerge. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth wrote in these pages in 1983 that “people pay to see others believe in themselves.” A self-flattering take on the situation—you could as easily say that “people pay money to see others enact their exhibitionism for them”—but, in fact, most underground bands today are playing for an audience of people in other underground bands. Not because their music is too difficult or abrasive for untutored ears, as might be said of contemporary “classical” music, but because if you like whatever it is that’s happening, you’re apt to look into doing it yourself. (A clue that “what’s happening” has little to do with craft.) There’s something endlessly questionable about the underground rock audience’s experience—and maybe this questionable nature is part of its appeal. It’s experiences of dubious satisfaction, after all, that bring us back for more. You go to see these bands because it feels weird and unsatisfying, as well as ecstatic and energizing. This doesn’t apply so strongly to listening to recorded rock, where neither your voyeurism nor the performers’ exhibitionism is at hand.

The voyeurism of the rock audience is a voyeurism of gestures, the fetishism of what is finally only evocation itself. Rock lives in the present, a few minutes at a time, but it depends on the remembered past moments to which its gestures point; it is never here. That is why it is moving. It can reach high-art depth because it isn’t real. (And sex isn’t art because it is real, and moving because it can never be more than here.) This is really art theory from Book X of the Republic, with a slight spin, and you could continue along lines suggested by Plato to decide that what’s definitive about sexual perversion is seeking to change what is transparent about making love into something opaque, and what’s definitive about art is attempting to make actual objects of the spaces between people. And then you might ask: what are the real things whose shadows we call rock?

Ann Marlowe writes about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll for the LA Weekly and The Village Voice.