Bargaincounterculturalcapitalism: Gear and Writhing at the New Music Seminar
At the close of four days of fractiousness, defensiveness, tepid consensus, heated debate, masturbation unabated, plugs for products, plugs for services, plugs for personalities, plugs for personae, plugs for personal agendas, plugs for drugs, and live performances plugged and unplugged, a ballroom full of people found themselves on the receiving end of a sexual threat. Diamanda Galas, New York- based anti-diva, stepped onto the table at which she and ten other rock and near-rock artists were seated, to deliver their observations on the state of the music industry. Standing tall and turning her back to the audience, she invited everyone (loudly, twice) to admire her buttocks, then inquired, “How many of you limp dicks can get it up with a condom?” What began as a series of mundane remarks on stylistic homogenization and fading undergrounds suddenly had to make room for a disturbing gesture in AIDS activism, complete with sexual role reversal: Galas in the phallic role, on the rampage. “With this fine ass, I CAN’T EVEN GET FUCKED because none of you can get it up with a condom on!” (When Galas began partially undressing, Jim Dreschler of New York band Murphy’s Law left his position at the opposite end of the table and appeared to take up her dare, but came no closer to her than photo-op distance before backing down.)
As many have come to expect at New Music Seminars, this rupture of star-panel conventions led to one incendiary moment of near-connection, then largely fizzled into the poses of angry egoists. Having seized attention to force the issue of proceeds from rock charities upon the panel and audience—the previous night’s AIDS benefit featuring Galas, Soul Asylum, Prong, and the Butthole Surfers (whose leader Gibby Haynes was chairing the rock artists’ panel), had generated little research money and widespread accusations of profiteering—Galas ceded center stage to voices that were just as loud but lacked her frame- breaking conviction that public-health concerns outweighed those of the rock scene. Panelists attempted to move the conversation away from bitter exchanges with audience members (“How much did you get paid, Gibby?” “Give it back!” “This is pathetic . . . this makes me want to quit the music business”) toward various personal and collective responses to the fabled greed of the industry. Psychic TV’s Genesis P-Orridge, for example, in a Sun Ra Venusian hat and an oracular tone, spoke at length of Chinese atrocities toward Tibetans, his own forcible exile from the U.K., the value of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy) in pacifying football hooligans, and the relative political triviality of the music-industry concerns that are the Seminar’s raison d’etre, concluding that everyone should “stop buying records, save the money, and travel.”
But a final collective gesture against the structure of the Seminar itself—the exasperated departure of the whole panel and audience to join the rap artists’ panel next door, which had been walled off from the rock panel as if to embody physically the apartheid-like status of stylistic categories—produced only a short-lived sense of collective purpose. Ice-T and other rap panelists welcomed the largely white rock crowd, but an audience member took the floor mike angrily to pierce the balloon: “If you’re not down with our concerns . . . not just today but tomorrow, we don’t want your support.” Exit collective adrenaline. Harry Allen, Public Enemy’s “media assassin,” came down from the dais to hug and thank the angry audience member; most whites in the room began looking limp. What looked for a moment like unpremeditated Woodstocking was quickly reinscribed as grandstanding.
It has become standard operating procedure at each year’s New Music Seminar for participants to dismiss, disparage, and disrespect the New Music Seminar. There was more to the 13th NMS than sound, fury, and nonsignification, but one could hardly leave the Marriott Marquis with an impression of having viewed a discursive community engaged in productive intercourse. This annual event represents the alternative-rock world’s uncertainty over its status as a self-analytic profession, a promotion-intensive capitalist enterprise, or a locus of generational/ideological opposition. Pulled in three directions, the Seminar’s reliable response is to roll its collective eyes (hoping nearby MTV cameras are rolling as well) and implode.* * * *
Professional conferences and trade shows perform crucial functions in situating an activity and its practitioners along continua of social position, economic status, and ideology. Whatever purposes underlie the activity—private profit, political advantage, cultural prestige, knowledge for its own or any other sake, leisure— the convening of those who pursue it generates not only self-conscious discourse about the activity but practice of the activity and exchanges in the goods, services, and intangible forms of capital that surround the activity.1 One attends a conference to learn (or relearn), and to occupy, the habitus of the profession, i.e., to understand, to do, and to trade.
Market behavior at different conferences varies in explicitness; the atmosphere of a conference and even its physical arrangement provide clues to where the activity in question lies along the profession/business continuum, and thus to the cultural capital its participants may claim. Trade shows such as the Comdex computer convention, where even products not yet in existence (“vaporware”) are advertised to generate market interest, should they actually be produced, occupy an obvious commercial extreme. At the other, communities that define themselves as professions (such as medical specialties, many of whose members attend national conferences mainly to hear the first-hand presentation of findings that they can put to practical clinical use) often allocate the educational and commercial segments of a conference to separate sites: the largest hall in a hotel or convention center for the hustling of products (cleverly pitched pharmaceuticals for the heavy prescribers at the American College of Cardiology; vast and elaborate displays of tomographic scanners and magnetic resonance imaging equipment for the technophiles at the Radiologic Society of North America), the smaller surrounding rooms for the scholarly presentation of data—inadvertently implying, through the centering of commerce and the peripheralizing of the ostensibly central activity of continuing professional education, that the commercial tail has been known to wag the professional dog. At Modern Language Association conferences, economic functions, professional practice, and leisure activities mutually overlap, as paper readings and departmental cocktail parties all help define and refine the economies of prestige on which academic hiring depends. Regardless of physical structures or consensual rituals, however, conferences and conventions allow a participant the temporary sense of access to all the multiple facets of the activity; if one cannot quite occupy the center of a professional panopticon (owing to scheduling conflicts), one can at least construct a personal pluropticon, grazing on performances and wares as if wielding a video remote.
If the respective balance of discourse (ostensibly disinterested) and exchange (motivated) at a conference correlates with the definition of an activity as a profession or a business, the appearance of analytic discourse at a conference for a field that has historically had no pretenses to professional status, rock music,2 is an intriguing anomaly. Along with the CMJ Music Marathon each fall, the annual NMS is recognized as the unofficially official convention for the U.S. rock industry (or for those segments of the industry to whom the Grammy awards have little meaning). But the Seminar’s origins in the alternative-music and independent-label communities (like “alternative music” and independent labels themselves) have been obscured, in slightly greater degree each year, by the participation of the large corporate labels.3 At the same time, the Seminar makes efforts to incorporate explicit politics, analytic debate, and even a degree of self- scrutiny into its program, along with the customary promotion, schmoozing, and dealing. This dissonance admits numerous explanations: an attack of countercultural bad conscience? An attempt to use its profit-making activities (the NMS is a private for-profit firm) as a source of subsidy for unprofitable discursive activities that its organizers still consider salutary? Or, conversely, an effort to mask its exploitive nature, like that of the music industry as a whole, behind the window-dressing of countercultural rhetoric? These constructions are not necessarily mutually contradictory.
The first NMS took place in 1979, the year of the first major rap single (“Rapper’s Delight,” Sugarhill Gang) and two years after the watershed year of 1977, when, as the story goes, Punk Changed Rock Forever (temporarily). Even though the punk period’s explosive growth of autodidact bands and independent record companies almost immediately became nostalgia fodder—the Clash’s “Hitsville UK” from the Sandinista! album waxed sentimental about small noncorporate labels, in the past tense, as early as 1980— and even though rap has moved from strict subcultural status to a subject mentioned in Democratic Convention speeches, the NMS to date has maintained the professed purpose of promoting music that is unlikely to find an outlet on large labels or on stations formatted as “Contemporary Hits Radio” or “classic rock.” Its panels are rigorously taxonomized by stylistic subject (rap, dance, Latin, metal, and the catchall rock category “alternative,” as well as nuts-and- bolts publishing, booking, legal, video, technology, creative, and “issues” panels), but a rhetoric of inside/outside still permeates the enterprise. The practical panels mainly address those who are inside the industry yet outside established centers of commercial power, such as unsigned musicians and their managers, independent distributors, and music directors for college radio stations; the dominant tone combines desire to become an insider with skepticism about how much the current insiders really know about the music (Gerard Cosloy of New York’s Matador Records: “The scene is full of people who think they know shit. And that’s what they know: shit”). At the speeches and debate-oriented panels, too, much of the discourse conveys an unmistakable sense—perhaps nostalgic, certainly problematized—that one can clearly distinguish Us from Them.
The NMS project is both schizoid and, on its own terms, successful. The combination of a convention for industry personnel (offering reflexive discourse, or at least the reflections of insiders) and an orchestrated showcase for mostly unsigned talent (practice) results annually in a flurry of record-contract signings and distribution deals (exchange). The performance branch of the Seminar, now known as New York Nights, coordinates bookings at some 30 venues in Manhattan and Hoboken, giving approximately 350 acts the chance to play before audiences comprising large numbers of A&R personnel, critics, and radio program directors, all of whom enter the clubs free with NMS badges. (Persons not credentialed for the Seminar can also buy discount passes, making New York Nights a musical bargain counter for the local fan and adding the semblance of a “real” consumer public for the participant.) Live performance also took place on-site, as a “BMI Live” display allowed old and new groups to play half-hour acoustic sets, making the Marriott’s hallways a continuous concert stage. Conversations with musicians invariably reveal that they regard playing NMS shows with a combination of anticipation and dread; war stories abound in which performers are hustled onstage, hustled off, poorly mixed at the sound board, usually unpaid, and generally ill-treated. Yet they continue to travel cross-country or even internationally for one or two gigs at the NMS, on the off chance that they will end up at the center of one of their year’s right-place-right-time stories. At home, the transition from local obscurity to recording stardom appears incremental and remote4; at the NMS, overnight success enters the realm of concrete possibility.
The practice of new music at the Seminar is thus inseparable from exchange, or far less separable than it is in the circumstances faced daily by most rockers and rappers. By spatially and chronologically concentrating both sellers/performers and buyers/label personnel, leaving the relative scarcity of recording contracts unchanged but heightening the chances of a connection that would otherwise be improbable, the NMS presents immediate material incentives for an activity whose practitioners, under nearly all other conditions, have few economically rational reasons to pursue it. The proliferation of eager promoters from Europe, the Pacific Rim, and Latin America increases the feeding-frenzy atmosphere: with Yankee dollars at stake, representatives at the various international booths sought domestic connections with an enthusiasm that most Anglo- Americans reflexively kept under a hip degree of control. The Seminar calls itself by an academic term (it is not the New Music Exposition or, thankfully, the New York Rock Exchange), and it pays something more than lip service to multiculturalism and green politics, but it places the art of the deal squarely in the foreground.
A glaring example occurred at a legal panel, “Rap and Sampling: Art or Larceny,” which employed a moot-court conceit. Debate focused not on whether using a horn track as the basis of a hiphop mix was art or larceny, or whether the recombination of sounds by sampling technology constituted a musical performance, but on how much the original musician and music publisher would be paid for having their record sampled. The participants glossed over the possibilities for debate about materially driven changes in definitions of property rights, but went head to head over percentage points—quantifying, through negotiations about the relative contributions made by the players of horn and sampling synthesizer, an issue that might have been explored in qualitative discourse. The attorney for the prosecution, EMI Music Publishing’s Fred Silber, set up one of his plaintiffs as a predictable romanticist icon, a starving saxophonist who honed his chops at Juilliard but wound up working at Burger King while his work made money for others; the sampling producer’s defense attorney, Michael Sukin, argued with comparable vagueness that “the Constitution encourages art” and that “strict copyright would kill rap.” After the verdict (a $1000 fee for each 100,000 sales and a 50% writer credit for the plaintiff) the moderator revealed that the saxophonist was in fact Greg Smith, a well-paid studio musician, songwriter, and Grammy nominee, hardly in need of hamburger work. Neither hiphop’s unique reversal/detournement of the racially charged history of field recording, in which black folk and blues performers received little or nothing from white-owned record companies, nor the question of the disparate class-coded significance of the symbols at stake—Juilliard training and Grammies versus hiphop mixing—was taken up.
Yet the dissonance between the pervasive exchanges and some of the other forms of discourse spotlighted at the NMS is striking. Simply by allowing exposure to acts whose commercial prospects are limited, the Seminar becomes the locus of assorted anticommercial rhetorics, from romantic narratives pitting suffering artists against bean-counting philistines to unsentimental, often race-conscious oppositional agendas. Indeed, political stances are both structurally inevitable and overtly courted; whether this constitutes patronization is debatable. Some of the most popular of this year’s panels (to take two overflowing examples, the writers’ panel “New Music: A Problem for New and Established Critics” and “Pot in Pop: Let’s Be Blunt”) were also among those with most contentious audiences, whether the bones of contention were generational/ ideological issues degenerating into de gustibus disputes and personal grudges, or moral panics over ever-popular recreational chemicals. At both of these sessions, panelists offered relatively harmonious collections of views—harmonious to the point of unison in the case of “Pot in Pop,” where NORML-style herbal advocacy (“You could power the whole country with the hemp raised on just 6% of U.S. farmland”) was the order of the day—and thus brought on alarmingly vitriolic, if hardly surprising, objections from audience respondents. The somewhat paranoiac tone of antidrug or anti-Robert Christgau dissidents evoked wagon- circling responses by the respective hemp-using and critical communities. The assumed social structure, whether regretted (Elizabeth Wurtzel, New Yorker pop critic: “I feel like we’re mostly writing for each other”) or described in a language of wishful solidarity (B Real of Cypress Hill: “With marijuana there is no racism. . . . This is the only plant I know that brings people together”), remained the subculture beleaguered by various forms of intolerant power.
Oppositionalism also pervaded the Seminar’s high- profile keynote speeches. The performers invited to open the proceedings were two whose symbolic language has placed them directly in the crosshairs of the state: John Trudell, a Santee Sioux activist and poet who has recently begun a blues-rock recording career, and Ice-T, the much-publicized rapper, thrash-metal singer, and film star. While working for Native American causes in the 1970s, Trudell drew so much FBI attention that he felt he had to leave the movement to avoid endangering his friends; his family was killed in a 1979 fire widely believed to have been set by government operatives on the same day he burned a flag in Washington (federal authorities declined to investigate the fire). His NMS address balanced devotional verse on Elvis with scathing remarks on Eurocentrism and some very 1960s-ish rallying cries (“Rock and roll is based on revolutions going way beyond 33 1/3”). With his harrowing personal history, his status as a spokesman for peoples historically on the receiving end of Euro-American brutality, and his abilities as a political orator, Trudell is essentially immunized from skeptical reception, but his strong, uncomplicated outsider position matches the Long Playing vinyl of his apocalyptist metaphor. A politics that is immediate for him inevitably strikes much of the NMS audience, impressed but implicated, as nostalgic.
Ice-T (whose song “Cop Killer,” as events following the NMS would make clear, is not beloved by Southern police departments or their anonymous telephonic sympathizers), while equally impressive in his oppositional rhetoric, is implicated in more complex ways. He came close to omnipresence during the Seminar: he addressed the collected audience about racism in society at large and corrupt exchanges inside the music industry, performed with his thrash band Body Count (busting off a vigorous “Cop Killer” while a line of NYPD maintained a hairtrigger-tense presence just outside the hall), co-MC’d the AIDS benefit with B-52 Fred Schneider, and served on the concluding rap artists’ panel. He also managed to appear from the audience, at a panel on media coverage of rap, to accuse most of the panelists and audience of dilettantism for taking self- congratulatory views of rap’s cultural acceptance while his own experience suggested that the rap world was still “at war.”5 The NMS became a de facto promotional blitz for Ice, but being surrounded with people predisposed in his favor (for once) did nothing to modulate his anger. The biggest star at an event that disperses and focuses star- worship in approximately equal degree voiced some of the sternest objections to existing socioeconomic arrangements.
The Ice-T conundrum speaks volumes about the contradictions at the heart of the Seminar and the music industry. If anyone in attendance (Trudell excepted) had cause to consider himself or herself at odds with hegemonic forces, surely it was Ice, as numerous police organizations (the National Black Police Association excepted6) have taken his song’s retributive fantasies literally and called for his scalp. (In the months following the NMS, some have even raised the specter of federal prosecution under the charge of sedition, while their anonymous associates have lodged death threats—real, not coded in a metal-avenger persona—against employees of Time-Warner.) Yet if anyone in attendance had cause to consider himself embraced by hegemonic forces, it was likewise Ice, with a Warner Brothers contract, a major Hollywood role (in the completed but unreleased Looters) under his belt, and a maximum of favorable exposure over the four days of the Seminar. Seminar participants heard him provide the crucial contextual discourse that sound bites (outside the music industry, within the controlled simulacrum of an American public sphere) never afford him. And though the stock oppositionalist/countercultural narrative envisions media institutions attempting to stifle any uncomfortable voice, the Warner organization—one of the corporate labels most widely castigated by NMS participants for “cherry-picking” artists from independents, worsening small labels’ chances for survival and watering down the music—has continued to support him, absorbing both flak and actual menace.
Around this figure and these circumstances, the cognitive structure of inside/outside contorts itself to the point of collapse. The mechanisms of exchange, as embodied in Time-Warner, can rarely be counted on to foster an oppositional practice as aggressive as Ice’s “I’m ‘bout to bust some shots off/I’m ‘bout to dust some cops off” (particularly at the cost of an expensive boycott against corporate holdings, from Time magazine to Batman Returns to the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park). Time-Warner certainly counts as an Althusserian ideological state apparatus, a media institution devoted to the manufacture of public consent. Yet the “Cop Killer” incident, like the Seminar it overlaps, suggests that it is simplistic to assume continual congruence between the interests of one ISA and those of another. Within the fissures that develop between such institutions—and with certain risks, decidedly nonrhetorical, accepted—it is occasionally possible to find the space for critical discourse and musical practice.* * * * *
If the NMS, like the “new music” it claims as its province, is inconceivable without the historical eruptions of punk and rap into popular music during the late 1970s and early 1980s, respectively, it may be instructive to apply to it a few terms of historical analysis that were also generated in 1977. Attali’s Noise, published in France that year and in an English translation in 1985, advances a staged theory of musical paradigms (Sacrifice, Representation, Repetition, Composition), not so much driven by economic developments, in a classical base/superstructure model, as accompanying (even, Attali asserts, anticipating) broad shifts in social relations and implicit philosophical codes.7 As Susan McClary suggests in her afterword to Noise, one can read punk and postpunk musics, positioned across boundaries of institution and gender, as signs that the fluid musical and socioeconomic forms Attali envisioned under the rubric of Composition are actually aborning. Do the tensions that permeate the NMS—the sense that pop music and its derivatives are in a deeply unsatisfactory state— imply that something resembling Attali’s paradigm shift is in the works?
The only coherent answer may be “Yes, though only in certain spaces, and possibly in no form Attali or many musicians would care to recognize.” As police, politicians, and censorship groups are casting Ice-T in a scapegoat role along with Luther Campbell, musical supporters of NORML’s agenda, various supposedly Satanist metal bands,8 and undoubtedly a host of pop figures yet unnamed, a cyclical/ Viconian revision of Attali’s speculations seems just as plausible as his linear-progression model. Perhaps the profession of pop musician is coming to include an inherent risk of scapegoating: the social violence that is too painful to view directly (or even on videotape) generates a symbolic violence that must consume occasional figures who traffic in the powerful symbols of rap and rock. The most primitive of Attali’s sociomusical modes, Sacrifice, may be returning; those who loudly voice what excluded segments of the population are thinking make excellent fodder for ritual.
Other tendencies within the Seminar, however, provide grounds for guarded Attalian hopes that Repetition, instead of reverting to Sacrifice, might actually yield to Composition. Technology—not unpredictably, at an event where great energy is spent trading in hardware and in access to it—is the imagined midwife. At several how-to panels (“How to Make a Great Record Cheap,” “Video under $10,000”), aimed at artists strapped for the startup funding that the post-MTV music industry increasingly requires for admission, the predominant view held that technology was the problem at least as often as the solution. But another panel on a subject that is only tenuously, trendily connected to the practices and exchanges immediately at hand (“Virtual Reality and its Effect on the Future of Music”) afforded some surprisingly clearheaded discussion about electronic interactivity as a paradigm for future forms of music made possible by the various user interfaces currently known as VR.
Interactivity, of course, is an integral aspect of the future musical practices hinted at by Attali. And the customary sites for the musical practices discussed at the NMS, the guitar band’s garage and the hiphop mixer’s home studio, are loci for technologically enabled interactivity, structures for converting the reception of favorite pieces of music into recombinatory creative acts (the feedback- drenched cover song, the sampled rhythm loop). Expansion of the interactive element in music by VR-related technologies, further blurring the line between professionals and amateurs, could constitute a perceptible movement toward Attalian Composition. The performer/programmers convened by moderator Jaron Lanier (founder of VPL Research) began most of their presentations in familiar NMS self-promotional mode but quickly honed in on the issue of interactivity as, in panelist Todd Rundgren’s terms, “a philosophical agenda, not a hardware question.”
The inevitable dependence of such an agenda on hardware questions—and questions of the social structures and exchange mechanisms making the hardware available—provided grounds for the kind of speculative discourse that NMS panels routinely gesture toward and rarely achieve. Though programmed music is commonplace, music actually created through VR (e.g., on instruments existing only in virtual space, as conjectured by Lanier) is still vaporware, and the very phrase “virtual reality” came under collective erasure as a term co-opted by the military via NASA and hyped into meaninglessness by publicity for the film The Lawnmower Man (unanimously despised by the panel).9 Hype for VR gear and VR-derived musical products thus gave way to debate over whether the development and deployment of VR would give greater control over musical material to technical specialists or the larger listening populace. Information Society’s Kurt Harland took the former view, stating that 99% of the audience wanted “passive immersion” rather than access to the tools, and that electronically modeled musical procedures would simply expand the modes of immersion. Tina Blaine and Linda Jacobson of Oakland’s “techno-roots” group D’Cuckoo offered a contrary theory: that advances in electronic instruments would increase listeners’ ability to communicate musically and bodily—not in passive isolation, under the thumb of institutions and experts, but socially.
The hypothetical question of how the crucial producer/consumer division would fare amid 21st-century musical technology received no definitive answer, but descriptions and tapes of D’Cuckoo’s work made it plausible to accept their utopian vision over the Huxleyan consumer dystopia (or Attalian repetocracy) imagined by Harland. D’Cuckoo activates its anti-technophobic collective philosophy by inventing and building its own electronic percussion instruments, mixing aleatory effects with the rigorous discipline of Japanese taiko drumming and Zimbabwean marimba music, and incorporating audience input into its live work through devices such as a MIDI controller triggered by a giant beach ball thrown into the crowd. D’Cuckoo had little need for the frenetic dealmaking of the NMS—they have already added a development deal with Elektra to their impressive resume—but with slogans at the ready (“You’re either part of the steamroller or part of the pavement”) they appeared more than ready to become a model for the next paradigm shift in popular music. No one anywhere near a major record label is likely to pick their “neoclassical postindustrial cybertribal world funk” as the next Nirvana, commercially speaking, but their working methods (like those of punks and rappers) have gathered them considerable momentum. Whatever degree of interpenetration might occur between this group and the music business as presently organized, their ability to improvise the terms and material means for their work surely counts as a survival advantage in the “cyber-Darwinist” future Rundgren describes.
Lanier was unabashedly hyping D’Cuckoo and its DIY philosophy when he uttered the pithiest of his many soundbites: “Art isn’t for wimps.” The phrase could be applied as easily to Ice-T’s risky rhetorical crusade, or to any of a number of performers whose voices cut through the density of the Seminar, from aging punks like Fear (whose acoustic set at BMI Live was harsher and stronger than most amplified bands’ sets in the clubs) to current genre- collapsing acts like Galas or the multiracial, multimedia Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The phrase could also be translated simply as a recognition that the music industry, contrary to its organizing myths, is neither an Inside to be penetrated nor an Outside to be valorized; that narratives of escape, purity, or sanctuary no longer make usable sense of music’s social function; that the schism between the real world and the music world is gibberish. The NMS is not structured to generate consensus, and its internal contradictions remain irresolvable unless and until critical changes occur in the economics of musical production and distribution. Still, the event makes it clear that the habitus of the musician in 1992 is a hotseat. The discord between the material and rhetorical aspects of musical practice implies that conditions are overripe for another noisy change.
1. Some of the terms that will recur throughout this analysis—practice, discourse, and exchange—represent a preliminary attempt to apply concepts from Bourdieu and others working in his wake, such as John Fiske, to rock and related musics, along with the other fields briefly discussed here. Fiske’s use of Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus to explain academics’ difficulties in accounting for the complexities of everyday life (155ff) relies on the assumed exclusive polarity of practice and discourse, with a rueful acknowledgement that translating practice to discourse transforms it into something other than practice. Where a cultural practice encompasses discourse, however, as at the MLA or the NMS, the polarity seems difficult to sustain. Perhaps envisioning an interpenetration among these two terms and a third, exchange—coded as serpent in garden, a reminder that particular interests, agendas, and powers do not keep their distance—might help break the interpretive deadlock.
2. At this writing, I am aware of only a single explicit use of the term “profession” within rock ‘n’ roll to describe rock ‘n’ roll: the line “You know how different it is in this profession,” from Graham Parker’s “Last Couple on the Dance Floor” (on the minor 1983 album The Real Macaw), refers to recording work with a self-directed skepticism, an implication that romanticist views privileging the rock “artist” are patently absurd. This autocritique is characteristic of Parker’s work but also constitutes a recurrent trope common to most rock subgenres. It is easy to locate examples in which performers take the self- important fatuity of the music scene and industry as a given: Carl Perkins’ tongue-in-cheek seriousness toward wearers of blue suede shoes, the Rolling Stones’ “Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man,” Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” (“stoking the starmaking machine behind the popular song”), the Sex Pistols’ Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle strategies, the commercially successful anticommercialism of 1980s industrial groups like Nitzer Ebb and Nine Inch Nails, and the contemptuous response of “hardcore” rappers to pop rap groups like Colour Me Badd or Naughty By Nature (e.g., EPMD’s “Crossover,” the leadoff track on the new Def Jam West label’s 1992 NMS sampler cassette, distributed unironically by that most streetwise of labels, Columbia).
3. Advertisers in the NMS directory this year included the customary small labels such as Alias, Cardiac, Caroline, Knitting Factory Works, Livin’ Large, Rykodisc, Tommy Boy, and X-Perience, but also most of the majors: A&M, Atlantic, Capitol, EMI, Epic, Mercury, RCA, Reprise, and Warner Brothers. The latter’s ad on the back cover encodes perfectly the hip, winking attitude that dominates Seminar semiotics: beneath an assertive heading certain to arouse chuckles or wrath from indie-label oppositionalists (“Warner Bros. Records. Home of Alternative Music.”) and in front of a huge globe rotated to reveal the Eastern Hemisphere (northern Africa foregrounded), six models in corporate uniform flash friendly smiles for the camera—the good-humored board of Vice Presidents for A&R next door. They are a rainbow coalition of Benettokens: four young men (an African-American, two preppy whites, and one who could be a Latino, a Pacific Islander, or a Native American and excels in the art of blow-drying), one young woman (white, jeweled for success), and one middle-aged man (white, the only member standing, radiating benign executive despotism from the head of the table). They are reassuring and receptive, ready to sign your pathbreaking group and bring your music to adoring, solvent multitudes.
4. For varied, credible accounts of the circumstances faced by musicians on the fringes of the industry, see Bayton (on women’s independent groups in England) and Calder (on his own shot at the American inner circle). Both underscore the persistence of musical practice in the absence of appreciable economic exchange.
5. At this writing, Ice has voluntarily withdrawn the Body Count album bearing “Cop Killer” from distribution, intending to distribute tapes of the song gratis at concerts while Sire/Warner re-releases a bowdlerized version of the record, minus the offending song. Both Ice (in assorted public statements) and his publicist Jenny Bendel (personal communication, August 7, 1992) dismiss speculation that Time-Warner personnel initiated or influenced his decision to recall the original album. “Cop Killer” has quickly become popular as a cover song in other bands’ repertoires.
6. The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), the Houston Police Officers Association, the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, and assorted other law-enforcement groups called for boycotts, but Ronald Hampton of the National Black Police Association gave Billboard interviewers a dissenting view: “[The song] didn’t happen in a vacuum. . . . African-American people have been victimized by police brutality, and that is very real. Where were those organizations when Rodney King was beat up, and when that verdict came in?” (79). Hampton’s direct linkage between “Cop Killer” and the Simi Valley trial brings to the foreground many commentators’ belief that scapegoating an angry black man is the ideal way to deflect public opinion away from a recognition that police forces in Los Angeles and elsewhere have long been out of control.
7. Although Noise does much more than advance a stage theory, this aspect of Attali’s argument may be summarized as follows. Music as a model of social structure begins in sacrifice as an element of Girardian religious ritual, serving as an instrument of control by helping listeners forget the violence at the heart of sociality. With the rise of capitalism it mutates into representation, a rationalist-individualist mode marked by divisions and hierarchies of labor (composer, conductor, virtuoso performer, orchestra member, cabaret musician, busker, and assorted paramusical figures such as the entrepreneur), and the hypertrophy of “harmonic combinatorics” (64) becomes music’s organizing feature; through infinite exploration of possible variations on tonality, musical representation exercises social control by inducing listeners to believe in a rationally organized socius. Increasing dissonance, technological simulation, and mass production shatter this mode to yield the degraded 20th-century musical form, repetition, which silences people by deafening them with the emptiness of infinite reproduction, converting musical use value to the exchange value encoded in fads, stars, stockpiles of unheard recordings, and—as the ultimate (if obvious) extension of musical fascism—Muzak. The progression through the first three stages gives a grim historical picture, but Attali holds out a final stage, composition, as a post-Marxian apocalypse of sociomusical decontrol. The music and economy of repetition face a crisis of exhaustion, and outsiders cease respecting the border dividing musical production from consumption. Noisy nonexperts begin producing music (and perhaps other goods) for the value inherent in the productive act, not for exchange; “time lived” replaces “time stockpiled in commodities” (145).
8. See O’Sullivan for a detailed account and interpretation of the ongoing moral panic over alleged Satanism in rock music.
9. The marketable cachet of the phrase was underscored by the presence of a “VR” booth on the exhibit floor, where a small firm attempted to sell dance clubs on a four-channel audio panning system linked to a Macintosh, using either a simple touchpad or a blinking plastic wand for user input. Asked what his “VR” device had to do with VR, and what connection it had with the photo of an EyePhone- and DataGlove-wearing model posted nearby, the company’s representative could deliver only the clearly rehearsed response that his product, unlike the investigational systems of VPL, was immediately available on the market.