by carl wilson

Derrida: The Rock Opera

Overtones appears today in its new Saturday-paper berth. I think I reached the end of the piece without ever mentioning its inspiration, actually - I was thinking of Bush's attacks on Kerry's expressed wish that terrorism could be reduced to the acceptable level of "nuisance" it seemed pre-9/11 - a desire I think reasonable people could widely be expected to share - but which Bush of course finds repugnant because it is less than totally triumphal, less than an all-transforming, End Times eradication of the unambiguously evil by the unambiguously good. This put me in mind of how fables are constructed and deconstructed, and from there to the current resurgence in the concept album and the ritual posthumous humiliation of Derrida by the same media conduits who routinely represent Bush's mythology with only the most restrained critique.

Read the column.

However, I don't claim to be an expert on Jackie D. - I'm hoping this weekend to get a chance to rent the most unlikely movie, but for further reading, there's been a lot of wonderful work on the, uh, internets, and some in print, in the past week-plus. The New York Times made up a bit for its own disgraceful obituary (which The Globe reprinted) with this op-ed (which rocks) and this music-related piece.

Here's a disorderly abcediary of other places to check out:
a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u....


The old long-player still has some spin

Saturday, October 16, 2004 - Page R7

The concept album is back with a vengeance -- but what is it avenging? It could be the much-discussed, much-deferred death of the album itself. Or, with a little imagination, it could be the death of Jacques Derrida.

The existence of the album has been threatened on one side by downloading (witness this week's announcement that the iTunes MP3 store is about to come on-line in Canada) and on the other by the high art with which hip-hop-inspired producers have been gracing the singles chart, yielding so much instant gratification that it's made the album look like a pokey old hobbyhorse.

But in the past year or two, musicians of every description have set out to prove the old long-player still has some spin. One of this fall's biggest hits is Green Day's American Idiot, a "punk-rock opera" in the rock-star-equals-Christ lineage of the Who's Tommy, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Pink Floyd's The Wall: Everykid "Jesus of Suburbia" (also known as Saint Jimmy) goes adrift in the conformist swamp of American culture, taking potshots at George W. Bush all the way.

Other conspicuous examples have come from Elvis Costello (The Delivery Man, part southern-gothic fiction, part tribute to southern American music); Neil Young (Greendale, a "novel"-cum-musical about eco-consciousness); reformed 1980s college-radio band Camper Van Beethoven (New Roman Times: Noam Chomsky via Monty Python); British rapper the Streets (A Grand Don't Come for Free: bloke mislays a thousand quid, grimy adventures ensue); and Montreal's Arcade Fire (Funeral: an indie-rock rhapsody to life after several deaths).

Green Day's mini-suites on American Idiot are partly patterned on the Who's innovative sixties suite A Quick One While He's Away, which also helped inspire the baroque Blueberry Boat by American brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces. This delightfully non-linear narrative about, among other things, pirates, colonialism, catty high-school girls and the global cellphone market is already spawning analytical Internet concordances worthy of Finnegans Wake.

Triple-guitar army the Drive-By Truckers have picked up where Randy Newman's 1970s southern-culture concept album Good Old Boys left off, with Southern Rock Opera and this year's The Dirty South; American hip-hop trickster MF Doom constructs suites around alternate identities such as Victor Vaughn and King Geedorah; and up a few hundred floors in the tower of song, Brian Wilson has finally completed Smile, the long-lost Beach Boys "teenage symphony to God" that spurred the Beatles to dress up Sergeant Pepper in ragged conceptual garb.

Though it wasn't much of a concept album, Sgt. Pepper did the most to popularize the form, which is as old as the album itself: As soon as longer playing times were available, jazz composers such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus took advantage of the space to elaborate their ideas.

The practice was imported to pop with "theme albums" such as Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours (late-night blue ballads), Johnny Cash's Ride This Train (songs about trains) and the Beach Boys' Little Deuce Coupe (songs about cars), and then subverted by the likes of Frank Zappa and the Who.

But in the 1970s, when every second album seemed to be based on half-digested gobbledygook from Hindu scripture (Yes) or Ayn Rand (Rush), punk rock rose up to skewer the bloat. Long-form works instantly became uncool and with rare exceptions stayed that way until recently.

I think there's more here than artists rallying around a product format. That's the kind of explanation you only get from pundits who can't see beyond the music business.

There's probably some nostalgia in it, for musicians weaned on the epics of the 1970s -- witness institutions such as the Boston Rock Opera, which has been staging affectionate revivals of the likes of the Kinks' Preservation and Queen's Night at the Opera.

More strikingly, though, the way it's picked up momentum since 2001, it's almost as if the concept album had risen directly from the ruins of the World Trade Center. The prevalent themes are political, arguments the singers couldn't contain within a single anthem. In fact, the turn to long form seems like a counterattack on a culture of sound bites and oversimplification, in which all the layers of world events are stripped down to a few comforting words or a belligerent "bring 'em on."

What's Derrida got to do with it? After his passing last week at 74, many of the newspaper obituaries for the French philosopher were as misleading as George Bush's attacks on John Kerry: They portrayed the theorist of deconstruction as a slippery Frenchy who thought there was no truth. That way, they insinuated, lies the gas chambers.

In fact, Derrida's method always revealed a surplus of truth, an excess of meaning in every statement that could be more illuminating than the apparent moral to any fable. Those obits were like intellectual attack ads, the sort of propaganda his theories -- created by a French Jew born in colonial Algeria -- forcefully undermined.

While the worst, most self-satisfied pop epics merely present a mirror image of the kind of grand narratives Derrida found suspect, the best deconstruct as much as they fabricate: Using music's unique repertoire of echoes and inversions, they can unpack possibilities within an idea, rewriting a song from several angles, re-sounding a melody in another key, as if to show that, as Kerry said in one of the debates, "the truth is always more complicated than the president would have you believe."

It's a characteristic irony that Derrida's vanished just when loud voices are claiming it's more important to be certain than to be smart. When we most need a champion of the contingent, the tentative, and the complex (one with more nerve, frankly, than Kerry), Derrida challenges us with his absence, the voluminous silence of the burial mound.

Somebody ought to write a rock opera about that, in the style he so richly modelled -- extended play.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, October 16 at 12:52 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)



thanks for your thoughts and the derrida links, carl.

i've been disturbed by the number of hatchet jobs that have masqueraded as obituaries, especially the one in the Times. i would have loved to have seen derrida take on an analysis his own obits, mind you, because there certainly is that surfeit of truth in them. and he would have done so with playfulness and good humour - a characteristic that SO MANY of his obit writers failed to capture.

when i first got to university i had an adolescent need to take on derrida simply because people said it was difficult and i wanted to prove that i could climb that mountain. i'm so glad i did, however, because no single writer has improved my own ability to think through the world than him. i have a shelf full of derrida, and still pull them down whenever i feel like my brain needs to be cleaned of a few cobwebs.

still, i think the response to his death is very illuminating; while the relevance of his thought continues to climb, his intellectual stock is at an all-time low. leftist-socialst thinkers have campaigned against him as an ineffectual nihilist, old-school humanities types slam his post-aristotelian logical process and claim that he's sold philosophy upriver to the popcultists, and the rightists, as you mention, hammer him as a person who undermines certainty in a time that needs to pursue truth with conviction. most have never read him, wouldn't give him the kind of slack you need to get something out of his work, and are convicting him more by association than anything. (i will admit that the vast number of obscurantist dorks who wave his flag and imitate his style without digesting his thought or approach really do him a disservice).

i love that NYT op-ed piece that you've linked to, however. it's so refreshing to read the people who HAVE digested his thought and can bring out its relevance in an easy-going way. i like this quote in particular: "he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief", which is a nice way to frame things. i could never see the nihilism in derrida's work, which i found to be relentlessly affirmative. not necessarily affirmative of the kinds of notions we hold on to like security blankets, but affirmative nevertheless (there's a great bit somewhere where he insists that "the universe always says 'yes'").

in the end derrida is an expansive thinker in a time when reductiveness is of primary value. there's a whole lot of essentializing going on, and it seems like if an idea can't be captured in a simple phrase or 5 seconds of video it has little worth.

the people who have taken the time and cut his work a bit of slack are appreciative. in time his work will be more widely vindicated - there's too much good stuff in there for it not to be.

Posted by stop14 on October 17, 2004 11:34 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson