About the truth of pop music

If I understand him correctly, musician and theorist John Maus argues that the way of listening called music can be brought forth universally through the core procedure of pop, which, to him, is the process of abstracting away from music all “concentrations” or particularities of its contingent production and enjoyment (namely, standardization, materialization, and multiplication).

According to Maus, the pop musicians R. Stevie Moore and Ariel Pink represent a tradition of pop music that approaches the singular truth of pop through an excessive enactment of its protocols. For instance, R. Stevie Moore’s song “You are True” is “too much a pop song,” representing an excess that commercial capitalism cannot integrate.

The identification and elaboration of a subversive current in the pop tradition is exciting and probably true, but the recent celebration of Maus and the so-called truth of pop hides an elephant on the other side of pop-music’s very large room. Namely, what is the profane truth of commercially successful mainstream pop music, capable of producing in the masses a sometimes ecstatic or almost religious satisfaction but specifically not excessive, not distruptive?

If Maus is interested in what we might call the ecstatic or sacred truth of pop, then the profane truth of pop music is its paradoxical serenity, which is peculiarly capable of immobilizing and inuring the listener at the same time that within the context of present social conditions and contemporary “post-political” ideology it tends to produce only one specific desire other than for the eternal recurrence of the song itself: for the commodity, the saleable good or service that will be provided to the buyer granted the buyer has enough money, i.e. the only human lack that pop-music seems capable of not completely obfuscating or concealing in the name of our contented enjoyment. The wedding of modern advertising and pop music is only the most obvious example of the marked ideological consistency between pop music and the fetishism of commodities. I would just like to bear out these claims. I begin with an anecdote.


Sitting in a café, having just finished a cup of coffee, I read the following sentence from Rachel Annand Taylor’s Leonardo the Florentine: “Among his flowering perfections there creeps that suggestion not only of the bizarre but of the monstrous. At one or two disconcerting moments one feels that Leonardo, indifferent at heart as the “Nature” of his devotion, is, like her, capable of communicating a horror incomprehensible to those who love humanity, the species that is at once her prince and irrevocable enemy.” I instantly fill with giddy excitement and immediately decide to go home and work. But there is song playing on the radio, quite a good song for radio pop, I think to myself, whith a female voice incanting variants of:

I tried to do handstands for you
but everytime I fell for you,
I’m permanently black and blue,
permanently blue for you you-ooh-ooh-ooh

I pack my things. Returning home in frenzied inspiration, I awake my computer from its nap and open a document I’m working on. But I recall the song that played on the radio at the café and I quickly download it. I play this pop song that seems especially nice to me. I still feel great, but before I know it 45 minutes have elapsed and I have not even looked at, let alone worked on, my document, while the male in the duo softly sings:

I grabbed some frozen strawberries so I could ice your bruising knees
But frozen things they all unfreeze and now I taste like…
All those frozen strawberries I used to chill your bruising knees,
Hot July ain’t good to me
I’m pink and black and blue for you. 


The song is entitled “Bruises.” The song is by a band called Chairlift. Interestingly, Chairlift was an indie band with some underground credibility when Apple Computers chose this very song for the commercial introducing the 4th-generation iPod Nano. A difficult question, one probably impossible to answer definitively: Why did Apple choose this song from an unknown indie band? Businesses do nothing at random; that they perhaps used focus groups begs the question of why this song of all songs. If the consistency between advertising and its music is a convenient index of the ideological core of pop music, then this question serves as a heuristic for delineating the truth of profane pop music. To understand why this song fits so seemlessly with, of all things, the iPod Nano, would be at once to understand the structuring logic of “successful” mainstream pop music.


In Saint Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre writes, “If you have only a crumb that has fallen from the table, your life will be spent in defending that crumb, in convincing others and yourself, in convincing others and yourself that it is the best of crumbs and that, in the last analysis, it contains the universe. Genet has nothing, which amounts to saying that he has an eminent right over everything. At this point there begins the systematic turning of the positive into the negative and the negative into the positive which later, carried to an extreme will lead Genet to ‘saintliness.’ In the ‘land of Chimeras,’ a conversion of signs is sufficient to change penury into wealth.”

Today, is the problem for capital not something like the inverse of Genet’s? That is, do we consumers not already have everything, giving us a right over nothing? This, then, as a guess, is perhaps the ultimate truth of pop music: to furnish desire for a population who already has everything and therefore possesses a right to nothing, to furnish this right, in other words. For, in the land of Chimeras a conversion of signs is also sufficient to change wealth into penury.


How does pop music do this and, by way of the heuristic with which the analysis opened, is there evidence of precisely this logic exceptionally at work in the song already considered? Actually listening to R. Stevie Moore, as John Maus suggests, is unsettling and almost intolerable insofar as he exceeds and therefore violates the conventions defining the enjoyment of pop music. R. Stevie Moore makes one want to do better or at the very least do something else simultaneously; that which unsettles in R. Stevie Moore is perhaps what Sartre somewhere calls the “springboard of negativity,” the messy, ugly half of human creativity that most “right-thinking” bourgeois artists conceal but is precisely what drives work toward the “good,” the “beautiful,” etc.  As I listen to the infinitely charming pop song about doing handstands, I am so content that it is impossible to even want to do anything else.

This song is perhaps exceptional, is perhaps the perfect 21st century pop song and thus the ideal song for the iPod Nano commercial, because it does not even allow the listener the traditional object of desire to which pop music traditionally directed our fantasies. Namely, the duo of lovers both seem to love each other and yet they are for completely unknown reasons still black and blue. The song offers no conflict but nonetheless gets away with the vague impression of lack, a suffering, a completely unknown problem. The only contender in sight is gravity or clumsiness which are perhaps thwarting the poor girl’s handstands. We are forced to affirm either the literality of the handstand problem or else admit that this song is able to create a sense of loss despite the absence of any real problem in the world. Is this not exactly the kind of music that an advertising executive might pray for? Perhaps that is the profane truth of pop music.

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Murphy, Justin. 2011. "About the truth of pop music," https://jmrphy.net/blog/2011/08/29/9537176228/ (December 14, 2018).