White Noise/White Heat, or Why the Postmodern Turn in Rock Music Led to Nothing but Road
White Noise/White Heat, or Why the Postmodern Turn in Rock Music Led to Nothing but Road
Larry McCaffery reframes his 1989 essay on the “postmodern turn” in rock’n’roll music.
I. “White Noise/White Heat,” or Why the “Postmodern Turn” in Rock Music Led to Nothing but Road - A Preface (of sorts)
TEN YEARS BURNING DOWN THE ROAD
I wrote “White Light” near the end of the 80s, which had surprisingly proved to be perhaps rock music’s most fertile and innovative decade. I originally wrote the essay as a feature article that appeared in American Book Review in the Spring of 1990 (McCaffery, “White Noise”). I was aware that ABR readers were book-lovers not rock fans, and my main goal in developing the essay that way - i.e., presenting an extended analogy between the innovations found in recent music by radically inventive rock and jazz musicians and those ABR readers would already associate with “postmodern” literature - was simply to use “the Postmodern Turn” phrase in my essay’s title as a “hook” that would draw readers in and introduce them to artists like Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, John Zorn (all discussed at some length in “White Noise”), and dozens of others who had emerged within America’s enormously exciting pop underground music scene that I had immersed myself in during the 1980s. My immersion came about one night around 1980 in Manhattan when my friends Kathy Sagan and Lou Stathis took me to see my first “New Wave” rock show. The headliner that night was Ultravox, whose synthesizer-driven sound (a novelty at that time) fascinated me by somehow expressing such energized intensity AND mechanized dehumanization. But what really got my attention that night was the opening act by “Nash-the-Slash” (I never did find out who this was or what his real name way - if anyone out there knows, please contact me!). You could say that Nash was a one-man band, or a new kind of cyborgian musician; or (as I did at the time) as a “postmodernist musician and performance artist”; today I would say Nash’s act was a perfect example of “avant-pop” (see appendix listing for “Avant-Pop”). But whatever you call it, Nash’s performance was my first encounter with the kind of radically innovative music that I was trying to point to a decade later with my phrase “the Postmodern Turn in Rock Music.”
Nash walked out on a stage looking like Claude Raines in the old The Invisible Man movie: wearing a black tuxedo and top hat, his hands and head completely swathed in bandages. For the first few minutes of his act, he silently began generating a kind of surrealist swirl of backup sounds by tweaking various dials and knobs on an elaborate set of synthesizers, computers, tape loops, drum machines, and other mechanically-produced sound generators. After he finally got the groove he wanted, he walked through the crowd to the back of the hall and turned on a movie-projector, which began to play a grainy, black-and-white silent film that flickered into life on the back of Nash’s tuxedo as he strode, silently, eerily, back to the stage. It was only after Nash had positioned himself in the middle of his mechanical band-members that I finally recognized that the film (now being projected onto Nash standing motionless at center stage was Dali and Bunuel’s surrealist classic, Un Chien Andalouss (1928). He then proceeded to play the first piercing notes of an extended series of haunting, soaring, surrealist solo’s that accompanied the rest of the film. For the next 30 or 40 minutes I was mesmerized - here was a brand of avant-pop that acknowledged its awareness of and borrowings from the lineage of the great modernist avant-garde, and then synthesized these influences within the sounds and rhythms of contemporary rock. The result was both fascinating from an intellectual or aesthetic standpoint and yet emotionally engaging as well. I left the club that night too dazed and dazzled to be able to analyze or categorize what I had just seen and heard. The only thing I was sure of that night was that I had discovered a music scene capable of making me think and feel - and that I wanted to find more of it.
In re-reading “White Noise” from today’s post-millennial perspective, I’m struck first of all by the tone of confidence and enthused optimism that permeates the entire essay - the almost casual assurance of the essay’s opening where postmodernism is defined, the easy assumption throughout that it is possible to draw analogies about the “innovative features” of fundamentally different media, such as music and fiction, forms which have evolved aesthetic traditions and conventions (and hence innovations) unique to their nature within radically different historical and aesthetic contexts. Likewise, this authoritative rhetoric may well convince at least some readers of what is likely the essay’s most problematic (and fundamental) feature of all: its underlying thesis that “postmodernism” is a useful and appropriate term to describe innovations occurring in rock music, a form which presumably never had a modernist phase at all since it didn’t even exist until the mid-50s, well after modernism.
At any rate, this sense of assured self-confidence about postmodernism would certainly not appear in any essay I was writing today about recent developments in rock music; in fact, if I were writing such an essay today I would omit “postmodernism” entirely because I no longer believe that I (or anyone else for that matter) can articulate with any degree of coherence or specificity what “postmodernism” is, or was, what it’s supposed to mean, or, indeed, whether it ever existed at all. Actually, I spent much of the 90s trying to deconstruct postmodernism, which increasingly seemed to be a bag of hot air that somebody needed to let the air out of. Postmodernism is a term I myself helped to promote back in the 70s to describe the new sorts of innovation fiction that began appearing back in the 60s. But by the 90s, the term “postmodernism” increasingly didn’t seem to refer to anything specifically - even as the meanings and definitions associated with it have continued to multiply wildly. And not only have these meanings expanded (and replicated, virally) but they have also seemed to be drifting in the direction of being associated with a kind of radical skepticism, trendy nihilism and relativism, and empty pluralism - a line of cultural thinking concerning contemporary culture that I not only don’t agree with but actively wish to disassociate myself from [see “Funeral Oration for Postmodernism: A Sad (but timely) Farewell,” included in the Appendix ].
WHEN THE PARTY’S OVER
Likewise, anything I might write today about rock music of the past decade certainly wouldn’t have the almost giddy sense of enthusiasm you find expressed throughout “White Noise” about what was happening in rock during the 80s. I just don’t feel nearly as “plugged in” to the music scene today as I did ten years ago. Part of that may have to do with getting older, plus after I moved way out to the desert it became a huge hassle to see any live music, so instead of seeing two or three shows a week, as I did all through the 80s, I’ve probably only seen two or three shows a year. This doesn’t include Springsteen shows - I saw all his shows in L.A. and San Diego during both The Ghost of Tom Joad and the reunion tour with the E-Street band. Otherwise, other than seeing a few Japanese noise bands in Tokyo he only live acts I’ve seen were Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, and Laurie Anderson. But I don’t think the physical separation really has much to do with my general lack of enthusiasm about rock recently - for instance, I was a lot more separated from the rock scene when I starting writing the first draft of “White Noise” back in March 1989 - not only was I half-way around the world from that scene (I was in Beijing, teaching courses in Postmodern American Culture as a Fulbright Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University), but my only access to recorded music was a couple dozen bootleg cassettes I’d bought in Thailand, and a weekly one-hour radio show supposedly featuring British and American rock (“We rock you HARD!” the DJ announced) but which in practice consisted mostly of golden oldies by John Denver and the Carpenters (the current favorites of Chinese youth). A somewhat harder edge very of rock music was, however, very much a part of the charged, rebellious atmosphere surrounding the student protests that spring; for instance, you could hear the stirrings and rumblings of the protests every night at my university being expressed in the sounds of songs by Chinese rock star, Chi Jian (“he’s like Bruce Springsteen,” one of my students proudly explains) coming out of the dorm windows. Hearing those sounds made it easier for me to feel connected to rock music and more than made up for the albums and fancy sound system and Vandersteen speakers I had left behind in California.
Anyway, I’d argue that the real source of the problem lies more in the music scene itself than with me. In retrospect, the Spring of ‘89 when I was writing “White Noise” seems like a major dividing line, the closing of an era - not just for music but for a lot of other things as well, like the end of the Cold War. In the case of rock, once the 90s begin you see a kind of slow-but-steady erosion of the significance of rock music generally. Established older guys like Bono of U2, Dylan, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Neil Young (the 90s were a great decade for Neil Young), Tom Waits, and Springsteen all released great albums during the last ten years, but you haven’t had many major new talents appearing who could infuse the scene with the sense of excitement and possibilities the way that, say, the Sex Pistols or the Clash or Springsteen and Bowie all did in the mid-70s. There are exceptions of course - Nirvana would be the most obvious example, but you’ve also had P. J. Harvey and Beck and several other new arrivals who have done wonderful work [see my updated list in the Appendix ] - not to mention some of the really weird, esoteric stuff I don’t have access to that I’m sure is being cooked up somewhere in somebody’s garage or computer. In the early 90s Cobain’s incandesce and the brilliance of Nirvana (and maybe Pearl Jam) generated so much light and heat that nobody noticed how dark and cold the music scene had become - that is, not until Cobain’s death seemed to pull the plug, and the music industry started frantically looking around for someone to replace him (of course they couldn’t), and ever since then you’ve had this whole succession of “BIG NEW THINGS” or “BIG NEW SOUNDS” who, for me anyway, haven’t lived up to the expectations all the music industry hype created for them. Record executives today admit that the only sure thing these days in terms of sales are the easy-listening (and hugely profitable) Pop (Brittany Spears, Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child) and rap, and as a result signing and promoting new rock bands is a low priority. Meanwhile, other than a few people like Nine Inch Nails, Hole, Sleeter Kinney-Martin, the “alternative” music scene is pretty much of a joke (when you hear something being referred to as “alternative” these days, you can be almost certain it’s not alternative in any real sense) - or rather, “alternative” has become a marketing strategy, an image of rebellion that can be used to peddle derivative banalities to audiences, mostly kids, who are still gullible enough to think that having a rap song blaring out of their expensive car speakers makes them seem “rebellious.”
Call it what you will (I personally call it the Alt-Lite Syndrome), but whatever you call it, it SUCKS.
HEY HEY, MY MY: ROCK AND ROLL WILL NEVER DIE:
Since most of my comments thus far about “White Noise” have been fairly critical, to be fair to myself - and ensure that this Preface leaves my readers with the sort of upbeat and energized feelings that great rock tunes are supposed to - I would like to add here at the end that I think this essay raises important issues and presents relevant examples from the music of the 80s to illustrate its points. Most of my objections to this essay would be eliminated if I could substitute “Avant-Pop” for “postmodernism” throughout. For a different reading of “White Noise,” see AUTODECONSTRUCTIVE READING OF WHITE NOISE in the appendix. I also recommend: Updated LIST OF MUSICIANS AND WORKS.
II. White Noise/White Heat: The Postmodern Turn in Rock Music
Let’s say, simply for a point of departure, that the slippery “essence” of postmodernism has to do with a radical intensification of self-consciousness and intertextuality - a reflexiveness and interplay that are deliberately built into artistic works and that activates some (though not all) of the patterns of audience response. Let’s assume that postmodernist self-consciousness and intertextuality are related to analogous features in earlier art works - parody, collaboration, the use of allusion and meta-stances of self-reference - but that in postmodernism these devices become defining features of, even the rationale for, artistic existence. Thus, postmodernism uses the related strategies of collage, intertextuality, reflexivity, and pastiche to present their elements - the characters and events in literature and film, the themes, leitmotifs, melodies and riffs in music, the visual materials in painting and sculpture, together with the “self” responsible for the creation of these elements - as heterogeneous collections of cultural accumulations. This presentation is crucially different from earlier ones in that it is not done in the service of the transformation of cultural (and, later, technological) difference into a new aesthetic “whole.” Rather, postmodernism’s self-conscious intertextuality results in an aesthetic foregrounding of the self and reality as artifice, as a cut-up, as a displaced version of an “authenticity” now only evoked nostalgically. Such presentations not only directly challenge traditional notions of artistic unity and coherence but fundamentally require postmodernist artists to re-examine what artistic “originality” and aesthetic “integrity” mean. At the heart of this re-examination lies the central issue of composition itself: of how a work of art comes into existence, and the role of the artist in guiding and creating that existence.
As we all surely know by now, the swirl of interactions and influences that have given rise to postmodern aesthetics are enormously complex. For a general summary of my own views concerning the key influences that have contributed to the rise of postmodernism, see “Introduction” to Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide, ed. Larry McCaffery (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, l986), pp. xi-xxviii. They include developments in linguistics and philosophy of language, quantum mechanics and relativity theories, the massive social and political disruptions that have occurred since the l960s, as well as the numerous ways different genres have mutated and cross-fertilized one another. Equally important have been the ways that technology has changed our relationship to the commodification and reproduction of cultural and artistic images, words and sounds - and the way that, in the process, technology has profoundly problematized not only such concepts as human memory and artificiality but has altered the way we perceive human life and value. The changes being wrought by technology were, of course, already being explored by artists of the l920s (and earlier) and by critics such as Walter Benjamin; but these issues have become absolutely central to the postmodernist debate that has emerged among recent artists and critics such as Jean Baudrillard, Giles Deleuze, François Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, and Arthur Kroker. In a general way, what many of these critics are indicating is that postmodern aesthetics can be viewed as a shared response among artists to what Fredric Jameson has termed “the logic of postindustrial capitalism.” See Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review, No. l46 (July-August l984), pp. 53-94. Postmodernism, then, represents a diffused but common recognition that we are in the midst (in Jameson’s words) of “a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life - from economic value and state power practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself -can be said to have become ‘cultural’ in some original and as yet untheorized sense” (Jameson, 87).
The remainder of this essay will be devoted to discussing some of the implications of postmodern aesthetics, as I have been generally outlining it, as these implications have become increasingly apparent in popular music, including rock music, jazz, and the numerous unclassifiable hybrid forms that have recently appeared. What seems undeniable is that contemporary musicians working in these areas have begun producing music that deals with many of the same techniques and questions that we see in postmodernist painting and cinema, in fiction and poetry: notions of pastiche, fragmentation, appropriation, cross cultural influences, market pressure, authenticity, sign systems, the media, public image and private imagination. Postmodern music responds to and emerges out of our brave new technological age of media (and mediated) experience; it is produced in an age of mechanical reproduction which, as Walter Benjamin theorized nearly 50 years ago, Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, l968), pp. 219-226. has seen the unique status of the work of art being challenged by the technological transformation of our social world. Though I will be focusing on music, I will also be suggesting that in our current age of electronic reproduction and replication, postmodern artists in general are responding to the idea that the unique status of not only art but also of human beings themselves is being challenged and redefined by these same technological transformations.
Probably more than in literature, it has been in the realms of music, the cinema (perhaps especially science fiction cinema), Vivian Sobchack’s extended analysis of how recent science fiction films display the logic of postmodernism (in her Screening Space: The American Science Fiction [New York: Ungar, l988]) has numerous applications for what has been occurring in the music industry. See in particular her chapter, “Postfuturism,” pp. 223-309. television, and video that we observe aesthetics reacting most directly and vibrantly to our shared postmodern condition. The reason for this heightened sensitivity in these realms has to do with the fact that music, television, video art, and the cinema have all increasingly incorporated the new electronic technologies into their very modes of production, distribution and exhibition. The case of music - a genre whose impetus is to create a sensuous, non-verbal, utterly individualized impact that bypasses rational analysis - seems especially interesting in this regard, for here we see the clashes and paradoxes of individual expression and its mechanical reproduction exhibited in perhaps its most extreme form. The history of the evolution of rock and jazz during the past 30 years, for example, displays a revealing movement away from the modernist impulse that gave rise to both forms - i.e., the impulse to create a music which produces an “authentic” (if highly subjective, even irrational and confused) human response to the forces of dehumanization, mechanization and other features of the modern age. Both rock and jazz were initially “folk arts” whose traditions and precepts were opposed to the conventional norms of “serious” music. Both forms foregrounded vitality and passion at the expense of formalism, emphasized improvisation and collaboration rather than rigid classical notions of composition and structure; and both began to experiment with features of technology - the use of electric amplification, studio recording methods (the use of multi- tracking and other manipulations of sound), and lighting techniques - primarily to highlight the “natural” features of their music.
Up until the late l960s, technology, then, was being used to create a greater sense of power and clarity, and in certain cases a greater sense of complexity, but it had not yet begun to fundamentally alter for jazz and rock musicians the essential nature of their medium. We can see this very clearly if we look at the transformations effected by technology on rock music from the time usually cited as its official inception (the Elvis Presley Sun Sessions in late l954) up through the mid-l960s, when technology began to effect major changes in the way rock musicians thought about what they were doing. When Elvis Presley gave semi-official birth to rock music, he did so by instinctively combining the features of various American musical idioms (black gospel, blues and rhythm-and-blues, and white country-and-western) into a distinctively new form. The instruments used in Presley’s band, and in the bands of other key early rock figures (Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard), were the standard instruments of black rhythm and blues: rhythm and lead guitars, drums, usually a piano, occasionally a saxophone. When these instruments and the lead singer’s voice were amplified electronically, the purpose of this amplification was typically very direct: to make the sounds louder. By the mid-l960s, when Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and other musicians began to transform rock-and-roll into a considerably more complex and sophisticated form (now called “rock”), technological advances were a chief factor in producing this increased sophistication (the other key feature in rock’s transformation - i.e., the quantum leap in poetic density supplied by Dylan, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, and other rock “poets” - of course, entered from outside the technological realm; in this regard, certainly it was significant that many of the key bands from this era, such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Doors, and The Who, were fronted by young men who were art or cinema school alumni). But as in the case of Dylan’s seminal electric rock albums (Bringing It All Back Home [l965], Highway 6l Revisited [l965], and Blonde on Blonde [l966]), and The Beatles’ remarkable sequence of experimental albums (Revolver [l966], Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heartsclub Band [l967], and The White Album [l968]) demonstrates, these technical advances (primarily the use of over-dubbing and multi-tracking effects) were essentially in the service of achieving what I would describe as “modernist aims”: for example, the introduction of various, often highly unusual sound effects via over-dubbing and the thickening of sound textures via multi-tracking, all of which were woven into a tightly organized musical composition. This is not to say that the Beatles didn’t occasionally compose songs of a more radical nature, as the “postmodernist” example of “Revolution No. 9” (from The White Album) clearly demonstrates.
By contrast, the same year that the enormously popular and influential Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, the Velvet Underground released Andy Warhol Presents the Velvet Underground and Nico, an album whose appearance went virtually unnoticed but which contains the true origins of postmodern rock. Any discussion of “the true origins of postmodern rock,” however, should also acknowledge the equally seminal experimental work of Jimi Hendrix (in albums such as Are You Experienced [l967], Axis: Bold As Love , and especially Electric Ladyland) which, like the work of the Velvets, used technology in the aims of transforming the ways artists and listeners would relate to musical sounds. Like fictional innovators from the same period (Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon, for example), the Velvet Underground systematically and self-consciously began to re-examine and then openly disrupt their genre’s conventional assumptions about formal unity and beauty, about the “proper” ways to manipulate their medium’s elements into a structure, and about the nature of the creative “self” and “authenticity.” Sponsored initially by Andy Warhol, whose role in the postmodernist breakdown of the division between avant-garde and the mainstream is central and ongoing, the Velvets mixed musical styles (folk, minimalism, thrash, jazz, gothic rock) and messages in a way ideally suited for expressing the multiple, contradictory textures of postindustrial urban life. In their early performances in Warhol’s multi-media happenings (the “Plastic Exploding Inevitable”), the Velvets’ music was presented within a dissolving, multi-genre display of Warhol movies, dance, light shows, and improvisational poetry - a bewildering cacophony of avant-garde noise, light, humans interacting with images and sounds, and the Velvets’ deliberately dissonant, minimalist three-chord progressions. For a more complete description of the Warhol-produced Plastic Inevitable Explosion performances, see Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga’s Up-tight: The Velvet Underground Story (New York: Quill, l983).
These performances were composed of discrete parts - photographers taking photos of the audience, dance, different Warhol movies being continuously projected onto the bodies of musicians and other performers, etc. - all presented in a non-hierarchical simultaneity that defiantly refused to cohere in any traditional sense. Although the Velvets were, like the Beatles, interested in the way technology could be used to produce unusual sound effects and distortions, they used technology to capture a raw, “naked” sound; thus, in songs like “Sister Ray” and “European Son” (both influenced by jazz innovator Ornette Coleman’s equally unconventional notions of dissonance and harmony) they experimented with the effects of repetition, of the accumulated and chance effects of feedback, even the concepts of boredom and willful crudity (cf. Warhol’s movies such as Sleep and Empire from the same period), so that a tension develops between the tight, monotonous formal structure and bursts of piercing sounds and pure noise. Often playing with their backs to the audience, and occasionally abandoning the stage altogether while their guitars continued to shriek and drone on, the Velvets also foregrounded the concepts of rock musicians as image or mechanical simulacrum (essentially an extension of Warhol’s fascination with the mechanical and reproducible qualities of life and art, the artist-as-machine) in ways that anticipated the more elaborate and playful methods of David Bowie, punk musicians, and more recently, Madonna. In short, the Velvet Underground ushered in the postmodern era of self-conscious, self-referential rock - the rock music that would segue into the glam and punk phenomena of the l970s, into the New York art rock scene of the same period that produced Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, Jim Carroll, and Talking Heads, and which during the 80s would eventually mutate into the rap/scratch/dub and funk collage-sounds of urban blacks, the performance art music of Laurie Anderson, and the peculiar synthesis of jazz/pop/rock of John Zorn, Lester Bowie, and Hal Willner. The topic of the intersection of postmodern aesthetics and contemporary music is large and contains multitudes. Dick Hedbige’s pioneering study of punk music as a “style” of postmodernism is an excellent starting point for any serious discussion of this topic (Subculture: The Meaning of Style [New York: Metheun, l979). Other musicians and musical trends certainly worthy of further analysis along these lines might include: David Bowie; The New York Dolls (and its lead singer, David Johannsen, who has now resurfaced as the meta-lounge lizard performer, Buster Poindexter); Kip Hanrahan (unduly neglected); Carla Bley and Mike Mantler; Prince; Pere Ubu; Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and various other “Industrial Noise” bands; David Byrne and the Talking Heads; Kate Bush, Karen Findley, Joanna Went, Diamanda Galas, Nina Hagen and other women artists who combine elements of performance art and music; Captain Beefheart; Frank Zappa; Michael Stipe and R.E.M.; Robert Wilson; The Lounge Lizards; Brian Eno; The Coolies; Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies, Mega Death, Sonic Youth and other “speed metal” bands; Tom Waits; Eugene Chadborne; Richard Kostelantetz; Public Image, Ltd.; Lyle Lovett; Randy Newman; the various Black urban “rap,” “scratch,” and “dub” forms; cyberpunk science fiction (most of whose practitioners were originally members of rock bands); The Residents; Ned Sublette; Jimi Hendrix; the “Music and Poetry of the Kesh” (a cassette included in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home; Henry Rollins and Black Flag; Jim Carroll; Gil Evans; Skinny Puppies; various comedians and meta-comedians who blend comedy, music and performance in their work (Andy Kauffman and Steve Martin, for example). Significant, too, has been the use of rock, jazz and other musical forms - as well as the use of rock musicians as actors - in theater and cinema; these uses have now gone well beyond the familiar function of music as providing “background” or “atmosphere,” to the point where music and musicians now are playing a major collaborative and intertextual role. And, of course, MTV (which now includes a regular program entitled “Postmodern MTV) provides a 24-hour-a-day illustration of many of these interactions.
The sketchy listing of postmodern rock musicians that I have just supplied should make it clear that, as with their counterparts in fiction, there is no single line of postmodern musical evolution. Although nearly all of the above named figures experimented with the new technologies available within musical studios (and eventually within the film studios, as MTV and rock concert movies became central marketing devices and further narrowed the gap between music and image, art and advertising), what most closely unites postmodern musicians was a more general openness to experimentalism, cross-genre effects, and an ever-greater self-scrutiny and willingness to demolish the conventional boundaries of their form. The legacy of Pop Art has also continued to play a role in experimental rock and jazz as contemporary musicians, like their counterparts in fiction and painting, found themselves simultaneously immersed in and critical of mass culture - a culture “industry” of ever-expanding proportions which seemed increasingly impossible to ignore. In postmodern fiction, poetry, art, and music, then, there emerges a parallel attitude - arising from a mix of affection, put on and put down, and joyful freeplay - toward the images, sounds, and language that we consume as they consume us. The same elements of consumption, for better or worse, now define Western culture. In all these postmodernist art forms we see artists deciding to plunge into, digest, and often subvert the profusion of visual, sonic, and information sources that bombard us every day. The result is an immersion within and command of the imagery, sounds, and verbal elements that comprise the postmodern milieu we all inhabit. This is a milieu of near-infinite reproducibility and disposability, a literal and psychological space that has been radically expanded by recent video, computer, digital, XeroxTM, and audio developments, by technology’s growing efficiency in transforming space and time into consumable sounds and images, and by the population’s exponentially increased access to cultural artifacts, which can be played, re-played, cut-up, and otherwise manipulated by a casual flick of a switch or joystick.
The very best way to understand the full implications of this postmodern turn in popular music would be to turn on and tune in to the rap masters and video jockeys (V-J’s) that use radio or television to cut-up, juxtapose, and juggle dozens of media sources and references in a rapid-fire display of intertextual pyrotechnics. But since such a scrutiny lies beyond the print-bound medium in which this essay is delivered, I will illustrate some of the points I’ve been making by referring briefly to three individual musicians, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, and John Zorn, saving my most extended remarks for Zorn, one of the most original composers in contemporary music no matter what label we wish to assign to his work. Anyone familiar with the work of Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson knows that their public images and choice of musical idioms are very different. Smith emerged as a central figure of the mid-70s New York punk scene; a published poet, actress (she appeared in numerous underground videos and in Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of the Crime) and rock critic, Smith’s musical performances blended punk’s abrasive sounds with a lyrical content and style heavily influenced by Rimbaud (punk’s avatar), Genet, Shepard, and William S. Burroughs. Her works were partly sung and partly delivered as angry, delirious poetry readings that exploded into magnificent crescendos of hurt, love, and bewilderment. Drawing upon some of the composition methods of Burroughs, Smith often applied cut-up methods to her songs, as she ranged across the history of rock music and lyrics for snippets of words and musical phrases that interacted with her own language and dense, mysterious thickets of sound patterns, tempos and rhythms. For a more complete discussion of Smith and her relationship to “punk aesthetics,” see Larry McCaffery, “The Artists of Hell: Kathy Acker and ‘Punk’ Aesthetics,” in Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction, ed. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, l989), pp. 215-230.
Like Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson’s career has its roots in the New York art scene of the early 70s. And there are other significant points of comparison: both developed ambiguous, androgynous stage personas that confounded sexual stereotypes; both were influenced by the Beat authors (and by William S. Burroughs in particular), as well as by Dada; and both relied upon lyrical styles that emphasized collage and reflexiveness as a means of exploring their mutual, obsessive fascination with language generally, and particularly with the failure of language to communicate our most basic fears, longings, and sensory impressions. Much more than Smith, however, Anderson’s music needs to be seen in the wider context of performance art. The components of Anderson’s synthesis - a mixture of literature, theater, music, photography, stand-up comedy, film, architecture, poetry, fantasy, and dance - are, in effect, a veritable landscape of contemporary art, literature, and music. Especially in her large scale performance pieces that were eventually collected into her magnus opus - the two-evening, eight-hour long United States, Parts I-IV (which includes most of the songs that appeared in her first two surprisingly popular albums Big Science (l982) and Mr. Heartbreak (l985) - we see Anderson developing multi-media arrangements of text, image, movement, and musical sounds that employ technologies to present a bemused, often bitterly funny view of technology. Like Michael Stipe of REM, David Byrne of Talking Heads, Captain Beefheart, Brian Eno, and many other recent composers, Anderson’s approach to songwriting takes its cue more from sculptural and painterly notions than from narrative. As she weaves together vignettes, found language and oblique references into verbal and musical collages, Anderson relentlessly circles upon issues central to postmodernism: the slipperiness of language, the way that our alienation and confusion are produced by Big Science and the media, how words and images are created in today’s world - and how we are inundated and affected by them.
This brings us to a consideration of John Zorn, whose two recent albums, The Big Gundown (l986) and Spillane (l987), perfectly illustrate the postmodern turn I’ve been pointing to in recent music. Zorn is an alto saxophonist and one of avant-garde music’s most daring composers and original theorists. Although he is usually associated with the current enormously vital jazz scene of lower Manhattan, Zorn in fact has been producing a body of work that systematically demolishes genre distinctions and high brow/low brow divisions, while it opens up radically new approaches to organizing sounds. In collaboration with musicians such as drummer Bobby Previte, saxophonist Tim Berne, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, and guitarists Bill Frisell and Fred Frith, Zorn has created a music whose “content” and methods of improvisation and composition grow naturally out of our media age’s longing to recuperate the past and its restless need for new stimuli. Like postmodernist painters and writers of the 60s, Zorn takes for granted his audience’s familiarity with what Robert Coover has called the “mythic residues” of society Robert Coover, “Dedicatoria y Prologo a don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra,” in Pricksongs and Descants (New York: Plume, l969), p. 78. - those shards of cultural memory and artifice that simultaneously help organize our responses to the world and tyrannically limit the options of those responses. Like Donald Barthelme and Coover, Warhol and Jasper Johns, Zorn asks his audience not to attempt to deny or ignore these elements (inevitably a fruitless task since society requires such materials) but to play with them and recognize our perceptual relationship to them. Zorn also recognizes that traditional sources of these mythic residues - the Bible, myth, the revered classics of art, painting, music, and literature - have become gradually superceded by the materials and structures of mass and popular culture. Zorn’s response to this situation is a quintessentially postmodern one: rather than despair over this “fall,” he creates an exuberant and vital new synthesis of materials, whose sources range from Charles Ives, Harry Partch, surf music, bebop, 60s rock, Japanese music, blues, and Carl Stalling (the composer of the Loony Tunes cartoon soundtracks and, to Zorn, a neglected American genius). Jasper Johns’ use of targets and the American flag, Warhol’s use of soup cans and other familiar visual icons, Dennis Potter’s use of l930s popular film and musical elements (in his Pennies from Heaven Herbert Ross’s 1981 film version of Potters TV mini-series, Pennies from Heaven , was the most innovative and intricately worked out movie musical (or, more precisely, meta-musical) of the 80s. Pennies from Heaven featured Steve Martin (in the performance of his career) as a sheet salesman during the Depression, who drifts into the cheerful fantasy world of the popular songs of the day whenever he needs to escape from a dour existence. Stunning musical numbers, lip-synced from the originals, contrast sharply with the Edward Hopper-esque vision of the period, and provide a perfect illustration of the sort of cross-genre effects that have been central to contemporary cultural aesthetics. Equally innovative was Francis Ford Coppola’s misunderstood, Noh-theater-influenced One from the Heart [1982; with a fabulous soundtrack with duets by the unlikely pairing of Tom Waits and Crystal Gail]. The Coppola-Noh Theater connection illustrates that while globalization no doubt has many defects, it certainly promotes rapid exchange of cultural information that, at least theoretically, should result in change, new mixes emerging, more possibilities explored, in music as well as all the other arts. and The Singing Detective television series), and Barthelme’s and Coover’s use of fairy tales all displayed the way artists could use such “public” materials as a springboard for sustained improvisational purposes. Such materials, while normally seen as being fixed or confined in terms of their “meaning” and arrangement, actually contain an inexhaustible source of hidden resonances and recombinatory arrangements.
Zorn’s application of these notions is most fully realized in The Big Gundown and Spillane. The general concept for these two albums arose as a result of Zorn’s work on Hal Wilner’s tribute projects for Thelonious Monk and Kurt Weill. Wilner, who has also produced similarly dazzling and unconventional tribute albums for Fellini film composer Nino Rota and Walt Disney songs, selected a wide variety of jazz, rock, pop and avant-garde musicians to do arrangements and interpretations of the songs that frequently resulted in startling transformations and variations of the songs that had grown stale or overly familiar. Although some critics view these tribute compositions as blasphemous or as merely extended jokes or parodies, what was actually afoot here should be obvious to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with poststructuralist critical jargon: “the death of the author,” difference, jouissance, the “slippage” and endless play of signifiers, the denial of textual closure, and so on, all help account for Wilner’s basic intuition that no text (musical or otherwise) has a final meaning or interpretation - and that no interpretation, not even the author’s or composer’s, can be privileged over any other. As it turns out, Zorn’s arrangement of Weill’s “Dagmar Krause” and Monk’s “In Walked Bud” were so successful that when producer Yale Evely suggested he arrange an entire album of music by Ennio Morricone (best known for his scores of films by Sergio Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Brian DePalma) Zorn agreed.
The results can be compared with something like Italo Calvino’s experimental fiction If on a winter’s night a traveler, with Zorn taking listeners on a tour of musical territories we’ve all visited before but never experienced in quite this way. Morricone’s own musical compositions are usually unsettling, peculiar transformations of popular American idioms (analogous, say, to Sergio Leone’s surreal, Italian versions of America’s Wild West mythologies), and, reworked by Zorn’s radical composition methods, these works undergo a sea change into something utterly distinctive. Zorn, who has acknowledged his debt to jazz composer and arranger Gil Evans (see, for example, Evans own masterful recuperation of Jimi Hendrix’s music, The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix [l974]), says in the liner notes to the album that he hears music in “blocks of sound,” and he orchestrates accordingly. Thus, the individual “quoted” materials in The Big Gundown appear and then dissolve into one another at varying paces; some are inverted, others speeded up or slowed down, while many of them are further transformed by the insertion of bizarre vocal, instrumental, and other sound effects.
It is in the 30-minute title track of Zorn’s Spillane album, however, that we can hear this “blocks of sound” approach to organizing sounds working most successfully. The title refers to hard-boiled detective novelist Mickey Spillane, and the composition itself is a kind of mulligan stew of musical ingredients that Zorn serves up as a musical banquet tribute to Spillane. In his album liner notes, Zorn explained the composition methods involved. “John Zorn on his Music” [liner notes]. John Zorn, Spillane. Electra/Nonesuch, 1987. After he had thoroughly researched his subject - which turns out to be not only Spillane but the whole tradition of detective fiction and its film noire relative - Zorn wrote his findings on filing cards. Some of these cards contained biographical data; others were sounds that Zorn associates with Spillane, his work and detective films (windshield wipers, rain falling, screams, gunshots, phone rings, bar crowds, and so on). Zorn then meticulously organized these cards into the order that eventually created the linear progression of the composition. Zorn explains in the liner notes to Spillane that, “Sometimes I bring in written music and I run it down to the players, layering and molding it as it is being played. Other times I’ll simply say something like, ‘Anthony, play some cheesy cocktail piano’ or, ‘Bill, go and improvise My Gun is Quick,’ and we’ll do take after take until we’re all happy that every note is perfect.” Interestingly enough, although the complex, rapidly evolving textures of “Spillane” sound as if they been achieved by tape editing, Zorn announces proudly that it was done “the hard way, man” - by recording each section in a live performance, without relying on overdubbing layers of instrumentation.
Like most of Zorn’s other pieces, Spillane is a mixture of improvised and notated elements, including brief prose texts by Arto Lindsay that are read by Jonathan Lurie in a voice that is eerily and hilariously appropriate for the ambiance being established. The results are roughly equivalent to the “prose assemblages” one associates with the language poets such as Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews and with fiction writers such as Kathy Acker, Harold Jaffe, and Donald Barthelme, in which a single theme or image is used to hold together otherwise disparate materials (obviously there are equally valid analogies that one can make with painterly and sculptural assemblages). MTV-like in its rapid pacings and the heterogeneous nature of its materials, “Spillane” evolves and moves forward as a free-associative work that presents a composite aural portrait of its subject in a spirit of playful homage and exuberance. Operating at the boundaries of postmodernism’s reinvestigations of artistic originality and compositional processes, John Zorn’s music perfectly illustrates the ways that developments within popular music have been busy assimilating the chief aesthetic and cultural evident in other contemporary art forms.
APPENDIX: ALPHABETICALLY ARRANGED ENTRIES
ART and Cinema School. There can be little doubt that the feedback loop of influences and borrowings occurring between rock and the art world during the 60s and 80s was a crucial factor (though there were others, of course) in the excitement, creativity, and openness to experimentalism that characterized rock during both of these mind- and genre-expanding periods. Indeed, despite its populist origins, and the general “anti-art” flavor of much of its posturing, rock music has since the mid-60s been co-evolving with avant-garde branches of the art world, cinema, and jazz by establishing a feedback loop of influences and borrowings that have been mutually supportive. There have been many factors contributing to the general lack of vitality in rock music during the post 80s decade but certainly one reason is that there’s been a parallel absence of life in the avant-garde art scene during the same period - and an absence, as well, of any single charismatic figure from the avant-garde possessing the kind of broad cultural influence that figures like Warhol and Cage did in the 60s and 70s, and Burroughs did during the punk and post-punk New Wave period of the late 70s and 80s.
An AUTODECONSTRUCTIVE Reading of the Original 1989 “White Noise” Essay. I should note that the rhetorical assurance in “White Noise” can be read as being as part of a larger strategy of dramatic irony - i.e., that while purporting to use “postmodernism” as a central trope (possibly as a “come on” to entice his musically-challenged book-reading “prey”), the text of the original essay may actually be an elaborate joke, one which displays or performs a number of postmodernism’s worst features for deconstructive purposes. For instance, consider the implications of the unusual way postmodernism is constructed or defined at the very outset of the essay, whose use of conditional “Let’s say…” immediately established that all claims being made about postmodernism here are conditional. Likewise, note the way that the frequent placement of quotation marks around “postmodernism” for ironic purposes suggests the term is being used ambiguously or inappropriately - and eventually eats away at postmodernism’s foundations until the whole structure collapses. The effect is analogous to the way demolition experts bring down enormous structures by detonating a small but strategically placed number of explosions. Then: BOOM, the ugly, outdated building disappears in a cloud of smoke, and when the air clears, you can start putting up a newer, better, more suitable building.
AVANT-POP, or Reconfiguring the Cultural Logic of Hyperconsumer Capitalism. Avant-Pop combines Pop Art’s focus on consumer goods and mass media with the avant-garde’s spirit of subversion and emphasis on radical formal innovation. The “content” of Pop and Avant -Pop overlap to the extent that they both focus on consumer products - particularly media “products” (television shows, movies, pop music, etc.), advertising images, and other pop cultural materials. Avant-Pop also shares with Pop Art the insight that pop cultural imagery has considerable untapped potential as a medium for artistic expression - that mass produced materials could be shown to be aesthetically interesting and appealing once they were removed from their familiar commercial context. On the other hand, whereas Pop Artists tended to appropriate pop cultural materials as something to be faithfully duplicated and left untransformed, Avant-Pop tends to rely on considerably more flexible strategies which often amount to active collaborations with, rather than neutral presentation of, the original materials.
Avant-Pop’s emphasis on collaborative strategies would also seem to differentiate it from the avant-garde. Like the avant-garde, Avant-Pop often relies on the use of radical aesthetic methods to confuse, confound, bewilder, piss off and generally blow the fuses of ordinary citizens exposed to it (a “deconstructive strategy”) - but just as frequently it does so with the intention of creating a sense of delight, amazement, and amusement (“reconstructive”). This willingness to enter “enemy” territory for any reason other than to plant a bomb was, of course, foreign to the avant-garde’s ways of thinking, but in fact this tendency emerged largely due to a basic realignment which had been occurring between the avant-garde and mass culture. Instead of being engaged in a Darwinian survival of the fittest struggle for dominance, these two avowed, life-long enemies have co-evolved so that by the early 1980s, they existed in a new relationship to one another - a web of interactively that created a feedback loop in which information, stylistic tendencies, narrative archetypes, and character representations were rapidly exchanged with one another in such a way as to be ultimately mutually supportive. It seemed strange, but the enemy was no longer the enemy. In fact, if either of them died the other would be either severely weakened or (in the case of the avant-garde) die off completely. [See also Lester BOWIE ]
Selective BIBLIOGRAPHY and DISCOGRAPHY (Includes List of Works Consulted).
Anderson, Laurie. Big Science. Warner Brothers, 1982.
____________. Mr. Heartbreak. Warner Brothers, 1985.
____________. United States, I-IV. Warner Brothers, 1984.
___________. United States, I-IV [book version released with the album]. NY: Harper and Row, 1984.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations Hannah Arendt, ed. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, l968, pp. 219 - 226.
Bergman, Bill, and Richard Horn. Recombinant Do Re Mi: Frontiers of the Rock Era. NY: Quill, 1985.
Bockris, Victor and Gerard Malanga. up - tight: The Velvet Underground Story. New York: Quill, l983.
Cage, John. Year from Monday. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Coover, Robert, “Dedicatoria y Prologo a don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.” In Pricksongs and Descants (New York: Plume, l969), p. 78.
Costello, Mark and David Foster Wallace. Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present.
Cross, Alan. The Alternate Music Almanac. Collector’s Guide Publishing, Inc., 1995.
Foege, Alec. Confusion is Next - The Sonic Youth Story. NY: St. Martin’s, 1994.
Gendron, Bernard. “Jamming at Le Boueuf: Jazz and the Paris Avant-Garde.” Discourse 12, 1 (Fall/Winter 1989 - 90): 3 - 27.
Hedbige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Metheun, l979.
Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review, No. l46 (July - August l984), pp. 53 - 94.
Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. Rock music’s finest critic traces a lineage for the evolution of the punk aesthetic and world view to some surprising places, including the Paris Commune of the 1870s and the rise of the Situationist movement.
_________. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll. Fourth revised edition. NY: Plume; 1975, 1997.
McCaffery, Larry. “The Artists of Hell: Kathy Acker and ‘Punk’ Aesthetics.” In Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs, eds., Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, l989, pp. 215 - 230.
__________. “Introduction.” In Larry McCaffery, ed., Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, l986), pp. xi - xxviii.
__________. “Still Life After Yesterday’s Crash (Editor’s Preface]. After Yesterday’s Crash - The Avant-Pop Anthology. NY: Penguin, 1995, pp. xi - xxxi. [This introduction to the first mainstream anthology of Avant-Pop fiction provides a useful overview of the evolution and significance of the Avant-Pop sensibility.]
__________. “White Noise/White Heat: The Postmodern Turn in Rock Music,” American Book Review 12:1 (March/April 1990), 4, 27.
__________. “White Noise: Die postmoderne Wende in der Rockmusik.” Littre International 52 (Spring 2001): 90 - 94.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994. Placing rap within the context of the recent evolution of black music and of the contemporary culture emerging from the urban ghettoes, Rose’s study was one of the first, and still probably the best, critical studies of rap.
Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction. New York: Ungar, l988. Zorn. John. “John Zorn on his Music” [Liner notes]. Spillane. Electra/Nonesuch, 1987.
____________. The Big Gundown: John Zorn plays the music of Ennio Morricone. Icon Records (Electra/Nonesuch), 1976.
Lester BOWIE. I borrowed the term “avant-pop” from the title of a 1986 album by Lester Bowie, the great jazz trumpet player and composer best known for his work with the wildly inventive Art Ensemble of Chicago. Listening to the ways Bowie used the basic structures and “content” of such familiar pop tunes as “Crazy” and “Blueberry Hill” as a springboard for producing a collaborative, improvisatory new work was instrumental (no pun intended) in beginning the process of my thinking of what I was to later term “The Avant-Pop Phenomenon.” The results of Bowie’s treatments of this earlier material were at once zingingly ironic and funny, and yet also genuinely expansive. Subjected to Bowie’s alchemical imagination, the bland and utterly familiar elements of these simple pop tunes had undergone a remarkable sea change into some fresh and surprising - these materials which had seemed so simple and exhausted were in fact capable of being recycled in such a way that had opened up them, exposing the numerous layers of resonances and aesthetic possibilities that had been lying there all along, invisible to most people’s eyes, but patiently waiting for just the right moment when an aesthetic explorer such as Bowie might come along who was capable of recognizing their untapped possibilities.
It immediately occurred to me that such methods were analogous to those being used by postmodern fiction writers like Kathy Acker’s “re-writes” of classic novels (e.g. Great Expectations and Don Quixote), or the various “cover versions” of Biblical stories, myths, and fairy tales by Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, John Barth, and Steve Katz. In this regard, Bowie’s approach to composition is exemplary of Avant-Pop aesthetics in general: rather than ignoring pop materials, or introducing them as something merely to be mocked, parodied or re-presented in the neutral, celebratory manner of Warhol or with the ironic distance of more recent appropriation artists such as Sherri Levine, Bowie recognizes that these glitzy, kitschy, easily consumable pop materials are a rich source of raw material whose elements can be explored, played with, and otherwise creatively transformed. Like John Zorn, Eugene Chadborne, and several other important Avant-Pop musicians who were working at the boundaries of jazz and pop music at about this same time, Bowie showed how artists could use such “public” materials for sustained improvisational purposes. Such materials, while normally seen as being fixed or confined in terms of their “meaning” and arrangement, actually contain an inexhaustible source of hidden resonances and recombinatory arrangements. In short, Bowie had suggested how to put the “Avant” into “Pop Art.”
FUNERAL Oration for Postmodernism - A Sad (but Timely) Farewell: “We professional critics, promoters, and fans who share a devotion for cultural vitality and diversity would like to hereby honor our fallen comrade, Postmodernism, and thank him (or her) for all his (or her) contributions in helping to survey and map a new cultural terrain that initially seemed hostile and totally unfamiliar; it was you, Postmodernism, who helped us identify and make sense of what was happening once Warhol and Coover and Elvis and Beatles and Godard and Kerouac and Nabokov and Dylan and Pynchon and Asbury and Heller and Johns and Burroughs and many others started creating innovative art that modeled and spoke directly to our age - not the Modern age of WWI, nor of the Depression and WWII, but the Post-Modern age, the counterculture age, the television and computer age, the age of nuclear insanity, of acid, Jimi Hendrix, Vietnam and Nixon, the post-JFK assassination age. We vow never to forget that it was your arrival in the mid-70s that ushered in a whole new era, one in which contemporary fiction and culture for the first time became widely studied in our universities and written about by academic specialists. For these and for your many other contributions, Postmodernism, we thank you. So, with a heavy heart, but with gratitude, respect, and our sincere thanks, we bid you a fond farewell. Thanks… for the memories!” At which point, presumably the bloated corpse of POMO would be ushered away in a funeral procession that would quietly dispose of it before it became a public health menace.
JAZZ. Jazz, of course, has a long and distinguished association with Modernism that dates back to the years just after W.W.I, when composers such as Stravinsky (Histoire du Soldad, 1918) and Darius Milhaud (Creation of the World, 1923) were already attempting to incorporate early jazz into modernist compositional practices. Examples of this level of engagement with popular culture by the Modernists run directly counter to the notion that this engagement is a distinctly “postmodernist” phenomenon.
Updated LIST of “Postmodern” Musicians and Works. Given my reservations concerning the term “postmodernism,” I am understandably reluctant to use the P-term as the basis of creating an updated list of innovative musicians and albums. On the other hand, if someone stuck a gun to my head and said, “Look, Mac, I know you and postmodernism had a falling out, but either you provide me with an updated list of postmodern musicians - or else,” well, then the list I would be forced to compile might look something like this:
TERRY ALLEN, best known as a video artist and sculptor, Allen is also a brilliant avant-Country and Western composer and piano-player - and one of America’s greatest musical talents. But Allen is no city slicker dipping momentarily into Country and Western to see what “primitive” sounds or motifs can be grafted onto more sophisticated musical structures; no, if anything Allen - a Lubbock native who escaped from Texas with a vengeance that’s continually fueled his art - has produced Country and Western music that is, for all its eccentric genius, too “authentic” - too wild and brutal - to be hip. At any rate, the albums Allen released during the 90s - Moral Majority , Human Remains , and Salivation, plus CD reissues of such long-unavailable early classics as Lubbock on Everything , Smokin’ the Dummy  and Bloodlines  - all help clarify why, in one of my pre-Millennial lists, I rated Allen’s 1975 masterpiece, Juarez, as the greatest single album of any kind ever released. BECK, hip-hop-happy alt-rocker Beck has been the only American rock figure of the post-Nirvana era to develop an odd mixture of disparate parts - techno, punk, psychedelica, and folk - that shouldn’t cohere but do, into a distinctive sound that feels exactly “right” for the times; part musician, avant-pop-culture archaeologist, poet-lyricist - he may be the most nimble wordsmith since Tom Waits. A sly sonic prankster, this tightly-wound white boy recycles styles and eras without sounding contrived or self-conscious, while avoiding wallowing in easy condescension or empty nostalgia. GREG BROWN, Brown is another gifted singer-songwriter who has released a dozen wildly eclectic albums including The Poets Game , one of the best albums of the 90s). CICCONE YOUTH, featuring the core members of Sonic Youth and avant-bassist Mike Watt, Ciccone Youth created here a strange concept album that mocked the dominance of mainstream’s bland, simulated version of rock by mixing together a series of wonderfully crafted original compositions [including “Silence” a one-minute blast of reordered silence that provides a techno-homage to John Cage seminal 4’22”] along with several dissonant avant-pop reconstructions of familiar tunes by Robert Palmer (“Addicted to Love”) and Madonna, whose original last name is the source of the band’s name. Along with the numerous other solo and collaborative projects developed by Sonic Youth’s band members throughout the 90s, The Whitey Album demonstrated why Sonic Youth has remained the premier avant-guitar rock band ever since it jacked into (and then out of) the New York pop underground scene of the post-punk early 80s and began blowing everybody’s minds - and ear drums. COVER ALBUMS, not the sort of cover albums whose only real goal is to make an easy profit by repackaging already popular materials to audiences eager for more of a good thing, but in the tradition of such early avant-pop masterpieces of the form as Hal Wilner’s series of tribute albums (to Monk, Kurt Weill, and others), Eugene Chadborne’s “They’re Be no Tears Tonight”  insanely hilarious country and western covers, and The Coolies’s Dig , punk and hard-core versions of Simon and Garfunkel originals. Notable examples from the past decade include The Bridge . The thrash and speed-metal features buried inside so many Neil Young songs finally find their expression here, including Sonic Youth’s inspired noise-driven assault on Young’s “Computer Age,” and Badlands , nuance and occasionally surprisingly interpretations of each song from Springsteen’s spooky, solo-acoustic journey to nowhere, Nebraska , which remains the seminal album in his career. D’ANGELO, with a little help from his friends Prince, Hendrix, Sly, Marvin, Stevie, D’Angelo’s complex, funky, heavily recursive compositions on his second album, Voodoo  indicate there is plenty of room for soul AND artistry in hip hop’s increasingly overcrowded musical mansion. PAUL VAN DYK. EMERGENCY BROADCAST NETWORK, video appropriation-artists who sample snippets from TV news broadcasts and other unlikely sources that are remixed into such memorably surreal clips as the one in which Bill Clinton opens a press conference by breaking into “We Will, we will, we WILL, ROCK YOU!” WYCLEF JEAN. LOS LOBOS, for over 15 years Los Lobos has earned its reputation as the liveliest and most inventive Mexican-American band around. During the 90s, the band has continued to mature, lyrically and musically, by exploring new mixtures of sounds and instrumentation to be incorporated into their trademark Mexifornian groove; when you add the string of remarkable albums Los Lobos released during the 90s, together with the recent series of more experimental albums by bands fronted by Los Lobos frontmen - notably, Los Super Seven and The Latin Playboys - these guys may have put out the most impressive body of music during the last decade of any band in America. MICROSCOPIC SEPTET. MOBY, movie soundtracks (not albums consisting of the usual “background fare” or hastily assembled selections of random tunes by Big Names to generate more profit-per-unit, but a thoughtful, integrated collection of songs that have been crafted in advance as integral parts of the film - the sort of thing we heard recently in the soundtrack albums for Dead Man Walking and Magnolia). NEGATIVELAND, having risen to infamy when appropriated version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for” resulted in a lawsuit being initiated against them by Bono and U2, this Bay-area group remains the most daring and creative appropriation band around - and the funniest. POE, her second CD Haunted  is an appropriately named concept disc that focuses on the singer’s spiritual odyssey following the death of her father, renown avant-garde filmmaker - and Holocaust survivor - Tad Danielewski. Haunted also serves as a companion piece to her brother Mark Danielewski’s literary exploration of much the same emotional territory in his novel, House of Leaves (Pantheon, 2000) - which gets my vote for the most astonishing debut novel since Pynchon’s V appeared nearly forty years ago. Although created independently in different media, the ways these works speak to and interact with each other, results in a form of collaboration between brother and sister that so far as I know is unique in America. Poe’s highly personal, densely poetic lyrics emerge within a eerie array of shifting techno surface sounds (which include ghostly samples of her father’s voice) that capture her struggles to confront the pain of her troubled childhood and reach a final resolution). RADIOHEAD, OK Computer  was the commercial and critical breakthrough of this British art-rock band, but it was Radiohead’s willingness on their recent Kid A  to leave behind their fans, strike out for new territories of sonic trash, and then return home with several surprisingly gorgeous cuts for their efforts that supplies the strongest indications yet that Radiohead in for the long haul. RED ELVISES, what do you get when you uproot a group of mysterious, talented musicians from the wreckage of post-Soviet Russia and plop them down near the Santa Monica pier, leaving behind only an enormous red bass guitar, a vague familiarity of American pop tunes, and a record contract to survive on? If you’re the Red Elvises, the answer has been a series of CD releases, including I Wanna See you Bellydance  and Surfing in Siberia , featuring virtuoso treatments of surf, rockabilly, swing and other All-American pop forms - all of which are magically reanimated by tasty speed-metal leads by master guitarist, Zhenya Kolykhanov. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, as rock’s most self-conscious and consistently brilliant songwriter, Springsteen is rock music’s equivalent of Nabokov. Why, then, hasn’t the necessary paradigm shift occurred to allow critics and fans to recognize that Springsteen may be the ultimate “postmodern” rock musician? Good question… NED SUBLETTE, augmenting his long-standing credentials as the most gifted avant-Country and Western innovator this side of Chandbourne, Sublette’s compositions have recently been cooking up a Cuban and Country and Western mixture (with plenty of hot sauce) into an exotic brew all his own, as on his brilliant, Cowboy Rumba . DON WALSER, largely unknown outside the insular world of “authentic” Country and Western music, Walser is a great American singer, songwriter, and yodeler extraordinaire. His wondrous, heart-swelling rendering of the Oscar Hammerstein show tune, “Rose Marie” (on Down at the Sky - Vue Drive In ) is one of the great individual avant-pop performances of recent years. Backed by a haunting orchestral accompaniment by San Francisco’s avant-pop/jazz group, Kronos Quartet, Walser delivers the song’s closing lines - “Of all the queens I’ve ever met I’d choose you/To rule me, my Rose Marie”- with such simple conviction and warmth that the banality of the sentiment is transformed into passionate conviction).