What We Talk About When We Talk About Pop: Agnès Gayraud

Agnès Gayraud makes pop music under the name La Féline but she is also a philosopher, and her latest book The Dialectic of Pop, newly published by Urbanomic, explores the theory behind the music we love. She talks to David McKenna about Adorno, Hegel, and writing pop songs inspired by science fiction

My Dad is primarily a fan of classical music but his tastes do extend to some rock, particularly that of his youth – Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin are two prominent examples. He once said something to the effect that Jimmy Page is almost as good as a classical guitarist. This voice, the voice (and the ears, I suppose) of my father – of the father perhaps – is one of those that can accompany you as a listener, to be joined gradually by the sometimes radically different perspectives of other good, close listeners you meet in the course of your life. These voices aren’t a burden as such, but they both shape and challenge our convictions, and sometimes those challenges demand to be answered.

One of the convictions that most of us playing, listening to, writing and reading about pop is that it is important and – in some way – an art form. We express this belief in more or less fragmentary ways, and will defend it against accusations to the contrary. But what are we actually defending? How do we define popular music? It’s a loaded term in English, even if it’s shorn some of the French connotations of the populaire as something unrefined, carrying shades of condescension to working-class modes of living.

The pop denier, or ‘hater’, that Agnès Gayraud – a French philosopher, teacher, critic and pop singer – has spent most time wrestling with, in her writing at least, is the imposing figure of German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno (her 2010 thesis was a critique of his conception of subjectivity). Examining his work on the culture industry and jazz (in particular his sometimes distasteful considerations of the latter) she doesn’t, unlike Ben Watson in his 2011 book Adorno For Revolutionaries, try to conjure a fantasy Adorno who might have been an ally of punk or krautrock if only he’d lived long enough and given them a chance. And, quite evidently, she doesn’t ally with either in dismissing the very notion that popular music, in the sense and within the historical frame that she assigns to it, could be a distinct “musical art form”.

For Gayraud, though, Adorno’s voice does nevertheless demand a response, and it is this response that gradually led to the formulation of Dialectic of Pop, the first attempt of its (essentially philosophical but also engagingly personal) kind to define what it is we talk about when we talk about pop. It has led to a conception of pop as something not undone but defined by and aware of its own internal tensions, animated by and suspended between utopian promises and the logics that oppose them. It has also resulted in surprising interrogations of some common assumptions, such as about when pop begins. It ultimately finds more of use in Adorno’s violent enmity than in polite support (I don’t think it’s a name that Gayraud would recognise, but I would include in that category the Howard Goodall approach, of those who would seek to defend pop in primarily musicological terms, thinking they come to praise but instead only burying its distinctive qualities).

As mentioned, Gayraud is also a pop singer herself and has recently released her third and best album under the name La Féline, Vie Future. So we found a little time to address the themes running through a record on which the birth of a first child and the death of her stepfather loom large.

Other than Adorno, have you had figures in your life that you have been ‘thinking against’ in your theorising about pop?

Agnès Gayraud: I was born into a family that listened to music a lot. My mother sang a lot, but my stepfather – the book is dedicated to him, actually – was always very supportive and impressed by my philosophical studies, but somewhat circumspect about my career in pop music. All the recognition and the legitimacy was on the intellectual side and not on the musical side.

I remember one day he said to me, “I have no doubt that if an intelligent girl like you likes this music then there must be something interesting about it.” But he was generally suspicious, and felt that everything connected to genius and virtuosity, and real musical beauty, was to be found in notated music. And I found that again when I went to graduate school in Paris. There were quite a few musicians and I overheard conversations where, for example, people would pour scorn on Philip Glass because he was too ‘pop’, or important teachers like Bernard Sève, who is a well-known musical theorist, would say “oh, of course I love variété (mainstream French pop), it’s good for relaxing.”

The real question isn’t to ask whether we quite like it or not, it’s about the degree to which we’re able to recognise the fact that we’re talking about a specific art form. I couldn’t take it anymore, hearing either this scorn or this condescending attitude. Peter Szendy’s book Hits: Philosophy In The Jukebox is a great book but he describes hits as a purely subjective experience, that touch our lives at a particular moment and so say something about our subjectivity, but never as a work of art. It’s a real problem in France when we approach popular culture, say in Barthes’ Mythologies, this way of looking at supposedly unsophisticated objects as if we were intellectually above them. I wanted to demonstrate that pop didn’t need my help to be intelligent – but to explain why too!

Adorno is the ultimate pop ‘hater’ in the book.

AG: I call him a ‘hyperbolic hater’ because there is no trace of condescendence, and that’s more appealing than the “no but, you know, it’s quite pleasant” response. I find his hostility more stimulating when it comes to thinking about this music. And what’s interesting with Adorno is that he really took an interest in what was happening on the radio.

There’s a volume, Current Of Music that collects his writings in ’40, ’41, when he’s listening to Princeton University’s radio station. At that time you had jazz standards, crooners, Ella Fitzgerald, a lot of things that we’re still aware of today, and all of this is already pop music. It’s already a format meant to be broadcast on the radio. And he’s listening closely to all of this. He’s contemptuous, but he’s also curious, and this curiosity in conjunction with this hatred is much more easily acceptable for a pop fan because we ourselves have some of the same criticisms – feeling that something is inauthentic, or being repulsed by something too formatted or standardised, of the ‘soar’, for example. Of course he just takes a look at the mainstream of that period and then isn’t really interested beyond that. There aren’t any texts by Adorno about Elvis – he just mentions that he frightens him.

His arguments demand a response though because he’s right in a number of important ways.

AG: Absolutely, pop is the best echo chamber for his theory about the culture industry. Taken from one angle it’s just a reactionary point of view, but when it’s brought into the dynamic of a music which we know contains a certain promise, an emancipatory, democratic force and a capacity for expressing forms of beauty that you don’t find in the same way in notated music – when you realise that, the violence of Adorno’s position bolsters us in our conviction that it’s a struggle, a fight – pop isn’t a given.

Adorno’s is someone you’ve been thinking and writing about for some time. When did you become aware not only that this was going to lead to you writing a book about pop, but also that a total theory of pop of this kind this didn’t exist yet?

AG: It was quite a while ago. The book took me around seven years to write. In the beginning I was just going to write a book about Adorno and popular music. At a certain point I realised though that while that would be interesting enough in itself, I couldn’t just limit myself to things he’d said. So I gradually freed myself from that, while at the same time a personal, coherent theory of pop was developing as a result of conversations with other musicians and music lovers, reading articles by music journalists. But I also realised I didn’t want to write the type of book you see quite often depicting rock stars. For one thing, I didn’t want a discussion of pop to be limited to rock music, given that it’s a form that goes beyond that.

I also wanted to be faithful to my own experience, one that isn’t unique to me, of eclecticism. That is to say that since the 2000s we’ve had a relationship to pop music that is much less tribal – you’re a punk, you’re a hippy, you like synths, no you’re against them. So gradually I started looking at this object in a way that’s certainly personal but I think collective too. So I started thinking about the fact that I didn’t want any photos in the book, that it should be called Dialectic Of Pop even though people said “oh but you need a poppier title!” and my response was no, the idea is precisely to demonstrate that there’s something serious and profound there. There have been other books, like [Diedrich] Diederichsen’s Über Pop Music which is important, and he’s an Adornian too, but it’s not the same approach and it’s not as radical, philosophically speaking. But Adorno really helped me in my philosophical approach because at a certain point I realised that his theory of modern music was really the antithesis, the anti-pop. And it’s theory that is so founded in an ideal of notated music, accessible only to those in the know, and suspicious of accessibility. Having to counter that argument helped me to clarify what pop music is.

So you’re having dinner with friends and someone asks you “why is pop a musical art and not just music?” Other than just handing them your book, what do you say?

AG: It’s a ‘musical art’ because it produces a certain type of work which we can make a judgement on only once we’ve understood what kind of work it is. And these works are works which are recorded – they’re not merely musical compositions, which are already works in themselves, but with pop the moment of performance is preserved, mixed… so it’s an art of fixed sounds. As with musique concrète, which at a certain point was a different type of music compared to notated music because it was the art of sounds that are fixed.

Pop is also an art of fixed sounds in that it makes no sense to say that ‘A Forest’ by The Cure is a series of notes that we can appreciate by reading the score. We need to hear the production and the particular voice that Robert Smith has, and that performance.

I remember a conference where a philosopher who is a classical musician started playing ‘Let It Be’ by The Beatles, explaining that there was an aberration in the chord progression compared to something Mozart would have done. Everyone was delighted because they were hearing this song by The Beatles, but there was also the idea that as a composition it didn’t amount to much and so it was unbelievable that it had been such a big hit. And my response to that was “that’s not true, that’s not why it was a hit”! It was the recording of ‘Let It Be’ that was a hit, with those particular production choices, and McCartney’s voice and lyrics, which obviously were not present in this version. So it’s inseparable from the manner in which it was recorded. You can have different versions of it, but in each different version there is no ‘work’ without the recording.

It’s a bit like saying you’re going to make a judgement on a painting without looking at the thickness of the paint, without the material that makes up the picture. The material of pop isn’t just compositions, or the way it’s rendered acoustically, but it’s the fixing of this composition. And that’s the case even for very old hillbilly songs or bluesmen as they were recorded by the Lomaxes, because already there you have this particular texture of twentieth-century pop music.

Right, because for you pop as a musical art begins before the 50s and rock’n’ roll and goes right back to the beginnings of recorded music.

AG: I situate it at the point where the recordings of ethnomusicologists become something other than archives. The beginning of people saying “hey, there’s something here, there’s a particular emotion you get from hearing this voice fixed, recorded.” And that has such a considerable impact on our way of hearing music, and in particular popular music, that for me it’s a rupture – that moment when you can listen to Leadbelly in New York and not just by going to see him in prison. And this voice that resonates at a distance from the place in which it originally resonated, that’s the origin of pop music.

What up until then we could call folklore is deterritorialised. That deterritorialisation gives rise to a new form of aesthetic experience. Benjamin says that ‘aura’ is produced by “distance, however close it may be”. For those hipster New Yorkers who were looking for authentic music and sought out Lomax – Dylan talks about that in his Chronicles – hearing these voices that came from deep in the Appalachians, there’s this effect of “distance, however close it may be”. It’s this sense that this voice we’re hearing is already a voice from beyond the grave. There’s both an effect of presence and also something that has the aura of absence.

You talk in the book about the notion of progress in pop. For you the question of progress isn’t so much about sonic effects or details of production and more linked to subjectivity: the manner in which it’s expressed and by whom. This finds you responding to the melancholy of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania.

AG: Retromania is a book that had a big impact on me, as have his other books. He’s one of those writers who can elaborate a theoretical position on pop music without overwhelming it, describing it from the inside and demonstrating a love for it. So it’s obviously not a question of settling scores!

What’s moving about Retromania is that it’s aware of itself as the melancholy expression of a very erudite critic who’s been slapped around the face by the internet. Because it happened to everyone. We all had access to a history that had suddenly become horizontal and not a timeline in which things are also forgotten.

There’s no forgetting anymore. Nietzsche says that to create we also need to forget, and I think there will always be some forgetting, but there is a hyper-awareness of everything that’s happened. We have this post-modern experience in which there is no more timeline or arrow of history, but this horizontality which gives us access to all these different pop aesthetics.

But what I try to explain is that you already have this in jazz criticism, around modern jazz, bebop, there’s this sense that we’re going to make progress in terms of the material of jazz. You realise that what’s funny is that we’ve entirely uprooted and taken on board an argument that Adorno has elaborated precisely to resist popular music. For him there is conscious progress only through notation of music, so for him when jazz players think they’re modernists because they play something atonal, for him it’s purely chaotic. So those are very negative and highly problematic arguments from Adorno, but what’s interesting is that we’ve transported, or teleported, the idea of progress into jazz and then to pop, at the moment we’ve realised it’s an art form – because I don’t believe I’m the first person to say that it is! And with the development of pop’s instrumentarium, the arrival of the synthesiser, we realised that there were previously unheard sounds and new social movements that fed on them.

The electronic music of the 90s produced an epiphany about what progress could be in popular music, both on a sonic level and in terms of the emancipation of individuals. The problem is you reach a point where you’re faced with the choice of either giving up, or crashing all computers and erasing all the data on Google and elsewhere so that we have enough of a tabula rasa to start again – or we have to understand that pop music can have a history without it being a history of progress as just ‘more previously unheard sounds’.

“Moderne c’est déjà vieux” (“modern is already old”) is a lyric of yours and also appears as a heading in the book. To come back to the kind of subjectivity that’s expressed through pop music, that’s the area where you see the possibility for continued progress.

AG: In all art there’s always a degree of subjectivity in terms of expression, from a lyrical perspective – what it is you want to express – and then reflexivity, in the construction of the work. It’s between construction and expression, the formalism of your work and the part played by your instincts. With John Oswald’s plunderphonics for example, that’s a contemporary art approach that’s both radical and interesting but where you lose some of that expressive dimension. And you have people like John Maus, who theorises around this reflexivity and has this distanced take on 80s music, but who says, “I have a right to a certain lyricism”.

For me that’s the sort of dialectic that artists have to negotiate in order to continue existing. If the critic is just there to say “sorry, it’s over” or “you have to be more and more reflexive”, you end up at a point that I demonstrate by referencing a scene from the film Steak by Quentin Dupieux.(aka Mr Oizo).

If I think this way, it’s perhaps because I’m a musician as well as a critic and it’s a way for me to be able to continue making music. It’s something I’ve always had in mind for a long time. There’s a phrase of Hegel’s “the owl of Minerva spreads it wings only with the falling of the dusk”, which means that thought only comes to the defence of something once that thing is dead. And I wanted to tell myself that I wasn’t just thinking about pop because pop is dead, but that I could think something that would allow pop to live.

One reason for optimism is what you call the “democratic genius” of pop, which has opened itself up to new subjectivities over the course of history – and its own history.

AG: Yes, the real threat to pop isn’t necessarily the inability to create new, more complex sounds; it’s total standardisation. The day people all start singing exactly the same way, we’ll have a problem with pop music. Because precisely what fascinates me about pop is that it has given me access to singular human and vocal experiences, whether it’s Dylan, PJ Harvey, or Yves Simon and Anne Sylvestre, to name a couple of French artists.

It does seem as though in pop you privilege songs and voices over, say, instrumental dance music, even though you do reference the latter when you discuss mistakes and abuses of technology. Is it because it’s more challenging in those cases to identify the subjective point of view?

AG: I think you can still detect a personality that’s there with or without the voice. There’s still the way someone plays an instrument, or their penchant for particular sounds and so on. Of course the means are there now to emulate any sound you like – you can easily produce, say, faux-Eno. But that’s always been the case. Painters have always been able to imitate masters.

I don’t think expressivity in pop is exclusively the domain of the voice, even if it’s easier with voices and it requires a greater deal of initiation in electronic music to be able to distinguish what makes someone’s work with machines more singular than others. It’s true that can be a fine line with ambient music but I think you still hear it when there’s real lyricism there.

In your analysis, pop as an art form orients itself around the idea of the ‘hit’ and, to a certain degree, that of the ‘star’ as well.

AG: Well the celebrity isn’t something that’s unique to pop, you can go back to Liszt going on tour or Mozart. With today’s star you have that blurring of the boundary between ‘public life’ and ‘private life’ but you have that in Hollywood too. How far can you go making your private life public while still retaining the idea that there’s something even more private behind it? So it’s not particular to pop and can be studied in and of itself.

The difference with pop is down to the question of the representation of an identity, being LGBTQ for example, and with pop music it’s not just a matter of singing your own songs. It transforms particular, situated individuals into spokespeople in struggles around identity.

The danger is that Beyoncé ends up being made to assume the mantle of the ‘non-white’ performer, whereas it could easily be non-Americans, someone Latino or Congolese. There is also the risk of becoming the embodiment of more than you are, of being expected to speak for all black people, for example. It goes beyond the hip-hop idea of ‘representing’ your posse or crew, or if you’re a French rapper maybe the 93 (the 93rd district of the Parisian suburbs).

We’re at a point today where stars can, to a degree, fly the flag for certain identities and sections of society but at the same time, they’re really also primarily representing themselves. And I think we’re quite aware today that we don’t always have the right to speak for others. That’s democracy too.

The hit is central to thinking about pop music because I realised that even people I know who criticise the mainstream, who have really niche tastes, always have a little ‘hit’ in their hearts that means something to them. It’s the reconciliation of ‘good music’ with finally, lots of people liking something that’s actually good. Because our experience of the mainstream is often of lots of people liking something that we think is dreadful.

The idea wasn’t to do something like John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, which is really a book about how hits are manufactured. What really struck be about that book was that at the end his son tells him that he’d have preferred not to read his book because it breaks the spell, because he describes the inner workings of the industry so well that he kills something that’s necessary from an aesthetic point of view.

In my book I wanted to show that a hit isn’t just a result of the machinations of the industry, but also an aesthetic ideal. If you make pop music, you have a relationship to that – even if you’re Frank Zappa, you still hold on to the idea of a music that is accessible to everyone but which is also really good. We know that it has existed in pop music. We know that it continues to exist, and that from time to time a genius can produce a hit, and that a hit can be a masterpiece. It’s a sort of guide when you make pop music, because I think countless musicians never manage to produce a hit and there’s always a slight melancholy associated with that when you make this music. You don’t necessarily do it to have lots of people fancying you or to become very rich, that’s not the issue. But you make your song for it to be shared. That’s why I lay out a typology of “almost hits”, “already-no-mores” and “impossible hits”.

The hits that should have been number ones in some ideal, parallel dimension.

AG: Exactly. And you have songs that are ‘hits’ at an indie level but obviously not on a massive, industrial scale. But I think you also have to look at the hit not just as something that would find immediate success, but also something that exists over time, that might stay in the hearts of fans for longer than something which is instant box office.

I’d like to talk about your own music now. In the book you quote Sufjan Stevens on the subject of his album Carrie & Lowell, saying, “This is not my art project, this is my life,” and also that in this record, “the act of mourning, the musician seems to say, was more important than aesthetic consideration.” I feel that on your new album, you’ve done both actually: raised your own bar aesthetically and also brought more of what one might consider to be your life into it.

AG: For me it’s always been “this is my life” but Triomphe had this idea of projecting your identity into mythical figures. And on this one it’s true that the fact of expecting a child and losing this person is more personal, but there’s still something constructed there because of the quite cinematic projections linked to my love of certain science fiction films and novels by [Isaac] Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Silverberg, and they allowed me to give it a shape.

I didn’t really say to myself “I’m going to write a song about the death of my stepfather”; the words came out of the music. The song is more rhythmical than a lot of the others on the album, which meant there was sufficient tension to express something that was very sad, but which is sublimated by the music.

We’re talking about the same song then, ‘Tant Que Tu Respires’. There’s pretty much zero imagery in it.

AG: No, and at one point I just repeat the word “triste, triste, triste” (“sad”), where it’s really about running up against the limits of language. There are no synonyms, variation or ornamentation. But you know I’m fascinated by production, with Xavier [Thiry, Gayraud’s musical partner in the studio], we really work on the sounds, trying to create a sonic environment. But to come to life those sounds need to be associated with words that are very direct, that are an honest representation of my feelings.

Dialectic of Pop by Agnès Gayraud is published by Urbanomic. The US edition will be published in December

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