Monday, June 27, 2011

Reads like teen spirit: Australian Grunge Fiction

It’s difficult to listen to Nirvana without hearing omens of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Suicide floods songs, and other art forms, with meanings that explain the emotions and symbols in song lyrics, in the way the song is sung, in its timbres and tempo. Jim Morrison from the Doors – an accidental death, or overdose – Ian Curtis from Joy Division – suicide by hanging: two figures whose baritonal excursions into the dark side are given an endorsement by their early deaths. This is the End – ahh, of course! Love will tear us apart – chilling, full of foreboding. Listening to and watching Cobain, Morrison and Curtis we feel we can know and feel that they are expressing suicidal emotions and obsessive thoughts of mortality.

It’s hard then to go back to the moment of Nirvana’s global emergence. Back to 1991 and the song Smells like teen spirit. You might remember the video: the band is set up in a high school gym, various subgroups of American teen culture in the bleachers, cheerleaders shaking their pom poms, one with the Anarchy symbol on her top, Kurt Cobain in a striped long sleeved T-shirt his bleached-blonde hair long and stringy, covering his eyes, as the band grind out the heavy verses, moving into overdrive for the anthemic chorus: Here we are now, entertain us. By the video’s end there’s a riot going on: the gym floor has been invaded, the drums are being attacked, and Cobain is screaming ‘No denial’.

It’s an angry song, even one of desperation, but hardly a premonition of suicide. There’s something else going on in that song and I don’t think this something else can be explained by Kurt Cobain’s suicide. In fact, the meanings that we make of songs like Smells like teen spirit might be less guided by the expression of the artist’s soul, and more by our own needs to find a form for making sense of the world we live in. Smells like teen spirit is, I think, a perfect example of a form that helped a mass of people make sense of the world. Not by explaining the world, but more by providing four and a bit minutes of song which performed the feeling of the contradictions of teen spirit.

What do I mean by the feeling of the contradictions of teen spirit? Just a touch of theory by way of explanation. One of the founders of Cultural Studies, Raymond Williams, argued that culture was not only ordinary - that you didn’t need a degree in fine arts to consume it in galleries because culture was how you walked and talked everyday - but that its expressions were structured feelings: or producing a structure of feeling. This is Williams:

“[I]t was a structure in the sense that you could perceive it operating in one work after another which wasn’t otherwise connected – people weren’t learning it from each other; yet it was one of feeling much more than thought – a pattern of impulses, restraints, tones.” [from Politics and letters: Interviews with the New Left, London New Left Books, 1979: 159 ]

What a great way of defining a genre like grunge: ‘ a structure operating in one work after another which wasn’t otherwise connected.’

Smells like teen spirit read this way, as structure of feeling, is an ambivalent text that oscillates between a sludgey spaced-out futility, and a dense, explosive anger that accelerates, then brakes, accelerates again. It veers between slowdown and speed-up: the vocal tone moves from sarcasm to sincerity; a hatred directed both inward and outward and an idealism that is blocked. Lyrically, and more importantly in Cobain’s timbre, is a feeling of abjection, of something debasing that he’s reached deep into himself to eject but can’t - it remains stuck in his throat and belly. A denial, that can’t be blasted out through speed or power.

The lyric of Smells like teen spirit has as its central subject youth culture: the teen spirit that the form of the song is so ambivalent about. The lyric demands that youth culture be about more than entertainment: that was a central promise of rock music, and punk in particular. But in the end, well whatever, Nevermind.

Nirvana try to breathe their teen spirit into one of post-war youth culture’s key forms: the rock song. But here youth as a symbol of speed and revolt is rendered in a deeply ambivalent text that also presents youth culture as a sludge-like state that is too slow and thick to storm the barricades. Let’s trash the gym then go to the mall for a cheeseburger deluxe with fries.

Smells like teen spirit sounds like a last gasp call to arms for a dominant version of youth culture. Has rock progressed since Grunge? I don’t follow the game closely enough anymore, but the song sounds like the last rebellion in the line that runs from the Velvet Underground through the Stooges to Joy Division: Nirvana stage a revolution that is exhausted before it begins.

So, Nirvana’s smells like teen spirit as a structure of feeling – a form of song, a structure with a conventional verse/ chorus/ solo format – that provided a compelling aural text for feeling your way into the world in 1991-92. Grunge becomes a buzzword and a subculture in the West.

In the same year Brisbane based novelist Andrew McGahan writes Praise which is retrospectively nominated as the germinal Australian Grunge novel. Late 1991 is also the time, in Australia, of growing unemployment queues: the aftermath of the recession of 1990. If youth is a key symbol of modernisation, of speed, then what happens to this symbol in a time of slow-down or recession? What happens to teen spirit as an idea, as a feeling, when an economy gets ill and decelerates?

This slow-down in growth was diagnosed, by the newly minted Prime Minister Paul Keating, as being caused by endemic blockages in the economic body. There were clogged, sclerotic arteries in need of clearing so as to get the financial blood flowing quicker. The prescription was for more economic reform: more flexibility, open-ness, youthful vitality.

So, I’ve taken a leap into a strange hybrid of economic and medical discourse here. Not much of a leap when you consider that the current economic crisis – the sub prime crisis based in the US– is often referred to as a contagion that might infect other economies. Bodies that get ill can also be filled with teen spirit and, I’m arguing, these symbols of youth become highly contradictory and problematic in the period of the early to mid 1990s.
This problem emerges in a stream of art and popular culture: grunge – grunge music and grunge fiction. And it emerges with some force because the youthful speed demanded for further economic reform clashes head on with a strain of youth culture that had operated in terms of its own superior cultural and social speed pitting itself against the authority of the state and the commodification of the markets.

What then happens when the state authorises a speed-up in the process of commodification through the symbols of youth? In other words if youth is the symbolic means by which economic modernisation is promoted by politicians like Paul Keating, by the youthful Bill Clinton, then where does teen spirit go to in order to rebel. I think you can hear the sound of this grinding of the gears in Nirvana’s song which speeds up and slows down in turn.

Four years later, in 1995, a new genre of Australian fiction emerged under the name of grunge. Christos Tsiolkas’ short novel, Loaded [adapted as the 1998 film Head On], was one of a number of these novels marketed and debated within a critical literary discourse which tended to interpret these novels as autobiographical and realistic representations of an urban youth culture that was out to shock and that had lost its way. Loaded narrates twentyfour hours in the life of 19 year old Ari Voulis, as he tells us about his journey and experiences through the four corners of suburban Melbourne. A first generation migrant, who is jobless and gay, Ari’s day is fuelled by a constant ingestion of drugs, of masturbation and sex in backlanes and beats, endless fights, flights and refusals, the tentative beginnings of a romance and a soundtrack that accompanies his movements and dancing throughout the city and its places.

The pace of his day matches his main drug choices: speed for acceleration and aggression and marijuana for relaxing and slowing down. His fundamental tone is one of refusal and sarcasm but this is mixed with moments of tenderness and sincerity, especially for his family and his best friend Johnny, a transivestite. His hatred is directed both out and inwardly. And he thrives on abjection, seeking it in sex and also from the insults of his father.

Loaded is a more complex text than Smells like teen spirit, but it too is deeply ambivalent about teen spirit or youth as a symbol. Ari is torn in three directions: a wog who hates wogs, gay but afraid of being identified as a faggot and working-class in a time of residual solidarity. Ari begins the novel waking at his brother’s student share house in East Melbourne, and ends it in the West in his family-home on his bed, exhausted, waiting for sleep. He has moved and danced through the four corners of suburban Melbourne, but hasn’t developed or really gone anywhere. Rather than self-formation Ari’s self is internally split three ways; rather than integrating into the world, Ari thrives on its abject sites and refuses its basic demand: that he get a job and settle down. Although a highly compressed narrative Loaded is a failed coming of age novel: a de-formation novel. It reads like teen spirit in crisis.
So, reading grunge fiction as though it is the expression of authentic adolescent feelings, misses another way of interpreting that reads through structures of feeling, and that reads youth as a symbol rather than as a fact. We can read Kurt Cobain’s suicide into his songs, into his singing performances, but this can’t explain why Nirvana were so timely, so instantly, globally embraced. When grunge is read against a dominant national and international response to recession that speeds up the processes of reform and uses the language of youthfulness to persuade the polity to modernise the economic body, such a reading suggests that what this modernising body abjects or expels enters the symbolic field of youth. Grunge seems like a pretty accurate name for this return of the abject body, during and after a recession. Ari the narrator in Loaded says:

“There is a last, and very cherished, urban myth. That every new generation has it better that the one that came before it. Bullshit. I am surfing on the down-curve of capital. The generations after this one are not going to build on the peasants’ landholdings. There’s no jobs, no work, no factories, no wage packet, no half-acre block. There is no more land. I am sliding towards the sewer. I’m not even struggling against the flow. I can smell the pungent aroma of shit, but I’m still breathing.” (Loaded 144)

Is this teen spirit, or does it just read like it?

[From a paper presented at Utas Postgraduate Conference, 21 September, 2007]

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