Ryan Alexander Diduck
, July 6th, 2012 09:37
On his crankier days (which were really his better days), Theodor Adorno didn't much care for popular music. He believed that any claims to originality or invention were fundamentally circumscribed by formal standardization, and illusory, pseudo-individualized ideas around variation in production, and choice in consumption. Writing in 1941, Adorno contended: "Listening to popular music is manipulated not only by its promoters but, as it were by the inherent nature of this music itself, into a system of response mechanisms wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society."
He pointed the sharp end of his quill at debased, "pre-digested", and churned-out hits, each resembling the last, with the most economically successful models regurgitated ad infinitum. Doubtless, a good deal of popular music has historically operated in complicity - at times more in consequence than design - with the normative socioeconomic model of modern capitalism, major labels prescribing their products as would, say, the pharmaceuticals industry. But what Adorno neglected to mention was that "serious" music (i.e. classical, i.e. Beethoven) was just as much a cog in an economic machine of an altogether more aristocratic order.
Still, his invective does shed light on just how closely related cultural tastes are to our own processes of self-identification. It has become, in effect, a conscious and political decision to not listen to pop. It's music that discriminating aficionados love to hate, and loathe to love. Curiously, while seeking out the most arcane, unheard of artists has shifted more and more into a mainstream practice, liking pop music is still somehow construed as relinquishing a significant part of our individuality - buying in, so to speak.
So, might the occasional strategic buy-in be the new alternative for astute listeners of serious music? Quite possibly. On one hand, pop's standardized framework is an alarm clock telling us exactly when to put our hands in the air and wave them around like we just don't care; on the other, it's an infinite field for innovation and play within those comfortable confines.
Take, for instance, PLVS VLTRA's inaugural album, Parthenon, released on the otherwise exclusively esoteric Spectrum Spools label. This is an unabashedly pop-structured record - it's got verses, and choruses, and bridges, and hooks aplenty, hooking at you with their hookiness - but a mere collection of radio-friendly unit shifters it is not. PLVS VLTRA is the nom de plume adopted by veteran musician Toko Yasuda, who cut her teeth playing with the likes of Blonde Redhead and Enon, and currently tickles the ivories in St. Vincent's live entourage. And like Ms. Clark, Yasuda's sensibilities are certainly avant-postmodernist bricolage, stitching together elements of dub, downtempo hip-hop, electro, bounce, soul, and Kawaii. Yet the result is more than the sum of its parts.
The album opens with 'Flowers to Bees', which, for all intents and purposes, is a straight-up sunshiny love song; aptly-titled 'Sweet Tooth' reads like a sly, cartoonish caricature of M.I.A.; 'Yume' is a double-time technicolour suckerpunch of dislocated rocktagon fills, psychedelic vocal delays, and mouth harp flourishes - and all this on the first side of the record. The title track, a sax-y earworm, shifts inexplicably into a children's parable about a competition between the sun and the north wind. Its moral is synecdochical of the album's philosophy - that more can often be accomplished with the warmth and gentleness of exploring a familiar form than with the strength and fury of attempting to work against it. What PLVS VLTRA has done is construct a pop record for an audience who doesn't typically listen to pop music.
Parthenon conveniently points to a dormant idea embedded in Adorno's thinking: more than once, he refers to pop as a "game", consisting of rules that must be carefully adhered to under threat of exclusion. But bending the rules is, as it were, the name of the game here. Furthermore, if there are no rules, then there's no game, and that's really no fun for anyone. Yasuda's work is equivalent to playing Twister in order to lose, turning in on themselves the very game-logics of popular sounds and structures, without taking away the pleasure of playing. It's been said that you have to know the rules in order to break them. Yasuda seems to know the rulebook by heart, and there's a lot to be said for playing the game, and playing it well.