Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Toward a sound theory of Australian Grunge fiction


If we understand Grunge simply as some ephemeral moment of literary fashion or nihilistic rage then we sell it short. And, while the age, ethnicity, gender and sexuality of its various authors is crucial, the various works are not limited to authorial designs or single issues. They articulate the rumblings of a structure of feeling that is being demolished at its deepest level.1

What the hell is Grunge anyway? I think I know what Grunge music is. It’s the child of punk, thrashing out pain and despair and alienation . . .But what is Grunge in the literary context?2

Liner notes

One of the marginal themes to emerge from the debates over so-called Grunge fiction in the Australian literary public sphere was how literary critics, academics, even those writers who themselves were placed within the Grunge genre, thought and wrote about musical Grunge culture. Creeping out from the literary journals the more public debates over what Grunge fiction named occurred from mid-1995 and into 1996 when a slew of new Grunge novels were published.3 In the wider media-sphere sustained articles in the national broadsheets The Weekend Australian, The Australian and metropolitan The Sun Herald surveyed and attempted to discern what might be an emerging generic and generational rupture in the Australian literary field.4 While attempts to interpret these novels oscillated between prior generic labels (Beat, punk) and the more damming critiques which centred around accusations of adolescent literary concerns and technique allied with cynical marketing pushes by the publishers (The Great Grunge fiction Swindle?), the notion that Grunge fiction and Grunge music might name a shared response to significant currents in (western) global political culture is an absent one in these broadsheet surveys. Instead, the question of whether any connection between popular musical culture and fiction has any hermeneutic value was voiced most clearly in the more contained world of the Australian literary public sphere.

Michael George Smith’s 1992 review of Praise produces the most engaged attempt to ‘sympathetically’ think this homology between the musical and literary fields.5 Considering that Smith was at the time associate editor of the Sydney musical street press newspaper, The Drum Media, such an attempt to ‘read’ Praise, as springing from the same psychological and sociological conditions as a musical sub-culture, is understandable. The problem, though, is that Smith’s chosen musical sub-culture is not Grunge rock, but instead a particular reading of Punk musical culture. Beginning with an epigram from cultural historian Jon Savage’s 1991 England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock : “In this gap left by the failure of hippie idealism . . . a new kind of vicious teenage nihilism was breeding” what is most striking in Smith’s deployment of a fragment of Savage’s text is also what is most symptomatic about how Smith and other critics and commentators think and write the question of any homology between musical and literary culture: the elision of large chunks of political-cultural history, and the promotion of a discourse of rock as authentic/ expressive realism at the expense of other understandings of rock and pop music which hear and see it as artifice and knowingly sophisticated in its use of form, image and text.6

For to return Savage’s elided quote to its textual context produces an entirely different meaning to the one that Smith uses to draw a (highly compressed) linear genealogy between a stiffly socio-psychological reading of punk and Praise’s transparent, repeated reflection of this 1975 moment of teenage nihilism, vacancy and boredom. The original quote (here restored to its paragraph) reads:

In a fragmented market, Bowie made an ambitious attempt to codify a new pop generation: the artificial, trebly shriek of the Spiders From Mars deliberately alienated the older hippie audience. Apart from the wish-fulfilling power of Ziggy Stardust, his most resonant record was as producer of Mott the Hopple’s ‘All The Young Dudes’. In the gap left by the failure of hippie idealism, so its script went, a new kind of vicious, teenage nihilism was breeding: ‘Is it concrete all around or is it in my head?’7 (emphasis added)

While I could be accused of also taking this quote out of its context8, to know that Savage is here talking about one of the key manipulators of 1970s pop, Bowie, and, more specifically, a song lyric rather than a psycho-sociological reading, undercuts the notion that punk musical culture can only be read and heard as an authentic expression of teenage alienation, anger and boredom, rather than also being an artificial and formally innovative response to the political-cultural environment of its time.

A second citational example from Smith’s review of Praise again performs a de-contextualising move that shuts down a key component of Savage’s hermeneutics of punk: the thinkers in punk were engaged less in nihilism than negation. Smith’s second Savage citation appears in the context of his first paragraph, a discussion of the song Blank Generation written by the New York ‘punk’ Richard Hell, which Smith interprets as “an anthem for a generation of young people [that] seemed to sum up the feelings of disillusion in a world that had quite obviously not been changed by the ‘Summer of Love’.”9 Smith continues, drawing the Sex Pistols, the emblematic punk band, into his frame,

In England too, the optimism of youth had soured into what would become the punk movement, whose anthems came with titles like No Future and Pretty Vacant courtesy a band called The Sex Pistols [sic]. As Jon Savage elaborates, their songs and others like them seemed to present a new aesthetic, “the attractions of vacancy: not just of being bored, but the deeper vacancy of the subconscious.”10 (emphasis added)

Again it’s worth placing this quote from Savage back into its textual context, because to do so reveals the extent to which Smith, either consciously or not, is promoting a specific discourse of punk – as authentic, unmediated youth revolt:

Early in 1975, Hell wrote a protean song of escape. The idea was borrowed from an early sixties beat cash-in, Rod McKeun’s ‘Beat Generation’, but Hell was ambitious, attempting to turn fake culture – for what, in the saturated 1970s, was not mediated, and therefore suspect? – into real culture. ‘Blank Generation’ laid out the attractions of vacancy: not just being or looking bored, but the deeper vacancy of the subconscious. In one chorus, Hell removed the word ‘blank’, leaving a pause before the following ‘generation’: nothing was defined, everything was up for grabs.11

The final sentence in this paragraph makes it clear the Savage is specifically not discussing the Sex Pistols, and more importantly that here ‘vacancy’, or ‘blankness’, is less an unmediated reflection of youth alienation, than it is an invocation, staged in pop music, of the possibilities of negation. What Smith misses or elides from Savage’s text is the notion that punk nihilism can be a script (“so its script went”) framed by negation. This distinction is critical, as Greil Marcus makes clear in his writings on the Sex Pistols,

Nihilism means to close the world around its own self-consuming impulse; negation is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems – but only when the act is so implicitly complete it leaves open the possibility that the world may be nothing, that nihilism as well as creation may occupy the suddenly cleared ground. The nihilist, no matter how many people he or she might kill, is always a solipsist: no one exists but the actor, and only the actor’s motives are real. When the nihilist pulls the trigger, turns on the gas, sets the fire, hits the vein, the world ends. Negation is always political: it assumes the existence of other people, calls them into being. Still, the tools the negationist seems forced to use – real or symbolic violence, blasphemy, dissipation, contempt, ridiculousness – change hands with those of the nihilist.12 (emphasis added)

What, then, is at stake here in this close reading of what is at most a marginal critical review of Praise? Two things. Firstly, Smith’s realist discourse of punk operates to frame Praise as passé pop, positioning McGahan’s novel as a simulacra of a failed revolution (punk); not so much untimely as anachronistic. For Smith Praise is a punk novel, at least 15 years too late,
Not that the pervasive boredom consequent in that sense of vacancy [see Smith quote above] is ever specified or extrapolated [in Praise], but it’s there, the legacy of the ‘punk revolution’, the last significant social movement to spring from that nebulous and increasingly fragmented entity society lumps under the category of ‘youth’. Where a case could be made for a claim of some residual sense of innocence in the sixties, for all the media hyperbole of the ‘sexual revolution’, cynicism has been embraced by more and more young people as the nihilistic icons of punk and its successor styles have displaced those earlier pop icons.13

Secondly, the realist discourse of punk operates in Smith’s review to interpret Praise as authentic youth revolt: attempting to shock the parent culture with a nihilist and cynical delinquency, that is born out of alienation. Praise here is read, again, as teenage sociology, rather than fiction,
Gordon Buchanan’s ultimate failure to gain appreciably any emotional growth or insight from his experience in some ways places him as the latest addition to another longstanding literary tradition, that of the classic picaro. His is, however, an emotional retardation increasingly symptomatic of today’s cynical youth.14

Smith’s review is worth such a close reading as it is one of the more articulate attempts to read a Grunge novel through musical culture. That Smith’s sense of cultural history in this review rarely moves out of the 1970s is not so much problematic as curious. Where did the 1980s go to?

While Smith is operating prior to the label ‘Grunge’ being attached to new Australian novels, the debates in the Australian literary public sphere after the suicide-death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in 1994, have more reason to at least allude to the ‘Grunge’ musical-fiction homology.

Linda Jaivin, in 1995 also curiously evacuates the 1980s when she responds to the question, “What the hell is Grunge anyway?” by stating that “It expresses a revulsion towards the over-blown overdrive of bands like Kiss, who lift rock heroism and commercialism to self-parodying proportions.”15 That Jaivin would assert that bands “like Kiss”, whose high point of popularity is marked by the 1979/ 80 success of their Dynasty LP and “I was made for loving you” single, might be the object of Grunge revulsion points to, again, a strange instance of temporal compression that misses the obvious objects of opposition for Grunge rock, such as Guns’n’Roses, or Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince, and instead summons up the sort of stadium glam act that punk groups from the 1970s would’ve listed as being reason to revolt against. Like Smith’s review, we are stuck again in a 1970s script. And like Smith Jaivin, takes on the “punk as authentic realism” discourse, this time assimilating Grunge music to this discourse’s version of punk:

I think I know what Grunge music is. It’s the child of punk, thrashing out pain and despair and alienation.

So, Nirvana and bands like it have put a flannelette shirt around every waist and the word ‘Grunge’ on every pair of lips. The absorption of the punk aesthetic by the mainstream has meant that Fiona [McGregor] and I can get our hair done at any number of inner city salons.16

And while Smith goes to a decontextualised Savage for his interpretive authority in seeking homologies between musical and literary culture, Jaivin, in seeking to answer the question: “But what is Grunge in the literary context?” cites from the canonically rockist journal, Rolling Stone,

I’m not sure that we really have anything that’s quite the literary equivalent of Nirvana’s Grunge classic ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’. This is a song about which writer Anthony De Curtis observed in a June 1994 Rolling Stone:
A political song that never mentions politics, an anthem whose lyrics can’t be understood, a hugely popular hit that denounces commercialism, a collective shout of alienation, it was ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ for a new time and a new tribe of disaffected youth. It was a giant fuck-you, an immensely satisfying statement about the inability to be satisfied.It was also about a brand of deodorant, but that’s another story.17

Here Jaivin moves beyond a ‘Grunge music as realist punk’ discourse, and promotes one of the fundamental rockist interpretive moves: that not only is Grunge a spectral return of punk, but that, ultimately, all roads and train lines lead back to the Rolling Stones, and that these British Rolling Stones are themselves adepts in homage and a fidelity to the electric Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, the British band taking their name from one of Waters’ songs.

Again, in the context of a discussion of how to think Grunge fiction we find an attempt to articulate the limits and concepts of a homology with popular music – this time more firmly engaged with Nirvana and the label of Grunge music. While Michael Smith, presciently, and perhaps influentially, heads to a particular reading of punk (See Simon Frith and Horne on ‘punk realist discourse’ in From Art to Pop) from which to frame and think McGahan’s Praise, Jaivin has the opportunity to engage with the congealed musical generic term of Grunge, and yet appears to follow in Smith’s ‘punk realist discourse’ steps, seeking to further reduce Grunge music to a simulacra of the Rolling Stones. Nirvana’s Nevermind is loosened from 1991/92, to be re-located back in time and place to London 1977 (where it actually makes sense), only then to be dis-anchored once more towards 1965 as the echo of ‘Satisfaction’ (where it really actually makes sense).18

Jaivin, however, is defining Grunge music to a different end than Smith, who wants to draw Praise and a realist discourse of punk together as a hermeneutic tool towards a sociology that seems frozen around the mid-1970s:

The things most disturbing for me in Praise is that the attitudes and even lifestyles described seem barely to have changed since the late seventies when Javo stuck a needle in his arm in Monkey Grip.19

Jaivin, reads Grunge culture through a discourse from the same script as Smith’s punk realist one, and De Curtis’ rockist moment of roots authenticity, so as to distance her definition of Grunge music from her fiction. For Jaivin, the label Grunge, in the literary sense is “completely irrelevant.”20

I have focussed so heavily on a close reading of these two discussions of Grunge fiction and its possible homologies with musical culture because I think it might be interesting to begin again, and attempt to answer Jaivin’s initial question, “What the hell is Grunge anyway?” through alternative hermeneutics. Instead of a ‘punk realist discourse’ it might be more productive to think Grunge through punk as pop art, or punk as avant- garde discourses. It might also be more productive to resist the urge to re-locate Grunge back to prior, supposedly more fully present, moments – 1977 or 1965 London – instead letting the popular force of Nirvana’s moment remain in that two years of the First Gulf War, of the collapse of the Soviet Union, of the aftermath of the late 1980’s recessions, of the rise of the internet and Microsoft.

While it is undeniable that the naming of a sub-genre in the Australian literary field – Grunge – smells of market spirit 21, it is equally undeniable that posing apparently meaningless questions about musical and literary homologies, and then being surprised by how meaningless the question is, grounds a line of hermeneutics that might proffer a sound theory of Grunge fiction. Re-asking Jaivin’s question from her ‘Grunge Unplugged’ paper: “But what is Grunge in the literary context?” Syson sets up the straw man thus:
“Maybe it’s a bit like trying to work out what the difference is between realist and modernist electric guitar solos – the question doesn’t make any sense.” 22 & 23

What doesn’t make sense, for Syson, is that form in pop(ular) music warrants any serious consideration: that “the rumblings of a structure of feeling that is being demolished at its deepest level” might just as substantially be ‘heard’ in pop music as read in literature.

1 Ian Syson, ‘Smells like Market Spirit,’ Overland 142 (Autumn 1996): 21.

2 Linda Jaivin, Linda Jaivin on ‘Grunge Unplugged,’ Australian Book Review 177 (December 1995/ January 1996): 29.

3 These included: Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded, Justine Ettler’s The river Orphelia, Claire Mendes’ Drift Street , Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me, Andrew McGahan’s 1988 and Edward Berridge’s Lives of the saints.

4 Murray Walden, “Lit.Grit invades Ozlit.” In The Australian Magazine, The Weekend Australian, June 24-25, 1995: 13-17; Barry Oakley, “Disappointed generation finds a voice.” In The Australian, September 20, 1995:1; and Marjory Bennett, “The grungy Australian novel.” In The Sun-Herald, September 24, 1995: 118-119.

5 Michael George Smith, ‘Compulsive reading: the attractions of vacancy, Overland 128 ( 1992): 87-88. (The definition of “homology” employed here is: the condition of being “similar in position, structure and evolutionary origin but not necessarily in function.” The Oxford Dictionary of English)

6 Smith 87.

7 Jon Savage, England’s dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk rock, (London :Faber and Faber, 2001) (revised edition): 76.

8 Interestingly, the wider textual context here is a discussion of the pre-Sex Pistols criminal life of guitarist Steve Jones, who, in a bizarre form of homage and necessity, stole musical equipment from one of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust Hammersmith Odeon concert, which was to be filmed by D.A. Pennebaker. Savage argues that Jones’ criminal gang, which included future Sex Pistols’ drummer, Steve Cook, “had stolen from the groups they wanted to be like: their criminal catalogue illustrates the sort of pop that was attractive to working-class males in 1973.” Savage 75-6.

9 Smith 87.

10 Smith 87. While Smith does qualify these anthems as being ‘aesthetic’, the sense that the Sex Pistols had aesthetic ideas isn’t carried over into the sociological interpretation he performs on Praise. That ‘vacancy’ might be a pose, an artifice, is not considered here.

11 Savage 90.

12 Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A secret history of the Twentieth Century ( Berkeley: Faber and Faber, 2001): 9.

13 Smith 88.

14 Smith 88.

15 Jaivin 29.

16 Jaivin 29.

17 Jaivin 29.

18 Nevermind, displaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at the apex of the American long play record charts in early 1992. Sex Pistols’ ‘God save the Queen’ reached number 2 on the British singles chart in mid 1977. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ was a trans-Atlantic number one 45 r.p.m. record in mid- 1965.

19 Smith 88.

20 Jaivin 30.

21 Syson 21.

22 Syson 21.


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