Trotsky was a rockist

“Boredom is just a slumber one can be roused from”

A piece of mine was published in The American Interest yesterday, in which I play the Tory anarchist music critic, reviewing Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!:

If you’ve ever seen the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train(1989), you’ve witnessed the whole of pop music criticism in microcosm, in the form of two Japanese tourists spending a night in Memphis while on a pilgrimage devoted to the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Mitsuko shows her boyfriend the “important discoveries” in her notebook, pictures of the Statue of Liberty and Madonna; like a parody of the stuffy, tenured Americanist and his archetypes, they all look like Elvis. In another scene they share a cigarette and Jun interrupts her musing about the King by declaring Carl Perkins better.

At the risk of vindicating one side or the other by comparison, the dynamic in this lovers’ quarrel is exactly the same in the contemporary version of this debate: the endless conversation between “rockists” and ”poptimists,” between deriders and defenders of commercial pop music. The latter lines up neatly with a modern culture at war with the notion of guilt or shame of any kind, even that incurred by something as small as a love of the lowbrow—a culture that encourages pride in philistinism. The former consists of people who suggest things like, “if you feel so guilty about it, maybe there’s a good reason.” Not for lack of honest critics trying to kill it, this dichotomy refuses to die, and as of April is still the subject of NPR features. As ever, it’s less about any particular artist than a proxy fight over opposing cultural and ideological commitments.

In a certain sense, the opposite of poptimism is what Trotsky called, the “protest against reality.” Elvis is still the model here, though where his various later iterations fall—like Eddie Cochran, Billy Fury, or Chris Isaak, who I’m sure are all in Mitsuko’s scrapbook and are well-covered by Stanley—is, I suppose, a matter of debate. And on down, too; Stanley identifies psychedelic music as the moment pop became about something other than dancing, or acid house, or punk as a class protest. One could make the case that all of them were “protests against reality” to some extent.

The trouble is that protests against reality have never been very difficult to sell, as Adorno and Horkheimer discovered six years after Trotsky wrote that. And today, now that economic conditions have caused the industry itself to register a sort of protest against reality—by advocating intellectual property regimes that would harm privacy and probably just wouldn’t work, among other things—we appear to have run into some serious confusion.

If Stanley is right that pop music is dead, it’s only natural that some musicians, sensitive souls they are, would anticipate this and take refuge in the past. Kanye has made himself the only person in America allowed to wear a Confederate flag, Vampire Weekend put a photo of 1966 New York on the cover of their latest album. Nobody has heard from Lana Del Rey since she disappeared into 1959. Stanley is also selling nostalgia-fused declinism. Poptimists are always trying to sell you something. At the end of the world, an irradiated homunculus in Warby Parker glasses and stretch jeans will hand the Last Man New York City’s black box and a pair of headphones, promising him the screams and explosions are post-dubstep.

Trotsky was a rockist, but the “overthrow of the domination of the Kremlin bureaucracy” that must precede creative “regeneration” appears to have been accomplished by technological change, not revolutionary tribunals or class war. And yet, the results of the post-mp3 era, according to Stanley, “have largely been a generic blur—the Top 40 had never sounded more samey than it did in 2011 and (to a lesser extent) 2012.” It’s been said about revolutions that the order that follows isn’t always better.

When Trotsky’s observations were published in Partisan Review in June 1938, the editor was Dwight MacDonald, and the article was actually published after he publicly distanced himself from Trotsky over his defense of suppressing the Kronstadt. Just a few months before that happened, in a January letter Trotsky accused MacDonald of trying to “create a small cultural monastery” and kowtowing to the forces of respectable culture. MacDonald would later go on to abandon all the delusions of mass culture and call for lovers of the highbrow to secede from it, so Uncle Leo had his number for sure. In this debate you can see prefigured the two directions music could go, if Stanley is right about pop being dead; either a non-commercial, more proletarian direction — think house shows and bedroom pop — or a patronage-based one.

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