- Fear of Music
I. Fear of Music: Postmodernism and Music Television
The first time I heard the terms “postmodernism” and “the postmodern” was at the “Marxism and Interpretation of Culture Conference” at the University of Illinois during the torpid summer of 1983. Like the inhuman heat and humidity of the Midwestern July, the terms hung heavily in the conference atmosphere, a prominent feature of almost every presentation, debate, and discussion. The omnipresence of the terms was particularly frustrating as almost nobody had anything close to resembling a straight explanation of them. Clearly, I thought, these terms must have some shared intersubjective meaning, otherwise all these people wouldn’t be enunciating them with such zest and enthusiasm. Finally, in desperation, I nearly assaulted a fellow conference participant during an incredibly hot and hazy dance party, determined to extract at least a basic definition of this hot and hazy chimera, “the postmodern.”
This individual did her best to satisfy my inquisitorial hunger by telling me of “the crisis in representation,” the “death of the author,” the “collapse of master narratives,” “pastiche and parody,” the “waning of affect,” and so on. Unfortunately, none of these characterizations of “postmodernism” or “the postmodern” made much sense to me. And so I just stood there nodding and grinning, hoping to convey vague understanding. Sensing a lack of comprehension on my part, and desperate to extricate herself from what was rapidly becoming a dead-end conversation, my reluctant interlocutor directed my attention to the spectral glow of a television monitor that hung in the corner of the room. “Look,” she said triumphantly, “the postmodern is in this very room. If you want to understand the postmodern, watch music television.” She then slipped away, leaving me to ponder the connection between music video, MTV, and postmodernism.
My companion that evening was probably not the first, and most certainly not the last, to note that there was an intimate connection between the postmodern, music video in general, and MTV: Music Television in particular. Indeed, the argument that music video as cultural form and MTV as televisual apparatus were quintessential exemplars of postmodern culture has become the dominant interpretation of music television within cultural studies. For example, John Fiske (1986, 1989) argues that music video as textual form is postmodern because of its fragmentary and disjointed nature. In its privileging of signifier over signified, contends Fiske, music video produces the distinctively postmodern experience of decentered subjectivity. Similarly, E. Ann Kaplan (1987) and David Tetzlaff (1986) maintain that MTV, as a regime of televisual experience, is postmodern because of the atemporal, ahistorical and dreamlike quality of its programming flow. Although they draw widely different political conclusions from their analyses, Kaplan, Kim Chen (1986), and Will Straw (1988) locate the postmodern nature of music video in its palimpsistic intertextuality and representational practices of pastiche and parody. Finally, Larry Grossberg (1988, 1989, 1992) argues that MTV evinces a cultural logic of “authentic inauthenticity,” a peculiarly postmodern form of identity politics that self-consciously celebrates the temporary affective commitments of style and pose. As an expression of the logic of postmodern culture, Grossberg maintains that music television locates identity and difference in the surface appearances of mood and attitude rather than in the meaningful modernist depths of ideology. What makes this superficial, “inauthentic” politics of style “authentic” (and therefore postmodern), according to Grossberg, is that performers, programmers, and audiences all know that there is nothing beyond the pose. In the cynical postmodern sensibility of MTV (and, for Grossberg, popular culture as a whole), there is no pretension to making a difference in the structure or fabric of everyday life beyond the differences of image and appearance.
It would be an understatement to say that Andrew Goodwin finds the predominance of such accounts within cultural studies a bit troublesome. Indeed, much of Dancing in the Distraction Factory is a sustained, if uneven and somewhat contradictory, polemic against the understanding of music television as distinctively postmodern. For Goodwin, the aforementioned authors and their analyses (with the partial exception of Grossberg) represent a theoretical arrogance and political...