Up the Downstair

Being a weeklie podcaste from Madison, Wisconsin featuring several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of live music from divers artistes

What the Hell is Joshua Clover Talking About?

October 1st, 2010

Yesterday evening I went to hear Joshua Clover’s talk at the Wisconsin Book Festival called “1989 and After: teen pop and the pax Americana”. On my way to the hall, I ran into a couple notable locals.


billl What the Hell is Joshua Clover Talking About?megh What the Hell is Joshua Clover Talking About?

Bill Lueders was out hawking his new book while Meg Hamel could be found helping festival patrons instead of watching movies.

Clover was in town to talk about his latest book 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About and I figured that, since it dealt with music, it ought to be interesting. And while it was interesting, I also walked out of the hall not knowing whether I should feel stupid or feel that Clover is full of shit up to his ears and the rest is sawdust. His lecture was just pathologically opaque and I came away completely ignorant of any points he may have been trying to make. Perhaps it is my fault for being dumb and not having read his book – I’m not sure. Regardless, he didn’t exactly inspire me to want to buy it.

The lecture had two parts. In the first, Clover began by defining the changes in pop music in the wake of Communism’s fall. He said that the book opens with Francis Fukayama’s famous quote:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…

For Fukayama, the end of history as such means that, with the end of the Cold War, we may have witnessed the end of the history of conflict between rival forms of government. I.e. – Western democracy won and it may well prove the sole form of government for the human race until its demise. (If anyone is more well-versed with Fukayama and can’t point out where I’m wrong, please do so.) With regards to this, Clover said that pop music starting in 1989 could be defined by an absence of antagonism whereas it had previously been defined by its presence.

At this point in the lecture I got lost. My notes begin to become scattershot. (Not that this is necessarily Clover’s fault.) Here Clover jumps ahead to the book’s fourth chapter which deals with Top 40 music as a meta-genre where it “has no social base but victory itself.” I took this to mean that the music had no interest in events – it was merely created to beat all other to the top of the Billboard charts.

But this was a detour and its back to the end of history and its reflection in pop music. Clover’s book gets its title from the song “Right Here Right Now” by Jesus Jones and he repeated the song’s chorus throughout the evening:

Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up from history

Here are some words and phrases he used to describe what these lyrics represent: “effective infinitude”, “the illimitability of time”, and “distemporia”. Apparently pop music decided to get ahistorical. Without the East vs. West antagonism, pop music underwent a transformation whereby their conception of time flattened. All of time was one big entity with no delineations. Or something like that. And to prove it, he quoted “Nothing Compares 2 U”, a hit for Sinead O’Connor. Looking at the lyrics to the song right now, I really don’t see any distemporia in them. I see ” It’s been seven hours and fifteen days/Since you took your love away” and that’s about it. Besides, the song dates to – what? – 1984 or 85? Was Prince that prescient? Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” gets a similar treatment with the line “It’s like a dream, no end and no beginning” being singled out to demonstrate Clover’s concept of the “hourless hour of lay modernity”. (At least I think that’s what he said.)

I will end this part by nothing that Clover invoked Frederic Jameson and came to the conclusion that the post-Cold War period “is periodizable by the experience of the impossibility of periodization”.

Clover then introduced us to two periods. (Ahem.) The first was 1989-2001: end of the Cold War to 9/11. Pax Americana. The second was 1989-2008: end of Cold War to end of neoliberalism. Then it’s off to teen pop. Rock’n'roll started as it and then somewhere along the way The Jackson 5 provided a template which gave us The Osmonds, Menudo, Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, and so on. Teen pop reached its zenith during the Pax Americana. Then in 2000 or so our society underwent dematerialization which you can see in movies like The Matrix and eXistenZ which depict the end of the workplace. Napster then mortally wounded the record industry and eight years later you get the financial collapse and recession.

And to add Pelion upon Ossa, he played a Britney Spears song. He explained that it had five chords that never resolved and thusly this was an example of teen pop reflecting the distemporia that had settled upon civilization.

I have this feeling that I either need to read the book to understand Clover’s claims or his is pulling an Alan Sokal. When he explained pop music as being a product of TV and teens having disposable income, I understood. The whole bit about deconstructing teen pop, I get it. But I just missed how Britney Spears and ‘N Sync related to the end of history. It seems like he cherry picked lyrics that fit a thesis and declared them evidence of it. My understanding is that the book deals with much more than teen pop so you get rap and grunge, for example. Despite this, I still think he should have been able to link teen pop to something without having to reference other genres and he failed in my case.

If you were there or have read the book, can you tell me:

1) What did Tiffany and Debbie Gibson and Menudo lack? I don’t hear the difference between them and Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys so how can these popsters reflect the distemporal paradigm shift? Did they somehow reflect a world of antagonism?
2) What dematerialization was Clover talking about?
3) Was Clover saying that, by virtue of being in the Top 40, these various songs reflect a paradigm shift? If Sinead O’Connor’s cover hadn’t been a hit, we wouldn’t be talking about it, right? I just don’t understand his conception of the relationships among songwriters, performers, distributors, and audiences.

OK, I’ll stop there.

Anyone reading this ever read his book? What the hell was he talking about?

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